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A family travels to Italy day 11: losing my child in the labyrinth of Villa Pisani in Stra

Nora put on her new Italian designer dress and combed out her curls all fluffy and angelic. She was ready for her magical day traveling to Stra to wander the famous labyrinth of Villa Pisani and climb the tower in the centre and stand victorious over the maze with the statue of Minerva. This was her day, she planned it, she was ready for a transformative experience. She instructed, “I want each of us to go into the labyrinth alone and experience our own connection with God.”IMG_3691

She’s been doing a lot of spiritual investigation lately all on her own which I have found very moving. She said, while staring out at the Adriatic, “I think all water is holy water. Everything created is a little holy. The birds are little holies. I am a little holy. And I think Allah and Buddha and God and all the other names for God are part of the holy. And it all ends up showing us the biggest holy which is a big holy question mark asking, why are we here?” This was while dragging our suitcases around Pescara.

I love this age. I remember being this age. I think those who are between two worlds, child and adult, man and woman, life and death…they get a glimpse into the other. It’s the in-between-ers who end up being our mystics.

So, I put effort into coordinating my clothes out of respect for this spiritual pilgrimage and I even flat ironed my hair despite the drizzle of rain. In order to not discourage her with the weather I said, “Oh, the overcast skies are PERFECT for photographs, Nora, we are SO LUCKY!” And she turned to me all giddy and agreed, “Yes. I think it’s WONDERFUL to experience the labyrinth on a stormy day. It’s more magical and powerful that way.”IMG_3659

Taking the 53 bus for an hour took a bit of the romance out, but we did pack a picnic and enjoyed our ride. The kids sat together and chatted away. This trip has been great for building their friendship. The man in front of me read a “spaghetti western” comic book and I studied the clothing choices of the Italian ladies around me: excellent purses, careful long fingernails, good leather shoes with matching belts, not afraid of a splash of bold yet tasteful colour, funky glasses even on the very elderly Nonnas, no ethical issue with fur, real gold.

We arrived at the Pisani castle. (Stra is between Venice and Padua) We were the only people there aside from those guarding the gardens, the gift shop and the coffee shop. It was 7 euros each for us adults, the kids were free.

Nora was so excited she was about to burst until the coy petite brunette behind the counter said,

“the labyrinth – closed.”

I gasped, “Why?”

“S winter.”

“No, it’s spring.”

“S no April.”

“It didn’t say anything about the labyrinth being closed in March on the website. Everything else is open. We came a long way.”

She shrugged, completely uninterested in my daughter’s crestfallen face. She callously returned to reading, surrounded by books of art, aprons with Hercules on the front and fridge magnets of the gardens. I pursed my lips with all the fury of the daughter of Jupiter.

“My little girl has been looking forward to this for months, WE ARE GOING.”

“S closed.”

“Too bad!”

I stormed out.

IMG_3678 We paid for our entrance near the museum and decided to view the castle first. Alvise Pisani (the curly headed dude in the statues between Hercules and Minerva I suspect – no pride here – nope) was appointed the 114th doge in 1735. So, he built a palace with 114 rooms.

There are practical rooms like the nursery and bedrooms and dining room, but then he had to get creative and invented various theme rooms like the “green” room, the “Chinese room”, the “botanical room”. The castle was later owned by Napoleon and his bedroom is set up in gold with a stack of five mattresses and an ensuite bathroom with a wooden toilet and a marble sunken tub. I wondered how often that tub was used considering he was famous for asking his mistress, Josephine, “I return in three days. Don’t wash.” But I guess his mistress wasn’t the one who lived here. It was his wife taking the long hot baths.

IMG_3688After Napoleon, the palace was a vacation home for the rich and famous of Italy and then in 1934, it hosted the first meeting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

After wandering the magnificent palace we headed out into the gardens. There was a dignified white haired man, exceptionally well dressed, guarding the pools and greens. We headed towards the labyrinth, gated, fenced, and locked away. We sat on the benches beside them and had our picnic under the trees, leaning over to see if the white haired man was watching. He decided to walk down the steps towards us, then he turned and strode away as if to say, “I am not looking, do you see I am not looking? I am a fan of children. I am not looking.”

As soon as my step son was done his tuna sandwich, he suddenly leap-frogged over the labyrinth’s boxwood hedge by planting his hand on the head of an ancient cherub and his foot on the locked gate. Nora’s mouth gaped open. “I want to go too!” I hissed fervently, “Do it!” Scott heaved her over the gate and she bolted into the green to the right.IMG_3713

Being a clandestine venture, only the kids did the labyrinth. The hedge was tall enough for us to lose sight of them. We just heard the shuffling of feet and the rustling of shrubs.

Guilty, we peered down the walkway to see where the white haired man was. He was still standing with his back to us at the furthest end of the garden.

My step son had leapt into the left side of the labyrinth which perhaps explained why he was able to make his way to the centre tower within five minutes. He crept like a salamander around its spine right to the top, greeted Minerva, and then leapt out of the labyrinth again, hopping over the cherub like a veritable Ariel.He and his dad headed up to the cafe for a cookie and an espresso.

No sign of Nora. So I called out, “Dear…just know I’m here, you take your time, no rush. I circled around the maze at a respectful distance. I heard her singing faintly for a while…then quiet…then after about half an hour, some frustrated huffs. Then stomping. Then frantic running around.

“Are you okay?” Push push rustle rustle huff huff – Nora burst out near the gate.

“I can’t make it to the friggin’ tower, Mom! He did it in five minutes and I can’t even GET THERE! Why is EVERYTHING so easy for him?!”

“That’s the way mazes are, honey, sometimes you luck out and sometimes- ”

She sighed hotly at me and leapt back into the madness of the bushes.IMG_3699

Huff huff push push rustle rustle stomp stomp…

I circled again. Another twenty minutes passed and it was pretty quiet in there. What was a good mother to do? Was I supposed to say it’s okay to just come home now, getting to the tower is not the point? Or do I encourage her to keep going? I know if she doesn’t get up that tower she’s going to be disappointed. Just at the point where I started worrying she might be collapsed in a corner somewhere crying, I saw her little self stomp up the stairs of the tower. Halfway up she sat down, glum, her face in her hands. I guessed she wasn’t finding this experience to be what she had hoped.

“Go on up to the statue, dear, so I can get a picture. Go see Minerva! It’s okay, nobody will see you if you sneak up and hide behind her in the back.”

She did. And then she skittered back down. Back in the maze she went. Getting to the tower did not mean it was a cinch to get back out again.

Rustle rustle stomp stomp run run huff huff. Outraged cry.

“I can’t get out of this stupid stupid thing!”

“Take your time, there’s no rush, enjoy the process…”

I wanted to punch myself in the face just hearing me.

IMG_3708The boy leapt back into view and hopped over the three hundred year old cherub again. I didn’t approve of all this leaping around precious artifacts at all, trust me, but…the sun was starting to set. He found her, directed her to the cherub corner, and he leapt back out again and disappeared. Ariel.

Well, he’s a good seven inches taller. Nora’s long curly hair got caught in the shrubbery and she couldn’t make it over without a humiliating slide down the pole and a tangled tug of the hair. Before I could encourage her to tie her hair back she groaned with deep frustration and threw herself into the maze again to find the entrance to the gate.

Several minutes passed. It was becoming painful now. I couldn’t get over the gate to get her, I’m not that limber. I just had to wait and calmly coo reassurances that were assuredly driving her bananas. She couldn’t find the gate. She headed back to the cherub entrance. Her eyes were watery and her cheeks were red.

“Tuck your hair into your hood and try again, my love.”

She was pretty angry by now and hissed through the hedge, “This is the stupidest dumbest labyrinth I’ve ever seen in my LIFE. I hate this! I hate this whole day! This is the worst day ever! It’s completely NOT what I imagined!”

I nodded sympathetically. She pressed her mouth into a firm line and launched herself over that dumb cherub and onto safe ground. Then she marched ahead of me, so humiliated and disillusioned, refusing any hug.

I walked quietly behind her. Oh God, isn’t that like life? Sometimes people seem to leap to the prize so quickly while we stay stuck in a series of dead ends. I wondered if there would be any beauty and learning from this moment or if it will all just seem like a waste to her? I wondered if she would be the kind of person always disappointed because what she has in her head is never quite realized in life. I wondered if, in a few hours, she would be proud of her accomplishment. Would she take any delight in remembering that she had a world famous labyrinth all to herself that she snuck into? Will she understand how proud i am of her for sticking to it until she made it? It was easiest for the boy this time around, true. But…who got to stay in the garden the longest? Who got the best shot at a transformative experience?IMG_3720

I finally caught up. She gave me a sideways glance and a sheepish smile.

“I did like the labyrinth, Mom. I was just…frustrated.”

We walked through the gardens some more then headed home on the bus. We stopped for groceries and the kids made dinner for us and did a great job while I did a load of laundry, prepping for our travel to Firenze tomorrow. As I tucked her into bed I asked her, “what did you learn?

“Well Mom, I started off feeling like a little kid, near you at the gate, near home, singing and wanting to get to the castle. When I started to head out into the maze, lost from home and lost from the castle, somewhere in the middle, it felt like being a teenager. And I started to cry. Why am I crying over a labyrinth?! I thought – this is how life is. How I get to my dream. I can push through that bush or I can find an easy way out. So, I calmed down and felt God and saw the entrance to the castle and made my way up. I accomplished something. I felt grown up. I pushed through and I found my joy.”IMG_3428

I guess my little girl got exactly what she asked for.

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