Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trip of a Lifetime

I love reading Maeve Binchy novels; she is such a great character writer. I owe her thanks for all of the hours of pleasure she has given me with her writing, as well as for the fulfillment of a dream that came about because of one of her books. Evening Class (1996) is a novel about a woman who returns home to Ireland after years in Italy. “Signora,” as the character is named, offers to teach a class in learning Italian to her Irish neighbors. It is a wonderful read and very heartwarming. It’s no wonder that my friend Nancy, another avid reader, enjoyed it as well.

I didn’t realize just how much that particular book touched Nancy until she called me one day in 2002 and said, “pack your bags, we’re going to Italy.” Seriously, she called and said that the two of us were going to use her travel miles and her Hilton hotel points to travel in Italy for 10 days. At first I said I couldn’t possibly go. John and I had very little money as we’d just gotten re-established in Las Vegas. But how could I pass up such an opportunity? True to my nature, I leaped without thinking and said, “Yes!”

With $350.00 to my name, Nancy I embarked on another journey (how we did it so cheaply is another story!). Needless to say, it was a trip of a lifetime. I have written about the whole thing in a travel essay; if anyone is remotely interested in reading it, just ask. I talk about every experience: the drive from Vegas to L.A. when I rescued an old dog that had been hit and left on the roadside to the flight in business class (the only way to fly; from the first hotel in Rome to the day and a half we spent in Sicily; from the welcome we received in Valledolmo at the agricultural farm/bed and breakfast owned and operated by the Gioias (Relations? We never truly established that) to my driving in Palermo; and from the train rides to the people, it was a magical, memorable and amazing trip.

How to thank my friend for giving me such a gift? When I returned home I looked on my bookshelf and found my hardback copy of Evening Class. I wrote a letter to accompany the book, included a 10 Euro bank note and addressed the package to Ms. Maeve Binchy, Dublin, Ireland. I crossed my fingers that it would reach her. I asked Ms. Binchy if she would sign the copy of the book, explaining that because of her writing gift and my friend’s generosity, I realized a dream I never thought would come to fruition.

A few weeks later I received the book back, signed with a loving inscription and autograph by the author. Also included with the book was the 10 Euro returned to me. I wrapped the gift and could not wait for Nancy to open it on Christmas day that year. To this day that remains one of my most creative moments!

(The Amalfi Coast)

(Palazzo di Montecitorio)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There's no place like home, if I could only find it.

They swooped in, burlap clad people flying overhead like flying squirrels surveying the landscape below. Before they could surround our group on the ground, I ran to hide, finding shelter under a boat and praying I wasn’t seen by the evil ones rounding us up for their cult.

No, I’m not practicing my short fiction on my blog readers; I’m sharing my dream from last night. I have the strangest dreams, but then again, who doesn’t? This was the first flying dream I have had in ages, and I would have much preferred it to be me flying overhead.

I love remembering my dreams and there are those certain ones that remain with you throughout the day, reminding you of their content with little provocation. I know my dreams carry significance, especially when my subconscious is working out a particular problem weighing on my mind. My flying dream probably has some connection to the road trip I am soon to embark on; it’s going to be a long drive on my own. While I am looking forward to it and have confidence in the independence that inspired the trip, it’s the first time I’ll be taking such an extended drive with only dogs to talk to. The cult aspect of the dream was motivated by a comment made by someone in a recent documentary I watched; a son was lamenting his mother’s abandonment to join a cult when he was young. It’s amazing what the subconscious stores and allows to resurface!

There is one dream that reoccurs often and it has much to do with the abandonment I experienced in my early life.

I’m in a house with many rooms. Usually it’s my grandmother’s house or barn; sometimes it’s the wonderful house I lived in on North Street in Attica. I am trying to find a way out. I feel I am being pursued but the predator is never identified nor seen. Each room I come to is loaded with treasures (boxes, trunks, clothing, and furniture) but I am unable to take the time to explore as I’m in such a rush to escape. I never do find the exit. I wake up with a feeling of searching that stays with me throughout the day.

It’s not that I was left on the side of the road or in an orphanage or anything, but I have lived with a persistent feeling of not belonging – anywhere. I’m sure my love of the unknown and my past experiences of moving from place to place have added to my rootless feelings, but it goes deeper than that.

For eighteen years we lived in our first home in Las Vegas (well almost eighteen, we packed up and moved to Attica, NY for four of those years). After we first moved in it took me a few years before I would put photographs on the walls, decorate with knick knacks, or possess a feeling that I was settled. The same for the house I live in now; I vowed we would only live here for two years max; we are in our fourth year now. Yet, there are no pictures on the walls, I’ve never personalized the home with paint colors I like, nor does any room exhibit my personality in any real way, save for the constant disorganization of stuff in boxes awaiting storage in our shed. I often ask myself, when will I feel like I’m home?

Maybe I’ll have a dream soon that will provide those answers for me.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Something I need to remember:

The artist doesn't have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don't have the time to read reviews. - William Faulkner

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Music Within Me

I’m going through a phase right now where I want to hear music from my younger years. Maybe it has something to do with my upcoming trip home to visit lots of high school friends. Whatever it is I am forgoing my usual audio books for iTunes favorites I’ve downloaded and oldies-but-goodies radio stations. I even convinced (it didn’t take much) my friend Linda to go dancing with me last week. Although I’ve never been one of those that lived and breathed music, I do love certain songs, especially those that have motivated certain actions or reactions in me over the course of my lifetime.

Many decisions were made by me based on the feeling a song inspires in me. I’ve stayed with or broken up with boyfriends if a particular song happened to say just the right words with just the right musical sound. I’m loyal to the songs of my youth; Elton John, Cat Stevens, Supertramp – I know, vanilla music, but I love something about the songs and can listen to them over and over. When my girls were young we would listen to Jim Croce’s Bad Bad Leroy Brown over and over. My six-year-old grandson now knows the words by heart. Nothing is cuter than looking in the rearview mirror to watch him sing and move to the music!

I enjoy some of the new music, too. There’s something about that Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty that makes me want to stalk him. He’s not even really cute, too Kevin Bacon skinny for me, but that voice of his, oh and the way he moves. Speaking of Kevin Bacon, he and his brother have a great band and some really good songs. They should have picked a better name for their band though, The Bacon Brothers just makes me want to laugh.

My workouts at the gym are even picking up thanks to my iPod and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Traveling Band is a great song to run on the treadmill to, that is, if I remember not to dance to the beat as I’m on a moving belt.

The 1970s had some great music. A recently cancelled show, Life on Mars used the music of that era as a backdrop to their show. For weeks I couldn’t get the song, Little Willy by The Sweet out of my head.

I’m certainly enjoying my trip back in time through music. I just hope I keep my head, but you never know; that music from the old days may just cast a spell over me. Or, it will just make the drive home a little easier.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Small Town Girl Makes Good in Vegas

The best thing I ever did was to leave western New York. The hardest thing I’m doing in my life is to stay away from there. I often think about where I would be right now if my parents hadn’t died. For sure, I’d probably be living either right down the road from them, or maybe even with them. After all, I was the only girl with three older brothers and from the looks of my father’s side of the family daughters did not stray too far from home. Perhaps there would have been more children, more daughters, but we’ll never know.

What I do know is that because of my family history, I developed a sense of rootlessness early on that enabled me to make a break from ties that bound me to one place, at least in a physical sense. My heart will always, always belong to New York.

I first left home right out of high school and went to a college two hours away. I missed my boyfriend and friends and didn’t really like the program I was in, so I returned home and did a semester at the local college. That taste of freedom, however, must have settled in because I couldn’t stay put. In an effort to break ties, I packed up and went to Washington State to stay with relatives until I heard back from a college in California that I’d applied to. I received word of my acceptance in spring 1977 so I packed my few belongings, said farewell to more family and headed out on my own again. I didn’t know a soul in southern California, but it never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t find my way.

For the next ten years I lived there where I met both of my husbands, had two little girls, created long-lasting friendships, and continued to develop into who I would become. Then, an opportunity to work in Las Vegas came my way and I took it.

That was in 1987 and I’ve been here ever since, except for a few forays into leaving Las Vegas. I keep saying I don’t like it here; I miss green vegetation, rain, thunderstorms, and cool summers. What I have come to realize is just how fortunate I’ve been in living in this community, and the realization that I have planted roots here that have harvested an amazing life. I have experienced some incredible moments, pretty good for a girl from rural New York.

When they say Las Vegas really is a small town they mean it, in the way that long term establishment allows for a person to make those tiny little connections that develop into a huge network of people. The one that stands out most for me is the close encounter I had with the biggest name in Las Vegas: the Wynns. Yes, those Wynns; of the mega casinos and the world-renowned art collection; the unofficial king and queen of the desert. For three years I worked for one of Elaine Wynn’s charitable organizations. Through that work experience I was a part of an inner-circle that brought me and my co-workers in close contact with Mrs. Wynn on a regular basis. In addition, we participated in events that I never would have imagined I’d be invited to, much less be a part of in an intimate way.

I remember so clearly being hired by the organization. I’d received a phone call out of the blue to come and interview for a position as a volunteer coordinator. After meeting John Pucci, the co-chair, along with Elaine Wynn of the Greater Las Vegas Inner-City Games(now called the After-School All-Stars).

I was directed to head to the Strip to meet with Mrs. Wynn herself. As I headed up a marble-encased elevator to the top floor of the famous Desert Inn (no longer in existence), I couldn’t help but reflect on my humble beginnings. How surreal it was for me, a girl from Corfu, New York about to meet face-to-face the most powerful woman in Las Vegas.

Mrs. Wynn was (and still is) beautiful and gracious; she made me feel comfortable right off. Our meeting went well and I must have passed the test as I was hired.

During my tenure with the organization I had a glimpse of the Las Vegas only some very privileged people get to see. Fundraisers for the GLVICG included events such as: the grand opening of a Louis Vuitton store, a Today Show visit with Al Roker, and attending the exclusive black-tie opening of The Wynn casino. During one staff meeting I asked Mrs. Wynn if it would be possible to see the collection of art that she and her husband (that would be Steve Wynn) owned. She invited the entire staff to their home where the art work was housed at the time. Christmas parties even included socializing with Mrs. Wynn and others in an informal way. What an experience, right?

(John and Lisa at the opening of The Wynn)

I no longer work for the organization so those inclusive days are over, at least on that level. I have retained more than memories, however, as the friendships that were forged during those years are still very much a part of my life, as are the business relationships created.

From where I stand now I can attest to the small-town community that Las Vegas is. The seeds were planted over twenty years ago and the network that has grown has given me those roots I so long ago thought would never tie me to one place. Dare I say it - Las Vegas is “home?”

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Funny Girl, Confident Woman

As I am on my own for the coming week, I started my Sunday afternoon by watching movies I’ve taped for just this kind of alone time. One of them is a favorite of mine from long ago that I haven’t seen in over 30 years. What struck me about revisiting this film after all these years isn’t the time that has passed, but the emotions that welled in me about who I was then and the person I have become, and the realization that this movie had an influence on me that I never realized until this moment.

Funny Girl starring a young Barbara Streisand came out in 1968. Of course the film must have played in movie theaters, which I never went to as a child, so my first viewing of it must have been a few years later when it was on local television. Remember, you young people, this was the era before DVD’s and video recording. My memory makes me think I awaited the showing of Funny Girl just as much as I did The Wizard of Oz. As I watched today I knew the words to every song and could anticipate the wisecracks that came out of the character of Fanny Brice. I remember even talking like her at times in school. I realize now how I identified with the character; a self-depreciating girl who had no confidence in her looks or worth, whose nose was almost as obvious as Barbara/Fanny. In Junior High my best friend and classmate even called me “Streisand Nose.” I could really relate to Fanny’s dismay that anyone, especially someone as handsome and worldly as Nick Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif) would look at her twice and her use of comedy to deflect her feelings of insecurity.

As a teen I watched Funny Girl before I had any experience with love, loss, and success. Watching it now after I have experienced all of that really struck a chord in me. I have been very lucky in love and success, and any loss I have experienced has strengthened me.

Watching Fanny destroy her love relationship is heart-wrenching. But I realize that I did not end up like her, sad and alone and longing for the love of her life. I also never needed to replace my feelings of inadequacy with material things; I grew to love and cherish my unique look and quirky personality. In retrospect I did, however, retain the wit and dry humor that I picked up from watching that movie, and the use of it has served me well.

Nostalgia often reminds of a better time and place, one without the burdens and regrets we bring to our later years. In this case, however, nostalgia is a mirror I was able to look into and see not who I dreamed of being, but of who I have become. I have to admit it looks pretty good from this side of the glass.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where Did Everybody Go?

I guess I’m going through a bit of the “empty-nest syndrome.” Family members that are in close proximity of me all have things going on that leaves me very much on my own. Oldest daughter, Erin who lives in California is happily reunited with her husband of only six months. Granted, I see Erin only every other month or so, but we were keeping in close cyberspace contact. Now she’s busy working and establishing her new married life. Aiden has gone off to visit his daddy in California for a few weeks, his mom Adrian is on her way to New York, and my husband, John leaves tomorrow for his much anticipated weeklong golf excursion. What am I gonna do with myself? This coming week’s alone time is giving me some food for thought.

Alone does not necessarily mean lonely; I spend a great deal of time in my own company and I enjoy it. Before I got married and had children I was very independent. I traveled and settled myself in numerous locations across the country. When you have a family to care for, however, you become tied to them and one geographic location. Until, that is, they turn into the independent ones. Now I have to contemplate the rebirth of my independent streak and do so without the guilt that comes from leaving those that once depended on me behind.

I often think that if I didn’t have my home, the animals, the kids close by, and oh, yeah, a husband, I would be traipsing around Europe with my backpack or crisscrossing the country in an R.V. I know I could do it without fear of the unknown and it would be full of great adventures. The trouble is I’ve really come to like the company I keep; John and I have a blast when we travel together and my friends and I have made many great memories on our various road trips. Another complication, though, is that work schedules, money, and the obligations of others impede their availability when I am able to travel. So the question is, do I go it alone or sit at home occupying myself in ways that bore me? With my loved ones embarking on their own adventures, I say I need to go it alone. But it’s easier said than done.

It took me over 25-years to find myself rooted to a place and to people, specifically my kids and husband, my home with the plants and trees that need watering, and the pets that need my attention. I’ve established a career that can pretty much travel with me, so that’s not much of an issue. But now I find it increasingly difficult to walk away from the responsibilities that I’ve created for myself. In the past I’ve just packed everything up, and I mean everything: kids, animals, belongings, and set out. Here’s a picture of my 1992 flight from Las Vegas to New York. That van groaned from the weight of its contents - you can’t see it but in addition to the dogs there are two parrots, a turtle, snake and iguana in there!

While I’m not planning on a mass move just yet, and when I do I suspect the spouse will come along, I am considering my summer plans. As I wrote about earlier I planned on taking a cross-country road trip, just me and two of our dogs. I have to rethink that as 1) my husband fears for my life (from bad people, not my driving!) and 2) I have a possible summer project that I will need to attend to near the end of July. A change of travel plans is in order. I’m thinking of flying to Washington D.C. and after exploring the nation’s capital driving myself to Batavia for a reunion with family and friends. I’ll fly back to Vegas after I’ve had my fill of food and western New York humidity and mosquitoes. My issue is that I wish John was with me as I know how much he’d love to visit Washington and New York, and how much we would enjoy creating those memories together. See my quandary?

I love my independence but it doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Still, I know that I’ll have a great time on my own and maybe next time I’ll have a traveling companion who is available join me. That is, unless I have too much fun on my own! Stay tuned as I will document my summer adventures along the way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Meet the Cousins

I was around the age of seventeen when I met my “other” family. As a child, my brothers and I were raised by our maternal grandmother. I had been curious about my dad’s side of the family, whom we were kept from associating with even though court documents show that they had a legal right to visitation. I was so young when I went to live with my grandmother, just a year old, that I grew up not knowing the complicated dynamics of the break between the two families. My brothers and I were conditioned to never speak about the tragedy that was our family history, and talking about the “Gioias” was a taboo subject altogether. When I discovered in my teens that my brothers had in fact been in contact with my dad’s family, I wanted in on the visits too.

I made arrangements with my brother Joey to take me to meet them. Having told my grandmother a cover story about staying the night at my friend Diane’s house, I went one Sunday to meet them. My recollection is fuzzy about where we first met. What I do recall is the intense feeling of belonging the moment I stepped into the room filled with my father’s brothers and sisters. I felt an immediate connection, like a part of me that had long been lost had finally been found. Where my mother’s family, of eastern European descent is in many ways closed off emotionally with little outward expressions of affection and feelings that are meant to be borne alone, this group was the complete opposite. There was crying, hugging, kissing, and numerous conversations taking place all at once. I was embraced and made such a fuss over.

This initial meeting was too long in coming; I wish with all my heart I had met them much sooner for I had only a small window of time to spend with them. I graduated from high school soon after and was off to start my life. I ended up 3,000 miles away in California. I would take the time to visit whenever I was home, but the visits were infrequent and hardly enough to make up for 20 years of lost time. I have lost all but one of my father’s siblings, the only people who were able to piece together the life and personality of the most important man in my life. I thought all those memories had been lost with their passing.

Luckily, I have been given a second chance; my own generation of family on my father’s side has opened their arms and hearts to me as generously as my aunts and uncles did. With the popularity of social networking sites MySpace, and most especially Facebook, I have reconnected with cousins I’d met only once or twice and have been introduced to cousins I never knew existed. Many of us will meet face-to-face for the first time this summer, but in the meantime we are getting to know one another and our family histories via shared memories, photographs, and online messaging.

My cousin Bonnie from Massachusetts appears to be my east coast family historian counterpart. She’s been hoarding the family treasure trove of memories just as I have been doing. Because of Bonnie I have in my possession home movies made by my father showing his growing family during happy times, before tragedy took them. It is hard to put into words the impact in seeing my parents walking, talking (although there is no sound, this is 8mm film footage), and alive.


There are photographs, too, such as the one and only picture of the Gioia Pizzeria my father owned and operated.

As the saying goes, “what once was lost now is found”, I am finding my way back “home” again. I can’t wait to meet my cousins; we have so much to share.