My two teen-aged daughters and I were training for a half marathon when the family took a trip to Italy in June. It was hot, every day hovering around a humid 90. And in Siena, the narrow cobblestone streets were filled with the omnipresent smell of freshly cured meat and speeding Vespa drivers talking on cell phones and listening to iPods. Conditions so far from ideal for running that I’m convinced that the only reason we ran our miles (or most of them) was because of Throw Like a Girl, a book of short stories by Jean Thompson that the three of us read simultaneously. Not literally simultaneously. I think it was more that we kept stealing the book from one another but managed to read enough of the same stories to discuss them while we ran.
Third day in Siena: I woke the girls at 7 (even though they like to sleep until 10) because Rick, my husband, kept saying we would miss Fill-In-The-Blank monument, a recurrent concern of his that had already caused more than one fight between us in Italy. Let me just say, we are not the most compatible travelers. He’s a map and plan kind of guy, convinced if we don’t get THERE right now we never will. While I’m more of a wanderer, wanting to feel and absorb my way through a foreign place. Not that one is better than the other. And we both often have the same destination in mind, it’s the journey that differs. But that morning I woke the girls (at his urging) and we gobbled down croissants and blood orange juice and cups of cappuccino (not the best food to run on but we were in Tuscany where they haven’t heard of whole grain bread and peanut butter or runners for that matter) and we headed out the thick-planked doors of Pensione Palazzo Raviza and into the walled-in medieval maze of Siena.
The first ten minutes we were just moving and breathing, finding the commonality of our rhythm and pace. And then the heat and the cobblestones and the undigested croissants and the Vespas conspired to defeat us before we completed our mileage. And just when I thought one of us was going to suggest we quit, Abby, my middle daughter, said, “I finished that story “Lost,” last night. It was well-written but depressing.”
“Lost” was the story in Throw Like a Girl that Ali, my oldest, and I were both raving about the day before. A story with so many brilliant lines that as soon as I finished it, I reread it immediately. But Abby was right, it was depressing. This is the tricky thing about this stage of motherhood. My daughters are old enough and smart enough to read and discuss books and movies and life and while I’ve always advocated open and honest communication, the questions are getting tougher.
“I mean that relationship with that guy who had a girlfriend and left her was her best memory? How could that be?” Abby said.
I think that’s the point,” I said. “That may have been the apex of her life.”
“And it’s sad because she thought it was going to get better and it didn’t and now the time is gone,” Ali said. “They’re all kind of like that.” She’d finished the book by then. “Middle-aged women filled with regret. A lot of books are about that. Which makes me wonder about middle-aged women…”
“I don’t think I want to be middle-aged,” Abby said.
“Or married,” Ali said.
“No offense but it seems boring,” Abby said.
“I would live with someone,” Ali said. “But marriage? I mean do you know anyone who’s been married a long time who’s really… happy?”
“Yeah,” Abby said. “Are you happy?”
We’d been running long enough by that point that I realized it was about time to turn around. But that wasn’t so easy in Siena where the streets zig-zagged and meandered and twisted back on to themselves and lead us to what looked like another blind alley (just like the day before) and I wasn’t sure which way to go or how to answer the question. Am I happy? I’m happy I’m running with my daughters. That my son made the All Star Little League team. That we’re all healthy. That my book is going to be published. That I’ve been married and faithful for two decades, and the marriage… ebbs and flows, and with perhaps just a few more intensive years of marital therapy we’ll learn to dovetail our differences. But is that happy? Is happy something you can hold on to? I think I used to think happy was a destination. But now?
“We’re lost again,” Abby said. “Aren’t we?”
I nodded and we turned around and we all shrugged and laughed at ourselves and headed in the direction we thought we should go and I knew it was going to take some concerted effort to find our way back. But I also knew that would trick us into completing our mileage. And the whole sweaty way back, I thought, maybe it isn’t so bad to be lost, maybe we’re all a little lost some of the time and maybe that’s okay because it keeps us yearning and questing. And I am happy, thrilled actually, that my daughters aren’t afraid to ask me tough questions. Now if I could only find the answers.