Joy and Sorrow

26 07 2015

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In the space of one week; a joyful reunion of old friends and then a few days later, gunshots shatter our joy and fill us with sorrow.

Joy and Sorrow. Communities coming together to laugh and dance, and to weep and grieve.

High school reunions are like nothing else. It brings back with a rush the laughter, awkwardness, insecurities and innocence of our younger selves. With drinks in hand, we remind each other of long forgotten memories. We renew friendships that have slipped away and we feel the affection with long, deep hugs.

The storytelling and laughter rise above the band playing our favorite 70’s songs. By the end of the night, everyone is on the dance floor moving like we did at our Senior Prom. Many of us have maintained a handful of precious friendships over the decades, but many of us had not seen each other in 40 years. Yet we still remain a community. We can see our youth again, past the extra pounds, and greying and thinning hair. And we are all grateful for our name tags that have our high school photos on them.

A few days later, while basking in the glow of reconnected classmates; a shooting happens. The movie theater where lives are forever shattered is less than an hour from where we danced the night away. Lafayette is now home to some from that Class of 1975. All of us have spent time in this south Louisiana town that was voted the happiest place in the country. There’s a quintessential Louisiana phrase, “laissez le bon temps rouler.” It means “let the good times roll” and no where does the phrase come to life more than Lafayette.

We are all interconnected in south Louisiana. My work intern rushed to console friends who were sitting on the same theater isle as the shooter. I had a long conversation with another friend who was broken-hearted over the death of artist and musician, Jillian Johnson. Jillian’s band, the Figs were scheduled to play at a Fall party at my friend’s camp a few miles from Lafayette on the mighty Atchafalaya River. My sweetie’s adult children grew up in Franklin, the same small town where the beautiful, 21-year old college student, Mayci Breaux grew up. We have another phrase down here, “Who’s your momma and dem”. It’s how we connect because we know there’s just one degree of separation between us.

The murderer was not from our community—but just like the shooter in Charleston—he would have been welcomed. We love to share our culture down here with our great food, ice-cold drinks, music and dancing.

The hate group Westboro (I won’t call them a church) has threatened to disrupt the funerals with its evil since the shooter was a supporter of their particular brand of hate. Fifteen thousand have pledged to shield the families from another horror. There’s a call to show the world the beautiful gumbo pot of South Louisiana. Black and white and Indian and Cajun and Creole and young and old and conservative and liberal will hold hands to shield our community from hate.

I’m admittedly often frustrated by many things in my beloved deep South. But we have something here that is special…deep community. Maybe because we know we’re just one hurricane away from tragedy that we live our life with extra zest.

Together we attend our graduations and reunions, weddings and funerals, births and deaths, together. We are all interconnected in this web of life. We are one community.

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One Degree of Separation

3 07 2015

It’s been a transformative year for the LGBT community. I live in a place that is one of the last holdouts for trying to “keep things the way they have always been”. Most people in my sleepy, river town don’t know this place has a rainbow-hued history with historical significance to the transgendered world.

Baton Rouge

There’s just one degree of separation in Baton Rouge. If you meet someone who grew up here, you can always find a connection. My connection to this story is through my sweetie, Steve. Steve and his late wife bought a house with a storied past. In the 60’s there was a woman, Rita, from an affluent family, who went to Sweden and became Reed. Reed Erickson and his beautiful Swedish nurse fell in love, got married and moved back to Baton Rouge, Reed’s hometown.

It was the home Reed, his wife and their adopted child lived in, that my sweetie bought decades later. As Steve renovated this home, its history came alive. Nowhere more so than when he turned the Erickson’s room for their pet into his office. It was a large room because it was a large pet…it was a pet leopard. That’s right, a leopard, whose name was Henry. Henry was well known in the neighborhood and Henry sometimes wandered away from home, as cats are prone to do. While Henry never hurt anyone, the thoughtful Erickson’s kept their neighbors refrigerators stocked with steaks. The steaks were for Henry, so if he wandered into the neighbor’s yard, they just had to throw a steak over the fence and Henry would leap over and go back home.

Other neighborhood stories included the knowledge that the beautiful Swedish wife as also a bit of the nudist. Apparently the presence of a leopard did nothing to deter this being a popular home to make deliveries to.

Reed Erickson went on to set up the Erickson Education Foundation which helped the transgender community during a time when they had few allies and little resources. The house in this older Baton Rouge neighborhood, with it’s stately oaks that form a shady canopy over the streets, became a safe home for trans people to quietly begin their transformation into a new life.

This story was an open Baton Rouge secret for years. Steve said that even though it had been years since the Erickson’s lived in the house, mail would occasionally come to the family that was long gone. Out of curiosity, Steve once opened a letter and found its contents so heartbreakingly sad that he never opened another.

That unassuming, ranch-style home has had a few more owners since Steve lived there. I hope it is still filled with hopeful dreams of a good life. I celebrate that the LGBT community does not have to live in secret any more. I also celebrate the fact that I don’t live next door to a leopard.

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Migration

15 06 2015

My baby bird has left the nest. She’s following the migratory path of others her age and is starting her adult life 800 miles away in a place very different than the hot, southern clime she grew up in.

sunset at the sea

I realize the universe has been sending me quiet gifts in the last few weeks. My sweetie (Steve) and I have been slowly transforming our small, ignored backyard for over a year. And by we, I mean Steve, though I do offer moral support and ideas from Pinterest. Most of his hard work is unseen; replacing, repairing and building. He’s worked hard at creating a solid foundation for our garden. We now have a new deck and the garden pots are filled with freshly planted, bright yellow and orange marigolds. We have an outdoor place for our early morning coffee and our end-of-day conversations. It is still a work in progress and several seasons will pass before this small garden space will be complete.

The addition of a birdfeeder preceded my own baby bird’s leaving by a few weeks. My sweetie was amazed at how much time my daughter and I (and the cat) watched with simple enjoyment. He always had a birdfeeder at his home in his life before me. My daughter had menageries of animals growing up; cats, dogs, bunnies, hamsters, fish and even a hedgehog. But there was never a birdfeeder in our yard.

We watched in amusement the squirrels try and try again to learn how to get to the feeder. It finally took a leap of faith as they learned to jump from fence to feeder. They eventually accomplished their goal, even if they fell a few times in their attempts.

ThinkstockPhotos-105558154I love hearing the cooing sound of the pair of morning doves that live high in the trees, as much as I love seeing the vibrant splash of the red cardinal when he flies by. Some birds are colorful and stand out, while others are plain and blend into the scenery. I’ve learned that there are bossy birds and meek birds. Some birds come alone, others come in pairs and some only come in a group. Some play well together and some are very territorial. They don’t all eat the same way; some eat at the feeder and others eat the seeds that fall on the ground and some even feed each other. They are all unique.

Flying away

Flying away

My only child is now all grown up. She’s been busy this past week creating her own nest in her new city. I’ve enjoyed our FaceTime visits as she shows me her new place and tells me of her daily adventures. I ooh and ahh and coo, just like a mama bird does. She will soon have a new flock of friends. I know I’ve taught her to spread her wings. And just like the birds I enjoy watching in my backyard, I’ll enjoy watching her soar and wonder where the winds of life will take her.

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Coincidences

7 05 2015

I once read that a coincidence was the Divine tapping you on the shoulder to softly say, “I’m here with you.” Since my mother’s death last month my life has been filled with these mini-miracles. My guilty pleasure is the reality show, Long Island Medium, so I know that I’m not the only one who believes this.

My family in in the late 80's.

My family in the 80’s.

  • My Dad died nearly 20 years ago. My Mom had his ashes placed in a crypt in a tranquil cemetery not far from his old business. Mom liked that he was placed high enough to get a glimpse of his old purple building. Mom was clear that she wanted her body donated to the LSU Med School, but we never discussed what to do when her ashes would eventually be sent to me. So I called the cemetery to inquire about the details of having her interred. I got a call the following day that there was amazingly, a place right next to my Dad’s. I felt a quiet peace settle over me, my Mom was taken care of, and now both my parents were still taking care of their only child.
My Mom, Jimmie Dee, on the cover of a trade magazine feautring the family business.

My Mom, Jimmie Dee, on the cover of a trade magazine featuring the family business.

  • I’m part of a historical Baton Rouge Facebook group. My family had a popular business, McLeod’s, during my growing up years. My dad did his own commercials and is still remembered by many. It’s not uncommon for my Dad or the business to get a mention. A week after my Mom passed away, a photo of her, not my dad, popped up in my FB feed. It was in her sassy red wig phase on the cover of an obscure 1969 trade magazine. Whoever posted it did not know that my mom had just died. People I did not know filled my day commenting sweet remembrances of her and the family business.
Walking to school with my “groovy” booksack.

First day of 4th grade. Walking to school with my “groovy” book sack.

  • At Mom’s memorial service, our minister read from the blog stories I’d written about her. He repeated my favorite Mother Teresa quote, “Do little things with great love” and then opened up the podium for anyone who had a story to share. An older woman made her way to the front of the sanctuary. My sweetie learned over and whispered, “who that?” and I replied, “ I have no idea.” The first words out of her mouth were, “I was Connie’s fourth grade teacher.” She said my mom had showed her such kindness the year I was her student. She was a young teacher and it was her first year at the school. All the parents wanted their child in the older, favorite teacher’s class, and she drew my name. My mom befriended her and invited her and her husband into our home. I have no memory of their unique friendship. But the small kindnesses’ my mom showed her—nearly five decades ago—stayed with that teacher for her entire life. Another small kindness done with great love.
i used my mom in several ads and commercials over the years.

I used my mom in several ads and commercials over the years.

  • I recently got an unexpected freelance job. My life has been hectic this year taking care of mom and this was the only paying work, outside of my day job, that I’ve taken on. It came from a Facebook comment from a Florida friend who had a South Carolina friend who was in need of a graphic designer. This friend of a friend needed a quick turnaround and I had the time because weather had suddenly cancelled my weekend plans. Before I called the prospective client, I looked up the small South Carolina town because it was one I had never heard of. According to Wikipedia, the largest employer in the town was named…McLeodmy name. When I told my perspective client, she was also surprised by the name connection. She remarked that the chair of her Board worked for McLeod. When I told her I could get her job done that weekend because I wasn’t going to French Quarter Fest, she really understood…because she’s originally from New Orleans. I knew this was work I was destined to get and I did.
Celebrating a birthday together

Celebrating a birthday together

But the most significant cosmic happening has to do with timing. My adult daughter and I are both only children. There has been a strong maternal bond between the three generations. We recognized at Christmas Mom’s mental health had hit a sudden, rapid decline. We cherished that holiday with the unspoken understanding that it may be our last together. Two months later my daughter moved back home. That was the same day Mom went into hospice care. Between us, we visited her most every day until the end of her life. And she responded to us and knew us up until the end.

Now in hindsight I realize that my baby girl will only be home for a few short months. She plans to move to Chicago next month to follow her dreams. We were meant to be close together during this transitional time in all our lives.

As hard as the last several months have been, I have felt supported and lifted up by love. My Mom will always remain a drama queen and I treasure the gifts she is sending me. I feel the connection from the generations that have come before me and I feel the Divine love that will flow into the generations that come after me.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

It’s no coincidence that I’m posting this for Mother’s Day. I honor my maternal lineage: I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrinne, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.





Love is Eternal

10 04 2015

Over the last few months I’ve come to realize that my baby girl is a grown up. No where was it more apparent than when I watched this poised, confident, beautiful woman deliver a eulogy at her beloved Nana’s memorial service. Here it is:

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A Eulogy for Jimmie Dee Lehew McLeod

By Jade Lee-Mei Th’ng

Over the past few months, my mom and I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by friends and family paying tribute to my Nana. These visits were, naturally, filled with stories and pictures of a vibrant, younger woman who lived a full, happy life. My whole life I’ve been told stories about the “good old days” and tales of “old Baton Rouge.” I would always eat these up because they added new dimensions to the woman that was Jimmie Dee.

It wasn’t until recently that something dawned on me: the woman in these stories wasn’t really the woman that I knew. Yes, the woman is these stories seemed happy, but she was also a woman who lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. It’s not that she was a timid, unheard voice, but she just lived happily supporting her husband and his business.

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When I was five, in the spring of 1996, my grandfather Lloyd McLeod passed away. My Nana moved in with us for a span. After his death, she had a major health decline that seemed bleak, but despite everything, she recovered a new woman. She was a woman who no longer lived in the shadow of someone else, but demanded her own spotlight.

This is truly the only version of her that I know: a woman whose voice was heard. She made sure of it. This is also a quality that she has passed down to my mom and me. Three generations of women who strive to have their voices heard.

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An experience that made me realize how special our intergenerational bond was when my Nana, my mom, and I were cast by the Quaker Oats Company in a (non-aired) commercial in 2002, when I was 12.

oatmeal bowlOne day, my mom told me that Nana had seen a casting call in the paper  for a Quaker Oatmeal commercial looking to cast multi-generations of family members. To appease her, we went to casting armed with a secret weapon: an old family oatmeal bowl. As the story goes (a story I only heard about that day) when my great grandfather, Jimmie Dee’s father, left home at 18, he was given a hundred dollars, a new pair of shoes, and a sturdy white bowl that he proceeded to eat oatmeal out of every day.

Needless to say, the Quaker Oats folks ate it up! Next thing I know, the three of us are being flown first class to Boston to film a national oatmeal ad. They put us up in an expensive, trendy hotel, walking distance to more sights than we even had time for. They also paid us each quite a chunk of cash, so as a seventh grader, probably missing school for this by the way, this was unreal.

In spite of all the luxury, the best part of the whole trip was actually the day we filmed the commercial. While Nana’s greatness could not be captured in 30 seconds, all the people and crew on set could most definitely appreciate it.

When it was our turn to be on camera, they had rolled out a prop of a giant 6-foot tall can of Quaker Oats. The director asked us various oatmeal-related questions, but after a while we just didn’t have quite what they wanted. To play around a little, the director pulled my mom and me out, and left Jimmie Dee in front of the camera. He asked her, “So why do you like Quaker Oatmeal?” She paused briefly, and then responded, “Well, it helps keep you regular!” Everybody on set died trying to keep their laughter quiet.

“Do you think the Quaker Oats man is sexy?” he asked, reading her personality like a book. She looked up at the face of the giant, smiling Quaker and turned back to the camera, “Well, I’d have to see the rest of him first.”

Her greatness was eventually left on the cutting room floor, but who knows what could have happened if viral videos existed then. Most importantly though, I know that somewhere, someplace, someone still thinks about that and laughs. And I’ll be damned if she didn’t make the day of everyone in that room.

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In addition to her feisty personality, Jimmie Dee was also a woman known for her style. A special moment for my mom and me happened a couple of days after Nana’s death when we went to the nursing home to clean out her belongings. Not long after we started, a lady comes into the room and asks, “I’m sorry, but I would just love to have one of her hats.” Moved by this, we let the woman pick a hat (one that she said she always admired) and gave her another one of Nana’s favorites.

The special moment that day was when an elderly lady in a wheelchair came in. She couldn’t speak, but sat there looking longingly at us. After a moment my mom asked sweetly, “Would you like a hat?” The woman nodded. We picked one out and put it on her head. Then, she hugged my mom and suddenly began sobbing. Naturally, my mom and I burst into tears too. After she left the room, we finally realized how special the hats were.

A few minutes later the same woman reentered the room, and mom asked, “Would you like another hat?” She nodded. This time she picked out the leopard print hat. “You know that when you wear this hat you’re going to have to be sassy just like Jimmie Dee, okay?” As quickly as this lady erupted into tears before, she erupted into laughter. It was infectious. When we left later that day, we saw her with that leopard print hat (which was really a few sizes to small) perched on the top of her head, her face beaming.

I know that this would touch Nana because she genuinely loved putting smiles on people’s faces. She was a woman who learned to use her voice to speak her mind, but she also used her voice to bring people joy. I can say that that is one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from my grandmother, Jimmie Dee. She lived the life that she wanted to live and found happiness in bringing others joy.

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In the last few months of her life, Nana slipped away a little more every day. Some days she was disoriented, some days she hallucinated, but never once did she not know who I was. That was our relationship. I am her only grandchild, and she is basically the only grandparent I’ve ever known. The love that she showed me was unconditional and unfiltered. In her final weeks, she was having a lot of trouble communicating and getting all of her words and thoughts out. But no matter how bad the day, whenever I told her, “I love you, Nana,” she would hold my hand and respond clear as day, “I love you too.” These were her last words to me, and her love is eternal.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

I am Jade Lee-Mei, daughter of Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrinne, daughter of Minnie May





A Key West Vacation

29 03 2015

There’s a difference between traveling and a vacation. I discovered this when I backpacked across Europe in my 20s and relearned it when I took my Girl Scouts to Italy. Traveling, while wonderful, is hard. It’s not relaxing because there’s a lot to do, and adventures to be had.

A vacation is for relaxing. My preference is seaside where my biggest decision is pool or beach. And that’s the trip I just had.

A Key West sunset

A Key West sunset

What my traveling and vacationing have always had is common is that I’ve always done it on a budget. So, when I won five nights at a Waldorf Astoria for writing a travel story about that Girl Scout trip to Italy—I was beside myself with excitement. After much thought my sweetie and I decided to go to Key West.

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We needed a place to recharge, to do nothing, to be waited on. We’d been to the Keys early in our relationship and had sweet, warm memories of this tropical paradise. So fly away we did; to the land of magenta bougainvillea, trees bursting with bright yellow blooms, six-toed cats, pastel cottages, crystal clear blue-green waters, and a rum-soaked-laid-back-island-way of viewing life. Where the sun rises over the Atlantic and where every evening the entire town goes to watch and celebrate the sun sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

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We stayed at the Casa Marina, a grand hotel that opened on New Year’s Eve in 1920. You could feel the history of old Key West with all it’s glamour, decadence, and excess from the moment we drove up and two valets opened the doors and welcomed us into the lobby. It’s located on the eastern, quiet side of the island, which is just 4 miles wide. After dropping our bags off in our room (which was not very impressive considering it was $500 a night), we headed to the poolside bar. After sampling several pina coladas during our vacation, it was scientifically determined that our hotel had the best. They made them with black strap rum and they tasted like an icy praline. We also figured with all the fruit, it was almost like drinking a smoothie.

I like pina coladas, but I do not like the pina colada song.

I like pina coladas, but I do not like the pina colada song.

Over the next few days, we spent hours on the beach. It was lying on the beach that I learned that it was the service that made this a 5-star resort. Despite being surrounded by water, there is not a lot of beach in Key West. The Casa Marina has their own private beach, so it is only hotel guests that are there. Attractive cabana boys and girls waited on us while I read my beach book and soaked up the sun. They’d walk by and offer mango lemonade to quench your thirst or an ice-cold face cloth soaked in refreshing eucalyptus to soothe you from the sun. They were quick to move your umbrella for you, so you could stay in the shade. And if you got tired of your chaise lounge, there were hammocks you could take a nap in.

Bacon, lobster, tomato, eggs benedict

Bacon, lobster, tomato, eggs benedict

We’d occasionally leave to get a meal or to go watch the sunset. Our favorite brunch was at Blue Heaven. A funky, colorful, arty, outdoor restaurant shaded by ancient, exotic banyan and almond trees where chickens and cats wander freely. If you go, get their BLT, a bacon, lobster, tomato, eggs benedict. We needed to return to our horizontal beach position as soon as we finished brunch.

I had many wonderful moments happen while I was busy doing nothing.

My sweetie enjoying cigars and landsharks.

My sweetie enjoying cigars and landsharks.

  • Looking up and seeing an osprey with a huge fish in its talons, bringing a meal back to her baby birds high up in their nest.
  • A father playfully running after his toddler up and down, and up and down, the length of the hotel property.
  • Watching the staff and photographers get ready for a beach wedding. Seeing the beautiful bride and her handsome groom and the happy friends and family who were there to celebrate this life milestone as the sun set through the palm trees.
  • Watching a buxom woman in her string bikini, with her Kardashian derriere and tattooed sleeve, posing for a sexy photo in the surf.
The sailboats sailing in and out of the sun’s reflection on the water.

The sailboats sailing in and out of the sun’s reflection on the water.

  • My favorite moment came one night when we found the darkest part of the beach and gazed up at the millions of stars that you can only see when you’re away from city lights and saw the distant ships blink on the ocean’s horizon as they traveled to another exotic locale.

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It was a glorious vacation, a real luxurious getaway. In the week we were gone, spring exploded in Louisiana. I’m rested and happy to be back home where the pink and white azelas are in full bloom. Now if I can just figure out how to get that firepit and view from the hotel in my backyard.

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I’m a Winner!

16 03 2015

452676929I wrote the following story over a year ago. After I wrote it I saw the Waldorf Astoria was having a contest asking for travel stories. I submitted an edited down version and I won five days at a Waldorf Astoria! Woo Hoo! So my sweetie and I are headed to Key West to enjoy the warm sun, key lime pie, and umbrellad drinks served by cute cabana boys. I’m sure a story or two will grow out of my winning vacation. 

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Time Travel

It’s a cold, wet, grey, winter day. The kind of day that gets my mind to wandering to a treasured warm memory, one that’s years ago and miles away. I’m savoring a memory that was a gift which has stood the test of time.

I’ve written about being the leader of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop before. This was a wonderful group of girls, many who had been together since kindergarten. I shared my love of travel with these girls and over the years we traveled near and far. As they approached their senior year in high school they set their sights on Italy. Several years of fundraising and selling lots of cookies got them there.

Me and my Girl Scouts in Italy.

Me and my Girl Scouts in Italy.

One night about halfway through the trip our tour guide, Patrizia, pulled me aside and wanted to know if I wanted to go out after the girls went to bed. There were plenty of chaperon parents, so I eagerly said yes.

I wondered what she had in mind. Would we meet up with Patrizia’s friends and have a glass of Italian red in a quiet café, or a late night meal in a family style ristorante, or even dancing in a discotheque? It didn’t matter, I’m always up for an adventure, especially when I travel.

Road with chariot grooves in Pompeii

Road with chariot grooves in Pompeii

We had spent the day walking among the ruins of Pompeii under the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius whose volcanic ash covered it in 79 AD. I actually didn’t tour the famed Pompeii House of Ill Repute relics with my Girl Scouts, but I had learned of it from my Dad who also walked these streets when he was a young man. He told me the you could still see the phallic symbols on the steets directing sailors landing at this seaport to the town brothel. And at the brothel you could still see the house specialties carved in stone above the doors.

It was a great connection to my own history, walking these streets with my daughter knowing her grandfather had done the same. Pompeii, that ancient Roman city destroyed in an instant, forever preserved in time, it’s streets still grooved by long ago chariots wheels. Streets walked upon by a lost civilization and now by three generations of my family visiting this ancient land.

After Pompeii, we traveled the narrow winding road hugging the mountainside down the Amalfi coast. To the right was the azure blue Mediterranean stretching to the horizon where we could watch the setting sun.

We stopped in Sorrento, a beautiful town facing the sea. After settling in our hotel, Patriazia and I took off for what would be an evening stroll through history. She guided me down an known-only-to-locals walking path that led us down the mountainside until we were outside the walls of the town. The moon lit our way casting her beautiful blue light on this old world. We passed a small grotto with gentle waves, it was so crystal clear you could see the sandy bottom of the sea even through the moonlight.

moonlight

On a cliff above the small grotto lay the ruins of a Roman villa. We sat and absorbed the beauty in comfortable silence. The family who had once lived here over 2000 years ago had chosen this location for the same beauty that I was experiencing. We were away from the town lights; you could see the distant lights of the other coastal towns sparking like diamonds on a necklace strewn on the coastal neckline.

coast

I am warmed by the memory of that timeless beauty on this cold winter day. My daughter went on to minor in Italian at college and spent a summer as an au pair in Italy because of that trip.

Travel expands and connects our world in unexpected ways and leaves us with memorable gifts that last a lifetime. Arrivederci.

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