Though she first introduced me to intercontinental travel, Auntie Lee does not venture very far anymore. Mostly she is pushed in her wheelchair from bed to dining room, from recreation - movies, sing-alongs, the Rosary - to her usual post across from the nursing station at Abbott Terrace, a long-term care facility in Waterbury, Conn. She is an Alzheimer’s patient who has lived at the facility for almost five years. Beloved by the staff for her gentleness, she retains enough affect to smile and coo over babies, make sounds of concern when she sees or hears another patient in pain and reach out to passersby, especially if they are dressed in bright colors or patterns. She was a buyer of better women’s sportswear by profession, and her affinity and penchant for style still peek through her crumbling exterior and increasingly veiled mind.
Recently, after returning from a visit to Italy, I rushed to see her again, hoping she would be at least no more distant from me than when I had said goodbye in June. As always, she beamed in greeting. Relieved, I talked as we always had when she was what people call herself.
"Auntie Lee, I began, I got to Torcello again. Wayne and I stayed two nights, then I went back alone for the entire day before we flew home. I found out what I need to write my story."
She smiled and nodded, fingered the amber beads (hers) I wore, compared our shoes and relished each spoonful of the chocolate pudding I fed her while I rambled on.
Thinking back on that conversation (monologue?), I realize that Torcello was not really our topic. Rather, I was sharing my journey with her, as she had always shared her many journeys with me.
Since that visit, however, Auntie Lee and Torcello have occupied my thoughts as if they were naturally connected.
It is not easy to get to Torcello. One of the many islands of the Venetian lagoon and Venice’s first settlement, it can be reached only by private boat, water taxi (a costly 100 euros from the train station or San Marco), or for a pittance by ferry/vaporetto (the Venice public waterbus system). The ferry/vaporetto combination is the most commonly used, and riders must board the larger boat at Venezia Pietà, near San Marco, then travel for one hour and 15 minutes, stopping at Treporti and Punta Sabbioni before disembarking at Burano, the island noted for lace-making, where they finally pick up the smaller T, the every-half-hour local to Torcello itself. All told, the trip takes close to two hours. Yet, morning and afternoon each summer day, hundreds of people disembark onto the small pontoon to visit the island that is part nature preserve, part museum, romantic escape, dining experience, religious site and home to but 12 permanent residents.
Why do tourists go there? Many want to see the ruins of the first Venetian settlement, the Church of Santa Fosca, the campanile, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, with its beautiful mosaics, the remnants of the baptistery. Others come to lunch at the famed but inconspicuous Locanda Cipriani (where Hemingway once stayed). Some want to marry under a glittering dome, still more to escape the bustle and crowds of Venice itself.
Three years ago, I visited for the first time and was captivated by the island, whose name, residents say, evolved from torre e cielo, tower and sky. A temporary vaporetto strike held me captive for a few hours then, and I was fortunate enough to experience Torcello as if tourists did not exist. During this trip, my husband and I spent 48 uninterrupted hours there, and I remain transfixed by the island’s spell.
Auntie Lee listened as I wondered aloud why Torcello had been of interest to the Romans in the first place during the first and second centuries; why, after a freak tide is said to have wiped out all life between the fifth and sixth centuries, Isaac, Exarch of Ravenna, began construction of a cathedral there in 639. Why, when silt accumulations from rivers on the mainland filled the shallow waters, ruining trade opportunities and providing a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, a few hardy souls remained.
Auntie Lee responded in a jumble of sounds, few of them discernible words. But her tone was articulate. It acknowledged our joyful engagement with each other. And that’s how it is with Torcello, too.
On the one hand, each time I visit the island, changes present themselves. This summer, bricklayers are reconstructing the dock. The path from the pontoon has been redirected. A red and white sign warning visitors not to climb on Il Ponte del Diavolo interrupts the graceful arch of the bridge. One of the permanent residents has opened a gift shop in her pink stucco house; hand-printed cardboard arrows herald its presence now and again along the path.
On the other hand, much continues as before. The locanda still lets only six rooms and proudly advertises the absence of television. Every morning just after nine, one weathered island woman raises two white sheets on poles, as she has for years, and arranges under them colorful trinkets and linens to sell. By the shade trees nearest Santa Fosca, another, younger, woman places the day’s stock of bottled water and soft drinks into a cooler, organizes gelato by flavor for children who later will wait impatiently in the unrelenting sun while their parents take turns going inside the church to admire The Last Judgment and the rendering of St. Eliodoro, patron saint of Torcello. As it does every morning, the small museum door creaks open. The first arrivals seat themselves one by one on the outdoor stone throne said to have been Attila’s. They speak German, Japanese, French, Italian, English, Russian, Hindi. Many will climb the campanile and survey the lagoon as did sailors and prelates before them.
Likewise, there are noticeable differences each time I visit Aunt Lee. She no longer wields her own utensils, and can not abide glasses on her face. She does not respond to martini or mushrooms, two of her former favorite treats. She asks after but does not recognize her devoted brother, my dad.
But she still hums, responds eagerly to each and every person who interacts with her, calls for her long-dead mother and waits. Most of all, she waits.
Two days on Torcello, I think of her each morning before the first boat arrives and each evening after the last boat leaves. Outside our flung-open sitting room doors, the campanile rises from the marsh. At seven in the morning, its bells clang boisterously and long, echoing across the lagoon. Swallows dart around it, catching flying insects. Come midday, when most here seek shade and a bed, cicadas saw the heat incessantly. With dusk come the echo of voices and the lapping of water. The sky turns pink, then unfolds slowly into purple. Eventually it is gray. Then gently, swiftly, night falls like a blanket over this island. Silver waves illuminate the black. I blink in wonder.
I tell Auntie Lee. We are holding hands and she is falling asleep. She is to me as evocative as Torcello. Her illness moves in ripples not unlike the lagoon - causing shifting, subjecting her to sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic, changes. I remember when she, too, loomed as tall with intention as the island’s campanile. Then she could express her faith in many ways. Now she utters only God, one of her few remaining words.
I think of this when I climb the campanile and survey the lagoon from above the trees. I look to the populated places - Venice far in the distance, Burano nearby, then out into the water beyond the horizon toward the unknown. Aunt Lee is oceans away, but with me still. As far and as close as those who labored here to tell the story of their faith.
I visit her the way I visit Torcello, as frequently as possible, adjusting myself to the rhythms of both, not only for the pleasure they offer, but also for the challenge. Each nudges me toward palpable belief. Those who built the campanile expressed in stone their yearning for heaven. Their tower stands yet. Every chance I get, I climb the imperfect, lovely rock path they laid. From her solitary chair in Connecticut, Auntie Lee says, God. A spare eloquence. Her blessed welcome home.