Editors' Choice

Traveling Companions

by Bonnie Smetts

A good read.

The specter of a transatlantic flight without a book drove me into the airport bookstoreand into the unfamiliar arms of a lusty romance. With the final boarding call for my flight blaring overhead, I grabbed a book and ran to the gate. For the next twelve hours, the steamy affairs of a six-generation dynasty held me captive.

With this purchase Iíd been given a new passport allowing me to be someone Iíd never been, a visa to roam freely the literary landscape of the airport bookshop without Mrs. Should. You should read Moby Dick, you should read Oprahís latest pick, you should read the book your friend loaned you Ö. After that flight in the company of the wanton daughters, nieces, and sons of the family pictured on the book cover, I began arriving bookless and tardy to the airport. With departure times bearing down on me, I chose thrillers, mysteries, or best-selling trifle without time for thought or guilt.

This past spring, I found myself in a San Francisco airport bookstore. My travel buddy Alma had called unexpectedly and asked if Iíd join her in Venice. With my fatherís recent death weighing on my heart, I needed a break from the sadness, so I bought a ticket and packed my bag. In the bookstore, I rushed along the racks looking for a last minute read, gravitating to the foil-embossed bestsellers. But standing in front of the brightly lit wall of romance and adventure, I balked at the buxom women, the atmospheric paintings of Maine, and the blood-dripped titles. After having spent the previous year caring for my dying father, Iíd lost my taste for escape.

I moved over to the quiet section of non-fiction and memoirs. Two almost-white covers sat side-by-side, Anne Lamottís Grace (Eventually) and Joan Didionís A Year of Magical Thinking. I had wanted to read Lamottís book from the time Iíd first heard it reviewed but somehow, I could never bring myself to buy the book. Didionís book about grief was an obvious choice and I bought the pair.

As the plane took off, I began Didionís detached and emotionally accurate experience of loss. Losing a husband is worlds away from the death of a parent, but grief is grief. Her realization that she hadnít gotten rid of all her husbandís clothes because, deeply and irrationally she believed he might return, hit me hard. I wish Iíd read her book before Iíd collapsed in front of my dadís closet, not wanting to, but knowing I must, give all his clothes to Goodwill, even his dancing shoes.

In Venice, I settled into my friendís apartment, determined to visit every one of the twenty churches listed on my Chorus Pass. But by nightfall, I was anxious to finish dinner and return to my little room where I could explore grief and my own magical thinking with Didion.

When Iíd made my choice at the bookshop in San Francisco, Iíd unknowingly bought a conversation, Lamott going forward where Didion left off. Tucked into my tiny bed, I began Lamottís book, laughing at her struggles with life, death, and the mishaps in her faith, but not understanding when she said grace had a way of poking past lifeís difficulties.

Then one sunny morning Alma suggested a day trip to nearby Ravenna. Iíd wanted to see the cityís 5th-century Byzantine mosaics since Iíd studied them in art school. We toured the mosaic-filled churches and by late afternoon weíd reached the Basilica di San Vitale. I craned my neck and gazed at Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, bejeweled, standing in a field of gold tiles in the apse that towered two floors above me. Christ, San Vitale, angels, and myriad apostles filled the other surfaces of the golden dome. Visitors whispered and moved in slow motion around me.

Finally my friend touched my shoulder. It was time to walk back to the train station. A shaft of sun came in the door from the adjoining courtyard and lit the tiled floor like a spotlight. I turned back and looked once again at the apse. In that instant, a feeling of well being washed over me, and startled me.

I stood still in peace and contentment. Grace.

On the train back to Venice, I sat in silence and watched the sun set across the Po Valley. The plain opened up big and flat and I could see in all directions. I could see forward to selling my dadís house and finishing up the paperwork of his life. I could see backward and remember sitting on his lap and listening to him read aloud the current monthís issue of National Geographic. I watched the nightmare of my father turning against me in the darkness of his dementia dim. And I said thank you to something, I wasnít sure what.

The next day I rushed for my homeward flight, stopping long enough to grab an English-language thriller thick enough to hold me all the way to San Francisco. As I made my last-minute literary selection, I scanned over my shoulder at the bookstoreís hidden corners, checking for Mrs. Should. Thankfully she hadnít figured out how to get past security and today she still hasnít.


Bonnie Smetts is a Bay Area writer and art director who spends part of each year in Italy. Her award-winning essays, focused on Italian language and culture, have appeared in anthologies, newspaper travel sections, and online guides. Read her work at bonniesmetts.com. Smetts won the Travel & Shopping Bronze for "Traveling Companions" in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Bonnie Smetts, Editors' Choice

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