Friday, May 31, 2013

In my Grandmother's Footsteps

by Sheila Connolly

When you read this, I will be in Italy, if all goes as planned.  And for once, I didn't have to do the planning—this is a trip for a group of us who were in the same college class, proposed a year ago at one of those milestone reunions.  Two classmates who have access to villas and vineyards and good things like that are doing all the organizing; all I have to do is show up.  No spouses or significant others allowed.  I feel like I'm walking into a Lifetime network movie.

I always knew I wanted to go to Europe, thanks mainly to my grandmother.  As I've mentioned before, she was orphaned young, and anything she achieved in life she did through her own efforts.  She ended up in upper management at Lipton Tea Company in New York in the 1950s, which was a pretty significant achievement in those days.

She was "encouraged" to retire in 1958, when she wasn't even sixty.  Her long-time mentor was retiring, and a new administration was coming in, so she had little choice.  But the company gave her a nice parting gift:  a luxury trip to Europe.  This was defined as a working trip:  she had been instrumental in assembling a collection of tea-related antique silver items for the Lipton Collection, and she was asked to take it on the road to the capitals of Europe that summer. 

And they put her up in style!  She took the Queen Elizabeth (the first) one way, the Queen Mary the other.  She had a driver in each country.  All her rooms were booked for her, all meetings scheduled, all appointments made. All she had to do was be there and be charming, which she did well.

And of course she sent postcards to my mother, my sister and me.  We dutifully kept them and put them all in an album, which I still have, so I can reconstruct the trip.  If we assembled it right, she started in London (not surprising, since most of the silver pieces were English in origin), and the first postcards are of the guards at Buckingham Palace, in late June of 1958.  Then Holland (yes, colored postcards of cute little Dutch girls wearing wooden clogs), Lake Lucerne, and on into Italy—Florence, Rome, Venice (lots of postcards from Venice—she must have liked it!), and finally Paris, by way of the chateaux of the Loire Valley.  The trip took a month.

Then she joined us at our rented house on the Jersey shore, laden with souvenirs—I still have some of the little soaps and tiny perfume bottles she brought me, tucked in a trunk in the attic.

Her trip had a tremendous impact on me.  I knew early that I wanted to follow in her footsteps (only more than just once!), and ended up majoring in art history so I'd have a professional excuse to do it.  It was fun traveling as a starving student back in those days, when you could get a prix-fixe three-course meal for less than five dollars, and a hotel room in the country might cost you ten.  Renting a car (a Deux Chevaux which sounded like a lawn mower and had about as much power) was the big splurge, but it enabled me to see out-of-the-way places and small towns, and actually talk to people.  So I visited all the sites (except for Holland) that matched the long-ago postcards from my grandmother, and much more.  And later I took my mother and my daughter (together) on the same trip through France.

For a while life got in the way, so there was a decade or more without any grand trips, but now I'm making up for lost time.  And forty years after my first (and only) visit to Florence, I'm going back, to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi and Michelangelo's David—and the extraordinary gelato! My first visit was with a college classmate, so it's fitting that the next one should be as well, except that this time there will be thirty of us, and drivers.  And the better part of a lifetime of accumulated wisdom so I can appreciate what I only glanced at before.

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