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A Hard Lesson in Life’s Limitations

A mother and daughter take one last trip to Italy

spinner image An illustration of a woman riding a bicycle in front of a 1950s house and car.
Illustration by Chris Lyons

My mother peers at me across the expanse of her first-class seat, a flute of champagne clutched in her hand and a bowl of warmed spiced nuts on the console between us. “First class isn’t what it used to be, I can tell you that,” Gogo says in her I’ve-smoked-two-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day-since-I-was-13 voice.

She flags the flight attendant for a bubbly refill, then sighs and shakes her head. “It used to be so nice,” she says.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” I point out.

Gogo shrugs and crams a fistful of nuts into her mouth.

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We’re on our way to Italy or, as my mother says in her Rhode Island accent, It-ly. The old country. The place where, 70 years after her grandparents immigrated to the United States, she and my father returned to live for several years. In other words, Gogo loves It-ly. So when my Italian publisher invited me there for a book tour, I knew I had to bring Gogo with me. Three days in Milan, three days in Florence. We would eat and shop and soak up all things Italian together.

My mother, however, was a terrible traveler. She inspected cutlery, glasses, toilets and tubs for dirt and stains. She didn’t like strong flavors or seasonings. She didn’t like to be kept waiting. Traveling with Gogo was exhausting. But if the hotel was clean, the food mild and the waits short, she loved nothing more than being somewhere, anywhere, with me. My brother had died more than 30 years earlier; my father, 15 years later. Our family had been just the two of us ever since, and as I married and had kids of my own, any time we could spend alone together was precious for both of us.

The flight attendant places our pasta course on our linen-draped tray tables. I hold my breath as Gogo lifts a forkful to her red-lipsticked lips. The only red sauce she likes is her own. Her face scrunches up in disgust. “Too salty,” she announces, and pushes the dish away.

She is dressed in her travel clothes: camel skirt, cashmere sweater, brown kitten heels, with the matching purse tucked under the seat in front of her. Gogo always matches her shoes and her purse — always. Perched on top of her head is a perfectly coiffed auburn wig. Back at home she has four more, all of them styled differently and lined up on mannequin heads on her bureau.

“Remember how wonderful first class used to be?” she asks me dreamily, though I know she doesn’t expect an answer. “Remember how they used to carve the chateaubriand right there at your seat?”

She is referring to the first time she ever flew first class, back in 1979, when I worked as a TWA flight attendant and took her and my father to San Francisco for her 48th birthday. An image comes to me of my parents, not even middle-aged yet, dressed in their travel clothes and striding onto the plane, my father easily lifting their bags into the overhead compartment. Another image crowds out that one: my mother needing a wheelchair to get to the plane this time. When she asked me to request one, I balked. “You can walk to the gate,” I told her. “It’ll just be faster,” she said, patting my hand.

Now, I study her face. She doesn’t look 80, I decide; she looks 70, 75 tops. Now it’s my turn to pat her hand.

“Love you, Gogo,” I whisper.

A smile stretches across her face. “Don’t get all sentimental,” she rasps. “I’m not dead yet.”


Feisty, fashion-forward mom

Growing up, I always had the youngest, most energetic mother. She liked to hop onto my bike and ride around the neighborhood in her capri pants and sneakers. She could easily bat a softball over the backyard fence. At the beach, she looked movie-star glamorous in her black one-piece bathing suit, oversize sunglasses and brightly patterned scarf tied under her chin, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She taught me and my brother to do “The Twist,” with a bath towel, and the cha-cha, following footprints on a special mat. She loved to beat us at everything from Crazy Eights to Monopoly, always shrieking with glee at her victories. “Some mothers give their kids a break when they play games,” I muttered once after she annihilated me in three successive games of gin rummy. “What’s the fun in that?” she asked.

spinner image Ann Hood's mother, Gogo, sitting in a chair holding a cigarette in a courtyard in Italy
Author Ann Hood relishes the memories she made in Italy with her mother, "Gogo."
Courtesy: Ann Hood

Then, in 2004, at the age of 73, after she played poker with her friends until 1 a.m., she took her trash out to the corner, wearing flip-flops, in the rain. Walking backward as she pulled the heavy trash can to the curb, she hydroplaned on the wet sidewalk and fell on her back in the middle of the road, breaking her hip. That was my first realization that my seemingly indestructible, salty, fun-loving mother was not indestructible. But people lived years and years after hip replacements, didn’t they?

I was relieved that the surgery didn’t seem to slow her down too much. But then she started experiencing extreme pain, and X-rays showed that the replacement had cracked. “We need to chip off the concrete around the hip,” the doctor explained. “As a smoker, that presents a good chance of a stroke.”

Gogo took a long drag on her cigarette and said, “No way are they going back in.”

By the time we landed in Milan a few years later, she walked with a cane most of the time. Even in first class on a fully reclined seat, she woke sore and stiff. A wheelchair met us at the airplane door, and as I watched her make her painful way into it a flash of concern cut through me. But this was Gogo, the woman her doctor liked to call the Energizer bunny.

“What are you looking at?” she said, waving her cane at me. “I’m hungry. Let’s go.”


Indulging, Italian-style

In between interviews and book signings in Milan, Gogo and I ate — a lot. Risotto cooked and served in a wheel of parmigiano. Tender ossobuco. Polenta with egg and cheese. For a surprise, on our last day in Milan, I booked a tour of the city’s highlights: the Duomo, a tour of the La Scala opera house and a visit to see Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” I thought a cloud crossed Gogo’s face when I brought her to the small bus, but surely she wanted to see these things, didn’t she? She hobbled into the Duomo, but at La Scala she found a seat on a bench and sat down. “I’ll just wait here,” she said. “You go.”

spinner image Ann Hood's mother, Gogo, raising a drink in a dark restaurant
Courtesy: Ann Hood

Looking back, I wish I had left the tour with her and gone for the pistachio gelato she so loved. Instead, I stomped off, angry. Angry at her, I thought then, for putting a damper on my surprise. But really, I was angry at time — for taking its toll on my mother — angry that she couldn’t walk across this piazza and around La Scala.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Florence the next day, she was ready to tackle the Ponte Vecchio and all the leather and paper goods shops nearby. I’d booked a room in an opulent old palazzo, and she loved the ornate furniture and fancy coffee service that arrived in the morning. We took it easy, sticking close to our hotel. No Uffizi or churches. This is OK, I told myself, walking slowly, arm in arm, with my mother. This is nice.

For our final night, I arranged a special dinner served on the palazzo rooftop. We took the elevator to the top floor, but from there we had to climb 20 steep steps to the roof. Gogo gritted her teeth and began the climb. At the top, candles flickered on our table and the lights of Florence twinkled below. With tears in her eyes, Gogo looked at me and said, “I don’t know if I can make it back down.”

She did, slowly, painfully, refusing my help. The next day, we were back on the plane, heading home.

“What a trip!” my mother said to me.

I agreed.

“Sweetie,” she said, taking my hand, “that’s the last trip I’m going on.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, fighting off what had been threatening to land in my heart this whole week. “I’m taking you to Hawaii this summer. You’ve always wanted to go there.”

She shook her head. “I’m done,” she said, and she put on her headphones, closed her eyes and ended the conversation.

“No, you’re not,” I said. “We’re going to Hawaii.”

She just smiled and patted my hand.

Over the next six years, Gogo’s hip grew worse, and her mobility continued to decline. Even so, whenever I looked at her, I saw her on my purple bicycle, white Keds pumping the pedals, letting go of the handlebars and flying down the hill, whooping with joy. I saw her smiling over a plate of risotto in Milan, buying leather handbags on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, grumbling in first class. Even now, three years after she died, I see her.


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