This morning I got a message, around 5:35, that my friend Mary had passed away. Her cancer had metastasized and got her. Thankfully, she had good care and died peacefully.
I lay there unable to sleep. I was thinking about Mary’s spirit, wondering if it was wandering. So I decided to take her to Venice.
Mary loved Venice. The first time either of us went there was together, when I (as a teacher) chaperoned students on a trip and Mary came along. She later returned with others and rented an apartment for a while. Last summer she told me she wished she could go again, but she was too sick to make the trip.
So we started at Bar Tiziano, having a spritz. That’s a good way to start any time in Venice. Claudio and Beppi were there and brought us our spritz Aperol and set out the dish of potato chips. Mary smiled the whole time and sipped at her drink. But we had lots of places to go.
We went around the corner and down the dogleg alley to emerge into Campiello del Remer. The trattoria was open (it had to be for Mary), and of course there was a crazy hair guy playing piano. Something that sounded like Tom Waits meets Paolo Conte meets Serge Gainsbourg. Mary was loving the candles in the wall niches and the cistern in the entry way. Pirates made special Bellinis for us.
By this time we needed food, so we headed to the cicchetteria. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s down the street past Campo San Lio if you’re going towards Marco Polo’s house. We stood at the bar and looked at all the crazy cicchetti in the case. Boiled egg with olives and anchovies on top, bruschetta with unknown stuff smeared on it, and of course some sardine in saor. Mary wrinkled up her nose but tried everything.
We were so close to Enoteca Boldrin that we had to go by for fragolino. Lori, the owner, was there and poured the fragolino bianco for us. We’re lucky it’s the right time of year for the new harvest. He showed Mary his sailing trophies, and she looked at all the dusty bottles of wine on the shelves.
All this alcohol! Must need coffee to wake up. So we went to my go-to place, Caffe Brazilia on the Strada Nova. Mary had stayed at an apartment near hear, so I guessed that she might know this place and want to see it again. Her artist eye noticed the espresso cups and saucers lined up on the counter in yellow, orange, blue, and green, waiting to be filled with coffee.
That great gelato place was nearby, so we got our gelato. I couldn’t decide between stracciatella or anguria and went with the watermelon since it reminded me of summer. But I realized that I didn’t know Mary’s favorite gelato flavor. Is this the kind of thing you should know about your friends? We took our cones down the little alley to the pier that juts into the Grand Canal and sat on the rough wood. We watched the light change colors on the water’s surface while we ate our gelato from little spoons, till everything looked silver.
The Ca’ d’Oro was so close, so we popped in. I thought Mary might want to see the weird sculptures of saints’ lives, but instead she wanted to stand on the balcony and look out at the Grand Canal. When I looked over at her, she was suddenly wearing a brocade dress in 15th century style. She gazed at the rich blue fabric and the patterns in the cloth but said it really wasn’t for her.
Then down the Strada Nova all the way to the Ghetto. I knew Mary would like to see Tony Green’s artwork, and he had some of his Venice and his New Orleans paintings in a gallery there. As Mary studied Tony’s work, I looked at her and thought about what a talented artist she is. Way back in college she painted a ballerina in blue for me. More recently, she saw me admiring her encaustic painting with a gondola on it. So she made a sister piece for me with the Grand Canal and the Salute on it. It hangs in my kitchen. (I just looked at it now, with the morning light hitting it.) So then I took Mary to see Tony’s apartment and studio in the Ghetto Vecchio. It had canvases leaning against the walls and tubes of paint on the tables. Mary looked around and said, “If I had another life, I would have a studio in Venice with canvases leaning against the walls and tubes of paint on the tables.”
But this reminded me of Mary’s other love–jewelry. So we hopped the boat to Murano so she could shop for glass beads. Her favorite shop was there. She wanted to spend hours there poking through the drawers and bins of beads, the silvers and blues, greens and purples and golds. We were the only ones there, and the shopkeeper brought her trays of special things to look at. She was in heaven.
I thought Mary had been to the Guggenheim, but I wasn’t sure if she had been to Ca’ Pesaro, so we went there next. The Klimts caught her eye with the cascading colors and gold leaf. And then we went into the room full of sculptures by Adolfo Wildt. Since she was a spirit, Mary got to touch them and rub her hands all over the smooth stone, into the crevices and folds Wildt had created. We had to visit the Giacometti, and I told Mary how I like to have my picture taken next to the skinny Giacometti sculptures, so she posed next to it and put a look on her face like she was a skinny Giacometti too.
Time for food. Pizza at La Perla or Ae Oche? La Perla, so we could have the pizza with strawberries and balsamic reduction. She rolled her eyes with pleasure at tasting it.
Time for a gondola ride next. We walked back to Santa Sofia, and all the gondoliers gathered around Mary to kiss her cheeks and hands and tell her how beautiful she is. “Che bella,” they said. Stefano got us settled in his gondola and took us through the canals of Canareggio out to the lagoon by San Michele. Mary slipped over the side and swam around in the dark water. Swimming is effortless when you’re a spirit. “It’s kind of cold,” she said, wiping water from her hair, and she climbed back into the boat.
“We have to go to the Piazza San Marco one last time,” Mary said. So we went there next and got a table at Florian. We drank flutes of prosecco while the band played that song from Summertime that Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi fell in love to. Even though it isn’t Carnevale time, I had the kitchen make galani for us, and the powered sugar got all over our clothes. Then I pulled out a bag of confetti and pelted Mary. She jumped up and started throwing more back at me, and the confetti war began until she had it in her hair and down her shirt and she had to spit it off her lips. Orange and white and yellow confetti covered us, the tables, the chairs, the prosecco glasses, and the cobblestones.
We went into the Basilica San Marco then. It was full nighttime by now. I filled every nave and nook with candles till the flickering light danced off the gold tiles all around Mary. She stood in the middle of the church, and I hugged her one last time and said goodbye. I left her there while she soaked up the splendor.
(BTW, the title of this blog is an homage to a song by Dirty Three called “Sue’s Last Ride,” about their friend Sue who died.)