My sister's arrival in Rome a few days later helped nudge my attention away from lingering sadness over David and bring me back up to speed. My sister does everything fast, and energy twists up around her in miniature cyclones. She's three years older than me and three inches taller than me. She's an athlete and a scholar and a mother and a writer. The whole time she was in Rome, she was training for a marathon, which means she would wake up at dawn and run eighteen miles in the time it generally takes me to read one article in the newspaper and drink two cappuccinos. She actually looks like a deer when she runs. When she was pregnant with her first child, she swam across an entire lake one night in the dark. I wouldn't join her, and I wasn't even pregnant. I was too scared. But my sister doesn't really get scared. When she was pregnant with her second child, a midwife asked if Catherine had any unspoken fears about anything that could go wrong with the baby--such as genetic defects or complications during the birth. My sister said, "My only fear is that he might grow up to become a Republican."
That's my sister's name--Catherine. She's my one and only sibling. When we were growing up in rural Connecticut, it was just the two of us, living in a farmhouse with our parents. No other kids nearby. She was mighty and domineering, the commander of my whole life. I lived in awe and fear of her; nobody else's opinion mattered but hers. I cheated at card games with her in order to lose, so she wouldn't get mad at me. We were not always friends. She was annoyed by me, and I was scared of her, I believe, until I was twenty-eight years old and got tired of it. That was the year I finally stood up to her, and her reaction was something along the lines of, "What took you so long?"
We were just beginning to hammer out the new terms of our relationship when my marriage went into a skid. It would have been so easy for Catherine to have gained victory from my defeat. I'd always been the loved and lucky one, the favorite of both family and destiny. The world had always been a more comfortable and welcoming place for me than it was for my sister, who pressed so sharply against life and who was hurt by it fairly hard sometimes in return. It would have been so easy for Catherine to have
responded to my divorce and depression with a: "Ha! Look at Little Mary Sunshine now!" Instead, she held me up like a champion. She answered the phone in the middle of the night whenever I was in distress and made comforting noises. And she came along with me when I went searching for answers as to why I was so sad. For the longest time, my therapy was almost vicariously shared by her. I'd call her after every session with a debriefing of everything I'd realized in my therapist's office, and she'd put down whatever she was doing and say, "Ah . . . that explains a lot." Explains a lot about both of us, that is.
Now we speak to each other on the phone almost every day--or at least we did, before I moved to Rome. Before either of us gets on an airplane now, the one always calls the other and says, "I know this is morbid, but I just wanted to tell you that I love you. You know . . . just in case . . ." And the other one always says, "I know . . . just in case."
She arrives in Rome prepared, as ever. She brings five guidebooks, all of which she has read already, and she has the city pre-mapped in her head. She was completely oriented before she even left Philadelphia. And this is a classic example of the differences between us. I am the one who spent my first weeks in Rome wandering about, 90 percent lost and
100 percent happy, seeing everything around me as an unexplainable beautiful mystery. But this is how the world kind of always looks to me. To my sister's eyes, there is nothing which cannot be explained if one has access to a proper reference library. This is a woman who keeps The Columbia Encyclopedia in her kitchen next to the cookbooks--and reads it, for pleasure.
There's a game I like to play with my friends sometimes called "Watch This!" Whenever anybody's wondering about some obscure fact (for instance: "Who was Saint Louis?") I will say, "Watch this!" then pick up the nearest phone and dial my sister's number. Sometimes I'll catch her in the car, driving her kids home from school in the Volvo, and she will muse: "Saint Louis . . . well, he was a hairshirt-wearing French king, actually, which is interesting because . . ."
So my sister comes to visit me in Rome--in my new city--and then shows it to me. This is Rome, Catherine-style. Full of facts and dates and architecture that I do not see because my mind does not work in that way. The only thing I ever want to know about any place or any person is the story, this is the only thing I watch for--never for aesthetic details. (Sofie came to my apartment a month after I'd moved into the place and said, "Nice pink bathroom," and this was the first time I'd noticed that it was, indeed, pink. Bright pink, from floor to ceiling, bright pink tile everywhere--I honestly hadn't seen it before.) But my sister's trained eye picks up the Gothic, or Romanesque, or Byzantine features of a building, the pattern of the church floor, or the dim sketch of the unfinished fresco hidden behind the altar. She strides across Rome on her long legs (we used to call her "Catherine-of-the-Three-Foot-Long-Femurs") and I hasten after her, as I have since toddlerhood, taking two eager steps to her every one.
"See, Liz?" she says, "See how they just slapped that nineteenth-century facade over that brickwork? I bet if we turn the corner we'll find . . . yes! . . . see, they did use the original Roman monoliths as supporting beams, probably because they didn't have the manpower to move them . . . yes, I quite like the jumble-sale quality of this basilica. . . ."
Catherine carries the map and her Michelin Green Guide, and I carry our picnic lunch (two of those big softball-sized rolls of bread, spicy sausage, pickled sardines wrapped around meaty green olives, a mushroom pate that tastes like a forest, balls of smoked mozzarella, peppered and grilled arugula, cherry tomatoes, pecorino cheese, mineral water and a split of cold white wine), and while I wonder when we're going to eat, she wonders aloud, "Why don't people talk more about the Council of Trent?"
She takes me into dozens of churches in Rome, and I can't keep them straight--St. This and St. That, and St. Somebody of the Barefoot Penitents of Righteous Misery . . . but just because I cannot remember the names or details of all these buttresses and cornices is not to say that I do not love to be inside these places with my sister, whose cobalt eyes miss nothing. I don't remember the name of the church that had those frescoes that looked so much like American WPA New Deal heroic murals, but I do remember Catherine pointing them out to me and saying, "You gotta love those Franklin Roosevelt popes up there . . ." I also remember the morning we woke early and went to mass at St. Susanna, and held each other's hands as we listened to the nuns there chanting their daybreak Gregorian hymns, both of us in tears from the echoing haunt of their prayers. My sister is not a religious person. Nobody in my family really is. (I've taken to calling myself the "white sheep" of the family.) My spiritual investigations interest my sister mostly from a point of intellectual curiosity. "I think that kind of faith is so beautiful," she whispers to me in the church, "but I can't do it, I just can't . . ."
Here's another example of the difference in our worldviews. A family in my sister's neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, "Dear God, that family needs grace." She replied firmly, "That family needs casseroles," and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.
We walk out of St. Susanna, and she says, "Do you know why the popes needed city planning in the Middle Ages? Because basically you had two million Catholic pilgrims a year coming from all over the Western World to make that walk from the Vatican to St. John Lateran--sometimes on their knees--and you had to have amenities for those people." My sister's faith is in learning. Her sacred text is the Oxford English Dictionary. As she bows her head in study, fingers speeding across the pages, she is with her God. I see my sister in prayer again later that same day--when she drops to her knees in the middle of the Roman Forum, clears away some litter off the face of the soil (as though erasing a blackboard), then takes up a small stone and draws for me in the dirt a blueprint of a classic Romanesque basilica. She points from her drawing to the ruin before her, leading me to understand (even visually challenged me can understand!) what that building once must have looked like eighteen centuries earlier. She sketches with her finger in the empty air the missing arches, the nave, the windows long gone. Like Harold with his Purple Crayon, she fills in the absent cosmos with her imagination and makes whole the ruined.
In Italian there is a seldom-used tense called the passato remoto, the remote past. You use
this tense when you are discussing things in the far, far distant past, things that happened so long ago they have no personal impact whatsoever on you anymore--for example, ancient history. But my sister, if she spoke Italian, would not use this tense to discuss ancient history. In her world, the Roman Forum is not remote, nor is it past. It is exactly
as present and close to her as I am. She leaves the next day.
"Listen," I say, "be sure to call me when your plane lands safely, OK? Not to be morbid, but . . ."
"I know, sweetie," she says. "I love you, too."