In September of 1972, a little dizzy with new possibilities after the dissolution of my first marriage, I set off for Bergamo, Italy, to take a degree in Montessori Studies. Housing was the first challenge, as I had three young children and the two colleagues with me added seven more. We had decided to live together and share a nanny, a young woman from Brussels eager for an Italian adventure.
We found out about a villa for rent in the country, and what we discovered, when we arrived, was an 18th century castle once used as a military watch station. No matter that the inside was plain and practical; the exterior, with the lion of Venice medallioned on the face of the upper gallery-spoke to me of a place history had resided in, and still was host of, and we were to be its lucky guests.
We spent an unconventional year there– three women, ten children. Images return to me of all the shoes lined up in the stairway hall, the tiny extra bathroom where bunches of garlic hung from the ceiling, the dank, cold cellar we used as a refrigerator, the saddle of a blue mountain where the weather announced its intentions. It was a positive year, despite a couple of ski injuries, despite the tough academic work, despite, finally, the ghost.
The summer renters escaping from city heat knew about him. The shop owners I met in the village knew about him. The grandchildren of the landlords loved to talk in wavering voices about him. And our au pair left because of him.
The myth of Umberto, as I came to call him, told of a political prisoner of Venice and featured an escape tunnel he built and where his bones were said to be resting unhappily. The children banged a broomstick against all the floors in search of a hollow place that would indicate a tunnel. They pinpointed the bedroom I slept in.
We three students enjoyed and indulged the shenanigans about the ghost until the au pair came screaming to us. After nights of disturbance from him, exhausted, the girl departed. We never heard or saw the ghost as long as the full group lived there. But after the others left, I was acutely conscious of him.
I wasn’t ready to leave Italy. I taught, translated live lectures, and researched. And I lived with a ghost.
What is a ghost but a presence? But one of the voices we carry inside of us? But memory forcing itself to recognize something one has been insensate to? But a spirit embracing or frightening one in the dark? I figured it was a choice, how I interacted with Umberto. I named him my friend and protector and never felt fear of him. After all, there’s really no such thing as ghosts, right?
One night I woke to a palpable presence in the room and found that, as for Ebenezer Scrooge, it was the past come to call. I’ve learned that it always does. We can only set it aside for a period of time, not banish it with a flip of a wrist or a signature on a paper. No matter the reasons for leaving the first chapter of a nearly adult life behind, shrugging and saying how easy it had been, how quickly he’d agreed–I’d hurt him when I might have had the wisdom to help; I’d confused my children, who sometimes wondered if I’d leave them, too, who showed stress in ways I’d tried to brush off as normal; I’d devastated my in-laws; worried my own parents. I’d put myself first. I know the decision was best in a hundred ways, but it wasn’t an act to dismiss lightly. Whatever came out of the dark to awaken me took my hand and led me to honesty, fairness, and a chance at real adulthood. I paid attention.
We are lucky if we have ghosts, I’ve written in a poem. Mothers, fathers, old loves, the aroma of espresso and baking bread. Our own voices combine with the voices of those who’ve helped to form us, urging us on in the dark to be what they have imagined we could be: like the ghosts of Dr. Aden, Mr. Lancaster, that geology-lab partner who taught me to look at details, the Professors Sutton in France, and the view of a farmhouse across a yellow field that pointed me toward a life of art. These are my good ghosts.