When my sixteen year-old-daughter, Lily, was away for five months in Rome, living with a host madre, padre,and sorella (sister), I – her real mom, was forced to learn parenting via email. Not an easy task. It was an exercise in long distance mothering without smothering. In the beginning our emails went something like this:
Feb. 1st: Rules
Come on, Lily. I know you’ll have no problems going along with their rules – remember Rome is a big city, with way more foreigners in it than Calgary. (You can’t trust those pesky foreigners).
I loved hearing your impressions of Italy when you called – the shutters, the vespas, the big ancient door key. Have you had real Italian gelato yet?
My friends are taking me out for lunch and I think the reason is ‘since I must miss you’. Which of course, I do, but I will be just fine about it. You are on a great adventure. Catch up on your sleep.
And in turn there were days when Lily wrote me emails like this:
Feb. 5 subject: wanted to hide away
Mom, I can feel myself getting terribly sad just thinking of how to write this email. I’ll try not to elaborate too much – this morning my host mom took me to my school to give them some documents and I had to try to speak Italian with a couple of my new teachers. By the time we got back to this home I was feeling so homesick for my real home because it’s so scary having to pretty much start my life all over like this.
By this afternoon I was wishing that I could just hide away until this starts being fun, but obviously it doesn’t work like that.
As time passed the tone of the almost daily emails were hard to predict and responses challenged my creativity:
March 1st subject: so uncomfortable
Mama – tonight my host mother asked me how things are going with Julia, my host sister. Talk about a touchy subject. Though she doesn’t talk too much, I don’t think there’s a huge problem between Julia and I. But she really doesn’t want to go out with me and discover Rome. We are sweet to each other in passing (how was your day – fine. Good night – sweet dreams. Could you grab me an umbrella – sure.) But honestly she just wants to stay home or hang at her friends. What am I supposed to do about that?
Your bambina, Lily
March 1st subject: mothers hey?
Lily, I guess I see your point. But I also know you are mature enough to see that sometimes politeness will need to come before independence, so that you do not seem to snub them by setting off on your own continually.
It’s March! You’ve been a Canadian in Italy for more than a month. You can figure out the right amount of time to ‘hang’ with Julia. I know you can.
My favorites were the ones that gave me a giggle and rolled along like this:
April 5: Subject: Just Clumping Around
Mom, I’m so tired of seeing American girls walking around this city in these beautifully put together outfits when I’m just clumping my way around with my messy hair and dirty shoes and lumpy hoodie, looking for that clean creative look every girl but me has. Then sometimes I just stop dead in my tracks and wonder if it even matters, if I’d be happier just to go home and climb in bed and fill my already cluttered head with more teachings of Nietzsche.
April 3 subject: what of Italian boys
Why don’t you get Julia to recommend a salon and let them trim your hair so that it is even and blunt – that was one of the best cuts you ever had – you know like in the photo with Santa I keep on my dresser. Now that you aren’t nine – it would look dramatic on you.
Be brave. Comb your hair. Throw your shoulders back and go right up to that boy you like and ask him a question. Try out your Italian. See if he answers.
love you, Mom
And I tended to dread the ones near the end that made my palms sweat:
June 13th Subject : I need to vent
Mom, I miss you being my mom sooooooo much. It is so difficult with my host mom sometimes. Okay, so there was this stupid immersion program get together in the basement of a community hall – the idea was for myself, and the other four girls who were placed in Rome, to talk about our impressions of the program in front of this big group of Roman kids who are about to do immersion programs all over the world.
So we all said something and then they called everyone’s host family’s up and asked the families if they had anything to say. My host mom told everyone- all these Italian kids, all their parents, all the other host families, and all the volunteers, about how it was so hard for her and Julia to get used to having me in the house because Julia had just got back from her immersion in Brazil. She made it sound like I was homesick and distraught all the time, but with the help of the wonderful volunteers they managed to overcome all that inconvenience I caused. I was just standing there in awe rubbing my forehead as she went on and on and on, making everyone think I was some kind of disaster, using me as a precautionary tale to all the embarking young students. After all that, when we were leaving she told me she thinks I might have I gotten fatter in the time I’ve been here.
Well, I’ll be gone soon. Lily
June 13th subject: oh Lily baby
If ever there were a time to stay calm and try your hardest to get along – this would be it.
You’ll be back here so soon. I have to think that you are with good people there, but five months has been a long time for all of you, especially with the language barrier. Just a few more weeks and hopefully you can leave with fond memories, and you’ll have succeeded at what so many kids your age would never attempt.
Love you Sweetie Pie, Mom
ps. Honey – who knows what was really going on?
Until finally we arrived at this:
June 24 Subject: stiff upper lip
It is one of those Junes where it rains every day – so it’s green and lush like spring, not hot summer. I’m dusting and vacuuming your room and washing your sheets and there is an air here of anticipation of your return. Love you so much my Lily. Love you to the moon. Mom
June 24 subject: not the moon
Hung out with friends last night, but tonight I need to be alone. I’m going to go watch the sunset by piazza venezia. I have enough things to do now because I’m doing my last times.
Tonight will be my last night in Rome. I’m realizing a lot of truths about my time here. I want to be mad at Rome because being mad at it is emotionally easier than being heartbroken to leave it, which in all actuality, I am.
After dinner I’ll walk around Trastevere and go up to GIanicolo to look over the city. It’s better to say goodbye to all of it at once.
Ciao, Mama, Lily