The Brooch

I was ten, almost eleven
Free as a young bird
I walked down alleyways alone
Rode motorcycle samlors racing my brothers home
My father was the Chief of Staff, US Army JUSMAG

It was 1961
Bangkok, Thailand
A child’s Disney world
I remember water canals
Water snakes
Talking mynah birds
Leaping off roofs
Falling from trees
Taking on my Thai classmates defending the line

Then suddenly orders home
War in Laos
Trouble in Vietnam
One day my mother went to see Johnny’s Gems
Shady Johnny who sold jewels to Americans
Mom bought brass Buddha heads
From a ransacked temple
My brother fell ill, close to death
The house was packed ready to go
We were to meet the ship in Lisbon
But my brother lay dying

My mother awoke from a dream
Unpacked the Buddha heads, returned to Johnny
Bad juju, she told him
He understood and took them from her hands
By the time she got home
My brother had improved so much we could leave
We flew to Rome

First an audience with Pope John XXIV
Standing next to a pregnant Eartha Kitt
It was hard to pay attention.

It is August in Rome
Mom overwhelmed with eight young children
My brothers in the lobby staging fights to attract bets
She hands me five lire and tells me to
Go buy myself something
I walk for blocks moving farther from the hotel
My young eyes feasting on the ancient city
How different from Asia, from anywhere else

A department store calls me into its cool interior
To the jewelry counter
And there was the Brooch
Octagonal ebony cut glass surrounded by small stones
It is so beautiful it takes my breath away
But it is not for me
It is for my tired, stressed mother

I show the saleslady my five lire
I point to the Brooch
She says something in Italian and I shake my head
Shrug my shoulders, look vacant and uncomprehending
For my mother, I say
She sighs, understands the universal M word
She takes the Brooch from its case, wraps it in brown paper
Ties a string around the package
She hands it to me with a red-lipped smile
I am an ecstatic 10-year old girl with a special gift
Now I just need to find my way back to the hotel

I am lost
The cobbled streets all look the same
It’s hot, but the heat is not like the tropics
It is not wet leaving my skin coated with moisture
A taxi races to a screeching stop beside me

The door opens, and my father steps out
Mary Delia, he says, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.

This is our history together
I wander off, and he comes to find me
We look at each other in relief and happiness
Let’s go, he says, I want to show you something

My father hails a horse-drawn carriage
He lifts me up into the seat
Swings up beside me and waves his hand
The driver nods, and off we go
I listen as my father points out the birthday cake
The coliseum, the fountains, the statues
It is a long time before we stop
Perhaps this is his time away from everything

And a chance to revisit the city he liberated
On an overcast day in 1944
After years of fighting across Italy
Through mud, rain, scorching heat and snow
His men dying, his back shattered, his mind
Who knows
His battalion arrives in Rome
Occupied by the German army
He prepares for battle, but first walks into town
Gun drawn, surprised by the quiet, empty streets
Then out from a gated mansion steps a Nazi officer
Hands in the air, gun dangling from a finger
He surrenders the town to my father
The war is over

My father, the Colonel, knows this city
He stayed on afterward helping to clean up the mess
Now it is bustling, and he is enthralled by the changes
My father motions the driver to leave us on the corner
An Italian patisserie and we take seats at a small table
Let’s go all out, he says, order whatever you want.
But I am nothing if not my daddy’s little girl
We love the same sweet things

I order a Banana Split, and it arrives half a foot tall
Covered in real whipped cream
Three scoops of gelato, a new taste sensation
Bananas and nuts to add crunch and flavor
It melts fast in the heat, so we eat quickly
We sit together in a pleasurable silence
Just my father and me together
I intuit that this will not often happen in my life
We smile with each mouthful of the sweet cream
And share the last bite of banana soaked in chocolate

I am in Rome with my father
On a hot August afternoon
The glass Brooch is warm in the pocket of my shorts
It has brought me good luck with my father’s company
I am excited that soon I will share it with my mother
As we leave the Patisserie, he takes my hand
He opens his mouth and out comes Peg o’ My Heart
In his big Irish tenor
I stare at him in awe, the streets are empty
It is a concert for me alone
I do a little jig to show I am with him, hum a few bars
He gives me a smile and a wink to say this is our secret
And reluctantly we make our way back to the hotel