family

Home for the Holidays

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Growing up, the most sleepless night of the year was always Christmas Eve. The festivities would begin with Church at First Baptist in the afternoon, and even though I sang terribly, I would belt out the hymns like one of the Herald Angels. For weeks before I would play What Child is This and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear ad nauseum on the piano, but Silent Night was always my favorite during service. I loved turning the candles into miniature wax sculptures, taking the flame of my cousin Megan’s and softening my own, shaping it into a bracelet or a candy cane or dripping the melted wax onto my arm for that hurt-so-good sensation.

After celebrating the birth of Jesus in proper fashion, the gang would relocate to my family’s house. It included my brother, my grandparents, my Aunt Mary and Uncle Pat, their children (usually all four of them, until life turned corners), and my Aunt Marty before she died. My dad always came to Church with us, but sometimes my mom would have to stay home and finish cooking. Dinner for 12 was no easy task, especially with rugrats zipping in and out of the kitchen sneaking morsels of food.

The menu was the same every year – coconut crusted chicken stuffed with cranberries, green beans, mashed potatoes, steamed cranberry pudding with butter rum sauce. And if it hadn’t been for the needling anticipation of opening presents immediately after, it would have beat out Thanksgiving as my favorite meal. But that itching desire to find out the contents of those carefully wrapped boxes proved too much to bear- I would wolf my food down in a minute flat.

For Christmas Eve, we only opened the gifts from the guests in attendance (excluding our own parents- those we saved until the big day.) But since my grandparents always spoiled us with wonderful gifts, the nightly unwrapping was usually just as good as the morning. We would open one at a time, starting with the youngest and moving to the oldest.*

Finally, when all of the wrapping paper had been piled high between the couches, we would head back into the dining room for games if time allowed. I liked Scattergories the most. The laughter over my grandfather’s challenges to my cousin Dan would fill the entire house with a warmth unmatched by any fireplace.

The evening should have exhausted me, and it did, but it was still not enough to overcome the excitement of the next morning. I would lay in bed staring at the ceiling for what felt like hours, while visions of Skittles and My Little Ponies and American Girl doll clothes danced in my head. At some point I would drift off for a few hours, but the beckoning call of Santa’s stocking assured I would be up with the sunrise.

We had our tradition Christmas morning as well, just the four of us, opening stockings first, then once again going around carefully unwrapping and savoring one gift at a time. We would finish sometime around 10 or 11, and then head into the kitchen for waffles or pancakes or dutch babies, or some other carb-laden food slathered in sweet syrup. I loved this tradition. I still love this tradition. But things change. Nothing ever stays the same.

* * * * *

For the first time in my life, I did not sleep under the same roof as my parents over Christmas. I did not open any presents on Christmas Eve, nor go to Church with them.** We still opened presents together Christmas morning, and had our wonderful coconut crusted chicken dinner with 12 people that night featuring Scattergories and several bottles of wine (a new addition to the tradition for the kids). But I fell asleep and woke up next to a boy, in a house with his family.

While it felt strange to be splitting the time between families, especially since the relationship is in that remarkable stage of infancy, it also somehow felt right. I don’t mean that I want to buck the traditions of my own family, because like I said, I love them, and they will be in my life forever. But being with him, experiencing another family’s Christmas, I realized how ready I am to start creating my own traditions.

In a lot of ways, I still feel like a child, especially around the holidays, when remembrances of the past flood in and overwhelm the senses. But the truth is I’m 29 years old, and while I never want to stop being childlike, I’m very much an adult. I could feel it at Christmas Eve, when the boy’s best friend’s 18 month old son clung to my chest, attempting to feed me an apple, giggling at his own flirtatious ways, triumphantly sounding out my name. When we got back to the house, he was allowed to open a present, the only one to do so, and I wondered if I would be seeing his smiling face again next year. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Growing up can be painful, and the holidays can often exacerbate it. History and Hallmark create expectations. The coming of the New Year reminds us of all those that have past, of things that have changed, people we have lost. But it can also be beautiful. With each death a rebirth, with each cycle of life comes new meaning. I witnessed this over and over again this last year, and it’s continued to deepen my appreciation for this life. It’s all a process. Who knows what 2015 will bring, or what will happen with the boy, or where I’ll be next Christmas, but I’m ready to find out.

Happy New Year Everyone!

*I think this spotlight on each individual present may have turned me into the gift giver I am today. I love coming up with super specialized unique presents, ones from the heart.

**Even though I’ve been agnostic for a decade, I still enjoy Christmas services. A bittersweet nostalgia for beliefs lost and found.

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A Day of Gratitude

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A slightly misaligned hip joint. A date that showed up an hour late. An acting role that went to a blonde. A man that laid on his horn and swore in traffic. A few extra pounds from the summer that just won’t come off. These are the kinds of frustrations and disappointments that occur in my daily life. Small but real incidences that I react to, that I let get under my skin.

I worry about the cost of a night guard for my teeth ($500), and how much I should spend on new headshots ($400? $700? $1000?). I struggle with the hangover from hell welcoming me into my 29th year, and bemoan the fact that I still have acne. I kick myself for opening up to a guy too fast, and then scaring him away. I cry in bed for several hours at least once a month, unable to control my feminine hormones. I think about death – my own, my parents, my friends, strangers I’ve never met – but it’s still mostly a hypothetical. I’ve never watched anyone die.

For all of these things, I am grateful.

* * * * *

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been sitting a lot with three different stories. The first is that of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal with the best sniper record in US military history. He was killed by a fellow veteran in 2013. I saw Clint Eastwood’s film version of the book written by Kyle and two others, American Sniper, at a screening by myself. I’ve never been good with war films, but I found this one particularly difficult. The seemingly senseless nature of the war in Iraq, the effects of PTSD on ordinary living, Kyle’s inability to connect with his wife and enjoy simple moments with his children. I thought of that oft said quote, “war changes men.” And then after a hard fought struggle to overcome the traumas of war, the tragic ending. I’m still grappling with it.

The second story also deals with war and its ramifications, this time from the perspective of an Australian doctor working on the Thai-Burma Death Railway during World War II. Although a fictional account, Richard Flanagan tackles a very real piece of history in his Booker prize winning “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” A history I’d never even heard of. I’ve been reading it slowly, in small increments. Partly because the writing deserves to be fully taken in, fully absorbed, partly because I find the circumstances of the prisoners almost impossible to deal with. Theirs was a life so cruel, so incredibly inhumane and punishing, that just the words on the page have given me nightmares.

Finally, the third story is that of Lydia, a beautiful Latin American girl in her early 30s who got married last summer. Upon returning to Los Angeles from her magical wedding in her hometown of Santiago de Cuba, she learned that cancer had spread from her uterus to her spine and up to her brain. Some doctors gave her three weeks, others three months. But she’s determined to beat it. And if anyone can, it’s Lydia. I got the honor of celebrating her father’s birthday with her and her family. He had never even been on a plane before coming to Los Angeles.

* * * * *

As I get ready to celebrate another Thanksgiving with my happy, healthy family, in a comfortable Southern California home filled with love and laughter and all of the comforts of a middle class American lifestyle, there are no words for the gratitude I feel. For my mother. For my father. My friends. My lovers. My career. My two legs and ten fingers. The food in my fridge. The classes I have the privilege of attending: acting, improv, Soulcycle, SFactor. My ability to read and write and communicate what I feel. The sun that greets me every morning through my rust colored curtains. Or the clouds or the rain. Just the morning at all. I am a strong, 29 year-old white female living in Los Angeles in 2014. My life has been so blessed.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how fortunate I am. I wish I could say that I live every moment in a state of gratitude, but too often I find myself slipping into negative thought patterns. I get upset over a parking ticket, or a common cold, or a bitter email criticizing my work. But in moments like these, I just need to remember Chris Kyle and all those who’ve fought in war. The tens of thousands of men who died building a seldom talked about railway, and all of the others who live without freedom or rights. Lydia, and the millions who fight daily for their lives, against a sentence given much too soon.

In my acting class, we talk a lot about “last time-ness,” that somewhat morbid experience of seeing things for the final time. Like a convict on death row receiving his last meal. While it would be exhausting to always live in that space, really considering it can give profound meaning to the littlest things. The grass, the sky, that Starbucks coffee, the song on the radio, even the guy angrily honking his horn. Imagine for a second truly experiencing each of these things for the very last time. Powerful, right?

It’s easy to get annoyed with the holidays. The expensive flights home, the rocky familial relationships, the horrifying commercialization of practically every aspect, the mashed potatoes that have gone cold while waiting for all of the loud shrieking kids to get through the line first. But this Thanksgiving, I’m going to appreciate every moment like its my last. Because even if its (hopefully!) not, my life deserves to be treated with that level of gratitude.

Home

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During the London Olympics of 2012, while other people were cheering on Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, my mother was busy discovering an American Idol winner – Phillip Phillips. His game changing song from that competition, “Home,” had been usurped by NBC as the official theme of the Games. The earthy tone of his voice, the heartfelt lyrics, my mom couldn’t help but be swept off her feet and over to her local library to borrow a copy of his CD. She uploaded the music onto her iPod, and began playing the summer anthem in a never-ending loop on her morning hike.

A year later, amidst the aftermath of a taxing break up, I received a phone call one day from my mom crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she’d been listening to “Home.” My initial instinct was to laugh – the thought of my 57 year old mother crying over an Idol was pretty priceless – but then she said she’d been envisioning me. She knew Aaron, my ex, hadn’t been the right guy for me, but she was desperately wanting me to find a loving, supportive partner. “I’ve been praying for your future husband,” she said, “for a man who will say those things to you.”

As sappy as this all might sound (especially to a non-believing feminist like myself), my mom’s words hit me hard. If I’m being completely honest, I had watched that season of American Idol with my ex and I had cried during Phillip’s win and preceding victory song. While the whole show is designed to bring the audience to tears (“My parents died and I became a prostitute to feed my 9 brothers and sisters”), it wasn’t the perfect camera angle on the singer’s tear-stricken face, nor the utter delight of his friends and family that had moved me on the couch that night. No, it was the song. The simple, haunting, beautiful “Home.”

When I think of the word home, the first image that pops in my mind is the house I grew up in. It was a beautiful two story craftsman overlooking the bluff in Portland, Oregon. My parents had bought it for dirt cheap (it was in a low-income neighborhood), and renovated it, restoring its 1930s charm. One of my earliest memories is of the day they got the keys to the house, and I ran up the stairs and into the master bedroom. The realtor had left a giant white teddy bear in it, and four year old me exclaimed loudly “My room!” And so it was.
We lived in that house on Willamette Blvd. until I turned 16. The housing market was booming, and my parents turned a large profit on the sale, buying another fixer in a much more desirable neighborhood. Two years later, they turned that home for a profit, and bought yet another, much larger fixer, and thus began their later in life careers as house flippers. They now live in Rancho Mirage in a chic single story mid-century with a sweeping view of the mountains. While they own several rental properties now in the desert, they intend on staying in this house for a long time. It’s become home.

When people ask me where I’m from, “where home is,” I find it difficult to answer. Even though my childhood house is the first thing I think of, Portland no longer feels quite like home. My parents have left, my brother’s in transition, my few high school friends I keep in contact with our dispersed across the globe. The only thing keeping me anchored in the Northwest are my grandmother and my memories. According to my cell phone, home is technically my parent’s place in Rancho Mirage. Every time they phone me from the landline there, it shows up on my caller ID as just that – “Home.” And in some ways, that’s correct. But, after living in my Los Angeles bungalow for over seven years now, my place in Hollywood certainly feels like home, too. Especially after a month or two of traveling abroad, which I’m prone to do annually, I usually can’t wait to get home to my charming one bedroom guest house. (Except for the summer I lived in Paris – for me, that city strangely feels like home as well).

The point is, while all of these ideas of home are tied to a place – the house in Portland, my parent’s place in Rancho Mirage, my Los Angeles abode – the actual concept of home is far more abstract. And that’s what Phillip Phillips song has captured so beautifully. The main verse, the one my mom wants a man to say to me, reads “Just know you’re not alone, I’m gonna make this place your home.” Although he uses the word place, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t matter where in the world he and his love are, it will be home. As that old adage beaten to death by kitschy wall ornaments and Christmas tunes goes, home is where the heart is.

As I write this, I am still single, and have yet to find a man singing Phillip Phillips songs to me. But unlike my mom, I’m not really worried about it. While I look forward to meeting that special someone and creating my own family someday, I take comfort knowing I’ve always had a place to call home.

Portland: Now and Then and Later

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When I left Portland ten years, two months, and twenty four days ago, I could have cared less if I ever returned. I mean that rhetorically, because my parents still lived in the city of roses and I had just booked a film which I would be returning to shoot only a couple of weeks later, but regardless, I flew down the I5 like a bat out of grey-clouded hell. I was so ready for my new life as an actress and college student to begin in LA that I literally left the day after I graduated from Lincoln High School. I had had enough rain and green and clean air for one lifetime. Bring on the glittery smog and the land where stars are in the street instead of the sky!

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to escape my childhood – I had been very happy in my single digit and teen years – but rather that there was so much else I wanted to do. I had experienced the Great Outdoors, grown tired of seeing the same buildings while riding Trimet, gotten bored of doing the same bridge runs, drinking the same awesome coffee, smelling all those damn flowers and pine trees. There were 49 other states, 196 odd countries, 7 billion more people beyond the perimeter of my hometown. I had big dreams, Huge Dreams, and they did not include a minute longer in worn-out, thread-bare Portland. The city had reached its expiration date in The Book of Amy, and I was beyond thrilled to begin Chapter 2: Los Angeles.* No looking back, no strings attached.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I started packing last Wednesday for Portland and felt genuine, schoolgirl-esque excitement. It had been five years since my parents had moved down to Rancho Mirage, California, and consequently five years since I had returned to Oregon. I had scarcely even thought about my hometown over the past decade, except when people asked me where I’d grown up (and of course when Portlandia debuted on IFC.) But over the last few months, Portland had been on my mind more and more, mostly as a result of all the reflecting I was doing while writing.

In following Rilke’s advice, I had been probing my childhood, “that jewel beyond all price,” while stuck in Writer’s Block Prison, and spent hours digging up memories from the past, flipping back the pages and mining the text of my life for further meaning. I had stumbled on people from high school, my childhood best friend, my grandfather, moments with my mom and dad, flashes of joy and pain and juvenile angst. I had unearthed an early sexual experience with repercussions I had previously left undefined, and struggled to see those long gone years through a more highly developed lens. The clincher was reading Niall Williams’ exquisite History of the Rain, a meandering novel narrated by the fictional Ruth Swain chronicling her family history in another water-logged part of the world: Ireland. I suddenly felt desperate to return to my rainy roots and see it the way Ruth saw her small town Faha, with humor and insight and poetry. I had to get back to Portland. I got online and booked a flight.

* * * * *

It’s a weird feeling, being a stranger in the city you grew up in. In some ways I was prepared for it – after all, I knew how much I’d changed. I’m a true California girl now, an honorary LA native having achieved my ten year (terrible pun). But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much Portland had changed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, having read and heard about the city’s thriving culture, yet I was. That first evening out on the East Side, driving alone on the way to meet my brother, I felt a rush of emotion: these were the same streets as my youth, but they felt so different. Burnside was peppered with new restaurants and bars, filled with throngs of 20 something hipsters enjoying craft brews and adventurous bites. I’d run up and down this street hundreds of time and never remembered it being this… cool. I felt a sudden fondness for my hometown, but also a disconnect. As I tasted IPAs at a local brewery less than a mile from the house I’d lived in during high school, I felt like a tourist. I was a tourist.

Over the next several days, I experienced a bizarre combination of nostalgia and novelty. From the runs I took to the places I ate to the people I saw, everything reflected this dichotomy of old and new. I’d never been in Gabriel Park before, and that first morning run the ground felt alive and the forest enchanted as I wound my way through literal backyard trails. A couple of days later I ventured down to the Waterfront to cover old cross country ground, and my mind flooded with memories with each pedestrian bridge lane, each piece of street art, OMSI. I made my way up to my high school, and the building – empty for summer – came alive with my old classmates. There was Lydia, running across the quad at the end of freshman year, Lauren and Stephanie with their Boyd’s coffee cups in the crosswalk, the quarterback I unfortunately had a thing for in his letterman jacket. It felt surreal, another lifetime ago, like I may have dreamt it. But no, there was the statue of Lincoln on the second floor, there were the dressing rooms where I transformed for my theatrical debut, there was Matt Groening’s sidewalk carving of Bart Simpson I hadn’t made up. It was real. It had happened.

Or maybe it hadn’t. Eating lunch over in NE Portland on Williams there was almost no trace of the past. Gentrification had rendered the once impoverished and dangerous neighborhood trendy and fashionable. The process was so complete that there was even a New Seasons welcoming baby-toting yuppies. Were it not for the 4 bus rambling along the street I may not have believed that this was the same highly suspect route I used to take home from school everyday. But it was, and if the meal we had at Tasty & Sons was any indication of the quality of the new no-longer-ghetto hood, I was 100% on board. Let bygones be bygones. (On the other hand, not a single thing has changed since 1969 at The Stockpot Broiler, my grandmother’s go-to restaurant, not even the clientele.)

Meetings with old friends and family dug up even more of the past, while also illuminating just how different our lives now were. Mikie and I reminisced about Monopoly and Now & Laters and camping at Bench Lake, while I oohed and awed over her two beautiful daughters. Sarah and Ashley and I gossiped about senior year boyfriends, while marveling at how much we had all been through, how little we knew of our current selves. Hanging out with my brother and his friends, I hardly recognized him, and yet I’d spent more of my life in his company than anyone else’s, save my parents.** Not even my grandmother, that stalwart of tradition, failed to surprise me, as we chatted with her 94 year old boyfriend. What a difference a decade makes! From the native to the tourist, the old paths to the new trails, the classic salmon to the Burmese Red Pork Stew, the infants to the nonagenarians- I relished in the blended realities of the past and present.

* * * * *

Driving down Sunset Blvd this morning past the 405 and UCLA, I thought about what I had learned. Had I had a Ruth Swainian, Rilke-like, earth-shattering realization about the meaning of my life after my five days in Portland? Probably not. But what I can say is I no longer feel the same sort of self-imposed distance from it that I did before. If I once needed to separate my identity from Portland to prove to myself that I was a Big City girl with Big Dreams and Big Ideas, I’ve grown out of it. I’m no more defined by Portland that it is defined by me. I’ve shed those old judgments and that adolescent perspective and can finally see the city for what it is: pretty frickin’ awesome. And weird. And green. And a formative part of me. And some place I’ll almost certainly never live again, but am sure to keep visiting (and seeing anew) again and again.***

* Or maybe it’s Chapter 3, since I was born in Everett. Or Chapter 4, because there were those couple years in Thailand. And then there was Seattle, so maybe Los Angeles is Chapter 5? But then again, it’s not like I changed that much there in the beginning, so– Ah, who knows, it could all change in the final edit.
** The good news is I like him a lot more now. The bad news is now I hardly ever see him.
*** I will live in Portland if Chris Pine wants me to. Or if I become a series regular on Grimm. Or if global warming reverses the 9 months of cloud coverage and 50 degree weather.

The Impact of Trains, and other Memories

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My grandfather loved trains. He loved trains, the Oregon State Beavers, Sierra Club, and keeping journals. He wore grandfather clothes, smelled like grandfather, and talked with a grandfather accent – slow, methodical, wise, gentle. He was good at games, had an infectious laugh, and always sat at the head of the table. If he ever got mad, or raised his voice, or had something bad to say about someone else, I never saw it or heard it. He was a pillar of morality, a good Christian, the man who always led grace and always gave thanks at family gatherings. These are the things I remember about my grandfather from my childhood, before I grew up, before he got sick, before our memories betrayed ourselves.

I wish I could say I think about him more often, Ivan Minderhout, the man who is one half of my father, one quarter of me. He is the reason for all of this, or at least, an essential part of it, for me, for my experience of the world. I may go months without consciously thinking about him, and yet he is with me daily, in my upbringing, in my heritage, in my genetic code. When I think of how much each of my parents has influenced me, and then how much each of their parents must have shaped them, my grandfather is much more critical to the making of “me” then I have given him credit for. Sure, it’s easy to recognize his partial responsibility for my blue eyes, or the fact that I don’t smoke (my dad gave me the same $2000 deal my grandpa gave him not to touch cigarettes until he was 21, and it worked!). But even as I write this right now, I am realizing that perhaps my desire to record my reflections in writing might be inherited from his enviable journaling skills- he wrote daily for decades.

I’m thinking about him right now because I am on a train from Oceanside to Los Angeles. Without fail, trains always trigger memories of my grandfather in me. Every horn, every box car, every lonely railroad track conjures up some essence of his being. It’s the one thing he has truly laid stake on in my memory, more than Beavers football, more than Thanksgiving speeches, more than Parkinson’s. Trains belong to him, they are and always will be his. Just like dried pressed flowers will always belong to my grandmother, or fish tanks to my brother, or Scattegories to my cousin. I know these things no more define these people than gymnastics or Yahtzee or kittens might define me, but I like that they own these things for me, that these things create an emotional response connected to them. Even if it’s small, it’s something, and it’s important, especially when all the memories begin to fade.

I wonder if other people think about memory as much as I do. The more I write, the more I think about the past, the more often I’m disappointed in it – my memory. Perhaps, more accurately, it’s what I’ve chosen to remember that I’m disappointed in. I can’t really fault the mechanisms in my brain, which are still functioning quite highly. Nor is it really fair to fault my 5 year old self, or my ten year old self, or even my 15 year old self, for not paying closer attention to the things I consider important now. How could I have known as a 12 year old that someday I would want to understand my grandfather as an adult might? To get to know Ivan the way I’ve gotten to know my Grandfather Jerry better in the past few years? Futile questions until time travel is invented. So instead, I’m left with trains, beavers, and illness.

Before he got sick, before I was born, my grandfather was the manager of Lloyd Center, the largest shopping mall at the time in Portland, Oregon. This was a very important position, and from what I’ve been told, he handled it with aplomb. I imagine my grandfather, suit and tie, hair slicked back in Mad Men fashion, heading up that glorious American institution: the shopping mall. I picture him being the first in the offices every morning, working hard at his desk and out in the field, treating the store owners and his employees sternly but fairly. I never saw my grandfather work, but there are somethings you just know, and I know he was a great businessman, a respected boss, a well-liked colleague.

By the time I had technically entered “womanhood”, the disease had already begun to slowly take him over. I sat patiently with the other grandchildren at holidays as he struggled to comment on the latest current affairs, his hand shaking as he reached for his fork. By the end of high school, when I was at the peak of my vanity and he fighting desperately a losing war with his whole body, I could hardly bare to be around him. It was too painful, and I couldn’t stand to face anything as ugly as mortality. I would hug him and nod and turn away, scared to catch him drooling or unable to find a word. It wasn’t how I wanted to remember him. I wanted the trains, and the Sierra Club calendars with majestic lakes and stoic mountains, and the Beaver blanket in his study.

The last time I actually saw him was the winter before he died. He had been in a home for awhile, and no longer had any physical or mental control. His legs were as thin as chicken bones, and his skin the color of cream of mushroom soup. He was being kept alive by machines and doctors and medicine, and while his heart somehow continued to beat, mine broke. I knew it was the last time I would ever see him in the flesh, but that the last time I had actually seen him had been years back. It’s a strange feeling, seeing this body of someone you once knew as your grandfather, reduced to a small, motionless form. If ever there was an argument for the soul, the separation of mind and body, this was it.

I try not to remember my grandfather in those late stages, when he’d fully succumbed to Parkinson’s, but rather as the man who raised my father, who managed Lloyd Center, who loved my grandmother until the very end. I’ll never have the opportunity to get to know him as the woman I am today, but he still remains alive in my memory, he is still available in my imagination. And of course, he’s always with me on the train.

One Night in Florence

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In the fall of 2008, I went on a three week trip to Europe. My best male friend Sammy had invited me to be his date for a Tuscan wedding, and it happened to coincide with my parents trip to Spain. Even though I was pretty broke at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel, and booked the flight on credit. The journey proved to be incredible, a feast for the eyes, ears, tongue. I walked the cobbled streets of Toledo, experienced the serenity of the Islamic architecture in the Alhambra, marveled at the monstrous take over of the Cordoba mosque by the Catholic Church. In Italy I danced until 4 in the morning with the bride and groom, went wine tasting through the Tuscan countryside, had the most amazing seven course, five hour dinner in Florence. The trip was packed with culture, art, food, beauty, wine. But the most memorable experience actually came at the end of my vacation.

When I had booked the flight, I had misread the dates Sammy had sent me, and thus ended up with an two extra nights, one in Italy and one in Switzerland. I was nervous about this, as I had never been alone in another country before, but also thrilled by the possibility for adventure. I didn’t plan anything before leaving the United States, so on my last day with Sammy in Lucca I had no idea where I would end up. I took a train down to Florence, passing the hours simply staring out the window at the red, orange, and yellow leaves of the October trees.

As the train finally pulled into the station, my heart skipped. I was officially alone in a city with no idea where I was going, where I was staying. I reached up for the suitcase and struggled to pull it down. It had been wedged into the overhead cabinet, and I couldn’t get it out. Tears started forming in my eyes. What was I doing here all alone? Why did I think I was capable of this? “Can I help you with that?” a voice from behind me inquired. I turned to find a handsome, bespectacled young man, who looked about my age. I nearly hugged him I was so relieved to hear someone speak English. “That would be wonderful,” I replied. He easily lifted the suitcase down and smiled. “These are my parents,” he motioned to a kindly looking couple, “where are you from?”

As we departed the train, we unearthed a lot of common ground. We were both in college, both from the west coast, and he was currently attending the University of Portland, a campus I had grown up less than a mile from. We talked about traveling with our parents, and how much we enjoyed Italy. As his father stopped to hail a cab, a sense of sadness and panic overcame me. Without thinking, I blurted out “Do you think I could come with you guys and see if there’s an extra room in your hotel? I have nowhere to go.” They all smiled. There was so much warmth from this family, I didn’t want to leave it.

During the cab ride, I started to feel anxious about the hotel. What if it was really nice and I couldn’t afford it? I had less than 70 dollars left, and it needed to last me for the next two days. As I listened to the family talk, I became acutely aware of the father’s speech. He had an impediment of some sort. Not a stutter exactly, something else. I could sense his frustration. His wife was very patient, every so often finishing his sentences.

When we got to the hotel, my nerves calmed. Like my own family, they travelled frugally. The hotel was charming in its own storied way, but it lacked refinement. The wallpaper peeled slightly at the corners, the wooden banisters had long since lost their luster, the lift elevator groaned heavily. I was grateful for the absence of pretense; it felt comfortable. And the price was right – $35 for a tiny single with a twin bed. As we got off the elevator, I thanked the family for allowing me to come with them. “Would you like to come have dinner with us?” The boy asked. “Yes!” I responded too eagerly. I couldn’t help it – I wanted to stay enveloped in their affectionate energy. “Great, meet us in the lobby at 7.”

The room was no more than 10 feet squared, but as I unpacked my toiletries I felt an enormous sense of pride. It was the first time I’d ever rented my own hotel room. I felt distinctively adult. I was in another city, by myself, and I had found a place for myself within it. I laid on the bed and hugged myself. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I thought.

That evening we roamed through the piazzas in search of a restaurant. We found one in a rather touristy part of the city and ordered pasta and pizza. It could have been The French Laundry or McDonald’s, it wasn’t important – what mattered was the company. We laughed, shared stories, drank wine, spoke about home and the Northwest. I could barely contain the joy I felt as we stopped for gelato on the walk back to the hotel. This was living.

Back in the hotel, the parents retired to bed and I sat with the boy in the lobby, each of us checking Facebook on our lap tops. We chatted for a bit, and then I finally asked the question I’d been pondering all night – “So, what’s going on with your dad?” The words felt poisonous exiting my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I quickly followed up, “I don’t mean to be rude.” He looked at me tenderly, “No, it’s alright. He has Lou Gehrig’s.” My mouth dropped. I didn’t know much about the disease, but I knew enough. My eyes welled. “He has about six months left, we took this trip because it was always his dream to come to Italy.” I hugged him and started to cry. I had no words. After a minute we pulled apart. “He’s had a really good life, and we have a really strong family,” he said, “life’s not always fair, but it’s what you make of it.” I nodded, moved. A moment passed. “Wanna head back upstairs?” he offered.

The next day I sat with the family at the complimentary breakfast. We ate bread and jam, drank orange juice, shared more laughter. They talked about the places they were going to visit that day, and I told them about my favorite pieces at the Uffizi – the Cimabue I adored, the magnificence of the Birth of Venus. The boy gave me his contact information, and we promised to keep up with each other on Facebook. After finishing our last sips of coffee, we exchanged hugs and goodbyes. I headed upstairs and packed my suitcase, alone again. I broke down. The last 24 hours had been too special, too sad, too sacred. Their acceptance and grace – it would never leave me.

I took one last look at the room, and then confidently grabbed my bag. I still had a night in Zurich to figure out, but this time the only nerves I felt were of excitement. There are seven billion of us on this planet, each doing our best to navigate this thing called life. Whose path would I cross today? Whose story would I be told? Who would change my perspective on things, great or small? I couldn’t wait to find out.