"Innisfree binds us."
A new generation attempts to define where home is.
Young widow Elizabeth Innocenti journeys from her home in Italy with her fourteen-year-old son to seek solace and peace at Innisfree, her grandmother Lydia's cottage on Chappaquiddick Island. Finding her beloved childhood haven abandoned and as needy as she is, she reluctantly sets out to restore it. When she takes shelter during a hurricane with the Monroes, the Wampanoag family who once owned Innisfree, she discovers its fraught history. Elizabeth’s passionate search for Innisfree's meaning for each family forces her to confront both her grief and her future; and her challenging relationship with Caleb Monroe, the grandson of Mae and Tobias Monroe, shatters her perception of who she is and what she wants.
Release date: April 22, 2017
Publisher: Bellastoria Press
Print pages: 402
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The Deep Heart’s Core
“The islanders have a saying: ‘Some come here to heal; others to hide.’ I don’t think you need a hiding place, as far as I know, but come home to Innisfree and heal, sweetheart.”
Elizabeth Innocenti read the words in her grandmother’s elegant, spare hand. She had pulled the familiar, cream-colored envelope with the American postage stamp from the stack of mail that sat unread on her desk. It had been nearly a year since her husband, Antonio, had succumbed to the neurodegenerative disease that had first robbed him of his mobility and finally his life. But for Elizabeth, it could have been an hour for the sharp pain that still knifed through her when she woke every morning to the emptiness in her bed, the sheets on his side tight and flat, the pillow without his scent.
She was a widow at thirty-six, alone now with her child and her in-laws, whose loss of their only son reverberated without consolation throughout the villa in the hills above Florence where they lived together. When her mother-in-law, Adriana Innocenti, wasn’t keening in grief, her wails cast out like a forlorn shepherdess seeking an echo, Adriana’s deep-set eyes, rimmed in the blue-black smudge of insomnia, stared accusingly at Elizabeth for being alive.
Ever since she had first come to Italy to create the independent project that her progressive New England college required of its students to complete their degrees, Elizabeth had struggled to find acceptance in Adriana’s eyes. A passionate student of history and media arts, she was determined to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Ken Burns, and become a documentary film maker.
She never anticipated that she would fall in love, either with Italy or with Antonio. She had arrived in Florence with a longing for something different and unknown, and so had been open to whatever it offered: quiet afternoons in a Uffizi gallery mesmerized by DaVinci’s Annunciation, or a brilliant morning in the Piazza del Duomo contemplating Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the Baptistery. She ate batter-fried zucchini flowers and spaghetti à la carbonara for the first time. She attended parties given by boys in silk shirts who drove Ferraris and lived in palazzos in the Oltrarno.
She met Antonio in the Laurentian Library, where they were both doing research; he for his thesis as a law student and she for the film she was planning that explored the effects of Savonarola’s reign on the lives of Florentine women. Antonio, serious and contemplative, had seemed to be immersed in the ancient texts stacked around him on the table they shared without conversation for more than two weeks. A nod or an occasional “Buon giorno” was the extent of his acknowledgment of her existence. And then, one Thursday afternoon, as the discreet bell calling the monks of San Lorenzo to vespers reminded library patrons that it was time to take their leave, he unexpectedly invited her for a coffee.
That first coffee led to another, and then, when he understood why she was in Florence, he took her through the Museo dell'Antica Casa Fiorentina so that she could explore how the women of Savonarola’s time had lived.
“You need more than books to understand Florentine life,” he told her.
A few weeks later he offered to take her to the Palio in Sienna. Like all of Italy, to Elizabeth the Palio was both thrilling and incomprehensible—a furious horse race in the city’s sloping central piazza; intense and bitter rivalries among neighborhoods vying for the championship; a riot of color as bands and flag throwers in medieval costume marched through the narrow streets and emerged into the open piazza to the roar of the crowds packed around the perimeter. Antonio held onto her in the throng, protecting her from the surge and push. They were surrounded by emotion and excitement to a degree Elizabeth had never experienced before. She absorbed it with all her senses, culminating in the moment when the race was won and Antonio kissed her, capturing in his own passion the intensity that was Italian life. The energy of the crowd and the heightened moment of victory punctuated by trumpets and the triumphant toss of the colors in an arc over them thrust her into an embrace of Italy from which she did not emerge until Antonio’s death.
His love for her had been inexplicable to his mother. Despite Elizabeth’s willingness to let go of all that tied her to America—family, language, even her New England sense of place and home—she had never been able to win Adriana’s acceptance as her son’s wife.
Elizabeth clutched her grandmother’s letter and went out to the garden of the home where she and Antonio had spent their married life. The villa in the Florentine hills was where Antonio had been born and raised. When Elizabeth and Antonio married, Adriana and Massimo, his father, had converted the cinquecento building into two apartments and insisted that they live in one of them. She walked past the potted lemon trees on the terrace and down the stone steps to the sloping lawn that overlooked the city. The sun glinted on the terracotta roof of the Duomo. She had lived in Florence for fifteen years, fourteen of them as Antonio’s wife. She had borne their son, Matteo, now a boy of fourteen who was thoroughly Italian, despite occasional summer visits and alternating Christmases with his American grandparents and extended family. She had been a good wife to Antonio—his confidante and advisor, his lover, his advocate and nurse as his disease had progressed and finally, the bereaved mourner at his graveside.
Adriana and Elizabeth could not comfort one another, could not acknowledge that the other’s grief compared to her own.
Elizabeth reread her grandmother’s letter as the sun slipped behind the hills. In it, Lydia Hammond offered her granddaughter the summer place that she and her late husband had bought decades before on the isolated barrier beach of Cape Poge on Chappaquiddick Island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It was a place that had once sheltered three generations of Hammond children from the day after school let out in June until Labor Day. Mae Keaney, the original owner, had called the place Innisfree, after the poem by Yeats, when it had been her home and a café that she ran for her livelihood serving fishermen on the bay. Elizabeth’s grandparents kept the name, since that was how the islanders referred to the peninsula. As they had expanded the compound, they kept the connection to Yeats and continued to name additions after his poems. Lydia had called the girls’ sleeping cottage “The Linnet,” and decorated it with Audubon prints of finches and yellow curtains dotted with birds perched on delicate branches. The boys’ cottage had been dubbed “Byzantium,” and was filled with sailing gear. Even the room that housed the claw-footed tub, where hours had been spent preening, had the name “The Peacock.”
When she was in high school, Elizabeth stumbled upon “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the poem that had been Mae Keaney’s inspiration, and she penned it in calligraphy for her grandparents as a Christmas gift. Lydia had framed it and hung it prominently in the living room of the main house. Enclosed in Lydia’s letter was a photocopy of the poem.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made…
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Elizabeth heard it as well, and decided to go home.
Elizabeth’s announcement at dinner that she had decided to accept her grandmother’s invitation was met not only with disapproval but protest. Not because Elizabeth was leaving, but because she was planning to take Matteo with her.
Adriana put down her fork. Like everything else in the villa, it was ancient, heavy with memory and tradition.
“How can you do this to us? Take away the only thing Massimo and I have left, the only joy that eases my aching heart!”
“Mama, it’s only for the summer, the way we used to do before Antonio became ill. You remember that my grandmother has a cottage by the sea. It will be good for Matteo to get away from the city for a few weeks.”
She did not add, good for him to get away from his nonna’s unbearable sorrow; good for him to be an American child for a while, with cousins to play with and Fourth of July fireworks and baseball games to attend. She also said nothing of her own pain. That this house, Italy, held too many memories for her, too many places where she turned a corner and was brought up sharply by a vividly remembered scene—a caress, a long look across the room, a smile of gratitude and longing.
“If you must go, why can’t you go alone? We can take Matteo to the sea, if you think that’s so important.”
Adriana sniffed, indicating that she considered it unnecessary. She herself would sit in her black dress all summer, closed in her room turning the pages of Antonio’s childhood photo albums.
Elizabeth was weary. She had no desire to inflict more pain on her mother-in-law. But she also knew she yearned for the comfort and healing her grandmother had so wisely recognized Elizabeth needed. She would not find it in the villa.
She deferred that night from arguing with Adriana. But she wrote to her grandmother to let her know she and Matteo would come in June and quietly began making plans to fly to Boston as soon as school was out.
The struggle with Adriana continued. Elizabeth tried to keep the conversations away from the dinner table after the first night. Matteo was grieving in his own way and the last thing Elizabeth wanted was for him to feel torn between his mother and his nonna. Adriana’s suffocating reliance on Matteo as her only hope would only deepen the boy’s grief, and Elizabeth knew it was not only for herself that they needed to get away.
When Antonio had been alive—a phrase still unfamiliar and strange to her—she had always backed away from direct confrontation with her mother-in-law. It simply wasn’t her nature, and she saw no point in putting Antonio in the position of having to choose. But with her son, it was different. She had no doubt that Adriana loved Matteo. But she knew in her heart that, if ever she was to have a reason to defy Adriana, Matteo’s well-being was it.
The afternoon after she had booked their flights she found Adriana sitting in the loggia feeding bits of orange to her parrot. Her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, accentuating her high cheekbones. She had once been a fashion model, frequently appearing on the cover of Italian Vogue; and even into her sixties, she remained slender and striking, with a dramatic beauty. But since Antonio’s death, she had barely eaten and Elizabeth was now struck by how skeletal her face seemed. Unaware that she was being watched, Adriana’s fragility was exposed. Elizabeth was stunned by how old she looked, how vulnerable, and for a few moments her resolve waivered.
I should stay, she thought, knowing that she wouldn’t leave Matteo.
And then Adriana saw her and the vulnerability hardened, sheathing her in armor. She cooed to the parrot, wiped her hands and raised her eyebrows as if to question why Elizabeth would be seeking her out.
“You’ve been out?”
“The marketing, some errands. I wanted to talk before Matteo gets home from school.”
“Oh, Lisa, you’re not going to bring up this idea again of going to America this summer!”
Antonio’s family had always called her by the Italian form of her name, Elisabetta. Adriana addressed her by the diminutive, Lisa. To diminish me, Elizabeth had thought. She had never had a nickname in her family—not Liz or Beth or Betsy.
“I’m sorry, Mama. It’s not an ‘idea.’ It’s already in motion. I bought the tickets today.”
“You would do this, knowing how much it hurts me!”
“Not to hurt you, Mama. But to help Matteo and me. Please understand. The pain is too fresh, the memories in this house too raw. Everywhere I turn I see Antonio’s face and am reminded that he is no longer here.”
“You want to run away from the memories and forget him! He’s not even cold in his grave!”
“No, Mama. Not to forget. Only to find a way to continue living without him.”
“You have no idea what it means to bury a child. You cannot fathom a mother’s loss.”
“I think I can imagine it. I am a mother. Matteo’s only a boy, a boy who has lost his father, who needs his mother more than anything right now.”
“Then stay here with him.”
Adriana’s face was taut with both anger and pleading. She was distraught, she was outraged. It was easier for Elizabeth to hold her ground against the anger, and she focused on the demand in her mother-in-law’s tone. Adriana didn’t want her pity, Elizabeth knew.
“No, Mama. If I am going to be strong enough for Matteo, I need to heal. We need to go.”
And she left the loggia, retreating to the thick-walled room with the arched ceiling and deep-set windows that had sheltered her and Antonio throughout their marriage. She ran her fingers along the top of the dark wooden paneling that lined the lower half of the stucco walls. It was trimmed with intricately carved stone pine trees, each one linked to the next by its widespread branches. On their wedding night, Antonio had whispered to her a fantastical tale of the powers of the tree, harboring dreams and wishes within its foliage like magical fruit. It was a story told to him by his grandmother when he’d been a boy unable to sleep.
“We sleep in a bower, protected by the circle of trees. Nothing can harm us within these walls.”
But the trees hadn’t protected Antonio and no longer offered her the solace of sleep. Her hand snagged on a sharp branch and a splinter dug deep into her ring finger, drawing blood.
She pulled it out and sucked away the beads of red, then curled up on the window seat and wept.
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