CHAPTER 1: THE FAREWELL
I felt the wind in my hair as I ran through the streets of Calabria clutching the envelope that contained my admission letter to University of Pavia. I felt my heart flutter with anticipation, the island seemed to resound my emotions, and the fishermen laughed heartily as they offloaded their nets from the boats happy at the prospect of making huge profits. I hoped my brother and the men he fished with had some luck as well, that would mean a hearty dinner for us and money to meet immediate needs.
I sprinted through the market paying little attention to what was being said, sped past the fish sellers and their customers haggling over prices, cut a corner, took a shortcut I and Matteo had discovered behind the chapel, and ran down a flight of stairs. If I hadn't slowed down for a moment, I would've knocked down the Priest who was making his rounds. “Be careful Elsa, slow down.” Father Yohan called out fondly.
“Yes, Father. I’m sorry.” I said, slowing down for a moment, to apologize as he fondly ruffled my hair. I excitedly picked up momentum again when he turned his attention away from me. This was the moment I had been waiting for, and now it was finally here.
Trembling with excitement, I rushed through the front door of our modest home into the kitchen, startling my mother who had been setting the table for dinner.
“Mamma! Mamma!" I exclaimed, breathless and flushed with anticipation as I waved the envelope frantically in the air. “I got accepted into University of Pavia!”
My mother froze, her eyes widening in disbelief. She stared at me, her face a mixture of pride and concern. She slowly set the silverware on the small dining table and plucked the letter out of my hands. As her eyes glanced through the contents of the crisp white paper, she broke into a song and danced. I found my rhythm and danced alongside her.
My admission to University of Pavia in Milan was the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, and unwavering determination.
“Oh my darling, this is incredible news! I'm so proud of you,” Mother exclaimed after we had danced excitedly. Then she pulled me into a hug. My heart swelled with happiness as I felt her warm embrace. As we hugged, my eyes roamed around the small dining area and landed on the picture of my father that was hanging on the wall and tears ran down my face.
My Father, Antonio died a few years ago in the factory where he worked. We had tried to get justice for what had happened to him given the unfair working conditions but our efforts had been futile. It had been a challenging journey for the family. My mother had worked tirelessly to take care of Matteo and me, she sacrificed her desires to ensure we had food on the table, shelter over our heads, and clothes on our backs. She also made sure I had every opportunity I needed to succeed. And now, my dreams are becoming a reality. When I pulled away from my mom's embrace, I saw that she had been crying.
“Mamma,” I said, wiping tears off her face. “Don’t cry.” I continued as I led her towards the dining table, and pulled out a chair for her to sit on.
“These are happy tears, Elsa, you worked so hard to get here and now you’ve gotten your admission but—”
“No ‘buts’ Mamma,” I said, interrupting her as I walked towards the kitchen to get a glass of water. I knew what my mother was going to say, I had been thinking about it as well. I might have gotten into the University but we barely had enough money to buy groceries that would feed us through the month, we certainly did not have enough to pay for my tuition fees and everything else.
“We will find a way around it. Don't worry Mamma.” I added, handing her the glass of water.
As she sat, I helped with the preparations for dinner.
“I wish your Father was here. He would be so proud of you. I am proud of you my
darling.” She said after a moment of silence.
Tears shimmered in my eyes as I turned
away from what I was doing and looked at her fondly. My father’s memory had become a guiding light for us, fueling our determination to succeed against all odds.
“This wouldn't have been possible without your love and support Mamma. I promise I won't let you down.”
She smiled, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “I know you won't, Elsa. You're strong and determined, just like your father.” She replied and kissed my forehead. “Quick, let's set the table before Matteo comes home. He would be delighted to hear this wonderful news.”
“I heard the tides were favorable today, the men looked happy as they got off their boats. It's been a great day, I don't want it to end.” I said excitedly amidst giggles, as I focused on preparing dinner.
* * * * * * * * *
Over the next few weeks, I immersed myself in preparations for my move to Milan. I spent hours at the library, using the computer available to research scholarships, part-time jobs, and affordable accommodations. I was determined to finance my education without becoming a burden to my mother. The admission letter represented more than just an acceptance into a prestigious institution to me. It was a symbol of hope, of a future brimming with possibilities that stretched far beyond the limitations of my modest upbringing. I had grown up in a small rural town, an island far from the dazzling lights of the city, but my dreams had always been larger than life.
As the departure day drew near, I felt my emotions conflicting with each other and my anxiety level increased. Excitement mingled with nervousness as I packed my belongings into a single suitcase. I had visited Milan a few times with my Dad when I was a child. The metropolis had fascinated me, I felt a rush in my body when I first experienced the buzz of the city, now I was going to the metropolis on my own. I was going to experience things for myself. I felt a wave of sadness wash over me at the thought of leaving my mother and brother. The bittersweet realization of leaving behind the familiarity of my hometown left a bad taste in my mouth but I knew I had to seize this opportunity for a better future.
On the morning of my departure, I stood in front of my home, my suitcase by my side while my mother watched from the door. She clasped her hands together, her eyes filled with a mix of pride and worry. She had decided to accompany me to the bus station, her excuse was that she wanted to bid her daughter a proper farewell but I presume that she was yet to come to terms with the fact that I was leaving home. Going into the world, all on my own. I was terrified as well but I knew I had to be strong and resilient. I could survive whatever life sent my way.
The bus station was crowded with people rushing to their destinations, their voices blending into a cacophony of excitement and farewell. I clutched my mother's hand tightly as we made our way to the bus scheduled for Milan. My heart pounded with a mix of gratitude and apprehension.
“I can't believe you're leaving, Elsa,” Mother whispered. Her voice was ladened with emotion. “It feels like, just yesterday you were a little girl, and now look at you, all grown up.” She said as she wiped the tears that had begun to form in the corner of her eyes.
I squeezed her hand, tears welling up in my eyes. “I'll never forget where I came from, Mom. I'll always carry your love and support with me. I’ll send letters every weekend. Matteo can pick them up from the Post office or Father Yohan.”
She shook her head slowly in response, trying to hold back her tears. She sighed, released my hand, and gently brushed a strand of hair away from my face. As she spoke, her voice was imbued with a comforting warmth that seemed to envelop me. “Remember, my love, I'll be cheering you on, every step of the way. And no letters. It makes no sense to spend all your money on stamps. We will send our letters through Father Yohan whenever he makes a trip to the city.” She dug into her purse, produced a sealed, brown envelope, and handed it to me. “Here, take this.” She beckoned.
I held onto the envelope and my eyes widened at the realization of its content.
“Mother, I can't. It's all you have. You and Matteo need—”
“No Elsa. Matteo and I would manage just fine. You need this, it's not much to start on but I know you'll do marvelous things in the big city.”
A bittersweet smile graced my lips as I nodded and slipped the envelope into my suitcase, understanding her unwavering faith. As the bus attendant called out to the passengers to board the vehicle, I pulled her into one final embrace, tears flowing freely down our faces.
“Thank you, Mom,” I whispered, my voice carrying a world of gratitude. “I promise, I won't let you down. I'll make our dreams come true.”
With a final wave, I boarded the bus, my heart heavy with the weight of leaving, yet buoyed by the anticipation of what lay ahead. Through the window, I watched my mother's figure receded into the distance as the bus pulled away.
As we journeyed out of the town, my gaze shifted forward and my eyes fixed on the horizon—the beacon of a future that awaited me in the bustling metropolis of Milan.