“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
A mother asks dragging an oversized suitcase through the narrow train aisle with her daughter in tow who is struggling with the same sort of excessive luggage. It’s a question I’ve been asked frequently during my summer traveling Europe alone and leads me to conversations with American tourists more than anyone else. When I reply yes, they ask for help finding their seats on the train. I take a look at their tickets and tell them it’s a couple cars down and we’re actually sitting next to each other. So, I take one of their heavy bags and pave the way through the train cars.
Once settled on our journey from Milan to Lake Como, I learn they’re spending ten days in Italy together before the daughter heads off to college. They’re fascinated by my “courage” to travel alone.
“Doesn’t your mother worry? I’d be so worried…”
“No, not really. She’s used to it.”
I spare them the truth that my mother died over ten years ago, but I lost her far before then due to an eight-year divorce that ran the course of my childhood. They couldn’t understand that because of that, I was conditioned for this independence. It would be too hard to explain how navigating bra shopping, first periods, and crushes without her has lead me to this.
Instead, I tell them I didn’t want to wait for someone else to start seeing the world.
A couple days later, I’m in Tuscany, hunting for sunflowers since my mother was obsessed with them. She had curtains, kitchen towels, clocks – if they sold it at Wal Mart, and there was a sunflower on it, she owned it. My mother, Mary Ann Fullerton, was even cremated in a denim vest with sunflowers embroidered on it.
I take the bus through the Chianti region through the hills and valleys to a small farm for a cooking class. I ask advice from my instructor, a sweet woman who may have sympathy for me.
I say delicately, “I’m looking because they were my mom’s favorite flowers.”
“Does your mother cook a lot? Is that where you get it?” she asks. My subtle past-tense is lost in the language barrier.
“Not really, no, she doesn’t cook much.” I reply, kneading dough with my palms, falling into my usual lies.
Later, as I combat terrible WIFI and the relentless July heat in my AirBnB, I resort to Googling, “How to find sunflowers in Tuscany 2018.” I find some blogs discussing different areas that have sunflowers, agreeing on one point only – you need a car.
So naturally, I look into renting a car. I pool my friends who have driven in Europe and they all say go for it, even when I remind them I don’t know the language. When the Hertz page finally loads, it turns out to rent a car with an automatic transmission will put me out over hundred Euros plus double that with all the insurance tacked on. I still persist, I plan to try and hunt them down as best I can via public transportation. Then on my last day, if I’m still coming up short, I’ll rent the car.
Referring back to the blogs, I plan to take a day trip to San Gimignano since that’s where all of the “post card pictures” are taken in a valley outside of town. Before I depart, I head to the market for a café and am distracted by the sellers with their small batch Tuscany balsamic, olive oils and lemoncello among other goods. I get pulled in by a charming Italian man selling on behalf of his farm between Florence and Siena. He’s a charismatic salesman, flirting a bit, but I’m onto him.
“I’m actually heading that way this afternoon. I’m hoping to stumble across some sunflowers.” I lean in, trying to give him a dose of his own medicine. “Have you seen any?”
He winces. “No, not there. Further, south of Siena. Then maybe.”
He goes on to say that the fields are hard to find. They’re small and you never know which are in bloom. I tell him I don’t have a car.
“Maybe next time,” he shrugs.
Even knowing I have my last-ditch effort of renting a car, I’m deflated and roam around the rest of the market in a haze, anxiety building in my chest, a feeling I haven’t had for years, like someone’s piling cinder blocks on my chest, crushing me.
For my thirteenth birthday, my mom let me get fake acrylic nails. She sits next to me and doesn’t say a word as I chose a horrible design with brown and navy nail polish then a row of small white flowers, a clumsy attempt in femininity.
When my dad’s girlfriend sees my nails, she gasps, appalled. Then without asking, she gets out a bottle of solution, pours it into a bowl and pushes my nails into it. I remain there, watching the acrylic become soft and melt off my fingernails into the solution. She berates my mother under her breath, but I remain silent.
As the bus travels at seventy kilometers an hour through the windy fields to San Gimignano, my gaze scans the rounded mountains. My eyes are exhausted from darting around, searching desperately, just wanting the hunt to be over as much as anything. Then I see it – a green field that when I strain my eyes I realize are un-bloomed sunflowers. I watch in awe waiting for some sort of feeling, but there’s nothing there, this is not enough. The rest of the day, I roam the old town, filled with shops pushing souvenirs painted and patterned in sunflowers, taunting me.
That night, I’m back at the computer fighting the spotty internet. Seeming inevitable, I now search, “Tips for Americans renting a car in Italy who don’t know the language.” There are travel forums debating the issue. It’s not the language issue they’re as concerned about as the special permit you must get from the States before you leave called a “IDL” aka International Driver’s License. I don’t have that. I can’t get that. Some of them debate going without it, but others warn profusely that if you drive without one it’s illegal and even if you get into a minor scrape or a ticket of any kind you’re screwed. I’m screwed.
The kind you know is coming but it surprises you anyway.
Alone in my AirBnB, I pull my knees close to my chest, wrap my arms around them, holding myself. I think of her, memories and details rushing through me: of the holidays spent in hospitals, of her diabetes, of her amputated legs, of her dialysis, of her horses that starved, of the divorce, of our horrible phone calls, of her never leaving Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, of her shitty life.
Then one emerges.
We’re watching Gilmore Girls in the earlier days before our relationship rotted. She looked at me as Luke grabbed Lorelai and kissed her so passionately that their bodies bent together. She said, “People don’t kiss like that in real life.”
I give up.
I’m a sophomore in high school, I walk out of basketball practice and expect to wait the fifteen minutes my dad was always late picking me up. Except, our mini-van is already there, the passenger seat empty, my twin brother in the back seat.
As I got into the car, I see an unusual expression on my brother’s face as he already knows and is watching, waiting for my reaction. My dad tells me that my mother had died. That something she ate caused kidney failure and she is gone. He is very neutral about it and so is my reaction.
There are no tears, we simply go home, and wait for my older brother to come home from college.
The summer leading up to her death, she has two heart attacks. After the second, she is in the ICU and my brothers and I are told to say goodbye. She is in the bed, so weak she is unable to speak and scribbles on a piece of paper to communicate with us. Her hand shakes so violently we can barely make out the words. She writes something illegible and points to my leg asking about my physical therapy for an ACL reconstruction surgery earlier that year after a basketball injury. I show her the purple scar, she gestures, and scrawls, launching us back into a game of charades. She tells me not to worry, that it will be gone by the time I get married.
Having abandoned my quest, I head to the sea side to Cinque Terre. On the train there, between Pisa and La Spezia, in the distance, I see a highlight of yellow as the train travels through the terrain. Then a little closer but still in the distance, I can tell that they’re rows and rows of fully bloomed sunflowers. They’re out of reach.
What was I expecting?
In my imagination, I was stunned by the sight of canary yellow fields. Then I wade into them and have their faces smiling down on me. Their leaves brush my shoulders as I walk, embracing me as my mother never can again.
Sunflowers aren’t going to change anything.
She’s still dead. I’m still motherless. I’m still on my own.
I watch them rush by.
“It’s a shame, you never knew your mother.” My aunt whispers during my mother’s funeral. I stare ahead at the reverend giving a eulogy hiding how gutted I feel about what I perceive as an accusation for our turbulent relationship in the end. When I would hang up on her during our infrequent phone calls in the months leading up to her death.
Years later, I’m living in California during my early-twenties my aunt’s name appears in my email inbox. She reaches out regarding a detail in my mother’s last wishes that were entrusted with her. My head swims as I am just coming into myself as a woman, craving my mother’s spirit. I write back taking this opportunity to confess my regrets about letting the divorce tarnish my relationship with my mother and ask for insight into her life that I knew almost nothing about.
Days later, my aunt’s voice is tentative on the phone. I pace around my first Los Angeles apartment. Having changed my diapers, her hesitation was understandable as I ask about my mother’s abusive marriages and my own father’s possible infidelity. But I also ask about her dreams, her first kiss, what she was like, discovering what qualities I may have gotten from her.
After Italy, I venture to a small village in the south of France called Pernes-les-Fontaines that a colleague recommended. The bus from the airport nearing town cuts through farmland that reminds me of my childhood in Pennsylvania. I watch as one round mountain folds into the next with their soft peaks. Then I’m in a tunnel of yellow as two fields of fully bloomed sunflowers surround the bus on either side of the road. I sit up in my seat. Not in the distance, right there. I can’t believe it, after all that, there they are.
In Pernes, I’m staying with a mother who is ninety-six and her daughter. The next morning, without knowing my recent plight, they serve me breakfast on a platter in a garden, on a sunflower placemat and I begin writing this essay.
I can’t shake the fields I saw coming into town. So that afternoon, I head out.
I trek along the bus route. I pass a cemetery and cut through the aisles of raised cement graves.
I keep going until there is no sidewalk but only a bike path and a dirt medium. Cars thunder by and I will them to ignore me, to just let me do this. A few honk but I forge ahead. Then, I hear the slowing of tires behind me as one kind man does what I fear most, lowers his window asking me what I can only assume in French is if I want a lift into the next town. I don’t know how to even begin to explain what I’m doing and not because I only know a handful of French phrases.
“Parlez vous Anglais?”
The driver looks at me skeptically. A sunburnt woman in her late twenties wearing dirty sandals and a dress on the side of a busy road. I try my best to be polite and reassuring.
He drives off, leaving me there.
I look on, now doubting how far outside of town I saw them. I’m certain it was between the stop before mine. I keep on telling myself after this bend I’ll stop, then after the next and the next. I’ve gone five kilometers by now and have passed the next town.
Finally, after fields of apple trees, cantaloupe, and grapes, I spot a lone yellow head poking out of brush and wildflowers in a field that is unused for the season. I make my way to it, scrapping my calves and filling my sandals with briers.
I stand before the lone sunflower taking in its stalk firmly rooted in the soil. Well past the prime of full bloom, its heavy head hangs. The petals have begun to wilt.
I remember her the same way, always sick, fading. I want to reach out and touch the flower as if it was her face. I want to apologize for how I must have hurt her. I want to ask how she forgave me. I want to tell her I understand now how much she sacrificed for me, what it means to be a mother, a woman. I want her to know it was worth it, that I am strong. I want to thank her for the woman she made me into, somehow, despite everything.
A breeze picks up, and like her ashes I never got the chance to spread, the petals drift off into the wind.
Sarah Nolen is a screenwriter currently working on Apple’s science fiction epic Foundation and recently served as a staff writer for the sixth season of the Emmy-nominated series The Americans.