Words By Daniela Deane, Special to The Washington Post
‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’ – John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy,” 1980
That is the story of my house in Italy, which my husband, Mick, and I bought 23 years ago when it was just a bit of hill perched above a big lake in the little town of Trevignano, just north of Rome. We were in our early 40s; it was a long-term project – build a house on the land, with its breathtaking view, and make it our weekend place – and later our retirement home. We were living in Rome with our two young sons, both of us working, dreaming we would stay. We had met and fallen in love in Rome after all – me Italian American, Mick British – and started our careers there.
But life had other plans for us.
My Italian parents grew elderly and frail in the Washington area, where I grew up after they emigrated from southern Italy when I was 3. They needed me. And it seemed better for our boys to grow up in the States than in our rarefied Roman expat life. So just two years after buying the land, we left, and moved to Arlington, Virginia, to work in Washington and raise our sons, who graduated from Yorktown High School. But through it all, we pressed ahead with our Italian home – just a concrete shell when we left. And – perhaps even involuntarily – crammed Italy down our sons’ throats throughout their formative years. Which is what can happen with a second home.
Fast-forward to five years ago, to summer 2013.
Mick and I were now looking forward to retirement. He’d had a 33-year career as a television news cameraman, the last two years in the Middle East, which was growing more dangerous by the assignment. I had taken a buyout from The Washington Post. Patrick and Ben were adults and working in Europe. Mick was talking about retiring the following spring. At 61, he’d had enough of breaking news – and the Middle East’s intractable problems.
It was the day before Italy’s midsummer Ferragosto holiday, Aug. 15, when our small Italian town puts on a midnight fireworks show on the lake, the highlight of the year. I love being in Trevignano then, and hosting dinners on my terrace overlooking the lake before the fireworks start. Ferragosto had always been special for us.
Mick was working that August on assignment in Egypt, having just spent his two-week summer vacation at the house in late July. Both Patrick, who was living and working in Rome, and Ben, who was living and working in London, had joined us at the house with their girlfriends. I stayed on in Trevignano, rather than go back with Mick to Jerusalem where we were based, to ready our Italian place for our big move there in less than a year. We needed more closets, more storage space. It had always just been a vacation house, never a family home. There was work to be done.
But life had other plans for us then, too.
Mick was shot and killed by an Egyptian military sniper in Cairo while filming Egyptian demonstrators protesting against the regime – the day before Ferragosto. My house in Italy has shaped the story of our life as a family, while also serving as its backdrop. It didn’t matter that it was tens of thousands of miles from home. When we left Rome for Washington in the winter of 1997, we could have sold our Italian house – what there was of it – abandoning the project like our life in Italy.
But houses can be difficult to abandon, besides the all-important money and time invested. They’re often the stuff of dreams. I’m a first-generation Italian immigrant to the United States, born in Naples of Italian parents, with a love for Italy borne over many childhood summers spent with my grandparents and cousins under the seductive spell of southern Italy. Although I was growing up in the Washington area, my father especially never let me forget that we were Italians; we spoke only Italian at home.
So, having a house in Italy was about my parents, my grandparents, my cousins and those idyllic summer weeks of my childhood, the beautiful Italian my family spoke, the rich traditions I got to live with them, at least during the summer. And then later, I met Mick there, my British husband who also loved Italy, and we started our life together in Rome.
So, no, we couldn’t really give up on it.
We built the house over the next few years, going with our by then teenage boys, every summer from Washington, for the standard two weeks a year, taking almost seven years to build and furnish it. The boys were in high school when we were finally done. That’s the other thing with second homes. You need to go to them a lot, even if they’re far. That’s what makes the memories – and forges the links.
But it isn’t always easy.
American teenagers like to be with their friends, and Italy was a long – and expensive – trip from Washington, an 18-hour, two-flight journey for four people every year. “Why can’t we just go to Rehoboth, like everyone else,” my eldest son, Patrick, was heard saying one summer, referring to a Delaware beach town. He had a point. We even agreed. But we persisted. We felt there was no real choice.Surprisingly, both boys studied Italian at college. They had a memorable summer in Florence together, invited friends and girlfriends to the house and went on a couple of European summer college trips that involved stints in Trevignano.
Italy was slowly cementing itself into their consciousness.
Was it surprising that after college Patrick decided to combine his two majors – business and Italian – with an internship at a Rome accounting firm? Or was it destiny? He ended up staying in Rome, working there, for four years, his first professional job. He met his wife, an Italian colleague, at work. When they were courting, Patrick would take her to the house in Trevignano on weekends; she fell in love with our house – and the area – as they got to know each other. But all our best laid plans went to hell that sunny August morning in 2013.
What to do now with the house that Mick and I built?
That’s the thing, though. There really is nothing to do about death, besides carry on. So for better or worse, that’s what I did. I decided one project I could undertake to give me some needed focus was the pool that Mick had been hoping we could put in once we retired. I moved all our furniture there, Mick’s favorite chair from Arlington now in our big kitchen. I spent some devastatingly lonely weeks there, awash in painful memories. I carried on celebrating Ferragosto, though, convinced that Mick would not want the holiday tainted by his untimely death.
I made it through the first anniversary, when the boys came and we scattered his ashes into the lake from a rented pedal boat, the kind we used to take out when they were kids. It was horrific, rather than comforting, to watch his ashes disappear into the deep cold lake where we had swum together so many times.
But kids pull you through life. They’re young, full of plans, with their lives in front rather than behind them. And so, they did with me.We all moved to London – me from Jerusalem, Patrick and his girlfriend from Rome – where Mick was from and Ben was living, deciding we needed to be in the same city for a while after his death. Soon, Patrick asked his Italian girlfriend to marry him with a lively engagement party at the house with her entire extended family. And then they got married at the lake a year later, in a beautiful medieval chapel overlooking the water. Ben, too, married his British girlfriend a year after that, and the two of them went to Trevignano for a few special days before their wedding. Patrick and his wife had a baby boy in London, whom they named after Mick.
But now, yet again, life has other plans for us.
The boys, men in their early 30s now, have decided to go back to the United States, American life always attractive, just as it was a long time ago for Mick and me. Patrick, his wife and young Micky moved to New York at the beginning of the year. Ben and his wife moved back to Washington last month.
I’ve decided to stay in London, though, since I’ve met a kind British man who loves my Italian house, too. And he goes there with me in the summer. The house will be farther away for my boys now, but all I can hope is that it will always remain a draw, as they build their own families, their childhoods by now firmly etched into their psyches. I don’t think I can ever sell it. So many old – and now new – memories there. I think Mick would understand.
Deane was The Washington Post’s Real Estate reporter from 1999-2005, as she was building her Italian home.
Photography: Fabio De Farro, The Washington Post.