It’s 1 a.m. Elida and I are sweating from dancing so hard. The music mix is pounding the same dance rhythm in our ears. We’re smiling and jumping. There’s blisters on my feet because I kicked my shoes off a long time ago. The smile and nod I give to Elida says, We’re not as good as we once were, but we’re as good once, as we ever were. She flashes a smile back.
Across from me is Jean. She’s got her hands in the air and she’s wiggling her hips. The red and green laser lights flash on her white hair and glasses. Jean’s getting used to being a widow. Her husband died a little over a year ago after 51 years of marriage. I wonder what he would say if he could see her now. I bet he’s smiling down at her and in his own way, saying, You go, girl! You live life with all your might and enjoy every second. I’ve got an eternity so time doesn’t matter at all. I just like to see you smile.
We all keep checking on Jean to see if she’s tired. We offer our seat on the bus and the train. We offer to carry her bags or to walk her home. But she outlasts all of us. She doesn’t complain about the miles of walking, waiting for the bus, and crowds on the train. And when everyone else is going to bed, she opts for the dance floor.
The thing that impressed me about Jean is her willing acceptance of the youth’s customs of the day. Jean didn’t make any negative comments about the music. She just said, “So that’s how they dance nowadays?” and joined right in. If we could all be that accepting, if we could judge a little less and join a little more, oh, what a wonderful world it would be!
Jean’s got a son and a daughter and two grandkids. She has a soft, southern accent. After her husband died, she moved from Georgia to Washington to be near her daughter. Krista, another art apostle in Italy, introduced Jean to Art, Women, and Wine classes. Always hoping to take art lessons, Jean never could because her husband was in the military and that meant moving all over the states for twenty years. But she’s never been overseas. When I asked her about her expectations of the trip she said, “I have no clue. I just want to see everything I can.”
Under the bright disco lights to my right is Jan, a pretty blonde woman, who seems as sweet as she looks. But she’s bobbing up and down with us and smiling at Elida and me as we show off all our dance moves. We tried to nickname Jan, Sweet Pea, which she rejected. We sit down for a few moments after rockin’ out on the dance floor and she puts her pointer fingers on either side of her head to look like horns. Hence, her new nickname: Naughty. She’s 52 and has been married for 25 years. Growing up with two brothers in a male-dominated family and having two boys of her own, Jan is enjoying having a set of girlfriends of different ages. “It’s really refreshing,” she said. “Having this time with these women has really helped me to value the women in my life. I love that we can learn so much from each other.”
Jan has traveled before. She helps her husband run a business and they’ve been fortunate enough to see Japan, Ireland, London, and Mexico. With one son in college and the other a senior in high school, Jan said, “This is kind of a new chapter in my life.” As to art, Jan says she can draw, but Art, Women, and Wine classes have really helped her to build confidence in herself as an artist. Jan compares herself to a sponge, ready to soak up anything that comes her way. Looking at her out on the dance floor with all the teenagers of the hostel, I believe it.
To my left, there’s this crazy lady who, as it turns out, wiggled her hips so hard that the next day she spent the day in bed, recovering. Nancy, 56, is a retired speech pathologist. Married with two sons and a daughter, Nancy is officially an empty nester. Just before arriving in Rome, she left her “baby” daughter at the dorm for her first year in college.
She said, “I always wanted to go to Europe. I was afraid I was going to die before I went.” For Nancy, death has always been a present foreboding. Her father died when she was 11. When she was 19, the traumatic, sudden death of her mother left her with the fear that death will also come early for her. Like her mother, Nancy is a fit, healthy person with a genetic disposition for high cholesterol. She worked hard to prepare her kids for being on their own because she never knew if they’d suddenly be left without her. Due to new medicine, Nancy has a better chance of surviving her genetic disposition than her mother did. But Nancy seems to be taking the same advice she gave to me when trying to decide whether to come to Italy: Carpe Diem. Arriving in Rome, Nancy was able to scratch off another line on her bucket list.
Another thing on Nancy’s bucket list was to paint. She said, “I had it in my head I was a painter, but I had never picked up a paint brush.” In college, art history was a class she did well in and the one textbook she had saved. But it took over 30 years of being a speech pathologist before Nancy made the jump into art. When she moved to Washougal, she read an article in the newspaper about Elida going to the White House as an artist chosen to paint an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. “I was on a quest to meet new people,” she said. She added, “I was expecting this little old lady.” Instead, she found Elida who encouraged her through the process of painting. Later, her immediate family took over in encouraging her. She now has two finished pieces hanging in her living room.
Also on the dance floor is a beautiful blonde named Brandee. With her hair swept back in a long ponytail, Brandee’s brilliant blue eyes stand out as she swings back and forth in our circle of dancers. She straggled in late — finishing up laundry before joining us. When walking about the city, Brandee is usually working on getting a great photo shot. Or you might see her sitting on the steps sketching a scene.
At 42, Brandee is happily married and mother to a son, 15, and two daughters, 13 and 10. Though Brandee drew and painted while she was growing up, she didn’t believe there was any money in it. She sold pieces in high school and painted commissioned murals. She also tried to break into the highly competitive illustrator market for children’s books. But, she pointed out, “I have a focus problem. And Elida bugs me. Elida pushes me.”
Brandee always thought of herself as a “human copy machine.” She didn’t know she had a style that was distinct. But she’s been learning to grow as an artist and use her voice. “I think the greatest thing about Elida is that you see a Grand Canyon between here and there, but she breaks it down into little steps that are accomplishable.”
Brandee had reservations about coming to Italy. Though she’s traveled before to Europe, often the experiences were tainted by something negative –people being mean to her, losing her stuff, etc. She worried about the trip being too extravagant but her husband encouraged her to go. To go on a trip with a lot of women had its risks. “I’m a lot of woman to handle,” she said, laughing.
But Brandee added, “Any self-expression is like that.” She’s right. Her point is that coming to Italy with a bunch of women you don’t necessarily know, taking time to create a piece, or putting your work up in a show for everyone to see is a risk. It’s a risk of your emotions, of your time, and of your money. Brandee and these other women are willing to chance it. I admire their courage.