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The first phone call I made after giving birth to my daughter was to my mother. I had expected tears of joy. I had expected some kind of maternal wisdom about what a wonderful mother I would make. And the praise did come, eventually.
But the first words of encouragement my mother offered me when she heard I had a healthy baby girl were, “A girl, huh? Thank God. That’s what I’ve been waiting for.”
When I asked what she meant, she had only one word for me: “Italy.”
When I was 14 and my parents first announced they were taking my brother and me to Italy for a three-week vacation in the middle of the school year, I was, like, “Hell ya!” Who wouldn’t want to miss three weeks of school? And I was pretty sure I would be spending those three weeks canoodling with swarthy Euro-babes, eating pizza and shopping for Italian-leather bomber jackets.
By the second day, however, I’d had enough of Italy (and what I deemed to be the unreasonably long hours with, and in close proximity to, my parents and little brother).
I had no appreciation for the culture my parents were attempting to expose me to at endless museums, colosseums and galleries. Also, as it turned out, authentic Italian pizza was an anemic, almost cheeseless disappointment, and I couldn’t afford an Italian-leather key chain, let alone a leather jacket.
Except for one thing, Italy was a total bust. The only redemption for me was that no matter where we went, boys and grown men flirted with me, even in front of my parents. Waiters winked suggestively, and old men whispered “Ciao bella” to me on buses and in elevators. In fact, on Day 3, two clearly drunk young men sang Madonna’s Like a Virgin to me while my family and I were eating pineapple gelato at Piazza di Spagna. I am aware this is a cliché, but it happened nonetheless.
After a few more days of this kind of attention, I started to suspect I was the most attractive Canadian girl these Italians had ever seen. It wasn’t long before I was actually feeling a little outraged that I’d been so overlooked by the boys in Canada. Clearly, I was devastatingly beautiful.
Toward the end of our trip, I had become so sure of my irresistibility that I had begun looking for opportunities to share lingering looks and coy smiles with any male who tried to catch my attention. I had somehow deluded myself that all this practice would come in handy when I returned to Canada as an obviously hotter, worldlier version of myself.
At the end of another boring day touring Vatican City, my parents, my brother and I began the long walk back to the bus stop where we were supposed to meet our tour group. As had become my habit, I was making sure my parents and brother were a good 20 feet ahead of me – I couldn’t have them interfering with my newly discovered magnetism.
Soon, I heard the familiar sounds of Italian catcalls, only this time there were many of them at once. I looked toward the sound, and saw an entire busload of cadets stopped about 15 feet away from me at a red light. Many of the young men were hanging out of the windows trying to get my attention.
I looked up and offered a little smile – you know, just to let them know I appreciated their efforts. Then I coyly looked down again – this was an art form, after all. I couldn’t show gratitude or awkwardness. When one of them called out louder, I looked up again, and this time held the gaze of the cadet closest to me.
“I am truly stunning,” I thought.
And just as I was congratulating myself on being some kind of Jedi mistress of flirting, it happened. Yes, I walked into a gigantic wooden pole.
It is hard to convey the horror of the moment when I realized the busload of cadets was roaring hysterically at my ridiculous display. I did not look back toward the bus, which was still waiting at what was possibly the longest red light in history.
As I somehow found my way to where my family was waiting for me on the corner, I considered for the first time in my life that perhaps, just maybe, God was really real. And He was angry with me for not enjoying my tour of the Holy City.
Clearly, this was revenge on the snotty little Canadian girl whose ego had bloated a little too quickly, and who needed a hard lesson in humility.
So, 12 years later, when my mother suggested that my giving birth to a girl had something to do with God and with Italy, it made sense.
As the memories of my lack of gratitude and my teenaged narcissism came back to me, I looked at my infant daughter and thought, for the second time in my life, “Well played, God.”
Today my daughter is a teenager. She is intelligent, funny and sweet, and I am truly blessed.
But whenever I catch her admiring herself a little too long in the hallway mirror, or posing in a shop window’s reflection, I secretly give a little prayer of thanks for telephone poles and patient mothers everywhere.
Tara Gordon-Cooper lives in Victoria.
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