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Illustration by Alex Siklos

It’s been almost 55 years since we met accidentally but I still remember Rosa.

In the spring of 1971, I claimed my aisle seat on an Air Canada flight bound to Vancouver from Toronto. I opened my book and tried to ignore passengers in the aisle beside me attempting to find spaces above for their carry-on bags before proceeding to their seats.

Shortly thereafter I was distracted by loud voices in front of me. The flight attendant was desperately attempting to get an elderly couple, both probably mid 70s, to show her their seat stubs but they were busy arguing with each other and ignoring her.

I recognized the dialect from Veneto, an area immediately south of my native region of Trentino-Alto Adige. I stood up and inquired if I could help as I spoke Italian.

By speaking to them in Italian I gained their attention and they showed me their boarding passes. I noted the older man’s seat was further back and, to my surprise, hers was the middle seat beside me. I offered to exchange my spot with his so they could sit together. The older lady interrupted and ordered her husband to go down the aisle to his seat. Looking directly at me she told me she had sat with her husband for over 50 years, for a few hours he could survive on his own.

I returned his seat stub and he, noticeably irritated, continued to his seat. I found a spot for his wife’s big carry-on bag and sat in her middle seat, then lifted the common armrest to help her squeeze her ample frame into the aisle seat.

I noted a definite sign of annoyance on the face of our fellow window-side seatmate as I was forced to claim some of his space. Throughout all this, she kept talking in a mixture of her Veneto dialect and Italian at a volume she thought was normal but could be heard at least three rows away. She continued talking without any encouragement or questions from me for the entire trip about her life in Italy, her family, farming and gardening.

The flight from Milan to Toronto was a first for both of them to visit a son in Canada. She and her husband were looking forward to embracing their daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, a boy, 6, and a girl, 4, for the first time. She recounted her excitement to fly halfway around the world to see their grandchildren and she carefully described them in detail from photos she had seen. Then, instantly and with obvious anger, she described how “quei miserabili” (those wretches) Canada Customs agents had confiscated many gifts they were carrying, namely six bottles of their homemade wine, several different varieties of cheeses, mortadella and salami from their region. She even wiped a few tears while describing how she had tried desperately, through an interpreter, to convince “quei miserabili” to let her bring in those gifts for her family.

The tears didn’t last long. Her face took on a mischievous appearance as she turned to me and whispered that the “miserabili” fortunately, missed finding other gifts. She reached down into her ample bosom and pulled up at least half a dozen gold necklaces, all of them with dangling medallions displaying the Virgin Mary. She told me all were “vero oro Italiano” (true Italian gold). After she tucked them back, her hand went deeper down her front and she pulled up a handful of tiny cloth bags each tied with a string. Displaying them for my benefit she said each one contained seeds of different salad plants grown in their garden in Veneto. Their son would surely plant those seeds in his own garden.

Her chatter continued unabated. But as the airplane made its final approach to the airport, she turned to look at me, “Che lavoro fai tu?“ (What work do you do?)

At the time, I was working as an undercover RCMP officer and told her I worked for the federal police.

Her hands flew to her mouth, “Oh Dio mio!” (Oh my God!) she cried. Everyone nearby turned to look at us, obviously wondering what I might have done to this poor old lady.

When finally she removed her hands, she began mumbling that her husband always told her she had a big mouth and what just transpired proved he was right. I tried to reassure her that what she had told me would remain a secret between us.

Noi Italiani dobbiamo rimanere sempre stretti assieme!” (We Italians must always stick together.)

Once the plane landed and passengers stood in the aisle to gather their things, Rosa unabashedly clasped her arms around me with a tight bear hug, “Ti ricordero per sempre Luciano” (I’ll remember you always Luciano).

I still remember her as well.

Luciano Nave lives in Toronto.

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