In a small Italian village approximately forty miles southeast of Florence called Pergine Valdarno, three friends and I spent two weeks in a 400-year-old Tuscan villa. It was early autumn, and the weather each day was ideal for exploring the surrounding, centuries-old hill towns. Before setting out each morning, a stroll along the village’s own ancient roadways allowed us the opportunity to connect with local residents. None of those we passed spoke English—nor did any of us speak Italian—but their friendly smiles indicated that we were a welcome presence.
One of the villagers was an attractive, middle-aged lady whose modest home appeared well-maintained and freshly painted, albeit nearly hidden amongst a garden thick with flowers of all descriptions. A low wooden fence encased the blooms that otherwise would have spilled onto the walkway.
Each day the woman would be there, weeding, watering, or clipping a fragrant bouquet. Standing in the midst of her garden in a colorful print dress, her hair caught up in a flowered scarf, she portrayed a Monet painting come to life.
As we approached, she would walk to her fence to greet us. Few identifiable words were ever exchanged between us, due to the language barrier. The most we ourselves could offer was, “Buon giorno (good morning)!” And about her flowers, “Bellisimo (lovely)!” Her smile would broaden, and she’d softly offer a word of thanks: “Grazie.”
We looked forward to our daily encounters with her. She radiated goodness. A silver filigree cross worn at her neckline suggested that she was a woman of faith and, to my mind, a conversation with her surely would have produced some gems of wisdom. But while our attempts to communicate continually failed, they yet revealed that the spoken word isn’t always necessary to convey mutual respect.
One crisp, clear morning near the end of our stay, the lady presented each of us with a freshly clipped pink rose and the grasp of a warm, calloused hand. On the morning of our departure, we walked to a nearby flower shop and carefully chose a blooming plant for her garden. We included a card thanking her for allowing us to enjoy her brilliant floral display. We signed it “from your American friends.” Then we set out to personally deliver the plant.
We reached her yard at an earlier time than usual, and she was nowhere in sight. With some hesitation, we opened the garden gate and followed the path to her door. We knocked twice but receive no response. Time didn’t allow us to linger, so we set the plant and the card on her doorstep and left the village, never to see her again.
My thoughts sometimes drift back to the lady of Pergine Valdarno—most often, it seems, during moments of stress generated by “breaking news” reports detailing the latest threats to our nation and to the world itself. I envision her steadfastly tending her garden, undaunted by menacing worldwide headlines. She continues to plant new starts and encourage new growth … for she believes in tomorrow.
Uplifted by these thoughts, I turn off the news and—with renewed faith—I step outside into my own small garden to plant a rose.
Text Janet Haag
Photography Jane Hope