Prologue: It’s important to travel after a death, they say, to help process loss from a new vantage point. A month before my wedding in 2016, my mother passed away of a blood clot related to her cancer treatments. We had been using the hectic thrill of party planning as a distraction from the harsh reality of our situation, or at least I was—perhaps too much so. Then all of a sudden, she was gone.
Before her diagnosis, my mother and I had spent a sunny weekend in Rome, and I was keen to share the experience with my husband too. After a year of grieving, of dismantling and selling my childhood home, my husband and I headed to explore the layers of the ancient city and reexamine our place in this strange new emptier world. This piece is excerpted from an in-progress memoir “Havishamarama,” the story of losing a parent while planning a wedding.
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I spend part of my mother’s life insurance money on a trip back to Rome. I find it fitting that I can blow her money on such a trip, just as I blew her money majoring in Classical Studies.
My husband and I extend the trip to see all the sights my mother and I didn’t get to during our short time there, as it had just been a long weekend. I had spared my mother the tour of Ostia, which would be a full day of looking at stones, away from the trendy shops or cafes she liked. My husband and I meet our Ostia expert at the train station to take the regional rail west to the ancient port city. The weekly tour is open to as many people who sign up, but no one else wants to go this week, so it’s just the three of us.
Our guide is an archaeologist who is called to work on excavations throughout the city whenever there is funding. So, he doesn’t work very often. Most of the funding goes to conserving what’s already been found. There is so much old life lying underground, and no money to discover it. “We are so slow building out the Roman Metro because they keep running into new things that had been buried in the earth. And then of course there is the corruption,” he tells us.
We marvel at his life in Rome and he marvels at our life in New York. “In Rome, you cannot walk out your door and get sushi. In New York, you can get anything,” he says, which we find a convincing point.
He tours us around a columbarium before we enter the gates to the city. Arched, brick niches look like small pizza ovens all in a row. He explains that columbaria became popular around this time, as Romans began using them to save the limited space they had just outside the city walls. They were designed as rooms for people to spend time in, to eat and converse around, so that the dead could enjoy their family’s company and be remembered.
“That’s what I’m doing for my mom! A columbarium,” I tell our guide, and he goes silent.
He walks us through the city gate of Ostia Antica, and the recognizable broad stone slabs of a Roman road pick up under our feet. Nobody is here; we have an entire ancient town to ourselves.
The main drag is lined with outlines of shops that had each served a distinct purpose two thousand years ago. Some of the foundations have their full first stories intact, and rectangular openings beckon us to peek into the rooms of the past. Some of the walls are still lined with painted art, wallpaper patterns and mythological scenes. We walk along, heads darting left and right, almost tripping over a well sitting in the middle of the road.
Our guide leans down and picks up an orange piece of clay from the ground. “See the curves, the linework? This comes from a piece of pottery. It’s good.” He hands us the bit of amphora to rub with our fingers, to inspect in the sunlight, before we place it back in the dirt. “This is why I love visiting Ostia over, say, Pompeii. There are no rules. You can feel the history in your hands.”
We hop up some brick stairs, and survey the full scene around us. Directly below are the Baths of Neptune. An entire floor of black-and-white mosaic looks naked and open to the elements. Neptune is carrying a triton and commanding a chariot pulled by seahorses. The chariot is surrounded by majestic sea creatures, fish, mermen, babies riding dolphins, even swimming goat-headed animals, all winding their tails in wild directions. The Ostians would migrate between the steaming hot bath, the warm bath, and the frigidarium, imagery of the sea all around them.
“It’s good,” he says, pointing to a discolored part of the brickwork beneath us.
“What do you mean, ‘it’s good’?” I ask.
“Oh! Sorry! I mean, it’s ancient—not a restoration or something put in later. So ‘it’s good,’ means it’s from the first, second, third century,” he says.
He leads us into a two-roomed building with the most amount of built-in furniture we’ve yet seen. “Welcome to the thermopolium. It’s a bar,” our guide says, and encourages us to look around. “It’s good.”
My husband and I feel immediately at home in this tavern. Everything is in its right place. There is an L-shaped bar with a thick marble amphora attached on top. Benches line the walls. A plastic covering shields a vivid painting of three items: olives and a turnip on a plate, a water glass with floating eggs, a pair of cymbals. A full set of marble shelves sits directly below the painting. Ruins of a furnace lie in the far corner. There is even a backyard, a courtyard with a marble birdbath and a large amphora set in the ground.
It starts to rain and we hang in the bar. Our guide traces his finger along the slab of stone at the entryway, and we lean down to see a faint line carved from one end to the other. “A sliding door was here.”
We continue down the road and come face to face with the outlines of the house of Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother. A stone, engraved much later, quotes Augustine’s Book IX of Confessions. Monica had wept every night for her son before he converted to Christianity—bit of a helicopter parent. Augustine and his mother overlooked the gardens in Ostia from her window, and his Confessions described how their talk ascended into prayer, how they shared a vision. Soon after she contracted the flu and died before their planned venture back home to Carthage. Following her death, Augustine stayed a while here in Ostia and mourned his mother.
And then, little by little, there came back to me my former memories of thy handmaid: her devout life toward thee, her holy tenderness and attentiveness toward us, which had suddenly been taken away from me—and it was a solace for me to weep in thy sight, for her and for myself, about her and about myself. Thus I set free the tears which before I repressed, that they might flow at will, spreading them out as a pillow beneath my heart. And it rested on them, for thy ears were near me—not those of a man, who would have made a scornful comment about my weeping. But now in writing I confess it to thee, O Lord!
– Augustine’s Confessions, Book IX, Chapter 12
And here is the same house, sitting in front of us, and here are those same gardens mentioned in monasteries and classrooms around the world for these two millennia.
I loved reading these raw texts in college, loved being able to decode these proclamations and declarations and lore. I’d dig up points of views from two thousand years ago, and discover what they wanted, how they were going to get it, what they lost, what they loved—searching for clues of life. Augustine cried over his fallen mother, just as we do. And now, with the rare privilege of flying to Rome, I have unearthed raw buildings to play with too. The fun is putting together all the pieces: the stories they told laid against the buildings they left behind. Evidence is still buried, houses stacked on top of houses, leaving endless puzzles still to solve.
The tour of Ostia ends in a vast, open-air marketplace where the boats once docked and the trading took place. Within these two centuries, the shoreline has moved almost a half mile farther out from where we stand now. A large amphitheater sits on one edge of the courtyard. Birds chirp from atop the broken statues of Roman figureheads. The rain has stopped and we dodge puddles as our guide walks us down the line of trading posts.
“These sloops were each allocated to a different tradesman. See the mosaic—it’s a rope. Rope salesman. See this one—elephant. Elephant salesman,” he says. “They didn’t have the elephants here! Think of it like wholesale dealmaking. Let’s say you’re a senator and you wanted to order some elephants. You could put on a whole Hannibal battle scene for your people.”
We head back from where we started, and he stops to point out a small second-century fish shop. We take a step up into an open platform, with just a stove and a bar, the floor inlaid with a mosaic of a curious creature and the words “inbide calcote.” “This is one of the most puzzling mosaics in Ostia,” our guide says. ‘Inbide calcote’ means ‘I trample the envious.’ The dolphin is eating all their fish, which is quite a negative image for the fishermen.”
“So it’s like, f the haters,” I say.
“Sure. Your guess is as good as the experts’,” our guide says, and he leads us back to Rome.
Back in the city, we eat mounds of cacio e pepe at Roscioli’s, and take photos of ourselves where my mother and I had taken photos: overlooking the Roman Forum, peering up into the Pantheon’s open hole, dancing among the stone pine trees of the Borghese Gardens.
My husband hadn’t really been to Rome before, just a bus layover one day while touring European cities in college. I breathlessly tug him around the city. Here is where I shopped for shoes with my mom, I tell him. Here is where we munched overpriced pizza in the center of Piazza Navona. We didn’t know you’re not supposed to buy food in the centers of these Roman squares, guaranteed tourist traps with menus printed in both Italian and English. Nor did we know we were eating directly on top of the remains of the Stadium of Domitian, where Emperor Diocletian beheaded thirteen-year-old Agnes, among thousands of other innocent Romans. Nor did we know about the Church of St. Augustine just across the fountain, where his mother Monica is buried alongside hanging works by Raphael and Caravaggio. And Caravaggio, well, he was once arrested for throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, oh and he killed a man…how far down the rabbit hole do you go? So many layers.
We settle back into the hotel room and talk about what’s awaiting us back home. The room is small and starting to stink of our wet and muddy clothes.
“Organizing requires knocking on doors. Talking to people face to face. Learning what their needs are and showing them how our platform can help us all progress to a more dignified life,” my husband says, though I’m not sure he’s talking to me, or just talking.
“That’s a lot of work. Why can’t you just run a Facebook ad?”
He sputters for a few full seconds and I watch him calm down. “Did you learn nothing from the last two years in politics?”
“Yeah. He ran a bunch of Facebook ads and he won.”
“That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. And frankly offensive.”
“I’m glad you’re passionate about it. Okay, so! We have an aggressive itinerary tomorrow,” I say, and open my folder full of our confirmation codes, maps, and restaurant ideas. Nero’s Golden House, the Domus Aurea, had recently opened to visitors for the first time, since, well, Nero. They only offer tours early in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays. Following that, we’d visit the San Clemente church near the Colosseum. The basilica had been built in the Middle Ages and was supposed to be beautiful in its own right, but the goods lay below: a hideaway first century Christian church was one floor down, and an even deeper floor revealed a second century Mithraic temple.
“It’s not a passion. It’s a calling,” he says, unable to give it up.
“Is that your number-one thing?”
“You’re my number-one thing, sweetheart,” he says.
Fresh tour guides await at the Domus Aurea, and ask us to wear construction hats, as it is very much an active site. The palace was one of the most ambitious architectural projects of ancient Rome. Emperor Nero took advantage of his own city burning to the ground in 64AD to build a sweetass house to entertain in. It spans almost a mile under the city. Entering since its discovery had always been restricted to the scholars and excavators, those with permits. My mother and I had taken selfies, pouting in our sunglasses in front of the black iron gates of the complex, but had not been allowed in at the time.
Renaissance artists including Raphael heard about mysterious ancient rooms and would tunnel down to marvel at the painting on the walls. Seeing the cave-like features of the ancient rooms, including a painting of Polyphemus in his own cave, they thought they were old grottos, and had no idea they were in an imperial palace. They attempted to recreate the painting style in their own work and the movement became known as “grotesque.”
Our guide is excited and chatting to us about a couple of recent discoveries at the site. “Surely you have heard about the lake!” The palace was said to have brought the country to the city, including fields filled with game and grazing livestock, even a vineyard. The writer Suetonius had described a manmade lake in which Nero attempted to drown his mother. The excavators had just found a manmade lake.
The guide leads us into an octagonal room with a concrete dome that lets light spill throughout, a startling change from the dark hallways we had just been led through. “Some thought this could be the site of the revolving dinner theater,” he says.
“The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens,” wrote Suetonius. It was said Nero had built the most technical innovation anyone had seen at the time: a circular stage that rotated, wowing all his reclining, feasting guests, but the idea they could support such an invention at the time had scholars skeptical. “We have uncovered a flat device with spaces for metal ball bearings. Calcite deposits on the rocks around the mechanism suggest the platform was moved by water–it would have had the capacity to rotate a big stage. However, it was found in the northeast corner of the palace, not this room,” the guide says, as our tour group inspects the grand space.
My husband and I look at each other in excited shock and squeeze each others’ hands. “They found a device!”
We walk around the other side of the Colosseum and into a residential neighborhood to find the San Clemente church. A large-armed security guard is smoking a cigarette outside the entrance. I nudge my husband to go in front of me, and he says, “Uh, can we come in?”
The guard rolls his eyes, as if to say, if you want. In reading up on the church later, I am delighted to find a snapshot of the very same security guard on the San Clemente Wikipedia page, guarding the front door with a smoke in his mouth.
We skip through the ornate Catholic church towards a sign that reads, Excavation Downstairs: No Photos! We descend the stairs to find a basement, fragments of an early church glued to the walls. This “ecclesia domestica” was a house belonging to a wealthy Roman, who secretly allowed it to operate as one of the first Christian churches in the city. These pragmatic Christians had etched verses on the backs of official government marble slabs, which visitors can rotate on an axis to read the juxtaposed messaging.
In the far back of the basement, there is another staircase leading even deeper into the ground. “It looks dark down there,” my husband says. “And cold.” I push him down the stairs to venture first. There is a sound of rushing water—the old ancient sewer is still flowing at the end of the second basement. We hug our shoulders and watch our breath steam the air. The foundations of two behemoth marble columns sit to the right, which we’ve been told are ruins of a city mint, and to the left, a chain and a “No photos!” sign mark the viewing area of the Mithraic temple.
The cavernous space had benches to each side and an altar depicting Mithras in his cape slaying a bull. My husband goes to check out the running sewer and I’m left taking in the temple. There would have been gemstones lining the walls, pillows and blankets lining the benches. There would have been a ton of food and sacrificed animal meat.
I feel a hard push down against my bag, as if someone were reaching into it to steal something. I whip around but there’s nothing but the fog of my newly quickened breath.
“Hey,” I call back. “I’ve gotta go upstairs, I’ve got to get out of here.”
We keep going. There is so much more to see. We take the train to Naples and transfer to a rickety, overcrowded train, the Circumvesuviana, that winds around Mount Vesuvius. We hop off with all of our luggage at Herculaneum, the neighboring town to Pompeii.
Lava didn’t trail through Herculaneum as it did Pompeii in 79AD, but the wealthier town became encased in volcanic ash, which preserved things that would normally disintegrate, like wooden doors and beds, and the skeletons found clutching their valuables at the shoreline.
A whole new ancient city is laid out, with rooms to explore, plaques to inform. We get lost in our audio guides. We race between senators’ houses, statues of taunting centaurs in one, a private toilet in another. A bakery’s oven has a phallus glued to the top. A house has a wooden door with a hinge still swinging from its entryway.
I’m alone in a blacksmith’s shop. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a woman in a shawl bend down to tend the fire. When I turn around, she’s gone. “Hey, come back!” I say.
“Sweetheart, it’s time to go.”
Layers and layers and layers and layers. If you don’t talk when you’ve got each other, you resort to ghost hunting. I can count the number of ghosts I’ve seen in these rediscovered towns on my hand, and still my mother is silent. I’m the one with unfinished business, and I won’t stop haunting these ruins.
We squeeze in one last museum before our flight home.
“Hey, we should probably head to the airport,” my husband says. I shake him off and venture deeper into the Roman coin collection.
The highlight of the Palazzo Massimo is Livia Drusilla’s garden frescoes. In the 19th century, some Romans digging around outside the city happened upon large canvases, paintings of verdant green gardens, orange and pink flowers, birds splashing in birdbaths. Later it was discovered to be the country refuge of the wife of the first Roman emperor.
“Come on, we’ve got to go,” he says.
I spin around the room, submerge myself in the lush greenery. I imagine Livia here with me, talking and laughing among the flowers.
“Enough!” he says. “We’ll miss the flight!”
We couldn’t see it all, but we did the best we could, considering.
Caroline Henley Caroline Henley’s essays and fiction have been published in Mockingbird Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, and The F Word. She is pursing an MFA in fiction at the Mountainview program.
Featured photo: courtesy of author