One of the most surprising things I ever heard my father say was: It was always my dream to visit Florence.
My father was 89 years old at the time, in perfect health and quite the force of nature. Born in Poland in 1929, he emigrated to Canada in 1937, took over his father’s food and dry goods business around 1950 and married my mother in 1967. I was born one year later; my sister four years after. He lost my mother to illness 14 years after they married. He wed again six years thereafter and lost his second wife two decades later. He was known as a good neighbor, a philanthropic community member who never called attention to his good deeds but just did them, and a solid support system for his children. He wasn’t a great traveler: holidays were more “resort” oriented—South Florida, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico—he liked his life in Montreal. So, it was a surprise to hear him say in the summer of 2019 that it was always his dream to visit Florence. I had just made Florence my permanent home. Here was an opportunity to fulfil one of my father’s dreams.
I quickly organized a trip for him in November, around the American Thanksgiving holiday, when I knew friends—Italians, Americans, Canadians, and more—would gather around our table in the hills of Florence for that strange ritual of eating a stuffed turkey, yams in all forms, beans, and— because it is Italy—pastas, followed by lashings of gelato and that confection filled with vanilla-infused patisserie cream, Torta della Nonna. To add to the “dream,” my wife organized two wonderful Florence excursions with Eco Friendly Golf Cart Tours. There is so much to observe in Florence and these tours proved a comfortable, time sensitive way to see the sights, visit locales of interest and learn history with someone who was prepared to answer all manner of questions. We arranged the tour just before twilight, so one could enjoy the sites in daylight and have the tour come to a close just as the sun was setting, producing colors that are beyond what we see in our imaginations. What a perfect way for 89-year-old feet to “pound the pavement”. There would be the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Ponte Vecchio, the dizzying array of arteries and palazzos emanating from piazza della Signoria and the Mercato Centrale. There would be Eataly for an afternoon snack and aperitivo, all of which visited by golf cart with a generous helping of history thrown in. Rather than walking the streets of Florence, one floats through them. That’s how my father described the experience.
Then there was the weekend being in the centro to enjoy the Jewish traditions of the Great Synagogue, one of the most beautiful and elaborate synagogues in all of Europe, built in 1872. During WW2, the Synagogue had been taken over by the Nazis for artillery storage. When the Nazis were retreating at the end of the war, the Synagogue was wired for explosion. As the Nazis moved blocks away, wires in tow to blow up the building, the janitor, a righteous gentile, managed to defuse all the wires except one, so that when they detonated, the Nazis would hear some kind of explosion. The janitor chose the one wire to leave very carefully and the explosion did minimal damage. Miraculously, the entire building survived and the hole that the bomb made was quickly restored after the war. I knew this story would move my father, having escaped the Nazi regime as a child, losing all of his extended family, including his sister, to the camps. His parents, my great-grandparents, did survive.
The Hotel Regency was a perfect setting for a weekend walk to the Synagogue and all the local restaurants that would be open for a weekend Sabbath meal. There are so many wonderful spaces for a leisurely stroll: piazza dei Ciompi, piazza Duomo, and anything in between. The weather at the end of November can be somewhat brisk, but one can generally count on sunny afternoons and surprise gardens among ancient edifices and the brown and orange history plaques that pop up with regularity all throughout the city. At the end of my father’s centro weekend, he said, “Florence is such a warm, livable, friendly and beautifully historic city. It’s no wonder you are so happy here.” True, that.
One of the funniest moments during my father’s visit was when he first arrived, right off the plane from Canada, having been driven up to my house that overlooks the Duomo in the hills. When he emerged from the vehicle, before seeing much else, he looked very worried. I asked him what was wrong. He scanned the length of my house and said, “Are you sure you are ok here? The outside walls of your home, they look like they are falling apart.” In his early days, my father had been a builder, building large edifices in his adopted home, Montreal. “Well,” I said, “The government doesn’t allow us to do too much to these walls, they are 900 years old. They are protected from senseless intervention. And besides, they are almost a meter thick. The inside is safe.”
My father was so relieved. It was just a funny thing to see, so concerned that his “dream” of Florence might not quite be so because the outer walls seemed to be falling apart. But very quickly, my father came to see the charm that we all feel when we come to Florence, which is quite different from concepts from across the pond, where the old is largely discarded for the new. At 89, I could see that my father suddenly started to feel a deep sense of belonging, that there is great value in the old and slight imperfection. It is there to know that it has “lived.”
This week I thought a great deal about that visit and how meaningful it was to him that he got to fulfil a dream with his son, just a few months before the entire world would shut down for a long time. I realized how important it was to be “pushy” in the moment, to ensure that he was able to see this one dream come to fruition and not wait for some “better, perhaps more convenient time”. It was so important because this week, while at work, I received a call that my father, now 93, healthy to the last, active, mind and body fully functional, had suddenly slipped into cardiac arrest and within hours had left us. I realized that the last time I saw him face to face before that terrible time, when we could not be with our loved ones, was in my beloved city, where the old is celebrated and a dream came true.