It all began the day my Uncle John Rapp’s basement flooded. He was living in Virginia at the time. It was about seven years ago in the spring, as I recall, and it had rained hard—one of those “once every hundred years” kinds of rain. So much came in such a short time that water flowed over his yard in sheets and some of it ran down a cellar stairway into his basement.
Uncle John was not one to take such intrusions lightly. He had been a B-17 pilot over Germany during World War II and had more “close calls” in his lifetime than I want to think about. So when he realized his basement was flooding, he didn’t hesitate to go downstairs and save what he could as the water rose. He hauled several boxes out of harm’s way and had returned for yet another load when a fireman appeared at the top of the stairs. “Hey, you can’t be down there—it’s dangerous,” the firemen yelled down at him. “You could get electrocuted! I’m supposed to get you outta here!” So my uncle grabbed a box and turned towards the stairway. Just then he noticed a book floating by him in the waste-deep water. He thought to himself, “That’s someone’s red notebook,” and he impulsively plucked it out of the water and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. He then climbed back up the stairs for the final time and his basement completely filled with water.
A few days later, as Uncle John sorted through things he had retrieved from the flood, he examined the notebook he had found floating during his last foray into the basement. He could tell that it was very old, and on the first page was written:
United States of
He recognized that the book had once belonged to his mother, Christine Lebline, before she married his father and changed her last name to Rapp. His curiosity was piqued, so he looked more carefully at the contents. Although not dated, he figured out that the hand-written book was a journal kept by Christine during the trip she made to Europe as a single woman during the summer of 1911. Immediately understanding the book’s archival value, and considering its waterlogged condition when he found it, he put sheets of waxed paper between each page to keep them from sticking together as they dried. The journal was also written in pencil, which was fortunate because it had not smeared. My uncle observed later that it was “pretty lucky” the journal had survived the flood.
No one in the family could recall ever having seen the journal before or even knowing that it existed. Moreover, my uncle couldn’t explain how it had even gotten into his basement in the first place. He assumed it had been packed in a box when he and some neighbors moved his mother’s possessions out of her home when it was sold in the mid-1960s. He thought he probably carried the box, along with others, to his home in Philadelphia at the time. From there, he reasoned that it had gone along with his household goods when his family moved to Connecticut several years later, and then it finally went to Virginia when he moved there in the 1990s. The box containing the journal had apparently gone through all of these places without ever having its contents examined—that is, until the box disintegrated in the basement flood and the journal floated to where my uncle found it. Yes, Uncle John, I guess you could say it all was “pretty lucky.”
When I learned from my uncle about the journal’s miraculous discovery, I was overjoyed. I had a sense that the book might be just what I needed to be able to relive my grandmother’s amazing travel experience as a young woman. I had previously known very little about this chapter of her life. I asked my uncle to make a copy of the journal and mail it to me as soon as he could; he assured me that he would.
Several months passed, but I received no journal. I saw my uncle in person a few months later at a family reunion and I reminded him that he had promised to send me the copy. In a subdued voice he responded, “I’m afraid that journal’s been lost, Steve. I’ve looked everywhere, but it has to have been tossed out with some damaged stuff after the flood.” My heart sank, but somehow I muttered, “Well, easy come…easy go.” My disappointment was certainly evident since I had been so sure the journal would be the catalyst I needed to write about my grandmother’s adventures. Without it, there just wasn’t much I could tell.
Another couple of months passed. One Saturday morning, I received a phone call from my Uncle John. We’d barely begun to speak when he exclaimed, “I found it, Steve! That journal was buried in a pile where I now remember putting it for safe keeping once it dried out.” He promised to copy it that very day and mail it to me. We both gave sighs of relief and laughed together. After I hung up the phone, I smiled and said to myself, “I guess some stories are meant to be told.”
After the miraculous emergence of my grandmother’s journal from my uncle’s flooded basement, I made some other discoveries of heirlooms from that time in her life. It all got me to thinking that possibly my writing about Christine’s journey to Europe might be about more than just the journal. For example, about a year after the journal was found I came upon a stash of some picture postcards in a collection of family letters I was reviewing in relation to a different writing project. These postcards had been acquired during Christine’s 1911 European travels and either mailed or hand carried back to her home in Rockford, Indiana. Her parents in Rockford had subsequently kept them. They had somehow survived, along with a few other family possessions, a major fire that consumed the Lebline house and burned it to the ground in the 1920s. The postcards later ended up in the possession of their daughter Matilda (Christine’s sister and my great-Aunt), who in turn passed them on to me during the 1980s. I frankly don’t recall what I thought about them when I initially received the cards from my Aunt Matilda. I suppose I understood their significance as keepsakes of my grandmother’s early-adult life, but it took the discovery of her 1911 journal to give them full meaning for me. After I read it, I knew that the postcards could offer valuable visual enhancement of the written accounts the journal contained.
About that same time I also discovered an old portrait of my grandmother taken when she was a young woman. It had apparently also been kept by her parents in their Rockford home and survived the fire. It ended up with their daughter Matilda as well, and was later taken by my mother to her home in New Jersey after Matilda died in 1989. My mother decided to display the photo in her bedroom, and during one of my visits to her house, I spotted the photograph. I had never seen it before, and I wasn’t even sure who the person was in the picture. I asked my mother and she replied, “That’s your grandmother about the time she graduated from Indiana University.” I realized at once that this photo also depicted Christine at about the time she made her journey to Europe. I asked my mother if I could take the photo home with me for future reference as I wrote about Christine’s trip, and she agreed.
I’ve since learned that the portrait of Christine was made in a studio sometime during the year 1910, which was in fact the year she graduated from college. Through the many times I’ve examined the photo since acquiring it, I’ve been especially drawn to the expression on Christine’s face and her knowing eyes looking right through the camera—straight at me. Her gentle smile suggests to me that while sitting for the portrait, she may have been anticipating her upcoming European adventures, which she later described in the journal as “the one thing I had dreamed of for so many years.”
Finding such treasured heirlooms—the journal, the postcards, the portrait—in fairly close succession fueled my interest in possibly traveling to Europe during 2011, the centennial year of Christine’s journey. In April of 2011, my wife Mary Ann and I decided to go to northern Italy, one of Christine’s favorite places, the following fall. We planned to use the journal, postcards and portrait as guides as we relived Christine’s dream.
In the months preceding our departure, some people asked what I expected to gain from my time in Italy. I gave a number of responses, but most had something to do with my anticipated satisfaction at seeing many of the same sights Christine had experienced one hundred years earlier. I also shared that I hoped to photograph some of the same places depicted in her postcards. And as the time of our departure drew nearer I sometimes added that I hoped that my grandmother would somehow “show up” or that I might “feel her touch” during my trip, although I frankly didn’t know then what I meant by such comments. I did feel, however, that sometime during the journey I would experience Christine’s presence in an unexpected way. One friend who understood my aspirations simply encouraged me to “Anticipate the unanticipated!”
It was a Thursday and one week into our time in Italy. We had spent two full days in Florence and it was our final morning before catching a train to Venice and continuing our journey. After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and began our walk to the railway station, pulling our luggage behind us. It started to rain, lightly at first, so we hastened our pace and arrived in good stead. We had allowed some extra time so that I could try to find a photographic studio in the vicinity of the station about which I had learned earlier during our time in Florence.
Founded in 1852 by three brothers, the Alinari Photographic Studio is the oldest such workshop in the world. Over the years, and especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this studio specialized in making photographs of historic monuments throughout Italy, and especially Florence. In more recent years, the studio had begun selling reprints of some of these early photos that were made from the original glass-plate negatives. I had become aware of these photos while visiting the Uffizi art museum in Florence earlier that week. I encountered some Alinari pictures for sale in one of the museum’s gift shops, and I looked through them thinking I might purchase one as a memento of our visit. However all of the ones in which I was interested were out of stock. As we departed the museum, I remarked to Mary Ann, “So close and yet so far.”
Later that same afternoon, I explained to a barista at a local café near the Ponte Vecchio about my missing out on finding an Alinari photograph at the museum shop. She commented, “Well, did you know that studio still exists?” I replied that I did not, and she then explained that the original Alinari studio was still located near the railway station. She suggested I go there before leaving Florence to see if I might still acquire one of the pictures. I thanked her and made plans to do so.
Mary Ann stayed with our luggage at the railway station while I set out by myself to find the Alinari Studio. I had no idea which direction to proceed. It was raining harder now, and since I had no umbrella, I decided not to go far. I scanned the faces of the people near me at that moment trying to discern who might speak English and know the area. One man caught my eye as he exited the station and I asked if he knew the location of the Alinari Photographic Studio? He responded in accented English, “Yes, I know it; in fact, I was there just two weeks ago.” He offered to accompany me part of the way and invited me to walk with him under his umbrella. We went together a couple of blocks and then he pointed down a side street towards a light-colored building. “That’s the place,” he said.
The studio gift shop was accessed through a portico leading off the street to a small courtyard. I opened the shop door and entered a room occupied by only the sales woman; I was her only customer. After learning of my interest, she handed me four large books containing 8-inch by 10-inch photos of Florentine scenes printed from the original negatives in the studio’s archive. I was enthralled as I turned page-by-page and looked at the pictures. I was looking specifically for the photos I had seen at the Uffizi museum, but they were not there. Although initially disappointed, I soon realized that another photograph in one of the books seemed to be “calling” to me. I didn’t take time then to try to figure out why that might be, but since the picture appeared to depict a street scene in Florence in the early 1900s with several of its most familiar landmarks in view, I decided to purchase it. The sales woman placed the photo into a folder, wrapped it in a plastic bag to keep it from getting wet and handed it to me. I left the shop and went back out into the rain.
Four hours after departing Florence, Mary Ann and I arrived in Venice. We were filled with anticipation and excitement as we rode down the Grand Canal on a shuttle boat, located our hotel and began exploring that amazing city. After dinner that evening, we returned to our hotel room and I decided I should look more closely at the vintage photograph I had bought earlier that day in Florence. I unwrapped the picture, placed it on my hotel room bed and studied its details. It depicted a “typical” Florentine street scene with many pedestrians going about their daily affairs. The Campanile, the Duomo and a portion of the Battistero were all in view. As sometimes happens when I encounter old photographs with people in them, I found myself looking closely at each individual and wondering who they were and what they might have been thinking that day when the photo was made. It was such a different world then—neither World War had yet occurred, airplanes and automobiles were new phenomena, and as one commentator has noted, “much of the world moved at the speed of a horse.”
Then it happened. One of the figures in the photo came to me in a way unlike any of the others. It was a woman walking alone wearing a long dress and a hat, typical of that time, and bent slightly forward at the waist. She appeared to be walking quickly and with determination. As I looked at this figure in the picture, it brought to my mind memories of my grandmother and the many times I watched her walking from a distance as we hiked together on her farm in southern Indiana. During such excursions, she usually walked quickly and bent slightly forward, as if she was walking into the wind. There was such a strong correspondence between the woman in my photograph and my memories of my grandmother hiking on her farm. Could it be?
From her journal, I know that Christine spent only one day in Florence. She stayed in a small rooming house run by a “German matron,” and was annoyed that the matron kept insisting she “should give Florence more time!” The morning of 19 July 1911, Christine departed the rooming house and began a full day of sightseeing in Florence. Her first stop was the Duomo, which she described as having “beautiful windows and dark guilt, delicately adorned.” She also remarked about hearing the “bells of the beautiful Campanile,” possibly as she strolled around the Piazza San Giovanni examining the famous bronze doors of the Battistero. From there, according to her journal, Christine went directly to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi art museum, which are located just a few blocks south of the Duomo. In doing so, she likely walked along the Via Roma—along the same street the woman in my photograph was walking. Could it be?
As a research scientist at the University of Minnesota, I often formulated hypotheses to explain phenomena I was observing in the crop plants I studied. With that backdrop, I offer what is for me a plausible scenario to explain the origin of the photograph I obtained at the Alinari Studio shop:
The morning Christine began her day of sightseeing in Florence, a photographer and his assistant left the Alinari Studio near the railway station and drove a wagon filled with photographic equipment to a multi-storied building on the Via de Vicori one block west of the Piazza San Giovanni. The photographer had been dispatched to take some photographs of the Piazza and its associated landmarks as part of an ongoing series of pictures the studio was assembling of various street scenes in Florence. It had been pre-arranged that he would use a room on the second floor of the building with a window offering unobstructed views of the Piazza San Giovanni, the Duomo, the Campanile, a portion of the Battistero, and the Via de Vicori below. Clouds were beginning to form overhead as they arrived, so the photographer and his assistant worked quickly and carried their heavy equipment into the building, up a flight of stairs and into the room from where the pictures would be taken. As he opened the window’s shutters and got his first view of the scene, the sun was shining brightly. He was pleased to see that the nearby buildings to the south were casting a shadow part way across the street below. “That shadow will add depth and interest to the photograph,” he thought to himself. The street was also busy at the time, which was good since the studio preferred pictures that depicted Florence as a bustling city.
Keeping a watchful eye on the gathering clouds and changing light conditions, the photographer set up his camera on its tripod and inserted the photographic plate into it. He placed his head under the camera’s black drape, framed the scene for the initial picture and tripped the shutter. He pulled back from under the drape, removed the exposed plate, and nodded to his assistant. “That should be a good one,” he remarked. After depositing the plate safely into its case, he turned back to the window to re-position the camera for another photograph. But there would be no more photographs that day; thick clouds had moved overhead and the rich light and shadows of the first exposure were no more. He waited several minutes to see if the conditions might improve but they did not. So he and his assistant repacked their equipment into the wagon and went back to the studio to receive their next assignment.
I can, of course, never prove that the lone woman in my photograph is Christine. I haven’t even been able to find out with certainty the year that my photograph was taken. What am I thinking to suppose that my photo might have been taken the same morning Christine was sightseeing at the Piazza San Giovanni? What am I thinking to suppose that this picture might have captured the precise moment she was crossing the Via de Vicori as she walked towards her destination? It couldn’t be. It’s preposterous. It’s as preposterous as thinking that a long-forgotten journal could emerge in a flooded basement in Virginia almost ninety years after it had been written by Christine in Europe.
I can’t prove anything, but I can feel. Writer Scott Russell Sanders has described a connection he once felt with his deceased father. It captures something like what I felt that evening in Venice when I first encountered the woman walking alone down the Via Roma in my Alinari photograph. Sanders writes:
I sensed that he was nearby [although]…I was wary of grief’s deceptions…The need to see him, to let go of him…was powerful enough to summon mirages; I knew that. But I also knew…that my father was here.
Then a cry broke overhead and I looked up to see a red-tailed hawk launching out from the top of an oak…It was a red-tailed hawk for sure; and it was also my father. Not a symbol of my father, not a reminder, not a ghost, but the man himself, right there…I knew this as clearly as the sun burned in the sky… (from “Buckeye” in Writing From the Center)
As I looked upon that figure walking through Florence in my picture, I knew it was Christine—not a symbol of her, not a reminder, not a ghost, but the woman herself, right there. I also had other experiences during my time in Italy that reminded me of her, but none was as poignant and real to me as that view of the woman in my photograph striding as if she was walking into the wind. There isn’t much else I can say. Scott Russell Sanders expressed it best:
I was left realizing a kinship for which I have no language.
After Mary Ann and I arrived back home in Minnesota, I had my vintage photo of the street scene in Florence framed. It now hangs in our dining room next to a Victorian sideboard that once belonged to my grandmother. I seldom look at that picture now without recalling that night in Venice when that woman walking alone on the Via Roma first came to me. Something important has happened to me—and for me—since that evening. I will explain.
My grandmother died when I was twenty years old and in my junior year of college. For reasons that make little sense to me now, I chose not to attend her funeral. She was the first person to whom I was close who had died, and perhaps I was unable or unwilling to look death straight on at that point in my life. Whatever my reasons, I’ve always regretted my decision not to go to her funeral. Since then, I’ve attended many funerals and I realize they are an important way for me to let go and find closure with the one who has died. Perhaps my desire to undertake the journey to Italy and to relive my grandmother’s dream of one hundred years ago was an endeavor to find peace with her passing that I had missed forty-four years before. Or perhaps it was a desire to, in some way, reconnect with her again and to know her in a way I never did before. Perhaps I will never know.
But I do know this. The heirlooms I have from Christine’s 1911 journey—the journal, the postcards and the portrait—still draw a strong response and emotion from me. I have copies of Christine’s portrait and of the final page of her journal in a prominent place in my writing space where they continue to inspire me. I keep copies of her portrait and some of the postcards in my journal where I refer to them often when I am reflecting on my life’s path. And whenever I do, her presence comes to me just as it does when I view my vintage photograph of Florence taken one July day in 1911.
And our conversation continues…
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you’re with me;
you are the voice that whispers what I need to know…
—Ysaye Barnwell from “Wanting Memories”
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this essay in 2011. All rights reserved.