My Hidden Lives // Prose

82. about Rosa Soravia (and what she let me believe)

i still remember

Rosa Soravia followed a man into the West.
In a pink coat her mother had sown
and a burgundy hat inherited from an aunt,
Rosa boarded a ship in Trieste.


„All aboard, all aboard! Come now, signorina, let’s not leave the Americas waiting on your lovely little behind!“

Rosa’s suitcase is much too small for such a journey. A couple of dresses and trinkets to remind her of home – two postcards, a watch her mother gave her, a pair of hand-knit slippers and a photograph of the man, the dream she is chasing.

She is seventeen, he is twenty-five, and the whole world, Rosa feels, is waiting to be conquered. Tasted. Felt with one’s own fingertips. Who knows where else they might end up, after Buenos Aires? In her dreams, she is blinded by visions of silvery beaches, exotic islands, black-skinned men with painted faces and tall spears.

They will discover new lands, surely, such a feat is still possible. Man, after all, knows so little of the world’s enchanting vastness. A place must exist where no girl in a pink coat and burgundy hat has trodden with her miniscule feet, marked it as her own. If not this great adventure, Rosa agrees it would be just as grand at least to discover each other. That is, after all, foreign soil as well.

The ship is much bigger than she imagined. There are hundreds of souls aboard, walking along the narrow decks, awaiting its departure. She is only one of the many hopefuls. Some of them will never reach their destination, surely, not everyone’s dream can come true. But Rosa is unconcerned. A destiny such as hers cannot be avoided, she concludes.

The gargantuan funnel screams its farewell to the port. Even though the sound is more than grating, Rosa doesn’t cover her ears like the other women do. She holds her chin up high and in her mind, she is transformed into a new kind of girl, a heroine from the pirate novels she so loves. Fear is not an option, neither is melancholy.

Yet, as the wind tousles and throws the few loose strands of her hair about, she remembers another windy morning, out in the field of her small town, and a longing shrinks her heart. Her sisters jumping around in their plain cotton dresses, Mother allowing them a moment of reprieve from their daily chores, and then – in the distance, a man in a starched black suit approaches. It is Father, smiling broadly as his daughters jump into his arms. Rosa stays put, as is appropriate for one of her age, and waves at them from where she is standing in tall grass.

She wishes she had a picture of that moment, but instead, she is forced to describe it in her awkward lettering (but in great detail) on the pages of a small, tatty diary. Enough now, she says to herself that evening on the deck. You will have a new family, and you will make new memories with them. Rosa falls asleep wondering which strange flowers bloom on the meadows of her future home, whether she will recognize any of them, and so her dream is full of perfumes, and colors, and softness.

My mother never told the story further. During the many years of my childhood, I never once asked her to. As I grew, there were other books to be read and Rosa drifted from my mind as a favorite toy would.

I’d forgotten all about her until today. As I am packing up the little clothes I see as fit for the life I am about to embark on, Mother comes into the room and stuffs a couple of our family-album photos into the side pocket of my suitcase.

„Look at you, my little girl, flying off into the West. I’ll miss you more than you can imagine.“

She pulls me into a choking kind of embrace and cries a little on my shoulder. I cry too, even though I am far more excited than sad by this point. Dreams of leaving have plagued my mind since I was a girl, ever since the first time she told me the story of Rosa Soravia. I chuckle a bit at this naphthalene-drenched memory, and look at my mother quizzically.

„I’m only following great-aunt Rosa’s footsteps, after all!“

Worry settles on her face as she takes a deep breath and busies herself with rearranging my luggage.

„What is it? What did I say?“

„Oh, it’s nothing. I just wish you hadn’t mentioned your great-aunt now, that’s all.“

„Why? What happened to her in Argentina?“

Sitting down, she looks at me as if weighing some kind of imaginary scale. Finally, she exhales and tells me what she’s long kept hidden.

„She never reached Argentina, dear. Typhus cut her trip too short, but I never wanted to tell you. You were so little, and you so adored that story.“

The information comes as a shock, but I don’t feel resentful of my mother’s decision to leave it out. I don’t even feel dread at comparing this to the journey of one whose life it ended. If anything, I feel an invigorating, fresh resolve to make mine a happy ending.

„Well, then. It seems I’ll have to enjoy myself enough for the both of us, don’t you think?“

My mother nods, but doesn’t respond. When we reach the airport, we kiss and hug and yes, cry some more. Rehash our plans of a year’s worth of visits. Christmas in my new home, then I’ll come back for Easter and we’ll see where to vacation when summer comes along.

Boarding the plane, I can’t help but think once more of Rosa, of me as a young girl dreaming her dreams about exotic plants and faraway shores. Even if we forget certain aspects of our childhoods, the stories we’re told often remain engraved in our subconscious: they are reflected in the decisions we make. Perhaps I wasn’t aware of it, but my great-aunt’s audacity, her courage, sparked a courage in me all those years ago to dare and imagine a different life for myself.

Obscured from conscious thought, she was always in the back of my head somehow – that little voice that whispered – explore, and don’t give up, sometimes even get the Hell out of here, do you hear me, you silly girl? Finding out the truth about her death does not change what she represents. I will always think of her as a heroine. My heroine.

Her name was Rosa Soravia, and she followed a man into the West. Almost a hundred years later, so did I.


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