Her name was Antonella

It was a happy mistake meeting her.  I had joined a friend at a local day spa for a relaxing pedicure.  I had never been to this spa before, so I didn’t know with whom I had made the appointment.  A woman with sandy blonde hair and glasses approached me.  She told me to go and pick out a color of nail polish and follow her to the pedicure chair.  As I fumbled with the remote to the chair massage, she filled the tub for my feet to soak.  After asking me how was the temperature in partial English, she asked if I spoke German.

Embarrassed, I told her I did not.  She smiled and silently returned to her work, seemingly uninterested now in holding a conversation.  However, I then looked down at her uniform, and above a pocket her name was monogramed in blue thread – “Antonella.”  I hesitated, suddenly nervous to ask but also curious, “Sei Italiana?”  I asked in Italian.  Her eyes shot up in surprise, “Si!” (Yes) she exclaimed, and the next hour transformed from detached silence into a rich encounter.

Sharing an experience with someone in a different language is by far one of the most rewarding things I have ever achieved in my life.  It opens the doors to peer into their world, to see life from another part of the planet, and to understand things from their perspective.

Antonella was originally from Sicilia (or Sicily).  She and her native Italian husband moved to Germany 35 years ago.  Work was hard to come by in Sicily.  Antonella, an aesthetician, and her husband, a delicatessen, sought to stabilize their home and moved north where it was easier to find well-paying work and prospective pension options.

Now, nearly sixty, Antonella has slowed her pace with work.  Her muscles don’t allow her to do the work of a massage therapist anymore.  She mainly does nails and facial treatments now.  Yet, her work is only one of the factors occupying her attention these days.

fullsizeoutput_1718Antonella beamed when she spoke of her two fully-grown children.  Both her son and daughter chose to remain in Germany.  Her daughter, was about to turn 34 in a few days.  Antonella shared her plans to spend her day off running around, getting everything ready for her daughter’s birthday celebration.  You would have thought she was making preparations for child – cake, decorations, and a birthday meal.  But celebrations are just one of many things that Italians do best, and you could tell her daughter’s birthday was important to Antonella.

In fact, being a mother in general seemed important to her.  She spoke fondly of her kids and shared that she was not yet a grandmother but hoped to be one day.

With Christmas around the corner, I asked Antonella what she had planned for the holidays.  Nothing special, she responded.  Her plans were to stay at home.  In the past, she might have considered traveling back to Italy, but multiple factors played into the decision not to go.

You see, earlier this year, Antonella used up most of her vacation days to go back to Sicily to be with her mother.  Her tone shifted and her eyes glistened as she shared her mother had passed away in August.  Her health suddenly declined rapidly, and within days of Antonella arriving at her mother’s bedside, she was gone.  My hands grabbed my chest as she cleared her throat, became immersed with focusing on my feet, and busied her hands on my toenails.  To my surprise, tears rolled down my cheek.  I whispered to her I was sorry.  She thanked me, and after a few moments, we continued chatting.

We moved onto slightly lighter topics.  I shared with her about my family and my recent engagement.  I asked her if she had yet done her Christmas shopping, and the air in the room finally lifted.  She hadn’t yet.  It was always down to the last minute for her when it came to shopping.  Work consumed the majority of her energy, and when she finally had a day off, she didn’t have the energy to spend it running errands.  Nevertheless, she assured me she would get around to it one day and make it in time for Christmas.

She acknowledged her current job made life a little easier for herself.  Before, she had worked at a spa that was 45 kilometers away from home.  On bad weather days, she used to stay in the apartment located above the spa, rather than risk making the long drive on unpredictable roads.

She loved working at that spa though, but it had been helpful to find a job closer to home.  She paused in the chatter for a moment, and I could see the nostalgia in her eyes.  I got a funny feeling in my stomach, a curiosity, which ultimately prompted me to ask, “Was the distance the only reason you changed jobs?”  She looked up, a little surprised.  “Well, here they have much better benefits, and that helps with the home life as well…” she trailed off for a moment and then began again, “A few years ago, my husband was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.  Lately, he has been requiring more and more care.”  I listened and waited, “I honestly don’t know how much longer he will be able to work, and we are not ready, financially, for retirement.  There isn’t time to find another job.  I have to stick with what I know, and I know the spa.  This job at least has benefits for healthcare though, and for that, I am grateful.”

I sat there, mesmerized by this woman.  She wasn’t complaining to me.  She wasn’t cursing up at the sky blaming anyone for the hardships.  She wasn’t comparing her life to anyone else’s.  She had accepted the reality.  She missed her mother, that was clear, but she was still celebrating her own motherhood.  She expressed feeling tired, but nevertheless, the love for her husband motivated her to still get up every morning and work her tired hands to make ends meet.  And when she looked up at me, she smiled.


To me, she was a quiet heroine.



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