Saying Goodbye to Florentine Mamma Popi
When I got a call that Popi was dying, I booked a flight straight away and flew to Florence. I wanted to say goodbye to this woman that changed my life, that was my darling friend, that was as naughty as any sixteen year old, even at 88.
Popi was the one that set me on the path that was right for me. She was the one that pointed out I loved photography when I didn’t know what the next step would be. She was the one that gave me a safe place to live whilst I changed lives and careers on the other side of the world and she taught me to follow my heart.
Some of you will know the effect Popi had on my life and others won’t.
Our paths were meant to cross, often I feel like twenty years ago I was carried all the way to Florence by a bunch of helping hands to meet Popi. If I had to name the top 3 influential people in my life, she would be one of them. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what the word ‘synchronicity’ meant but now I know that is exactly how I arrived on Popi’s doorstep. When a tiny ‘monk-like’ pensione in Piazza Santo Stefano decided to renovate in the middle of August, the sweat, noise and chaos pushed me to find an alternative.
I took up my fellow Italian language school friend’s offer to check out where he was living. He referred to it as paradise, it sounded like hell to me! A home with a 68-year-old Florentine mamma called Popi who rented out rooms to students of which there were currently 6.
It was love at first sight!
I took the only room available that had a single room that I couldn’t open my cupboards at the same time as standing on the floor. It didn’t matter.
“Casa mia é casa tua!” My house is your house and for the lucky ones that got to sit around Popi’s table and live in her home this is exactly how we felt. She dished up stories and home cooked Florentine recipes of ribollita and pasta ai fajoli and a guzillion other delicious things whilst we felt loved.
I knew I wouldn’t be the only one booking a ticket to Florence, there were literally hundreds of us that found our way to her doorstep in need of something that we probably didn’t know exactly what at the time but sitting at Popi’s table, she helped us figure it out.
There were so many tears shed as the plane landed in the small airport of Florence, the beauty of the Tuscan hills blurred through the tears but it still managed to take my breath away. Patches of bright green fields, then lines of grey, green olive trees that looked fluffy at this time of year, rows of dark green cypress and those sweet hills that surround Florence that almost look like a green glove that holds Florence in the palm of its hand. Just as you land, if you crouch down low you see the Duomo rising above Florence, with her white whalebones holding the terracotta roof together. I have seen it hundreds of time before but it’s beauty always stuns and for a couple of seconds I forgot to breathe.
It feel like twenty years were winding up, the decade was almost over. Popi had called me to Florence and now she was saying goodbye. The women that led me to photography was now leaving and I too was moving on to a new phase of my life.
I ran my hand along the white and green stone of Il battistero and chose my favourite streets as I went one last time to see this special soul. Florence had never looked so good, she was decked out for Christmas in her best regalia and walking her back streets was a sensual pleasure. A pleasure I had almost forgotten about but my body hadn’t.
Popi taught me 3 great lessons: don’t sweat the small stuff – it just doesn’t matter, to live for the day because that is what we have in our hand right now, and to follow your heart.
The longer I sat around her table, for the first time in my adult life, I started to feel like roots where growing down into the ground, at this point I couldn’t see where the road was taking me but it felt good and I felt safe, secure, loved and part of something. In a funny way, all the people at Popi’s table were searching for something and it felt great to be part of a group that the only thing we had in common was that we wanted to do something that would make our hearts sing.
Following your heart takes courage but it’s the moment we stop letting ourselves down.
When I walked into Piazza della Signoria in Florence on a hot august night, it felt good and I decided to trust that ‘feel good’ feeling, as long as things felt good I would keep going. Popi taught me to keep saying YES to myself.
There were so many tears shed for Popi, for the love, the joy, the shared memories, the laughter that would explode in our bellies and that would bounce of the walls into a summer Florentine night when the rest of the neighbourhood had gone to bed hours ago. For the days driving in Tuscany with Mina blaring from the speakers and Popi, Eric, Philippa and myself singing as loud as we could. Popi showed me that our spirit has no age, it doesn’t matter what your calling is and it doesn’t matter at what age you find it, but when you find it everything changes.
Popi’s calling was found by accident one day when she offered a foreign student in a gym, complaining about her accommodation in Florence, a room in her empty post-divorce home. After a messy divorce, Popi found herself not wanting to go home at night so for her it was the perfect solution. She could cook, nurture, and pass onto these two lovely souls all the very best things to do in Florence, the intricacies and stories of the culture and do the thing that she loved the most, feed you. “Mangia Mangia” was her mantra.
By day, she had her job at Pucci and by night she couldn’t wait to rush home to attend to these two lovely souls. It was the beginning of a love affair that would stretch from Roma to Rio and back. There are no words to describe the love, openness, generosity, warmth and curiousity that being loved by Popi was.
That was almost 40 years ago, and Popi’s calling was us. The people that she inspired, the lives she saved, the hearts she mended, the wisdom and the joy she passed onto people from Mexico and Switzerland, Australia and Spain, America and Germany, Greece and Holland, Colombia and Portugal and numerous other countries around the world.
Our lives, our days are precious and with the passing of someone so dear, it’s a reminder to live life. The solace in Popi’s passing was that she ‘maxed it out’, she packed so much love and generosity into her 88 years that I could see she was ready to go. When the call came a couple of days later, I felt that she could rest in peace, she came, laughed, she loved, she inspired and did so much good in the world.
I had those two precious days with a woman I love and who will always be in my heart and thoughts.
She was my earth angel and now I know she has simple switched sides, she is watching over me from above.
For those who followed ‘our story’, I know you too will feel a little sad so I’m sending you love and the words Popi told me all those years ago when I had the choice to go back to my life or change it: ‘You only have one life – live it.’
Remember to love, be kind, generous and do your best.
Wishing you a Happy New Year,