Part 2: The Boy Who Lived- The Story Of A Son Who Came Later In Life

Part 2: Douglas Mine, a former foreign correspondent, shares this memoir about meeting his Italian wife, starting a life together, and the honest emotions that accompany finding out, at age fifty-five, that you’re going to be a father again. If you missed part one you can read it here. 

This memoir originally appeared on The Big Roundtable, a digital publishing platform that aims to connect passionate nonfiction writers with readers who will support their work. If you enjoyed this story, you can visit The Big Roundtable here and contribute to the author directly. The funding allows the author to continue reporting stories you’d love to read. 



It was early December of 2008. I was fifty-five and Nicoletta was forty-four. She had always been clockwork regular with her periods, but over the previous year or so they’d become sporadic. Her sister Federica had had an early onset of menopause and Nico suspected she was headed down the same road. She got a bit lax in the taking of her nightly birth-control pill, sometimes just traipsing half-asleep past the bathroom to bed from the couch where, after a demanding day of teaching graphic design at a Fano’s Adriano Olivetti High School, she’d conked out watching TV. Our sex life was considerably toned down compared with the days when we’d produced three children in the first three years of our marriage. In any case, and despite that early demonstration of perhaps uncommon fertility or biochemical kismet attending our union, the idea that she might become pregnant again had receded in her mind to the edge of the realm of impossibility. I wasn’t worried about it either, and certainly wasn’t asking her every night if she’d popped her pill.

So as she rolled through the middle part of middle age and I waltzed into its farther region, and as that fall morphed into winter and Nicoletta’s period didn’t come, and two weeks of lateness stretched into three and four and five, she seemed eminently unconcerned. “Verranno, verranno,” she said, if I inquired as to what was the story. (“They’ll come, they’ll come,” le mestruazioni being a plural noun.)

Finally, on a cold, gray, drizzly day when the three church bell towers arrayed across the centro storico were discernible only as shrouded sentinels from our apartment balcony, a kilometer away, I announced that I was going down to Pierini’s (our local pharmacy), to buy a pregnancy test.

We’d been living in Fano, a charming city of 50,000 on the Adriatic coast, for only a few months. We had moved here from the inland town of Acqualagna, where we’d spent our first two years in Italy (for me and the boys, at least) at the rebuilt ancestral family farmhouse on twenty hilly acres of woods, fields, and orchard. During that bucolic and mildly rigorous stretch (the house was heated only by stoves and fireplaces, and we wore two sweaters and knit caps inside during much of the winter), I eased out of a three-decade career in daily journalism, the foreign correspondent phase of which had seen my innamoramento with the pretty Italian artist who’d come to El Salvador to teach a semester of design at la Universidad Matías Delgado shortly after the civil war ended. And hers with me, per fortuna.

By the time we moved to Fano, where Nico worked and Bruno was starting high school, my wife and I had set up a little publishing house. We were putting out a magazine of kids’ (middle-school-aged) short stories, poems, and illustrations. Our project, called Scarpe Cotte, was unabashedly modeled on Stone Soup, the brilliant Santa Cruz, California publication that had delighted our boys, along with many thousands of other young people around the English-speaking world, during our nearly nine years in Miami.

It wasn’t as if Scarpe Cotte (Cooked Shoes) was a runaway success. But we were enjoying its production, dealing with creative kids from up and down the peninsula as well as with generally stimulating adults involved in aspects of the exposure of young people to the craft of writing, mostly teachers and librarians but also authors of children’s books and public officials in the cultural sector. We knew that, as is the case with Stone Soup, the longer-term success of the enterprise would depend on the degree to which it was used (and subscribed to) by middle schools, and that obliged us to delve into the world of Italian bureaucracy. The educational model in Italy is very different from America’s ultra-local administrative system. Here it’s centralized and national. Both frameworks have their strong and weak points, but suffice it to say that our visits down to Rome for dealings with Education Ministry officials were for the most part hikes into a bog.

Even so, we were showered with praise wherever we presented our project and product, because it really was a beautiful thing, a worthy emulator of Stone Soup in its own small way. And all the congratulatory recognition had us feeling good about ourselves and our work, and the work of the talented kids who were the contributors.

Nico also was enjoying being back in the full-time professional world after a near-decade hiatus while the three boys were little, interspersed in its later stage with part-time teaching in Miami. She’s an exceptional teacher, and is recognized by her students and peers as such. It’s fun for me (not to mention for her) to see her current and former charges, during a Sunday afternoon stroll along the corso downtown, call out to her, “Buona sera, prof!” with a big smile as we pass.

Overall, our decision nearly three years earlier to pick up and move from the United States to Europe was working out pretty well. The main reason we’d come was so our sons, who already were Americans, could also become full participants in and beneficiaries of their mother’s culture, a particularly rich one. It was something of a “now or never” moment in that, though Nico had made sure in Florida that they’d learned decent Italian, none of the boys, then twelve, ten, and nine, had ever written in that language or had any formal instruction in the intricacies of its grammar, which is a subject of emphasis throughout elementary school here. Bruno was about to start seventh grade, and that seemed to us like the last point at which he could be dropped cold-turkey into the Italian public school system and be expected to catch up.

The big idea was that the boys would somehow come to combine the good things from both sides of the Atlantic, from the New World and the Old, and it seemed to Nicoletta and me, at that point in late 2008, that things were proceeding just fine. Bruno, Joe, and Toby were not and still are not some enlightened miracle hybrid. But they’re good guys, and they enjoy the uncommon condition of being thoroughly bicultural. In an American context, they’re indistinguishable from U.S.-raised kids, yet if you see and hear them fooling around with their friends on the beach in Fano you would think they were born and raised in Italy.

I came back from Pierini’s with the kit. Nico went into the bathroom and peed on the stick, then brought it out. We were standing in the part of the living room with our dining table of polished pine set before French doors giving onto the broad fourth-floor terrace, where we take many of our meals between late spring and early fall. A pink-fading-to-white speckled orchid (a horticultural hobby Nico picked up in Coral Gables) was in splendid bloom on the table. Sometimes a minute can seem like a long time. There as we huddled, shoulders touching, it started to show, a pale lavender strip that flushed unbelievably yet implacably through violet into full-on purple, trumpeting like the crescendo of a Maria Callas aria the news that, Yes, folks, Yes Don Pardo: Nicoletta Spendolini, daughter of Livio and Elvira and formerly of Fossombrone, Le Marche, was indeed knocked up.

Our marriage wasn’t one you’d have bet a lot of money on at its outset. Nicoletta and I were from different cultures, neither of us spoke the other’s native language, she’s a credente Catholic and I’m a barely agnostic Episcopalian, and we wed only four months after we’d met in a place that was homeland to neither. That’s not a lot of time, or the best way, to really get to know someone. And it’s true; we didn’t know each other very well when we got married.

We legally sealed our bond in August of 1993 with a family-only justice-of-the-peace ceremony at my parent’s house in Wesley Chapel, north of Tampa. It was only my family in attendance—my parents and my two brothers and their wives and kids—because we wanted to move forward expeditiously. Nico preferred to present this big step, to her widowed mother back in Italy, as a fait accompli. She was going to tell her, and her sister and other relatives and friends, when she went back in a few weeks to deal with her employment situation (she’d taken a leave from her Italian teaching job to come to El Salvador) and to organize a church wedding and reception for the Italian side.

Also, she was pregnant.

That’s another factor that, had a handicapper been calculating probabilities of a durable marriage when we tied the knot, might have worked against an optimistic prognosis. But it wasn’t a shotgun deal. The fact of her having conceived our first child was not the reason we decided to get married. We had decided to wed, and had informed my parents that we were flying up from San Salvador to do so, before we even found out. The relatively few people we’ve told this to may or may not believe us. We don’t much care either way.

We spent five days with my folks, lounging around their pool and the lanai. Nicoletta, via gestures and laughter and my translation, got acquainted with her parents-in-law and brothers-in-law y las concus (concuñadas, a great Spanish word describing the relationship of women who are married to brothers). We didn’t have anything resembling a honeymoon, but we would go out in the evenings after supper to stroll around the bordering golf course and putt on the luscious greens that were like velvet in the summer dusk.

We went back to El Salvador, had a big hard-drinking salsa-and-cumbia-dancing wedding party with the local and international press corps to which I’d become so attached over the previous six years, and with Nico’s colleagues and students from la Matías Delgado. Then she flew back home on the return portion of the open Aeroflot ticket (by far the cheapest available fare) she’d purchased before leaving eight months earlier on her Latin American adventure, taking an insane San Salvador-Managua-Havana-Shannon-Moscow-Milan route that included a two-day layover in the Russian capital, where she was greeted and accommodated and coddled by my old friends and colleagues from The Associated Press.

I followed a week later, to meet the family and help arrange the nuptial festivities. During those first days in Italy with my bride, I was seeing a new side of her. Not that she was another person entirely. But she was acquiring big new facets from my perspective as I watched her in action. She’d come to El Salvador to teach a semester of design and illustration right after that small but big-hearted country’s brutal civil war. She’d studied Spanish for only six weeks, but intensively, before leaving for Central America, and although she made rapid progress with the language, it was still a tentative one for her at first. The linguistic limitation probably had contributed to a perception of her—by me and by her colleagues—as a person you would not describe as boldly assertive. Although in whatever tongue, Nicoletta would not come off as shy or retiring or lacking resolve; after all, she had signed up as a young woman to go alone across the sea to teach in an underdeveloped, conflict-beleaguered nation whose language she spoke haltingly. She is no wallflower, is what I mean to say.

Still, at some point in those first days we spent together on her turf, we went into a bank in Fano where she had an account and some financial stuff to resolve, and she was being attended to by a churlish teller with an I-can’t-be-bothered attitude. Nico, without shouting but raising her voice, laid into the woman with an eloquent reproach, demonstrating a take-no-crap aspect she had never been obliged to evince, or was incapable of demonstrating, in El Salvador. As we walked out of the bank I was feeling impressed anew by her character but at the same time muted and humbled by the swift illumination of my ignorance of this side of her, and what surely were other unknown elements of the personality of the woman who was my wife.

A few days later, we were in Turin, visiting Roberta, a dear friend of Nicoletta’s from her university days. Robi’s mother is a skilled dressmaker. She had always liked Nico, and had made the generous offer to make her bridal dress—from a design sketched by la sposa, a wedding gift of exquisitely tailored coarse silk and linen. I was finding it possible to communicate rudimentarily by speaking Spanish slowly and throwing in a few Italian words. Even so, dinner that first night at Robi’s house, with her parents asking me things and conversing, had left me feeling woefully inadequate. I wasn’t understanding much of what they said, and felt dumb.

Later that first night, after a stroll through the handsome riverside park in that big pretty city, Italy’s Detroit, we were on the sofa bed at Robi’s house. Nico was in dreamland but I could not join her because I was being gnawed by the treacherous sly beast of doubt. I was reviewing my actions of the previous months and asking myself if I’d made a mistake in marrying this woman—someone who’d never listened by her own choice to the Allman Brothers or The Band and was not much into rock music anyway, who didn’t know who Bernard Malamud or James Baldwin was, who’d never dropped acid, and who never slept naked even on the hottest nights. What the hell was I doing here in Italy, which was proving more foreign to me than I’d imagined. Was I ready to confirm my vows in a ceremony that, to Nico, would be the real and true consecration of our commitment to each other?

My wavering did not last long. A stronger and better part of me delivered a sharp slap to the slacker portion, demanding to know what sort of a man would I be if I backed out of all this now. And I realized, with a rush of almost giddy joy, that I didn’t want to retreat. I was reinforced in the conviction, at the time not much more than an intuition, that I had been enormously fortunate. I had found, or had been found by, a magnificent woman, one who was the embodiment of my chances for a life more full and rich than the one I had been leading up to then. And who would have my child. I dove in.

We had a lovely wedding celebrated by Nico’s priest friend in the thousand-year-old Romanesque Abbazia di Naro, south of Urbino, before the bride’s extended family and her jubilant friends from all over the peninsula. Then a great party.

We returned to Central America for a stretch, then spent nearly nine years in the United States, my country. We had a good life in South Florida, and were happy. We had three kids, one right after the other. I was an editor in Miami for EFE, Spain’s international news agency. Nico spent much of that period mothering, but also taught some and plied her skills as a freelance grafica and illustrator. She learned English (a process that, because she spoke Spanish and we lived in Miami, took a good four or five years). She loved NPR and the U.S. public library system and America’s diversity and tropical gardening and Thanksgiving dinner. She even came to appreciate the esoteric drama of baseball as her boys progressed through Little League. But eventually, she and I decided we wanted our sons to expand their minds and horizons in a way that would have been impossible if we’d stayed forever in the U.S.A.

Together we made another leap of faith, similar to the plunge we’d taken thirteen years earlier when, without knowing each other very well, we got married. We sold our house in Coral Gables and moved to Italy.

There we stood, flabbergasted, staring at a plum-striped stick. My initial reaction, verbally, was the single word “Wow,” uttered softly, with an air of defeat.

Nico, gone pallid, said: “Non ci posso credere.” I can’t believe it.”

This was the diametrical opposite of the scenes of joyful exclamation, of hugging and jumping up and down, that had attended the pregnancy tests signaling the gestation of our first two sons. In the case of the tadpole that eventually became Toby, I’d reacted in a way similar to the annunciation of his brothers. But during my little jig of glee, I noticed that Nico was not all that exuberant, and asked her, “Qué te pasa, corazón? No estás feliz?” She said, with a wistful smile: “I guess I’m happy. But I thought maybe there’d be a little break before the next one.”

Now the Fano newsflash took place in an atmosphere of melancholy. How had we let this happen at this stage in our lives? I had no sense then, that rainy afternoon, that Nico’s sadness might be of another nature or have another root. Because there was no dilemma. She knew, as did I, that there was only one reasonable course of action. We already had a beautiful family with three children who had satisfied magnificently all the parental instincts of us both. She was on the outside limit of child-bearing age; the house’s three bedrooms were all filled up; we slept through the night and could take off by ourselves for a weekend on a whim, or travel around Italy promoting Scarpe Cotte, leaving the boys behind to briefly fend for themselves. If to everything there is a season, this certainly was not the season for us to be bringing another infant into the world.

Abortion has been legal in Italy only since 1978. The passage of the law is considered a watershed in the slow march of this Roman Catholic nation into modernity. The law is a pretty good one on paper, allowing a woman to request termination of a pregnancy simply because she has so decided, in the first trimester. The procedure is carried out in the hospital at no charge as part of the country’s admirable system of universal public health care.

We did some Internet research regarding norms and requirements that same afternoon. Nico got an appointment for the next day with her gynecologist. When she got back from that visit, which confirmed the home-test result (the do-it-yourself kits have been virtually infallible for years), we talked about how to proceed. “DeMarchi [the gynecologist] said I’m at nine or ten weeks, and we’ve got up to ninety days, so it’s cutting it a little short,” she said. She was referring to the legally stipulated need for a visit with a public social services officer who explicitly spells out options, and the required seven-day waiting period prior to the termination procedure.

As is the case in much of daily Italian life, a divide exists between the law and reality. The biggest impediment to actually getting an abortion in Italy is the fact that most ob-gyns avail themselves of legislation that allows them to decline to terminate a pregnancy for reasons of conscience. Due to the waiting list for the relatively few willing local practitioners, our prospects for having the procedure in Fano were nil.

That caused us some consternation, as did our visit with the social services representative, an imbecilic woman who not only refused to fulfill her duty to help us do what we’d decided to do, but spent much of our encounter wondering aloud if it weren’t already too late to move forward and poisoning the office’s air with insinuation and mention of the “baby’s” beating heart. I finally told her off in my (at the time) not-quite-fluent Italian, saying we hadn’t come to hear moralizing and demanding that she spare us her pap and sign the goddamn paper. Which she, huffing, did, and we left.

Luckily, there are also a lot of great folks in Italian society who understand how frustrating things can be in the realm of officialdom. Nico found on the Web what looked to be a promising women’s center and clinic in Ascoli-Piceno, a two-hour drive to the south. She dialed the number. I was there, so I heard her explain the situation: that she was a forty-four-year-old woman with three older sons and this was an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy and she needed to schedule the procedure for sometime in the coming ten days, max. The woman on the other end was professional and sympathetic and reassuring and said, “Certainly, signora, come down with someone accompanying you on Thursday at 10:00 a.m., bring your documentation, and we’ll take good care of you.” Thursday was six days hence.

We went about our routines, Nico teaching and me going through stories and poems and illustrations submitted as candidates for the magazine’s next issue, writing e-mails to kids whose stuff we were going to use, making sure we had releases from their parents, that kind of thing. Nicoletta’s condition and Thursday’s appointment were two elephants in every room, pachyderms that accompanied us to the supermarket or on an afternoon walk through the centro. We held hands even more than we usually do. I was trying to be as supportive and warm as possible, without becoming burdensomely heavy.

At one point, it must have been Tuesday, we were walking through the cavernous complex of garages beneath our apartment building. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her to me and said, “I know this is difficult for you, corazoncito. But I’m certain that once Friday arrives, what we’re going to feel is a great sense of relief.” Nico nodded and snuggled closer.

This wasn’t uncharted terrain for me. Both the women with whom I’d had long live-in relationships before getting together with Nicoletta had had abortions. One was my first real girlfriend. We were in love and stayed that way for nearly six years, but this was toward the beginning of our story and she’d just turned nineteen. My Argentine compañera, with whom I spent five years between Buenos Aires and New York, was unequivocal about not wanting kids. She got pregnant twice, and flat out nixed the idea of remaining so. So I’d had the experience of being the steady partner, escort to the clinic, home nurse for a couple days—the piddling shit the guy is supposed to do. Nicoletta had had an ectopic pregnancy when she was going with a French guy after she graduated from university. But that was a circumstance very different from the one she was facing now.

We almost always get up before the three boys, who leave to ride their bikes to school at 7:50 a.m. On Wednesday, the day before our scheduled trip to Ascoli, we rose earlier than usual. We were milling about the kitchen as the sky grew lighter outside; preparing the screw-together moka for our coffee, getting cups and small plates from the cupboard. The things we do every morning, although Nico hadn’t switched on Radio Rai 3, which is usually her first morning move. We’d been going about this routine for a few minutes when she went to get the milk, or stracchino and, there with the refrigerator door open and her back to me she said: “I don’t think I can do it.” Those aren’t many words, but she wasn’t able to get all of them out before she broke down in sobs.

Nicoletta sobbing is one of the worst things I can imagine happening in the world, at least in our little world, and I went to her with a lump already in my own throat and we embraced. She continued crying with her face buried in my shoulder.

Non posso,” she whimpered.

That was it, for me. I knew immediately that what we’d arranged was not going to happen. But I wasn’t thinking about that, not at all. All I was thinking about was finding a way to somehow alleviate my wife’s anguish. That’s all that mattered to me at that moment, that she somehow become un-devastated.

“Vabbene, vabbene, amore mio,” I said softly. “Non ti preoccupare. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”

A minute later, when she’d stopped crying, we sat down at the table and Nico summed up how she’d come to this conclusion. “I know this little thing inside of me is not Bruno or Joseph or Toby. And I know this is not rational, but having the intervento would feel to me like I was hurting, not so much l’embrione, but Bruno or Joe or Toby.”

Well, obviously I couldn’t ask her to do that. Really, when it comes to this deal of having a baby, we men can’t ask our partners to do, or not do, anything. It’s up to them.

“So we’ll have another kid,” I said. I guess I still thought it was half-crazy. No, let me rephrase that. I knew full well it was more than half-crazy. But that didn’t prevent me from chuckling, once, when I said it.

The way we’d met and married, having two of our sons born at a tiny clinic in a provincial town in Central America, giving up my good job in the States and moving to Italy, launching a magazine in the era of dying magazines—all of these things Nico and I had done together could have seemed impractical or ill-advised. “It’ll be one more adventure among our other adventures,” I said.

My acquiescence, and even more so my snippet of a giggle, made my wife’s face, streaked still with tears, glow. We laughed out loud. –

Part three coming next week.

This memoir originally appeared on The Big Roundtable, a digital publishing platform that aims to connect passionate nonfiction writers with readers who will support their work. If you enjoyed this story, you can visit The Big Roundtable here and contribute to the author directly. The funding allows the author to continue reporting stories you’d love to read. 


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