02/18/2014 05:58 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

Jason's Birthday and Missing It All

A few days ago on February 12, my wonderful oldest son, Jason, celebrated his 43rd birthday (how did that happen, anyhow?) without me and I am feeling melancholy and far away from everyone I love.

I remember well the days of loud and chaotic little boy birthday parties, and I miss them, in spite of and in addition to the noise and confusion. Now, instead of frantically trying to reign over the party decorations and cakes and wet snowsuits in wintry Boston, I am sitting in my Ortigia Internet cafe on a gorgeous Sicilian day, watching other families and missing mine.

I am entranced by and am a real sucker for the Italian children, and find most of them quite beautiful. I have seen a lot of children with mixed race parentage (either now or somewhere in the complicated Italian past), and the result, in my view, is gorgeous. Biracial families are not at all unusual here, and no one seems to comment or notice. In addition to their natural beauty, the Italian children I see around me, and especially the babies who have no choice about what they wear, are usually dressed very stylishly and with the wonderful Italian flair, often including the essential Italian scarf wrapped ingeniously around their necks. And, of course, since family is such a basic and important part of Italian life, children go everywhere with their parents and grandparents; children run in the streets and alleys at all hours, go to restaurants and stores always and often go to work (especially in small businesses and/or bars) with their parents. Grandparents do a lot of childcare here, and often a "nonna" or "nonno" ("granny" or "grampy") wheels a stroller or holds a toddler's hand while strolling through Ortigia.

"La Bella Figura" is a way of life in Italy, especially in the South, and this philosophy of loving and appreciating beauty in all forms seems to rule. Italians do seem to carry an air of sophistication and fashion everywhere, from the clothes they effortlessly wear beautifully to the high-heeled boots the women wear while dashing around on their motorbikes, to the hats that seem to enhance every Italian head (worn not, in Sicily, to keep out the cold, but to perfect the look!). My assumption is that everyone is expected to look as beautiful as possible and also to be as polite as possible, since La Bella Figura also seems to dictate rules of respect and courtesy (usually evidenced by language). I have been told that, indeed, even in these tough economic times here in Italy, families will often spend too much money on perfecting their image and presenting their children well. Also, Ortigia seems to have an abundance of beautiful, expensive cars (lots of BMWs, Mercedeses, Audis, etc.); when I commented on this (noticing and evaluating cars seems to be a leftover skill I learned from my three sons), I was told, "It's Italy. Everyone wants to show off," and, "This is a pretty wealthy area where a lot of people have second homes, so there is a bit of money around."

Interestingly enough, I wonder if I am making generalizations about my experiences here in Italy this year, and am trying not to do so. One of my brilliant and beautiful daughters-in-law asked me, "What lessons would you bring home now?", which is a great question and, if I understand it correctly, I interpret as asking "What have you learned so far?" Here are some disjointed answers, each of which is still, of course, a work in progress and constantly evolving:

1. I am a "work in process" and "constantly evolving."

2. Everyone else is a "work in process" and "constantly evolving."

3. Part of my joy is my growth, and I feel that I am constantly expanding (and not just because of the pasta!).

4. Part of my joy is my growth, and I feel that often I make no progress.

5. I am overwhelmed with gratitude -- for my health, for my wonderful family and friends (old and new), for my possibilities, for each beautiful day (even the ones that just don't go so well, which of course are part of the whole routine).

6. I can get anxious about the future, and about what lies ahead and what decisions I have to make and how to cope. If I can, instead, relax with enough confidence in this really weird and scary process of not trying to control it all, then often clarity and opportunity can lead the way. For example, so far my apartment choices and my people choices have just kind of solved themselves, somehow; I am learning to trust, perhaps? (maybe only once in a while!).

7. Time is such a strange phenomenon.

I have been in Italy now for almost six months, and I have another six to go on this adventure. I want to make the most of it, but don't yet know what that means -- I think I just have to trust it...

And, thinking again of the little boy birthdays in the far past, I do understand the fleeting moments...

I know so very little...

I have, thankfully, so much to learn...