Several years ago my wife, Cynthia, and I were sitting before the fireplace in the American Bar of The Connaught hotel in London when a well-dressed group of men and women sauntered in, chatting amiably as they sat down and ordered drinks.
Cynthia leaned over and whispered, "That's the way I want us to be when we're that age."
I surveyed the group and chuckled. "Cindy, darlin'," I replied, "that's exactly what we are right now."
She glanced back at them and, catching my drift, smiled broadly, the smile that had lighted up many a room in the 30 years we'd been together. "My God, you're right!" she said. Out of the group of a half dozen or so, there was only one or two who might have been older than we were.
Recalling such incidents -- what we used to call our collected "travel moments" -- was one reason I decided to take a memorial trip to Europe just four months after my travel-loving wife died from brain cancer. Another reason was to reward my nephew Michael for the devoted care he lavished on his favorite aunt in the final months of her year-and-a-half ordeal.
It was a suggestion from Michael that gave the trip its truly memorial aspect. I was to visit three cities that Cindy especially loved : London, Venice, and Florence. Michael suggested that I bring a small portion of Cindy's ashes to sprinkle somewhere in each of her favorite destinations. The remainder, nestled in a tiny silk change purse she had brought back from our trip to China, would be saved for the journey back to the States aboard the Queen Mary II. A small ceremony at sea would recall a previous crossing we had made together aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.
For five years, Cindy and I had access to a lovely little flat just off King's Road in London's Chelsea district. Tastefully furnished in English antiques and awash in Laura Ashley chintz, the pied-à-terre boasted a gas fireplace with a padded leather fender, and out back , a small garden. A bottle of port and some Stilton cheese always awaited us, welcoming treats from our generous hosts.
Chelsea was our home base, but it was Knightsbridge, home of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason ; and Bloomsbury, where we never tired of wandering through the British Museum; and Mayfair, home of The Connaught, a favorite watering hole, where we would tend to drift, always on the upper deck of one of London's iconic red buses.
A rare exception to our usual mode of transportation was the week we left London to tour the Cotswolds in a classic racing green Morgan sports car. Upon our return to the South Kensington rental agency, on a Friday evening during rush hour, we managed to get caught in the traffic-choked Hyde Park roundabout, circling three or four times, before we finally were able to emerge. A travel moment extraordinaire.
Across the street from The Connaught is a little garden adjacent to the Farm Street Church where we used to enjoy reading the brass plates affixed to the dozens of teak benches that serve as memorials for other lovers of London. This, I decided, was the ideal place, so I found a secluded spot and sprinkled some ashes amid the shrubbery. I entered the church, lit a candle for Cindy and said a prayer, then walked over to The Connaught and had a martini, smiling at the memory: "That's the way I want us to be . . . "
I recall the first time Cindy and I visited Venice many years ago. It was love at first sight. We stepped out of the railway station on a bright, sun-drenched afternoon and there it was, this stunning, dreamlike prospect spread out before us like a huge Canalleto canvas sprung to life.
Cindy and I visited Venice in all seasons, including the fall, when the Adriatic spills out of the canals, flooding sidewalks, squares, shops, and restaurants. In our sun room at home still rest our most unusual souvenirs of the fabled city -- two pair s of green Wellington boots.
Fancying ourselves savvy world travelers, there were three things we had assured ourselves we would never do in Venice: Rip-off No. 1: A gondola ride at well over $100. Rip-off No. 2: A Bellini, a much-hyped concoction of peach juice and champagne, in Harry's Bar. It might have been inexpensive when Hemingway roosted there, but, like everywhere else Hemingway frequented, the prices today are astronomical. Rip-off No. 3: Lunch in that other Hemingway haunt, hard by Harry's, the Hotel Gritti Palace.
On our last trip to Venice, we managed to do all three and we added the experiences to a new sub category of travel moments: memorable rip-offs that were well worth it.
Alone one night, on a bridge near the small hotel where she and I had stayed, I opened up the little purse and let fall some of her ashes into the canal. Then Michael and I hopped on a vaporetto and headed for Harry's Bar for a farewell Bellini.
I was always astonished at the way Cindy cultivated friends. She maintained friendships that went back to her childhood years, and her ability to make new friends remained unabated even when she was under hospice care at home. Visiting hospice workers and volunteers quickly fell under her spell; neighbors that we hardly knew regretted not having enjoyed her rollicking sense of humor earlier when she was well. Even in her final days, her gift of friendship and her good humor never diminished.
On our last visit to Florence, two of her former roommates from back in the 1970s asked if they could come along with us. So there we were, with two first-time visitors to Florence in tow, fondly revisiting popular tourist sites we had come to love: the Uffizi , the Ponte Vecchio bridge , lined with its spectacular goldsmith shops ("Buy for Cinny," my wife would joke, pointing out a particular bling that had caught her eye), the Pitti Palace , with its steeply terraced Boboli Gardens behind it.
One evening, as the four of us were enjoying a meal in a trattoria not far from the Ponte Vecchio, a group of locals at a nearby table, all men, kept eyeing us. Finally, one of them stood up and raised his glass of wine. Focusing on me, he declared: "Salud, my American friend! You are like a bull, with three women!" and his friends laughingly joined him in his mock tribute to my supposed virility. The toast was misdirected; it was my wife's constancy in friendship that was the more worthy recipient.
With Michael, I climbed the long stone stairway to the summit of the Boboli Gardens, and there, amid the dormant plantings, I sprinkled a small portion of her ashes, whispering the Italian farewell she so enjoyed uttering in her hilarious spot-on Brooklyn accent, "Arrivederci !"
Our crossing on the QE2 was made in the late fall, when the North Atlantic is not usually on its best behavior. But the thrill of our first ocean crossing far outweighed any trepidation we were feeling amid the rough seas. Still, there was one particularly hairy night when the cabin emitted groaning sounds more appropriate to a distressed banshee than a luxury liner stateroom. When I mentioned the words "rough seas" at the dinner table the next night, an engineering officer who had joined us blithely remarked, "Oh, no, sir, things have been quite calm, nothing to trouble yourself about." Smiling broadly, my wife glanced my way and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right," she silently mouthed.
The Atlantic was truly calm when my nephew and I, dressed to the nines in our tuxedos (a first for him!), stepped onto the promenade deck of the QM2 and bade Cindy farewell once again. Weighed down with some English coins, the tiny silk purse with a small portion of her ashes was committed to the sea.
She died at home in the bedroom we'd shared throughout our marriage, and her ashes are buried in a small country graveyard within walking distance of our home. There and in a few of the places she so loved to visit.
Arrivederci, Princess Cyn.
Laurence Collins, a freelance writer in Norwell, can be reached at email@example.com.