She Can Go Home Again
A Steadham family portrait in Italy: clockwise from dad David, Luc, baby Rory, Xander and Heather.
If you don’t have the time or talent to make your own presepio, you can head to Spaccanapoli, known to local Americans as Christmas Alley. This street, whose name literally translates as “splits Naples,” separates old Naples from New Naples and transforms at Christmastime to become a holiday wonderland complete with colored lights, handcrafted nativity scenes and pizza. It’s still Italy, you know.
The Italian holidays ends Jan. 5 with Epifania (Epiphany). It is this day, not Dec. 25, that Italian children receive Christmas presents as delivered by a kindly witch. It is said this witch, known as La Befana, hosted the three magi on their way to see the baby Jesus. They invited her to come along but she declined, insisting she had too much housework to complete. Later, she changed her mind, but was too late to locate the traveling party. To this day, she searches for the magi and the baby Jesus, stopping along the way to put presents in good children’s stockings, leaving coal for the bad ones.
But I am not Italian. Not even a little bit, to the best of my knowledge. And while I am enjoying my time here in Italy, I can’t help but think of Fort Smith, especially at this time of year. My childhood home stood proudly on Lexington Avenue, just as a Victorian should, not quite flaunting its sparkling jewelry of crystal chandeliers and stylish skirt of a wrap-around porch, but certainly lording over the increasingly commercial functional facades that had dethroned its contemporaries.
As an elementary schooler in Fort Smith in the 1980s, I didn’t notice the exodus of residences so much, instead practicing my roller skating skills in Dr. Stringfellow’s parking lot on 16th Street, heading to Wednesday evening praise and worship services at the YWCA on the corner of Lexington and South C, and biking to Pete’s Place across from the Immaculate Conception playground for burgers. My mom, however, the practical adult that she is, did notice the lack of other children, parks and play areas (though I do admit to squeezing in between the chained gates of IC playground on Sundays after mass), and wasn’t as enchanted with the surroundings as I was. When we moved to the Hillcrest neighborhood when I was in fifth grade, I vowed to return to the Lexington house one day and raise my own children there.
Southside High School in the early ’90s was another enchanted place for me. Excelling in English with Mr. Werner and psychology with Mr. Mahaffey, twirling flags in the marching band for Mr. Cate and Mr. Peer, and performing for Mrs. Stiles in plays such as “Oliver!” and “South Pacific” instilled in me a confidence that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. And in my senior year, 1991-92, I set my mind to “Saturday Night Live.”
I was going to attend Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where I had been accepted for music (and given a heaping helping of financial aid). I was going to fly up to New York, set the city on fire and take my rightful place as head writer and star of the iconic sketch comedy show. Fabulous life? Fait accompli.
Twenty years later, I found myself standing in the pulpit of a naval base church in Naples, Italy, delivering the baccalaureate speech to the class of 2012, as the students had elected me to do. I was struck by the surreal nature of the moment; exactly 20 years after my own high school graduation, I found myself in a remarkably familiar place: high school. In one very real sense, nothing had changed for me. Every day, I got up about 6:30, got dressed and went to school. Ate lunch in a cafeteria. Attended classes. Stayed after school for extracurriculars.
This was cause for some true reflection. Had I failed?
Working as a high school English teacher versus starring on a nationally known television show? Fail. Living in Gricignano di Aversa, Italy, more than 4,000 miles from Rockefeller Center and more than 5,000 miles from my childhood home on Lexington Avenue to which I had vowed to return? Fail. Fabulous life? Now, hold on a second.
True enough, things have not turned out like my high school self planned. But I certainly can’t say that nothing has changed since then. I live in Naples, Italy, with my husband, two sons and newborn daughter. In the last two and a half years, we have traveled to Rome, Verona, Pisa and Sicily in Italy (to name but a few), as well as exotic locations in Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, England, France and Turkey. I am the leader of classes I loved in high school and I am the drama teacher, the flag coach, the encourager of big dreams and, more importantly, big dreamers. So ... fabulous life? Totally.
Except for those two nitpicky dreams, that is. Darn that Lexington Avenue and “Saturday Night Live.”
At least, that’s what I would have thought before Christmas last year.
After 21 hours of travel, my exhausted family and I set foot on native soil. On Dec. 21, suffering temperature a lot more than 21 degrees colder than the Mediterranean climate of Naples, we returned to Arkansas for our first stateside visit in more than two years. Had things changed? What time was it, anyway? And where could I find a Sonic for a cherry vanilla Dr Pepper?
The next two weeks proved to be almost a blur. We saw more family than we knew we had – watch ’em come crawling out of the woodwork when you have a newborn in tow! We visited more places than we could really afford (but when would we be back in the states?) and ate more donuts than any reasonable human would abide. Really, there aren’t good donuts in Italy. We stayed with my mother-in-law in Holiday Island, my father-in-law in his RV as we traveled across four states and my mother in Fort Smith ... on Lexington Avenue.
Yup, you read right. After almost 30 years, my mom repurchased that house on Lexington Avenue. And I can’t properly explain how magical it was to have Christmas with my own husband and children there. To hear my sons wake up God-awful early and slide down the carved wooden bannister just as I did when I was their age (and just as I taught them at the beginning of our stay). To see them pull their stockings from the mantle of the more than 100-year-old fireplace where, during my 10th summer, my cat birthed her kittens. To feel the tiny weight of my 3-month-old daughter, born in a foreign land, experiencing Christmas – a real, Southern, American Christmas – for the first time, in the very home in which I was raised for almost a decade.
That leaves me face-to-face with my last unfulfilled dream: performing on “Saturday Night Live.” Lost cause, you say? Can’t be accomplished in Fort Smith, Arkansas, you say? I hear you. I don’t completely disagree with you. But I also have learned that our childhood dreams can be fulfilled in the most unexpected ways – and place – imaginable.
My fantastic husband, David, always on the lookout for great things to do, spotted an ad for Sunday Night Live, an improvisation show put on by Naturally Improv-able at an awesome new hot spot called the MovieLounge. Being fans of shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and, of course, “Saturday Night Live,” we were raring to go. When we got there – wouldn’t you know it – a former student of ours was an actor in the show. And, lucky for me, little Miss Laura finagled me an opportunity to perform with them for a skit.
It was one of the best nights of my life. I performed live on stage! People laughed at me – at the desired times! I was a star! For a minute. And it was good.
In many ways, I’m sad that I live exponentially closer to Fort Smith’s sister city, Cisterna di Latina, than to Fort Smith. I can imagine the life I would be living back home, with my boys playing sports for the Alma Little League, my daughter preparing to go to the Montessori school and me and my husband tracking down Naturally Improv-able every Sunday night. But I’m also glad to recognize the fabulous life I’ve been given, with my dreams being fulfilled in ways I’ve never imagined. My fabulous life is totally worth living, in both Naples, Italy, and, when I’m lucky enough to get a ticket back home, Fort Smith.