The Bravest Woman I’ve Ever Known

(Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/

There have been many fierce, independent women in my life. Women who have stepped far outside of their comfort zones to chart new paths or tread into unfamiliar territory. But the woman who has inspired me the most to explore, to dare, and to navigate is my great-aunt Adriana. Her erratic presence in my life, seemingly flying in and out with the wind, opened my eyes to exotic worlds beyond the small southern town where I grew up. Many years earlier, she had had the same effect on my father, who would “drag” his family on archeological digs and to more ruins than I can count. Our nomadic tendencies were a bit of an anomaly in our town, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly appreciated this gypsy lifestyle. It was my family that introduced me to the gift of travel and my great-aunt who helped me realize the importance of breaking bread with other cultures around the world.

As a young woman, Adriana would take the same route home from work every day to meet her fiancé in the square for an espresso and a chat with friends. One day, she arrived to find her fiancé flirting with another woman. Running away hurt and enraged, she found herself on an unfamiliar Roman street. This small change in her routine changed the course of her life—and in turn, mine.

On this new path, Adriana met a young, perhaps too handsome man on a motorbike, and shortly thereafter their brief courtship ended with an even quicker marriage. Almost immediately after the wedding, he was drafted into the Italian Army and later taken as a prisoner of war. When he finally returned after the war a few years later, it didn’t take long for the couple to realize that they barely knew each other and had no business being married.

Blocked from a divorce by their strict Catholic upbringings, Adriana devised a plan that would keep the two apart until she figured out what to do. She told her husband she needed some time at a health spa (AKA sanatorium) in northern Italy to get her head and health in order. In reality, she hopped a steamer boat to Boston. She wasn’t completely committed to the idea of leaving her country and her marriage, though, so she pre-dated a dozen postcards and instructed her friend (who lived in the same town as the “spa”) to send one a week. “I’m doing well.” “Still need rest.” “Tired.” “Figuring things out.”

Standing on the deck of the boat with the dock receding away from her, Adriana felt waves of panic washing over her. She debated jumping overboard to swim back to shore but thought the better of it. Adriana eventually made it to Boston with little more than the name and address of a general she planned to beg for a job. Fortunately, she could type 120 words per minute and was immediately hired. The job in Boston led to a job in DC, where she met a man at an Embassy function that she lived with for several years. When the affair ended, she resumed her transient lifestyle, living in Mexico City, Brazil, Japan, and Moscow.

The adventure of my aunt’s life story has always held me a bit in awe and fueled my need to explore and fully embrace life as a global citizen. 

No matter where she traveled, Adriana’s eccentricities and adventures remained the stuff of legend in our family. She crashed Rocky Marciano’s stag party and palled around with John Wayne. She lived with the locals in the Congo (as a single woman in the 60’s), spoke eight languages and thought the most beautiful place in the world was the Norwegian Fjords.

As I got older, I was able to blend my own adventures with Adriana’s. Summers in college were spent in Rome with my aunt as my tour guide. I would spend hours studying the map in her spare bedroom, covered with flag pins indicating all of the places she had traveled. I had been born into a family of gypsies, but it was this strong, fierce, smart, funny, badass woman who held me utterly entranced.

I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling with family to far-flung places. I still love that type of carefree, joie de vivre exploration. The kind with a bit of planning but a lot of discovery. Through my job, I’ve traveled to Ghana, Ethiopia and most recently Malawi with colleagues—some veteran travelers, some with a spanking new passport in hand. For me, the excitement in traveling with others is seeing the world through their eyes. What actually resonates is often the unexpected, and I’m often reminded of a quote from Martin Buber: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

My great aunt Adriana has passed on to her final stop, but she still goes with me wherever I am. Wherever I travel , she reminds me to embrace the unexpected and beautiful in the world.

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