No one remembers why my middle sister walked into the headmaster’s office at Sandy Springs Friends School in Maryland on that particular day. That was where she saw the lone application on a table. Why she noticed it, we don’t know. But there it was, the last student application for an exchange position with the school.
By this time, I was living in New York City and was not there for any of this, but family lore goes like this:
My sister asked why this chap had not been chosen and what she could do to help. She said that maybe our family could take him. Now, we are a family of all girls, and the head had never thought of approaching a family of girls, even though the student could board during the week and only share weekends and holidays.
So home she went, and the family decided to give it a go. And that is how I got a brother named Gabriele Baccetti — from Grosseto, Italy, in the Tuscany region.
Over he came, and he fell into our family like a darling puppy that everyone falls in love with. To this day, he adores our mother. And my Darling Husband has spent many happy days with his family when he travels to Italy, as have I.
Gabriele came into our family over 43 years ago. I am telling you this in response to “Our Exchange Student Stole Away Our Hearts,” the March 14 Pilot column in which Robbins Town Manager David Lambert told about his family’s experience with Italian student Francesco Patrocini. If they are as lucky as we have been, that year can lead to a lifetime of meaningful family ties.
My Italian brother fit us like a glove, although I did not meet him at home. Gabriele was coming back from a trip home to Italy and stopped in New York with me for a few days. His father had sent him back with a check for allowance. But because he had feared Gabriele could be fleeced by some wayward American, he had put so many “locks” on the check that we needed to go to Chase Bank headquarters on the southern tip of Manhattan to get it cashed, with passports and Lord knows what else.
It was a very windy day down near One Police Plaza, and I hardly knew where we were. But thanks to a passing cop, we found the building, and up Gabriele went to get the cash. On the way home, the wind was blowing so hard that we could just about lean into it and not fall. He turned to me, balancing back into the wind and yelled, “Stick with me. I show you Manhattan!” I loved him right then and there.
Years later, on my first big job, with a TV pilot for a sitcom, they paid me a bundle. So I was able to send my folks to Europe (this was when the dollar could take you anywhere for a lot less), with Italy on the agenda. Gabriele’s American mommy and daddy met his Italian momma and papa. What a joy it was for all of them.
When Gabriele married, he flew with his bride the next day to New York to Tony and me, then to Mom and Dad and my younger sisters. They also visited my twin in Chicago. We returned the favor years later when Tony and I married.
When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Gabriele came home to see him. He and his wife and one son came to my mother’s 85th birthday. And next month, my husband visits the Baccetti brood in Grosetto.
So this lovely lad, whom no one had chosen as destined for our family, began what is a lifetime of intertwined love. I wish for Francesco and the Lambert family in Robbins such joys.
Taking someone into your home for a year does not always reap such rewards, but it may. Traveling abroad and meeting new people can lead you to friendly encounters and greater understanding of our world and ourselves. If your kids get the chance to go abroad, I would beg you to let them. Living with another family can be eye-opening and enriching. Open your home to someone from another country, and both of you gain a world of knowledge, and perhaps love.
Gabriele, his wife and children — and maybe one day, his grandchildren — are ours, and we are theirs. Had my sister not walked into the office that day, our lives would have been robbed of so much joy.
Che benedizione! What a blessing.
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials.