My husband hung up the phone without a word. I listened to the stillness, glancing across the room at my father-in-law. His wide grin had faded and he looked suddenly nervous. We’d gone too far this year.
My in-laws had retired to a small town in Tuscany, just over an hour from Florence. Surrounded by olive groves, their house stood on a hill with show-stopping views over the undulating countryside. There were lemon trees in terracotta pots, a magical garden and a swimming pool with a view of a 15th century church. Postcard perfect.
Long before they sold the house, when our two sons were still in grade school, we would visit for a few weeks every spring. At the time, we lived in London and it was relatively easy trip for me to make alone with the boys, my husband meeting us later in the vacation. For my father-in-law it was a prized chance to reconnect with his grandsons. Not long after we’d arrive he’d pull out a list of plans and projects: tractor rides and trips to a favorite pizza place were always slated. Our April Fools’ pranks were initially low-key — my father in-law would tell the boys that the Easter rabbit was lost in the olive grove — a joke that sent them scurrying outside where he’d surprise them with a quirky present hidden in one of the ancient gnarled trees.
I don’t remember when the two of us ratcheted up the practical joke, turning it into a full-fledged caper, but I do know the target shifted from the boys to my husband. I never imagined my father-in-law to be a good liar. A straightlaced Midwesterner who’d travelled the world as an oil executive, he hardly fit the con artist mold. But that year the spirit of Hilaria must have enveloped him, enough to concoct an April Fools’ fable worthy of P.T. Barnum.
When my husband called that night to catch-up on the day and talk of plans for his arrival the next week, my father-in-law answered. In a deadly serious voice he told my husband that something upsetting had happened. “Three guys from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage had come to the house unannounced this afternoon.”
Pitch perfect, the prank continued: he described the visit, their note taking, the walk around the 18th-century villa, banging the walls in the basement. By the time he was finished, I was almost convinced there had been a visit.
And then the climax: Direzione generale Archeologia, belle arti e paesaggio would be digging up the garden, the basement and possibly even the pool grounds in search of suspected Etruscan ruins. For decades to come they’d be unearthing whatever lay beneath. My husband fell for it fast and hard. I took the phone, embellishing my father-in-law’s whopper. By then we simply couldn’t resist carrying on, until … until he told us he’d leave London for Rome the next day, that he’d call an Italian lawyer to try and protect the property from years of archeological digging … until, it wasn’t funny anymore. To his everlasting credit, my husband laughed when we called back — two remorseful April fools stammering “gotcha” and “we’re sorry” all at once.
Twenty years on, it’s still a tale told when our sons visit near Easter time. The story stirs memories and talk of my in-laws’ house and the precious holidays the four of us spent there, exploring the Italian countryside and relishing the beauty of that fairytale place.
Of the memories we cherish most, the best are often made in the places closest to our hearts that seem to harbor spirits of their own. The spirit of my father-in-law’s villa, part of my children’s childhoods and a vanished time in our lives, still lingers. One of my sons has an oil painting of the house hanging in his student digs. It’s a part of our family narrative, like an old friend that touched our lives and shaped our views, letting us see the world in a more beautiful light.
And no, we never did unearth a single Etruscan artifact.