Donna Keel Armer considers herself a late bloomer. She enrolled as a college freshman at 33, took her first solo trip to Italy at 67 and published her first book, Solo in Salento: A Memoir, at 75. “I had to make up for lost time,” she said during our recent interview.
Donna grew up in a traditional family where the one goal in life was to marry and have children. “I made a mess of that,” she said.
Her first marriage at 19 was a disaster, and she was divorced within two years. “I had such a sense of failure, yet I still retained the antiquated notion of marriage as my only option.”
The second marriage to a much older man, who was an alcoholic, turned abusive. But with one divorce under her belt, she felt compelled to make it work.
“I hung in that dreadful environment for eleven years,” Donna said. “I was raised in a fundamentalist household, divorce was not an option, and I now had two strikes against me. My family wasn’t exactly understanding.”
After her second divorce, she changed her focus and entered college as a thirty-three year old freshman with a double major in Psychology and Social Sciences. “I thought maybe I could sort myself out with a degree in Psychology, but it took a lot more work than a degree to do that.”
After graduating, Donna went to work first in the insurance industry and then the airline industry and rose through the ranks to become a Senior Director. At the same time, she began to repair her personal life and decided third time’s a charm when she met and married Ray. They will celebrate forty years in 2023. “He’s just a gem and we have so much in common.”
After retiring from corporate America, Ray and Donna opened a restaurant and catering service. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Donna said. But she loved the business, particularly the catering part. “I loved the intimate nature of catering and the pleasure it gave me to create celebratory events for people Even catering a funeral offered us a chance to take care of people so they didn’t have to worry.” Donna said. “It was rewarding.”
Not only did catering feed Donna’s passion for food and cooking, but she also learned a lot about herself. “One of the unexpected ministries we encountered came about when the first big hurricane hit the East Coast. Because we were on the evacuation route, we housed and fed people who were fleeing the storm. There were many unique experiences like this that helped me as a person. It taught me to listen to other people’s stories and be compassionate.”
In 2006, after 10 years, Donna and Ray sold the business and moved closer to family. But after leaving home when she was nineteen, Donna didn’t experience the relationship with her family that she had hoped for. In fact, issues from the past surfaced which created more pain and angst and much of the personal repair work she’d completed, fell into disrepair.
During this time, Donna made progress in one area of her life. She had wanted to pursue writing since she was seven but allowed the influence of others to direct her life’s choices. At sixty, she began to write articles for local magazines.
Making the Decision to Travel Solo
In 2012, Donna again felt that sense of desperation about her life. She knew that she truly hadn’t put aside much of her previous garbage and she had taken on more. She told Ray she wanted to to go away alone and sort through the bits and pieces of her life that were unraveling. “He was very understanding,” Donna said. “We have always been respectful of one another’s choices.”
Donna choose a small town in the region of Puglia in Italy for her solo trip. She and Ray had visited the town in 2010 and Donna had been drawn to the ancient walled village and the warrior woman overlooking the harbor.
Ray’s only request was they spend time together in Italy. And he wanted to check out the apartment she’d rented before he left her on her own. They flew over together to visit friends in Umbria. Then they drove Puglia. “He said he wanted to be able to picture in his mind where I was and that I was safe,” Donna said. “That’s what I love about him.”
When Ray left, Donna had mixed emotions. “As I watched him drive away I was sobbing.” But the sun was shining and the children were playing in piazza. She grabbed a gelato and headed to her new home for the next five weeks. “I put that key in the door and thought yeah. I felt so empowered,” Donna said.
This was the beginning of major healing for Donna. “Just as I learned to create a work of art from broken pieces in a week-long mosaics class I took, I began to put the fragments of my fractured life into a whole,” Donna said. This trip was the impetuous for her book, Solo in Salento: A Memoir. “In this tiny village full of mystery, martyrs, and music, I found my voice,” Donna said.
Life After Italy
She returned to the United States feeling renewed. But it was a crash-landing as shortly after her return, her sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Donna assumed the role of caretaker until her sister’s death eight months later.
After her sister’s death, Donna and Ray moved to the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina. “Beaufort is a haven for writers and artists. I blossomed as a writer, and I found a niche for myself when I began to volunteer at the Pat Conroy Literary Center,” she said.
She also joined a writing group. “That’s where I met my writing mentor,” Donna said. Each member is required to share something they had written for critique. Donna presented an essay called “The Last Supper.” (Now chapter 45 in her book.) It was about the last meal she had during her solo journey to Otranto. “That trip changed my life, and I needed to share that story of healing.”
The group told her that she needed to write her whole story about her solo trip. Prior to that Donna hadn’t considered writing a book, but encouraged by the group, she began to write her memoir.
A Personal Memoir
Although her book details the beauty of Italy, generosity of the Italian people, and delicious cuisine, it is more than a travel guide. It is about one woman’s journey to find her voice. She talks about her life, her marriages, and how traveling alone gave her the gift of healing.
“I took time to recycle my own trash and to piece the fragmented parts of my life together,” Donna said. Both mosaics and recycling trash figure metaphorically in the memoir.
“Prior to my trip, I’d always done things that I thought other people imagined I should be doing. I learned I didn’t have to do that. I could be whomever I wanted to be. Now I’m a writer. It’s a dream come true,” Donna said. “I hope it’s an inspiration to others. It’s important to sweep away the parts of your life that incumber you and to seek a joyful way of living your life fully and completely.”
When the book was published, Donna was surprised to hear from many woman who had also been married numerous times. They shared their stories of shame and pain and thanked her for the possibility of taking a different path.”
In September at age 77, Donna is marking a new milestone. Her book is being translated into Italian. Un’Americana in Salento and her Italian book launch is scheduled for September 3, 2022 in the village of Otranto.
Donna and her husband Ray continue to travel. This year they spent a month in Italy and a month in Slovenia. She had planned to celebrate a solo trip for her 75th birthday, but then COVID hit. However, when her book is launched in September, she will be going solo. “It’s such a freeing experience. I wish everyone had the opportunity,” Donna said.
Advice About Traveling Alone
Donna knows that some women are reluctant to travel alone. Although she had traveled alone in her corporate career, her personal solo traveling is very different. She is always aware of her safety no matter where she is. “I just think it’s smart to be prepared. Before I go, I research the location of the police station and the hospital. I always have emergency numbers in my purse as well as the number for the American Embassy,” Donna said.
She’s also learned it’s important to strike up a friendship with a local person. This gesture establishes a link with someone who can help her with the language or other problems that might arise.
“I think you have to have a brave heart to travel alone. But I think just living you have to have a brave heart,” Donna said.
Food and Wine
You can’t talk about Italy without talking about food. “I’m partial to the Southern part of Italy because I prefer tomato sauces over cream sauces. And the seafood on the Adriatic is superb.”
Donna not only enjoys eating in Italy, but she loves cooking as well. “Everywhere I go I ask a local person to teach me how to make a local dish,” Donna said.
Last time she learned to make arancini, a rice ball stuffed with a meat ragú, green peas and mozzarella cheese, rolled in egg and bread crumbs and then fried. “They are so delicious with the gooey cheese melting in your mouth when you take a bite.”
She now wants to learn to make a tiramisu she had in Sicily. Donna described her favorite as a unique round-shaped cake shell. “When you cut into it, a thick chocolate sauce, thick caramel sauce and thick pastry cream oozed out. I’m a real sweet lover,” Donna said.
“But then, there’s hardly anything in the food category that I don’t love,” Donna laughed.
And the wine! Donna and her husband are mostly red wine drinkers. “The reds in the Southern region are so gorgeous and intense. There is a really distinct flavor to the grape that has almost a raisiny after taste. They’re delicious.”
Finding Time to Heal
Donna knows that her solo trip to Otranto helped make her the person she is today. “You don’t have to go to Italy to start the process. Start small. Carve out the time for yourself to be alone with your thoughts,” Donna said. “Learn to like yourself as a person. It’s so critical. In Italian they use the word essere which means to be. Americans are such busy people, always doing instead of being. Learn to be.”
What’s next for Donna? She’s writing a mystery series that is currently in the submission process. The series features Cat Gabbiano a Lowcountry caterer who embarks on a trip to Italy when her best friend goes missing from a small town in Puglia. Donna continues to submit travel essays and writes a travel blog when she’s on the road.
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