It’s a holiday in Italy. Called Pasquetta or Lunedì dell’Angelo. A day dedicated to feasting outdoors. The great after-Easter picnic, which always happens since the weather usually cooperates. In Southern Italy, that is. A tradition that is fairly recent, dating back to the period right after World War Two, when the government decided to extend the Easter festivities by one day, so that people could relax and enjoy Easter without the stress of having to go back to work on Monday. Damn good idea, I’d say, can we adopt it? Anyway, I, having been raised in Italy in a less traditional way than most Italians, had not experienced this customary picnic until I was about sixteen or seventeen. And not with my family. We were staying in my father’s country house (his almost two-hundred-year-old ancestral home) in Colli, in the tiny region of Molise, something we did sometimes for Easter, as the weather was more pleasant and that little mountain village wasn’t as frigid (ancient stone house with no heat: not a cozy picture, believe me!). So, the day after Easter, some far-removed relatives of my father asked me to join them on their traditional Pasquetta picnic at Valle Fiorita, in the countryside nearby. Sure, why not, better than hanging out with my family doing nothing, or possibly bickering with my siblings. Allora, my father’s cousin and his daughter, a girl a couple of years younger than me with whom I occasionally hung out, came to pick me up in an old Fiat, and off we went toward the outskirts of the village, along bumpy and dusty country roads, till we reached – almost by magic, I thought, since I didn’t pay much attention to itineraries – a green valley, smiling cheerfully emerald under the sun, surrounded by woods. Pretty for sure…but there was nothing there. Now what? Well, ‘what’ arrived promptly. A small crowd of participants began pulling up in cars and motorcycles, all carrying baskets, containers, pots, and bags of groceries. Before I could get my bearings, folding chairs were opened up, a huge pot (a cauldron?) was removed from the trunk of a car and set on the grass, while some of the men began building a fire. As I was waiting for the salame and prosciutto sandwiches to be distributed, like at a proper picnic, I was surprised to see that the cauldron was being filled with water (from where?) and set on the now lively fire…while the women were tearing open packages of pasta. What? Yes, indeed, another pot brimming with sauce was bubbling already over another fire, and tables (from where?) were being set with tablecloths and napkins! I was stunned: we were going to have freshly cooked pasta at a picnic in the middle of a forest! And so it was. Spaghetti with some kind of tomato sauce (I think, I didn’t really pay much attention to these things as a teen, just focusing on boys, fashion, boys, romantic novels, boys, nail polish, boys…), with parmigiano, clinking glasses of red wine, followed by lamb chops cooked alla brace, on a makeshift grill, vegetable contorni, then the thick and golden frittate di Pasqua, special tall frittate made with dozens of eggs, filled with all sorts of meats and cheeses, aromatic of nepitella (a type of wild mint that grows in the mountains), cooked at length on the stove, till they looked like solid cakes, to be sliced with a knife (no diet food this, nor easily digestible, but quite delicious), green salads, plus, of course, the leftover pastiera and other Easter sweets, and, naturally, strong sweet coffee for all, freshly brewed in the little army of moka caffettiere brought along by everyone. A gargantuan meal, which bore no resemblance to a picnic. A long afternoon spent, after, lying around on the grass, half dozing, half listening to the soccer game on the radio (the men), washing all the (real) dishes and flatware and cleaning up the valley (the women). Us kids? Off into the proximity of the picnic area, with friends or boyfriends, a fairly reckless motorcycle ride down the country path, hanging on for dear life to a friend of a friend of a cousin who had this cool red Vespa…Never experienced it again, this incredible Easter Monday picnic that wasn’t a picnic, but, damn it, still can’t get it out of my mind, even after decades, wishing that, well, I knew then what I know now, and actually had a clearer memory of the bounty of the food and how it was magically created in the middle of the woods. Instead of the color of somebody’s eyes. Ma così è.
( I originally wrote and posted this memoir on April 1, 2013. Re-published here because I didn’t have the time to write a new one. Simple as that.)
21 marzo 2018
Ci sto pensando con grande serietà.
Ci sono quelli che amano diventare desaparecidos.
O, più probabilmente, se ne infischiano. Di me, di te, insomma di tutto ciò che non abbia a che fare con il loro pomposo ego.
Vorrei vedervi lì, dall’altro lato del monitor, tremolanti e ansiosi, in attesa del mio verdetto.
Bocciati, direi. Nella pagella della vita.
Voi che avete voltato il capo, preferendo non sapere, non capire. Presi dai vostri mille impicci e casini (auto-creati, naturalmente), tagliate i legami casualmente, come se gli altri non fossero mai esistiti. E non parlo dell’inquilino del terzo piano o del salumiere.
Forse rosi da un’invidia che non vi ha mai dato pace, invidia infondata, ma che vi ha creato tanti film nella testa.
Esseri dalla vita personale catastrofica (ma che continuate a difendere come vostra scelta), state a stento a galla, ma vi ostinate a prendere a pugnalate il prossimo.
I desaparecidos devono finire dalla signora Maria, direi. Forse l’unico modo di scuoterli un po’, sconvolgerli, riportarli alle loro origini di esseri umani (stato da loro tristemente abbandonato).
Forse anche l’unico mezzo per sentirli o vederli, se solo per curiosità.
Attenti, dunque, cari desaparecidos, che l’invito potrebbe essere in arrivo!
Ma sappiate che conduco io le danze, ossia l’eventuale apertura/chiusura della busta.
Fatevi belli, perché il postino è già in bici e sta per suonare il campanello.
C’è posta, c’è posta!
Adda passà a’ nuttata.
Adda passà a’ nuttata.
That song again.
Never fails. No matter what pop music station I listen too, at some point a-ha comes on. With their eighties’ one-hit wonder of course, Take on me.
Hope not to make too many enemies, but…I cannot stand the music of the eighties. There, I said it. I believe it was a dark period in American musical history, one that needs to be deleted. Apparently, I’m one of a few. Most radio stations will – constantly!- promote ‘eighties weekends’, and one appalling song after the other will assault my ears. That’s when I switch to Nash FM.
That said, I will admit that I actually love Take on me, and, in those dark ages of music, I was actually delighted by their clever video, impressive in the early days of computer animation. (Take a look at it, worth it. Just try to ignore that God-awful eighties hair).
But the first thing that comes to my mind, every single time I hear that piece, is Why didn’t I write this damn song? Or co-wrote it, performed it, recorded. Just once. Because that is all this lovely Norwegian band needed to do.
One song, one lifetime of serious income.
A movie I loved, About a Boy. Remember the plot? Yep, that concept. Write one bloody hit song, enjoy the rest of your life, my dear.
I’ve tried a couple of times (though not with excessive enthusiasm) to write lyrics. Okay, I don’t play any instrument, nor can I sing, so I would definitely need a team of experts who could take care of everything else. But, you know, writing love songs? I’m way too pragmatic (bordering on full-on cynical) at this point of my life, so couldn’t squeeze any romantic words out of my brain without gagging a little bit, and also not a big fan of rhyming (as you know, I write prose, not poetry).
Another project quickly put aside. Too bad, this is the one that could have made me rich. With very little sweat. Which is the way I’d like it. Sort of slightly more effort than buying a ‘Cash4Life’ ticket. Two bland sentences, repeated four-five times, some remarkable falsetto performing (awfully good, I admit), and cha-ching!
I’m not chasing fame and applause. Just regularly send me checks, decorated with numerous zeros, and I will be blessing that one song till the day I die. So will my offspring, and those after them forever on.
Don’t mean to sound greedy, I’m not. Just exhausted, anxious, yet still a tad of a dreamer.
The hit song that would offer peace. Remove the insecurities and fears, restore restful sleep to those tortured nights, ease the daily struggle, the never-ending hurdles, that steep hill that just leads to another (and another), the tunnel that will never proffer relief at the end. Because some seem to be destined to an existence that lacks even the dimmest light.
Mistakes that will reveal catastrophic. It happens. And cancel the word peace from your life.
Gotta write that hit song.
Back to work.
I hesitate to write about my friend.
I’m still in the denial stage.
Broken and fragile, I approach the keyboard, my fingers trembling slightly as I attempt, resolute, to celebrate her existence in my life.
Beautiful Gail, kind, generous, lovably original, spontaneous; always surprising Gail, my wonderful neighbor.
Gail who was so much more than my next door neighbor, she was a thoughtful friend, a sister.
She is gone, and my heart aches with immense grief, disbelief and fury.
Just like that, Gail flew away into the arms of the angels, and I didn’t get the chance to say, what happened, please don’t go, hang in there, my friend…
The lady who blessed my life, and my family’s, with her presence for many years disappeared in a tragic manner, leaving the deepest void in our souls.
Sunny, friendly Gail, who would show up at my front door, nearly invisible behind a massive armful of zucchini, basil, cucumbers and tomatoes, gathered from her backyard, she the devoted constant gardener with the magic touch an the brilliant green thumb. Gail, who would ring the doorbell, carrying a beautiful dress, excited, almost child-like, eager to show me and my daughters what she had found for a special event she was attending, unraveling with enthusiasm. Gail, a fantastic cook, who invited us for dinner on the spur of the moment, ‘just made a special dish, come on over in half an hour, all of you…’
Gail, the intrepid traveler, with her beloved husband John, returning from Thailand filled with gifts – earrings, necklaces, hot sauces, stunning scarves.
Gail and John, hosting those unique, unforgettable crawfish boils, gathering friends and neighbors for hours around that long makeshift table covered in newspapers, heaped with spicy crawfish right out of the caldron, potatoes, corn, and butter, our glimpse of Louisiana in our New York suburb. The pile of colorful Mardì Gras’ beads they brought back from New Orleans, where they proudly rode on the floats.
Gail and John, sharing our Christmas Eve’s meal, armed with wine bottles, excited and happy to partake of the pasta with fish, and my Neapolitan festive desserts.
Yes, Gail, you are my sister.
Gail, who moved away a few years ago, but still made us feel so much part of her world, surprising us with packages from Oregon, much to our delight. A cake pan for me, because she had admired one of my baking post on Facebook, and shared my love of sweets. Jars of delectable homemade preserves and pickles from her quickly established Oregonian garden; a shimmery wall decoration for my daughter.
Gail and John, the neighbors everyone would wish for, a blessing for my family, one true thing that should never end.
Gail and John, who watched with tender affection my daughters grow up, evolving from cheerful little girls to gentle young women, surrounding them with love, to the point that my girls thought of them more as relatives than neighbors. And, as such, they danced at my daughter’s wedding.
Gail, so much part of our life. Our forever memories.
Life can be cruel, fate can be brutal.
Bent under this burden of grief, I will still find the strength to thank God for having placed this incredible human being in my life, her luminous smile an indelible memory, her reality a true gift.
Be happy in heaven, my precious friend. Keep watch over me, over us, stay in my life, as I continue my path into the future, a better person for having known you.
Gail Giler: In Memoriam.
Still fairly unknown in the US.
Warm, raspy voice.
Altro che Sanremo.
Not always, I’m good at holding the reins, at stilling my heart.
But occasionally I slip. And the hurricane that has been my life rips through me, unleashing emotions I do my best to keep hidden under a thousand layers of resignation.
It happens suddenly, but sometimes her image comes to me, tender and agonizing, and I weaken at the memory.
Certainly the most important person of my childhood and adolescence, whether I acknowledged it or not, insensitive teen that I was.
Here I am, watching distractedly, eyelids straining to stay open, a variety show on RAI, when the great singer from the seventies, Iva Zanicchi, appears on stage. An elderly lady now, she descends the sleek glass staircase with caution, her flowing clothes giving the impression of great trembling wings. Soon a song that I hadn’t heard since that time of wonder breaks through the applause, and I’m no longer on my couch, but back on the stiff-backed chair, in the dining room in Portici, watching a TV show in black and white, my mother sitting next to me, skillfully knitting in the dark. She’s whispering along, the song is Zingara, powerful and sad, a young woman offering her hand to a gipsy (zingara), pleading that she tell her the future, will he ever love her…? I found it odd, even absurd, that my mother, a grown woman, would be so taken by a silly pop song, what did she even know about love and pain and dreams? Those were only for young girls like me, no?
Beautiful with her blond hair and gray-blue eyes, my mother had had her teen years torn by the war. The sirens in the middle of the night, she recounted, the sleepy rush to the shelter, the fear, then the habit, because it lasted a long time, that damn war. “I was wearing a bright red dress – she told us once – and was coming back from an errand, on an ordinary day, when the alarm shrilled, I was far from the shelter, crossing a field”. She simply lay on the grass, face down on her crossed arms, and prayed that the brilliance of her dress would not make her a target. She heard the explosions all around her, but felt no pain, hence she hadn’t been hit. Then the silence took over, the daunting smell of smoke and tragedy, but she was intact: the red dress had not betrayed her. And so it was for so long for young, pretty Wanda, her heart bleeding slowly as friends and neighbors were murdered or taken away. Those years of darkness.
A dedicated teacher and mother, she performed all the duties that were expected of her, year after year, complaining little, crying often, but then smiling again, brushing off any questions, rolling up her sleeves, back to her motherly duties because that’s what you do. Gracefully (but sometimes not) bearing the destiny that life handed her, dutiful and pained wife, she persevered through it all, one foot in front of the other, aware that dreams rarely come true and love is fickle and temporary.
I didn’t get it then. Because the world revolved around me.
I miss her. The excrutiating emotion seizes my heart suddenly, and I fight it fiercely because I refuse to feel. I’ve hardened myself, sharpened all my edges, blocked all the tears to the point that I’ve none left to shed.
No, I won’t think about the day I left Italy with stars in my eyes, so long long ago, while she was withering with stones in her soul.
Broken are the ones left behind, never to be healed.
I’m fragile too. But I persevere, one foot in front of the other, mindful of my duties. The harshest of judges, I shall never forgive myself for the sorrow I caused her, lost in the haze of my self-centered youth.
Conquering – or attempting to – a hurdle after the other, I slap myself awake, one day at the time, focused, properly grown up.
Listening to Iva Zanicchi, I glance at my mother’s portrait on the mantelpiece. I yearn to reach out, touch her smooth face, tell her I love her like I never did.
Does she hear me from up there? Does she understand my life, my confusion, my ceaseless melancholy? Mostly, has she forgiven my selfishness, whose guilty burden I relentlessly carry with me?
So much to tell her, I think I’ll give her a call, I catch myself thinking at times.
But she will not answer.
Okay, I’ve heard your unuttered questions, dear friends who have come to my house.
I’ve noticed your surprise and wonder, your silent judging of my style, my taste. Your curiosity mitigated by your good manners, you never dared seek an answer to why, in God’s name, the carpeting in my living-room/dining-room/staircase area happens to be of a pinkish hue.
But here I am, my polite guests, giving you the explanation you’ve been yearning for.
Rewind my life back to my childhood in Italy, in the nineteen something something. Every year, during the Christmas holidays, my family would receive lovely, glittery greeting cards from far-removed relatives living in America, always including Polaroid snap shots of a smiling family near a tall and colorful Christmas tree. All wearing t-shirts or short-sleeved poufy dresses, all sitting on the floor. Unheard of in my apartment in Italy, or anyone else’s for that matter. Who would want to sit on a cold tile or marble floor in December, wearing summer clothes? But the beaming people in the photographs were comfortably sitting or lying on soft, plush wall to wall carpeting! Enough to make my childish heart burst with desire. In Italy, it’s called moquette, and, certainly at that time, it was unusual for anyone to have it, an ambiguous luxury, not at all traditional. Oh, how I wished I lived in a house where I could walk barefoot on a comfy moquette, instead of wearing those stiff winter slippers over argyle socks, lie down near the Christmas tree, opening my gifts sitting on that cushy floor instead of a chair…
An image of complete bliss, including the snow piled high outside the patio doors, a wintry wonderland from a fairy-tale. Or so I believed.
Fast-forward several years, moving to the US as a young woman, a new bride with her own place to decorate. After a series of small apartments with uneven wood or linoleum flooring, I eventually moved to a house that had the coveted moquette! However, it was worn out and thin. At that time I had a new baby girl, barely one-year-old, just starting to take her first steps. Naturally I wanted a super-soft, super-clean rug for her to place her tiny feet on, to be playful and safe. So we rushed to a rug store and purchased new carpeting for the main floor (thankfully, the rugs upstairs were in excellent shape).
Color dilemma. I had eyed a rich rusty orange that warmed my heart. It was called ‘tangerine’ and it was the perfect thickness and softness for my little girl to enjoy (and for me to bring to life my childhood dream).
The day the installers came, I watched them lay out the rolls, my baby in my arms, anticipating the moment I could let her roll on the floor (and join her!). However, once it was all done, my perfect ‘tangerine’ carpeting looked alarmingly like a sea of pink! I was stunned and upset, complained fervently, even had one of the installers run back to the store and bring over the sample of the rug I had chosen, but, sure enough, it looked exactly like the rug just put in. What a difference lighting makes!
But, after all that anticipation, work and time, I didn’t have the heart to undo and re-do, so we kept it. Of course, eventually it grew on me, my daughter loved it, it was soft and warm, and what great fun to play with her dolls on the floor in the living room, by the large picture window, glancing at the squirrels frolicking on the branches of the majestic oak tree in the backyard. My American rug dream come true.
Naturally, no shoes were allowed in my house (slippers optional), thus it remained spotless and comforting for years.
Fast-forward once again. Because of a series of unfortunate events, we needed to move from the house I adored in the town I loved. Broken-hearted, I decided to transform the house we moved to into a complete replica of my beloved one, to cocoon in the recreation of the place that had brought me so much joy for a few brief years. Besides, I was blessed with a second beautiful little girl, only eight months old then, as I was to adjust to life in another town. Enter the same rug store. I demanded, much to their surprise (I was a customer they didn’t quite forget, considering the drama) that they install exactly the same carpeting I had before.
And so it was done. ‘Tangerine’ carpeting colored all of my main floor and crawled merrily up the stairs, softening my new baby’s tentative first steps.
Of course I still notice and sigh at the tint, still bear the unspoken comments of my guests.
Sure, I could replace it with another color; I could even remove it altogether and let trendy hardwood make its own classy statement.
But I will not erase the memories of my childhood dreams, and of my children’s precious babyhood.
Now you know.
9 gennaio 2018
Così, mentre mi sto occupando di qualcosa di ordinario, o guardo distrattamente la TV.
Mi viene in mente mia madre. E quel velo di tristezza impetuosa, spesso trapunta da attimi di panico, mi avvolge nel gelo.
Iva Zanicchi. Si presenta in un varietà divertente. Anziana adesso, scende le scale con esitazione, avvolta in panni svolazzanti.
E canta Zingara. Quella voce calda e potente, l’energia sorprendente, mi agguantano e mi trasportano nel passato lontano che poi non lo è, il ricordo vago, tremulo.
Mi madre che l’ascoltava con grande attenzione, le piaceva tanto la Zanicchi e soprattutto quel capolavoro emozionante di canzone, Zingara.
Era delle sue parti, la grande Zanicchi, emiliana verace.
Sognatrice, romantica di nascosto, spesso solare, la mia bellissima e pratica mamma cercava di tenersi a galla nel vortice delle emozioni che la travolgevano, ma che doveva sempre contenere. Quanti sogni aveva anche lei, immagino. Ma chi lo capiva (o se ne importava pure) allora. Tutto girava intorno a me, no?
Una donna coscienziosa e misurata, certamente anche lei delusa e stanca, come ogni donna. Dedicata alla famiglia e al suo lavoro di docente, si era rassegnata alla vita che tutti si aspettavano, che lo volesse o no.
Invece immaginava la zingara, e quanto desiderava offrirle la mano un po’ tremante nella speranza proibita di un futuro forse più magico, uno che sfiorasse ciò che desiderava quando era giovane e anche lei innamorata dell’amore (che ti tradisce sempre, ma mica lo capisci da ragazzina).
Mi manca. Più che mai. Presa come sono dal ciclone della mia vita, rifletto poco sul passato e su ciò che ho abbandonato tanti, tantissimi anni fa. O meglio, lo evito, ecco, più precisamente lo ignoro, anche per tenere a bada sentimenti troppo grandi per me, che potrebbero sconvolgermi.
Ascolto la Zanicchi e guardo il ritratto di mia madre che ho sulla mensola del caminetto. Mi sorride, ma so che è triste. Spero che mi veda da lassù, che mi ascolti, che mi comprenda, e, soprattutto, che mi perdoni per aver creato questa insostenibile distanza tra di noi.
Vorrei toccarle quel viso sempre liscio, i capelli biondi e sottili, stringermela al cuore con tenerezza come non ho mai fatto, e sapere che mi sente. Il peso è doloroso, e lo scaccio di continuo, distraendomi in ogni modo possibile. Mi spengo i sentimenti, m’irrigidisco, mi arrabbio pure con me stessa per non riuscire a perdonarmi, anche a distanza di decenni.
Tanto da raccontarle, da mostrarle. Adesso le telefono, mi illudo ogni tanto.
Ma non mi risponderà.
To try not to screw up.
Yeah, good luck with that to all of us. But God bless our good intentions.
New York is enchanting during the Christmas holiday period.
Grateful, thrilled to live in this wonderful place. Yes, I hate the snow, but I love the lights. I hate the cold, but I love America.
Happy New Year, wonderful people!
Cerchiamo di non rovinare un altro anno, okay? Lo so, molto difficile, ma ci proviamo, Dio lo sa che ci proviamo…
Odio il freddo e la neve, ma adoro New York. Mi manca l’Italia, ma amo l’America.
Mi mancate voi, miei cari (sapete chi siete).
Buon anno a tutti voi, che vi regali amore, passione, gioia, salute e tutto quello che conta davvero.