Il nonno and word puzzles: A Memoir

Grandparents were not an intrinsic part of my life, when I was growing up in Italy.  My father’s parents had passed away long before my birth, while my Settimana enigmisticamaternal grandmother was only a shadowy figure, having died when I was still a young child, and, living in Northern Italy, we saw her rarely and held vague memories.  But she had blue hair, that I remember.  That is, white with an azure hue, always worn in a tight bun, and in their apartment in Modena there was a refrigerator that was locked with a key! I swear it, something that strongly impressed me as child, and I used to wonder what food was so precious that had to be kept locked up.  Never found out.  However, after she passed on, my inconsolable grandfather began traveling – cautiously – to the ‘Deep South’ twice a year, to spend a month or so with us.  Prepariamogli la camera my mother would urge, let’s set up his room, which usually meant that my brother was kicked out of his and had to share quarters with us unwelcoming and resentful girls.  Or, move to a teeny picturetiny room that at one time was next to my father’s studio, where there was barely enough room for a single bed and a chair to use as a night table.  Either way, the arrival of nonno Romolo was always highly anticipated and the three of us used to argue fiercely about who would go with my father to pick him up at the Naples’ train station.  Seating in the old Simca being limited, somebody was always left behind, and often it was yours truly.  No matter, the wait was equally sweet at home, as I kept peeking out of the balcony that looked upon the courtyard, excited to catch a glimpse of the car returning with its precious cargo.  The gifts.  Well, yes, nonno Romolo never showed up empty-handed, and the gifts were particularly treasured because they were BOOKS.  Yes, splendid, oversized, glossy, lavishly illustrated books, fairy tales, adventures, fantasies.  As a small child I looked forward to the wondrous classic fairy tales, then, later, to the thicker volumes, with few Settiman Enigmistica, Mara readingdrawings and tinier print, often unusual stories so enthralling that kept me up at night.  Then, as we moved into our early teens, they became literary classics and even (for me) romantic novels which in those naïve days made my little heart soar upon the wings of longed-for great romances with all their tragic glory.  Oh well, thank God we get over these things, since the transmuting of potential princes Charming into creatures more appropriately described by a less flattering adjective, could be a serious downer.  Anyway.  But the fascination with the printed word didn’t end with us; il nonno, an intelligent and curious man, was passionate about word games.  Hence, the renowned weekly puzzles magazine, La Settiman Enigmistica, was always packed with his luggage.  When he came to visit in periods of school vacation, we all looked forward to going to the Bosco reale where the much-loved pista di pattinaggio awaited us. The lush gardens of the Royal Palace of Portici were the green surroundings of a large roller-skating rink, where we had learned to take our first wheeled steps.  We cheerfully walked with him across town, then scrambled to put on our skates over our tennis shoes, tying the double straps carefully all around, eager to take off.  Well, my brother, actually, was the one who would instantly race off (often backward!) into the distance, Settimana enigmisticadefying danger and common sense.  My little sister would calmly stroll off with graceful movements, while I would hover by the handrail, yearning to glide into the distance but terrified of falling on my face.  The story of my life.  I see him now, dressed in his gray suit and dark tie, a hat over his mostly bold head, settle himself on the worn-out green wooden bench across from the rink, pull out a crisp new copy of the Settimana, produce a sharp pencil and get to work.  Starting at page one, skipping nothing, methodically writing his way through crossword puzzles and riddles, chuckling quietly at the jokes and vignettes interspersed on the black and white pages, and continuing (with a couple of cigarette breaks) till it was time to head home forpranzo.  This venerable magazine will forever be associated with him, just like the delectable emerald-green mint candies that he carried in his pocket, so deliciously strong that took your breath away, which he always offered us by the handful during our outings together.  Here I am now, in my Westchester home, leafing through the issues of  “La Settimana Enigmistica”, picked up when I was in Italy this past October, and each page touches a cord, flashes an image, awakens a story, and my fingers tremble slightly at the tender memories of my temps perdu.

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