Never mind the dreams, hopes, expectations, and all that jazz.
Enter and exit stereotypes.
She believed because she was young. Tender and clear are the young. Willingly vulnerable, the world just a sea of glorious adventures.
She used to be kind. The smile rarely left her lips, she was open and soft and trusting.
She abandoned the well-known but dull, hanging tightly to sizzling comets. She didn’t miss the past, those left behind; the memories were tucked away, deep in the tunnel of things that don’t matter so much anymore. Or so it seemed, when the sky was so much bluer on the other side of regular.
But dreams are meant to explode. Or fade, or shamefully rot away.
Those splendid knights turn out not to be the heroes of a romantic crusade of love and forever joy beyond possibilities.
Sometimes she doesn’t recognize the image in the mirror. She sees her mother, or, frighteningly, a strange woman with no connection to her. She catches the image suddenly, brazen and bold, even mocking. She turns away, stricken, but when she dares peek again, it’s undoubtedly her. But twenty, thirty years in the future, right?
She feels cold and weighed down by a curtain of sorrow.
She glances at the heap of broken stories, touches it gently, silently cries out when they sting her. No tears, no visible anguish, no wavering, no time to feel. She signed that right away when she grew up.
She picks up her cup of coffee and erases the heap.
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 mokacaffettiere 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.)
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.
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 and 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.
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.
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.
The river is so immense that she thinks it’s the sea.
And she almost forgets where she is.
A different continent, a different life. Even a different century. Strangely surreal.
She reaches over, her hand trembling faintly. The water is cold under the late fall’s still brilliant sun.
But it’s so real. She couldn’t be closer to her river. And he listens.
She unburdens her sadness, and he accepts is. But doesn’t respond. Or maybe he does. The waves gently lapping at the gritty sand, only a few inches from her feet. I’m here, he says, lay your grief on the water and I will absorb it. But I cannot rebuild you.
Can loneliness last a lifetime? Must she endure forever? Is she deserving at all of a ray of sunshine that doesn’t last one day?
Does her existence matter? Even in the scheme of things?
A speck in the fabric of the ever-turning world.
Dutiful, always. An eternity of sacrifice. Be quiet, she orders. To herself. Her voice is too faint to matter to anyone else.
There is a point when woman (a mother) becomes part of the landscape. She forfeits feelings, desires, dreams, passions. Total subjugation to duties, others, ‘what’s right’, what matters. Expected to accept it peacefully.
Bear it, she tells herself. Let the universe run its course, hang on to karma, to a vague promise of heaven.
A world where only some are heard. The ones who scream the loudest, the evil ones, and, ironically, also the self-righteous.
They, who proclaim their unbound holy faith, who recite their part of servants of God, prostrate themselves in church, tote a Bible studded with notes and bookmarks, reach out condescendingly to those who struggle at the edge of society.
But ignore (and berate) those who are closest to them. By right or by misfortune.
Those who trusted them because innocent and naïve perhaps (or, simply, too young and tender to understand), who unquestioningly placed their budding lives in their hands.
The invisible ones remain invisible. And always will be.
They can cry behind closed doors, then smile, joke, laugh in company, because this is what society wants.
Suffering is not cool.
It’s their word against the others’. And the others win, because life is unfair, uneven, meant to crush us (or, some of us).
The invisible ones can be beautiful. (Painfully) outgoing, (sadly) funny.
But long, sleepless nights are their routine. And human beings are resilient, are they not? We can get used to cohabiting with pain just fine.
Nobody knows. Christ, nobody knows.
Life is indeed a valley of tears.
Go on, lucky ones, proceed with your stable lives, be amazed, be amused, be touched by the loud phony ones, play their game.
Karma, some say. Karma will vindicate you. Will it make a difference though?
The gray areas that one refuses to acknowledge because they are too real. The ones where most of us dwell, cry, exult, bear, rejoice. And hide, mostly hide.
My beloved novel The Summer of the Spanish Writer is indeed an exhilarating love story, or, rather, two. Significantly different from each other, like the two women who live them.
When one is very young, love is solely eternal butterflies, a never-ending thrill that deletes any desire to sleep or do anything at all, because nothing is above that feeling of unadulterated joy. Till it ends with the thunderous crash no one expects though we all do.
Then one grows. And, often, love becomes the all-concealing cover for its dark side.
Enter Cassandra, one of the two main characters of my novel.
Her apparently calm, ordinary world hides a darkness more powerful that a stormy winter night, and as painful as love gone bad.
What will a mother do to protect her child? She will construct a fictitious story of normality, of routine, enhanced by smiles that almost look genuine. The grief expressed (quietly!) when alone, when sleep eludes her, is to remain forever silent though it’s screaming. Living her lonely days in the shadow of a man whose well-rehearsed charm seems to deceive all around them, Cassandra performs the duties expected of her as wife and mother and nothing else. The invisible woman, who surrendered her dreams to the harsh reality that engulfed her, and does her best to perform them to keep the peace.
Read her story, dear friends, shiver, get angry, but dream also. Always dream, because sometimes that unreachable light is all one has to hang on to.
Every human being needs an incentive to get up in the morning, to labor through the day, to absorb the blows. A reason, people, we all need a reason for existing.
Some succumb to the loss of it.
A tale of love, a tale of hatred, a tale of a friendship, a tale of passion and of grief.
Also known as the life of a woman.
Click on link below and lose yourself in this extraordinary adventure.
The world was a field of dreams, and our hearts ached with the tender agony of anticipation.
I’m walking fast, down the main street of my Westchester town, barely used green Skechers on my feet, propelled by my customary anxiety, fury, determination and pain. An older man is ahead of me, baseball cap on his head, advancing at an irritating leisurely pace, looking around, as if…life were a walk in the park.
Move on, I’m inwardly hissing, don’t got time for this, I’m busy, just trying to get some stupid exercise done before I dive into my nerve-racking life again.
And I see my grandfather. Nonno Romolo, the only grandparent I really knew, my mother’s dad. He came to visit us twice a year, for about 3-4 weeks, and we little kids so looked forward to his arrival. My father drove the trusty old Simca to the train station in Naples to pick him up, a bit worn out by the overnight ride from Modena, but still cheerful and calm.
We waited at home in Portici, peeking out from the kitchen balcony to witness the arrival, excited about all the gifts he would bring us, especially (for me) those large beautifully illustrated fairytales books I loved to lose myself into.
Nonno Romolo was a dignified old gentleman, always impeccably dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and tie, and a fedora hat. Comfortably resigned to the fact that his daughter had married a Southerner, il nonno would wander, curious and eager, the uneven streets of Portici, unmindful of the unruly drivers that never even dreamed of stopping at a red light, of the ever-expanding pot holes, the cars parked on the sidewalk just because, slowly but steadily continuing on his daily path, stopping at the newsstand at the corner, where the smiling giornalaia handed him the local newspaper, Il Mattino, and wished him a buona giornata.
Often, we little hyper children would go with him, ever mindful of the abundance of the hard mint candies he always carried in his pockets, to be dispensed according to our behavior. He would take us to the Royal Gardens (part of the old Royal Palace Estate), of Portici, where a delightful skating rink awaited, always packed with kids, in those days, a wonderland in the deep greenery of ancient, illustrious trees.
He would sit on a bench, pull out of his pocket the Settimana Enigmistica, the most popular weekly crossword magazine in Italy (to this day), and watch us out of the corner of his eye, while we attached roller skates to our sturdy sandals with the two straps, and flew off into the freedom of the rink (well, me not so much, as I, always tentative, stayed in close proximity of the handrail).
Those wonder mornings of my childhood, easy and innocent. After our exhilarating roller skate ride, off we went, skipping on the dusty trails, to the little lake, where regal swans glided proudly. We pulled out the chunks of stale bread we had brought and tossed it to feathered creatures, anxiously waiting to see whose crumbs they snapped up first.
The sun rose higher in the sky, and burned on our skin, sign that il pranzo would soon be ready. “Andiamo, my grandfather would say, la mamma ci aspetta”. And indeed, my mother excitedly waited for us for lunch, happy and serene (a rare thing) because her adored father was there with us, his tranquil and benign presence an anchor in her taxing life. Sometimes, after lunch, while my father took his routine afternoon nap (or happened to be out), I would catch il nonno and my mother sitting pleasantly on the kitchen chairs, the floor still damp after the daily mopping, smoking a cigarette and speaking in modenese dialect, a mysterious and indecipherable language. I would watch, fascinated, awed and somewhat confused (after all my father had forbidden smoking), catching a glimpse of my mother as a woman and a human being. Strange, yes.
I slow down my frenzied pace, and look at the old gentleman with the baseball hat, relaxed, retired from the rat race, finally viewing the world as the miracle that it is.
We were lighthearted, we were loved, we were protected. But didn’t understand it.
Grazie, nonno Romolo, for those magic days of childhood.