Lasciarsi andare (per un istante)

12 novembre 2018

Le poche volte che salgo in soffitta la ignoro.  È sempre lì, la valigetta verde, nel suo angolino, seminascosta dai valigioni rossi e lucidi che aspettano pazientemente d’imbarcarsi per l’Italia.  Mentre la valigetta verde l’Italia ce l’ha dentro.  È un vecchio modello vintage anni settanta, leggera, perché le carte non pesano poi tanto.  Anche quelle cariche di storie.

Stavolta la porto giù, l’adagio sulla moquette e, con mano leggermente incerta, tiro la cerniera.

Teneri i diari scolastici Grazia del liceo, con quelle copertine cool (almeno così sembravano allora) e spigliate.  Calligrafia non bella, a volte anche disordinata, soprattutto quando scrivevo quelle dichiarazioni assurde e pesanti da adolescente (irragionevolmente) angosciata –  Sono così infelice! Dio mi odia! L’amore fa schifo!  Spesso scritte in un inglese da principiante, sotto la lista dei compiti.  Poi i diari, quelli veri, quelli su cui disegnavo i cuoricini e i nomi più preziosi del momento.  La passione possente che ancora non capivo, travestita da amore nascente, attenuata dalla naïveté della mia giovane età, che volava sulle ali traditrici di sogni irrealizzabili.  Emozioni acerbe, pure e intense – ti amo, ti odio, mi manchi, ti riprendo, adesso basta, avanti un altro, quello vero, quello grande, quello ‘per sempre’.  Ma ‘per sempre’ non esiste.

Le lettere.  Carta fragile, sottilissima, quasi ho paura di toccarle, che si frantumino in un mucchietto di polvere e si disperdano nell’aria.  Come i sogni.  Nomi che mi afferrano il cuore, altri che non riconosco perché tanto tempo è passato, e forse non erano importanti.  Quelle amicizie estive, sbocciate spontanee il primo giorno al mare (o in montagna), diventate vincoli di acciaio in pochi giorni, poi cuori spezzati quando ci si doveva separare.  Ti scriverò tutti i giorni! giuravamo.  E lo facemmo, missive fitte fitte, spedite in fretta, ricevute con gioia traboccante.  Per qualche mese.  Poi qualcuno non risponde più e finisce lì.

Le foto di classe, in bianco e nero, quei visi così familiari, ma i nomi sfuggenti; poi giro la foto e mi perdo nella dolce tortura dei messaggi e delle dediche, spesso spiritose, commoventi perché sincere nella loro immaturità.

I disegni.  I taccuini a quadretti, tanti racconti infantili, da me creati quando ancora non sapevo che avrei scritto per una vita intera.  Illustrati coi pastelli, fate con i veli svolazzanti, principi azzuri dai capelli biondi, il lieto fine, sempre un lieto fine.  I ritratti di amici, sorella, compagni di classe, attrici.  Ero brava, accidenti.  Ma perché ho poi smesso di disegnare? Già, la vita, quella vera, mi ha incastrato, ha cancellato i desideri e la creatività, regalandomi in cambio una lista di doveri che mi occuperà per l’eternità.

Basta.  Chiudo la valigetta, mi accingo a riportarla lassù, nel suo meritato nascondiglio.

Ma la trascino a stento, è diventata pesantissima, una cassetta di piombo che mi taglia le dita.

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Wonder if She Hears Me…

Overwhelmed.

Not always, I’m good at holding the reins, at stilling my heart.

A painting my mother loved, Sunflowers by Claude Monet

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.

My mother.

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.

The Way We Were

Young and innocent, we were.

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.

When Summer Meant Heaven

No, really heaven.

Pure joy, fun, excitement, change, nearly endless.

Crowded beaches, perfect sea, ice cream cones every afternoon, and even your birthday being in August.

Being a child in the summer. The only way to truly enjoy it.

My mother frantically surveying every room in the house, to make sure nothing would be left behind.   After all, we were going to rent a tiny apartment in a family-friendly beach area, so lots of household items had to be packed. Cleaning, cooking and laundry needed to be taken care of.

Carefully folding my two new bathing suits, one red, one a lively print with yellow and orange flowers, I anticipated wearing the one-piece red for the water, then changing into the other one to dry.  Well, yes, after we kids were allowed to go swimming (in a manner of speaking, since only my brother could actually swim), at noon, when the sun was at the hottest, thus less chance of catching a chill, the moment we came out of the water, my mother would wrap us in a large towel, and we changed into a dry bathing suit, to minimize the possibility of contracting a cold. Then after we were thoroughly dried, we could have a snack on the beach, a small panino with salame or prosciutto, one of my favorites, and every bite tasted wonderful, salty, appetizing, the bread soft and wheaty.

Once home, my mother put on the water for the pasta, reheated the sauce she had made in the early morning (before packing the beach bag), breaded the veal cutlets she was going to fry in a little butter, one at a time, while we kids and babbo were eating the first course, tossed the fresh salad with olive oil and a touch of vinegar, and made sure she had remembered to put together the moka coffee maker before starting the meal process.

Playing quietly (babbo was taking his afternoon nap) on the floor in the hallway (the tiny apartment did not have a living room), my siblings and I would talk about the evening car trip to a nearby village where they made the BEST ice cream, and the little souvenir shops; I really wanted that red and gold link belt, my brother yearning for the Matchbox Ferrari. But I would end up with dainty embroidered handkerchiefs because my mother was practical.

The coffee aroma lingered in the kitchen, while my mother washed all the dishes by hand, after heating water in the pasta pot, because there was a limited supply of hot water in the tank, and it had to be saved for bathing.   She removed the chairs to the hallway (Spostatevi un po’, bambini… Move over kids), washed the kitchen floor, checked the fridge for food for dinner – around 8 or 9 pm), then sat in one of the chairs and leafed through a magazine. Ten minutes later, she went to see if the clothes hanging on the line on the balcony were dry (oh, she had washed the clothes in the bathtub, because there was no washing machine provided).

Sitting outside on the balcony, at night, eyes turned up to the black sky decorated by a myriad stars, we listened as my father pointed to the constellations, awed by his knowledge of the names of nearly every star. The glass doors were ajar so the nasty mosquitoes would not filter into the bedroom and feast on our tender skin all night.

My mother deep in thought (though her eyes rolled occasionally as my father elaborated on the wonders of the firmament), possibly compiling tomorrow’s shopping list, Wednesday, the butcher would have the country sausages…).

As I felt my eyes begin to close, I knew the our bed time was approaching, and my father would tell us the story he created every night for us, just a few minutes of a journey into the splendor of his imagination before we dozed off. And tomorrow maybe my mother would let me have that delicious ice-cold pineapple juice that was constantly turned and mixed up in that huge container at the local café, sweet and a deep yellow in a clear glass.

My wonder years.

I think I’ll have some icy pineapple juice right now.  But in a different glass.

Christmas: Just live it!

It’s not the abundance of gifts and Christmas spirit I miss about my old Italian days. The ‘abundance’ was, well, limited, as my parents – though having secure and comfortable jobs as educators – were quite thrifty, and we kids Mara, red trench, gray cuissards, December 2015didn’t find more than one or (rarely) two presents under the tree (or on top of the dining room table, which was usually the case).   Nor the spirit of the season, being very elusive and low-key in my family.

It is the innocence.

That is, being so blissfully unaware of things to come that would hurt/anger/spoil/crush our anticipation of a magnificent future. Which all youngsters expect just because.

Because sometimes we live in/for the future. When everything is going to be so much better, perfect, all you always wanted, prince charming, a life of travel and adventure, the greatest love.

Walking, on Christmas Eve, in the midst of the hectic, messy, wonderfully loud holiday cheer of the market street in Portici, my hometown. Fish everywhere. Big buckets where wiggling eels slithered and dived in the collected sea water, perhaps aware of their fate. A Neapolitan tradition I never had, because of the ‘gag’ factor. Meaning, I’m going to gag if you feed us eels, mamma, I swear. She never did. Nobody in the family had any interest in eel cooked in tomato sauce, a delicacy of Neapolitan cuisine, a must on Christmas Eve. Yet, it fascinated me to watch the slimy creatures do their wild dance in those buckets, sometimes spilling over and hitting the cobble stoned sidewalk, with everyone screaming with glee (most shoppers) and horror (me). It was part of the tradition, of the season, of the ‘beat’ of Christmas, when I was a so young and sizzling with great expectations.

Laurel and Hardy’s shaky black and white movies on TV still innocently entertained me and my siblings, on the wonderful ‘day before’, while my mother feverishly shaped hundreds of painstakingly stuffed tortellini to be served in super rich, delicious meat stock on Christmas Day, according to her beloved traditions of Modena, her Northern Italian hometown. Beloved by all of us: nothing like my mother’s tortellini, buttery-tender, savory with a pork, chicken and parmigiano filling, never ever enough of them.

The gifts, not many, not grand, but the most exciting we ever had. The Christmas tree was sometimes real (usually a gift from a teacher in the school where my father was principal), hastily delivered on Christmas Eve, much to my mother’s chagrin (Damn it, now I have to trim the bloody thing overnight…), and to our most exuberant joy, almost too much to bear.

Innocence indeed.   Because the future was so overwhelmingly bright. You can do anything kind of bright.

We believed. I  believed.

Then (so many, many years later) Christmas became the season of duty, Mara, with desserts, Christmas 2015extra-work, stress and is-this-all-worth-it-really?

It is, people.

Make it be worth it.   For your children, for those who deserve you to care. Somebody always is.

Push away the memories of what could have been if only. You made your choices.

One pays for her choices.   But others – the important ones – must not. Suck it up, you who are all grown up and mature now, move on.

Christmas is beautiful.

Life beats you, but you recover.

Your children are the meaning of it.

Enough said.