La Storia del Gallo: Ricordi della mia infanzia a Napoli

Forse avevo sette, otto anni.  Non ricordo bene.

Ma un giorno mia madre ci annunciò che avevamo un nuovo inquilino: un bel gallo!

Allora abitavo ancora a Napoli, a Capodichino.  Infatti ci siamo trasferiti a Portici quando avevo nove anni e cominciai la quarta elementare all’Istituto Cristo Re, dove mio padre era il dirigente scolastico (chiamato direttore didattico, a quei tempi).

No so precisamente come ciò sia successo, ma immagino che una bidella della scuola dove i miei genitori erano docenti abbia voluto dare loro un regalo per qualche gentilezza ricevuta.  Oppure era stata la signora che ci guardava ogni tanto, quando mia madre era a scuola per riunioni pomeridiane.  A quei tempi, la periferia di Napoli era ancora abbastanza bucolica: i campi coltivati ci circondavano, e anche i prati fitti di papaveri scarlatti dove si poteva correre liberi e felici nelle belle giornate di sole così frequenti nell’Italia del Sud.  Molti abitanti di quella zona venivano in città a lavorare, ma tornavano nei loro casali la sera.

Il gallo fu sistemato nel pianerottolo vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Allora noi affittavamo un appartamentino al primo (e unico) piano di una palazzina che era proprietà di un carabiniere.  Bravissima persona, molto comprensiva.

Così noi, topi di città, diventammo all’improvviso quasi agricoltori/contadini.

Naturalmente, essendo bambini, l’idea di avere un gallo da accudire ci rendeva molto felici, anche se un po’ nervosi e confusi.  Che fanno i galli?  Un gran chiasso, pare.  E non solo all’alba come eravamo stati istruiti, ma cantano (in modo tutt’altro che melodico) a tutte le ore del giorno e della notte.  Certo il carabiniere doveva essere un santo.

Il gallo era legato alla ringhiera delle scale, vicino alla porta della terrazza.  Mia madre metteva qualcosa da mangiare (non ho la minima idea di che si trattasse) in una ciotola e lo portava su, esitante e rassegnata, lasciandolo in prossimità del gallo affinché potesse avvicinarsi facilmente, ma non beccarla.

Non voleva che noi tre bambini curiosi la seguissimo, ma naturalmente era impossibile.  “Attenti che vi becca!” ci avvertiva.  E ammetto che la paura io ce l’avevo.  Ma mio fratello – temerario!- non poi tanto.  Sempre il più avventuroso, lui saliva su per le scale, mentre io e la mia sorellina, ci fermavamo qualche scalino prima, e cominciava a provocarlo.  Smorfie eccetera.  Roba da bambini, ovviamente.  Ma quando il gallo si arrabbiava, cominciava ad agitare le ali e a schiamazzare, via di corsa giù per le scale, tutti e tre, cuore in gola!

La sera li sentivo.  Il babbo e la mamma che discutevano.  Che cavolo si deve fare col gallo? Sono stanca di occuparmi di pollame, ho già tutti i miei alunni… Sì, lo so, la signora ha detto che fa un brodo strepitoso, perfetto per i tortellini, e anche molto abbondante, ma… Io non l’ammazzo, gli porto da mangiare da una settimana…

Il gallo era comunque diventato il nostro “cucciolo” e non perdevamo occasione per andarlo a trovare.  Però un giorno, quando arrivammo sul pianerottolo della terrazza dopo la scuola, trovammo solo delle piume rosse, bianche e gialle vicino alla cordicina.  E l’odore di pollaio.

Pare che la mia esasperata, stressatissima mamma abbia chiesto alla signora di riprendersi il galletto, grazie mille per il pensiero, ma noi siamo gente di città e il pollame lo compriamo in macelleria già bello preparato.  Lei avrà alzato le spalle, sbalordita, e, arrivata in campagna, tirato per benino il collo del povero pennuto e cominciato a preparare il pranzo.

Certo, noi ragazzi siamo rimasti un po’ delusi, avendo perso il nostro quasi pet, ma, almeno io, mi sentivo piuttosto sollevata di poter andare su in terrazza senza cercare di aggirare un gallo che non era mai di buon umore.

Comunque, grazie galletto, per questa simpatica vignetta della mia (lontanissima) infanzia.



The Rooster: An Italian Childhood Memoir

We were still living in Naples at that time.  Before we moved to the suburb of Portici, where my formative years happened.  I was under nine years old, since I started fourth grade in Portici.  My memories of those early days are somewhat vague, but some are more vivid than others.

Like the rooster.

I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but somehow my very urban family ended up owning a live rooster. I seem to recall that it was an unexpected gift from someone my parents knew.  Perhaps the sometimes cleaning lady, who also happened to watch us when my mother was at school.  Or a kind school custodian who was grateful to one of my parents for a favor granted, I don’t know.  In those days, the outskirts of Naples were still mostly countryside, with farmland, and many people who worked in the city lived more bucolic lives out there, surrounded by fields, chickens and other farm animals.

Fact is that one day, my mother mentioned that we now had a rooster residing upstairs! At the time, my family was renting a small apartment in a two-family house in the neighborhood of Capodichino  (yes, where the airport is located).  We lived on the first floor (which would be considered the second in the US),  next door to the landlord who was a carabiniere.  A very nice family, who obviously allowed my poor bewildered mother to temporarily house the lively and not tiny rooster on the floor above, where the entrance to the rooftop terrace was.

Needless to say, we kids were enthralled, excited, scared, giggly, curious, ‘helpful’.  Can we feed it, please, please?!  The rooster was tied to the handrail, on the landing right above our apartment, where nobody lived, and the only door was the locked one to the terrace.  Also needless to say, it wasn’t a quiet rooster, but it squawked, shrilled, a total nuisance at all times of day and night.  My mother would regularly bring it some feed and water, hesitantly climbing the stairs, heart in her throat, terrified and resigned at once.  My brother, sister and I would follow behind, at a safe distance, even though mamma had told us not to, because she was afraid the strange creature would peck us.  She shakily placed the stuff near it, then quickly retreated.

Naturally, we were aware that it wasn’t a permanent pet, and its demise would be imminent, because that’s what happens to roosters.  Nevertheless, any time we could get away with it, we would run up the stairs and check il gallo, intimidated by its fierce expression, its constant, fitful motion, that regal, stiff red crest and the rust/brown/yellow feathers, which he seemed to shake off quite frequently, calling to him, making faces, trying to touch it for a second without getting pecked.  My brother especially, the reckless one, liked living on the edge: he would get so close that my sister and I would watch him frozen with apprehension, as he teased him into squawking loudly, then we would all run back down the stairs, even though the bird couldn’t get too far chasing us.

I overheard my parents discussing the stressful situation at night, arguing of course, what  were they going to do with that thing up there?  The landlord’s patience was wearing thin, my mother was not happy to have to take care of poultry, and surely was not expected to kill the darn bird herself, even though the well-meaning giver had said that it would make excellent stock, and, sure, my mother admitted, it would make a delicious broth for tortellini

Well, the day came when we ran up the stairs after school, and the noisy rooster was no longer there.  A strange smell and a couple of colorful feathers still lingered, next to a string.

We were saddened and alarmed at once, and wondered with trepidation what would be served for pranzo within the next few days. Not a pretty thought.

Indeed, my mother had dealt with the situation as best as she could.  The woman who had given us the unusual gift had quickly and matter-of-factly snapped its neck and handed it to my mother, nicely plucked and ready to cook.  My poor, traumatized mother had tactfully returned it to her, saying that she could not possibly ingest a bird that she had known alive and tended to for a week or so.  Grazie mille for this thoughtful present, but we are just not used to this kind of thing, we purchase our chickens (which we don’t know personally) at the butcher shop.  We are city people, forgive our squirminess.

Yes, of course, I was relieved.  My brother was particularly disappointed by the loss of our temporary ‘pet’, and pressed my parents to get another one to keep upstairs, just for a little while.

It was good to be able to get back to the terrace, without bypassing the nervous creature, and I certainly realized then I wasn’t made for the country life.

But grazie for this childhood vignette, galletto!

When the Floors Had to Be Waxed: A Memoir

Rose graniglia floor

This was not a job that was done often, when I was growing up in Italy. It was extremely time consuming, required a good amount of elbow grease, plus the excruciating down time.

These days, most people in Italy prefer the trendier wood floors, especially sleek and elegant parquet, with tile usually installed only in the kitchen and bathrooms.  But back then, every apartment had floors made of graniglia, which is a kind of more affordable marble, sturdy and basic.  These tiles had all pretty much the same design, with some color variations, mostly in the yellow-orange, rose, and forest-green hue.  And those were the ones I grew up with in Portici.  I don’t remember too clearly the color patterns, but I believe the bedrooms were rose, while the long hallway was orangish. The living room and my father’s study were green. The dining room, the most formal space in the house, had instead a luxurious marble floor, with a nearly mirror finish.

In order to look attractive, all those floors were high-maintenance.  My long-suffering mother, who had a full-time job as a teacher, went food shopping on foot at the open-air market every single day, cooked and cleaned, and often assisted with our homework, tackled that major chore every couple of months.  Of course, the floors were all regularly washed weekly, but they lost that coveted sheen, and that was unacceptable.

Usually on a Sunday – since school is open six days a week in Italy – she would wake up in a fairly unpleasant mood, and begin her day of labor.  That meant, we had to get out of bed earlier then normal, and literally get out of the way.

Perfect graniglia floor

After seriously scrubbing all the floors, one room at the time, with a mop and a bucket, she allowed them to dry thoroughly, and we knew better than talk to her or even breathe then.  We were confined to a room where the floor had already dried, while my father had cleverly made plans to be gone for good part of the day (usually he went to his office in the school were he was the principal, to catch up on paper work in peace, while listening to Beethoven).

Then came the wax.  She would pour the liquid from a little bottle, then quickly spread it out with a special mop, and waited for it to set.

This is when the fun part began.

A smile of satisfaction would appear on her lips, we children released our breath, and got out our equipment: le pattine!

My unwaxed kitchen floor

The pattine were two thick pieces of soft cloth with a strap; you slipped your feet under the strap, and, voilà, you were on skates (pattini means skates in Italian)!   We each had our own set, and were rearing to go.  My mother would begin by going over the entire floor with a soft mop made for that purpose, then she would say Avanti, cominciate! And the race began.  Sliding and slipping playfully on the floors, we ‘roller-skated’ in circles, diagonally, and every which way, reaching every corner, sometimes slamming against walls and furniture, especially my very aggressive brother who was prone to turn everything into a serious competition.  The floors shined and glowed under our speedy feet, becoming a glorious rink, as our shadows turned into mirror images.

Oh, to fly freely through our spacious apartment, fearless and light, the fresh sea breeze from all the open balconies inflating our youthful sails.

The tedious chore had become a game, directing our infinite energy into a most practical job that didn’t feel like such.

The flawless glory of a highly polished floor.  My mother would be tired but satisfied and proud.  Only slippers in the house for that day.  My father would dutifully admire the result, and praise us for helping.

All was well with the universe.

Till the next time

The Time I So Wanted a Nanny

For myself.

I was around seven or eight.

Disney movies were dreams come true, when I was a child growing up in Italy.  Disney World, on the other hand, an impossible dream, since one just doesn’t pick up from Naples, Italy, and takes three little kids on a flight to Florida.  Unheard of.  Later, Disney Paris came along, but, by that time, I was on the other side of a child’s dreams and had zero interest in lame rides with Mickey Mouse and company.

Anyway, in the middle of my childhood, Mary Poppins burst into my life.

Andiamo al cinema stasera!”, my father announced. We are going to the movies!  Not something we did often,  My parents, though both educators and financially comfortable, were rather thrifty, and superfluous things were not lavished on us frequently.

I was used to Disney cartoons, and when the movie about this lady with the silly last name began, I was amazed that it was a live action film.

It was love at first sight. This beautiful fairy-like lady gracefully coming down from the sky, hanging on to an umbrella, her elegantly booted feet in a perfect first position, seized my heart, never to release it again.

Poised, perfect Mary Poppins, firm and kind at once, scaring me a little, then making everything better with her (literal) bag of tricks, singing the most beautiful songs I had ever heard with her silky nightingale voice. I memorized all of them, including the unusual and adored Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but of course they were dubbed in Italian by an unknown artist with a remarkable voice, so I was singing Supercalifragilistichespiralidoso and Basta un poco di zucchero (instead of Just a spoonful of sugar).

The magic wonder raised me out of my seat in that super-crowded theater, and catapulted me into the surreal world of Jane and Michael Banks, the children we all wanted to be.

Oh, the dance of the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London (a city I always dreamed of visiting, as a child), with pretty and talented Julie Andrews twirling among them! The walk to the park, when the four of them held hands and jumped into a picture that Bert had just painted on the sidewalk, and all was transformed into a colorful fairy tale, with glorious new costumes!

Mamma, I would beg, please please, hire a nanny for us! You are always so busy, with school, the market, the house, all those things you always complain about, how worn out and unappreciated you are…You would not have to worry about us three annoying children anymore…And we would live in a special magic world. My desire was so intense that my chest physically ached as I pleaded my case.

No chance.  My parents had no intention of hiring a nanny, dismissing my passionate insistence with an amused look on their faces.

Needless to say, Mary Poppins has remained my favorite Disney movie of all times, and always shall be.

Then, recently, the magic was back, with the new sequel to the movie.  I took my precious daughters, three and seven (okay, twenty-three and twenty-seven), to see it, and fell in love all over again with my favorite character.  Emily Blunt did a remarkable job with that iconic role, nearly as perfect and captivating as the original, and my heart will forever yearn to live at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

Finisco sempre in cucina: e va bene così

6 gennaio 2019

Non ne avevo nessuna intenzione. Troppo da fare, stanca, apprensiva.

Ma ci pensavo.  Ai tortelloni che faceva mia madre.  I tortellini erano buoni, certo, ma la roba in brodo non è mai stata la mia number 1, ecco.  Però i tortelloni, belli grossi, panciuti, ripienissimi di ricotta e spinaci (o bietole), allora, questo è un pasto ne plus ultra.

Dunque, vado giù nel seminterrato della mia casa newyorkese e cerco il vecchio tagliere che usava mia suocera.  Eccolo!  Per niente nascosto, ma non ci ho dato uno sguardo da anni, usando sempre e solo quello più piccolo di marmo per fare i miei vari biscotti e crostate.  Ma questo è il ‘tagliere della pasta’, e questa farò!

I ricordi sbiadiscono, si accantonano nel buio, e tu li lasci lì, perché ti punge troppo risvegliarli.  Poi smetti di pensarci.  Ma, all’improvviso, è Capodanno, e ti ritrovi a Portici, mia madre (modenese DOC) tira la sfoglia, che diventa così sottile e enorme sotto quel matterello lunghissimo; lei si affanna a finire presto, perché poi si asciuga e deve ancora tagliare i quadretti.  ‘Via, bambini – diceva – copriteli coi tovaglioli, si seccano, si seccano…!’ E noi lì, a gironzolare intorno al tavolo di fòrmica della sua cucina gialla, con niente da fare ma aspettare il risultato delle sue fatiche: i bei tortelloni fumanti, lucidi di burro fuso, spolverizzati abbondandemente col parmigiano che toccava a me grattugiare.

Preparo l’impasto, nella mia cucina gialla di New York, l’odore onesto di uova e di legno m’ipnotizza, la pasta è soffice, elastica e liscia sotto le dita.  Era sempre di sera, quando lei faceva i tortellini/tortelloni, poco prima di preparare la cena. ‘Guardate-diceva-, ecco come si formano i tortellini, osservate, ricordatevelo…e non ditelo a nessuno!  È un segreto della mia famiglia, da passare ai vostri figli e a nessun altro!’ E così ho fatto, muta come un pesce, tanti, tanti anni dopo.  Capisco, mamma, certe cose non si buttano al vento, sono preziose e importanti, pesano di memorie e di una vita intera, devi raccoglierle e custodirle nel silenzio.

Taglio i quadretti con la rotella, cerco di farli uguali, ma non misuro niente, altro che riga, tutto a occhio, come faceva lei, veloce ed esperta, con lo sguardo perso nella malinconia dei suoi ricordi.  Invece delle salviette, li avvolgo nella pellicola, che li terrà belli morbidi (viva i tempi moderni!).  Il ripieno l’ho già fatto, la ricotta soda dal caseificio di Brooklyn, gli spinaci freschi in un bel pacchetto sigillato, già lavati e asciugati (di nuovo, viva le comodità moderne), il parmigiano importato (carissimo!), profumato come allora, quando lo grattuggiavo a mano, ascoltando l’hit parade alla radio, in attesa emozionata della canzone della settimana.

Uno alla volta, li farcisco, con attenzione, ma il più velocemente possibile (‘si seccano!’), e li metto in fila ordinata e diritta, così potrò contarli più facilmente, sulle lastre per i biscotti; li copro con la carta stagnola e li metto in frigo.

Il tagliere mi aspetta, e lo pulisco con cura con il raschietto, il legno spesso e solido, confortevole, come quei giorni di tanto tempo fa, quando prendevo per scontato, nella mia innocenza puerile, i piccoli miracoli quotidiani, la mamma sarebbe stata sempre lì, nella calda cucina gialla, impegnata con le sue meraviglie culinarie.  E mio padre, nello studio, con la libreria scura cinquecentesca, immerso nelle sue carte e nella gloria della musica di Beethooven.

Il tempo ti ruba il passato; poi te lo sbatte in faccia quando meno te lo aspetti.

Che fai allora? Ti abbatti per un istante, ti lasci lavare dal dolore, ti afflosci.

Poi ti rialzi, ti rimbocchi le maniche e ti metti a fare i tortelloni.

(Ringrazio di cuore mia cugina Elisabetta a Modena, che mi ha pazientemente tenuto la mano step-by-step con la preparazione della sfoglia perfetta, via messaggi Whatsapp.  La tecnologia è stupenda quando funziona!)

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.

Wonder if She Hears Me…


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.