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

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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.