Diving in

Against my better judgement.

I usually ignore it, when I go up into the attic.  The little, light, green plastic suitcase, vintage 70’s, standing up straight, partially hidden by all the others, the large modern ones, mostly red, mostly rarely used.

But in there lies my story, my history, my Italian life, my marvelous and angsty formative years.

I unzip it, and the flood of the past engulfs me almost instantly. I can smell the salty marine air of the Portici’s harbor, all the fishing boats lolling on the gentle waves, preparing for their nightly journey.  I am blinded by the lights of the parochial theater, buzzing with activity and excitement, as the teens enthusiastically rehearse for the play.  I walk the elegant, crowded Viale Leonardo da Vinci, a river of chatty, animated young humanity, bursting with the hope and joy of those who still don’t know better.

A rainbow of notebooks unfolds before my apprehensive eyes: I blink, even turn my gaze toward the window and the fading green of the trees of my New York autumn.

I’m ready to close up that perilous well of the past immediately…but I can’t.

So much writing, more or less neat, in those hundreds (thousands?) of pages, a plethora of exclamations points ending the sentences, because emotions were pure, extreme and raw in those wonder days. The tender, innocent diaries of someone who was in love with the world, yet insisted on despising it.  Call it teenage angst, or embarking into the tentative construction of your own life, not according to your parents’ desires and plans.

My cheerfully decorated school agendas, filled with an insane quantity of quotes, mostly sappy, but, at the time, fundamentally powerful, next to the list of my homework assignments.

Life was vividly colored then, no gray areas.  Friendships were forever, infatuations were eternal love, the future was a kaleidoscope of images of that amazing life of traveling the world, a world that was kind and welcoming, as I believed in my naïve knowledge of humankind.

A stack of letters, some slightly yellowed, the ink fading in spots, some corners torn.  I read the names, and some shake me to the core, others barely ring a bell.  So many summer friendships, developed spontaneously at the various resorts where my parents would take us during the summer months, new ‘best’ friends, whom we couldn’t bear to leave, at the end of our two-week stay, our young hearts ripped in two.  Thus, the frequent correspondence, afterwards, for several months, three-four sheets of flimsy letter paper filled, with every single detail of our lives, sincerely curious and interested in each other’s stories.  Stories that eventually ended, when one side or the other would simply stop responding.

Those days when people were made of flesh and smiles, their touch was real, their voice close by.  Not photographs on Facebook, their words blue-white letters on a lit screen.

My precise drawings, illustrating my original fairy tales, amuse and inspire me: Why on earth did I stop drawing? I was rather talented.  Oh yes, life happened, the real thing, the one that overwhelms the mind and soul, that erases dreams and innate skills, that dulls the senses.  It’s called maturity.  Also known as the demise of spontaneity and vibrant, liquid emotions.

The photographs are aggressive. They grasp my heart and squeeze it till I’m gasping for air.  Noisy school yards, smiling boys and girls, spensierati, yes, carefree though we didn’t know it.  I turn over the class photos, and make my aching way through all the handwritten dedications and messages.  Yes, I remember you, and you, and you I hated, but not truly.  And you were my world till it ended. And, after that, you were my world. A series of important people that really weren’t so, after all.  The cruel unfolding of life. Continuous replacement.  Of everything.

I close the suitcase, grab the handle and make my way up the ladder to the attic.

But it’s so difficult, the climb: the little green suitcase is so much heavier now, I can barely drag it.

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Easter Monday: What’s that?

Pastiera napoletana
Rustici (savory pastries)
Valle fiorita

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 moka caffettiere 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.)

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.

What’s with the Pink Carpet? (A memoir and an explanation)

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.

Now you know.

Chissà se mi sente…

9 gennaio 2018

Succede all’improvviso.

Un quadro che mia madre amava, I Girasoli di Claude Monet

Così, mentre mi sto occupando di qualcosa di ordinario, o guardo distrattamente la TV.

Mi viene in mente mia madre. E quel velo di tristezza impetuosa, spesso trapunta da attimi di panico, mi avvolge nel gelo.

Iva Zanicchi. Si presenta in un varietà divertente. Anziana adesso, scende le scale con esitazione, avvolta in panni svolazzanti.

E canta Zingara.   Quella voce calda e potente, l’energia sorprendente, mi agguantano e mi trasportano nel passato lontano che poi non lo è, il ricordo vago, tremulo.

Mi madre che l’ascoltava con grande attenzione, le piaceva tanto la Zanicchi e soprattutto quel capolavoro emozionante di canzone, Zingara.

Era delle sue parti, la grande Zanicchi, emiliana verace.

Sognatrice, romantica di nascosto, spesso solare, la mia bellissima e pratica mamma cercava di tenersi a galla nel vortice delle emozioni che la travolgevano, ma che doveva sempre contenere. Quanti sogni aveva anche lei, immagino.   Ma chi lo capiva (o se ne importava pure) allora. Tutto girava intorno a me, no?

Una donna coscienziosa e misurata, certamente anche lei delusa e stanca, come ogni donna. Dedicata alla famiglia e al suo lavoro di docente, si era rassegnata alla vita che tutti si aspettavano, che lo volesse o no.

Invece immaginava la zingara, e quanto desiderava offrirle la mano un po’ tremante nella speranza proibita di un futuro forse più magico, uno che sfiorasse ciò che desiderava quando era giovane e anche lei innamorata dell’amore (che ti tradisce sempre, ma mica lo capisci da ragazzina).

Mi manca.  Più che mai.  Presa come sono dal ciclone della mia vita, rifletto poco sul passato e su ciò che ho abbandonato tanti, tantissimi anni fa. O meglio, lo evito, ecco, più precisamente lo ignoro, anche per tenere a bada sentimenti troppo grandi per me, che potrebbero sconvolgermi.

Ascolto la Zanicchi e guardo il ritratto di mia madre che ho sulla mensola del caminetto. Mi sorride, ma so che è triste.  Spero che mi veda da lassù, che mi ascolti, che mi comprenda, e,  soprattutto, che mi perdoni per aver creato questa  insostenibile distanza tra di noi.

Vorrei toccarle quel viso sempre liscio, i capelli biondi e sottili, stringermela al cuore con tenerezza come non ho mai fatto, e sapere che mi sente. Il peso è doloroso, e lo scaccio di continuo, distraendomi in ogni modo possibile. Mi spengo i sentimenti, m’irrigidisco, mi arrabbio pure con me stessa per non riuscire a perdonarmi, anche a distanza di decenni.

Tanto da raccontarle, da mostrarle. Adesso le telefono, mi illudo ogni tanto.

Ma non mi risponderà.

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.

Come eravamo

3 settembre 2017

Piccoli, eravamo.   Innocenti, sereni.

Il mondo era una continua avventura, le stelle erano brillanti e tutti ci volevano bene.

Dolce infanzia.   Accidenti alla crudeltà della vita che non ci rende consci quando dovremmo esserlo.

Per capire. Per assorbire la felicità quando davvero esiste.   Prima che ce la strappino.

Vago per le mie strade americane con le Skechers, la mia furia, la mia risolutezza, nutrite dal dolore e dall’orgoglio; veloce, stanca ma in forma, giovanissima alla mia non giovane età.

Ricordi.

Ogni azione, ogni evento, diventa una memoria straziante e meravigliosa.

Un anziano signore cammina lentamente davanti a me, tranquillo, cappello in testa.

Mi infastidisco io, via, si muova, non ho tempo da perdere, ho fretta, voglio solo fare un po’ di moto…

E vedo mio nonno.   L’unico avo che ho conosciuto.   Il papà della mamma, nonno Romolo.

Veniva a trovarci due volte all’anno. Il viaggio in treno da Modena a Napoli. Mio padre lo andava a prendere alla stazione con la Simca. Noi bambini lo aspettavamo, emozionati, a casa a Portici.   Ci portava sempre dei bei regali, soparattutto i libri di fiabe con quelle bellissime illustrazioni.

Diceva sempre “Vè”, che ci faceva ridere.  C’era una complicità tenera tra lui e mia madre, che noi, piccoli e chiassosi, non capivamo.  Si parlavano in dialetto modenese, a volte, una lingua segreta e misteriosa di cui non capivamo un fico.  Quando mio padre si ritirava per il pisolino pomeridiano (o era fuori), li scoprivo in cucina, dopo pranzo, il pavimento ancora umido dopo il lavaggio giornaliero, seduti a fumare una preziosa sigaretta insieme (cosa altamente disapprovata da mio padre), sorridenti e rilassati. Ero confusa, ma li ammiravo. Non sapevo che mia madre fumasse. Almeno due volte all’anno. La guardavo sbalordita. Una parte di lei che non conoscevo, non capivo.  Ma affascinante.

Un anziano, distinto gentleman, nonno Romolo sfoggiava sempre un abito grigio, camicia bianca e anche la cravatta, il cappello di feltro, le dita intrecciate dietro la schiena, un passo lento ma agile, curioso e tranquillo in quel Sud che non conosceva ma che lo aveva accolto con calore e simpatia. Si fermava all’edicola sotto casa tutti i  giorni, e la giornalaia lo salutava con un sorriso, gli porgeva Il Mattino e gli augurava una bella giornata.   I marciapiedi irregolari, le buche, le macchine parcheggiate a caso che bloccavano il passaggio, i semafori a cui nessuno prestava attenzione, niente gli dava fastidio, lui intraprendeva la sua passeggiata quotidiana con l’animo leggero, solo, oppure con noi tre nipotini che rompevano un po’, certo, ma ci sentivamo sereni con lui, consapevoli dell’abbondanza di caramelle alla menta che portava in tasca. Via, verso il parco reale, ci avviavamo, alla pista di pattinaggio nel verde, sempre affollata allora, piena di vita. Ci attaccavamo i pattini alle scarpe con le cinghiette, e su a correre intrepidi (io non tanto però, timorosa, restavo di solito a dieci centimetri dalla ringhiera), mentre lui ci teneva d’occhio seduto sulla panchina, Settimana Enigmistica e matita in mano.

Il lago coi cigni e le anatre, noi a lanciarci la mollica che c’eravamo portati, lui che diceva, Bambini, è ora di pranzo, su, che c’è la mamma che ci aspetta.

Compravamo il pane al forno del mercato, filoni lunghi, sottili, caldi e fragranti, e ne mangiavamo la metà per strada, mentre lui borbottava.

Allora, rallento un po’ il passo, e lo guardo, quel signore anziano davanti a me, nel mio suburb americano, sembra anche lui sereno, fuori a godersi questa bella giornata, pensionato rilassato che non ha più bisogno di precipitarsi dappertutto.

Come eravamo ingenui, speranzosi, positivi.

Grazie, nonno Romolo, per quei giorni eternamente magici.

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.

(Uncool) Shoe Stories

As you all know, I have a passion for shoes. ALL kinds of shoes (okay, minus sneakers and boring flats). Got quite a decent collection. However, not a collection in the sense that I place them on crystal shelves, dust and worship them. I wear every single pair as much as possible. I’m a very practical collector – if you can’t use it, lose it.

But bloopers, gaffes and uncool stories I got plenty.

Still remember my first pair with a bit of a heel, like two inches.

Portici, Italy, I was about thirteen years old, relentlessly begging my parents to allow me to wear heels, since ALL of my friends already did (some since they were ten). Not good for your posture, your feet are still forming, etc, etc. Valid reasons, I know now as a parent, but totally insane when you want to look like a sophisticated, sexy woman when you are barely a teen.

Finally they succumbed, purchasing for me a pair of beige sandals with a strap and that much coveted heel, though a block heel that barely raised me to grown-up height.   Good enough for me, anyway, felt like a million dollars. Till I bumped into my cousin, who was a whole year younger than me, and was showing off a higher heel (probably a three) and much prettier sandals, white strappies with colorful flower appliqués, if I remember right.

Get it? She was a year younger than me (so, twelve) and her heels were higher than mine.   Yeah, I was bummed.

But still, I adored my new summer sandals. I kept a sharp eye on the heel, and as soon as they looked slightly worn, I ran to the neighborhood shoemaker and begged him to fix them ASAP and, please, can you make them a little higher? I probably hit his shop six times that summer!

As the years passed, my heels became higher, thick and thin, summer and winter shoes. Short skirts, serious heels, negotiating the cobble-stone streets of my town, the deep, sudden holes, and the omnipresent dog droppings (no curb your dog in those days, and many strays around). Walking down Via Diaz, one of the main roads in town, sharply downhill in some spots, coming back from school, my hefty books tied together with a cinghia (book strap), feeling pretty and sexy, my long hair enjoying the gentle sea breeze. Approaching the usual group of boys lounging on the muretto  (low wall), before the newsstand where I bought my Nancy Drew mysteries once a month. You know, the usual Italian stuff, boys whistling, calling out- bella, che gambe, fermati, dammi un bacio! Ignoring them of course, as I was taught, nose in the air, proud and superior, oblivious to all the racket.

Till I twist my ankle.   Sharp pain, foot at an odd angle, shoe heel broken. Burning red with embarrassment, I lean over to pick up the detached heel, then limp away slowly, nose still up in the air, but tears of humiliation demanding to escape.

Yeah, not cool at all.

Fast forward some years.   My first visit to the US!  Staying in the NYC suburbs, at a far-removed relative’s house.   Super-excited to take the train to the city, all sorts of emotions bubbling in my heart, so much to see and experience!

In heels of course.   Steep black leather mules, quite comfortable (Yes, ladies who doubt, you can be comfortable in heels), running down the stairs to get breakfast. Or rather, sliding down the stairs, mostly on my bottom, as I slip on the thick carpeting I was not used to.  Screams of alarm from the relatives, sure they would have to rush this newly arrived Italian young cousin to the hospital, with something broken somewhere.  Hey, nothing broke!  The resilience of youth perhaps? But that flight down the stairs is not something that I will easily forget. Terrifying!

A bit clumsy. Yes, I admit it, I was then, and sometimes still today. Though I’m much more aware of my steps these days, since that famous resilience is long gone, and I cherish a good sturdy hand rail.

Fast forward once again.   About to get married.  Living in the US, staying with a relative. A patient young woman who suddenly found herself in charge of organizing my wedding.  We toured the malls, running in and out of stores, shopping for winter clothes, since I had left in Italy most of my wardrobe, for travel reasons.   A hip shop (don’t remember where), music blasting, fabulous outfits on the mannequins. A second floor. Up the sleek spiral staircase we go, I bursting with excitement – look at that dress, oh the leather coat, wow that red skirt!  Touching, coveting, pricing with fingers crossed (didn’t have a credit card then).  Back downstairs.  Yep, on my derrière.  Skidding down the spiral with hardly any grace, another heel bouncing off ahead of me, to meet me at the bottom.  My cousin nowhere to be seen.  Actually, hiding behind clothes racks, mortified.   You ok? Let’s get out of here please, ushering me out, searching for the broken heel, You must get some sensible shoes…

Well, I didn’t get sensible, but a pair of well-built wedges, with no possibility of breaking anything.

It has been quite a while since I’ve plummeted down staircases (thank you God, not something I would recover from easily these days), but my days spent with teeth clenched from shoes that are a little too tight, too steep, slightly wobbly (and a slew of Band-Aids) continue.

Oh yes, so worth it, people.

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.