Christmas Ramblings

I want a simpler Christmas.

Like the ones of my childhood in Italy.  A period of festivities and serenity, quiet joy, great food, few gifts.

I grew up in a financially comfortable middle class environment, both my parents being educators.  We lacked nothing, but the ‘unnecessary’ amenities were quite limited.

My father was very focused on saving money, and, I know now, the majority of my parents’ paychecks ended up in the bank, leaving only what was absolutely needed for daily requirements.  This meant that we did have a serious vacation somewhere every single summer, but if I mentioned that I would love that new stylish coat that was all the rage among my friends, my father would automatically say no.  Upon inspection of my wardrobe, he would firmly state, “Non ne hai bisogno, il tuo cappotto è quasi nuovo e ti va benissimo.” You don’t need another coat, yours is nearly new and it fits fine.

Thrifty, I guess.  Very.

Yes, of course I was disappointed and resentful, calling him tirchio (stingy) under my breath, and whining to my mother, who, as a woman, was more sympathetic, and often would help me sneak in the object of my desire.  It took me many years to comprehend his motivation, his determination to keep us all safe and comfortable, and to provide for everyone’s future.  Which he did.

Naturally, that attitude left us kids with a meager loot on Christmas morning.

But we were ecstatically happy with our gifts from Babbo Natale.  A little case containing a pretty golden-haired doll, brush and comb, and a few outfits (including pajamas!) caused my heart to beat rapidly, as I spent the entire day organizing and admiring my treasure.  And so did my siblings, both enthralled with a newborn doll in a crib, and a bright red remote-control car.  One toy each, and a pair of cozy cloth slippers, often not even wrapped, just there, under the small artificial Christmas tree.

My mother would spend Christmas Eve setting up a fairly large presepe (creche), building the holy grotto with special thick paper, on top of a dresser, and we would eagerly position the figurines in the appropriate spots, and I remember still the flawless beauty of the Madonna, dressed in a pink gown and a blue veil; of course baby Jesus would not be placed in the manger until after midnight, when my mother would quietly deliver him upon his official birth.  Also on the Eve, mamma was stuffing and shaping tortellini, which we would enjoy in a rich chicken broth for our Christmas pranzo.  They were the best thing ever, and never enough. She made just enough for one abundant serving each, always leaving us with a slight yearning for more.  But that made them even more alluring.  Of course, we had a second course, often a delectable cotechino, a special, thick pork sausage, only prepared during the holiday period, hearty winter food, served with her perfect, creamy mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables.  A golden ring of honey-coated Struffoli would be our much awaited dessert, plus an exquisite Cassata, an incredibly beautiful cake made of layers of Pan di Spagna and ricotta cream, flavored with white rum, and dotted with delicious candied orange and citron peel, and chopped bittersweet chocolate. There were also other traditional Neapolitan sweets, like Mostaccioli, spice cookies covered in a chocolate glaze, and pastel-hued pasta reale, tiny almond paste pastries that melted in your mouth. All the sweets were kindly provided by the nuns of a local convent-school, who had been my parents’ friends for years.  I now make most of these magnificent desserts for my American family, but, somehow, they are never as perfect as the ones of my memories.

My family was small, only five of us at the table most of the time, as my parents preferred to celebrate only with immediate family, and not with hordes of relatives with whom they might or might not get along.  It was a tranquil Christmas, Mass after the opening of the presents and before lunch, the day usually ending with a game of cards or tombola, and a slice of Panettone, always present on every Italian’s table during the holiday period.

We would go to sleep content and excited, looking forward to playing again with our new toys the following day, no school, those special sweets for breakfast with our hot milk, and possibly a few hours spent walking around downtown Naples, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights, that stretched overhead from one side of the street to the other, in glorious glittering rows, and the classic, detailed presepi – the famous Neapolitan nativity scenes – proudly displayed almost everywhere.

I realize that I’m remembering my childhood Christmas as indeed a child, not through my parents’ eyes, with their unspoken responsibilities, especially my mother, who was not a happy camper spending endless hours making dough, rolling it out on the huge wooden board, and tediously cutting, stuffing and shaping each individual tortellino.

But even those adult responsibilities were not nearly as intense as the ones I experience these days, as a grown woman and mother, feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the mad rush of the season, by the chores at hand which are often self-imposed, as I feel compelled to make everything perfectly festive even if it kills me.

A simpler Christmas, ecco.  Sitting on the floor looking up at the twinkling lights of the tree.  Going to the church’s Christmas carols concert, and just listen, without my brain twirling in my head.

Too stressed to live.

The most wonderful time of the year.

The First Time I Was Happy

It is not a memory, it’s more of a sensation.

My mother was there.  I was very small, ensconced in warmth.

Life was good, her love was tender and forever.

Nothing exceptional was happening, but she was talking to me, though the words have faded into the nebulous past, which I attempt to catch, grasp, own.  But no.

We grow up, and we believe we are the ones.  The ones that will understand everything, make all the good decisions, move forward, paving a path of glory.

Because we know better, right?

Wrong.

She was not happy.  I know that now.  But she endured and smiled, because she was a mother.

Her hair was blond, and she was beautiful.  She was young, but who knew?

Happiness is a moment.  Yes, my friends, just one little moment, and you erroneously  believe it will last forever.  There is no forever.  There are only instants, subtle pearls that land in you hand, and you need to clench your fist!  Hold them, squeeze them, bleed them, because this is all you’ve got.  Frame them.  Hang them in your brain.

You will need them when life beats you, and you confuse them with rocks.  But they are the pearls that could save your life.

I recall other moments of happiness.  Fleeting, dear God, so fleeting.  Did I catch those pearls? Yes.

Because of them, I live.

And still hope.

The first time I was happy was glorious.  I didn’t know it then, but it was the essence of my life. A snippet of time to be frozen.

To hang on to when darkness sweeps over all.  Because happiness is not your friend. It turns on you in the midst of your joy, it crushes all you built, and leaves you deflated and lost.

Sometimes, your memories are the lullaby you need to descend into the oblivion of the night.

May your dreams be merciful.

Cherish the pearls.  They are rare.

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.