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Friday, November 26, 2010

Closed Down.

Dear Reader:
This blog is officially closed.
Thank you for following along, encouraging and inspiring me on this journey. I appreciated every one of your comments.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You Never Know Who is Watching!

You never know who is watching!
Italy Magazine gave me a shout-out this week.
Read the interview below.  Thanks Pat and Italy Magazine for this opportunity.
Here is the link:
Blog of the Week - When I was your age

Published: Jul 13th, 2010
Location: Basilicata

Topic: Blog of the week

Words by Pat Eggleton - Pictures courtesy of Rosaria D’Ambrosio Williams

Today our blog of the week is a bit different and we think you’ll find it interesting. In “When I Was Your Age – A Memoir” Rosaria D’Ambrosio Williams, who now lives in Oregon, tells the story of a young Italian woman’s journey to America and of the people she left behind.

Rosaria, you wrote the blog “When I was your age” as a memoir for your children. When did you decide to do it and what inspired you?

Right after I retired, when I moved away from my children and missed them terribly. Somehow, writing about my childhood helped me connect all the pieces.

For those who have not followed your blog, can you tell us where you were born in Italy and something about your childhood there?

I was born in the region of Basilicata, in a small town called Venosa, during WWII. My earliest memories were all about the war, the occupation, the poverty. I downplayed that part, actually.

There has been so much written about the war that I could not add to the literature. Instead, I concentrated on my family’s focus to emigrate, to find a way out of the poverty. The memoir is both about me and about my family’s tragic situation - how they survived, what they went through to keep on living with hope and faith.

When did you go to America and why?

I was seventeen when an uncle sponsored me to study in America. My town had schooling up to the fifth grade. To go beyond that was very difficult. It took all of our extra resources to continue my education past the fifth grade. I jumped at the opportunity to go to university.

Were you very lonely at first?

Very! Lonely for everything and everyone. What kept me focused was the desire to finish my degree.

Where did you live and what did you do?

I lived with my uncle and his family, serving as a babysitter and housekeeper, helping out any way I could, in exchange for room, board and tuition.

What helped you settle and what, apart from your family, did you miss the most?

Settle is a process still going on! I missed the food the most. Products were not the same and were hard to obtain at that time. Later, I fell in love with a wonderful man a few months before I was scheduled to return to Italy. Falling in love changes everything. Still, to this day, I don’t think I am settled. I’m content with my choices; I’m happy to be alive and have all the opportunities I have; I’m glad my children are well. But, if I had any choice at all, I would live half a year in Italy, and half a year in America. I miss so many things! At the beginning, it was my family. Later, even little things - a food I craved, a smell. I am still homesick.

Did any of your family follow you to America?

No! It’s one of the tragic strands of the story. They never did. They kept hoping all the time that somehow, one or all of them could join me. They visited me for short bursts.

Did you ever think about going back to Italy to live?

Right after we retired, we contemplated the idea. Italy is just too expensive. Besides, my children are here and I would miss them.

Do you ever visit Italy?

I’ve visited Italy a couple of times, for brief periods.

Do you ever think about contacting members of your family with whom you have lost touch?

Yes. We attempt to stay in touch; but, it is not easy. I am hoping that through the internet we can reach each other, or that our children can. I have many nieces and nephews whom I have never met.

If you could give the girl you were when you emigrated some advice, what would it be?

This is a good question, but most difficult to answer. I was so naïve and I knew nothing of the challenges waiting for me. I’d say, visit for a little while, say a year, as an exchange student. Enjoy each country and what it can offer before you make such a life-changing decision.

What do you hope your children and, perhaps, their children, will gain from reading your memoir?

I hope they understand how difficult my choices were. I hope they learn that every one of us is on a journey, peppered with choices, both moral and financial. That our journey defines us and gives us both strength and character.

What aspects of your Italian heritage would you like to pass on to your children?

A love of life! An appreciation for art and music and education. A sense of wonder and exploration and joy! An appreciation of the classics.

You have two other blogs, don’t you? Can you tell us a little about these?

Sixtyfivewhatnow is about living in a small town, growing old, being involved with the community. I also have an Italian language blog, Italian for Beginners. I started it for my grandchild, who has shown interest in learning Italian. She is Asian/American, speaks Mandarin, Burmese, Spanish, and now is dabbling in Italian. Who knows where she’ll go on her journey?!

Thank you for talking to Italy Magazine and happy blogging.

Thank you for your interest. I appreciated the opportunity.

ITALY Magazine - the n.1 magazine for lovers of all things italian

istos srl - web development and social media / +39 0932 950222 / Via Benedetto Spadaro 109, 97014 Ispica (RG), Italia

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


(5/ 18, 2012. This picture of my son Brian was taken in July 2011, a few weeks before he died.)

The purpose of this project was to leave some shards of the past for future generations. It became a  pilgrimage into the past, to the person I was, the family we were.

About the people in this memoir:
Teodoro Rapolla (Ted, Tiudo), married Marie Dugan, and died in Los Angeles, California. He had three children, Anne Marie, Georgeanne and Paul. Paul died before his father. His daughters still live in the house he built/designed in Burbank, California.

Adelina Rapolla, Lina, settled in Fresno, California, where Uncle Jo, Giuseppe Rapolla had lived. She had three children, JoAnn Scordino, Don Scordino and Carla Scordino. Don still lives in Fresno.

Addolorata Rapolla D’Ambrosio, Dolora’, my mother, moved to  Monza after our family home was transformed into a parking area for the elementary school nearby. This occurred after I left for America. She and my father retired back in Venosa. Father died in 1973, she  in 1986. She visited me in California and was present at the birth of my third child, Brian.

Antonio D’Ambrosio, Toni’, my eldest brother,  moved to Torino, then Milano, all over the North of Italy, worked as a taylor, a costume designer, and a fashion designer. He married, and moved his family to Monza. He ended up working for The Piccolo Teatro di Milano as a fashion designer. Later, he  worked for the fashion house of Valentino in Rome. His two two children, Mario and Laura still live in Milano or its vicinity. Toni' is 78, retired and living back in Venosa with his second wife, Rosetta. He bought land and built himself a retirement cottage on a vineyard, in the same style as our family home.

Luigi D’Ambrosio, my baby brother, was five when I left for California. He lives with his wife Debra in Invorio, Piemonte.

I, (Rosaria, Ninetta,) emigrated in 1959 at seventeen. Attended college and graduate school, became a teacher, and later a specialist and an administrator. I settled in Los Angeles, married Kendrick Williams, a scientist and researcher. Our children, Jon Scott Williams, Pia Nicole Williams-Robbins, Brian Christian Williams. We retired on the beautiful Southern Oregon Coast where we are presently residing. Our youngest, Brian Christian Williams, became a victim of homicide in Fullerton, California, on July 17, 2011.

Donna Maria Rosaria, Mingu’s mother, lived way into her eighties.

All other relatives, Mingu’s brothers, Addolorata's aunts and cousings are scattered in Italy. There are Rapolla's cousins living in New Jersey and New York. I met Helena Rapolla Farrell via Facebook-courtesy of JoAnn Scordino who had met her in person years before. That part of the family is doing well.

The family house I grew up in was torn down. Even the church I was baptized in, The Church of Purgatory, was declared unsafe and shut down. Ironically, the college I attended, Immaculate Heart College is now The American Film Institute.  The church we were married in, a small Russian wooden church, St. Basil, burned down, and in its place, a beautiful big cathedral was erected on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

I returned to visit Venosa just twice, in 1970, and in 2002.

Some names were changed to protect privacy. Historical facts and information reported here are shared memories, and are repeated as heard. Any error was not intentional nor meant to deceive anybody.

This memoir is dedicated to my family: my children, who are my pride and joy, and my husband who has been my constant supporter. Without them, I would cry my heart out and never tell the whole truth.
To contact me:

(this page updated 5/18/2012)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Coming to America

(This picture was taken in anticipation of our voyage to America. I'm the little girl, six years old. Next to me is my father, Mingu, Domenico, my mother, Dolora', Addolorata, and my big brother Tony, Antonio.  My little brother Luigi was not born yet.)

I was four when I met Zio Tiudo, Uncle Ted, for the first time. He was a skinny man, with a bad leg,  back from India where he spent many years as a prisoner of war. I was still sleeping in my crib, and he insisted I was too old to sleep there. He spent time painting, and telling stories of his captivity.

Mamma said he became corrupted by all those years in a foreign land, in a foreign climate. The year was 1946, and when I started pre-school at the convent where Mamma and Zia Adelina had attended at my age, he walked me there and talked to the sisters at length. They had him talk to our class too. He was funny,warm, handsome,engaging.

He and my Aunt Adelina left for America in 1947..

We were all supposed to go together. But, we couldn't obtain the proper visas. Uncle and Aunt traveled to Argentina first, and later emigrated to the United States.  At that time, the quota for Italian immigrants was much smaller than for other immigrants from Northern Europe.

Our  house went from being very crowded, people sleeping everywhere, to suddenly eerily empty. My mother cried from the moment we left the house, and through the next day after the departure. I remember Tony saluting the train goodbye by standing at attention,  just as a soldier would.

Packages from America, big pillowcases full of clothes, shoes, food began to arrive as soon as my relatives reached California, about eighteen months later. Cans of strange sausages, salty and gelatinous were stuck in the middle of the pillowcases.  Not exactly to our taste; but meat nevertheless. Mother sported a new coat that year, which fit her perfectly after alterations.

We began to wear American made clothes, and people talked to us as though we were already Americani.  My dad, though, refused to wear anything the American relatives sent us. “Why do they bother sending this stuff when we are scheduled to join them? Maybe they have changed their minds. Maybe they want to shut us up.”

He was counting the days when they would send for us, not send their discards.

For years, Mother had been trading her sisters' trousseau linens for food or farm supplies. Finally, they were being replaced by the good fortune and generosity that made her sister arrive in America. When I began to write and was put in charge of responding to letters, I would add my own commentaries. Zia, I would say, it’s so good to know you are finding such abundance. It must feel as though you are in Paradise after the scarcity you left behind. Mother would hear the letters and question my round-about ways. “Tell her we need to leave now. Don’t beat around the bushes. Tell her that we sacrificed for her. She can't be selfish!”

Mother was always looking for ways to improve our lot. She had taken me to  line ups at the American War Camps to receive shots of quinine to prevent malaria; a line up to get vitamin pills
or cans of DDT.

Dad grumbled, not trusting any medicine given out freely.

Once, she dragged me screaming and fussing to a louse-treatment line up, making sure my hair was deloused whether I liked it or not. A most- foul smell lingered around us for days. At nursery school, the nuns separated those of us with funny smells and made us stand in the back, away from everybody else.

One of my earliest memory was being held between Zia Adelina’s knees, squeezed so I wouldn’t escape, as she killed the lice and pulled the zits out of my hair with vigor and tenacity, one at a time, a task that tired us both. The pain and indignation, and the fear of being consumed by lice, made me cry the entire time.

Lice and other infestations were rampant during the war years. Many children died of malnutrition or parasitic infections.

I had intestinal problems as a child, pin worms, tape worms, and assorted stomach and digestive problems shared by many children in my town. Again, medications and treatments could be had at the American posts. We all depended on these make-shift generous medicinal dispensaries. If there was something that would make me and my brother get an advantage in life, Mother took us to that line-up.

Mother had enormous faith that her brother and sister would eventually find a way for all of us to join them in America. Every year, she started a novena on this pursuit, a novena that might go on longer than most, months on end, necessitating many prayers, additional visitations to the patron saint appropriate for such a miracle, and a special diet too. On this particular one, since it was such a big miracle, one that might take years to bring about, she gave up meat entirely. Giving up any food was difficult when one has so little to eat. But, giving up meat when one has meat just once or twice a week, and not enough to feel full and contented, but just enough to resuscitate the meat loving glands in your appetite apparatus, that was a major sacrifice. For this one, she prayed to Saint Christopher, not too well known in our parts.

She had given me the task to find the appropriate saint. Not San Rocco; he had the entire town praying to him; not the Madonna delle Grazie, way too many people occupied those pews every morning. She wanted an important figure, one with power and persuasion, one who would get an immediate audience with God Himself.

I found Saint Christopher, patron saints of travelers. Great! She had never heard of him, but trusted my reading and researching abilities. We were going to be great travelers if Saint Christopher took us as clients. How do we do the novenas for this saint? I made up the rest, since no book in the archdiocese specified this stage. “A saint for travelers,” I told her, “needs plenty of songs to help pass the time.”

“Songs?” She inquired, incredulously. The songs we sang in Church were hymns intermixed with recitations.

“Yeah. Songs like O Sole Mio, Mamma, Santa Lucia. As a matter of fact, there is probably a town dedicated to him; we should visit the town, attend the Feast in his name, and get on his good side. Don’t we attend special feast days and give our thanks to special saints?”

“You are right!” She said.

I expected Father to object. What is this? He might say. Where does she get these ideas? We don’t send her to school to come up with these money spending thoughts. We have no business traveling somewhere just to pray.

But he didn’t. And he would have gone along with the idea until something else happened. He got a job, the first Thank-God job that kept him out of the house for months at a time. He became a guard for the Agrarian Reform Movement, a land redistribution program that occurred after the war, splitting up big land holdings and allowing people to homestead/purchase in time/mortgage in labor kind of program. Farm residences were being built on five acres of land each. Some places were kilometers apart. Father’s job was to travel to each one, unexpectedly, spend the night with the shepherds or whoever camped there, and try to keep a presence in the field.

When Zia Adelina wrote that roses had thorns, her code phrase for things are complicated and painful, Mother knew in her heart that only a miracle could precipitate the right action. She didn't know what was troubling her sister; but whatever it was, Mother was going to pray for it to dissipate.

The promise that was America stood on an altar in our house, right next to the Madonna Delle Grazie, Mother’s patroness, and the added Saint Christopher.  America was the same as heaven. When I argued with her that we needed to learn English to have a chance at surviving in America, she dismissed my worries. "What? How did my sister manage? She didn't speak English?"
"Mamma, that's one reason she might be having trouble. They speak English, not Italian."

Mother thought that people all over the world were the same, speaking basically the same, with just a few variations, as in the dialect she heard from people who visited the town on Saint Rocco's Feast Day.  Dialects are not different languages, but different inflections, even different expressions.  She thought everyone in the world spoke a form of Italian. Didn't the Romans occupy the known world? 

We took official sets of pictures,  and got ready to go at a moment's notice. The town continued to buzz with news of our imminent fortune.

My family never emigrated.

Uncle returned to Italy eight years later, in 1955, after Uncle Giuseppe died and the property was divided. My big brother Tony had left for work in Milano, Mother had a new toddler to care for. By now, all our hopes had dried up. America was no longer our destination.,

I was the only one who emigrated for America in 1959. My experience was not an easy one. But, I completed my studies, obtained a teaching job, and got married.

My mother, and my younger brother Luigi, visited me, each for an extended amount of time when I lived in Los Angeles. They saw first hand how we lived, how we too struggled to attain the dream.

Their lives had been enriched because Americans were generous. The Marshall plan had helped Italy recover from the war in many ways. The Land Reform allowed many people the opportunity to work the land and own it after a while. Houses were built, loans were made, opportunities handed out generously. Father’s job provided steady cash income that helped me continue with my studies past the fifth grade.

My parents always looked to the future, when times would get easier, when their children would break the cycle of poverty. Whatever strength they had, they poured it into making sure each of us had opportunities and education.

My journey is coming to an end. I will never feel totally at home anywhere. Italy is my first home. Italy is a mother’s hug, and a father’s praise. But Italy feels foreign now. Through sheer willpower, I make my home where I find myself.

I think of all who emigrated, who left what and whom they loved, what they knew. We can return; but we have changed in a fundamental way. We are saddened by the change; saddened that we lost our connections to our past. Nothing is the same. We are the outsiders now, the Americani. We take comfort in the fact that our children will not have to feel this loss.

My children will not understand these feelings. I am two-three hours away from each of them, by car or by plane. They get to come back home anytime they wish. We get together anytime we need to be. But their roots are shallow and their branches are not truncated. They only know what is in front of them.

In my dreams, I’m back home, in the same little house, everyone around me, having a big Sunday meal. Only then, I feel whole.

The End.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

War Path

Imperial War Museum photo number: E 6064

28 September 1941. Men of the (British) King's African Rifles (KAR) collecting surrendered arms at Wolchefit Pass, after the last Italians had finally ceased resistance in Ethiopia.
Photographer: Clements H J (Lt), No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit (UK)
Collection No.: 4700-32

When a fifteen year old Tiudo presented himself at the home of his grandparents, in Naples, he was dirty, hungry and bloodied. He waited on the doorstep for hours before his grandmother  returned home.

She saw that he was fed, cleaned and bandaged before her husband returned. He noticed for the first time how old and fragile she was. In her presence, he broke down and cried for the first time since his father died. Her home smelled so much like his old home, the same roses on the credenza, the same drapes in the dining room. Everything he had felt in the last year returned to pain him with a vengeance. His father’s death, his sister’s death, the loss of their house.

“This is not how I am.” He told her, ashamed of his tears, of his condition.

“Yes, dear. It’s all right.”

“I came to say goodbye.”

“Oh? ”

" I’m joining the military.” He knew that she would not remember their ages; she always mixed his birthday with Lina’s. But he also knew that she would be the only one he could talk to now. His sisters were burdened already with their own problems.

“You could wait another year. No?” She tried to find out what else this boy could do.

“Nonna, there is no need to wait.” He wanted to be talked out; but he also wanted to be done with waiting, done with being bossed around.

“Well, I suppose. It would so please your nonno if you remained a while with us. Seeing you children does us good. We are so sorry about your father, your sister! My goodness, I can still see her here with us. If only she waited….” And she too began sobbing, shedding tears she had already shed when she let Graziella return home.

At dinner time, Doctor Fabrizi asked him straight out: “So, young man, Don Teodoro Rapolla, how do you plan on making your fortune at your age?” The boy was shocked to hear his full name. Sometimes, his father had used the name to emphasize some precept or other, usually when the youth needed punishment.

“I’m a pretty good artist, actually.” He responded, straightening up, aware he was wearing his grandfather’s shirt and coat. He had nothing. Not even a change of clothing.

“You think anyone will part with their few lire for a portrait? There are strikes, famines and pick-pockets everywhere. Everyone is worried about having enough to eat. The government is taking-over industries. Don’t you get any news in that town of yours? If you don’t return back home, you’ll be shanghaied. I’ve seen it happen right down on the waterfront.” Doctor Fabrizi was not sure what would convince the boy to settle down. He needed a dose of good fortune, he thought.

“Papa was a soldier,” the boy responded, “this was his dream for me too!”

“This is a different Italy, not the King your father served. We can purchase your passage to America, if you don’t want to go back home. Don’t you have an uncle and aunt there?”

“We have not heard from them.”

“You need to plan ahead a little bit. How did you just show up here without a plan? We can house you while you go to school?”

Tiudo made no plans that night. He ate, slept soundly, and the next day he joined the army. They asked him how old he was; he told them he was eighteen.

Three years later, the grandparents received a letter from India. Tiudo had been captured in Africa, three months in his service, by the British, and taken as a war prisoner.

“It is hot here, hotter than anything I ever experienced,” he wrote. “I’m treated well, with plenty of food, and opportunities to paint. I’m learning to speak English and plan on going to America when all this is over. Tell my sisters I’m doing fine.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Under One Roof

(The picture is called "case vecchie", part of a museum show called Case di Contadini.  Contadini means farmers. The picture came with a blog from Decomondo. Thank you Me for the source.)

Mingu’s cavalry unit was never called to serve. He remained on standby as Italy and Germany joined forces, as German troops arrived to occupy the southern end of Italy to fight the Allies about to land in Sicily.

His mother arranged his marriage to the next sister while the Loggia was being auctioned off and the surrounding land was sold a plot at a time to pay off creditors. The old life was quickly dissipating.

Don Matteo, the parish priest, was not surprised by the age difference between Dolora and Mingu. These things were unavoidable, he counseled both, as life must go on and the family must be kept together. He married the couple at a private ceremony. Dolora mostly dazed, not understanding the significance or the weight of God and Church in these matters. Mingu understood that the union was unavoidable.

Dolora felt an enormous disquietude. Her opportunities to be courted, to have suitors at her door, the way  her mother or Graziella had, these opportunities had passed her by. She knew nothing of life outside of the Loggia. Becoming Mingu's bride meant that she and her siblings would not end up at an orphanage the way many orphans did.

After the ceremony, his mother told her that she didn't have to share the matrimonial bed until she was ready, after a proper amount of time for her son to have forgotten his Graziella. Dolora had no intention of taking Graziella's role in bed with Mingu, and was assured that it was up to her when the time was right.

There was nothing else to do but to take care of the house, and be a mother to her siblings. Their relatives had offered to take one of them, Tiudo, so that could have someone help out in the fields. Tiudo had understood the change that would occur in his life regardless of where he went to live, and he was not happy with the options.

A month into the new arrangement,Tiudo left after an argument at the house, and Dolora feared Mingu's anger at the end of the day.  She heard him mumble and curse for hours before he went to bed. She began having nightmares herself, always about being at an orphanage, she and her baby sister assigned to the cleaning crew; her little brother sent away, to another location she couldn't possible find.

With half loaf of bread, and a chunk of cheese, Mingu left every morning before the rooster crowed, before anybody else stirred, determined to go on as though nothing had happened. He had been a happy fellow, breaking into songs at the slightest opportunity; girls and women lined up to praise and take him in, making him feel wanted and appreciated and special. He could have had any woman he chose. The town was full of beauties, rich widows asking for nothing more than a handsome smile and a strong back.

He was  deep with anger over inconsequential things, as though a big lump of food was stuck in his throat, a piece of hard bread swallowed whole, chocking him if he tried to swallow it.

He pounded his fists at anything and anyone, scaring the sisters who cowered in fear and huddled together behind the table. The night he heard Tiudo had run away, he grabbed Dolora by her hair and hurled her across the room, then he returned to  slap and kick her.

 ‘Mannaggia, Mannaggia, Mannaggia’ he yelled at the top of his voice, to all points of the compass, to nothing in particular, and everything in general.

Dolora retreated in the shadows of church niches from that day on, trying to find refuge in prayers and novenas. She began to feel responsible for anything that went wrong in the household. I must try harder; I must pray with more fervor, she told herself.

Their house was small, one room for people and one for animals, with a cellar to hold harvests and preserved food. The matrimonial bed took up half a room. The other half served for everything else, an eating/food prep area with table and chairs, a fireplace for heating and cooking. Pots and pans hung on the wall. Hooks and ropes held clothing and tools. A big armoire kept their possessions, and one single light in the middle of the room illuminated the space.

Tiudo slept in a corner of the barn, on a bedroll over hay. Bed bugs or the cold kept him alert. If he didn’t clean up the stalls, he would be smelling more than he wanted to. Unless he dumped the hay and set it on fire, the lice propagated rapidly. During hot summers, he slept outside by the fig tree his Mother had planted when he was born. His cat followed him everywhere.

Lina slept on the landing, an elevated area reached by a ladder and draped for privacy, situated at the top of the stairway to the cellar.

The city had erected a new school in the back of the house, and from the time the first shovel hit the ground, the family was put on notice to vacate their residence as the area had been rezoned. The war and the occupational forces of the Germans and later the Americans delayed any formal action on this notice. Mingu was willing to fight it. He was not going to let anybody sell or take this house the way the Loggia had been taken from his wife’s family.

During harvest time, everyone pitched in, every child, every adult who could walk and stand worked from sun-up to sun-down picking olives and grapes.

When food was plentiful, the sisters prepared jams and conserves; tomato paste dried on big sheets in the sun under loose cotton towels preventing flies and insects from landing. By the time the first frost sent people indoors, the cellar was full of provisions, vats of olives curing; barrels of wine aging, jugs of olive oil perfuming the place, a wheat granary towering in the middle; strings of apricots, grapes, peaches, apples; garlic and herbs drying around the ceiling, out of cat’s reach.

In November, a pig was bought and slaughtered, and sausages and salumi were made in various sizes, specific ingredients for taste and spiciness dictacted by tradition; some were left to air dry; some were packed in oil. Jars of peppers and eggplants in oil and herbed vinegars lined the shelves of the cellar, organized by sizes and by specialty. A jar of tomato sauce, one of prepared eggplant would become pasta condiments on most days.

In the same cellar, Mingu fermented grapes in a big barrel, acidity and sweetness corrected and monitored daily. He knew just at what time to distill the liquid. The house had a musty smell all winter long. Bottles of wine were exchanged for everything they needed.

On days too wet or too treacherous Mingu repaired cane chairs, built reed baskets, organized the cellar. He spent evenings discussing politics, singing at weddings and feast days, looking for opportunities and friendships.

When the Germans occupied the school behind the house, Mingu forbid the girls to go outdoors, or doing daily shopping, even hanging laundry outside. He dug an extension to the cellar, behind the granary,to hide provisions. Between bad weather and bad luck, the hiding place was never utilized. These were lean years. Everyone went hungry. The cellar emptied in no time, and bread and fried peppers were eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wine was all sold, until nothing remained to eat or drink in the cellar.

There were those who sympathized with the Germans, and those who worked against them. Those who gave willingly were protected and allowed to move without restrictions. Mingu forbid his family from visiting people, fearing and mistrusting everyone.

The sisters read serial romances on long winter evenings, Lina doing the reading aloud, stopping only to fantasize about the man she would marry. Mingu had prohibited her from showing any interest to any boy. Secretly, she prayed to the Madonna to provide a miracle, just one possibility, like the boy next door who had eyed her beauty and managed to send messages to her.

On Sundays, Donna Maria Rosaria came to visit , and an elaborate pasta meal made with a ragu of rabbit stuffed with herbs, breadcrumbs and olive oil would stew for hours in its rich tomato sauce until they all sat at the table after Mass and were satisfied. The old woman thought the girls were doing well; the house was always spotless, the food plentiful. The family had to barter for the rabbit and anything else they served with pieces of Graziella’s trousseau, elaborate laces, beautiful pillow cases.

“Son, “she asked , “is anything wrong with you or Dolora? Why aren’t there any children in this family?”
“I may be called to serve any day. This is the worst possible time to start a family. Besides, she’s still too young.”
“People are beginning to talk.”

“People have nothing better to do.”

“I’ll pray you have boys as strong as your brothers.”

“I am not so sure God is listening.”

“Now son, trust, trust.”

“The way this country is breaking up?”

“Things have a way of working themselves out.”

“They are getting worse.”

“Pray that it doesn’t happen, son.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Broken Hearts

Don Paolo passed away before spring, before his daughter Graziella's house was finished and furnished, before he knew about her pregnancy.The town doctor pronounced him dead, and the funeral was held the next day. Nobody asked how he died, what killed him. A strong man had been reduced to such a puny size in no time, blind and weak in a matter of months.

The children spoke about the supper they had together the previous Sunday. Graziella returned to those words many times, feeling in her heart that he was blessing her and her unborn child.

“Forget tradition,” he had shouted amidst coughing fits, “What’s important is to give the child a strong name he can wear proudly. ”

“But Papa’ it would be blasphemous to dishonor our ancestors. If I have a girl, she’ll be called Marianna, like Mamma. And our boy, Natalino, like Mingu’s father.”

“Your poor papa’, God bless his soul, has been named already a half a dozen times, no?” He addressed Mingu with this question.

“There are four nephews named after my father, and two nieces, after my mother.” Mingu acknowledged.

“See? What are those boys going to think when your mother mixes them up? She won’t remember who is who?”

Within weeks after the funeral, neighbors and townspeople began to arrive at the house to talk about money owed them. Mingu tried to handle most of these with Donna Maria Rosaria, but in the end, it was Dolora who had to make sense of all the business affairs their father had left behind.

“ You’ll be paid in due time, can’t you see this is not the proper time? Don Paolo will keep his word even after death, you’ll see. Go on, go home. We'll find the money.”

After six months, a judge in Potenza passed judgment on the estate and the family’s future without meeting with anyone or understanding the pain he would cause.

Graziella went first into a deep depression and then one morning, while she was tending the garden, she doubled over with pain. Lina found her on the ground, amidst a pool of blood. She had no strength to move. The baby arrived twenty hours later, stillborn. She died from hemorrhaging.

“Did Graziella’s baby kill her?” Tiudo wanted to know.

Each child had an explanation for what happened. Tiudo thought his father got sicker as more and more people cheated him. If he had been older, his father wouldn’t have died, wouldn’t have been aggravated by the cheaters.

Lina thought Graziella’s baby must have kicked her too hard, to cause so much blood to spill.
The two of them made a pact: they were going to keep awake every night, somehow, to make sure nobody poisoned them, or caused them further harm.

“When I grow up, Lina, I’ll take care of you." Tiudo spoke with certitude. I’ll never let anything happen to you. We’ll go to America, and start new. You’ll see, nobody dies in America. Nobody suffers. Nobody can get away with cheating the way they get away here. I will find a way. I promise.”

Mussolini was expanding Italy’s military, and every able man was being called to active duty. Widowers and bachelors were taxed more and were obliged to get married or join the army. Their prostitutes were chased off the back streets and were forced to register properly and be controlled by the state police. Every single man was put on notice: stay home and have babies with your wife, your country needs strong men to compete in the world.

“With over forty million people, you’d think he’d want us to have fewer children!” Donna Maria Rosaria commented one night when she heard about Mussolini’s plan to enlarge families. “He’s putting more burdens on young families. Why he’s gallivanting with a mistress, while his wife is raising his children ! And he calls himself a just man.”

Mingu was twenty-seven years old. The love of his life had died, and he had nothing else to live for. His mother didn’t know where he slept or what he was doing in town. He had lost a wife, a son, and a fortune in a matter of months. She was not surprised when he told her his plans to re-join the calvary.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Her little boy is bouncing on his father’s knees and reaching out for the platter of pasta-fagioli she set down in the middle of the table.

“He’s going to get burned!” She shouts

The scream wakes her; though, in this post-dream moment she continues to savor the thought, taking her Natalino onto her lap to nurse, protecting him, watching him turn this way and that, as he reacts to his father’s laughter. “Now, stay put little one, eat and be done with it. I have things to do.” Her arms cajoling him, lulling him to nurse a little longer, waiting for him to finish nursing and join his father's lap again. His father will take him back, and rock him to sleep, with a few notes of a favorite song, a few swings of his strong arms.

She can't help adding pieces to this dream.

They moved in his mother’s house, in the room Mingu had shared with his two brothers; strings and wires, leather belts and shaving vessels, old shirts, boots and work clothes strewn in every corner. She lived out of her one suitcase, counting the days when she could move to the house her father was getting built for them, the house that will have her smells; flowers and sprigs of basil growing on window sills; baby powder in the air; scents of olives and grapes after each harvest.

This is temporary, she told herself every morning as she made the bed.

Expectations were simple and understood: take care of your husband; keep the house clean; don’t complain, daily recitations stamped into every movement, every utterance, as predictable as  the rosary, a quiet and numb ending of each day.

Days had their own rhythms. Wake at six, carry on the daily chores, and go to bed at the end of daylight.  Electricity had just arrived to their part of town, and everyone had one or two light bulbs in their houses. But days still started with daylight, and ended when night arrived.

Mingu started his day at the wash basin filled with water warming on the fire. In the evening, before supper, she watched him scrub his hands and neck of musty -ripe grapes, the smell of their land. She had liked that smell. Now, she had strange sensations, couldn’t even stand with the hot towel to help him dry up.

“Your family needs to settle things.” He said on the night he returned from talking to her father.

“What do you mean?” She tried to focus.

“I told your father that I need to be paid for the last couple of seasons. I talked to him at length, hoping he’d just say, Mingu, you are now in charge. It’s about the future of the place. We can start by bottling our own, you know.” He turned to her. She was crying. He continued, trying to reassure her.

“ I could go to work at the cooperative.  I wouldn’t be far from here. I wouldn’t even need a horse. I could do that work.”

“What did Father say?”

“He didn't. He has been too tired to think ahead." He looked at her and noticed that she had dozed off, before he had finished explaining his family's finances. Her fists were tightly crossed in front of her.

Donna Maria Rosaria’s rattled out of the house to attend early mass every morning before any body was awake. Lina then woke Graziella up. They all ate bread and grape jam most mornings, unless a vendor stopped by with goat milk for sale, and then Lina would have hot milk and sugar for her toasted bread. She looked like an infant, savoring the richness of the panna, the hard crust formed on top of the hot milk, full of sugar, and savored like ice cream.

Graziella packed fried peppers and tomatoes for her husband's lunch, with a loaf of bread and a chunk of salami, the same dish almost every day. For supper, she put a pot of beans by the ambers in the fireplace, to cook all day, a base for a minestra or a pasta dish. Twice a week, she visited the butcher. On Fridays, she waited for the fishmonger to arrive at the piazza with the night catch all the way from Bari or Naples.

She wished she could chat freely, about Naples, about life by the sea, about the shops and the museums she enjoyed so much as a girl.  But she was a married woman now, wearing a head covering for modesty, keeping her blonde hair in a bun under the covering, and didn’t do idle chatter. The only money she had was what Mingu gave her weekly to purchase groceries. She felt guilty over these thoughts, knowing full well that those fancy things were not in her life any more.

At the Loggia, Gemma had planned the cooking and general help for the family. Things were delivered to them, from various people in town. She could charge her purchases to her family account, she was told by the merchants. But Mingu had insisted she paid cash for everything she needed. Often, she had to settle for less than she needed. Donna Maria Rosaria went with her everywhere, insisting on what cuts of meat to purchase.

At home, she had enjoyed her biscotto and coffee, or eggs and toast. Don Paolo had his coffee first thing, then returned to eat a proper meal around ten. The young ones had Panini with a variety of meats, one to eat on the way to school, and one to eat during their break. Gemma had managed this for years, a different breakfast for everyone. Nobody had any idea of how much things cost, how important it was not to be cheated by merchants who could smell someone who didn’t know one veal cut from another.

Graziella was getting an education living under Donna Maria Rosaria’s roof, an education that her departed mother never had a chance to give her. She ought to be grateful for the constant advice she was getting, but she became less and less cheerful each time they went shopping.

“When it’s time for you to have a baby, you’ll be in good hands!” Her mother-in law hinted, guessing from Graziella’s behavior, that she was having morning sickness.

Graziella told nobody. She didn’t want to chance anything. Especially, chance a flurry of envy from who knows where.

One evening, Graziella heard mumbling and noises, and thinking something was wrong, she walked in her mother-in-law’s room to find her in tears. Lina was awake, sobbing quietly.

“Are you feeling all right?” She inquired.

“Be careful, be careful!” Donna Maria Rosaria mumbled, in a trance.

“What? ”

“People are watching. They can see everything.”

“No need to worry. ”

“Through the walls. People can see. I tell you ,nobody is safe. They can see everything you do, everything you wear. There are spies all over the place.”

Graziella had not seen anything like this, this strange and worried look on the woman's face. She went back to bed, and woke Mingu.

“Your mother is worrying about people spying.”

“She’s talking about imaginary waves .”

“I told her about the German doctor that took the picture of his wife’s bones, through her skin, the story we heard from Dr. Fabrizi?”

“Is this what she is worried about?”

“Yeah. She thinks this occurs everywhere. She is confusing spies with machines. She thinks Mussolini had spies when the boys were inducted in the army.”

“An how do you know that?”
"The Cooperative got notice that people could only work eight hours; everyone can only work eight hours or we get shut down. There are spies that report you, people you thought you could trust.”

“Mingu, I want to move to our new place. I don’t care about not being finished. I need to be in my own house.”

He reassured her it would not be long.

On Sunday, after Mass, they went to the Loggia for dinner. When Dolora noticed Graziella not eating, she confronted her.

“Are you sick or pregnant?”

“Don’t say anything now. I want to wait until I can be sure.”

“You can’t keep any food down. I’m worried.”

“Don’t. It won’t last long. I talked to Donna Maria Rosaria about this.”

“What? ”

“In general. I wanted to know the symptoms. Fortunately, she goes to church every morning when I start throwing up. By the time she returns, I’m much better.”

“Move back to the Loggia. You need someone to look after you.”

“It won’t do. I want my own place. " She said with a sigh; then, "Could I have some dishes?”

“Just go and choose.” Dolora snarled at her, adding,  “Keep the good dishes here. You can borrow when you have a special occasion.”

“Now, promise not to tell anybody about the baby. Promise you’ll come to town and visit me when I’ve moved.” Graziella said.

“Sure. When do you think that’s going to happen?”

“Soon. Soon.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Man Talk

After her wedding, Graziella moved in with Mingu, at his mother’s house. Lina spent her school days there too. Tiudo and Dolora remained at home, in the ghostly place still known as the Loggia.

Don Paolo was happy that with Graziella's marriage, his children were now connected firmly to a family that would support and protect them as he got closer to his end.

When Mingu came to talk to him, Dolora saw a chance to plead her case again. The men spent hours behind locked doors, as she waited patiently in the kitchen, helping Gemma, keeping an ear and an eye on the goings on in the salotto. They could only afford paying Gemma to come in once a week to help with the laundry, but she would stay overnight and helped Dolora with some heavy tasks. Winter was the time for families to butcher hogs and make sausages. Not this winter. Every minute was spent cleaning and tending to Don Paolo.

On this day Mingu brought a couple of people from town to help with routine tasks of pruning and spraying vines. Dolora was miffed, knowing that these people had to be paid, and be fed, all additional expenses. He knew what difficulties they were having this year.

Mingu and Don Paolo talked for a while, the conversation moving in many directions.

“The new house in town and la vigna vicina are your wedding presents. I will need to sell the wheat fields to pay my doctor’s bills; so, I can’t hire but one person to help you with the vineyards and olive groves from now on. Tiudo can help in a year or two. It’s been tough meeting our obligations right now.”

“I didn’t want to bother you when you were so sick.”

“We need to remedy the fact that you haven't been paid for a while either. But the next harvest should be better...”

“I don’t need much.  But, with a new wife, we will need to furnish the house, get feed for the horses. I want Graziella to return to her studies but she has made up her mind.”

“She hasn’t talked to me!”

“With due respect, Don Paolo, I’m the man she needs to talk to now.”

“Yes, yes. Of course!”

“I plan on taking care of her. If she wants to continue her studies, I’ll arrange it.”

“How are you going to do that, Mingu, without an income, without a dowry? I don’t mean to insult you, but you have no trade, no skills. Except as a contadino, a man used to working with the land. These lands used to feed all of us; now, it’s not so easy. I hear Mussolini is planning a land reform. Who knows how that will break us even more. We used to have means to send our children to school, and marry them to suitable suitors. No offense, Mingu. She wanted to marry you. I didn’t object. Her mother, God bless her soul, stepped down to marry me. She made me most happy and never brought up our class difference.”

“Not the same, Don Paolo. You were, still are, high class in these parts.”

“Well, in a way. Marianna’s family was full of professionals, people with intellectual skills. I couldn’t hold a decent conversation in that house, though I went past elementary school myself before I joined the military. I almost wish we had settled in Naples. Our children would be educated and exposed to a better group of people. No offense, Mingu. I don’t mean your family at all. I knew your father and mother before you were born; buona gente, the Ambros. Loyal and honest. I wouldn’t have anybody else marry one of my daughters. Now, promise me something…”

“Yes. Anything…”

“Losing a mother is hard enough. Now, with my bad health,…”

“No need to ask. She is …”

“And another thing…”


“I’m …” Don Paolo couldn’t continue as a harsh coughing fit stopped him mid sentence. Mingu got him a glass of water and waited for the cough to stop. Dolora walked in and Mingu turned to her:

“Your father gave us la vigna vicina, the one on the way to Melfi. Who has been working that piece?”

“It’s been leased.” She said. She must get a detailed list of all the holdings before things get worse, she thought.  Why did her father split the land so? That piece was their Mother’s dowry, meant for the daughters, all of them. Graziella is already getting a new house, and now the vigna vicina. How is that fair? What’s left for her, for Lina?

“I’m running that for Graziella and me, exclusively.” Mingu told her.

“I have to stop the lease, then.” She said, not really sure what that entailed. She was learning about finances one problem at a time. First thing to do, was to make a detailed list of holdings. She tried to stay focused on that thought, as things were quite fluid around the place.

“All we need now are the furnishings. Usually, that’s what my side of the family provides. But I haven’t gotten paid for the last year.” Mingu had been rattling on and on before she understood.

She noticed how different she felt for him now that he was part and parcel of every discussion they would be having. This feels strange, too strange, she thought.

“A year?” She was trying to remember when was the last time she had handed him money. She had taken over the finances  in the last few months. Maybe Don Paolo’s health is confusing everything.

“Two, last harvest and this harvest.” He emphasized.

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” She asked him with a tinge of anger in her voice.

“I didn’t want to bring more concerns up. Anyway, if you are doing the books now, you need to know all these things.” He had caught her mood swing and attributed it to all the confusion in the house.

“Fine. I’ll check into this.” She mumbled.

“We’ll be gone for a week on our honeymoon. My mother will come and stay with you guys.”

“That’s kind of her; but we are doing fine.”

“I want to convince Graziella to stay in school. She thinks I would object; but I would be so proud of her if she became a doctor.”

“This is a bad time…” Dolora was growing more and more anxious. How does he make all these decisions without consulting us, she thought. Now, he is deciding for Graziella too.

“You know that nobody can help Don Paolo. We need to accept his fate. But, your sister had this opportunity of a lifetime. Why do you stand in her way? What can she do that you or I can’t do for your father?” And with this last statement, he left the Loggia. There was no money for his labors and no dowry either. He better think of some other way to provide for his new family.

Dolora didn’t bother her father with her concerns. She went looking for Tiudo instead.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Nuptials

Graziella planned to talk to Mingu about the dowry, but something always managed to distract her. Her life felt fragile, fleeting. She knew one thing: she wanted to marry and be with Mingu.

“What about your father?” He reminded her.

“I want him to give me away while he still can!”

He didn’t argue with her. This might be the only bright thing in their lives right now. He told her not to worry about anything; he’d take care of the details and took her hand as they walked up the hill to the family cemetery  where her mother and grandparents were buried. These tombs were the only thing that were certain; the only things that didn't change.

"Mamma, watch over us. Give us strength. I'm marrying a good man. You liked him as a child, Mamma. He'll be a good husband. Watch over us. Watch over Papa'. I wish you could be here. I miss you, Mamma. I miss you so."

A couple of months after a betrothal that was rushed and unexpected, Graziella decorated the library with ribbons and snippets of rosemary everywhere. At this time, a week before Christmas, the place would have a Presepio, a holiday tradition all over Italy, to celebrate the birth of Christ. The miniature village would have been constructed weeks before, with little houses and trees, and little statues portraying ordinary people like shepherds, butchers, bread-makers, all making their way to the manger where Mary and Joseph and animals waited for Baby Jesus to be born.

Every year, the grandparents sent the newest figurines from Naples where the Capodimonte factory produced new editions. The family had part ownership in this endeavor, and their house at Christmas held an open invitation for people to view the Presepio and to partake of refreshments. Marianna had brought the tradition to the Loggia. Christmas had always been an enchanted season.

This year, the figurines were still bagged. Don Paolo was too sick to haul dirt and moss to build hills and valleys and paths leading to the stable. This year, Tiudo and Lina were kept home from school, so they didn’t have their school projects ready, the special letter that each child composed for Christmas and read out loud to their father on such a day. The two of them had been busy watching people come in and out of the salotto, caring for their father day and night. The two of them were allowed to sleep, eat and play in the same salotto where Don Paolo might expire at any minute.

Graziella went looking for  her mother’s gown in old trunks stacked in dusty attics . A strong smell of nafta stopped her mid-way. She had not tried this gown since she was twelve, when her mother had put away Lina’s christening clothes and Graziella had seen the gown wrapped tightly in its own trunk. Back then, the gown smelled of roses and lavender. Her mother aired the gown every spring and repacked carefully.

On this cold December day, in her eighteenth year, her Mother’s wedding gown fit her beautifully. It smelled slightly of Marianna’s olive oil soaps. This was not going to be the wedding at the Madonna delle Grazie that her mother had. None of her childhood friends had been invited, or knew about this date.

This entire day  felt furtive, as though a crime or a mortal sin was being committed.

Mingu was expected to return at noon, with the priest, his mother, two rings  and a wedding cake. It was two o’ clock in the afternoon, a light dusting of snow whitened the road Mingu would take.

By four o’clock, the snow was beginning to pile, and Graziella was disheartened. This day needed too many miracles, she thought. She had been ready since noon, looking out every hour. Don Paolo stopped her reverie with the order to sit down and eat. Just as she began nibbling on a sandwich her father pulled himself off the bed and declared: “God the child will be born tonight. Everyone will be going to the Midnight Mass in town. I’m not going to cheat you out of a church wedding. We could still have the ceremony if we get ourselves to town.”

“Mingu is not here for a reason, Papa’!” She said anxiously. Don Paolo could barely breathe and now he was talking about making a trip over slippery roads, as the sun began setting.

"You are going to be married today!” He said confidently. Then, he barked his desires that everyone get ready to travel while there was still some light in the sky.

The family arrived in town around six. Don Paolo, Graziella and Lina set up their seats in the front row, as was customary for their status. There were no priests or altar boys around.

Dolora and Tiudo went to find Mingu. Graziella remained with her father and baby sister, reciting her rosary, inserting special requests to the Blessed Mother, feeling ashamed to be dressed in a wedding garb without a groom around. I must look like a fool, she thought.

Lina cried too, and soiled her pretty  dress with her tears, insisting on sitting on her father’s lap, though she had her own chair, confused to be in an empty church, whispering something or other the entire time.

“Papa’ we are the only ones here, except for those old ladies huddled in the dark. It’s too cold here. Let’s go home.”

“Hush now. There will be a big surprise in a few minutes. A miracle. You’ll see.”

“Will I see Angels?”

“Angels and Saints will collect right in front of us. Pray, my sweet one, pray. God will listen to the voice of the innocent. Pray.”

“What am I praying for?”

But no answer was necessary, as a group of people walked in and lights were turned on,  Don Matteo, accompanied by Mingu and  his brothers, stood at the front of the altar and faced them. Dolora and Tiudo and Donna Maria Rosaria had arrived simultaneously and had taken their seats right next to Don Paolo.

Don Paolo walked his daughter to the altar with tears in his eyes, sad that he had not remembered to bring grain. Lina trailed on his other side holding his other hand.  Without knowing, she was helping him navigate in the dark, back to his chair after depositing Graziella at the altar.

Wows were exchanged. Mingu slipped a ring on her finger and had another one for her to slip on his finger.

The place was quiet except for the voices of the bride and bridegroom, declaring their committment to each other. No organ sounds, no chorus voices.

"Papa' can I sing a song for Graziella?'
"What do you want to sing, doll-face?"
"I want to sing the Ave Maria!"
"How do you know the Ave Maria?"
"Graziella sings it all the time!"
"Well, go ahead."

Mingu and Graziella walked down the aisle holding hands, and everyone followed right behind. There was no wedding march, but the sounds of a small child were heard trailing her, singing The Ave Maria. Graziella looked back to smile at Lina just as she reached the door and a cold wind  reminded her that December can be cruel.

“Don Paolo, we’re so sorry to hear about your poor health.” Don Matteo approached the old man on the way out the door.

“ Oh Graziella, you are starting something new with this ceremony.”An old lady who had appeared out of nowhere came to kiss the bride.

“Congratulations, Mingu, Graziella! Did you come from Naples to get married here? The church attendants who were putting up chairs wanted to know.

People looked confused as Donna Maria Rosaria handed them grains to scatter and invited them to her house for a reception. Her boys and their families would be waiting there, bringing simple gifts from their homes, wine, olives, sausages and dried fruit, the bounty they had stashed in the cellars for those cold winter days ahead. The night will turn to music and song, she thought. This is our family night to celebrate and to count our blessings.

The Ambros family consisted of seven brothers and one sister, all but two  older than Mingu, all married and with children in tow. They all came to celebrate. His two younger brothers were away from home, serving in the army. His only sister, pregnant with her second child, and her husband and mother in law had helped with the preparations. Dolora counted over forty people in Mingu’s family, and only five in hers. Thank God we are reaching out to people like these, people with good fortune and good health.

The celebration brought additional neighbors and friends. They too brought food and wine. Around Midnight, everyone left with the excuse of Midnight Mass.

Don Paolo was given Mingu’s bed, where he collapsed soon after the first toast. Tiudo slept at the bottom of the same bed when he finally collapsed, hours later. Lina and Dolora ended up sharing Donna Maria Rosaria’s large matrimonial bed.

The streets were quiet, except for church bells calling the town to the spectacle. Snow had fallen all evening, hushing the place, turning a bright light from east to west. Graziella wanted to attend Midnight Mass, a tradition she had never missed. She and Mingu sat as man and wife, among the Ambros family pews. After Mass, everyone came to congratulate them.

By morning, the entire town knew about the couple.

He took his new bride to the convent, where he hoped they could get a room for the night, since her father was occupying his bed at his house. There were no rooms. They returned to his mother’s house, and spent the night on the hay loft, warm enough and peaceful enough to catch a couple of winks before morning and the trip back to the Loggia.

"We'll tell our child he was conceived on Christmas Day in a stable!" Graziella teased, as Mingu stood up and held a blanket so she could take off  her wedding gown and slip into his mother's night clothes.  No, he thought, I'll see that you never sleep like this again. You'll never have to smell animals and hear rats scampering around again. I'm going to take good care of you.

"Ella?" He wanted to talk and reassure her. "Ella? Graziella?  Are you..." She was asleep, a little too tired to hear the horses whinnying, too tired to hear her new husband's soft serenade.

"Sul mare luccica...." He sang, and dreamt of their future.

Sul mare luccica (Santa Lucia)

Sul mare luccica

l'astro d'argento.

Placida è l'onda;

prospero è il vento.

Venite all'agile

Barchetta mia!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia

Con questo zeffiro

così soave,

oh! com'è bello

star sulla nave!

Su passeggeri

venite via!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

In' fra le tende

bandir la cena,

in una sera

così serena.

Chi non dimanda,

chi non desia;

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

Mare sì placido,

vento sì caro,

scordar fa i triboli

al marinaro.

E va gridando

con allegria:

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

O dolce Napoli,

O suol beato,

Ove sorridere,

Dove il creato,

Tu sei l'impero

Del armonia,

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Or che tardate,

bella è la sera.

Spira un auretta

fresca e leggiera.

Venite all'agile

barchetta mia!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

(Source for the song:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don Paolo's Health

When Don Paolo’s health seemed worse, Mingu traveled to Naples to bring Graziella home. The grandparents remembered him as a youngster participating in hunting parties, helping his father who managed the Masseria before him.

“Mingu, congratulations! I hear you are going to name that first born after me.” Doctor Fabrizi joked.

“It’s Graziella’s choice on the first one. I promised my mother that if we have a girl she will have her name.” Mingu responded.

“It’s been done this way, the first one is always on the father’s side, the second on the mother, and so on like that, keeping the names rolling so no one is hurt. Marianna was named after both my mother and Amedeo’s mother, whose full name was Adrianna. We shortened it so it could fit. So, some things have to fit the circumstances. Anyway, with Paolo's poor  health, I don’t suppose you know when you’ll return Graziella to us?” Nonna Fabrizi said.

'I just wish..” Graziella was going to talk about her father, when she turned to Mingu and exploded:

“Why didn’t you send a letter? I could have gotten there a few weeks ago.”

“We didn’t know it was so bad.”

The return trip took longer than the four hours, delayed by roads  full of debris and military checkpoints.  Mingu had none of his military papers discharge in his possession, and the two of them pretended they were already married to skip through the interrogation.

Only Tiudo made a point to tease them after this encounter: "I'm telling Papa'!"

"Well, it's practically true. We are engaged; that's as good as being married in my book." Graziella said forcefully, staring the boy down. She was going to talk to her father about the impertinence of her brother. It was not fit that he took that tone with her. Yes, she said, I shall have to take charge again.

Within hours of her arrival, the household was buzzing with activity. The old iron bed was moved downstairs in the salotto, where Father had his favorite books, and a roaring fire was maintained day and night. No matter how many days or hours, she was going to make her father's life very comfortable. She talked to Lina and Tiudo, explaining that everything had to be kept precisely in the same place, so that Father could move around in a familiar place and not encounter any hindrance. She kept praying that his eyesight would improve soon.

That evening, the family joined him for evening prayers and everyone recited the rosary together, adding a prayer to the Madonna, for the health and welfare of each of them. When it was over, Don Paolo added:

“The dowry, my daughters, the dowry is not…” He couldn’t finish his thoughts.

Just thinking about the economic situation he was leaving behind made the conversation he needed to have with them more difficult. Graziella jumped in to stop this painful conversation. What she wanted to broach, before this came up, was the subject of Tiudo acting up. Instead, she knew to soothe the dying man.

“Papa, Mingu and I do not need a dowry. We don’t need anything.” She looked at Dolora to obtain her support.

“There are bills to doctors and various merchants. Last harvest didn’t pay off the bills.” Dolora interrupted, wanting this entire situation to be understood, adding: “ Graziella, you have been away from all these worries. You don’t know what we are going through.”

Graziella gave her a stern look. No, don’t inflame the conversation, she wanted to yell out.

“Papa’ these things will work themselves out. Everything will work out.” Graziella adjusted his pillows and helped him under the covers.

She dispatched Tiudo to stoke the wood, and to close the curtains just by pointing at things. Lina had curled up  next to her father, with the  new doll in her arms. Don Paolo kept talking, stroking his youngest daughter's hair:

“Mannaggia! Quei cugini!” He was swearing, naming his cousins accusingly.

“Papa, nobody did anything wrong!” Dolora added, “ we just didn’t get a good price on the olives.”

“Take Mingu and talk with the directors.” He whispered. Then, he waved them out without words. They walked out, silently.

Graziella could not believe how thin and sick her father had become. She let Lina fall asleep next to her father,curled up like a second pillow, holding his arm, sensing his distress.  She remembered that she had not had time to get presents for anybody. This is not good, she thought.

Dolora wanted the conversation to continue the minute they were out of hearshot.

“This is not Mingu’s business!” She declared, "he hasn’t been part of these talks. Nor does he need to know about our affairs.”

“He’s practically my husband. Whatever is ours will be his too.” Graziella was now angry at how insensitive her sister was.

Dolora went on ignoring her sister's anger. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. Tiudo will inherit the property that belongs to Father. You, Lina and I will get whatever is left of Mother's dowry. If I remember right , she left a will with an equal share of the property that was her dowry. So far, those vinyards have not been been used for collateral.

“Are you saying that all this land and the Loggia will go to Tiudo?”

Tiudo had followed them out, and when he heard his name, he came closer so he could get in the conversation.

“I get the Loggia? Everything will be mine?”

“If I’m right," Dolora continued, " the Ambros have some land coming to them because of the water rights they gave us. I saw the paperwork that Papa’ signed.” Dolora was stating the obvious, but both Graziella and Tiudo were now questioning how she knew so much.

All Dolora said was, "The property would be contested for years. Don't count on anything."

Graziella changed the subject, turning to Tiudo who kept asking questions.

“Don’t you start! Go do your chores and don't bother Papa'.” She told him in anger. She wanted this boy to know his place; this talk about who gets what was premature. She turned to Dolora'.

“I can become a teacher. It’s easier and faster than becoming a doctor. I’m not sure I want to stay in school that long. ” Graziella was thinking out loud.

Dolora yelled back: “I need to tell you that it’s hard. I’ve already sent the young ones to live with Donna Maria Rosaria in town during school days. They’ve gotten into difficulties. I don’t know how to manage here.”
“I won’t think of leaving you with Papa in his condition. I’m staying.”
"Good. "
"Lina will be good for Papa'."
"She gets up in the middle of the night and goes to him anyhow."
"What does she know about his condition?"
"I explained that he is going blind and we will all need to help him. She accepted that. Now that he has become weak and fragile, she doesn't know what to think. We thought he had years to adjust to blindness, a bit worse each day. Instead, it's happened all at once."

The sisters remained talking, trying to console each other, until the early hours of the day, when they heard noise from the salotto and they sprung to action together.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tiudo's New Role

Don Paolo took Tiudo aside: “Son, you are a man now. Your sisters will depend on you.”

“You mean they have to obey me?” The boy responded.

“It’s your responsibility to protect their reputation. Young men will start coming around, and you need to be the protector.” Don Paolo added.

“You mean, I have to be with her all the time? ” He said whining, all the time thinking that if he had to accompany Dolora and later Lina all the time, he’d miss building snowmen and bonfires.
“Are we hunting this year?” Tiudo had hoped that he was now old enough to have his own rifle.

Don Paolo wanted his boy to understand his responsibilities.

“You’ll be in the military when you are older, but for now, you need to be useful and carry yourself with pride in this new manly role. When your mother died, Dolora had to quit school and pitch in around here. You were left carefree for a long time because your family supported you, took you and Lina to school every day. But things are changing, with my health, Dolora's age, even how the business is doing.  You need to carry your weight."

“Do I have to continue going to school?  I just want to do my art!”

“Tiudo, you have a military career waiting for you, like your grandparent, like every man in our family. You can pursue art anywhere after you retire. It’ll be a good hobby for a man with farms and vineyards and long winters.”

“ I already am better than Michelangelo!”

“Now, now, a little humility, Signor Buonarroti. A genius needs teachers. I can get some one to give you extra lessons. But, you have to promise me that you will be acting more mature from now on. No more running off to play with whomever. Next year, when Graziella is married and living in the house in town, you can stay with them during the school week, and take an art class. What’s the name of the teacher that teaches art?”

“Brother Sebastiano?”

“Yeah! If you obey Mingu and Graziella they can let you take classes from him, extra classes. They will need you to be an angel, and do exactly what needs to be done.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Where are you going to live?”

“I’m going to live and die right here, be buried right next to Mother, right on that hill of ours. If we still own that hill, that is!”

“Nothing but dead people on that hill.”

“A couple of generations of Rapolla men and women, cut in their prime, or in old age. I wouldn’t be surprised if Giuseppe and Elena from America returned to be buried next to their mother and father. There are spaces for all of us. We'll be together up on that hill, shaded by Monticchio."

“You had a brother and sister?”

“Elena, my sister,  was seventeen when she left for America, Graziella’s age. Giuseppe, my little brother, about your age. He was her escort. I had just entered the military, missed their departure completely. I never saw them again.”

“Papa’,  am I going to get a racing bike at graduation?”

“God willing!”

“But Papa’, you promised!”
"Yes, I promised. And God willing, I will keep those promises. Now, you promise."
"I promise!"
"Say what it is that you promise."
"I promise I'll look out and protect my sisters."
"That's it! That's the promise I want to hear. God willing, we'll both keep our promises."
"The rifle?"
"Ask me about that another day, son. I need to rest now."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lina's World

“Blessed Mother, turn my hair blond like Mother’s and Graziella’s. Make me tall and strong. Bless Tiudo. Dolora, Graziella and Papa.” Nightly prayers and handing out kisses were Lina’s favorite things to do before she went to bed.  Usually, her sister Graziella would lie down with her. In the morning, Graziella would be the first person she'd see. The three girls all shared a big bed.  She clutched her mother’s photograph tightly until her father placed it back on the nightstand.

“Close your eyes now. Good Night.” Don Paolo began to walk out when Lina popped another question.

“Was she pretty? ” She was trying hard, every night, to remember her mother’s face.

“The most beautiful woman in all the land.” Don Paolo kissed her again and this time he took the lamp away.

“Was she taller than you?” Lina asked.

“Just this much.” Don Paolo said absently, holding his finger to show a couple of centimeters, already regretting this conversation. There was no need to bring up the past; it only hurt. And this seven year old needed her sleep. He returned to sit down next to her. Dolora was doing his accounting; it was up to him to get Lina down for the night.

“Why did she die, Papa’?”

“Women, even strong women wear out after each child. Now, she's an angel.”

“I don’t want her to be an angel.” Lina broke into tears.

“Now. Wipe those tears and go to sleep. I have a present for you in my satchel. It was going to be for your birthday next week. I can give it to you now, if you promise you'd go to sleep right away.” He blurted it out to calm her down. Only Graziella knew how to get this child settled.

Lina ran barefoot to find her present.

Her father always scattered small surprises all over the house, tokens after each trip he took to meet with merchants, associates, cooperatives, to dispatch olives or grapes at a good price. He enjoyed the joy he saw in the young faces of his children. Goodies appeared at the right time, in tiny boxes locked in his desk, away from easy hands, or in plain sight. On the day of her first communion, Lina spent hours looking on each shelf, in each book that might have been transformed into a hiding place, soiling her white dress before she found the special gift in a pencil box. Her father showed her how this medal of the Madonna of the Graces was the same one Graziella and Dolora had received for their first communion.

Today had been an unusual day for his young children, Don Paolo thought. Giving Lina an early present wasn't going to harm her.  She is having trouble with all these changes, all happening one after the other. Life is changing right in front of us. We are lucky we are still together. Everyone was adjusting well, he thought. Everything will be fine; he only had to worry for three more years.  In three years, Graziella would be a doctor and married; Dolora could run the business on her own; Tiudo would be in officer's school, and Lina could go live with Graziella in town and continue her studies without all this confusion. Three years. He only had to worry for a little while; then, he could relax and let destiny take its course.

On her first day of school, Lina prepared to go off to the Poverelle Sisters’ Convent for the first time without Graziella accompanying her. Her father promised her a new surprise if she could get herself to Donna Maria Rosaria’s at noon, where she and her brother would be fed and kept occupied until Dolora picked them up.

“By myself?”

“Wait at the portone after school. Tiudo will walk with you.” Dolora had come in with a sweater and ribbons for her hair.

“He doesn’t like me.” Lina whined, looking at both of them.

“You’ll do fine. You mind him, now. Besides, now that you’re seven, you can walk all by yourself to and from.” Father’s last words.

“I want Graziella to take me like before.” Lina and Dolora walked out to the kitchen to fetch Tiudo and they made their way to the barn.

“Don’t be a baby!” Tiudo scolded her.

Lina had been unhappy, and had cried every night for her big sister. Tiudo’, on the other hand, was enjoying this new freedom, especially now that he could go to school by himself and stop and play soccer in the piazza. By the time they returned home, it would be too late to do chores. He hoped that Dolora’ would be too busy to pick them up at noon. When Graziella took them, she dropped him off a few minutes before she and Lina went to the convent together. At noon, Tiudo better be ready to get on the buggy and back to the Loggia. No time to dilly-dally.

The routine was simple. Dolora drove them to school. At noon, when they were dismissed, they walked to the house of Donna Maria Rosaria and wait there to be picked up, sometimes in the afternoon, after Dolora had time to run errands or return to the Loggia to see after some thing or other. In the afternoon, they would receive a snack or a full meal, and then kept occupied with simple chores or homework.

One day, after the two of them had been dropped off at school, their teachers declared a holiday since the school was practically empty, with everyone out working with the harvest. It was still morning, and Tiudo didn’t want to show up at Donna Maria Rosaria’s and be assigned countless chores. They walked to Cousin Luciano’s .

When she heard the noon bell, Lina walked toward Donna Maria Rosaria’s house by herself, not bothering to alert Tiudo, who didn’t notice her absence for a long time, and then, figured she had walked to Donna Maria Rosaria anyhow, and he didn’t have to worry about her any more.

At Cousin Luciano's Tiudo and his cousin ate olives and hard bread until the rest of the family returned from the field.

“What happened Tiudo? Did they forget you?” Luciano’s father asked.

“Yeah! ” He said with a smirk. He figured they picked up his sister and left him behind on purpose, to teach him a lesson. He was afraid of what would happen at home and could use some support in this house.

“You must be starved. Come sit.” Luciano’s mother gave him a fork to dig into the communal platter of macaroni she had cooked for the family. Luciano’s four big brothers were passing the wine jug around and he had his turn too. Soon it was late, everyone was hinting some thing or other. Tiudo hoped that he could spend the night there.

When Dolora stopped at Donna Maria Rosaria’s at the end of the day to pick up her brother and sister, and didn't find the children, she panicked. Donna Rosaria wasn't home either, but a neighbor showed up when she saw the buggy at the door, and told Dolora that Donna Maria Rosaria had left before noon to attend to a child-birth, filling in for another lady, warning her neighbor about the children who would arrive at noon. No, the children had not showed up.

Dolora drove her buggy to the school first, then up and down streets and back alleys looking for Lina and Tiudo. A couple of hours later, she found Lina. Her story was that she had meant to go over to Donna Maria Rosaria’s house; but, on the way, she met a couple of friends and they played jump rope all afternoon. The other kids had shared their snacks with her, and that’s how she lost track of time. Between tears, she told Dolora that Tiudo was at a cousin's house. Dolora guessed it was Luciano's house.

Don Paolo was especially upset that Tiudo had been at Luciano's house.
For the past few summers, the area had suffered a continuous drought; city water was turned off regularly for repairs or inspection. The aqueduct was thought to have been sabotaged by people who wanted Mussolini to look bad. People thought it was some kind of trick. Don Paolo began to transport containers of water filled from his river to half the town that could afford the service, going door to door with Dolora’ measuring out the water at each stop. People wondered why he became a water vendor in his poor health condition. He joked about it; work is work, he kept saying, work will keep him young.

Manuele, Luciano’s father, and husband to Beatrice, his wife’s distant cousin, had yelled out at him in the middle of the street: “Hey Don Paolo, is this what you have been reduced to? What happened to all your wife’s money?”

“Everyone needs fresh water!” Paolo said jokingly. He didn’t want to get into an argument.

“How do we know if this water is good? Maybe it was this water that killed your wife.”

“My water is fresher than anything you guys are getting down here.” He yelled back, though he felt like snapping his whip at him rather than at the horse.

Don Paolo  warned his boy: “Stay away from Manuele’s house, Tiudo’. They are not to be trusted.”

“Luciano is my best friend !”Tiudo’ replied.

“Well, I’m telling you they are up to no good. If you don’t watch your back, they will take your shirt, those crooks. They are not buona gente!”

“We are cousin, right?”

“Only in name. They have spread all kinds of rumors in town. I tell you, stay away from them.”

“But Luciano is nice to me!" He was in tears now, looking at how his life was being controlled by everyone, his father, his sisters, even Lina the blabber mouth.

“You got to choose your friends carefully. After next year, you’ll be enrolled in the military academy and then your future will open up for you. You’ll make a lot of friends.” Don Paolo tried to remain calm with his boy. It must not be easy to be a boy without a mother.

“Do I get a present at graduation?”

“God willing! What would you like?”

“A racing bike! Like in The Giro d’Italia!”

“Are you going to train to be in The Giro?”

“That’s my dream, Papa’.”

“You will do me great honors, son, if you look at the military as your goal. Your great-grandfather, your grandfather, and I all served our King with honor. Italy needs the loyalty and strength of a committed military. This summer will be a good time for you to help around the stables, to learn from Mingu about being a good soldier, a good cavalry man.

Don Paolo gave Tiudo a lashing with the belt he used to sharpen his razor. It was not the first time that Tiudo received this punishment, and Don Paolo had more in store for him if something else happened. He prayed he would live long enough to see his son grown and settled.


Lina was asleep in seconds when she unwrapped her surprise. A beautiful doll, with rich cinnamon red hair reminding Lina of her Mother and Graziella and a little bit of her own hair too. “I’ll name her Ella!” She said, “For Graziella!”

“Great. That’s her name then! She’ll be your companion from now on. Good night, Princess.”

“Good Night Papa’ Thanks for Ella.”
"Good Night, my little angel."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Under Vesuvius

City Life

Graziella waited until she was hungry, and then opened the package wrapped in plain butcher paper that Mingu' had handed her at the station. There was the gold locket and chain that Donna Maria Rosaria had always worn. My Lord, she thought, I can’t thank her enough. She read the note stuck in a corner:

“Cuore del mio cuore….

Hart of my heart,

I miss you already,


She looked at those words for a long time, and before she realized, she was at the station in Naples.

Naples in 1930 was hot, blustery, smelly, noisy, a mixture of high and low society. The city had been the seat of the royal family commanding the Two Sicilies way before Italy became unified under the House of Savoy. It had beautiful museums, castles,  palaces and Roman and Greek antiquities.

Briny smells of sea life and food cooked outdoors slapped the city from the boardwalks to the top of Vesuvius. The town clamored for attention at every corner; noise and laughter following her everywhere. It felt like a holiday spilling out from church pews, coffee houses, parks, houses and boats, forcing you to stop and participate. There were things to do, places to go, schedules and expectations, people coming and going. Breakfast at eight, dinner at two, supper at nine, long and elaborate meals punctuating each day, like the tick-tock sound of the clock in grandfather’s library.

The town was trying to erase all memories of a past life. When you are here, it screamed, live with all your senses.

She attended classes in the morning, uncomfortable walking to and from, skirting people and animals, trying to ignore the yelling and calling out of street merchants, sing-song lilts that reminded her of the songs Mingu would sing. The town spewed joy, anger, irritability and gentility at the end of each street.

She felt inadequate, conspicuous in her old fashioned clothes. . When her grandmother insisted Graziella be fitted for proper attire and took her to a special shop where fashionable clothes for women were produced on demand, she was stunned and pleased too. She had sewn her own ever since she was ten. In fact, she and Dolora’ had sewn everyone’s outfits at home, even her father’s. These shops had special patterns, special fabrics and professional seamstresses who could measure and produce an outfit in less than a week.

She noticed her grandparents changed clothes often, and she was expected to do the same. There were more people around the house, doing different jobs for you, including freshening your clothes after each wearing, before you had a chance to agree to that. There were more people in service here than back home, though the vineyards required lots of hands.

Graziella bathed in a warm room, and let the water be thrown out, instead of using it to wash clothes. When she first arrived, she had washed her own delicates and had tried to find a place to hang them on the terrace when the maid laughed and told her everything was hung out in the basement; in fact, there was a special drawer in each room for dirty clothes. From that spot, the laundry dropped in the basement where a team of laundresses had tubs of hot water and finished in a few hours. The following day someone else’s job was to iron and mend and put clothes away in each owner’s bureau.

At home, water was a precious commodity, especially in the summer when the creek was low and animals and vineyards needed assistance through dry spells. Everyone had chores, cleaning fireplaces, transporting wood and oil for lamps, changing linens, helping in the kitchen, sewing. There were always things to be done and everyone pitching in to do them.

Right now, she thought, every man, woman and child over five will be helping with the olive harvest. The sick and very old would prepare food and mind infants. For the next month, while she was being shown the sights and purchasing luxurious linens for her trousseau, at her grandmother’s insistence, her brother and sisters were spending twelve hours in the fields, alongside the workers, climbing tall trees, plucking olives from each branch without dropping any, sorting and packaging. There were people for each task; and children were especially adept at climbing branches hard to reach. The entire town was doing the same task in different lands.

The wind smelled of olives and grapes, harvests taking place one after the other in all the surrounding vineyards.

At home, they all did the laundry, sharing tidbits of each other’s dreams and miseries. The children knew not to dirty any more than was absolutely necessary. They wore their apron-like over-dress and over -shirt around the house to prevent spills and marks.

I must adapt, but not be carried away with this practice, thought Graziella.

At dinner, Doctor Fabrizi directed the conversation as he sat at the head of the table. He was interested in what Graziella was learning, interrupting often to spout out his philosophy on the need for universal public education, or the latest news bit.

“Don’t believe the propaganda,” he told her when she shared the latest edict from Mussolini that teachers had to sign allegiance pacts.

He marched her to the library, at the end of the meal to show her something or other that she should have read by now. Every waking moment was filled with books, conversations, classes, outings. She had forgotten to write back home twice in one month.

Two weeks into her classes and she had lost track of time. Studying furiously until all hours at night, Graziella noticed that her grandparents read newspapers or wrote letters, and inevitably ended up taking a nap for an hour or so, not realizing that they still had the book opened at the same page.

She would help them get comfortable, add a pillow here, a shawl there, loving how they insisted they wanted to stay there, to remain in her presence until she went to bed. When she could no longer keep her own eyes open, she woke each of them, one at a time, and guided them to their bed.

She was not prepared for her classes. And she could not admit this to anyone. She needed to absorb and catch up before someone found out. If her grandmother knew, she would get her a tutor. And then what? What can a tutor do?

I don’t need a tutor, what I need is time, she thought, time to catch up.

She excused herself from accompanying them to events. Grandma’s face was always disappointed. “Just like your mother!” She’d say, “Your mother had the pick of the crop, young men courting her everywhere we went. She began to retreat to her studies, telling us that she was going to be a doctor too. Who heard of women doctor? But she was tenacious, that one. You got that from her, and your hair color. I think I see her every time your blond hair catches the light! You’re a looker, too, just like your mother!”

“Oh? Thank you Nonna. Why didn’t she become a doctor?” Graziella didn’t know this part.

“She met your father, and the rest is history.”

“Well, I’m engaged, and still…”

“Here, you ought to have this book at your disposal…” Doctor Fabrizi had changed the conversation, got a book off the shelf and passed it on to her. It was the anatomy book that she needed to purchase at the bookstore. Her mother must have known these books, must have dreamed just as this daughter is now dreaming.

“It won’t happen to me,” she said, “ I will finish my studies. Mingu will wait for me and Papa’ will get better and see me graduate. I hope I can keep up with my classes… ” She said this last statement before she realized that she was being premature, worrying them at this point.

“I am worried …” She started to expain.

“Studies are supposed to be hard. Schools are geared for those special top minds who can take a challenge. They resemble the challenges in life, only more so. Medicine, especially.” Her grandfather had put his arms around her and understood. He believed girls could do anything they want. But, he knew that many of them were intimidated easily. Not his Marianna, he thought. And tears showed up at the thought of his only daughter dead in her prime. If only there were more doctors, female doctors for females, he thought.

“I want the practical part.” Graziella said.

“The more we know of how things work, the more we can figure out when something goes wrong. I’m still learning things, understanding things that I studied in my first year. Imagine that, still learning in my eighties.” He had to get through to her that learning is a continuous process. Even when we think we know everything, there are always new things to learn.

“Nonno, did Mother have the same difficulties?”

“I don’t know! She had just started when she met Paolo. He swept her off her feet so fast, we had nothing to say about the matter. We went to meet his parents and that was that.”

“I feel so unprepared for my classes.”

“I’d love to help you. You just have to keep me awake long enough!” He had a chance with this child, he thought.

Grandmother jumped in suggesting that Graziella could take fewer classes, enjoy what the city had to offer, go out with the rest of the students instead of studying every night.

The following day, Doctor Fabrizi lined up his books of anatomy and asked her to fire off questions. She did, reading one paragraph, and forming a question for him. He went to a corner of the room and pushed a button to reveal a big schematic, a study aid he had forgotten he had. Good grief, that’s just what I need, she thought. They fired away at each other, one question at a time, in a game set kept up with scores that Grandmother shouted out loud.

The interchange invigorated everyone.

Before they knew it, the clock struck midnight.

Buoyed by the experience, Graziella shouted, “ I can do it!”