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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chapter Ten: Rides We Take

I traveled by bus everywhere, from my house to school and back. Everything about the city felt abbreviated, stenographic. No single center or piazza, all places of interest were spread out for miles. Los Angeles had many personalities.

The city stretched west and south, like a quarter moon winking at the Pacific. West of downtown, movie and television studios existed behind fortressed walls, along Western, Sunset, Hollywood Boulevards.

 Shops, theaters, public buildings sprung out here and there, where you least expected, like candy-caned carousels arrived  for vacation season. The entertainment industry seemed to be displayed prominently everywhere. A movie star’s picture in a hair salon, at a bus stop, across the sides of a bench at the bus stop, across the interior and exterior of buses.

Billboards dressed the city. A Pepsodent model smiling broadly from miles away, a sinuous blend of product and personality, obscured the function of the building it covered.

During my first years in L.A. I traveled to and from school on the bus. Even downtown Los Angeles, or downtown Hollywood didn't look too different from the many other centers of real estate and money transactions, created not for meeting and enjoying people, but for doing business.

Once, the entire family  visited a distant relative in the suburb of Burbank, a community at the far end of a canyon on the way to San Fernando Valley. These people praised their neighborhood.
The evening conversations were all all about moving to a better place, a place without traffic, without crime. My uncle and his family had thought a great deal about moving to Burbank, hence the visit and conversations.

Theaters anchored the neighborhoods as churches did in the old world.

Boarding the bus on Western, I traveled North to Hollywood, passing department stores, high rises, dime shops, pawn shops and tattoo parlors. Miles did not mean much. Distance was determined by how many stops the bus made, and how long each stop took. My entire trip, if all the bus transfers were aligned, only took forty minutes. But, if I missed just one bus, or the weather had caused delays, the trip could take three hours.

When I first arrived and  attended the Berlitz School on Wilshire Boulevard, the Miracle Mile,  I passed the glamorous Bullocks Department Store, The Ambassador Hotel, The Brown Derby. I only had a two hour class, but I would find time before or after class to take a 'passegiata' the way I did back home.  At times, I caught myself walk the entire stretch, a quarter mile or more, from Western to McArthur Park. This was the closest thing to a downtown, I thought.

We lived on Slauson and Second, in the neighborhood  adjacent to what now is called South Cetral. Back then, it was a sleepy place, a strip of commercial shops on busy Slauson, with single family homes on Second Ave.  Our apartment was on the corner, on the second story of a building owned by my uncle, with shops on the ground floor. Downstairs, we owned a grocery store that carried a variety of products. Uncle was forever stocking the cooler. The main items to leave the store were beer, soda, cigarettes and penny candy. Without these products, we made no profits.

At closing time the family took up posts, to keep teenagers from creating confusion. Crowds would show up at closing time as though they had a part to play at that store. And we had parts too: uncle would be at the door, locking it up and letting people out but not in; his wife at the register. When I was  in the store, I took up the post by  the candy case, making sure nobody grabbed and concealed. The closing could take anywhere from ten minutes to a half hour.

One night, two men came to the door after it had been closed,  and asked to be let in to purchase milk for a baby. My uncle shouted that we were closed. They raised their voices, pushed the door, and refused to leave. I knew one of them from my bus ride. “Wait, Uncle, I know him. He takes his little girl to his mother in the day time for babysitting. He rides my bus. He really needs milk.”

 “Makes no difference to me. They ought to know.”  Uncle would then call the Police if he smelled that something was wrong. The police never came.

On the bus, I tried to take the seat behind the driver, though I felt uncomfortable in my uniform. I avoided eye contact.

I needed all the time I could find to study. At home, I was in charge of cooking and cleaning and babysitting a two year old and an infant. It was eight or eight thirty before I could get to the books. Many nights I fell asleep while studying, sitting on the floor in the walk-in closet that had become my study. My five-thirty alarm found me all crumpled up, still needing sleep, still needing to study.

Janitors, seamstresses, clerks, students, all crowded the bus in the early morning hours. I never saw the same people both ways. Their work days were longer than mine, day people and night people, by the look on their faces, carrying their weariness on their shoulders, and on their eyelids.

On Wilshire, going west, well dressed old ladies, getting to the hair dresser or returning from shopping, dressed in matching outfits with hats and gloves, talked about the food they ate and the people they me. I wondered what a Cobb salad with green goddess dressing was. I made a mental note to ask Theresa, who knew people who went out for lunch. She had told me about a sweet sixteen birthday party at Scandia’s  she had attended where they served pancakes and ice cream. She mentioned that Scandia was a famous restaurant frequented by all the movie stars. Janette knew many girls in our school connected to movie stars.

School sponsored Mother-Daughter Teas. My uncle’s wife could not attend, but I went as a  volunteer to help serve. For the occasion, Theresa thought I needed a special dress and she brought one to school for me to use.  Her aunt, an older widow who seemed to enjoy the food and the music provided by the chorus and the music department and  assorted celebrities, pointed out Mrs. Bob Hope and Mrs. Danny Thomas were in attendance that day.  I served them and tried to remain focused on my next chore.

The event I wanted to attend was the Father-Daughter Dance.

It was going to be just the two of us, Uncle and I, and maybe, the prohibition against speaking Italian in the house would be lifted. Not being able to speak your native language is a frightful feeling, a nightmarish situation where you are gasping for air, everything around you pressing in, like a tomb, and you are not able to speak anymore. There were no words to ease that feeling. In my dreams, I would return back home and speak no stops, in Italian only.

When I woke up, I became mute again.

Uncle never attended any of the events, pointing out that the school was pumping the guests for more money. The entire family did come to graduation, June 1963, at the Hollywood Bowl, and for the first time, they met Theresa and her family.

Before June, I enrolled for education courses that would start in September, so my graduation was not such a big deal after all. Uncle insisted that a BA was not worth while, that if I returned to Italy  I would not be employable any how. The real reason for my continuing my studies was because his wife had just had another baby and I was needed at home.

One late November in 1963, on my way home after classes, someone’s transistor radio in the back of the bus changed suddenly from music to news. The young man with the radio was asked to turn the radio up. People became agitated and loud. When I got off the bus, I still didn't have the right information.

At home, I learned that that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We watched television all night long.

I began to notice fewer old people on the bus. Theresa’s aunt, in her late sixties, talked about growing old. “Oh, it’s not safe for old people. It used to be, we used to take the bus to Santa Monica, lunch at Pacific Ocean Park, and come home late at night, never worrying about anything."

I could not define the  feeling around me.  It was not just my life that was uncomfortable and chaotic; but everybody's. The entire country was in mourning.A beloved president had been killed in the middle of a busy street in America.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chapter Nine: Hollywood Dreams

Hollywood Costumes, owned by Theresa's family, stood as a landmark with full window displays of harem or sheikh costumes all year long.  During Halloween season, I noticed that she missed a few days of school to help out.

On an October afternoon, while waiting for my bus to take me home, at the corner of  Hollywood Boulevard and Western, a police car with a siren chased a car to the bus stop, and demanded that the young black couple leave the car and get down on the pavement as the car was being searched thoroughly  I caught the eyes of the well dressed  couple for a moment.

Confused, not sure what it was I was observing, not sure when and if the bus could stop in its usual place, not sure I should remain in that spot, I walked to the store on Hollywood Boulevard where Theresa would be working.

When I got to the store, I called home to tell my family I was going to be late because of a bus delay and police action at the bus stop.

It was my first time at the store, and it was ready for Halloween. Many costumes had been taken out of storage and displayed prominently. It was still early afternoon, the place had not yet been invaded with crowds searching for the perfect costume to wear at a Halloween Party, and Theresa was happy to see me. We had some refreshments as she explained how she had to miss school before Halloween,  and walked around the place finishing up different tasks.

I told her about the incident at the bus and how I was just buying some time.

‘Don’t worry, it does not happen that often.”

“What does not happen?

“We don’t see many black people in Hollywood, that’s all”.

I had not been very observant, I realized. I had not noticed anything much. I didn't even know that these costume places would be so popular that would cause her to miss school during this season.

I asked about  this Halloween celebration. It was not a holiday I was familiar with. We knew about Mardi Gras celebration sometimes in February or so ; All Saints and All Dead Days celebrated at the end of October, first day of November, but not this Halloween. She explained that for this occasion, the family had spent months preparing costumes and accessories. For this weekend alone, the store would make enough business to carry it throughout the year.

I admired the veils and jingly bracelets, the harem costumes, tops like a bikini, bottoms like loose pajamas, low on the hips, skimming down the legs to the ankles, opening to reveal the legs from the top of the hip bone. First, I tried the bracelets, then the pantaloons under my plaid skirt, finally, the top under my shirt, and over my bras.

Theresa showed me how the full costume looked. I began to slip the skirt off to see how it made a difference.

In the mirror, we looked transported, our luscious chestnut brown hair rippling over our bare shoulders, bare legs showing under transparent pantaloons, veils skimming the brows. We did not look anything like the girls we knew.

The bracelets were begging to be jingled.

Theresa turned on the music and began swaying her hips, playing with the veils, kicking the pantaloons so the leg would show for an instant. Slowly, then more animated, she seemed transported by the strange music. I felt the urge to dance too.

Soon, we had entered another world.

We ate honey -pistachios baklava, taking one bite, circling around the floor, contented and distracted, one bite, one round, until the food was gone and the music had stopped.

Two boys came in and stopped in place, with a transfixed look in their eyes, staring for a while, until Theresa’s aunt appeared from the back room and broke the spell.

I had just been in a movie, in a palace with tall arches, with forbidden windows and cool breezes, each step moving to secret places and promises of joy, like Rita Hayward dancing with her seven veils.

Then, I realized time had slipped by quickly, and I changed back into my proper self, said my goodbyes, my hair back in pony tails, my eye makeup wiped off.

“What happened?” Uncle inquired when I got home.

“The bus never came. I had an hour’s wait.A traffic problem, I guess.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Chapter Eight: Instruments of Grace

Instruments of Grace

Theresa and I  were the only full time, continuous foreign students at Immaculate Heart College. Yes, others came in for a semester or two to study music or work on some project, rich girls whose families had sent them to America to study English or art, but they never made friends as we did, or worked hard at fitting in.

We ate lunch together,  audited each other's classes, talked on the phone after hours. She came from Lebanon in her early teens and lived with an aunt and uncle, just as I did.

Our lives had other parallels: we both came from strict catholic families, had left our nucleus families behind, and had hoped everyone would eventually settle down in America.

Our school, Immaculate Heart College,at the foothills of the Los Angeles  Observatory, at the tip of Western Avenue, sat on a hill covered by rugged terrain. All around, instead of a fence, thick growth of scrub oak, coyote bush, palm trees and blackberry bushes kept us safely inside.  In the sixties, the campus included a convent, a church, classrooms, laboratories, auditorium, library and concert rooms. It expanded  over the hills, with a beautiful view of the city all the way to the beach. It ceased to be a school in the late seventies, and the buildings were sold to The American Film Institute. The story of this school and the nuns who used to run it became front news in the Los AngelesTimes when the local archidioce refused to support the nuns when their political views had been held too publicly.

I was struggling to breathe normally and to find ease in my new rhythm. A gnawing depression seeped into my veins like the gray, nauseous smog over Los Angeles.

I told myself it was only temporary. What I needed to do was learn to eat American food, accept life in a new household, and finish my studies. I doubled my efforts, swallowing bread that tasted like cotton, and eating meat that was still raw.

My uncle’s wife prepared the main meal at seven in the evening, cooking steaks by turning them once, enough to burn their outside only. She served the meat with a baked potato and chocolate cake for dessert. Once, I attempted to recook the steak by slicing and sauteing it with tomatoes. She yelled at me for stinking up the kitchen. Steaks came in two sizes, fillet minon and New York Strip. They tasted the same to me. Only rarely I was allowed to cook pasta, or  minestrone, and only when my uncle wanted such things.

I never thought food would become such a bone a contention in my life. I never imagined that I would miss the humble pasta e fasul.

Life at school was much easier than I had anticipated. Most of the work comprised of reading from a text and writing reports. In Italy, tests consisted of oral recitations in front of the class, everyone hoping you would mess be disgraced. Now, all tests came in written form. I could read and write English better than I could understand or speak it. My studies were going well, and I continued to receive extensions on my student visa.

Theresa would practice with me some troublesome words she caught me mispronouncing while we talked about our homelands, food,  smells, friends and pleasurable activities we no longer had. She spoke of her large family in Lebanon, of how lucky she was that her Aunt brought her to America. After these talks, whatever had been bothering me dissipated for a few hours.

We each represented our respective country to the girls at schools.

People wanted to know about the life I left behind, though they already had fixed pictures of Italy from the movies they watched. Many had traveled far and wide and knew more places in Italy than I did. Their experiences were not mine.  I only stayed one night in Rome, the night before boarding the plane to Los Angeles. When they spoke of the Vatican, of the Villa Borghese, of  the Amalfi Coast, I smiled and nodded.

I had seen these places only in books and postcards.

I could not explain that pizza was not an entire meal, but a quick bread, eaten before the real loaves of bread came out of the communal oven, a bread with a bit of cheese and tomato, not drowned by a mountain of toppings.

Theresa seemed to know just what to say to ease my adjustment.

“English is not that hard. You just have to learn to use the verb ‘to get’. The idioms will come to you with time.”

And the lessons went on like that. “Get” had a different meaning based on the preposition following it, get in, get around, get over, get up, get out.

"Get it?”

“Stop, I’m confused”, I shouted back.

I was waiting for the right moment to shed my skin and emerge fully formed, speaking flawless English. While the troubles adjusting at my uncle's house were weighing heavily in my heart, feeling all the time that his wife really didn't want me there, I didn’t want to go back home before I finished my studies.

I couldn’t go back a failure. Nobody would have believed me if I told them that life was too difficult; that Uncle was too busy to see that I was unhappy; that I felt like a servant in his house.

If only I could cook the food I knew.

I started out majoring in science, until formaldehyde made me sick. Most subjects were easy for me, mathematics, French, Art History. My papers, even with errors received high marks and encouraging comments.

My accent was thought "charming."

It was Dr. Cordero, one of my English teachers, who encouraged me to take more English classes until I had enough courses to declare a major. When I told him I lacked vocabulary and the proper formal education, he reminded me that I had Latin as my trump card and had read more literature than any eighteen year old he knew. In a poetry class, discussing Ezra Pound, my knowledge of allusions in Pound’s Cantos seemed to please him. He remarked to the class that if they wanted to be literate they needed to read Dante, Virgil, Boccaccio.  I began to feel the admiration and respect of the class, no longer thinking of me as a poor immigrant girl.

The place hummed with a golden innocence. Though we didn’t wear uniforms, we looked alike, pleated skirts and white shirts ,meticulously starched, sporting a pin or two, hair in pony tails or worn loose with hair bands. We all covered our books with verses from favorite poems, done in beautiful calligraphy.

Under the tutelage of art teacher Sister Corita, we learned to observe and express our point of view.

“We choose our roles in life the way we choose our paints," she imparted wisdom with each lesson, " the way we impart an overall mood and emotional effect on our canvasses." “We select what we pay attention to and what we ignore, consciously and unconsciously. Choose your strokes, your focus, and the attention will go there. Art is the human effort to create a new world on each canvas."

In a cavernous room full of paints, brushes, canvasses in various stages of progress, collages, serigraphs, banners, and assorted materials, a small framed woman in her mid twenties, Sister Corita, infused energy in every corner, asked us to think about our world, about concepts such as justice, peace, the power of the image.

"We are all  instruments of grace, able to dream solutions, able to shake the world off its axis. Observe,  relate. Express your thoughts with words and symbols. "

At Mass, singing in English, rhythms joyous and humble,  we expressed  love and joy for the world around us. The discussions in class related to what was important, and the roles waiting for us.

The stirrings reported in the local newspapers were discussed at the same time as the poetry of John Donne, or the tragedies of Shakespeare. People lived in fear, we heard. People were prevented from entering certain buildings, from frequenting certain neighborhoods, taking up certain careers.

Protest songs made their way into our liturgy, or in our daily procession up the hill to the Grotto with the statue of the Virgin, a rugged path that kept us focused on the terrain and the rhythm of the song.  "How many times must...." a Bob Dylan song became our walking prayer.

When we heard of the thousands of people who marched on Washington, D.C.  to hear southern Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak of the need for justice and equality for black people, we improvised a protest march across  campus. In an informal way, classes were dismissed and the procession grew. Everyone out of class grabbed make-shift banners and chanted their way to the Grotto, gaining members as they went  through  the entire campus.

We lived in a rarefied atmosphere, in the security of a private institution that was well endowed, with money and power. Yet. we were encouraged to express our beliefs through actions.

I took the bus to school. Theresa walked from nearby Hollywood Boulevard where her relatives had a business. Most of the other girls were dropped off in chauffeured  Cadillacs or limousines.

Uncle had enrolled me at Immaculate Heart because he believed girls my age needed to remain innocent. Theresa's relatives enrolled her because she could walk to classes, and in the afternoon, she could work at the costume shop.  Most people’s main interest in keeping girls in Catholic schools was to keep those girls in a protected environment, away from improper influences.

Uncle had no idea of the kind of education I was receiving.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chapter Seven: Do You Speak My Language?

The guy at the counter deposited a slice of gooey pizza in front of me with a thud. “Enjoy, nothing like the pizza I knew, but it’s the best in L.A.”

“No. ” I said, trying to think of some thing else to say.

“Yeah? Where did you eat better pizza?” I had offended him.

“In Naples!” I said with conviction.

“No WAY. Where ?”

No, I thought, I can’t keep up this conversation. I am not sure what it is he is saying. No way? What does that mean? Go away? Which way?

“O.K.” I said, meaning yes, I ate better pizza in Italy.

“So, where are you from?”

I understood that. “I am from south.” I said carefully, each word spaced out so I could study his face to see if he understood.

“Ma che, anch’io sono da quelle parti!” (Why, I’m from that region!)

“Tu, dall”Italia?” (You, from Italy?)

“Da quando ?” (How long ?)

“Solamente un paio di mesi. Non parlo molto Inglese.” (Just a couple of months. I do not speak much English.)
"Come ti piace Los Angeles?" (How do you like Los Angeles?)
"Tutto `e diverso. Ogni sogno `e del mio paese." ( Everything is different. Every dream is of  home."

Then, he was called away. It was the first time in many months that I could tell another soul how it felt to be so far away from everything I loved. I was afraid to even think those thoughts. Wasn't this what I wanted, what my parents wanted for me?  How could I be so ungrateful?

I finished my pizza and left.

The next day, I went into that drug store and approached the soda counter. Somebody else was there.

“The boy here. Italian? ”

I blurted something. The girl at the counter smiled and said,

“Peter. ”

Then, divining my real intentions, she shouted out to another person at the corner of the store.

“Mark, this girl wants to talk to Peter!” A busy man yelled something back.

The girl, still smiling, interpreted, “ I think he works part time”, she said to me with a big smile.

The next day and the next day, and each day for an entire week,  I went to the soda counter until I saw Peter again. He saw me coming up to the counter.

“Well, look, la ragazza?”

“Yes,si, sono io. ”( Yes, yes, it’s me.)

He told me that when someone got sick, he filled in. I was disappointed, and he saw that in my face.  It was enough, he said. He went to school the rest of the time.

I continued to drop in, buy a soda or a milk-shake. Or just wave at the person behind the counter. Peter saved a space at the counter for me whenever he worked, with a handwritten ‘riservato’.

Two, three times a week after I finished my lessons at the Berlitz School on Wilshire, and before I hopped on the bus for my trip back home, I stopped at that drugstore. 

I told myself it was ok to talk to boys. No harm done.

I was not surprised when he remembered my Saint’s day, and offered me a complimentary soda. I did not want him to. It was ok to talk; but receiving gifts meant something else.

“Let me take you out to the movies after I get finished here”, he said.

“I can’t. I am not allowed.”

“Who says?”

“I just can’t."

I kept meeting him once a week or so for months. In September, even after I had enrolled at a junior college, I took an extra bus, a long detour to get to that drugstore for a slice of pizza and a conversation in Italian.

Before Christmas, Peter left a corsage on the space he reserved for me. It was an elaborate pin with holiday greenery and silvery objects. I should have refused. How could I explain it at the house? I decided then and there that I couldn't do this anymore. As I started to leave, he blurted, “Wait, you have not given me your number. How do I get in touch with you?”

“You cannot.”

Someone called him away, and I was off the hook. On the way home, I threw the corsage away.

That Christmas was a balmy 85 degrees. We planned to eat the customary turkey, as we did at Thanksgiving. All holidays felt the same, the same food, the same sunshine. Time was standing still.

The passing seasons were discernable through window displays at department stores. After Christmas, I never went back to that drugstore.

I never told him how he helped me cope with homesickness.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chapter Six: Leaving Home

On a cold and wet February in 1959, I boarded an almost empty TWA jet in Rome, headed for Los Angeles. A sad song played on the public address system. Ciao, Ciao, Bambina, the song said, don’t cry, wipe your tears. Everything I had dreamed about was waiting for me. I was seventeen.

I had kissed my mother, father and little brother Luigi back in Venosa, and now I was saying goodbye to Toni' who had accompanied me everywhere for the last three years, in an out of the American Consulate in Naples for this document or that. He never complained about how his life was invaded by my needs. He kept my dream alive with every visit, and every rejection from the Consulate.

I told him, I am never returning to this country.
You don’t mean it, he replied with a smile.

In heavy coats and sturdy shoes, we had traveled from Venosa to Roma by train. Snow and sleet made travel treacherous.

Winters were always harsh. I had worried about that, how difficult it would be for me if I couldn’t catch the train. Our neighbors had come over and helped shovel our way out of the house all the way to the main street where a bus took us to the station.

Mother had not wanted to tell any one about the trip, worried about people’s envy. She had given me a special amulet to wear, to guard against the malocchio. I took the necklace and the amulet off and handed it to To`ny before I boarded the plane:

"Thanks for all you have done for me." I said, hugging Toni' and taking the small suitcase in my hand as I walked up the plank. I looked back to see tears in his eyes.

I regretted nothing.I was going to a place without weather, without runny noses, winter chills and treacherous roads. My life was waiting for me in sunny California, and winter and poverty were now just in the past.

Though we stocked our cellar with everything we needed to last us until the next harvest, enough wood for heating and cooking, flour, olive oil, wine, canned goods, cured meats, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts, and a variety of legumes, all this made us richer than our neighbors, and we were grateful. Now, with my change in fortune, we would be the most envied people in the entire town.

I don't remember what I ate on the plane that entire day. I kept thinking that Mother's usual pot of beans, slowly cooking in a terracotta pot in the fireplace,  dressed with dried tomatoes sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and peperoncini, the food that sustained us most days was not going to be missed by me!

I will not miss the smell of pasta  e fasul,  I thought.

I will not miss the cold, either.

In February, and all through winter, our schools, big stone edifices were cold tombs. Children took a box of live coals with them, a heavy lunchbox, which was positioned under the desk, allowing us to pay attention, and write beautiful cursive dictations in our notebooks. Other places must have modernized their old buildings, for sure. But I was going to a sunny place the entire year!

People’s legs in the winter developed long red marks in the front, from standing so close to the fire. in front of the fireplace at home, close enough to warm the parts exposed, while our backs were still freezing. We wore layers of sweaters, and placed our coats on our beds to keep us warm at night,

Schools must be different, I thought.
No more standing in the front of the room to recite lessons. And on Fridays, in our gym, an open area ten times the size of the classroom, we ran around until we could no longer stand up, at which point the teacher guided us through stretch exercises and tumbling maneuvers, all of us stripped down to gym shorts and t-shirts regardless of the weather.

No more soaked and muddy shoes after each day traipsing to and from school.  If we caught a cold, it would soon turn to pneumonia, keeping us in bed for days, drinking hot wine sweetened with honey to combat raspy cough and sinus troubles. Children and old people died after a winter cold spell.

In Los Angeles the temperature was 75 degrees when we plane finally landed.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chapter Five: Coming to America

Every letter from America from Zia Adelina was read time and time again, examining each word and its position, guessing all its possibilities. Words had magic qualities, flying across time and space, in envelopes as ethereal a  butterfly wings, fueling hope and imagination, helping us endure all kinds of discomforts. We waited for the words that would turn our luck around.

We took an  official picture anticipating the trip to America. On the left is my brother Antonio, To`ni, Mother Addolorata, Dolo`ra, Father Domenico, Mingu, and me, Rosaria, nicknamed Ninetta. I was five or six, always wearing a big bow,  hopefully shy. That big bow became my signature at school.

Uncle Jo, Giuseppe Rapolla, had always intended to send for the entire family. In the end, only Teodoro and Adelina were able to obtain visas.

Eight years after the two of them went to America, a few months after the death of Uncle Jo, Zio arrived on a warm summer afternoon. Cicadas deafened Mother's squeals, as she kept scrubbingt her hands on her apron, hands that were stiff and gooey from making fresh pasta. She hugged her brother and kept rubbing her hands as she watched him for a good half hour greeting onlookers, neighbors who dropped in to see the confusion building around our front door.

She knew in that moment that our lives had just changed. Within days, household routines had to be modified. We no longer baked on Mondays and did laundry on Tuesdays. Our bread began to be purchased at the grocery store;  the laundry was shipped to a neighbor’s;  and the menu  changed to please this important visitor.

Every afternoon, after the siesta, Mother frequented the pasticceria. Zio's wishes were to impress his guests with store-bought delicacies that would be appreciated and remembered. Wearing gray gabardine pants and silk shirts, he received visitors after his afternoon siesta. Mother attended to his needs in one part of the house, while I kept busy with the baby and household chores. I kept looking for excuses to drop in on these visits.

Zio greeted each visitor with something from one of his suitcases, cigarettes for men, chocolates for ladies, and chewing gum for young children.  “Say hello to your wonderful parents. Tell them I shall dry to visit at length one of these days.” His tanned skin, white straight teeth, filtered cigarettes, chewing gum, and an easy way with everyone, exuded wealth and position.

One afternoon, Mother dropped a hint that this manner of entertaining was expensive.

“Don’t worry.” He stated, reminding her that she was going to receive her inheritance as soon as the lawyers had settled Uncle Jo's estate.  Mother was diffident of things being promised and not delivered. Then, he'd compliment her food, adding,“You are lucky to have these good tasting meals. In America the bread tastes like sponge.”

“But, Tiu‘do,” Mother started out begging for his attention, and when he didn't get the hint she exclaimed, “the merchants expect us to settle the accounts. Everyone knows you are in town, talking about how rich you are.”

Uncle dismissed her worries with a big hug. He took his daily passegiata day after day,stopped at the same stores that Mother had established credit, and assured them that his inheritance was being settled shortly.

Pa`pa was busy with the vineyards and Mother didn't know how to explain the situation her brother was causing, nor did she want to believe the worst of the situation. She fixed him lunch before Father left at dawn and didn't think about him or dinner until he returned home after the sun had set. At times, with all the entertainment in the afternoons  supper was late and not things Father would anticipate. Instead of complaining or getting angry, he retired to a corner  to listen to the radio, and play with the baby who was now beginning to walk and talk.   

“Everything will work out.” Mother would say out loud, hoping Zio’s visit and the burden it was causing would be resolved soon with a big chunk of cash.

A month later into this situation, she decided to address Uncle directly.

“Tiudo', I don’t want people to talk behind our back. I am running out of excuses. Our good name will be ruined if we are not able to meet our expenses.”

“Woman!” Zio pounded the table angrily, “what are you worried about? You would think after all these years you’d be happy to see me. Can’t you see that your luck has changed? What do you need? You need money? Here, take this ten dollar bill. Is that going to please you?”

“For one thing, ten dollars can barely cover the bills at the pasticceria. What is your plan? How long is this entertaining going to go on? It’s impossible to get my family fed and my house cleaned with all the people coming and going. Besides, Mingu needs my help in the vineyards."

“The money will arrive shortly." Zio explained his situation without giving too many details. Right after the death of Great Uncle Jo, Zio packed his suitcases and decided to return to Italy to live in comfort with the proceeds of his inheritance.  He had figured that now he could do just what he had hoped all along. He wanted to paint, at his leisure, without worrying about managing the properties of his uncle.  For the last eight years, he had been sent here and there, taking care of Uncle Jo's businesses, and had no time to enjoy his life, to just paint when he wanted to.

With his income, he was going to live like a king in his home town.

"What about us?" Mother asked.

"You're getting a thousand dollars." He said, "more cash than you have ever seen in a life time."

"Tiu`do, you are forgetting that things have changed here. Yes, this is good money, when it comes. But I need to pay for groceries today."

One afternoon, just before his daily passeggiata, Uncle saw Mother in tears, and when he asked her what was the matter, she lost all composure: “The two of you forgot us. We have debts we can't pay back,  and you, you just so you walk about town acting rich. Mingu is not going to like it when he finds out you have no money either".

She ran out slamming the door, looking taller and lighter than I ever saw her.  Zio turned toward me, smiled, and told me he was having coffee with Signor Fioretti, and I was welcome to join him. I told him that I had chores to do.

The Fioretti family had known me for years. He had been my tutor for the last couple of years, paid only by a couple of wine bottles from our cellar.  I babysat their children, and had joined the family on extended outings. Their house was my window to the bigger world. I was always encouraged to take home books and other reading material.

Pa‘pa grew Muscatel, Malvasia and Aglianico del Vulture grapes, knowing what to blend and how much of each grape variety to use for sweetness and acidity. Tasting and smelling the crushed grapes, he had perfected the timing of fermentation to achieve the perfect blend. His reds were full bodied, his whites, gentle and crisp with touches of apples, cherry and apricots. He timed the harvest to maximize the sugar content, and achieve a liquid with voluptuous hints of fruit and herbs. Our basement contained vats of crushed grapes, barrels for fermentation, and jugs for bottling. This aroma permeated the entire house starting in late October.  We could tell if Malvasia or Aglianica grapes were beginning to arrive at the moment of fermentation. All houses had smelled of the work done there, and the food that people prepared.

A couple of days later, Mother was at the grocery store when she ran into Pina Fioretti, my teacher’s wife, who related a conversation her husband had with Zio.

“Dolo‘ra, you are lucky. Your brother is wealthy. Rochetto, (her husband) talked to him about Ninetta. You know that he wants to take her to America, to finish her studies.”

Mother, confused about a situation her brother had not broached with her,  related the conversation to my father.

“Imagine, Mingu. My brother has offered to help. Imagine!”

“Did he say that to you? Who did he talk to about this? He didn’t talk to me? Why did he not talk to me? Why has he not sponsored us all these years? “

“Mingu, it came up in a conversation with Signor Fioretti.”

“Yeah? Another one of his stories.Let’s face it, your brother shows up and he goes on promising.”

“All I know is what Pina overheard. I am sure Teu`do means well.”

I overheard the conversation and somehow I knew everything would work out o.k.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Chapter Four: The return of Uncle Ted

Leaving Home

Education stopped at fifth grade or sooner if your folks needed you to help at home or in the fields. Boys followed in their fathers’ footsteps, or encouraged to be apprenticed, working many years for free, before they became competent enough and resourceful enough to open their own shops. My brother had finished the eight grade at the local seminary before he apprenticed to a local tailor.

Girls  expected to be mothers and wives, learned to sew, cook, take care of household chores. Very few of them were encouraged to continue their schooling past the fifth grade.

When Tonino  was fifteen, he knew of a friend who had  moved to Torino, in the North. The friend encouraged him to move there where he could get paid for his work, and learn all about the trade. He left after he turned fifteen.

By August, when cities emptied out for the summer holiday, he returned home with a wallet full of savings, a new suit he made for himself modeled after the latest fashion, and enough swagger and pride to attract a bevy of young girls.

A migration like this, from March to August, five, six months in one place, five, six months back at home looking for another job, created tension. When will he return? Is this time a permanent position?  When he left the first time, I had just started elementary school. He continued this migration for years.  After I finished elementary school, he sent money for me to go to secondary school out of town.

Most folks worked as their parents did; few left town with a flimsy suitcase  to look for any opportunity to improve their lot; and even fewer, those with American connections and assistance hoped to emigrate soon and leave their lot behind.

Our family was a combination of the last two. My mother’s sister and brother had emigrated to America in 1947, before I even started school. They sent us package after package of clothing and canned food, with the promise that they would soon send for the rest of us.

By the time To`ni left for Torino, our hope for going to America had dried up.

The year was 1955, and rock and roll was replacing jazz on the radio. I was a teen, dancing and singing  as Elvis and The Platters were played  on the radio. Television and telephones were appearing in more and more homes. Italy was showing signs of modernization as America subsidized post-war reconstruction. I had continued my studies with a private tutor, a friend of the family. As soon as I turned sixteen, I would be joining my brother in Torino.

Piazza Orazio Flacco outfitted with outdoor speakers staged events where politicians sold promises of a brighter future with each oration. There was another election coming up, and everywhere brochures and signs popped up to inform every corner of the land. Pa`pa insisted the radio be turned to news every night.  He was no longer repairing cane seats, or making barrels during winter months. Listening to the radio, the only light in the house emitted by the station dial,  had become his main addiction. 

While people were resigned to their lot in life and “Porca Miseria” was the national curse, the War had changed things; ancestral lands had been divided and distributed to become smaller farms for those young enough and brave enough to start something new.

There was a smell of new possibilities all over the land.

I took lessons at Professor Fioretti’s and took exams at the end of the year in Melfi. This way, I had covered three additional grades, and soon, when it was time to go to the Liceo, I could go live with To`ni in Torino.

 I spent hours among stacks of glossy magazines and newspapers, at the Fioretti's between lessons and babysitting, reading about the famous and the infamous, the crimes and the accomplishments of ordinary and extraordinary people. I knew one day I would be living in that bigger world.

I wondered about the exciting lives portrayed in the magazines, about people living in Paris, London or New York. Some were movie stars, with radiant skin and sparkling personalities. Others were world leaders, calling the world’s attention to the plight of the poor and the forgotten. Many stories were about entertainment personalities in Hollywood.

My Uncle Ted, Zio Tiu`do, was living in a Hollywood mansion. The few pictures and letters we had received from him showed  a life similar to the stories in magazines.

On a warm summer evening, when I was thirteen,  Zio returned to Venosa after eight years of absence.

When the taxi stopped in front of our house, and a man stood there looking like Clark Gable surrounded by five suitcases, children and adults had been running after that taxi for miles. Now, they all stood there to see who this person was.  Mother rushed out of the house to see what the commotion was all about.  She was preparing home-made pasta, and stood at the front door trying to clean her sticky hands on the apron not fully understanding who or what was happening.

She looked at the crowd and at her handsome brother in the middle of them all. She took it all in, and then tears began washing her face before she jumped through the crowd and hugged her brother.  He had the biggest smile I ever saw.

The crowd stood at the door for a long time. Pa‘pa came in from a long day at the farm, and he too stood  and watched incredulously for a time.  He finally dropped his tools and baskets down, and walked toward Mother.  I kept a strong grip on my little brother, though I would have preferred to rush out and meet my uncle.

It was Monday. For dinner, we'd be eating pasta and fagioli, with lots of olive oil seasoned with garlic and fiery chili peppers. Each day had its own seasonal menu. Meat was a luxury, appearing once or twice a week. Putting the pasta together wasn't difficult, and I could do it. But, the baby needed watching constantly.

That morning we had made bread, and at noon, it was returned freshly baked in the communal ovens. Seven loaves for seven days.  That fresh bread smell made people linger longer. If everybody walked in with Zio, all our bread would be passed around with cheese and salami and bottles of wine.  By the end of the visit all seven loaves would be gone.

I finally walked out and soon Luigi jumped in Pa`pa's arm, cooing and happy.  Crowds and confusion usually caused him to holler and cry in despair.  Not this time. Everyone kept passing the child around until he was in Zio's arms. Luigi was happy and excited. I returned inside and tore a piece of fresh bread, smashed a ripe tomato over it and took a bite, my eyes on the action going on outside.  It was then that my uncle saw me and walked in leaving everyone outside.

“Mannaggia!”  I could hear Pa`pa swearing under his breath. He didn't like waiting for  dinner after a long day of work in the hot sun. Baby was beginning to wail.

Zio talked non-stop about this and that. Mother gestured for people to come in the house and placed loaves of bread on the table and a bottle of wine. I was sent down to the cellar for salami and cheese to add to the table.
Wine was passed around and people visited for hours.

“Can you believe this?” Pa‘pa kept saying, to no one in particular, looking incredulously  at his brother-in-law, bouncing the baby, tickling him, giving him a thumb to suck on.

Later, much later, we sat down to eat the pasta meal mother had been preparing.

(to be continued)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Chapter Three: Praying for Divine Intervention.

Breaking Lent

Mother believed that evil lurked at every corner; that our lives were molded by our destiny, changed only by the will of God and the forces of nature. Her job was to protect all of us. Whenever she needed inspiration or strength, she turned to prayers, articles of devotion, and special foods. Her patron saint was St. Anthony, for saving her first born, and the Virgin Mary, who interceded at her birth.

Father chose my name,  Rosaria Anna, after both grandmothers, giving me the special powers possessed by both sides of the family. Mother decided that Grandmother Rosaria didn’t deserve a child with her name since she had done nothing to ingratiate herself in our household. So, at home and with friends, I was Ninetta.

Addolorata, Dolo`ra for short, wore her name like a badge of honor. She believed that pain and sacrifices were her special crosses to bear, that her life was a preparation for sainthood. After each test, she offered the Virgin Mary novenas and tokens of appreciation that rivaled offerings made to any other saint. My mother believed in names.

One early spring, an unusual cold snap had destroyed the young peas, asparagus and cardoons and had confused the chickens as well. Easter was just a week away, and Mother could not prepare the traditional Verdetto, a bitter cardoon and egg dish eaten on Easter Day. Only divine intervention could save this Pasqua.

She was just fourteen when her marriage was arranged to the just-widowed-brother-in-law, six months after her big sister Graziella had died in childbirth. Her entire life book contained only chapters on suffering.

Her younger brother and sister, all underage and orphaned lived with her and her new husband. Her job, as the oldest, was to protect her siblings and spare them and her future children the destiny she inherited.

Mingu, her brother in law-turned husband, was a handsome and garrulous musician. With a big family to support, he now had no time to sing or attend wedding parties; why, he barely managed to run his vineyard.

Dolo`ra gave him time to mourn and forget his first wife. She heard  accusations after accusations that this was not the life he had chosen for himself. He was moody and displeased about everything she did, everything she said.

Elsewhere, he was h
“If I had been a beauty, my life would have be different.” She remarked, not sure I could understand at my young age. I took the statement to mean that women with beauty had no trouble with their husbands. Her anger and frustration were the universal problappy, the life of the party, and after a few drinks, joked of how he happened to marry two sisters, one after the other, two years apart.
“I was trapped, you know. First by Beauty, then…”

The first wife, Graziella ,was the Beauty. He did not have to mention what a bad union he had made by marrying the second sister.  Only Dolora' understood that they all had to stay together so nobody would end up at an orphanage.
ems of ugly women, I thought. I would often look in the mirror, at an early age, and asked about my chances of becoming beautiful.

Mother would laugh and say: “Don’t you worry, God took my beauty so I could give it all to you. You’ll have all the luck, all the beauty, and all the brains I don’t have.”

“How do you know? I  could end up having your life,” I whined.

“That’s not going to happen, not with all the sacrifices I’m making,” she'd say with conviction.

“I need a man who appreciates what I bring...” she'd mumble as she beat the dust cloth,  washed the brick floors with much fervor, yelled her complaints out loud, asking the Virgin Mary to change her luck, asking for  a miracle to teach this man of hers. She kept telling us that the he had nothing; that he should be grateful for the property she had brought to the marriage.

Her sister, Adelina, a few years younger, in charge of keeping me in line, would repeat these comments to the neighbors, who were constantly reminding her that she had a third of that property coming to her when she became older. Her brother Teodoro also complained about his brother- in- law everywhere he went.

That spring day, with the snow still piled high, Mother told us to get our coats on and follow her. It was early afternoon. Father had been toasting bites of mozzarella on a stick.  We had eaten our minestra with a few slices of bread, but we were anticipating eating the mozzarella bites, melted and hot.  Mother repeated her command for us to bundle up. My brother and I obeyed.

“We are going to start a novena to get our chickens to lay eggs again," she said with a tone of no discussions on this one. She continued,  "With eggs we can make our verdetto for Easter, and if we get extra eggs we can sell them and buy chocolate eggs."

The “chocolate” part convinced us. We were ready to leave when Father insisted that a young child doesn't need to go praying in a cold church. I remained behind, at his insistence.

It was too wet to work in the vineyards, and too cold to leave the spot by the fireplace. That morning when he fed the chickens, he noticed they had escaped the coop on their own. Mother had warned him that the door was not locking properly.

Father had been dozing for a while when I shook him, to remind him about the chickens needing to be put back in the coop.  He woke up suddenly and asked brusquely:

“When did your mother say she’s coming home? She better pray that I don’t kill her when she gets back. She better ask the Madonna forgiveness for abandoning her husband and small child on such a cold day and putting everybody in danger. Fine mess she is creating”.
He was annoyed as he looked around the house for his boots and coat to  go lock up the chickens and see if there were eggs to retrieve. Father returned a few minutes later to grab the broom by the back door. Then, he ran out again..

When he returned, he was brandishing a bloody knife. He fueled the fire, added water to the great cauldron,  and began to pluck a  chicken.  I watched with horror. Mother had plucked chickens before, but outdoors, with plenty of space and water to wash the birds up.  Father worked diligently for a good half hour, dipping the bird in the hot water to soften the quills. Then, he proceeded to chop the chicken into small pieces before trowing the ugly water out on the street. There was snow on the ground; but in front of our house, bird feathers and pink snow  paved the path to our front door. 

When Mother returned, before she could ask about the feathers and the pink snow, Father greeted her with a statement. “That chicken was getting too old, and Ninetta was starving.” Pa`pa said with a smile. The entire time that he was cooking, he told me how out in the dark, he had to kill a fox that had grabbed the chicken, how the fox could have attacked him.

“Madonna Mia,” Mother exclaimed when she saw all that meat,  tears mixing with the snow flakes on her coat. She slumped down in a chair to remove her galoshes. Tony  threw his coat down without hanging it up. Nobody was paying attention when he started eating before reciting grace.

 As usual, Mother was the last one to eat.

“La Madonna ha provveduto!” She kept saying, believing this meal was a miracle. This was better than the verdetto she had planned to make for Pasqua.

Mother never asked about the chicken. We just ate and ate, more meat than at any other time. Everyone felt contented and blessed. I don’t remember anything else about that night, or about Easter Day a week later, whether we had eggs for the verdetto, whether we had the chocolate egg. What I hadn’t realized was that Pa`pa had broken the Lent, had sacrificed and prepared a meat dish a week before Easter.

We were too hungry to notice.
Mother was too pleased with her miracle to question this provident moment.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chapter Two: Life in a small town

Chapter Two

Venosa, in the area of Basilicata halfway between Napoli on one coast and Bari on the other had been a known stopover for Roman soldiers on their way to the Levant. Training arenas and  an amphitheater  at the outskirt of town, sit next to an early Christian Basilica and catacombs. Hebrew, Greek and Early Christian iconography can be seen side by side. Statues of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and San Rocco, the town’s patron sit in niches at each corner.

The Roman poet Orazio Flacco, Horace, was our most famous citizen.Teachers bestowed  a crown of bay leaves to the student of the week that received the highest marks, a crown that is similar to the one Orazio's statue wears in the middle of the piazza that bears his name. The person with such honors walked around with that crown for an entire week, in and out of school.

By fourth grade, if you were the one chosen to wear the crown, you  tucked it away after school hours.

A castle, numerous palaces and churches built during different centuries, dot Via Appia where my house sat at the corner of Via Armando Diaz.  If we followed Via Appia out of town, we could walk in the footsteps of Cesar, thousands of years of history preceding us, leading all the way to Rome and other areas of the Roman Empire.

Most of my friends' ambitions were to become another Michelangelo or Dante or Cesar.  We received our names as omens of good fortune, marking us for our future. Our parents' ambitions as well as their ancestry showed up in our names.

Some of us received saints’ names, and we were expected to lead lives of piety and devotion, similar to our namesake. The rest were named after deceased grandparents or uncles. People traced their roots and their fortunes to the saints and patrons that had inhabited their worlds, and had bestowed good luck upon them. Fortunes were acquired and lost based on the respect paid to the patron saint or to the deceased ancestor.

At home, and with friends, we spoke a dialect barely recognizable as today's Italian. I remember when our teachers insisted we speak proper Italian, as heard on the radio that most people still did not have at home, homes that consisted of one or two rooms, mostly without electricity right after the war.In the neighborhood, at christenings and weddings, old songs and stories were sung and told in Venosino. Any stranger who arrived by our town could be recognized  by the way he spoke.

Immigrants to North or South America took with them their dialect, their food, customs and songs. In some suburbs in America one can identify the very town you came from because of the special dialect you spoke, the special foods you ate.

I was eleven the first time I left home to attend summer camp in Cattolica, a resort on the Adriatic Sea. I was the only child from my part of Italy, and was known as the Terrona, the girl from dirt farms. I had looked forward to visiting the sea, any beach would do. At school, an occasional magazine photo would be shared, or some one's post cards from friends from faraway places with enchanting names. When those friends returned in September, their bodies were bronzed, their hair full of highlights, their days spent sunning on the beach.

I was already tanned, already dark from my being outdoors most of the time.

An inordinate desire for adventure and fantasy kept me eager to jump at any opportunity to travel.

In Cattolica, I met people from all over Italy. I was introduced to food I had never eaten before,  food that didn’t taste any thing like the food my mother cooked. I couldn’t eat, and feared that I might die and never see my parents again. The first time on the beach, I kept walking in the water, sure that in all that water I would be capable of swimming the way it had been explained to me. I was under water, choking and flailing before someone rescued me.

I thought God was finally punishing me.
In fact, every time I got into a difficulty, I thought God was punishing me for an infraction I had committed and forgotten to atone for, such as the time Maria and I disobeyed my Father's instructions .

It had been a typical summer day, and my cousin Maria and I had joined Father and Mother at the vineyard. The place was miles from our house, and we took turns riding the donkey. Mother had packed a “marmitta” a metal container to transport "pipirigni e pumidori"  fried peppers and tomatoes, accompanied by a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. After lunch,  while Father was taking a little nap, Maria and I had concocted a way to get a tan like the rich girls. We started to dig a hole and remove dirt by a small  creek at the end of our property, in an attempt  to create a swimming hole. He had admonished us earlier not to play in the creek, as the current was fast.

A couple of hours later, Pa`pa walked over to check on us, felt sorry for the sad looking hole we dug,  and volunteered to finish the job.  His hole was  big enough for us to sit and stick our feet in, and lie around and get a good tan. Again, he warned us about the current in the creek before he returned to his own tasks.

We jumped in and splashed around and soon, the water became muddy and  our fantasy beach adventure was destroyed. Without thinking, we picked up rocks and tossed them in the hole, while stepping further and further into the creek. One moment we were splashing and singing, the next moment Father was pulling us out, our hair full of mud and debris, and dumped us in the clear creek to wash the mud off as we cried and shrieked, itching  all over, until mostly clean we went to sit  in the sun to dry our hair and clothes.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Memoir: Part One, Chapter One

When I Was Your Age

A Memoir

by Rosaria D'Ambrosio Williams

 Chapter One

I have a feeling that time is running out, and I need to borrow an eagerness that no longer exists in my present life, a way to see my tomorrows lined up like ice- cream flavors, days and weeks different and exciting, ready to be savored.

I'm telling  my story  to understand it, to share it with  my children and grandchildren whose roots and language do no match mine.They know so little of my past.

My grandchild Jasmine will line up at Barnes and Noble to meet her favorite author this month, and for the next sixty years, she’ll anticipate infinite adventures with every book she reads, every town she visits.   I look forward to line up at her graduations, wedding, special occasions, anticipating the future through her eyes, thinking life goes on indefinitely.

What my husband and children know already is that I left Italy and came to study in America at the young age of seventeen, and returned to my hometown only twice to this date, for very short visits. Having to opportunity to come to America was a dream every child and young adult had at the time I grew up. America was in our destiny.

I grew up in the small town of Venosa, in the province of Potenza, in Southern Italy, where everyone lived an open life, sitting on the front stoop during hot summer days, shelling peas, knitting, hanging clothes. Children scrambled from house to house, delivering something, borrowing something, running small errands for their elders when they were not playing hide and seek, or kick-the-can.  Everyone knew intimate details of  each other's lives.

In 1942, the year I was born, Italy was in the middle of World War II, and everyone was always hungry.  A slice of bread wet with olive oil and tomato was breakfast, supper, after school snack.  Milk, eggs,  meat were rare commodities. Bread,  prepared at home and baked at the town's bakery was our main sustenance. Pasta and beans, or peppers and tomatoes, week after week, year after year kept us alive and hoping.

We owned land,  a plot here and there, kilometers away from each other.  Some were better for growing olives, some for grapes. Olive oil and wine provided us with enough cash at the end of the harvest to purchase shoes for growing feet, a coat for harsh winters and credit for groceries we'd use from the local store half a block away.

We grew most of our food, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, wine. We  butchered a hog and made sausages and salami that hung in our cellar all winter long. We made our own clothes, knitted our own socks, sweaters. Father caned chairs, fashioned laundry baskets and olive containers out of reeds and saplings during long harsh winters. We cooked in a fireplace stocked with wood Father brought home on his shoulders every day he worked the land. Our cellar was full of wood and kindling, big bottles of oil and wine, vats of grain and legumes, and hanging on the rafters, drying fruit, peppers, salumi and cheeses.

I was eight when I experienced my first boy crush. His name was Enrico, a friend of my brother. One hot summer afternoon, he waltzed outside his door with a new pair of roller skates.The air was heavy with spent jacaranda blooms, and I had trouble falling asleep after lunch, tossing and turning on Mother’s big bed.

I pretended to sleep, following shadows of walkers projected on the interior walls, listening for the snoring to start before I got up and peeked  through the heavy Persian shutters when a sudden shrieking of metal pushed me to the door, to peek through the shutters.  Enrico had fallen on the ground, and a woman  was  gesturing and jelling at him.

“Stai svegliando i morti!” You’re waking the dead!” She screeched, standing on top of the boy holding a crying baby in her arms.

Enrico readjusted the skates, and took off with more speed, swirling and rushing with a look of annoyance and glee. The woman's yelling was causing people to come out of their siesta and join the

My mother stopped me as I tried to slip out. She commanded me to  return to bed. Enrico  in the middle of a small crowd was about to get a beating any minute from the woman who had first seen him, and now had given the baby to someone else while she positioned herself to give Enrico a good beating.  Any adult could correct any child, with physical force if necessary if that child appeared to have caused damages.  All parents believed in swift corporal punishment.

Mother gave me a good slap on my behind as she dragged me back to bed. I soon fell asleep, dreaming I was a captured princess imprisoned by a snoring ogre, while many more ugly creatures were making their way trough the Persian shutters. 

The next Saturday, Silvana, Enrico’s sister, my best friend, seemed to read my thoughts at our usual children's collective confession, kneeling next to each other and a dozen other girls our age, all  reciting one sin for each commandment that we had broken.

 “Don’t forget to confess everything.” she admonished.

From that day on, I kept peeking through the shutters, hoping Enrico would come out and skate. From my house, I could see his comings and goings, and found excuses to hang around my brother when the two of them played kick-the- can or soccer. I had a heightened sensation whenever I saw him: my ears and cheeks turned red and an immediate feeling of drowning overtook me.

At every confession, a slight feeling of shame lingered in me as I recited extra prayers to atone for that feeling.

“I’m done.” I would say to Silvana, hoping I had not blurted out anything about her brother, as I prayed hard for God to forgive me what appeared to be a sin of disobedience.

Boys usually played soccer, starting on one side of the street and moving wherever the ball landed, at times pushing girls to take refuge elsewhere.Girls invented elaborate games of make believe, purposely pulling the younger boys to play different parts.

Younger brothers played for a while, or as long as we could find a treat for them, then return to their mothers. If we wanted them to stay, we had to find ways to feed them treats.

My favorite game was “The lost Princess”, a ritual during hot summer nights when everyone stayed up late, the smell of jacaranda and wild oregano saturating the air, adults sitting out by their front stoop eating watermelon, and older brothers and sisters walking back and forth from one end of town to another hoping to catch a glimpse of the person they were interested in.

The story we acted out was of a princess abandoned and discovered by a poor couple who hoped that her relatives would come looking for her one day. She grew up knowing that her future was waiting for her.

Though dressed in rags, the princess walked royally. This last part was my addition. Mother kept pushing her hand on my back every time I stood up, telling me to walk straight like a princess, adding, "Your body is the temple of God!" I couldn't quite figure that part out, but I knew her hand could make points I never understood.

On a warm day, a prince riding by the girl’s house  noticed a coverlet on the wash line. He was intrigued by the design, stopped and asked about its provenance.

She told him that she had been found wrapped in that coverlet when she was discovered in the woods. She would wash it twice a year to keep it smelling fresh and to remind her to go find her real parents one of these days.

The prince was curious.

“My family has spoken about a princess lost in the woods. They will want to know that she is still alive.”

Our game could last for weeks. It took place under porticoes, inside houses, in front of churches, taking up two or more blocks of real estate, involving many scenes, and improvised costumes.

It had many parts, depending on how many girls could come out and play. Those of us who could procure props such as  rich-looking shawls, or  white veils, were guaranteed the part of the Bride.

The boy parts went to tall girls.

The playacting ended after the Marriage Procession that  slowly wound its way across the neighborhood all the way to the local church.

In the early fall, when cool weather shortened our game, I got a chance to play the Bride, having miraculously produced the veil I had worn for my first communion, a veil that had come all the way from America.

Silvana played the part of Prince Enrico Emmanuele.
The name was my invention.Somewhere, a real prince Emmanuele was going into exile, never to reign in Italy again and the story was becoming real before our eyes.

The older girls became jealous when I produced a veil so easily.

“Does your Mother know that you are playing with your first communion veil?”

“Of course she knows! She saw me just a minute ago”. I had rushed in the house and Mother figured I was going to the restroom. I returned with my veil and some fruit. We played the same game night after night, adding new twists and new props.

By September, when school started, and cold rains and homework interfered with our outdoor games, we prepared to grow according to mother's plans and father's ambitions.