When I Was Your Age
by Rosaria D'Ambrosio Williams
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.