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.