Los Angeles basked under an ever- present sunshine that caressed everything it touched, winking at newly watered lawns, blushing and blurring its edges. Seasons changed like Polaroid pictures, a change was sensed before the eye caught the full image.
In the shops, seasons were hurried through, before the customers had a chance to feel the need for a sweater, before the sun got hot enough for a bathing suit brightly displayed in the window in April.
Time seemed still, a starlet posing for a photo shoot.
Our lives, Uncle's, his wife's, the three babies', felt like languid reflections, plastic toys bobbing in backyard pools,like leaves streaming from one end of the water to the other, without direction until, suddenly, something made them all settle at the bottom of the drain.
I had been in that house for five years in suspended animation- as if in a spell.
I sent home letters describing not my reality, but my wishes, words painting broad smiles,sunny dispositions, blessed sainthood.
The truth had been locked away, and threathened to come out and shout only on Sundays.
I went to the eight o’clock Mass when the prayers were recited in Latin, ancient language of my people. Every mass felt as if my mother and I were together, she with a shawl covering her head, bowed in resignation, grateful that I had escaped a fate like hers, thanking God and the Virgin Mary for the life her daughter was enjoying.
“Oh Mamma, If you only knew!” I was praying to the Virgin Mary, and talking to my mother, one and the same to a crying heart.
“Please, Mother, Virgin Mary, guide me, save me from my anger and my loneliness.”
"Why, daughter, why are you unhappy? You are ungrateful and spoiled. How did this happen?" These were the words I heard spoken back at me.
I couldn't explain my life.
I only wanted to end it.
I NEEDED to send a message to the saints, the family back home, a message that would have liberated me from the spell. Prayers after prayers rose with the liturgy; prayers and tears washed my soul for a few hours every week, giving me the courage to start a new week, to carry on.
After church, I prepared the day’s main meal and waited for the rest of the family to gather together. I waited, watching television-Donna Reed and her perfect world where children were loved and families were whole. On Sundays, Uncle rode his bike for hours, and his wife read the Sunday paper as children watched television and snacked on potato chips.
Nobody ate the meal I prepared. Nobody was ever hungry as I was. The food sat on the stove until it was time to clean up the kitchen.
On one such evening, Uncle’s wife barged into my bedroom room after I had gone to bed and turned the light on.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, feeling like a sinking raft.
“Do you want rats in the house? You are used to rats, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Well, this is not your rat infested hovel back home. We are civilized here.” She was holding a piece of bread that had been left on the table.
Mortified, confused with shame and disappointment, I tried to explain the bread left on the table: “Uncle was at the table. I thought he would eat it.!”
I just wanted to scream.
The truth was we were not family. Back home, everyone came to the table for the main meal. First, while waiting for everything to be ready, we snacked on olives, celery. Then, taking up our assigned seats, with Papa’ at the head of the table, the midday meal would be served. The whole meal was woven with story telling, singing.
“Mangia, mangia” Mother encouraged. The meal would end two, three hours later, when groggy from all that food, people took a long siesta, talking “sotto voce” allowing the little ones and the very old to fall asleep.
Meals were prepared according to recipes passed down for generations. Never written, never changed, the ingredients came from our farm, seeds carefully stored and carefully passed down from family to family. All of life’s moments were shared at these meals. Grandma Maria Rosaria would join each of her seven children, once a week for a midday meal that would stretch into the evening. She arrived before noon, right after the last Mass, and she regaled us with stories about her childhood, when as an only child, her pa‘pa, the padrone of the masseria, would take her on buggy rides, visiting neighbors, checking on the land that nourished them for generations.
“These hazelnuts taste just like those on that piece of land by the river, the one your great-nonna got as a wedding present. Have not tasted any thing that good. Too bad I lost it all when we went to Brazil. Those crooks sold the land right from under us. We lost everything.” Those ‘crooks’ were her brothers who instead of managing the land, saw an opportunity to sell and cash in the profits.
Invariably, the conversation would include her greatest adventure, her time in Brazil. She lost a child there, and disappointed and homesick she and Nonno returned to Italy penniless. Nonno died a few years later, leaving his wife with seven children to raise by herself.
She spoke of humid heat, of flowers of exceptional perfume, mango and bananas, fruit I had never seen. She painted canvasses of extreme beauty and extreme harshness, life and death in the same frame.
Papa' sang about a man living away from home, missing his mom. Tears streamed from everybody’s faces, especially at the end: “ Mamma, solo per te…..E per l’amore not ti lascerei mai piu”, (Mamma, because of you, ….and for that love I will never leave you again). Papa’s voice, a beautiful tenor strengthened from years of performing at weddings and anniversaries, was grandma’s pride and joy.
We tasted happiness with each bite, each song, each movement. It felt like the joyful harvesting of grapes, family and neighbors singing along as they collected grapes from one vineyard to the other.
A lifetime sat with us at these meals.
And Sunday was our day to splurge, cook a stuffed rabbit, redolent with garlic and basil, stuffed with leftover bread, sage and wild mushrooms. The meal was begun after Mother returned from the early mass, the mass for busy housewives and old people.
The rabbit was fattened in the cellar, months of scampering among wine flasks, eating scraps we brought down every time we went to the cellar.
Always with plenty of tomato sauce to coat the homemade pasta, the rabbit had stewed for hours, perfuming the entire house, sending inviting aromas to the whole neighborhood. Sunday meals lasted all day, until every thing had been eaten and everyone felt satisfied.
The world was full of food, company and grace on Sundays.