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Thursday, April 29, 2010


I Promessi Sposi

Donna Maria Rosaria came to the Festa with ribbons for the girls, candy for the boy, and a Cassata cake from the town's bakery. This was Don Paolo's favorite dessert, and she meant it for him almost exclusively. She was going to talk to him. Their families went back as far as they remembered; their grandparents owned adjacent lands, shared holidays together, were padrini to each others’ children.
They were practically family.

Her father had dug the main channel that allowed water to come over to the Loggia from the little creek on their land;  the Rapolla family were able to install pipes and pull water to use for household use. The four of them, Paoluccio. his younger brother and sister, all played  in the mud for days while the channel was being laid out, making sail boats out of newspapers, singing songs about going to America like Columbus. Don Teodoro, the patriarch, deeded land in exchange for those water rights, land that will belong to Mingu when his mother dies.

Before Natalino came along and swept her off her feet, she had been interested in Paoluccio's innocent courting gestures, reading The Promessi Sposi book under the very arbor his mother and her mother had cultivated, the same one the two of them would be sitting under for the Festa of San Rocco on this hot August afternoon.

How easy life had been for his family, with the help of the men in her life, her grandfather, her father, her husband, and now her son.

The Rapollas survived on the backs of others, she thought. It's about time they realized that.

She would find the right words to soften Don Paoluccio’s heart. Didn’t she help him find the woman of his dreams? It was she who had been in the same convent in Naples with Marianna. It was she who told Paoluccio about such a beautiful woman from such a wonderful family. If it hadn’t been for her, Paoluccio wouldn’t have met her and her family. The Fabrizi took him in because they trusted the smart  Maria Rosaria, their daughter’s best friend, the one that Marianna followed to the small town of Venosa for summer vacations.  Doctor Fabrizi would not have allowed his only daughter to follow him into the wilderness of Lucania if he hadn't trusted Maria Rosaria's judgement.

It was all her doing.

He owed her.

The arbor overlooking the vineyards was set up with long tables, plates of salamis, olives,  figs, grapes, almonds  scattered around;  pitchers of Vino Santo and Moscato at one end; selected tablecloths identifying special seating for some important guests. People  arrived on horseback, in buggies, or on a four wheel cart pulled by oxen. Neighbors, workers and their families, Don Paolo’s boyhood friends, associates from his military days, almost a hundred souls showed up on this Festa.

Gemma's entire family had been hired to  help with cooking, cleaning and making men and beasts confortable. This kind of feeding happened on feast days and on harvest days.

The main meal arrived on rolling carts, Timbale,  baked pasta with varieties of meat and cheeses, all baked in  molds like  giant timbles, rich meat sauce and formaggio on the side. The second course was grilled capretto and agnello, young goat and lamb skewered and basted with garlic, rosemary and wine, aromas spreading for miles. Bowls of salads and fresh greens accompanied the capretto.

Families and neighbors took turns toasting and singing.

At the head of the table, Don Paolo toasted to everyone's good health and  good harvest and passed the wine jugs around. A couple of people played harmonica and mandolin, and people broke into songs. Mingu would have been the first one leading the singing, but he was busy somewhere.

Graziella noticed her father and Donna Maria Rosaria sitting together. Good sign, she thought.

She hoped her life would come to a rest soon, in Naples, among her sweet grandparents. If only she could settle the situation between herself and Mingu!  She needed certainty in her life, one way or another. Her sisters and little brother would be fine for a while. Yes. She needed space to find her life's destiny. She wondered if Mingu would follow her. Or, if he too would leave the Loggia in protest, and join the army and the cavalry he so missed.

It was late afternoon when the meal came to an end; cool breezes and the sound of birds and insects down by the river brought a lazy solace to all. Some people felt like taking short walks around the garden, or down in the vineyards glistening with ripe grapes as far as the eyes could see. Horses grazing leisurely in the pasture would have distracted them, and they would have felt an invitation to sit  by the river and feel blessed on this hot afternoon.

Mingu noticed his mother talking non-stop. Graziella noticed her father nodding and agreeing. They each wondered what would come of all that talking.

Don Paolo was contemplating his time on earth and the people he cared about.

Mingu was getting nervous, needed to speak to Graziella, to reassure her that things would work out.

Going around the arbor, he heard Don Paolo's voice,“And now, before we go any further, Donna Maria Rosaria and I have an announcement. Where are those two? Has anybody seen the love birds?”

Everybody looked around, noticing Mingu at one end of the arbor and Graziella coming from the opposite side.

“As I was saying, Donna Maria Rosaria and I would like to announce the engagement of our children Mingu and Graziella. This union is blessed by our two families and our dear departed spouses in Heaven. These children have a lifetime of blessings bestowed upon them.Congratulations, you two!”

The harmonica player started playing Mingu’s favorite song. Everyone clapped. Everyone started singing, “Te voglio bene, te voglio bene assai..."

Donna Maria Rosaria’s eyes welled thinking of all the  generations of Rapollas and D'Ambrosios chained together, going through life making and breaking promises to each other. The souls of her father, her husband and San Rocco will blessed the new couple, she thought, and joined her son in song, providing a soprano sound. Her past and her future blurred for a second. This land will be united after all, she thought.

“This land will be blessed by many generations,” Don Paoluccio whispered to her, as he stood up to make another toast.

Mingu and Graziella stood side by side with a glass of wine in their hands, smiling incredulously.

Soon, they were surrounded, ladies pulling Graziella aside, asking questions; Don Paolo shaking Mingu's hand;  children dancing around everyone.

It was dark when people headed back home with a full stomach and a story to tell about the new couple.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making Plans

Making Plans

“Mingu, is anything wrong?” Don Paolo didn’t expect to find anybody awake at his return from the city. As Mingu helped him down from his horse.
“Good evening, Don Paolo. ” Mingu took the horse to the stable and later returned to see what Don Paolo's had to say after a long day.
“Come, join me for a drink.” It was late and everyone was asleep, but Don Paolo  found a  snack of bread, salami and a glass of wine, and set another plate for Mingu who joined him in the kitchen after feeding and watering the horse,

The kitchen was warm, a fire still burning, anticipating his arrival. Gemma heard the men from the back room where she slept and came to see what was needed. She offered to fry some eggs and assemble a proper meal for the padrone.

She saw Mingu's long face.

“Sorry, Gemma, didn’t mean to wake you. Mingu and I are just having a glass of wine, something to relax me before I get to bed.” Don Paolo’s tone was calm, but she couldn’t help noticing his visage wincing in pain as he dropped in a chair.

“Go back to bed, Gemma. Morning is just a few hours away.” He was commanding her, and it was no use arguing at this point.  If Mingu wasn't around, Don Paolo would allow a salt bath for his feet, even a massage of that throbbing leg.  She went back to her room without protesting.

If they needed her, they knew where she was.

Mingu dropped down to help the padrone  with the removal of the boots.

“Get the good wine, will you? I could use company. You look like you have something on your mind. What is it?” Don Paolo didn't like much fussing.  At these times, he missed his wife more than ever.  Marianna always waited up for him, insisted on treating that leg of his with rubbings of alcohol, with special pomates of oil or this, or oil of that.  Marianna would have had a hot meal waiting for him too.

“You’ve had a long day.”

“We’re awake. Might as well get it off your chest.”

“Graziella and I. Just today.” Mingu moved around the place and cut himself a slice of bread. He found it easier to talk as he moved to gather things. He was afraid Don Paolo was going to erupt any minute at the ideas discussed.

“You and Graziella?” Don Paolo’s tone was warm and gentle. “ My young man, my daughter is always finding ways to be around you. I thought you noticed.”

“I thought….” Mingu stopped in mid-sentence. What did he hear?

“She’s been fond of you for a long time. 'Mingu this; Mingu that'. She's still very young, no?”

“Graziella wanted us to speak to you together, Don Paolo. ”

“A long day! I’m glad we talked.”


“How is your mother going to take the news? Have you thought about that? She’s the one you need to worry about.”

“I’m picking her up for the Festa tomorrow.”

“Yes. Tomorrow, we’ll talk tomorrow. Good night, Mingu.”

“Good night, Don Paolo.”

It was almost dawn when Don Paolo went to bed. Mingu then,  saddled up and rode to town.  The Festa was going to bring them all back together in a few hours.

When Mingu arrived at his mother's, she fixed him a hearty breakfast and before he opened his mouth about anything, she brought up the topic of Graziella.

“So, you two have feelings for each other.” She started.

“Yes, Mamma’. I wasn’t sure myself until just the other day, right after she came down to talk to you. What did she say exactly?”

“Never mind that. I want to know how you plan to support her. She is used to the life at the Loggia. What can you give her? Your father left us those few acres by the forest and they don’t produce much these days. Even the hunt has come to a stop. We made extra money when we had dozens of people at the time spend time at the Loggia during hunting season. I almost had the dowry for your sister after one season. I’m quite sure Don Paoluccio, in his condition misses his old lifestyle. Soon, he’ll be telling you to get rid of the horses, and then, where will you be?”

“I’m running the place, Mamma. Not just the stables. Besides, I can always re-enlist in the military. I always loved the Cavalry.”

“You haven’t been paying attention! There is a lot of talk with Mussolini changing things. Cavalry or no Cavalry, I’m a widow and if you leave us what will happen? Who’ll help your poor Mamma and the young ones? Rodolfo and Nicola need your guidance. Your sister will need a trousseau. We have nothing. Four mouths and no steady income. Don Paoluccio romised your dad two acres by the river. I bet he forgot that. I bet now that his daughter is coming of age he’d rather not look back.”

“Mamma, I’m asking Graziella’s hand if Don Paoluccio doesn’t object. Now, it doesn’t affect our family at all. I’ll still watch out for my brothers and sister.”

“We’re about to see the dismantling of things. No, son. No. The military is the last place you’ll be happy in. I think we better get you to America. Yes. I’ll talk to Paoluccio. His brother and sister are there, in New York. You and Graziella can make a new life there. You can send for the rest of the children, and your brothers and your sister. Paoluccio and I do not have a lot of time on this earth.”

“Mamma, you’re worrying for nothing. You’ll both live to be a hundred. I can still run the Masseria for the family, and in a few years, I can buy some land, build our own place.”

“I wouldn’t set my hopes too high, figlio mio. Paoluccio is not like Marianna, his dear wife.You are still the stable boy. You better make other plans. I’d hate for you to be disappointed. What you want is impossible.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Among Vines and Flowers

“We’ll have to stop and see Donna Maria Rosaria.” Graziella told Lina as they got into the buggy.

Their day was going to be long and tiring, and Graziella knew her little sister needed to know all the rules for this long day. She would not be running around the gardens, playing marbles or hide and seek with her brother Tiu`do. The older sisters were splitting responsibilities to get everything done.

“Do we have to?” Lina was excited, looking forward to the street vending and lots of new merchandise laid out on the streets. The celebration of the town patron, La Festa di San Rocco, brought dozens of vendors to town, with  merchandise, rides and music from one end of town to the other. This occurred at the end of August, when many things had been harvested, and the town folks had extra cash to spend.

“It wouldn’t be right not to pay our respects. Besides, if you want those new shoes, you need to be polite and pleasant the entire time. Yes?"

“I hate her house; it smells funny.” Lina was not at all interested in spending time in a quiet dark corner as the two women talked about stuff.  She wanted to shop, try new toys, eat new candies.

“We don’t choose where we’ re born or what our luck is. We ought to be thankful.”

“That’s not what Papa’ says.”

“We owe the Pepe family a great deal. Who do you think has been in charge of the Masseria? First, Signor Natale, Mingu’s father; now Mingu. Our families have been connected for generations. God chose to make us human to help each other. Different from animals, but not much better. I know chickens I trust more than humans.”

Graziella realized that it was best to make Lina happy before the visit.  That way, she'd be content and full and ready for a short nap before heading back home.

They arrived at Donna Maria Rosaria’s house late afternoon, after the shopping.

“We had to wait until now; had we arrived close to the midmorning meal, we would be imposing, assuming that a meal prepared for the family could feed uninvited guests as well. If we arrived after the meal, people would be taking an afternoon rest. We have to be careful of these things, or we are not welcome into people’s houses. What’s more, people will think we have no manners.”

“You always take too long!” Lina knew that it was of no use to complain, but she hoped Graziella would forget about visiting anybody and take her home where she would be telling Tiudo all he had missed.

“Che bella sopresa! Angels at my door! Come, sit with me.” The old woman was surprised to see them.

“Donna Maria Rosaria, we’ve come to invite you to the Festa.” Graziella handed her freshly baked pastries from a local bakery, and a bouquet of white roses from her garden. White roses were Graziella's favorites.

“I remember when your Mamma Mariana, bless her soul, wanted different roses for each of you. I planted fruit trees on the south side of the Masseria, for each boy. Terradonna has all of our memories. Thank you, girls; this makes me miss the Masseria a little less.”

“Dad asked that we get you up to Loggia for my farewell party. I want you there. I wouldn’t think of leaving without saying my goodbyes.”

Graziella  referred to her house as the Loggia. But, the whole compound had always been called Terradonna, and it included the Loggia, the compound where all the farming and stables were, called the Masseria, the vineyards, the olive groves, the woods that had provided hunting expeditions for decades, spreading for a thousand acres or so, part of which had at one point been owned by the Pepe and D'Ambrosio families  before the Rapollas came on the scene.

The name Terradonna was the name for that entire place.

“When are you leaving?”

“In a week, in time for the beginning of school. I need some independence, meet new people…”

“Oh? Is there someone special?”

“No. I just want to have a little life away from the Loggia. Papa’ is in good hands with Mingu’ around. And Dolo`ra seems to handle things around the house.”

“Figlia mia, che bella idea (my daughter, what a good idea); to go to school, to enrich your mind. You have been gifted with beauty and brain. God loves you.”

“Thank you. We must head on back. We don’t want to be on the road too late. Besides, look at her, she is so tired!" She picked up Lina, half asleep and transported her to the buggy. Donna Maria Rosaria accompanied her.

“Ciao, cara, my respects to your dad.”

Graziella moved away from Lina and walked Donna Maria Rosaria to her door.

“Donna Maria Rosaria, I cannot leave town until I know for sure how I stand. I came to ask for advice."
"What's wrong?"
"I am in love with Mingu, but I don’t know how everything will turn out with us. He seems to avoid me. You can help me understand what's wrong here."

The old woman was speechless. She was fond of the girl, but she didn’t see this coming. This was not what she anticipated. This can’t work out, she thought. Paoluccio would never allow it.

“Child, you are too young. Nowadays girls pursue more interests. I wish I had your opportunities. I wanted to become an Opera singer. I took lessons. But, I just stopped dreaming for myself after I got married.”

"I feel like a flower that will wither in a few hours; I am missing air.”

“Child, there is nothing more important in our lives that love. Have you prayed for guidance? Have you told your father? ”

“How can I talk to Papa? I’m not supposed bother him.”

“You must talk to him. You must tell him how you feel. It’s no use putting it off.”

Graziella returned to the Loggia with a lighter heart. She knew what she must do. Her whole future depended on the next few days.

Tiudo met her at the door and after she handed him a pastry, she sent him to bring Mingu to the garden. She gathered a carafe of cold water and the rest of the pastries and went out to the rose garden to wait for Mingu’. The arbor outside the kitchen provided enough privacy without being compromising. Everyone can see them, and her brother and sisters will be nearby. Soon everything will be ok, she thought.

Lina had taken her stuff to her room, and had reappeared  with her Sunday dress and her new shoes.

“Lina, you look stunning! Now, go change back; we don’t want to mess this lovely dress. You’ll be the best looking child at the Festa. Go tell Dad  I’ll be up in a while. Wait for me up in his room. Go.”

Graziella was making sure that none of her siblings would spoil the conversation she had planned to have with Mingu’.

Mingu heard the girls' carriage as they passed on the way to the Loggia. Usually, Graziella would have stopped at the Masseria to have Mingu take care of the carriage and the animals. But today, she was in a hurry.  She wanted Lina back at home, and she wanted time to figure out how to approach Mingu'.

A few minutes later, when young Tiu`do came around with an enormous piece of pastry in his hand and tried to tell him he was needed at the Loggia, it took him a while to figure out what the boy was trying to say with his full mouth. Mingu took him out to the water basin and both of them washed up before leaving for the Loggia. Something told him to wear a clean shirt.

Mingu arrived at the arbor and noticing some errant vine,  pulled out his clippers from his back pocket and began pruning. Then, he saw her move toward him, illuminated by a setting red sun behind her, with a halo similar to the one of the very Madonna she was named after.

Madonna mia, this heart of mine is going to burst right here and now.

He waited for her to speak, not wanting to break the spell.

“Mingu, I saw your mother today.” Graziella started.

“How is she?”

“She gave me some advice.”


“Yes, I asked her if I should go to Naples to run away from my feelings. And do you know what she said? She said I should stay here and confront them. Only then, I can decide what to do next.”


“So, I will talk to Papa' and get everything out in the open.”


“Mingu, what’s happening to you? You just keep saying Oh?”

“I don’t know what this is about, between you and my mom”

“Yes, you know! Don’t pretend! I have seen you looking at me, pleading with your eyes. I have guessed how you feel.”


“Oh? Oh? That’s all you are going to say? You sweet talk everybody around here. Now it’s your turn to sweet talk me, and you just say ‘Oh’?”

“You want me to sweet talk you? Why? You are promised to the lawyer in Barletta.”

“There you go again. Assuming something you know nothing about. How do you feel? That’s all I am interested.”

“How do I feel? About you or what?”

“Don’t play dumb. Yes, about me, truthfully!”

“Madonna mia, I never thought it was going to be this hard!”

“What’s hard? What’s hard?”

“Now, Graziella, just be quiet for a minute. I need to catch my wits. Everything has changed and I have to adjust. You took me by surprise, that’s all. By surprise.”

“Mingu, how…”

“No, let me finish. Just wait and I will get to it. O.K. now. Well, all my life, you have been the one and only girl I have been attracted to. But since I work here, I did not want to make it awkward for either one of us. I have been waiting for the right moment.”

“Mingu, I…”

“Now, let me finish.”

“Wait, before you finish…”

“Let’s do this right, Graziella. It’s the man that says the words first. So, Graziella, I am in love with you. God has chosen you for me. I hope you feel the …”

“I do. I do. Mingu, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. I am sick in love thinking of you all the time. I told your mom, I told the maids. Everybody knows.”

“Everybody? Does your father know?”

“No, he is the only one. But my grandparents know.”

“And what do they know? That a Padronessa, is in love with a stable boy? I don’t have anything to offer you like those other men. I don’t have any land or houses, or an education.”

“You are offering your heart, the heart of a good, decent man, who loves his mom and is good to animals. That’s enough for me.”

“Let me talk to your father when he returns.”

“Mingu, I know how things are done around here. Men talking to men about women! But that’s not how I like it. We are going to talk to him together. ”



“Ok, tonight.”

Mingu left Graziella with the world weighing him down. He thought revealing his love was going to lighten his load. That’s what the songs say.

This felt like his breathing was going to stop any minute.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mingu's Story

He stepped in the smoky kitchen of the Loggia not expecting to see anyone. It was too late for breakfast, and too early for lunch. The cook must be out in the garden gathering greens, or feeding  pigs. He found her by the back door, butchering chickens.

“Gemma Bella, what can hungry men eat this morning?” Mingu spun her around before she had a chance to put down the bloody knife she was using.

“And why do you think that I saved you anything? We didn’t expect you back so soon.” She stopped to wash up as Mingu took her place and finished the butchering.

“Because you are crazy about me, just can’t help yourself.” He teased her as usual. “Mother sent you something.” He pointed to a package he brought her.

“Ma va ( go on..) stop teasing an old woman. What? What is this? Donna Maria Rosaria’s favorite shawl! It’s too much!”

“Mother wants you to have it.” He had finished the cutting and boning, and he too walked out of the smoky place to wash up.

Breaking into a song, he rubbed his hands in dirt before throwing hot water on them from the tub waiting for the morning dishes. He noticed how Gemma had stacked the dishes and would be washing them right after the chickens had been processed. When he came back, she had cut huge slices of bread and had scrambled some eggs to add to the peppers she had cooked for everybody else.

“Sit, sit down. Tell me about your trip.”

He told her the town was full of  merchants displaying fancy wares up and down the piazza. This feast brought new products and excitements to town.

He thanked her for the meal and whistled out to make his rounds, letting men and beasts know that he was back on the job.

Gemma watched him go, happy, that young man, polite and sweet to everyone. He was the only one who could put in a good word with the Padrone. In the last couple of years, since he returned from the military, Mingu had been interceding with the Padrone, getting half days off here and there and on Sundays, as God himself took Sundays off.

“Sometimes, we treat beasts better than we treat men!” He had confessed to himself, finding courage to stand up to a Padrone that was mostly absent these days, glad to turn things over to his trusty foreman.

Mingu appreciated that trust.

He hoped to get a glimpse of Graziella. He saw Tiu`do playing around with his food and arguing with Lina. Mingu took the boy aside and talked to him, promising to take him on a ride if he behaved. Graziella was nowhere around. He left word that if the Padrone wanted him, he’d be at the stables.

The morning chores did nothing to ease his anxiousness. All those songs that spoke of love didn’t even begin to explain this feeling. He could eat a big meal, but the minute he thought about her, he would be hungry again, and thirsty, and nervous, and distracted. Having other girls chase him just made the situation worse. They increased his distress. They made him angry. How could he be so desirable to others, when the one he desired pretended he didn’t exist?

Maybe Graziella was just shy, waiting for him to take the first step.

Mid-day, Don Paoluccio found him.

“Mingu, I heard you came by earlier. How is your mother?”

“She sends her best. Her rheumatisms are bothering her.”

“Be sure she’s here for the Festa. Graziella won’t leave without saying goodbye.”

“Graziella is leaving?”

“She starts school in a week. She has been accepted to study medicine in Naples. Doctor Fabrizi arranged the whole thing. Actually, Mingu, you have a lot to do with that decision. It’s all your fault.”

“My fault?”

“Yes, all your fault, and her mother’s, bless her soul. You convinced her she could do anything she wanted, and her mother when she was alive, convinced her that she needed knowledge, especially medical and scientific knowledge. Mariana was not happy with the girls stuck out here, so far from civilization. She wanted them educated, exposed to culture. Our plan was to spend winters in Naples, and return at the Loggia just for hunting, the way this residence was originally designed for.”

“A doctor! A good thing, for sure.”

“Did you know that I had planned to be a doctor before I entered the military? I thought about returning to it after the leg problem. Graziella will do very well, match any man at any thing. And why not? Women are always right, Mingu.”

“Yes, I suppose so. The workers want to know if they can spend an extra day in town on account of the Feast.”

“I leave you in charge of these things. I will need to be away, but I’ll be back for the Feast. I trust you will keep an extra eye around here. ”


“I KNOW. I have always been able to depend on you and your family.”

When Don Paoluccio left, Mingu could not stop his heart from pounding. How could he hear her name and stay calm? She was leaving, and so his dream will leave too.

Before Don Paoluccio was out of sight, Graziella came looking for him.

“Mingu, I want to go to town to pick up a few things for the Festa. Can you prepare the buggy? I was going to stop and pay my respects at your mother’s.”

“She will appreciate that.”

“We’ll leave in an hour.”

He would have loved to talk to her. But things were changing right in front of his eyes. She was going away, as she should. She was stretching her wings and finding things out for herself. He had no chance now. Now he needed to accept his lot in life. He could stay here, as his father did, or he could rejoin the cavalry and return to his first love. He could make a life for himself in the army. With Italy changing, with war talks in all the papers, life was about to change.

It was time to move on.

His dream lay elsewhere.

He hitched the horses and got lost in his own thoughts. His first love is already coming to an end before it was allowed to breathe, he thought.  He needs to stay away from her, away from ever meeting her face to face again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A trip to the Loggia

Dolo`ra placed the coverlet on the bed as Mingu's mother had instructed,  and climbed up into the big matrimonial bed for the first time. She crossed herself, closed her eyes and began talking to her dead sister Graziella, whose place she was taking.

Non era il mio desiderio, sorella mia! It was not my desire, sister! I wish this had never happened."

With her arms crossed over her chest, in the dark, she recited every prayer she knew.
What happened next she never talked about. Never. For years, she didn’t remember whether she was alone all night, whether she cried all night. Her wedding night was just like any other night, she thought.

Mingu dreamed of his Graziella, and of the child he would never see. He lost his dream of raising horses, owning his own stables and ranch, of bringing up strapping young boys like his brothers.

In the morning, Dolo`ra woke her sister Lina early..

"Get dressed. We're going to the Loggia."

“Am I going to get my own bed?”

“Didn’t you notice? You already have your own bed; I sleep in the matrimonial bed.”

“Am I going to be sent to an orphanage? Am I going to be sent away?”

“We are family. Nothing will separate us. Nothing!”

“Tiu`do ran away.”

“Boys have to do that, leave their home, all the rules of growing up they had at home; then, when they miss home-cooking, when they miss their families, they’ll be coming back. You’ll see, he’ll return this summer or next, all grown up, all ready to go to work and act like a man.”

“I am scared he’s never coming back.”

“I remember when Mingu did the same thing, when he joined the army before he proposed to Graziella.”

“I don’t care about Tiu`do becoming a man. I want him back home.”

“He missed his old life, was stubborn. I guess he had to. We all do what we feel is best. But, remember, we are Rapolla! It means something! It will mean something when you are ready to get married. If you are virtuous, and act right, you can have the pick of any young man. You’ll see!”

“Sister Anna Maria told me I have a calling.”

“Nobody can tell what your destiny will bring. At your age, I wanted to be like Pa`pa, learning about the business.”

“What did he Papa do?”

“We owned lots of land. Pa`pa managed them, overseeing the planting, the harvest, the production of wine, the sales.”

“He couldn’t see!”

“That happened later.”

"I wish that Mamma and Papa were still alive. And Graziella too! And that Tiu`do hadn’t run away.”

“Yes! I know!”

Dolo`ra was hoping to meet the new owners  of the Loggia, and share the secrets of the gardens with them. Secretly, she came to see the place one more time before it changed forever.

"Are we staying?" Lina asked, confused. The trip took a good hour on the buggy, and they needed to find water for the horse before they could return. But nobody was there to meet them. The Loggia was deserted.
"We can't stay long. Go on, take a good look. Remember this is where you came from. This is where your roots are. "

Everything was overgrown.  The girls took cuttings of roses and snips of herbs before they returned home.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dolo`ra's Story

The second wife

This house was Graziella's, her deceased sister house; every piece of linen had her initials; every piece of furniture had been purchased for her. When Graziella had started her trousseau she added Mingu’s initials on the linens, G and D, for Graziella and Domenico, his full name. This house was their wedding present. They had chosen the spot, the place where they could still see the Loggia, her home, on a direct axis with Monticchio, the mountain that guided their horses home at the end of each day working the fields.

Dolo`ra remembered how her sister tried to keep her pregnancy a secret, to keep the Malocchio at bay. The evil eye can come from anywhere, at any time, envious of your happiness. Even Mingu didn’t know.

Their father had been suffering with failing eyesight for years. Paoluccio Rapolla had been bossing men and beasts with equal bark even when reduced to a puny size and was barely visible on the large matrimonial bed where he spent his last months battling pneumonia.

When Graziella took sick and lost her baby, Mingu did not expect to bury his infant and  wife in the same grave. He was going to mourn them the rest of his life.

Donna Maria Rosaria talked to Dolo`ra about marriage; as a Mother-in-law, it fell upon her to decide how to handle things. Dolo`ra was still a girl herself.

“You have all gone through a lot. And nobody is going to split up the family or the property. This family has been on this land for generation. It’s important that you all stay together.” She said, as a preamble.

Dolo`ra answer surprised her:

“Mingu can take his horse and leave. We’ll survive here."

“Figlia mia!” Donna Maria Rosaria could not believe this meek fifteen year old speak out so freely. How did this woman-child insist on getting her way? Was there more willfulness she was going to see? She continued, “Figlia mia, just take your time, but you won't have much leisure left. As soon as the judge is finished with his decision, you and your siblings will be homeless!"

Donna Maria Rosaria had the same trouble convincing Mingu to face the situation with dignity.

“Mingu, if we leave these children alone their relatives will fight over the land and they will not rest until each one gets a piece. They have no one to protect them. They will all be sent to an orphanage; the land will be sold; and all will be lost. You can’t even get your first wife’s inheritance seeing how everything will need to be straightened out and the lawyers will eat up everything.”

“But, Mamma, this is not an easy matter.”

“It’s not easy, for either one of you.”

“Marrying my sister in law must be a sin!”

“We will check with the parish priest. They have seen everything those people.”

Donna Maria Rosaria tended to the funeral announcements, and  six months later, when the girl  turned sixteen and a sufficient time had elapsed with mourning and dark shadows all over the place, she took action.

They were married at the Loggia, with just two witnesses. Instead of a honeymoon, Mingu left to help distant relatives, to give everyone a chance to get used to the idea, and Dolo`ra and her siblings remained with Donna Maria Rosaria acting as the house supervisor, ordering clean-ups and a new coverlet made with the names of the newlyweds. She gave this to Dolo`ra, telling her that when she was ready to be a wife, she was to lay the coverlet over her marriage bed, at her sister’s house, and take charge of her life. No rush, she had said.

The Rapolla’s had accumulated a lot of debts during the years when the father was ill; the residence, the Loggia was mortgaged to pay the doctor’s bills and finance the house in town  for the newlyweds. When Graziella died, the house was still being constructed. When a judge ordered the Loggia sold to pay the many creditors, the girls and their brother scrambled to collect a few things before they were moved permanently in the unfinished house meant for Mingu and Graziella.

“No, it’s not right, I don’t want to leave,” Lina wailed.

Dolo`ra convinced her sister and brother to be practical, choose their favorite things. All animals and equipment was sold with the house, all furniture, all books, all dishes and utensils. People came from other towns to view the place and covet one of the many beautiful things laid out on tables all over the Loggia. The cash transactions went on for days.

Nobody sat down and explained to Dolo`ra her new role. She remembered how her sister Graziella had gone on and on about Mingu’s virtues. He is kind and smart, she had said. He is loyal and conscientious, she had said. I love him with all my heart, she had said. Dolo`ra did not understand this love, but she understood duties.

She asked about getting two extra beds in the house, one for her and Lina, one for Tiu`do.

Donna Maria Rosaria pulled her aside and spoke to her gently:

Madonna mia, non sai che non c’e’ piu niente! My goodness, you don’t know that there is nothing left! Ora, Figlia mia, devi dormire con tuo marito! Now, My daughter; you must sleep with your husband! When your husband returns you must lay your coverlet down and sleep in that bed. He knows to wait for your signal. Whatever is in that house belongs to you two. What’s left of the land are just a couple of split plots nobody wanted. Mingu can show them to you when he returns. Now, make the best of this; God is testing all of us. Remember Mingu has lost the love of his life.”

Dolo`ra realized she should have listened to girls’ talk about men. What was it that Graziella was trying to tell her, trying to get her to focus as they were embroidering the trousseau?

“I do not understand why you need all these fancy things. Can’t you just live here at home when you get married?”

She wanted to run the business, travel with her dad. She loved being around him. And she hadn’t minded when she had to be his eyes too, when she had to run errands for him, drive the buggy for him when he had to show up at meetings.

She had to plan tasks that her dad could still do without feeling like a burden. She had to keep those thoughts alive all the time in front of her. Her dad was losing his will to live, the household was falling apart, and his medical bills were staggering. She figured he should not be bothered with finances. Besides, they were rich, they were land owners. Those folks that sent bills could wait to be paid. In town those who delivered goods also waited. When he feels better he will tackle these inconveniences. Her job was to keep things smooth and serene for him.

It wasn’t obvious to anybody else. Her dad had given up doing the payroll, dismissed lots of people, and Dolo`ra finally thought of alerting her older sister about the circumstances. She assumed that Mingu, her brother in law, who was running the ranch for the family, must have been told some things, but had not complained when ranch hands were let go and the work rested all on his shoulders. He had been spending a lot more time in town, with his Graziella.

When her father’s fever couldn’t break, Dolo`ra left the Loggia and her younger siblings, hitched the horses and rushed her father to town. With a sick man in the wagon, she hurried through, pushing the animals to make the trip while there was light in the sky. Her father stopped wailing around the time that they reached the Pineta, a dark forest full of shadowy figures. She knew about the lovers gathered in whispery moments in that place, and the many crimes committed in the shadows, but she hurried the animals and prayed to the Madonna to protect them. Her father’s last words were spoken in that Pineta:

"Dolo`ra, figlio`la, mi vuoi morto? Child, are you trying to kill me?

Stop, let me rest here.”

She did not trust the place, lovers or brigands, she couldn’t tell them apart. She needed to get to town to her sister’s house and get a doctor to see him, before it got any darker.

Paolo Rapolla expired in that Pineta.

Dolo`ra blamed herself for her father's death.
She blamed herself for her sister's and infant's untimely deaths too.

Dolo`ra was going to live the rest of her life doing penance and asking God for forgiveness.
The night her brother Tiu`do ran away from home, Dolo`ra decided to lay in her sister's matrimonial bed with Mingu'. It was her duty, she told herself, her duty to save what could be saved, to hold her family together, to hold on  to memories with dignity and honor.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Leaving Home

Leaving Home: Tiudo

Tiu`do left home right after his birthday, his father’s coat barely missing the ground,  carrying a cardboard box full of bread and hot sausages his sisters assembled for the long trip. They told him to return if things didn’t work out. They didn’t mention that hunger and loneliness would be papering every new place he slept in. They knew that life was better elsewhere, even if elsewhere proved worst than home.

He was following in the footsteps of every other boy from Venosa whose father didn’t have an extra room for him, or a trade to pass on. He was making his way wherever people hired, be it ten kilometers away, or at the top of the Italian boot.

Anywhere was bound to be better, he thought.

It happened earlier than he had anticipated.  Before his father died, Tiu`do had been promised a shiny new bike, like the one that the winner of the Giro d’Italia had. Tiudo saw a similar one at the local hardware store and showed it off to his friends every time they passed the place.

On the morning of his birthday, when he mentioned the bike at breakfast, his sister Dolora' reminded him that things were tough. She scolded him for having such thoughts.

Tiu`do became angry, and decided to skip school, and convinced his cousin Luciano  to join him on a scouting adventure, like the one they both had at that summer camp that Mussolini had built for the youth of the land. Luciano followed him, and they ventured past the usual swimming hole, deciding to squander this early summer day by pushing their skinny bodies as far as they could in the wild river that ran at the bottom of the knoll, challenging each other to go further than they had gone the previous time they came here to fish. They were sure nobody had worried about the boys having missed school. Teachers were used to children going off with their relatives on family reunions this time of the year when families left for days at a time.

Luciano stopped first, to catch his breath. Tiu`do teased him and continued for another minute until he too felt the burn of his lungs, and went ashore, planning to hide, making Luciano panic. On a path that snaked into a ravine, he saw a shining object, a glint in the brambles, and his plan to hide changed. He yelled for Luciano to catch up with him.

The boys hid the newfound bike planning to return for it another day. The two cousins were just a few months apart, raised in each other’s houses, knowing every secret there is to know about the other.
Their combined family, six in Luciano's house, and four in Tiu`do's house  went on the customary Little Easter picnic, to the Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie, an old musty church  opened only for this day's picnic and pilgrimage. The boys would have played soccer with their friends.

Their teacher stopped at both  houses after school, on the day they went swimming and inquired about the absent boys. The sisters had been embarrassed and angry. Everybody knew that the boys had ditched school; and everybody blamed the sisters for not offering better supervision. From now on, both boys were under house supervision. They were allowed to go with the family to the Pasquetta, the picnic and pilgrimage up the hill to the Church of St Mary of the Graces, the same Madonna for whom Tiudo's deceased sister had been named after.

The trail to the church was treacherous:bugs and stickers lodged in socks and underwear, sore feet and hungry stomachs were the only sensations until a thunderstorm changed their concentration. Now everybody's attention went to the weather. God of weather must be the same God that took his mother, his father and his sister, Tiu`do's thought. Everyone prayed out-loud, except the boys. They were sore about all this supervision, all this fuss about missing one day of school. Even God took a day off. Besides. God was not paying attention to anybody's prayer right now.

Before they could even set their things down, they were all scrambling for cover. A storm began dumping huge hail stones on the mountain top. These storms bumped into mountains, with thunder and lightening sparking speculations. Will the harvest be ruined? God of weather decided everything in your life. Only the Madonna, especially this Madonna, could intercede on your behalf.

Boys learned to be men working alongside their fathers from the time they could walk the distance to the fields without being carried. Luciano’s older brothers pushed him away every time he followed them out of the house. “Go play with your cousin, go keep Tiu`do company. Go to school! When we were your age we were already working in the fields. You have it good, my little one. Stay in school!” The boys had been enrolled in secondary school with the Salesian Brothers, among the lucky boys whose family could afford  tuition.

A boy like Luciano could wait before he broke his back on the farm. Tiu`do future was in the vineyards working for his brother in law any day now. His sisters had insisted that he finish school, that he continue his studies as his father had planned for him.

He had always wanted to run away and join the circus around harvest time when it came to town with the big tent and merry-go-round, setting up right behind their house. For three weeks, loud music and the roar of the crowd kept everybody awake past their usual bed time. He helped with the set up, and was rewarded with a free ticket to opening night when contortionists and fire eaters hushed the place.

The smell of saw dust and motor oil lingered for weeks after the circus left, way into December when rain and snow erased all footprints of fun and excitement. The high wire artists, suspended in the shadows of the big tent, lived in a blurry world. The boy, his heart suspended up there with those artists, became “Tiu`do il Magnifico”, king of the high wire, cotton candy stuck on his fingers and peanut shells crackling by his feet. He sat in admiration sucking nougat into thin strings, lick after lick, savoring every daring act with sweet joy until the final trapeze drop sucked his breath away. The boy managed to be at the show every night. He spent afternoons earning his ticket. His horse stalls were neglected, but circus horses and their stalls were well cared for.

He fixed the found bike, and kept it at the old barn connected to his old house, a few kilometers out of town. Every Sunday, after church, he sneaked out after lunch and returned to the Loggia, the family home they had to abandon. He lingered around the vineyards that had belonged to his father, slipped through broken boards in the barn to collect his drawings from all the hidden places, feeling he belonged there; he was home. Nobody was guarding the place; the past blurred with the present.

He did not understand how they lost the house, why they had to live in town with the ranch hand that became his brother in law, in a small house, sharing a bedroom with his sisters, taking care of the horses and the barn that had never before been his job.

Something was not right.

At the end of this school year, his future lay before him.  He could follow his brother in law and work in the vineyyards, or go apprentice with some local artisan.  He was actually too old to apprentice, having spent three additional years in school, wasting his time, but he had not complained about it.  His father's death had numbed him. He had a couple of months to decide what to do. Meanwhile, he cleaned the horse stalls, and managed to disappear most days before his sisters piled chores for him to do.  There was always wood to chop or carry, water to fetch, bread to transport back and forth to the community ovens.  His sisters were still in mourning, all dressed in black, leaving only to go to church.

They all looked like Mingu's Mother, Donna Maria Rosaria who had moved in to look after them until Dolora ' got married. She had been there a year already, and was really the one telling everyone what to do.  Even Mingu' listened to her.

One morning, his little sister Lina caught him sneaking out before breakfast.

“Tiu`do, what’s gotten into you? You are never around.”

“I hate it here. I want things like before. I don’t want to live with that man.”

“Min`gu is taking care of us all.”

“I don’t care.”

“Don’t let him hear you talk like that.” She feared her brother was bringing tension in the family.

“ He can’t boss me. He is not my father.” Tiu`do was annoyed at her for delaying him.

“ Dolo`ra made pizza, your favorite, anchovies and onions. Come.”

He followed his sister to the kitchen, grabbed a pizza slice and a clean brown shirt from the pile of things to be ironed and ran off before any body else saw him.  At Luciano's every one noticed the wrinkled shirt.
“You are no son of the Lupa” Luciano told him, adding, “Sons of the Lupa clean up before they put the uniform on!”

Their job was to grow up to be leaders, Sister Teresa, their fifth grade teacher had told them when the scout leader had shown up to sign them up for summer camp. Every student had memorized the motto of the Sons of the Lupa: “The destiny of Italy is in your hands, young sons of the Lupa. Make her proud. Be the Cesars of tomorrow. Be disciplined, be clean and upright. Be ambitious and you will conquer the world.”

Turning to Luciano Tiu`do snapped:

“Don’t tell me what to do! If I don’t want to wash, I don’t wash. So, can you come and play, or do you have to ask for permission?”

He wanted to be far away before they came looking for him again. Besides, his house was spooked, Donna Maria Rosaria, Min`gu mother, was hiding everywhere,  a black shawl over her head hiding the red hair that made her look fake. Nobody else in town had red hair. She put a spell on his family, even on his cat.

He moved his bed covers to  the barn where he could draw as long as the moon was bright, and reappear in the day time to eat and to keep his sisters from crying. If they insisted, he would wash. But they had to catch him first. He took a few early morning eggs which he sold for pocket money, and tried to stay out of everybody's way. Only the cat knew if he returned at night.

He was leaving town, money or no money, and he would become a great artist, or a great bike rider. His name would be changed too. He would be called by his baptismal name as soon he reached the big city.

Min`gu had way too much to do to worry about a boy who had to sleep with his cat. He himself was still numb from all that had happened. His job, he told himself, was to keep going, take a piece of hard bread, a piece of cheese and a jug of wine to last him all day in the hot sun and go work in the vineyards. Everybody was relying on him to keep the rest together.

The girls could help, but then, they were needed at home, for the cooking and the washing.

“Take the boy!" His Mother barked her orders to everyone, " He needs exercise and discipline. He can help you. ” She was insisting and demanding.

She made the rules of the house, including how long was going to be the period of mourning for the girls..

Min`gu preferred that the boy joined him willingly, obediently. He couldn’t really force all these children to follow in line. Besides, what about how he felt? Didn’t he lose the love of his life when Graziella died?  How could he go on like nothing had happened? Everyone has had time to mourn. What about him? When does he mourn?

He left every morning praying for a miracle. Not a specific miracle. A total life-changing, make everything go back to what it used to be miracle. And he knew these sorts of miracles didn’t exist. And if they did, they didn’t happen in poor Italy. How could God take his young wife right after her father died? How could a twenty-seven year old man take all this responsibility on his shoulders?  What did he do to deserve this?

Tiu`do stayed out at night too, visiting with his friends and relatives who began to sympathize with him, probed him for gossip, offered him food and lodging. Soon, the town began to talk.

“Hey, Min`gu, how come you kicked your wife’s little brother out of the house? He has been telling everybody that he has no place to call home.” Min`gu heard this type of gossip everywhere he went.

“What? Who told you that? The boy likes sleeping in the barn with his cat. He comes in to wash and eat, the women tell me. He needs time to settle in. He had it tough with all those tragedies. Poor soul.”

“Min`gu, the boy is talking about you, how cruel you are to his sisters and to him. He says you act like the ‘padrone’ bossing everybody around. He calls you ‘sfruttatore’, someone who’s taking advantage of them; he tells everyone that you stole his inheritance.”

Min`gu was growing angry with each conversation, night after night, as he walked on his daily passegiata. He tried to stay calm and positive. How could he explain himself? Didn’t he marry the girl to help the children, to keep them from an orphanage? Wasn’t it evident?

“The boy is still young and misses his dad. Why, I understand it. I would do the same thing, and say the same things. He has to mind me, that’s all. He is not used to that. His blind father was hardly able to discipline him. He ran wild. Those girls had their hands full with that blind man. My own sweet departed wife, God rest her soul, I don’t want to think about this, felt awful leaving her household to her younger siblings and a blind man. Tiu’do will come around.”

Min`gu might be invited to take a drink, to continue the conversation in somebody's house. Everyone wanted to know more. On night, as he was finishing his wine and trying to maintain a friendly composure, he bid his companions goodnight and made up his mind.

 Tonight, he and the boy were going to settle things. Tonight, the boy will know who the boss is, he thought, getting angrier and angrier with each step toward home.

The news that Min`gu was on the way home reached the boy in seconds. Without saying goodbye, he grabbed his things and left that house for good. On the way to his relatives’ he passed the Pineta where somebody bigger than him kicked him and left him bruised and bloody to find his way around.

The cousins took him in.“Madonna mia. Che bestia, quello (My goodness, what a beast, that one). Beatrice, Luciano's mother, was constructing the scene without listening. Min`gu must have beaten this poor frightened boy.

“Come in. Go wash up and borrow some clothes.” She said.

“That Min`gu is taking advantage of you children. Your poor mom and dad must be turning in their graves. Tomorrow, we are going down to the tile factory and see if we can’t straighten out your future. You can sleep with Luciano.”

Min`gu was looking to hit something when he arrived home and confronted the sisters.

“Do you know what he's been up to? Know what he’s saying about me?”

The girls hesitated.

“I break my back to put food on this table, and the bastard badmouths me? You think that’s fair, eh?”

“Min`gu, he’s just a child, that’s all. Doesn’t know better. People just talk. He’ll find out where he belongs.”

Min`gu pulled his belt off and hit a chair nearby. Lina began sobbing, wishing that she too had run away like her brother. Dolo`ra, looking straight at him, stood up unflinchingly and addressed him:

“What do you want from us? We all need time to adjust.”

“Who is providing for you? Since when does a man take this garbage in his house?” He responded,

pounding the table and moving around  to keep from hitting someone. He saw food being set in front of him, and he sat down.

That night Dolo`ra heard the cat wail and her sister sob.

She got up and crept silently in bed next to her husband for the first time. She lay her coverlet on the foot of the bed and clutched her crucifix.

Tiu`do went to bed exhausted. He dreamed himself tall and strong, with enough stamina, skill and endurance to beat anybody. His teacher kept telling him to stare his future in the face.

The next morning, Tiu`do sisters came calling at Luciano's house, with a cardboard box of bread and sausages, and cash for a rail ticket. Luciano  wished he too could leave home.

“I’ll send for you, Luciano. I’ll send for you the minute I win the Giro!” Tiu`do said, looking bigger and taller.

Part Two: Interlude and Prologue

This is Part Two of my memoir. This part retells the lives of my relatives and the spark of hope that going to America became for them all.
It contains stories told to me by my relatives. They have become my family's shared legacy.

As I  attempted to recall these stories and situations that could have happened, I thought about the adult personalities of these people, how circumstances molded who they became, I relied on few artifacts, few documents that still exist, one or two photos, a handful of recipes, names and events permanently etched in our family's legends.

The story starts in 1933, a good eleven years before I was born, at a time when  Italy was changing into a totalitarian state under Benito Mussolini . when my mother and father were still very young.
The names are those used at the time of their youth, spelled to sound just the way they were pronounced back in those times when Venosino was the language spoken in my town.

The place is Venosa,  a town in the province of Potenza. Most of the people in our family were born here, except for my father. The story starts after my mother and father had married and the family, consisting of the newlyweds and a younger sister and brother are all trying to adjust to their circumstances.

Tiu`do, Uncle Ted in America, is just a boy of  fourteen, the third born of four children  of Marianna Fabbrizi and Paolo Rapolla, my grandparents. Luciano is  his cousin.Lina, is his younger sister,  eleven, the youngest.
Dolo`ra, my mother has just turned seventeen,and has become the  second wife of Min`gu, my father, just widowed with his first wife, Graziella, eldest sister in this family.  My father is 27 years old.

Donna Maria Rosaria is his mother.

The Loggia was the the family's residence, historically used as a hunting lodge, before it became the family home of the Rapolla's, situated five kilometers out of  the town of Venosa,  in Southern Italy.

The story starts with Tiudo's trying to adjust to living in Mingu's house in town.

Each chapter goes back in time, and is told through the experience of another character.