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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Nuptials

Graziella planned to talk to Mingu about the dowry, but something always managed to distract her. Her life felt fragile, fleeting. She knew one thing: she wanted to marry and be with Mingu.

“What about your father?” He reminded her.

“I want him to give me away while he still can!”

He didn’t argue with her. This might be the only bright thing in their lives right now. He told her not to worry about anything; he’d take care of the details and took her hand as they walked up the hill to the family cemetery  where her mother and grandparents were buried. These tombs were the only thing that were certain; the only things that didn't change.

"Mamma, watch over us. Give us strength. I'm marrying a good man. You liked him as a child, Mamma. He'll be a good husband. Watch over us. Watch over Papa'. I wish you could be here. I miss you, Mamma. I miss you so."

A couple of months after a betrothal that was rushed and unexpected, Graziella decorated the library with ribbons and snippets of rosemary everywhere. At this time, a week before Christmas, the place would have a Presepio, a holiday tradition all over Italy, to celebrate the birth of Christ. The miniature village would have been constructed weeks before, with little houses and trees, and little statues portraying ordinary people like shepherds, butchers, bread-makers, all making their way to the manger where Mary and Joseph and animals waited for Baby Jesus to be born.

Every year, the grandparents sent the newest figurines from Naples where the Capodimonte factory produced new editions. The family had part ownership in this endeavor, and their house at Christmas held an open invitation for people to view the Presepio and to partake of refreshments. Marianna had brought the tradition to the Loggia. Christmas had always been an enchanted season.

This year, the figurines were still bagged. Don Paolo was too sick to haul dirt and moss to build hills and valleys and paths leading to the stable. This year, Tiudo and Lina were kept home from school, so they didn’t have their school projects ready, the special letter that each child composed for Christmas and read out loud to their father on such a day. The two of them had been busy watching people come in and out of the salotto, caring for their father day and night. The two of them were allowed to sleep, eat and play in the same salotto where Don Paolo might expire at any minute.

Graziella went looking for  her mother’s gown in old trunks stacked in dusty attics . A strong smell of nafta stopped her mid-way. She had not tried this gown since she was twelve, when her mother had put away Lina’s christening clothes and Graziella had seen the gown wrapped tightly in its own trunk. Back then, the gown smelled of roses and lavender. Her mother aired the gown every spring and repacked carefully.

On this cold December day, in her eighteenth year, her Mother’s wedding gown fit her beautifully. It smelled slightly of Marianna’s olive oil soaps. This was not going to be the wedding at the Madonna delle Grazie that her mother had. None of her childhood friends had been invited, or knew about this date.

This entire day  felt furtive, as though a crime or a mortal sin was being committed.

Mingu was expected to return at noon, with the priest, his mother, two rings  and a wedding cake. It was two o’ clock in the afternoon, a light dusting of snow whitened the road Mingu would take.

By four o’clock, the snow was beginning to pile, and Graziella was disheartened. This day needed too many miracles, she thought. She had been ready since noon, looking out every hour. Don Paolo stopped her reverie with the order to sit down and eat. Just as she began nibbling on a sandwich her father pulled himself off the bed and declared: “God the child will be born tonight. Everyone will be going to the Midnight Mass in town. I’m not going to cheat you out of a church wedding. We could still have the ceremony if we get ourselves to town.”

“Mingu is not here for a reason, Papa’!” She said anxiously. Don Paolo could barely breathe and now he was talking about making a trip over slippery roads, as the sun began setting.

"You are going to be married today!” He said confidently. Then, he barked his desires that everyone get ready to travel while there was still some light in the sky.

The family arrived in town around six. Don Paolo, Graziella and Lina set up their seats in the front row, as was customary for their status. There were no priests or altar boys around.

Dolora and Tiudo went to find Mingu. Graziella remained with her father and baby sister, reciting her rosary, inserting special requests to the Blessed Mother, feeling ashamed to be dressed in a wedding garb without a groom around. I must look like a fool, she thought.

Lina cried too, and soiled her pretty  dress with her tears, insisting on sitting on her father’s lap, though she had her own chair, confused to be in an empty church, whispering something or other the entire time.

“Papa’ we are the only ones here, except for those old ladies huddled in the dark. It’s too cold here. Let’s go home.”

“Hush now. There will be a big surprise in a few minutes. A miracle. You’ll see.”

“Will I see Angels?”

“Angels and Saints will collect right in front of us. Pray, my sweet one, pray. God will listen to the voice of the innocent. Pray.”

“What am I praying for?”

But no answer was necessary, as a group of people walked in and lights were turned on,  Don Matteo, accompanied by Mingu and  his brothers, stood at the front of the altar and faced them. Dolora and Tiudo and Donna Maria Rosaria had arrived simultaneously and had taken their seats right next to Don Paolo.

Don Paolo walked his daughter to the altar with tears in his eyes, sad that he had not remembered to bring grain. Lina trailed on his other side holding his other hand.  Without knowing, she was helping him navigate in the dark, back to his chair after depositing Graziella at the altar.

Wows were exchanged. Mingu slipped a ring on her finger and had another one for her to slip on his finger.

The place was quiet except for the voices of the bride and bridegroom, declaring their committment to each other. No organ sounds, no chorus voices.

"Papa' can I sing a song for Graziella?'
"What do you want to sing, doll-face?"
"I want to sing the Ave Maria!"
"How do you know the Ave Maria?"
"Graziella sings it all the time!"
"Well, go ahead."

Mingu and Graziella walked down the aisle holding hands, and everyone followed right behind. There was no wedding march, but the sounds of a small child were heard trailing her, singing The Ave Maria. Graziella looked back to smile at Lina just as she reached the door and a cold wind  reminded her that December can be cruel.

“Don Paolo, we’re so sorry to hear about your poor health.” Don Matteo approached the old man on the way out the door.

“ Oh Graziella, you are starting something new with this ceremony.”An old lady who had appeared out of nowhere came to kiss the bride.

“Congratulations, Mingu, Graziella! Did you come from Naples to get married here? The church attendants who were putting up chairs wanted to know.

People looked confused as Donna Maria Rosaria handed them grains to scatter and invited them to her house for a reception. Her boys and their families would be waiting there, bringing simple gifts from their homes, wine, olives, sausages and dried fruit, the bounty they had stashed in the cellars for those cold winter days ahead. The night will turn to music and song, she thought. This is our family night to celebrate and to count our blessings.

The Ambros family consisted of seven brothers and one sister, all but two  older than Mingu, all married and with children in tow. They all came to celebrate. His two younger brothers were away from home, serving in the army. His only sister, pregnant with her second child, and her husband and mother in law had helped with the preparations. Dolora counted over forty people in Mingu’s family, and only five in hers. Thank God we are reaching out to people like these, people with good fortune and good health.

The celebration brought additional neighbors and friends. They too brought food and wine. Around Midnight, everyone left with the excuse of Midnight Mass.

Don Paolo was given Mingu’s bed, where he collapsed soon after the first toast. Tiudo slept at the bottom of the same bed when he finally collapsed, hours later. Lina and Dolora ended up sharing Donna Maria Rosaria’s large matrimonial bed.

The streets were quiet, except for church bells calling the town to the spectacle. Snow had fallen all evening, hushing the place, turning a bright light from east to west. Graziella wanted to attend Midnight Mass, a tradition she had never missed. She and Mingu sat as man and wife, among the Ambros family pews. After Mass, everyone came to congratulate them.

By morning, the entire town knew about the couple.

He took his new bride to the convent, where he hoped they could get a room for the night, since her father was occupying his bed at his house. There were no rooms. They returned to his mother’s house, and spent the night on the hay loft, warm enough and peaceful enough to catch a couple of winks before morning and the trip back to the Loggia.

"We'll tell our child he was conceived on Christmas Day in a stable!" Graziella teased, as Mingu stood up and held a blanket so she could take off  her wedding gown and slip into his mother's night clothes.  No, he thought, I'll see that you never sleep like this again. You'll never have to smell animals and hear rats scampering around again. I'm going to take good care of you.

"Ella?" He wanted to talk and reassure her. "Ella? Graziella?  Are you..." She was asleep, a little too tired to hear the horses whinnying, too tired to hear her new husband's soft serenade.

"Sul mare luccica...." He sang, and dreamt of their future.

Sul mare luccica (Santa Lucia)

Sul mare luccica

l'astro d'argento.

Placida è l'onda;

prospero è il vento.

Venite all'agile

Barchetta mia!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia

Con questo zeffiro

così soave,

oh! com'è bello

star sulla nave!

Su passeggeri

venite via!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

In' fra le tende

bandir la cena,

in una sera

così serena.

Chi non dimanda,

chi non desia;

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

Mare sì placido,

vento sì caro,

scordar fa i triboli

al marinaro.

E va gridando

con allegria:

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

O dolce Napoli,

O suol beato,

Ove sorridere,

Dove il creato,

Tu sei l'impero

Del armonia,

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Or che tardate,

bella è la sera.

Spira un auretta

fresca e leggiera.

Venite all'agile

barchetta mia!

Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

(Source for the song:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don Paolo's Health

When Don Paolo’s health seemed worse, Mingu traveled to Naples to bring Graziella home. The grandparents remembered him as a youngster participating in hunting parties, helping his father who managed the Masseria before him.

“Mingu, congratulations! I hear you are going to name that first born after me.” Doctor Fabrizi joked.

“It’s Graziella’s choice on the first one. I promised my mother that if we have a girl she will have her name.” Mingu responded.

“It’s been done this way, the first one is always on the father’s side, the second on the mother, and so on like that, keeping the names rolling so no one is hurt. Marianna was named after both my mother and Amedeo’s mother, whose full name was Adrianna. We shortened it so it could fit. So, some things have to fit the circumstances. Anyway, with Paolo's poor  health, I don’t suppose you know when you’ll return Graziella to us?” Nonna Fabrizi said.

'I just wish..” Graziella was going to talk about her father, when she turned to Mingu and exploded:

“Why didn’t you send a letter? I could have gotten there a few weeks ago.”

“We didn’t know it was so bad.”

The return trip took longer than the four hours, delayed by roads  full of debris and military checkpoints.  Mingu had none of his military papers discharge in his possession, and the two of them pretended they were already married to skip through the interrogation.

Only Tiudo made a point to tease them after this encounter: "I'm telling Papa'!"

"Well, it's practically true. We are engaged; that's as good as being married in my book." Graziella said forcefully, staring the boy down. She was going to talk to her father about the impertinence of her brother. It was not fit that he took that tone with her. Yes, she said, I shall have to take charge again.

Within hours of her arrival, the household was buzzing with activity. The old iron bed was moved downstairs in the salotto, where Father had his favorite books, and a roaring fire was maintained day and night. No matter how many days or hours, she was going to make her father's life very comfortable. She talked to Lina and Tiudo, explaining that everything had to be kept precisely in the same place, so that Father could move around in a familiar place and not encounter any hindrance. She kept praying that his eyesight would improve soon.

That evening, the family joined him for evening prayers and everyone recited the rosary together, adding a prayer to the Madonna, for the health and welfare of each of them. When it was over, Don Paolo added:

“The dowry, my daughters, the dowry is not…” He couldn’t finish his thoughts.

Just thinking about the economic situation he was leaving behind made the conversation he needed to have with them more difficult. Graziella jumped in to stop this painful conversation. What she wanted to broach, before this came up, was the subject of Tiudo acting up. Instead, she knew to soothe the dying man.

“Papa, Mingu and I do not need a dowry. We don’t need anything.” She looked at Dolora to obtain her support.

“There are bills to doctors and various merchants. Last harvest didn’t pay off the bills.” Dolora interrupted, wanting this entire situation to be understood, adding: “ Graziella, you have been away from all these worries. You don’t know what we are going through.”

Graziella gave her a stern look. No, don’t inflame the conversation, she wanted to yell out.

“Papa’ these things will work themselves out. Everything will work out.” Graziella adjusted his pillows and helped him under the covers.

She dispatched Tiudo to stoke the wood, and to close the curtains just by pointing at things. Lina had curled up  next to her father, with the  new doll in her arms. Don Paolo kept talking, stroking his youngest daughter's hair:

“Mannaggia! Quei cugini!” He was swearing, naming his cousins accusingly.

“Papa, nobody did anything wrong!” Dolora added, “ we just didn’t get a good price on the olives.”

“Take Mingu and talk with the directors.” He whispered. Then, he waved them out without words. They walked out, silently.

Graziella could not believe how thin and sick her father had become. She let Lina fall asleep next to her father,curled up like a second pillow, holding his arm, sensing his distress.  She remembered that she had not had time to get presents for anybody. This is not good, she thought.

Dolora wanted the conversation to continue the minute they were out of hearshot.

“This is not Mingu’s business!” She declared, "he hasn’t been part of these talks. Nor does he need to know about our affairs.”

“He’s practically my husband. Whatever is ours will be his too.” Graziella was now angry at how insensitive her sister was.

Dolora went on ignoring her sister's anger. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. Tiudo will inherit the property that belongs to Father. You, Lina and I will get whatever is left of Mother's dowry. If I remember right , she left a will with an equal share of the property that was her dowry. So far, those vinyards have not been been used for collateral.

“Are you saying that all this land and the Loggia will go to Tiudo?”

Tiudo had followed them out, and when he heard his name, he came closer so he could get in the conversation.

“I get the Loggia? Everything will be mine?”

“If I’m right," Dolora continued, " the Ambros have some land coming to them because of the water rights they gave us. I saw the paperwork that Papa’ signed.” Dolora was stating the obvious, but both Graziella and Tiudo were now questioning how she knew so much.

All Dolora said was, "The property would be contested for years. Don't count on anything."

Graziella changed the subject, turning to Tiudo who kept asking questions.

“Don’t you start! Go do your chores and don't bother Papa'.” She told him in anger. She wanted this boy to know his place; this talk about who gets what was premature. She turned to Dolora'.

“I can become a teacher. It’s easier and faster than becoming a doctor. I’m not sure I want to stay in school that long. ” Graziella was thinking out loud.

Dolora yelled back: “I need to tell you that it’s hard. I’ve already sent the young ones to live with Donna Maria Rosaria in town during school days. They’ve gotten into difficulties. I don’t know how to manage here.”
“I won’t think of leaving you with Papa in his condition. I’m staying.”
"Good. "
"Lina will be good for Papa'."
"She gets up in the middle of the night and goes to him anyhow."
"What does she know about his condition?"
"I explained that he is going blind and we will all need to help him. She accepted that. Now that he has become weak and fragile, she doesn't know what to think. We thought he had years to adjust to blindness, a bit worse each day. Instead, it's happened all at once."

The sisters remained talking, trying to console each other, until the early hours of the day, when they heard noise from the salotto and they sprung to action together.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tiudo's New Role

Don Paolo took Tiudo aside: “Son, you are a man now. Your sisters will depend on you.”

“You mean they have to obey me?” The boy responded.

“It’s your responsibility to protect their reputation. Young men will start coming around, and you need to be the protector.” Don Paolo added.

“You mean, I have to be with her all the time? ” He said whining, all the time thinking that if he had to accompany Dolora and later Lina all the time, he’d miss building snowmen and bonfires.
“Are we hunting this year?” Tiudo had hoped that he was now old enough to have his own rifle.

Don Paolo wanted his boy to understand his responsibilities.

“You’ll be in the military when you are older, but for now, you need to be useful and carry yourself with pride in this new manly role. When your mother died, Dolora had to quit school and pitch in around here. You were left carefree for a long time because your family supported you, took you and Lina to school every day. But things are changing, with my health, Dolora's age, even how the business is doing.  You need to carry your weight."

“Do I have to continue going to school?  I just want to do my art!”

“Tiudo, you have a military career waiting for you, like your grandparent, like every man in our family. You can pursue art anywhere after you retire. It’ll be a good hobby for a man with farms and vineyards and long winters.”

“ I already am better than Michelangelo!”

“Now, now, a little humility, Signor Buonarroti. A genius needs teachers. I can get some one to give you extra lessons. But, you have to promise me that you will be acting more mature from now on. No more running off to play with whomever. Next year, when Graziella is married and living in the house in town, you can stay with them during the school week, and take an art class. What’s the name of the teacher that teaches art?”

“Brother Sebastiano?”

“Yeah! If you obey Mingu and Graziella they can let you take classes from him, extra classes. They will need you to be an angel, and do exactly what needs to be done.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Where are you going to live?”

“I’m going to live and die right here, be buried right next to Mother, right on that hill of ours. If we still own that hill, that is!”

“Nothing but dead people on that hill.”

“A couple of generations of Rapolla men and women, cut in their prime, or in old age. I wouldn’t be surprised if Giuseppe and Elena from America returned to be buried next to their mother and father. There are spaces for all of us. We'll be together up on that hill, shaded by Monticchio."

“You had a brother and sister?”

“Elena, my sister,  was seventeen when she left for America, Graziella’s age. Giuseppe, my little brother, about your age. He was her escort. I had just entered the military, missed their departure completely. I never saw them again.”

“Papa’,  am I going to get a racing bike at graduation?”

“God willing!”

“But Papa’, you promised!”
"Yes, I promised. And God willing, I will keep those promises. Now, you promise."
"I promise!"
"Say what it is that you promise."
"I promise I'll look out and protect my sisters."
"That's it! That's the promise I want to hear. God willing, we'll both keep our promises."
"The rifle?"
"Ask me about that another day, son. I need to rest now."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lina's World

“Blessed Mother, turn my hair blond like Mother’s and Graziella’s. Make me tall and strong. Bless Tiudo. Dolora, Graziella and Papa.” Nightly prayers and handing out kisses were Lina’s favorite things to do before she went to bed.  Usually, her sister Graziella would lie down with her. In the morning, Graziella would be the first person she'd see. The three girls all shared a big bed.  She clutched her mother’s photograph tightly until her father placed it back on the nightstand.

“Close your eyes now. Good Night.” Don Paolo began to walk out when Lina popped another question.

“Was she pretty? ” She was trying hard, every night, to remember her mother’s face.

“The most beautiful woman in all the land.” Don Paolo kissed her again and this time he took the lamp away.

“Was she taller than you?” Lina asked.

“Just this much.” Don Paolo said absently, holding his finger to show a couple of centimeters, already regretting this conversation. There was no need to bring up the past; it only hurt. And this seven year old needed her sleep. He returned to sit down next to her. Dolora was doing his accounting; it was up to him to get Lina down for the night.

“Why did she die, Papa’?”

“Women, even strong women wear out after each child. Now, she's an angel.”

“I don’t want her to be an angel.” Lina broke into tears.

“Now. Wipe those tears and go to sleep. I have a present for you in my satchel. It was going to be for your birthday next week. I can give it to you now, if you promise you'd go to sleep right away.” He blurted it out to calm her down. Only Graziella knew how to get this child settled.

Lina ran barefoot to find her present.

Her father always scattered small surprises all over the house, tokens after each trip he took to meet with merchants, associates, cooperatives, to dispatch olives or grapes at a good price. He enjoyed the joy he saw in the young faces of his children. Goodies appeared at the right time, in tiny boxes locked in his desk, away from easy hands, or in plain sight. On the day of her first communion, Lina spent hours looking on each shelf, in each book that might have been transformed into a hiding place, soiling her white dress before she found the special gift in a pencil box. Her father showed her how this medal of the Madonna of the Graces was the same one Graziella and Dolora had received for their first communion.

Today had been an unusual day for his young children, Don Paolo thought. Giving Lina an early present wasn't going to harm her.  She is having trouble with all these changes, all happening one after the other. Life is changing right in front of us. We are lucky we are still together. Everyone was adjusting well, he thought. Everything will be fine; he only had to worry for three more years.  In three years, Graziella would be a doctor and married; Dolora could run the business on her own; Tiudo would be in officer's school, and Lina could go live with Graziella in town and continue her studies without all this confusion. Three years. He only had to worry for a little while; then, he could relax and let destiny take its course.

On her first day of school, Lina prepared to go off to the Poverelle Sisters’ Convent for the first time without Graziella accompanying her. Her father promised her a new surprise if she could get herself to Donna Maria Rosaria’s at noon, where she and her brother would be fed and kept occupied until Dolora picked them up.

“By myself?”

“Wait at the portone after school. Tiudo will walk with you.” Dolora had come in with a sweater and ribbons for her hair.

“He doesn’t like me.” Lina whined, looking at both of them.

“You’ll do fine. You mind him, now. Besides, now that you’re seven, you can walk all by yourself to and from.” Father’s last words.

“I want Graziella to take me like before.” Lina and Dolora walked out to the kitchen to fetch Tiudo and they made their way to the barn.

“Don’t be a baby!” Tiudo scolded her.

Lina had been unhappy, and had cried every night for her big sister. Tiudo’, on the other hand, was enjoying this new freedom, especially now that he could go to school by himself and stop and play soccer in the piazza. By the time they returned home, it would be too late to do chores. He hoped that Dolora’ would be too busy to pick them up at noon. When Graziella took them, she dropped him off a few minutes before she and Lina went to the convent together. At noon, Tiudo better be ready to get on the buggy and back to the Loggia. No time to dilly-dally.

The routine was simple. Dolora drove them to school. At noon, when they were dismissed, they walked to the house of Donna Maria Rosaria and wait there to be picked up, sometimes in the afternoon, after Dolora had time to run errands or return to the Loggia to see after some thing or other. In the afternoon, they would receive a snack or a full meal, and then kept occupied with simple chores or homework.

One day, after the two of them had been dropped off at school, their teachers declared a holiday since the school was practically empty, with everyone out working with the harvest. It was still morning, and Tiudo didn’t want to show up at Donna Maria Rosaria’s and be assigned countless chores. They walked to Cousin Luciano’s .

When she heard the noon bell, Lina walked toward Donna Maria Rosaria’s house by herself, not bothering to alert Tiudo, who didn’t notice her absence for a long time, and then, figured she had walked to Donna Maria Rosaria anyhow, and he didn’t have to worry about her any more.

At Cousin Luciano's Tiudo and his cousin ate olives and hard bread until the rest of the family returned from the field.

“What happened Tiudo? Did they forget you?” Luciano’s father asked.

“Yeah! ” He said with a smirk. He figured they picked up his sister and left him behind on purpose, to teach him a lesson. He was afraid of what would happen at home and could use some support in this house.

“You must be starved. Come sit.” Luciano’s mother gave him a fork to dig into the communal platter of macaroni she had cooked for the family. Luciano’s four big brothers were passing the wine jug around and he had his turn too. Soon it was late, everyone was hinting some thing or other. Tiudo hoped that he could spend the night there.

When Dolora stopped at Donna Maria Rosaria’s at the end of the day to pick up her brother and sister, and didn't find the children, she panicked. Donna Rosaria wasn't home either, but a neighbor showed up when she saw the buggy at the door, and told Dolora that Donna Maria Rosaria had left before noon to attend to a child-birth, filling in for another lady, warning her neighbor about the children who would arrive at noon. No, the children had not showed up.

Dolora drove her buggy to the school first, then up and down streets and back alleys looking for Lina and Tiudo. A couple of hours later, she found Lina. Her story was that she had meant to go over to Donna Maria Rosaria’s house; but, on the way, she met a couple of friends and they played jump rope all afternoon. The other kids had shared their snacks with her, and that’s how she lost track of time. Between tears, she told Dolora that Tiudo was at a cousin's house. Dolora guessed it was Luciano's house.

Don Paolo was especially upset that Tiudo had been at Luciano's house.
For the past few summers, the area had suffered a continuous drought; city water was turned off regularly for repairs or inspection. The aqueduct was thought to have been sabotaged by people who wanted Mussolini to look bad. People thought it was some kind of trick. Don Paolo began to transport containers of water filled from his river to half the town that could afford the service, going door to door with Dolora’ measuring out the water at each stop. People wondered why he became a water vendor in his poor health condition. He joked about it; work is work, he kept saying, work will keep him young.

Manuele, Luciano’s father, and husband to Beatrice, his wife’s distant cousin, had yelled out at him in the middle of the street: “Hey Don Paolo, is this what you have been reduced to? What happened to all your wife’s money?”

“Everyone needs fresh water!” Paolo said jokingly. He didn’t want to get into an argument.

“How do we know if this water is good? Maybe it was this water that killed your wife.”

“My water is fresher than anything you guys are getting down here.” He yelled back, though he felt like snapping his whip at him rather than at the horse.

Don Paolo  warned his boy: “Stay away from Manuele’s house, Tiudo’. They are not to be trusted.”

“Luciano is my best friend !”Tiudo’ replied.

“Well, I’m telling you they are up to no good. If you don’t watch your back, they will take your shirt, those crooks. They are not buona gente!”

“We are cousin, right?”

“Only in name. They have spread all kinds of rumors in town. I tell you, stay away from them.”

“But Luciano is nice to me!" He was in tears now, looking at how his life was being controlled by everyone, his father, his sisters, even Lina the blabber mouth.

“You got to choose your friends carefully. After next year, you’ll be enrolled in the military academy and then your future will open up for you. You’ll make a lot of friends.” Don Paolo tried to remain calm with his boy. It must not be easy to be a boy without a mother.

“Do I get a present at graduation?”

“God willing! What would you like?”

“A racing bike! Like in The Giro d’Italia!”

“Are you going to train to be in The Giro?”

“That’s my dream, Papa’.”

“You will do me great honors, son, if you look at the military as your goal. Your great-grandfather, your grandfather, and I all served our King with honor. Italy needs the loyalty and strength of a committed military. This summer will be a good time for you to help around the stables, to learn from Mingu about being a good soldier, a good cavalry man.

Don Paolo gave Tiudo a lashing with the belt he used to sharpen his razor. It was not the first time that Tiudo received this punishment, and Don Paolo had more in store for him if something else happened. He prayed he would live long enough to see his son grown and settled.


Lina was asleep in seconds when she unwrapped her surprise. A beautiful doll, with rich cinnamon red hair reminding Lina of her Mother and Graziella and a little bit of her own hair too. “I’ll name her Ella!” She said, “For Graziella!”

“Great. That’s her name then! She’ll be your companion from now on. Good night, Princess.”

“Good Night Papa’ Thanks for Ella.”
"Good Night, my little angel."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Under Vesuvius

City Life

Graziella waited until she was hungry, and then opened the package wrapped in plain butcher paper that Mingu' had handed her at the station. There was the gold locket and chain that Donna Maria Rosaria had always worn. My Lord, she thought, I can’t thank her enough. She read the note stuck in a corner:

“Cuore del mio cuore….

Hart of my heart,

I miss you already,


She looked at those words for a long time, and before she realized, she was at the station in Naples.

Naples in 1930 was hot, blustery, smelly, noisy, a mixture of high and low society. The city had been the seat of the royal family commanding the Two Sicilies way before Italy became unified under the House of Savoy. It had beautiful museums, castles,  palaces and Roman and Greek antiquities.

Briny smells of sea life and food cooked outdoors slapped the city from the boardwalks to the top of Vesuvius. The town clamored for attention at every corner; noise and laughter following her everywhere. It felt like a holiday spilling out from church pews, coffee houses, parks, houses and boats, forcing you to stop and participate. There were things to do, places to go, schedules and expectations, people coming and going. Breakfast at eight, dinner at two, supper at nine, long and elaborate meals punctuating each day, like the tick-tock sound of the clock in grandfather’s library.

The town was trying to erase all memories of a past life. When you are here, it screamed, live with all your senses.

She attended classes in the morning, uncomfortable walking to and from, skirting people and animals, trying to ignore the yelling and calling out of street merchants, sing-song lilts that reminded her of the songs Mingu would sing. The town spewed joy, anger, irritability and gentility at the end of each street.

She felt inadequate, conspicuous in her old fashioned clothes. . When her grandmother insisted Graziella be fitted for proper attire and took her to a special shop where fashionable clothes for women were produced on demand, she was stunned and pleased too. She had sewn her own ever since she was ten. In fact, she and Dolora’ had sewn everyone’s outfits at home, even her father’s. These shops had special patterns, special fabrics and professional seamstresses who could measure and produce an outfit in less than a week.

She noticed her grandparents changed clothes often, and she was expected to do the same. There were more people around the house, doing different jobs for you, including freshening your clothes after each wearing, before you had a chance to agree to that. There were more people in service here than back home, though the vineyards required lots of hands.

Graziella bathed in a warm room, and let the water be thrown out, instead of using it to wash clothes. When she first arrived, she had washed her own delicates and had tried to find a place to hang them on the terrace when the maid laughed and told her everything was hung out in the basement; in fact, there was a special drawer in each room for dirty clothes. From that spot, the laundry dropped in the basement where a team of laundresses had tubs of hot water and finished in a few hours. The following day someone else’s job was to iron and mend and put clothes away in each owner’s bureau.

At home, water was a precious commodity, especially in the summer when the creek was low and animals and vineyards needed assistance through dry spells. Everyone had chores, cleaning fireplaces, transporting wood and oil for lamps, changing linens, helping in the kitchen, sewing. There were always things to be done and everyone pitching in to do them.

Right now, she thought, every man, woman and child over five will be helping with the olive harvest. The sick and very old would prepare food and mind infants. For the next month, while she was being shown the sights and purchasing luxurious linens for her trousseau, at her grandmother’s insistence, her brother and sisters were spending twelve hours in the fields, alongside the workers, climbing tall trees, plucking olives from each branch without dropping any, sorting and packaging. There were people for each task; and children were especially adept at climbing branches hard to reach. The entire town was doing the same task in different lands.

The wind smelled of olives and grapes, harvests taking place one after the other in all the surrounding vineyards.

At home, they all did the laundry, sharing tidbits of each other’s dreams and miseries. The children knew not to dirty any more than was absolutely necessary. They wore their apron-like over-dress and over -shirt around the house to prevent spills and marks.

I must adapt, but not be carried away with this practice, thought Graziella.

At dinner, Doctor Fabrizi directed the conversation as he sat at the head of the table. He was interested in what Graziella was learning, interrupting often to spout out his philosophy on the need for universal public education, or the latest news bit.

“Don’t believe the propaganda,” he told her when she shared the latest edict from Mussolini that teachers had to sign allegiance pacts.

He marched her to the library, at the end of the meal to show her something or other that she should have read by now. Every waking moment was filled with books, conversations, classes, outings. She had forgotten to write back home twice in one month.

Two weeks into her classes and she had lost track of time. Studying furiously until all hours at night, Graziella noticed that her grandparents read newspapers or wrote letters, and inevitably ended up taking a nap for an hour or so, not realizing that they still had the book opened at the same page.

She would help them get comfortable, add a pillow here, a shawl there, loving how they insisted they wanted to stay there, to remain in her presence until she went to bed. When she could no longer keep her own eyes open, she woke each of them, one at a time, and guided them to their bed.

She was not prepared for her classes. And she could not admit this to anyone. She needed to absorb and catch up before someone found out. If her grandmother knew, she would get her a tutor. And then what? What can a tutor do?

I don’t need a tutor, what I need is time, she thought, time to catch up.

She excused herself from accompanying them to events. Grandma’s face was always disappointed. “Just like your mother!” She’d say, “Your mother had the pick of the crop, young men courting her everywhere we went. She began to retreat to her studies, telling us that she was going to be a doctor too. Who heard of women doctor? But she was tenacious, that one. You got that from her, and your hair color. I think I see her every time your blond hair catches the light! You’re a looker, too, just like your mother!”

“Oh? Thank you Nonna. Why didn’t she become a doctor?” Graziella didn’t know this part.

“She met your father, and the rest is history.”

“Well, I’m engaged, and still…”

“Here, you ought to have this book at your disposal…” Doctor Fabrizi had changed the conversation, got a book off the shelf and passed it on to her. It was the anatomy book that she needed to purchase at the bookstore. Her mother must have known these books, must have dreamed just as this daughter is now dreaming.

“It won’t happen to me,” she said, “ I will finish my studies. Mingu will wait for me and Papa’ will get better and see me graduate. I hope I can keep up with my classes… ” She said this last statement before she realized that she was being premature, worrying them at this point.

“I am worried …” She started to expain.

“Studies are supposed to be hard. Schools are geared for those special top minds who can take a challenge. They resemble the challenges in life, only more so. Medicine, especially.” Her grandfather had put his arms around her and understood. He believed girls could do anything they want. But, he knew that many of them were intimidated easily. Not his Marianna, he thought. And tears showed up at the thought of his only daughter dead in her prime. If only there were more doctors, female doctors for females, he thought.

“I want the practical part.” Graziella said.

“The more we know of how things work, the more we can figure out when something goes wrong. I’m still learning things, understanding things that I studied in my first year. Imagine that, still learning in my eighties.” He had to get through to her that learning is a continuous process. Even when we think we know everything, there are always new things to learn.

“Nonno, did Mother have the same difficulties?”

“I don’t know! She had just started when she met Paolo. He swept her off her feet so fast, we had nothing to say about the matter. We went to meet his parents and that was that.”

“I feel so unprepared for my classes.”

“I’d love to help you. You just have to keep me awake long enough!” He had a chance with this child, he thought.

Grandmother jumped in suggesting that Graziella could take fewer classes, enjoy what the city had to offer, go out with the rest of the students instead of studying every night.

The following day, Doctor Fabrizi lined up his books of anatomy and asked her to fire off questions. She did, reading one paragraph, and forming a question for him. He went to a corner of the room and pushed a button to reveal a big schematic, a study aid he had forgotten he had. Good grief, that’s just what I need, she thought. They fired away at each other, one question at a time, in a game set kept up with scores that Grandmother shouted out loud.

The interchange invigorated everyone.

Before they knew it, the clock struck midnight.

Buoyed by the experience, Graziella shouted, “ I can do it!”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

New Horizons

The year was 1930, and Graziella at seventeen, and engaged, would have chosen her trousseau, her wedding gown and every detail of her nuptials. She would have had romance and marriage on her mind, as she  took long walks up and down main street with her girlfriends, all divining who their future husband would be.

Graziella had shared confidences with her convent friends and had received lots of advice on whom she should marry. Yet, she knew from the time she was ten, that her true love was the young man who worked for them. She was sure of this, as sure as farmers are of spring arriving after a harsh winter.

Now that she was officially promised to Mingu', and both sides of the family blessed this union, marriage could wait. She knew two things: a woman’s life is no longer her own when she marries, and women do not live long enough to enjoy their children. She was going to change at least one of these. She was going to fulfill her mother’s dream to become a doctor, and help other women care for infections that went untreated. She saw how women put their health last, behind their children's, their husbands', even the livestock's.

Her mother was in her late thirty when she died, leaving four children under twelve. Graziella made a vow at that deathbed. Whatever it took, however long it took, she was going to become a doctor. Nobody was ever going to die this young.

In three years, she will be joined in marriage. Their new house in town would be finished and furnished, and everything would be ready for her next phase of life. She packed her luggage with a clear mind and a cheerful heart. Her new adventure was going to change the course of many lives.

“Do we have time to stop in town and visit with my mother?” Mingu’ asked on the way to the railroad station. His mother would blame him if Graziella didn’t stop and say her goodbyes.

“I’m worried about the train connection in Foggia. I hate being stranded at that station. Tell your mother that I regret this situation and send my greetings.”

“You won’t be stranded. Trains run on time now. A good thing too. I remember when I returned from the service, before Mussolini had enforced military rules all over. I spent the night in that terrible place, with my eyes open the entire time.” He said, loading the buggy and worrying about losing her. A woman alone was a target, with or without the help of schedules and military rules. He worried. He contemplated joining her on this trip, but the grapes were not going to wait another hour. Rain clouds had been gathering all week.

“With grapes and olives, it will take a couple of months before our harvests are completed and…” He wanted her to need him, to say, ‘come, I can’t go all the way without you’, but she looked calm and assured and understanding.

“I’m sorry to put so much pressure on the family.” She said.

“Don’t worry about anything.” He continued to reassure her: “What you haven’t had, since your poor mother passed away, was time to be a girl. You have been a mother to your sisters, to your brother, and a comfort to your Dad all these years.”

She should be feeling better, she told herself.

"Three years is a slip of ribbon compared to a life time."  His father’s face appeared to him when he said these words, the number of years his father had been dead. The town needed doctors; and he had a chance to support his girl become one. Life will be so much better in just a few years, he thought.

“You stop worrying; I’ll do the worrying for all of us.” He smiled the whole time, imagining his family in a few years, a boy with blond hair like his; a girl with reddish hair like Graziella's. What beautiful couple they made. No, three years is nothing.  He had things to do before he married, settling the deeded land, his mother's household.  Yes, everything will be ready for us, he thought.

“How cruel of me to disappear right after we’re engaged, Mingu’. Now that we could see each other and take passegiate together, now we’ll actually be tied and apart. What an irony. Maybe I shouldn’t go quite yet. Maybe we should get married first.”

“And give up on your dream? It’s bad enough that I had to give up on mine. Knowing you’re building a dream for our families will be enough to keep us happy right now.”

He waited at the station with her, the only single woman there. She looked so small and fragile, he thought. My, he was going to miss her immensely. A man has to be the strong one, he told himself, as he hugged her and waved goodbye, keeping his tears in check. He handed her a package as she stepped up on the platform.

Graziella had not thought about life waiting for her in Naples until she was alone. She remembered her mother’s stories about museums, the Opera House, markets, parties, swimming and moonlight expeditions on the Island of Capri. The few times the entire family visited at the grandparents it was always in a hurry, just a few days. The children had occasion to spend summer vacations here, but not all of them together. Each child had had his/her own time with the grandparents; and then, these memories would be shared and compared, who got to do what, who visited where?

“Think, Graziella, you will be just like mother when she was your age.” Dolora’ had told her to do all the things they had talked about. Graziella sensed a bit of jealousy in her sister’s tone. Graziella had been the lucky one, prettier, smarter, getting everything in life, including a handsome fiancée.

Now, she was leaving and dumped all responsibilities on her sister.

Dolora’ had stopped attending school around the time their mother took ill, when she was barely nine and in fourth grade. Their father had insisted Graziella continue going to town, to the convent school. The rest of the children were too young. Graziella spent a few nights in town during bad storms, but kept up her studies through it all.

“I’ll be having parties and visits to Museums just like Mother.” Graziella told her sister.

“No. You’re not going for parties!” Dolora’ s tone was harsh and resentful. How could she be thinking of parties when her sister was taking care of everything at home? How could she?

“Papa’ will be all right!” Graziella retorted, thinking those were her sister’s thoughts.

“Why did you get engaged before you finished school?” Dolora’ asked. Graziella had not revealed much of the back story to her sister, and Dolora’ was feeling left out.

“I don’t know. Donna Maria Rosaria convinced me to open up. And before he decided to do any thing stupid like re-enlist and leave us, I forced him to make up his mind.”

“You forced him? I thought a man asks.”

“It’s complicated. I don’t even know how it happened. I just wanted to know that I was correct to interpret his attention. I got carried away. Enough of this.” Graziella was suddenly feeling guilty and having second thoughts. How selfish of her to run off to the city when her sister had never returned to school. Her sister did more around the house than anybody.

“You’ll need your winter coat and boots.” Dolora’ said, matter of fact.

“Not in Naples! It’s always springtime there. No snow, no cold winds. I will so enjoy passeggiate on the boardwalk.”

“Are you going to write us every week?”

“I will. I will.”

And before she arrived in Naples, as she waited for her connection, telling herself that the military presence was a good thing at these stations at night, she jotted down a few lines for Mingu and mailed them from Foggia.

“Tesoro Mio, my treasured one,
I already miss you. But, then, I knew that was going to happen. You’ll be very busy in the next few months. So will I. My heart, though, will beat with yours. Every moment of every day we will think of each other; we will breathe air for two. At night, we will walk together under the stars and dream together. I love you more than I can count.
Your beloved, Graziella.”