“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.
“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."