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.”