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
Placida è l'onda;
prospero è il vento.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
Con questo zeffiro
oh! com'è bello
star sulla nave!
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
In' fra le tende
bandir la cena,
in una sera
Chi non dimanda,
chi non desia;
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Mare sì placido,
vento sì caro,
scordar fa i triboli
E va gridando
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
O dolce Napoli,
O suol beato,
Dove il creato,
Tu sei l'impero
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Or che tardate,
bella è la sera.
Spira un auretta
fresca e leggiera.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
(Source for the song: italianissima.net)