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Tuesday, June 22, 2010


(5/ 18, 2012. This picture of my son Brian was taken in July 2011, a few weeks before he died.)

The purpose of this project was to leave some shards of the past for future generations. It became a  pilgrimage into the past, to the person I was, the family we were.

About the people in this memoir:
Teodoro Rapolla (Ted, Tiudo), married Marie Dugan, and died in Los Angeles, California. He had three children, Anne Marie, Georgeanne and Paul. Paul died before his father. His daughters still live in the house he built/designed in Burbank, California.

Adelina Rapolla, Lina, settled in Fresno, California, where Uncle Jo, Giuseppe Rapolla had lived. She had three children, JoAnn Scordino, Don Scordino and Carla Scordino. Don still lives in Fresno.

Addolorata Rapolla D’Ambrosio, Dolora’, my mother, moved to  Monza after our family home was transformed into a parking area for the elementary school nearby. This occurred after I left for America. She and my father retired back in Venosa. Father died in 1973, she  in 1986. She visited me in California and was present at the birth of my third child, Brian.

Antonio D’Ambrosio, Toni’, my eldest brother,  moved to Torino, then Milano, all over the North of Italy, worked as a taylor, a costume designer, and a fashion designer. He married, and moved his family to Monza. He ended up working for The Piccolo Teatro di Milano as a fashion designer. Later, he  worked for the fashion house of Valentino in Rome. His two two children, Mario and Laura still live in Milano or its vicinity. Toni' is 78, retired and living back in Venosa with his second wife, Rosetta. He bought land and built himself a retirement cottage on a vineyard, in the same style as our family home.

Luigi D’Ambrosio, my baby brother, was five when I left for California. He lives with his wife Debra in Invorio, Piemonte.

I, (Rosaria, Ninetta,) emigrated in 1959 at seventeen. Attended college and graduate school, became a teacher, and later a specialist and an administrator. I settled in Los Angeles, married Kendrick Williams, a scientist and researcher. Our children, Jon Scott Williams, Pia Nicole Williams-Robbins, Brian Christian Williams. We retired on the beautiful Southern Oregon Coast where we are presently residing. Our youngest, Brian Christian Williams, became a victim of homicide in Fullerton, California, on July 17, 2011.

Donna Maria Rosaria, Mingu’s mother, lived way into her eighties.

All other relatives, Mingu’s brothers, Addolorata's aunts and cousings are scattered in Italy. There are Rapolla's cousins living in New Jersey and New York. I met Helena Rapolla Farrell via Facebook-courtesy of JoAnn Scordino who had met her in person years before. That part of the family is doing well.

The family house I grew up in was torn down. Even the church I was baptized in, The Church of Purgatory, was declared unsafe and shut down. Ironically, the college I attended, Immaculate Heart College is now The American Film Institute.  The church we were married in, a small Russian wooden church, St. Basil, burned down, and in its place, a beautiful big cathedral was erected on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

I returned to visit Venosa just twice, in 1970, and in 2002.

Some names were changed to protect privacy. Historical facts and information reported here are shared memories, and are repeated as heard. Any error was not intentional nor meant to deceive anybody.

This memoir is dedicated to my family: my children, who are my pride and joy, and my husband who has been my constant supporter. Without them, I would cry my heart out and never tell the whole truth.
To contact me:

(this page updated 5/18/2012)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Coming to America

(This picture was taken in anticipation of our voyage to America. I'm the little girl, six years old. Next to me is my father, Mingu, Domenico, my mother, Dolora', Addolorata, and my big brother Tony, Antonio.  My little brother Luigi was not born yet.)

I was four when I met Zio Tiudo, Uncle Ted, for the first time. He was a skinny man, with a bad leg,  back from India where he spent many years as a prisoner of war. I was still sleeping in my crib, and he insisted I was too old to sleep there. He spent time painting, and telling stories of his captivity.

Mamma said he became corrupted by all those years in a foreign land, in a foreign climate. The year was 1946, and when I started pre-school at the convent where Mamma and Zia Adelina had attended at my age, he walked me there and talked to the sisters at length. They had him talk to our class too. He was funny,warm, handsome,engaging.

He and my Aunt Adelina left for America in 1947..

We were all supposed to go together. But, we couldn't obtain the proper visas. Uncle and Aunt traveled to Argentina first, and later emigrated to the United States.  At that time, the quota for Italian immigrants was much smaller than for other immigrants from Northern Europe.

Our  house went from being very crowded, people sleeping everywhere, to suddenly eerily empty. My mother cried from the moment we left the house, and through the next day after the departure. I remember Tony saluting the train goodbye by standing at attention,  just as a soldier would.

Packages from America, big pillowcases full of clothes, shoes, food began to arrive as soon as my relatives reached California, about eighteen months later. Cans of strange sausages, salty and gelatinous were stuck in the middle of the pillowcases.  Not exactly to our taste; but meat nevertheless. Mother sported a new coat that year, which fit her perfectly after alterations.

We began to wear American made clothes, and people talked to us as though we were already Americani.  My dad, though, refused to wear anything the American relatives sent us. “Why do they bother sending this stuff when we are scheduled to join them? Maybe they have changed their minds. Maybe they want to shut us up.”

He was counting the days when they would send for us, not send their discards.

For years, Mother had been trading her sisters' trousseau linens for food or farm supplies. Finally, they were being replaced by the good fortune and generosity that made her sister arrive in America. When I began to write and was put in charge of responding to letters, I would add my own commentaries. Zia, I would say, it’s so good to know you are finding such abundance. It must feel as though you are in Paradise after the scarcity you left behind. Mother would hear the letters and question my round-about ways. “Tell her we need to leave now. Don’t beat around the bushes. Tell her that we sacrificed for her. She can't be selfish!”

Mother was always looking for ways to improve our lot. She had taken me to  line ups at the American War Camps to receive shots of quinine to prevent malaria; a line up to get vitamin pills
or cans of DDT.

Dad grumbled, not trusting any medicine given out freely.

Once, she dragged me screaming and fussing to a louse-treatment line up, making sure my hair was deloused whether I liked it or not. A most- foul smell lingered around us for days. At nursery school, the nuns separated those of us with funny smells and made us stand in the back, away from everybody else.

One of my earliest memory was being held between Zia Adelina’s knees, squeezed so I wouldn’t escape, as she killed the lice and pulled the zits out of my hair with vigor and tenacity, one at a time, a task that tired us both. The pain and indignation, and the fear of being consumed by lice, made me cry the entire time.

Lice and other infestations were rampant during the war years. Many children died of malnutrition or parasitic infections.

I had intestinal problems as a child, pin worms, tape worms, and assorted stomach and digestive problems shared by many children in my town. Again, medications and treatments could be had at the American posts. We all depended on these make-shift generous medicinal dispensaries. If there was something that would make me and my brother get an advantage in life, Mother took us to that line-up.

Mother had enormous faith that her brother and sister would eventually find a way for all of us to join them in America. Every year, she started a novena on this pursuit, a novena that might go on longer than most, months on end, necessitating many prayers, additional visitations to the patron saint appropriate for such a miracle, and a special diet too. On this particular one, since it was such a big miracle, one that might take years to bring about, she gave up meat entirely. Giving up any food was difficult when one has so little to eat. But, giving up meat when one has meat just once or twice a week, and not enough to feel full and contented, but just enough to resuscitate the meat loving glands in your appetite apparatus, that was a major sacrifice. For this one, she prayed to Saint Christopher, not too well known in our parts.

She had given me the task to find the appropriate saint. Not San Rocco; he had the entire town praying to him; not the Madonna delle Grazie, way too many people occupied those pews every morning. She wanted an important figure, one with power and persuasion, one who would get an immediate audience with God Himself.

I found Saint Christopher, patron saints of travelers. Great! She had never heard of him, but trusted my reading and researching abilities. We were going to be great travelers if Saint Christopher took us as clients. How do we do the novenas for this saint? I made up the rest, since no book in the archdiocese specified this stage. “A saint for travelers,” I told her, “needs plenty of songs to help pass the time.”

“Songs?” She inquired, incredulously. The songs we sang in Church were hymns intermixed with recitations.

“Yeah. Songs like O Sole Mio, Mamma, Santa Lucia. As a matter of fact, there is probably a town dedicated to him; we should visit the town, attend the Feast in his name, and get on his good side. Don’t we attend special feast days and give our thanks to special saints?”

“You are right!” She said.

I expected Father to object. What is this? He might say. Where does she get these ideas? We don’t send her to school to come up with these money spending thoughts. We have no business traveling somewhere just to pray.

But he didn’t. And he would have gone along with the idea until something else happened. He got a job, the first Thank-God job that kept him out of the house for months at a time. He became a guard for the Agrarian Reform Movement, a land redistribution program that occurred after the war, splitting up big land holdings and allowing people to homestead/purchase in time/mortgage in labor kind of program. Farm residences were being built on five acres of land each. Some places were kilometers apart. Father’s job was to travel to each one, unexpectedly, spend the night with the shepherds or whoever camped there, and try to keep a presence in the field.

When Zia Adelina wrote that roses had thorns, her code phrase for things are complicated and painful, Mother knew in her heart that only a miracle could precipitate the right action. She didn't know what was troubling her sister; but whatever it was, Mother was going to pray for it to dissipate.

The promise that was America stood on an altar in our house, right next to the Madonna Delle Grazie, Mother’s patroness, and the added Saint Christopher.  America was the same as heaven. When I argued with her that we needed to learn English to have a chance at surviving in America, she dismissed my worries. "What? How did my sister manage? She didn't speak English?"
"Mamma, that's one reason she might be having trouble. They speak English, not Italian."

Mother thought that people all over the world were the same, speaking basically the same, with just a few variations, as in the dialect she heard from people who visited the town on Saint Rocco's Feast Day.  Dialects are not different languages, but different inflections, even different expressions.  She thought everyone in the world spoke a form of Italian. Didn't the Romans occupy the known world? 

We took official sets of pictures,  and got ready to go at a moment's notice. The town continued to buzz with news of our imminent fortune.

My family never emigrated.

Uncle returned to Italy eight years later, in 1955, after Uncle Giuseppe died and the property was divided. My big brother Tony had left for work in Milano, Mother had a new toddler to care for. By now, all our hopes had dried up. America was no longer our destination.,

I was the only one who emigrated for America in 1959. My experience was not an easy one. But, I completed my studies, obtained a teaching job, and got married.

My mother, and my younger brother Luigi, visited me, each for an extended amount of time when I lived in Los Angeles. They saw first hand how we lived, how we too struggled to attain the dream.

Their lives had been enriched because Americans were generous. The Marshall plan had helped Italy recover from the war in many ways. The Land Reform allowed many people the opportunity to work the land and own it after a while. Houses were built, loans were made, opportunities handed out generously. Father’s job provided steady cash income that helped me continue with my studies past the fifth grade.

My parents always looked to the future, when times would get easier, when their children would break the cycle of poverty. Whatever strength they had, they poured it into making sure each of us had opportunities and education.

My journey is coming to an end. I will never feel totally at home anywhere. Italy is my first home. Italy is a mother’s hug, and a father’s praise. But Italy feels foreign now. Through sheer willpower, I make my home where I find myself.

I think of all who emigrated, who left what and whom they loved, what they knew. We can return; but we have changed in a fundamental way. We are saddened by the change; saddened that we lost our connections to our past. Nothing is the same. We are the outsiders now, the Americani. We take comfort in the fact that our children will not have to feel this loss.

My children will not understand these feelings. I am two-three hours away from each of them, by car or by plane. They get to come back home anytime they wish. We get together anytime we need to be. But their roots are shallow and their branches are not truncated. They only know what is in front of them.

In my dreams, I’m back home, in the same little house, everyone around me, having a big Sunday meal. Only then, I feel whole.

The End.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

War Path

Imperial War Museum photo number: E 6064

28 September 1941. Men of the (British) King's African Rifles (KAR) collecting surrendered arms at Wolchefit Pass, after the last Italians had finally ceased resistance in Ethiopia.
Photographer: Clements H J (Lt), No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit (UK)
Collection No.: 4700-32

When a fifteen year old Tiudo presented himself at the home of his grandparents, in Naples, he was dirty, hungry and bloodied. He waited on the doorstep for hours before his grandmother  returned home.

She saw that he was fed, cleaned and bandaged before her husband returned. He noticed for the first time how old and fragile she was. In her presence, he broke down and cried for the first time since his father died. Her home smelled so much like his old home, the same roses on the credenza, the same drapes in the dining room. Everything he had felt in the last year returned to pain him with a vengeance. His father’s death, his sister’s death, the loss of their house.

“This is not how I am.” He told her, ashamed of his tears, of his condition.

“Yes, dear. It’s all right.”

“I came to say goodbye.”

“Oh? ”

" I’m joining the military.” He knew that she would not remember their ages; she always mixed his birthday with Lina’s. But he also knew that she would be the only one he could talk to now. His sisters were burdened already with their own problems.

“You could wait another year. No?” She tried to find out what else this boy could do.

“Nonna, there is no need to wait.” He wanted to be talked out; but he also wanted to be done with waiting, done with being bossed around.

“Well, I suppose. It would so please your nonno if you remained a while with us. Seeing you children does us good. We are so sorry about your father, your sister! My goodness, I can still see her here with us. If only she waited….” And she too began sobbing, shedding tears she had already shed when she let Graziella return home.

At dinner time, Doctor Fabrizi asked him straight out: “So, young man, Don Teodoro Rapolla, how do you plan on making your fortune at your age?” The boy was shocked to hear his full name. Sometimes, his father had used the name to emphasize some precept or other, usually when the youth needed punishment.

“I’m a pretty good artist, actually.” He responded, straightening up, aware he was wearing his grandfather’s shirt and coat. He had nothing. Not even a change of clothing.

“You think anyone will part with their few lire for a portrait? There are strikes, famines and pick-pockets everywhere. Everyone is worried about having enough to eat. The government is taking-over industries. Don’t you get any news in that town of yours? If you don’t return back home, you’ll be shanghaied. I’ve seen it happen right down on the waterfront.” Doctor Fabrizi was not sure what would convince the boy to settle down. He needed a dose of good fortune, he thought.

“Papa was a soldier,” the boy responded, “this was his dream for me too!”

“This is a different Italy, not the King your father served. We can purchase your passage to America, if you don’t want to go back home. Don’t you have an uncle and aunt there?”

“We have not heard from them.”

“You need to plan ahead a little bit. How did you just show up here without a plan? We can house you while you go to school?”

Tiudo made no plans that night. He ate, slept soundly, and the next day he joined the army. They asked him how old he was; he told them he was eighteen.

Three years later, the grandparents received a letter from India. Tiudo had been captured in Africa, three months in his service, by the British, and taken as a war prisoner.

“It is hot here, hotter than anything I ever experienced,” he wrote. “I’m treated well, with plenty of food, and opportunities to paint. I’m learning to speak English and plan on going to America when all this is over. Tell my sisters I’m doing fine.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Under One Roof

(The picture is called "case vecchie", part of a museum show called Case di Contadini.  Contadini means farmers. The picture came with a blog from Decomondo. Thank you Me for the source.)

Mingu’s cavalry unit was never called to serve. He remained on standby as Italy and Germany joined forces, as German troops arrived to occupy the southern end of Italy to fight the Allies about to land in Sicily.

His mother arranged his marriage to the next sister while the Loggia was being auctioned off and the surrounding land was sold a plot at a time to pay off creditors. The old life was quickly dissipating.

Don Matteo, the parish priest, was not surprised by the age difference between Dolora and Mingu. These things were unavoidable, he counseled both, as life must go on and the family must be kept together. He married the couple at a private ceremony. Dolora mostly dazed, not understanding the significance or the weight of God and Church in these matters. Mingu understood that the union was unavoidable.

Dolora felt an enormous disquietude. Her opportunities to be courted, to have suitors at her door, the way  her mother or Graziella had, these opportunities had passed her by. She knew nothing of life outside of the Loggia. Becoming Mingu's bride meant that she and her siblings would not end up at an orphanage the way many orphans did.

After the ceremony, his mother told her that she didn't have to share the matrimonial bed until she was ready, after a proper amount of time for her son to have forgotten his Graziella. Dolora had no intention of taking Graziella's role in bed with Mingu, and was assured that it was up to her when the time was right.

There was nothing else to do but to take care of the house, and be a mother to her siblings. Their relatives had offered to take one of them, Tiudo, so that could have someone help out in the fields. Tiudo had understood the change that would occur in his life regardless of where he went to live, and he was not happy with the options.

A month into the new arrangement,Tiudo left after an argument at the house, and Dolora feared Mingu's anger at the end of the day.  She heard him mumble and curse for hours before he went to bed. She began having nightmares herself, always about being at an orphanage, she and her baby sister assigned to the cleaning crew; her little brother sent away, to another location she couldn't possible find.

With half loaf of bread, and a chunk of cheese, Mingu left every morning before the rooster crowed, before anybody else stirred, determined to go on as though nothing had happened. He had been a happy fellow, breaking into songs at the slightest opportunity; girls and women lined up to praise and take him in, making him feel wanted and appreciated and special. He could have had any woman he chose. The town was full of beauties, rich widows asking for nothing more than a handsome smile and a strong back.

He was  deep with anger over inconsequential things, as though a big lump of food was stuck in his throat, a piece of hard bread swallowed whole, chocking him if he tried to swallow it.

He pounded his fists at anything and anyone, scaring the sisters who cowered in fear and huddled together behind the table. The night he heard Tiudo had run away, he grabbed Dolora by her hair and hurled her across the room, then he returned to  slap and kick her.

 ‘Mannaggia, Mannaggia, Mannaggia’ he yelled at the top of his voice, to all points of the compass, to nothing in particular, and everything in general.

Dolora retreated in the shadows of church niches from that day on, trying to find refuge in prayers and novenas. She began to feel responsible for anything that went wrong in the household. I must try harder; I must pray with more fervor, she told herself.

Their house was small, one room for people and one for animals, with a cellar to hold harvests and preserved food. The matrimonial bed took up half a room. The other half served for everything else, an eating/food prep area with table and chairs, a fireplace for heating and cooking. Pots and pans hung on the wall. Hooks and ropes held clothing and tools. A big armoire kept their possessions, and one single light in the middle of the room illuminated the space.

Tiudo slept in a corner of the barn, on a bedroll over hay. Bed bugs or the cold kept him alert. If he didn’t clean up the stalls, he would be smelling more than he wanted to. Unless he dumped the hay and set it on fire, the lice propagated rapidly. During hot summers, he slept outside by the fig tree his Mother had planted when he was born. His cat followed him everywhere.

Lina slept on the landing, an elevated area reached by a ladder and draped for privacy, situated at the top of the stairway to the cellar.

The city had erected a new school in the back of the house, and from the time the first shovel hit the ground, the family was put on notice to vacate their residence as the area had been rezoned. The war and the occupational forces of the Germans and later the Americans delayed any formal action on this notice. Mingu was willing to fight it. He was not going to let anybody sell or take this house the way the Loggia had been taken from his wife’s family.

During harvest time, everyone pitched in, every child, every adult who could walk and stand worked from sun-up to sun-down picking olives and grapes.

When food was plentiful, the sisters prepared jams and conserves; tomato paste dried on big sheets in the sun under loose cotton towels preventing flies and insects from landing. By the time the first frost sent people indoors, the cellar was full of provisions, vats of olives curing; barrels of wine aging, jugs of olive oil perfuming the place, a wheat granary towering in the middle; strings of apricots, grapes, peaches, apples; garlic and herbs drying around the ceiling, out of cat’s reach.

In November, a pig was bought and slaughtered, and sausages and salumi were made in various sizes, specific ingredients for taste and spiciness dictacted by tradition; some were left to air dry; some were packed in oil. Jars of peppers and eggplants in oil and herbed vinegars lined the shelves of the cellar, organized by sizes and by specialty. A jar of tomato sauce, one of prepared eggplant would become pasta condiments on most days.

In the same cellar, Mingu fermented grapes in a big barrel, acidity and sweetness corrected and monitored daily. He knew just at what time to distill the liquid. The house had a musty smell all winter long. Bottles of wine were exchanged for everything they needed.

On days too wet or too treacherous Mingu repaired cane chairs, built reed baskets, organized the cellar. He spent evenings discussing politics, singing at weddings and feast days, looking for opportunities and friendships.

When the Germans occupied the school behind the house, Mingu forbid the girls to go outdoors, or doing daily shopping, even hanging laundry outside. He dug an extension to the cellar, behind the granary,to hide provisions. Between bad weather and bad luck, the hiding place was never utilized. These were lean years. Everyone went hungry. The cellar emptied in no time, and bread and fried peppers were eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wine was all sold, until nothing remained to eat or drink in the cellar.

There were those who sympathized with the Germans, and those who worked against them. Those who gave willingly were protected and allowed to move without restrictions. Mingu forbid his family from visiting people, fearing and mistrusting everyone.

The sisters read serial romances on long winter evenings, Lina doing the reading aloud, stopping only to fantasize about the man she would marry. Mingu had prohibited her from showing any interest to any boy. Secretly, she prayed to the Madonna to provide a miracle, just one possibility, like the boy next door who had eyed her beauty and managed to send messages to her.

On Sundays, Donna Maria Rosaria came to visit , and an elaborate pasta meal made with a ragu of rabbit stuffed with herbs, breadcrumbs and olive oil would stew for hours in its rich tomato sauce until they all sat at the table after Mass and were satisfied. The old woman thought the girls were doing well; the house was always spotless, the food plentiful. The family had to barter for the rabbit and anything else they served with pieces of Graziella’s trousseau, elaborate laces, beautiful pillow cases.

“Son, “she asked , “is anything wrong with you or Dolora? Why aren’t there any children in this family?”
“I may be called to serve any day. This is the worst possible time to start a family. Besides, she’s still too young.”
“People are beginning to talk.”

“People have nothing better to do.”

“I’ll pray you have boys as strong as your brothers.”

“I am not so sure God is listening.”

“Now son, trust, trust.”

“The way this country is breaking up?”

“Things have a way of working themselves out.”

“They are getting worse.”

“Pray that it doesn’t happen, son.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Broken Hearts

Don Paolo passed away before spring, before his daughter Graziella's house was finished and furnished, before he knew about her pregnancy.The town doctor pronounced him dead, and the funeral was held the next day. Nobody asked how he died, what killed him. A strong man had been reduced to such a puny size in no time, blind and weak in a matter of months.

The children spoke about the supper they had together the previous Sunday. Graziella returned to those words many times, feeling in her heart that he was blessing her and her unborn child.

“Forget tradition,” he had shouted amidst coughing fits, “What’s important is to give the child a strong name he can wear proudly. ”

“But Papa’ it would be blasphemous to dishonor our ancestors. If I have a girl, she’ll be called Marianna, like Mamma. And our boy, Natalino, like Mingu’s father.”

“Your poor papa’, God bless his soul, has been named already a half a dozen times, no?” He addressed Mingu with this question.

“There are four nephews named after my father, and two nieces, after my mother.” Mingu acknowledged.

“See? What are those boys going to think when your mother mixes them up? She won’t remember who is who?”

Within weeks after the funeral, neighbors and townspeople began to arrive at the house to talk about money owed them. Mingu tried to handle most of these with Donna Maria Rosaria, but in the end, it was Dolora who had to make sense of all the business affairs their father had left behind.

“ You’ll be paid in due time, can’t you see this is not the proper time? Don Paolo will keep his word even after death, you’ll see. Go on, go home. We'll find the money.”

After six months, a judge in Potenza passed judgment on the estate and the family’s future without meeting with anyone or understanding the pain he would cause.

Graziella went first into a deep depression and then one morning, while she was tending the garden, she doubled over with pain. Lina found her on the ground, amidst a pool of blood. She had no strength to move. The baby arrived twenty hours later, stillborn. She died from hemorrhaging.

“Did Graziella’s baby kill her?” Tiudo wanted to know.

Each child had an explanation for what happened. Tiudo thought his father got sicker as more and more people cheated him. If he had been older, his father wouldn’t have died, wouldn’t have been aggravated by the cheaters.

Lina thought Graziella’s baby must have kicked her too hard, to cause so much blood to spill.
The two of them made a pact: they were going to keep awake every night, somehow, to make sure nobody poisoned them, or caused them further harm.

“When I grow up, Lina, I’ll take care of you." Tiudo spoke with certitude. I’ll never let anything happen to you. We’ll go to America, and start new. You’ll see, nobody dies in America. Nobody suffers. Nobody can get away with cheating the way they get away here. I will find a way. I promise.”

Mussolini was expanding Italy’s military, and every able man was being called to active duty. Widowers and bachelors were taxed more and were obliged to get married or join the army. Their prostitutes were chased off the back streets and were forced to register properly and be controlled by the state police. Every single man was put on notice: stay home and have babies with your wife, your country needs strong men to compete in the world.

“With over forty million people, you’d think he’d want us to have fewer children!” Donna Maria Rosaria commented one night when she heard about Mussolini’s plan to enlarge families. “He’s putting more burdens on young families. Why he’s gallivanting with a mistress, while his wife is raising his children ! And he calls himself a just man.”

Mingu was twenty-seven years old. The love of his life had died, and he had nothing else to live for. His mother didn’t know where he slept or what he was doing in town. He had lost a wife, a son, and a fortune in a matter of months. She was not surprised when he told her his plans to re-join the calvary.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Her little boy is bouncing on his father’s knees and reaching out for the platter of pasta-fagioli she set down in the middle of the table.

“He’s going to get burned!” She shouts

The scream wakes her; though, in this post-dream moment she continues to savor the thought, taking her Natalino onto her lap to nurse, protecting him, watching him turn this way and that, as he reacts to his father’s laughter. “Now, stay put little one, eat and be done with it. I have things to do.” Her arms cajoling him, lulling him to nurse a little longer, waiting for him to finish nursing and join his father's lap again. His father will take him back, and rock him to sleep, with a few notes of a favorite song, a few swings of his strong arms.

She can't help adding pieces to this dream.

They moved in his mother’s house, in the room Mingu had shared with his two brothers; strings and wires, leather belts and shaving vessels, old shirts, boots and work clothes strewn in every corner. She lived out of her one suitcase, counting the days when she could move to the house her father was getting built for them, the house that will have her smells; flowers and sprigs of basil growing on window sills; baby powder in the air; scents of olives and grapes after each harvest.

This is temporary, she told herself every morning as she made the bed.

Expectations were simple and understood: take care of your husband; keep the house clean; don’t complain, daily recitations stamped into every movement, every utterance, as predictable as  the rosary, a quiet and numb ending of each day.

Days had their own rhythms. Wake at six, carry on the daily chores, and go to bed at the end of daylight.  Electricity had just arrived to their part of town, and everyone had one or two light bulbs in their houses. But days still started with daylight, and ended when night arrived.

Mingu started his day at the wash basin filled with water warming on the fire. In the evening, before supper, she watched him scrub his hands and neck of musty -ripe grapes, the smell of their land. She had liked that smell. Now, she had strange sensations, couldn’t even stand with the hot towel to help him dry up.

“Your family needs to settle things.” He said on the night he returned from talking to her father.

“What do you mean?” She tried to focus.

“I told your father that I need to be paid for the last couple of seasons. I talked to him at length, hoping he’d just say, Mingu, you are now in charge. It’s about the future of the place. We can start by bottling our own, you know.” He turned to her. She was crying. He continued, trying to reassure her.

“ I could go to work at the cooperative.  I wouldn’t be far from here. I wouldn’t even need a horse. I could do that work.”

“What did Father say?”

“He didn't. He has been too tired to think ahead." He looked at her and noticed that she had dozed off, before he had finished explaining his family's finances. Her fists were tightly crossed in front of her.

Donna Maria Rosaria’s rattled out of the house to attend early mass every morning before any body was awake. Lina then woke Graziella up. They all ate bread and grape jam most mornings, unless a vendor stopped by with goat milk for sale, and then Lina would have hot milk and sugar for her toasted bread. She looked like an infant, savoring the richness of the panna, the hard crust formed on top of the hot milk, full of sugar, and savored like ice cream.

Graziella packed fried peppers and tomatoes for her husband's lunch, with a loaf of bread and a chunk of salami, the same dish almost every day. For supper, she put a pot of beans by the ambers in the fireplace, to cook all day, a base for a minestra or a pasta dish. Twice a week, she visited the butcher. On Fridays, she waited for the fishmonger to arrive at the piazza with the night catch all the way from Bari or Naples.

She wished she could chat freely, about Naples, about life by the sea, about the shops and the museums she enjoyed so much as a girl.  But she was a married woman now, wearing a head covering for modesty, keeping her blonde hair in a bun under the covering, and didn’t do idle chatter. The only money she had was what Mingu gave her weekly to purchase groceries. She felt guilty over these thoughts, knowing full well that those fancy things were not in her life any more.

At the Loggia, Gemma had planned the cooking and general help for the family. Things were delivered to them, from various people in town. She could charge her purchases to her family account, she was told by the merchants. But Mingu had insisted she paid cash for everything she needed. Often, she had to settle for less than she needed. Donna Maria Rosaria went with her everywhere, insisting on what cuts of meat to purchase.

At home, she had enjoyed her biscotto and coffee, or eggs and toast. Don Paolo had his coffee first thing, then returned to eat a proper meal around ten. The young ones had Panini with a variety of meats, one to eat on the way to school, and one to eat during their break. Gemma had managed this for years, a different breakfast for everyone. Nobody had any idea of how much things cost, how important it was not to be cheated by merchants who could smell someone who didn’t know one veal cut from another.

Graziella was getting an education living under Donna Maria Rosaria’s roof, an education that her departed mother never had a chance to give her. She ought to be grateful for the constant advice she was getting, but she became less and less cheerful each time they went shopping.

“When it’s time for you to have a baby, you’ll be in good hands!” Her mother-in law hinted, guessing from Graziella’s behavior, that she was having morning sickness.

Graziella told nobody. She didn’t want to chance anything. Especially, chance a flurry of envy from who knows where.

One evening, Graziella heard mumbling and noises, and thinking something was wrong, she walked in her mother-in-law’s room to find her in tears. Lina was awake, sobbing quietly.

“Are you feeling all right?” She inquired.

“Be careful, be careful!” Donna Maria Rosaria mumbled, in a trance.

“What? ”

“People are watching. They can see everything.”

“No need to worry. ”

“Through the walls. People can see. I tell you ,nobody is safe. They can see everything you do, everything you wear. There are spies all over the place.”

Graziella had not seen anything like this, this strange and worried look on the woman's face. She went back to bed, and woke Mingu.

“Your mother is worrying about people spying.”

“She’s talking about imaginary waves .”

“I told her about the German doctor that took the picture of his wife’s bones, through her skin, the story we heard from Dr. Fabrizi?”

“Is this what she is worried about?”

“Yeah. She thinks this occurs everywhere. She is confusing spies with machines. She thinks Mussolini had spies when the boys were inducted in the army.”

“An how do you know that?”
"The Cooperative got notice that people could only work eight hours; everyone can only work eight hours or we get shut down. There are spies that report you, people you thought you could trust.”

“Mingu, I want to move to our new place. I don’t care about not being finished. I need to be in my own house.”

He reassured her it would not be long.

On Sunday, after Mass, they went to the Loggia for dinner. When Dolora noticed Graziella not eating, she confronted her.

“Are you sick or pregnant?”

“Don’t say anything now. I want to wait until I can be sure.”

“You can’t keep any food down. I’m worried.”

“Don’t. It won’t last long. I talked to Donna Maria Rosaria about this.”

“What? ”

“In general. I wanted to know the symptoms. Fortunately, she goes to church every morning when I start throwing up. By the time she returns, I’m much better.”

“Move back to the Loggia. You need someone to look after you.”

“It won’t do. I want my own place. " She said with a sigh; then, "Could I have some dishes?”

“Just go and choose.” Dolora snarled at her, adding,  “Keep the good dishes here. You can borrow when you have a special occasion.”

“Now, promise not to tell anybody about the baby. Promise you’ll come to town and visit me when I’ve moved.” Graziella said.

“Sure. When do you think that’s going to happen?”

“Soon. Soon.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Man Talk

After her wedding, Graziella moved in with Mingu, at his mother’s house. Lina spent her school days there too. Tiudo and Dolora remained at home, in the ghostly place still known as the Loggia.

Don Paolo was happy that with Graziella's marriage, his children were now connected firmly to a family that would support and protect them as he got closer to his end.

When Mingu came to talk to him, Dolora saw a chance to plead her case again. The men spent hours behind locked doors, as she waited patiently in the kitchen, helping Gemma, keeping an ear and an eye on the goings on in the salotto. They could only afford paying Gemma to come in once a week to help with the laundry, but she would stay overnight and helped Dolora with some heavy tasks. Winter was the time for families to butcher hogs and make sausages. Not this winter. Every minute was spent cleaning and tending to Don Paolo.

On this day Mingu brought a couple of people from town to help with routine tasks of pruning and spraying vines. Dolora was miffed, knowing that these people had to be paid, and be fed, all additional expenses. He knew what difficulties they were having this year.

Mingu and Don Paolo talked for a while, the conversation moving in many directions.

“The new house in town and la vigna vicina are your wedding presents. I will need to sell the wheat fields to pay my doctor’s bills; so, I can’t hire but one person to help you with the vineyards and olive groves from now on. Tiudo can help in a year or two. It’s been tough meeting our obligations right now.”

“I didn’t want to bother you when you were so sick.”

“We need to remedy the fact that you haven't been paid for a while either. But the next harvest should be better...”

“I don’t need much.  But, with a new wife, we will need to furnish the house, get feed for the horses. I want Graziella to return to her studies but she has made up her mind.”

“She hasn’t talked to me!”

“With due respect, Don Paolo, I’m the man she needs to talk to now.”

“Yes, yes. Of course!”

“I plan on taking care of her. If she wants to continue her studies, I’ll arrange it.”

“How are you going to do that, Mingu, without an income, without a dowry? I don’t mean to insult you, but you have no trade, no skills. Except as a contadino, a man used to working with the land. These lands used to feed all of us; now, it’s not so easy. I hear Mussolini is planning a land reform. Who knows how that will break us even more. We used to have means to send our children to school, and marry them to suitable suitors. No offense, Mingu. She wanted to marry you. I didn’t object. Her mother, God bless her soul, stepped down to marry me. She made me most happy and never brought up our class difference.”

“Not the same, Don Paolo. You were, still are, high class in these parts.”

“Well, in a way. Marianna’s family was full of professionals, people with intellectual skills. I couldn’t hold a decent conversation in that house, though I went past elementary school myself before I joined the military. I almost wish we had settled in Naples. Our children would be educated and exposed to a better group of people. No offense, Mingu. I don’t mean your family at all. I knew your father and mother before you were born; buona gente, the Ambros. Loyal and honest. I wouldn’t have anybody else marry one of my daughters. Now, promise me something…”

“Yes. Anything…”

“Losing a mother is hard enough. Now, with my bad health,…”

“No need to ask. She is …”

“And another thing…”


“I’m …” Don Paolo couldn’t continue as a harsh coughing fit stopped him mid sentence. Mingu got him a glass of water and waited for the cough to stop. Dolora walked in and Mingu turned to her:

“Your father gave us la vigna vicina, the one on the way to Melfi. Who has been working that piece?”

“It’s been leased.” She said. She must get a detailed list of all the holdings before things get worse, she thought.  Why did her father split the land so? That piece was their Mother’s dowry, meant for the daughters, all of them. Graziella is already getting a new house, and now the vigna vicina. How is that fair? What’s left for her, for Lina?

“I’m running that for Graziella and me, exclusively.” Mingu told her.

“I have to stop the lease, then.” She said, not really sure what that entailed. She was learning about finances one problem at a time. First thing to do, was to make a detailed list of holdings. She tried to stay focused on that thought, as things were quite fluid around the place.

“All we need now are the furnishings. Usually, that’s what my side of the family provides. But I haven’t gotten paid for the last year.” Mingu had been rattling on and on before she understood.

She noticed how different she felt for him now that he was part and parcel of every discussion they would be having. This feels strange, too strange, she thought.

“A year?” She was trying to remember when was the last time she had handed him money. She had taken over the finances  in the last few months. Maybe Don Paolo’s health is confusing everything.

“Two, last harvest and this harvest.” He emphasized.

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” She asked him with a tinge of anger in her voice.

“I didn’t want to bring more concerns up. Anyway, if you are doing the books now, you need to know all these things.” He had caught her mood swing and attributed it to all the confusion in the house.

“Fine. I’ll check into this.” She mumbled.

“We’ll be gone for a week on our honeymoon. My mother will come and stay with you guys.”

“That’s kind of her; but we are doing fine.”

“I want to convince Graziella to stay in school. She thinks I would object; but I would be so proud of her if she became a doctor.”

“This is a bad time…” Dolora was growing more and more anxious. How does he make all these decisions without consulting us, she thought. Now, he is deciding for Graziella too.

“You know that nobody can help Don Paolo. We need to accept his fate. But, your sister had this opportunity of a lifetime. Why do you stand in her way? What can she do that you or I can’t do for your father?” And with this last statement, he left the Loggia. There was no money for his labors and no dowry either. He better think of some other way to provide for his new family.

Dolora didn’t bother her father with her concerns. She went looking for Tiudo instead.