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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.”


  1. Note the meager living conditions the family was reduced to. Though the picture is of another place, it represents the simplicity and the austerity of life in those times. As I think back, my childhood was quite similar. Though our house was bigger, and each child had his and her own bedroom, I knew many places just like this.

    People worked hard and still couldn't scratch a living most years.

  2. Another fantastic post. It is a very compelling tale.

  3. It's just riveting. What a life that must have been.

  4. We had friends who lived through those years in Europe. Their tales were much like yours. In Canada and in the US we were very lucky that it happened over there.
    And it pulled us out of the Great Depression to boot.

  5. I grew up in a small, austere house and can relate to this a bit. Just a bit. It was nothing like this. What some people endured!

  6. Such a hard life back in those days - almost beyond the possibility that youngsters of today could understand...