Friday, March 18, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Six

6-Chapter Six

 Easter vacation of 2002 was the first time Steve and I took  a trip out of the country,  to Italy, just the two of us. We needed one extra day to accommodate our tour dates, so we requested that extension. Steve’s rationale was that during these trying times, travelling the world to understand the causes of religious and cultural unrest was important. We received permission with no trouble.
 When we landed in Rome, the city was exactly as described in the brochures, majestic in its historical splendor, one great photo opportunity at every corner. Our tour was just what we anticipated, a perfect blend of travel and rest,  every hour accounted for, every stop  designed to maximize security.
We were told not to wear casual clothes like tennis shoes and baseball caps. Americans were told not to wear anything that would identify us. The tour was run by a British company and catered to English speaking clients, from Australia, Japan, Canada, Germany, and a few from the states.  The personnel, bus drivers and directors all spoke English and Italian, polite, friendly, professional.
On our second day, we overslept and missed a tour to  the Coliseum. Like kids ditching school together, we walked out of the hotel to have lunch at a neighborhood trattoria, a bit hesitant at first. I worried about understanding the language while Steve worried about the walking up and down, like the long wait and all the staird  that had so tired him the previous day at the Vatican. 
We had seen a doctor before the trip, but still had no idea what was going on with his leg.  Steve thought was an old injury that was being aggravated by the stress we all felt.
“Vieni, vieni a mangiare,”  we heard from a young man in front of a pizzeria gesturing and pointing to the menu board .  Families and small children were making their way to the back patio, little ones chasing each other. Enticing smells of warm pizza pulled us inside,
“Do you recognize these things?” Steve asked as we perused the menu board.
“Yes, I think so!” I  answered,  remembering foods I had not eaten since childhood.  I ordered fried artichokes, and a soufflé dish whose Italian name I recognized.   
“Am I going to like these?” Steve asked.
The  bitter egg concoction made with tender lamb and cardoons, served on a puree of fava,  something Mother made every Easter just for the two of us.
“This is a really different soufflé.” Steve  tasted the verdetto and smiled.       
 Old Italian songs playing on the juke-box transported me back to my childhood, dad singing, uncles and aunts joining in. All things I had loved were brought back with that meal. I was happy and sad at the same time, enjoying the food and the people around, but overcome with sadness too.
 “I haven’t heard these songs in decades. My Dad used to sing a lot of these same songs.” I began to tear up.
Steve put his arms around me and didn’t have to say anything. 

The proprietor came over with  complimentary slices of apple pie,   “I guessed you‘d want a taste of home, ” he said, “ I’m Tony, from Brooklyn. I make these for the American tourists, my way of saying, God Bless America!”
“The meal was great.”  Steve said.
“You from Italy?” Tony asked.
“I was born in Lucania. We had a similar  soufflé.”  I told him.
 “I had this every Easter too. But I didn’t learn to make it until we moved here from New York ten years ago. We moved here to    keep my boys safe from gangs. If we had stayed, they’d be shooting drugs or worse.”
“We’re high school teachers; we see drugs and gangs  all the time.” Steve added.
 “My wife’s idea, really.  She insisted they learned Italian, sent them here for vacation every summer, got to survive in both places, she kept saying. She brought her mother to live with us, and she never spoke a word of English. So, we all had to keep up the language of the home country.  Now the kids are grown, all settled and successful.  Who would have thought that Italy would have more opportunities than America, ah? Hey, my son Nico,  is the director of a big archaeological site right up the street, in the back of the hotel.   Stop by, ask for Professore Nicola  D’Amato.  Tell him I sent you.”
We thank him profusely, and walked out contented.
America became a one way street,” I told Steve, thinking about the story of Mr. D’Amato and his boys.  “For all her homesickness, Tina could never afford the trip back to the old country. Italy was always on her mind. I haven’t thought about this, how hard it must have been for my mother, not having the rest of her family with her. ”  I wasn’t expecting Steve to be interested in this, but I couldn’t help myself going back through memories.
 “Do you wish you still lived in such a beautiful place?” Steve  asked as we walked back to the hotel, keeping an eye open, hoping to catch the excavation area that was supposed to be in the vicinity.
“Italy was like a far away relative that once sang me lullabies. I didn’t have many feelings until this incident that took us to war. Now, I think, what did I miss?”
 Steve, always the history teacher, jumped in with an analysis.
“There was a lot of aid sent abroad after the war. We still subsidize a lot of companies to go open up businesses in underdeveloped areas. When immigrant students disappear for weeks during Christmas to go back to Mexico and be with their families, they are in fact helping the economy of the homeland,  sending money to relatives, purchasing things to take back home, and keeping the American dream alive everywhere in the world.”  
“My mother never lost that feeling, that deep longing to reconnect.  It was not a matter of loyalty to the adopted country.  It was a matter of identity, or roots.  She could not cut herself off, entirely, and feel whole.  She kept crying and remembering.”
We didn’t have to go far to find the excavation site and to meet a friendly Professor  D’Amato.
  “My dad knows I enjoy meeting people from the States.”  The young D’Amato said, and invited us to visit  though the place looked deserted. He seemed to enjoy showing us the progress of the dig and talking about the family.
 “My brothers and I visited Italy every summer, for years before we moved here, the four of us, my brother, Nonna, Mother and I.  Father  couldn’t afford  closing the pizzeria even for a week. When my family decided to move to Italy permanently, it felt as though they  never left. They opened a restaurant in the same neighborhood where her dad had a panetteria.  Dad converted it to a restaurant in no time and put us all to work.  We are known as the Americans!”
            This family  did not get  torn  up, I thought, not like our family.   At the end, when Tina died, and I had to send out announcements I could barely remember who we knew back in Italy.
 Steve and the professor were talking and walking when I saw a statue of a young girl, hidden in a corner and asked about her.
 “We’re calling her ‘The Unnamed Madonna’”, the professor said. “ She looks like that young girl, in the movie ‘Two Women’, the daughter that was raped. This is the youngest looking Madonna we know. But, it is up to the Church to make the final decisions! After we are done, the government experts will decide what to keep on site and what to auction off to museums, and by the time we open to the public, this Madonna will be named properly.  This site is still new and will undergo lots of digs before the results are published.”
Something about her reminded me of Tina. There was so much I didn’t know about my mother, about her youthful days.
Professor D’Amato continued. “I just practiced English for thirty minutes.  That’s a record for me.  We work in silence and isolation for months at a time, sometimes forgetting whether it is day or night.  Easter week caught us by surprise.”
We thanked him and made our way back to the hotel.
Steve proposed we ditch the tour and discover Italy on our own from that day on.
“We can’t navigate without proper translators!” I stated the obvious back at him, but I couldn’t stop thinking of that Madonna, looking so much like Tina, full of effervescence and hope.  I kept thinking that America had been her hope for so many years, and yet, she never felt at home, she always felt that she didn’t belong.
We passed beautiful window displays of Easter Eggs.    
“Look, Steve.” I said with a squealing voice. The chocolate shell always contained a surprise, I remembered.  When I was little we purchased a small egg to share with the entire family.  But the surprise inside was always just mine.  Funny, that was the only time I had sweets, at Easter.”
Steve purchased a good sized egg, that  contained a small pinky ring with a shiny  stone.  My mood was suddenly improved when I put on the pinky ring, and I couldn’t stop talking about all the things that were coming back from my childhood.
“There were four of us, Mamma Maria, Tina, and Papa Rocco. Tina adopted me to take me to America.”
“Tina was not your mother ?” Steve was surprised.  I  nodded,  busy stuffing my face with  chocolate and thinking about things I had not dared think about.
  “Tina took me to America as her daughter. And yes, I was really her daughter, but not when I was in Italy. They pretended I belonged to Mamma Maria. Tina had to adopt me properly. She wanted me to have my American father’s name, and to have a new life.  By the time I figured all these things on my own, instead of being grateful for her actions, I was resentful and spiteful. I  complicated her life.”
I ate the entire chocolate egg  by the time we reached our hotel.  
“Weren’t you just a baby when you left Italy?”
“I was five.” I told him, and then wondered why after all the years we had been married, he had never been interested.
“Are we meeting anybody who knew you as a baby?” He asked.
“I only got a response from a cousin named Marianna when I let a few people know we were traveling to Italy. She was Tina’s  cousin and best friend.”

  After Rome, we traveled to Florence where we shopped for leather coats and participated in a medieval pageantry.  I could recite Latin and Italian poetry in the pageant and name the artists whose work we came to admire.  I had knowledge  that Steve didn’t have; and he wanted to know how I had picked up so much information in Montana.
“It was Tina’s doing.  My grandparents would frown in disapproval whenever they heard us speak Italian.  So, we waited when we were alone.  Later, Tina wanted to speak Italian when I came home from school, but I grew tired and ashamed.  I didn’t want a mother who could barely speak. By the time I was eight, I stopped answering in Italian, convinced that her language had no use.” 


  1. Do you think 'homesickness' is inherent - in our dna since birth to want to return to the roots of our heritage?

  2. In our family, the language was French, and my mother insisted that we speak it at home so we would not forget it.

  3. I think we are bound to our roots in so many ways, through stories, customs, food, music, language. It's part of how we became who we are.

  4. p.s. those of you who'd like to try a new dish at Easter, I've just posted a recipe for Verdetto, that souffle dish this couple ate in Rome, the beginning of homey memories for Silvia.

  5. I see how you worked this souffle into the story. Nice touch. And as usual, vivid details. I especially like this line: “Italy was like a far away relative that once sang me lullabies."

  6. and so it keeps unfolding.

    the homesickness - living countries away, so distant from your own culture - it is something i have been forgetting in regards to some personal issues. i'm going to try to be more mindful. i remember living without home country and it is no easy task. plenty of riches to be had but so many heartaches, as well.