Saturday, March 26, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Ten

Tina’s Friend Marianna

            After Tina died, I found Marianna's address and sent her  the death announcement. I knew Tina and she were close for many years. Tina’s stuff in a box in the back of my closet was forgotten until  Steve and I planned the trip to Italy. 
I sent her a note, letting her know that we would be in Italy and we could visit with her after our last stop, Venice. The plan was to go to Rome with the tour group and then catch a train to Lucania and spend a couple of days reconnecting with the town and the people who might have known me as a child.     
She  invited us  to spend time with her, “You must visit our family home. You must. This is a good opportunity for you to catch up. I’m looking forward. Call me the minute you land.”
In a stumbling Italian, I called her after I returned to the hotel Friday noon.  The person on the other line was warm and kind, switching to English as she divined my difficulties. I told her that Steve went missing, and our plans were now up in the air.  She told me she had family near Venice and didn't mind coming up to visit me, us.   I hesitated for a moment; then, I said yes, glad to have someone to talk to. 
Marianna arrived  around four.  She told me she would have recognized me anywhere.   Her tone was warm and friendly and we spoke easily as we ate at a nearby restaurant.  The first question she asked was how Tina had died. Then, she listened quietly while I tried to find the words to explain the disease that took her so fast.
“Was she happy?” She asked suddenly.
“Yes. Except with how I turned out, rebellious and all.” I’m sure I confused Marianna. In her world, children were obedient.
“Oh, everybody is rebellious.”  She said, with a kindness that I needed at that time. 
“I was a pain.  I blamed Tina for everything.”  
“Were things difficult for you?”
“Not really. She  never complained about all the work she did. She thought  America was her salvation.”
“Life was tough here. Your father had to borrow to  pay for your trip, and  waited for their turn to leave for America; eventually, they became the standing joke of the town.  When Maria got sick …”
“I didn’t know.”
“Your dad left for Germany, then Brazil.  Everybody left to find jobs.  Maria  died before Rocco returned. ”
“Did Tina know?”
“We had left too, and didn’t get the news  until much later, when I returned to Lucania, ten years later, to get my house back, then I think I send Tina the news. She stopped writing to Maria early on, I think."
“What happened after that?”
“Your house was abandoned,  became government property. Our house fell in the same circumstances. We made a claim and petitioned to get it back after so many years.  There are many properties like that. In your case,  people will remember your family and will  want you to get your house and your land back.”
“We need to fly back to our jobs in the States.”
“After you and Tina and thousands of others left, our  town became a ghost town.  Starvation and sickness everywhere.  Children dying of diseases, fields  abandoned.  You left just in time, before all the talk killed Maria.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maria couldn’t take it. Even after you two left.”
“I don’t understand.”
 “Didn’t Tina explain this to you?”
“What? The fact that she had to adopt me to go to America?”
“That and the fact that she gave you up once before.”
“She gave me up?”
“Tina was young; we were just fourteen, fifteen. She came to live  with us when the soldiers moved behind your house. This was the time when American Forces occupied our town.   Tina met Frank innocently enough, while we were  taking down the laundry  in a downpour.  Frank’s unit was passing by in a jeep, and he and his soldiers jumped out to help us collect the laundry. A couple of days later, he returned dropping gifts of chocolates. They began to leave things now and then on the way out of town. One warm summer night, four of them stopped to talk to us, to ask us if we needed anything else.  We all had some wine, some snacks. The next day, they told us, they were being sent on a major mission, a dangerous mission.”
“So Tina was intimate with Frank on that night.”
 “Yes. I knew what to do when Tina explained her symptoms a few weeks later.  I heard women talking with mother when she didn’t know I was listening.  I knew.  But Tina didn’t. I don’t even know when she would have had occasion to be intimate with him except that night. She confided in  Maria who came up with the idea of letting everyone think that she was pregnant. She too moved in with us during  the last months.   The town was dark at night, nobody could leave their houses, not even to get a midwife.  My mother was the only midwife Maria and Tina knew 
"After you were born, Maria baptized you as her own.   You grew up calling her  Mamma from the start. They both stayed at my house for months, to make sure you were nursed and got to an age when they could feed you solids. Tina had no trouble hiding the fact that she was nursing you.  Rocco was called to the front about that time, but I’m sure he knew what the sisters’ story was all about.  Later, he had nothing to say about Tina going to America. He could have prevented you from going; but if he knew the truth, he didn’t show it. Tina never meant to send for them.”
 I didn’t understand the last comment.
“I thought the idea of sending for the entire family was always part of our story, mine and Tina’s.”
“ Oh! It was sad.  You had been their only child. The sisters dressed you up, in big bows and pretty dresses. It broke Maria’s heart when you left.  She lost a sister and the only child she ever had.”
I remained silent, saddened.
“Do you remember Italy?” Marianna’s tone was hopeful.  I hated to disappoint her. 
“If Tina hadn’t insisted early on, I wouldn’t even remember a word of Italian. Now that I’m here, in this place, hearing the language, eating the food, lots of things are coming  back.  I feel sad that we grew apart. I’m grateful to you for giving me the truth.”
“I’m sorry you lost your mother, your homeland, the family you left behind. But, you know, it is the same with a lot of people from those days.”
“I have always had Tina to guide me.”
“Listen, I brought something that belongs to you.  They’re the letters that Tina sent me. I think it will help you find answers.”
She handed me a package.  I hesitated.
“Marianna, I can’t take them. They are yours.”
“I’ve kept these things because I knew one day you’d  want to know.”
I hugged her and thanked her. She scribbled her number where she was staying for a few days: “If you are still in town this Sunday, you must join us for Easter dinner. If your husband isn’t back today, give me a call.”
She insisted on paying the restaurant bill before we parted.


  1. Ah, once again, the plot thickens. I love this, Rosaria. I can't wait for the next chapter.

  2. Family is complicated, my mother swears a similar thing happened to her because she doesn't look like her siblings

  3. ciao passavo di qui
    Michele pianetatempolibero

  4. This must be a common story of those times. Although I was not one of them, they came from Italy to live around me and as a child, I knew their children. Big eyed, frightened and disoriented. But I realise that only in retrospect. Then, they were just the dark eyed smiling kids next door who spoke for their parents and ate spaghetti.
    This story grabs me, maybe because it fills in the gaps. All so sad. May Mussolini and Hitler rot in hell and we that know do what you are doing and tell the stories.

  5. holy! rosaria! what a wonderful and aching situation. complicated and absolutely believable. wonderful wonderful.

    i'm glad she will have Tina's letters.