Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Final Chapter

Final Chapter

            On a glorious Monday morning, the sun  shining brightly over  olive groves and vineyards, apple and almond blossoms wafting peacefully in the air, I smiled at my good fortune, dressed and went downstairs, hungry and curious where I met the couple from the previous  night, in the kitchen speaking a dialect I could not understand. Marianna, arranging vases of lavender and roses  introduced the couple as Cesare and Cleopatra. Then she took a tray of coffee and pastries and moved out on the patio for breakfast.
 The compound was an agriturism facility, she explained,  busy in the summer with tourists.   Visitors wanted to learn to cook the way their aunts and grandparents had cooked.  Marianna hired an international work force  most of them  from poor countries she had worked in.
 There were three structures  connected by courtyards, terraces and a  swimming pool.  Overlooking the vineyards and gardens was  a trellised garden shaded by  bougainvillea and jacaranda trees. The place was called Terre Nostre. 
            The original farmhouse, a white stucco structure with green trim, housed the wine making business. After breakfast, we walked about and Marianna showed me where she and Tina shared a bedroom for five years.  This is the place where Marianna’s mother helped in my delivery.
            She asked if I wanted to take pictures of the place.  I was speechless. That  simple question stopped me in my thoughts. 
“Ryan, your boy?”
I must have looked  confused.
            “Do you know when it will occur?  When he becomes  a father.  Then, he’ll want to tell his children about the grandparents.  Especially if he’s never known them.  They want to close the circle.”
            I began to understand why she was lavishing so much hospitality on a total stranger.  She talked about her bouts of depression and nostalgia and how most of us who grew up away from our roots feel  disjointed.  We talked for hours, walking the land, gathering salad greens, collecting eggs.
            The kitchen garden had neat raised beds with herbs and greens and espaliered fruit trees.   Moving slowly, smelling  and pulling young arugula and radicchio, I was lost in thoughts.  
            “Il paese `e rimasto nel passato.” The town has remained in the past. She explained that few people have modernized and adapted their businesses as she did.  Most owners are new people, falling in love with an unspoiled place. 
“Have you always lived here?” I asked.
"Oh no! We were all  sent away to school. I studied English and ended up as a journalist."  
The nephew who helped me in Venice was born in Germany, studied in Belgium and Switzerland, and settled in Italy. Marianna’s ninety year old mother lived with her sister in Salerno and had abandoned everything to give her children a new lease on life. 
            “Tutti abbiamo  bisogno di trovare la nostra storia. ”  We all  have the need to find our history.
  I wanted to talk to her in Italian, but I kept slipping back into English.  She did the same. With the Egyptian couple, she spoke Arabic. 
"Keeping your language," she said, "allows you to feel whole, to keep threads of your life.I was just surprised you waited so long to visit.”
“What do you mean?”
 She talked about how I had been everybody’s baby. Tina and many other girls looked at those babies that survived the war as gifts from God, a sign that He had not forgotten them.
“When you and Tina left, you represented all of our hope to leave and start life anew.  What we didn’t know was how hard it was to forget .  I am sure that’s what Tina was trying to do; to help you she had to forget too.”
“We had fights about that.  She kept bringing up how much she missed Italy.”
“You know, for us, for my brothers and sisters, we had this place to return to.  My siblings  were sent  to the orphanage after the war. I was the only one that remained and when I had  an opportunity to travel,  I jumped at it. Everybody left to find jobs, to go to school. To escape poverty everyone needed  an education beyond elementary.  For that, they needed to leave town.  Mother kept us as long as she could feed us.We had garlic soup for dinner, with old bread soaked in. We had fried onions for breakfast.  We had bread and whatever grew naturally out of the ground that had been abandoned and stomped on by many soldiers. People  paid for Mother’s midwife services with whatever they had, vegetables, olive oil, eggs.  In one instance, when a mother  died in childbirth and her husband shot himself,  all  four children, including the infant were taken in by Mother.”
“What was this place like back then?”
“At that time we didn’t have so many buildings. We all lived in one house. Mother fed many children whose families were unable to feed them. Many children walked in and out of our lives.  When my younger  brother left for Germany, he told Mother that she didn’t need to worry about him. With all those children to feed, she wasn’t going to miss him.
"Later, as things improved, Italy had to import labor," Marianna explained.  " I had met Cesare and Cleopatra on one of my assignments in the middle east; they had been  drivers and translators, so, it was a natural progression for them to come and run this business for me. " 
 Legal and illegals  from Africa and the Middle East, even Japan and China are  finding jobs no Italian wanted to do anymore. Marianna’s summer workers are on work visas from all parts of the world.  Most of them speak at least one other language.

I told her I was grateful for the hospitality, that I wished we had met under better circumstances, she smiled, and said:
“These are the circumstances that brought us all back together, and we must make the best of them.  Today is Little Easter, an opportunity to meet lots of people who have returned to town to celebrate ,up there, on the hill beyond the pig enclosure.”
            “La Chiesa della Madonna delle Grazie.  Tina and I would go there.  Did she tell you about that?”
            “Well, it was our private place. We were thirteen, fourteen.  After school, we’d pack our lunch and have a picnic up there.  We’re two miles from town; even back then, Mother had a horse and a wagon that took her to town and us to school.  If she was tied up in the afternoons, we’d walk back, stop by the church, and get home by the time she was finished." 

The   town celebrates a Mass  there a couple of days a year, this is one of them.  Everybody walks up to the church and families all take their picnic lunch and share with their neighbors. 
            We packed sandwiches , wine and mineral water and walked up  to the church,  joined by people from every which direction, all going up the same mountain.
She introduced me to them, and by the time we sat down, we had twenty-thirty people all talking about miracles or some other story related to the church.  Everyone had made the pilgrimage for a special reason. 
            Marianna took a call on her cell and then passed me the phone.
            “Signora, for you.” She handed me the phone.
“Your husband has been found.” It was Sergio.
“Oh Thank God!” I was chocking and couldn't talk. Marianna picked up and continued the conversation.
“He had a medical emergency.” She explained.
“Is he O.K.?”
“He’ll tell you the details.  Yes, he’s O.K.”
“Thank God.  When can I talk to him?”
“They’re discharging him this afternoon, and they'll call you back later."  She hugged me and for a minute, a brief minute I felt in the arms of my mother, a feeling that kept me sobbing for a while.

“I guess this is the end of our visit.  Everything turned out fine, thanks to the Madonna.” Marianna still held on to me, and I needed all the strength of that hug.
“Marianna, I can’t thank you enough.  You and Sergio…”
“Don’t mention it.  It’s the Madonna .You’re both welcome to stay as long as you want.  You are helping me reconnect as well, you know.  You’re closing the circle for me.  But promise that you’ll return with your boy and spend more time here.  You still have a house here, remember?”
I didn’t know when and if  I would ever return to Italy, but I said, "It's a date. We are returning."
“You were an only child,” Marianna explained, “the paperwork should be easy. Think of how your boy will appreciate this in the future, when he’s searching for his roots.”
“How long and  expensive is this process?”
Italy is full of codes and dark alleys when it comes to government efficiency.  You have to be diligent and tenacious.”
           When we returned to the house,  I called Denise with the good news.  I was hoping she had not talked to Ryan and worried him too much. I told her when and where I’d be at the Rome airport.
On Tuesday morning, after two hours’ drive, we reached the   airport. 
Sergio had made all the arrangements, getting Steve out of the hospital, clearing the police problem, arranging the flight for both of us from Rome. 
Steve looked very tired.  After we embraced and cried and laughed, after we said our goodbyes to Marianna and Sergio and boarded our plane for Los Angeles, I got the story from him.
While he was having drinks with the German couple, Steve had an allergy reaction to the morning shell fish lunch, and was rushed to a nearby clinic.  From there, he was moved to another one with overnight accommodation.  The German couple had returned to the café to wait for me after I had left the spot and had already boarded the boat that took me back to my hotel. 
They remained a couple of hours, waiting for me.  Then, they left message with the bar to inform me of my husband’s condition.   This is the first place Sergio stopped at to get information, making sure to talk to everybody.   

The nurses had his name, and the hotel information. They contacted the hotel Friday morning and were told by the hotel clerk that the tour group had just left.
 Sergio had made inquiries at the coffee shop and at the clinics, and finally found him.
The fact that the incident happened during a holiday complicated the search quite a bit.
Even at our hotel, there were many regulars who took that holiday, and the part time substitutes didn't follow up on messages either.
Marianna’s generosity had connected me to my homeland and the people and land that made up my patrimony, and had reunited me with my husband.
We can never repay them.
We are forever connected to them.  Next year, we have to  plan a different trip.


  1. The ending was sweet relief; I was afraid something bad had happened to Steve.

  2. p.s.s. This story has been haunting me for decades. It includes the demise of war brides and war babies, what lives they had in the America of their dreams. It also needed to reveal all the things they lost, their language, their culture, the family ties that bound them to their land.

    I actually cry every time I think about these things, and this story is my attempt to capture all these elements.

    Perhaps someday I can resurrect and put meat on these bones so they can be served alongside other great stories of loss and abandonment.

  3. p.p.s. I met an Italian who emigrated to Italy from the Check Republic. (by way of my memoir!)
    She tells me these are the same feelings she feels as her family and her country are not the same she left behind.

  4. an important story then, rosaria, all of these elements unresolved finding a form of resolution. it is as though you've two countries and yet no one country. this becomes difficult. i know it was difficult for me in many ways of identity when i lived overseas and then in the united states. even in canada, robert and i considered moving to the east coast, but one day his witnessing me in the rugged northern ontario woods - he stopped and said, no, this is you. although i am up for adventure, home is home, with so many far reaching issues.

    i can't believe, however, that Steve was not involved in some form of intrigue. ha! you have me conditioned with all of the suggestions throughout the story. i keep waiting for the other shoe to fall.

    what a commitment you've fulfilled. and yes, the bones. there could be endless building on each of these characters and scenarios. what a wonderful treat for us all.


  5. Erin, you caught my weakness in this one. I have no stamina to work on all the details, all the possibilities. I feel old! I want to get to the end so fast that I rush through, telling you the story as quickly as I can. Will I ever put in the bones? I don't know. I feel strong and invincible now and then, still full of that something that kept me moving on and making things work, at one time.

    You caught all that! I'm so, so grateful! We want the reader to know us intimately, don't we? To read between the lines, to the core of the pain.

    I had to write this story; it needed telling; but I wished so much more for it; so much more.

    thank you, dear erin, for this reading, and this sharing.