Thursday, March 31, 2011

How do we know?

We read others to see through their eyes.
We love people and try to see what they see.
We end up with filters, ours, theirs.
Filters full of funny fuzzy lint.
The lint makes pictures,  lines, shadows and light.
Our mind wants to make sense of that bubble, connect it to other bubbles. 
Our mind says every thing has to make sense somewhere,somehow, some.
We read what we write.
We examine the structure, the movement, the bubble it formed.
We filter  that bubble.
And for a while it makes sense.
It lets us sleep, forget, go somewhere else.
Then, doubts about the bubble.
Fuzzy pictures become even fuzzier.
We know nothing, we scream out.
We know shit-quoting my favorite young Canadian.
We know only hunger and pain intimately and well.
We know what's right in our sight of vision.
Everything else, a construct.
Everything else, an exercise.
Nah, I'm here, here, and I've a toothache.
A toothache doesn't lie.
A toothache trumps everything.
A toothache hides other pains.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Twelve

I remember being surprised when I received a birthday card on my eighteenth birthday,
 the return address typed on a large envelope. The card just said Happy Birthday and it included a copy of Tina’s will, naming me the beneficiary of her insurance policy.  I did not know that she had died.
It was the first time that I didn’t throw the thing away.
  I was living in Hollywood, with a couple of friends, all of us looking for fame and fortune. On my birthday, we did the same thing as any other day. We stood on Sunset Blvd. and hoped to be picked up and driven to somebody’s party where the booze and the food would be free. We all had odd jobs, waitressing, working as cashiers at drive-ins, housecleaning. At night, we were starlets in the wings, dressed in our best, looking to be discovered. We were just a couple of days away from the big break.  After all, that’s what got us all here in this town, in the grimy Hollywood that looked and smelled worse than the barn I had left behind in a hurry.
The letter from the lawyer explained that Tina had died of stomach cancer, an illness that took a sudden turn, the note said.    A four-thousand dollar check was stashed between the birthday card, and some papers I needed to sign and return. The last time I saw her was the night in Willow-Creek when I took her money from the sugar bowl, the money that was going to pay for our trip back to Italy one of those days, and left for good. 
I was fourteen, and angry, and it turns out the same age she was when she became pregnant with me with an American soldier.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Eleven

On Saturday morning, the police drove me to the station, and hours later, it dawned on me that the tone was wrong. People exchanged words with each other, not knowing that I understood them.  When I asked if I could return to the hotel since I had not had anything to eat, they told me that they were waiting for the American Embassy. 
   I called Marianna who came with her nephew, and once he introduced himself to the interrogators, they gave him a detailed explanation. Later, Sergio told me that the police were suspicious of everybody and everything, including me and Steve.  
“Technically, they detain you until your embassy clarifies your situation.  I took the liberty to explain that you are not a flight risk, and I’d vouch for you. That’s the reason they excused you tonight.”
"What? A flight risk? What are they talking about?"
"There might a crime involved, or espionage or anything. They are not showing all their suspicions, but they are suspicious."
 Marianna’s nephew assured me that he would stay on top of any development.
“Well, it’s settled,” Marianna added, “you are having Easter with us. I’ll pick you up in the morning. Besides, they won't be able to hide anything from me!" 
Marianna had been a reporter and this nephew of hers had been her source of information on many cases.  She didn’t explain how, but assured me that I was in good hands.
            Back at the hotel, I looked  at the package she had given me.  
The letters spanned the first few  years Tina and I spent in Montana. I counted them and marvelled at how much  of Tina’s life was in those pages. 
I studied the handwriting, the length of each one, trying to guess what she was revealing about those days.  I spread them on the floor, from one end to the other, my fifth year to my tenth year in front of me.
  The letters  stopped for a while, and resumed again from Florida.
I wanted to start there, at the time in Florida when my mother and I parted for good. 
When and why did she stop talking to Marianna?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book friends: Somewhere Towards The End.

Diana Athill wrote Somewhere Toward The End in 2008.  She was already retired as a book editor by then, the job she had all her life.  She edited the likes of John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Naipul, writers I have slept with this last decade.  Well, slept with their work, is what I meant. She is one of the greatest book editors in the 20th Century.

This is just one of her memoirs, concentrating on how she felt as a woman.

In 182 pages she lays out some stark realities:

1. Regretting not being a sexual thing anymore
2. Cheered up  by sexual experiences even without love
4. Open to the ebbing of all desire
5. Understanding that relationships change all the time
6. Accepting that a human life can contain both good and bad

And lastly, the interpretation of religious texts:
When we read, whatever is needy in us  takes in whatever the text offers to assuage that need.

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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Book Friends

This is a picture of an old object from my childhood, a coal brazier, used to warm up unheated spaces back in Italy when I was a child.  Hot coals would be deposited carefully in this big flat cauldron with a  wooden base and heavy legs that kept it from tipping. 

As children, we sat around this brazier for hours doing homework, reading books.

When I think about my best friends, friends that never left me to this day, I think of books.
First and most lasting is Dante's Divine Comedy, a book we studied in high school. We only read the first of the three parts, The Inferno, Hell. Just recently, I finally read the entire thing.

The English world has Shakespeare. Italy has Dante Alighieri.  (The last name is superfluous.)

Last summer, at an antique book store, Hubby purchased a set with both English and Italian texts.  These are now my most expensive and most appreciated collection.  I've been reunited with old friends, connecting with all my lives, so to speak.

Someday, I'll explain how this book affected me throughout my life.
If you never heard of The Divine Comedy you are missing a great read.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas: Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

On  a cold April day in Montana, colder than anything we ever knew,  Tina tried to tell Grandpa that we needed to get to church, that it was Good Friday, and we must make our confession and preparations for Easter.  Her English, gibberish. The man I called Grandpa spoke calmly, without  looking up.
  “Nobody leaves the house, not man, not beast. No church." 
We had arrived a week earlier.

We landed in New York, far from our final destination, a five year old scared and tired, and a young twenty-something girl, my aunt Tina, who knew just what to do and what to say at  the ticket counter of the Italian ship line, the address of our sponsors on a piece of paper.
Montana? Signora, sei sicura?” Are you sure?
I heard her go back and forth, one question on time, on costs, on problems we might encounter. 
We took trains and buses. We traveled for days and days.
With the picture of her soldier for everyone to see,  she told everyone that she was traveling to meet his family,  our new family, that this was her sposo, her soldier sweetheart.
 She was here to bring his child back to his parents in Montana.
She told me to call the new people I’d meet, Nonno and Nonna,  Grandma and Grandpa, and to call her Mommy.
 I was cranky, wanted to go home, couldn’t quite pronounce the words correctly.
  At the train station in Willow Creek, Tina  hugged Seth and Evelyn,  the only old people waiting for someone to get off the train at that station. Then, she pushed me to do the same.
“We thought he’d be a boy! Isn’t that what we thought, Pa? Don’t look nothing like Frank!”  Evelyn was a frail, pale woman, with hard green eyes.
Tina repeated the same few words she knew, in a sing-song fashion, sounding  like a rosary.
Frank was a good man,
Frank loved his family,
Frank couldn’t wait for the war to end,
Frank wanted her and the child in America.   
Frank this and Frank that, at the beginning of each sentence, at the end of each question. 
“Well, now. Well!” They said, taking  the picture she had held in her hand, a picture of her and the soldier together, and breaking down, forgetting why they were there, sitting down in the waiting room of the station and kissing the picture between sobs;  a cold bench in the middle of the night had become their mourning time.
They patted me on the head, stiffly.
 Tina was saying Frank’s name so often, they kept crying each time with more vigor.   
 A few smiles later, a few  more attempts to pat me on the head, we must have caused the ticket clerk to worry, because a few minutes into this, he  motioned us to go.

 We were escorted to a pick-up, the three of them got up in front,  and I was positioned behind the front seats, in a sliver of space that did not allow me to sit down. Smells of grass and animals.
The next thing I remember was morning, and, I was upset that I did not have my own bed. Though I had always slept with somebody, I wanted my own bed in a pink room. I whined for hours, quietly at first, then more and more vigorously until Tina threatened me with a severe lashing,
We were in Frank’s room. Boy smells and boy stuff  in every corner.
I slept on and off, for days, through  noises of  people coming in and out. Every time I woke, I asked about my mom and dad.  I worried that I’d sleep through and miss them.  I even worried that if I didn’t wake up and eat  my supper, I would get sick and die.
 At night, I heard scurrying, hooting, squealing noises that terrified me, that kept me wrapped up under covers.  Tina sang me lullabies, encouraging me to sing along.  But those songs only reinforced the fact that I was not home, that my mother was far away.
 “Ninna, nanna, coccola di pa`pa, ninna, nanna, coccola di ma`mma.” Tina kept herself awake, rocking me to sleep.
I sang myself to sleep, or tried to, between bouts of tears, mine and Tina. I told her that I couldn’t pretend that she was my mother any more unless she produced my real mother. 
She started crying, and I’m not sure I understood her consternation.
 She was my real mother now, she kept repeating and I had to pretend so we could all make this wonderful voyage.  I didn’t understand, and my tears began to etch a deep canyon in my tiny heart.
On the third day, I was awakened by a brightness that I didn’t recognize at first, snow on the ground, and a warm smell of freshly baked rolls. Dazed, and wobbly, still feeling the sensation of plane and trains in my limbs, I ate the roll and held the table down, thinking that we were all experiencing an earthquake.
The feeling lasted even after I took a long bath where I played until I was tired again, and Tina took me back to bed.  I got the feeling that Tina would let me do anything to keep me from crying.  I wanted to go out and play in the snow, and she would have permitted it, but  Grandpa Arnold put his foot down talking about respecting the weather.
I spent many hours alone in our bedroom, looking at things I wasn’t supposed to touch.
“This is Frank’s room, but we must leave his things alone. We’ll be busy, chores to do, lots of them, milking, cleaning. We must get used to new things and be very polite.” In America, she had said, everyone works.
 Grandpa met me every morning with a big grin, “Hello there!”   
“Siamo in un ranch?”   I asked him. He smiled and said “hello there, you can’t sleep your life away, you know?”
  Grandma didn’t talk, kept on working.
 I said “Hello there”, to her, the way grandpa had greeted me and wrapped myself around her bottom half until she pealed me away. Something about the way she pushed me from her, made Grandpa sad. I sensed that even before I understood what he meant.    
“She’s smart, Ma. A good thing.  Just like him. She’ll soon figure things out. We are doing the right thing!”   He was comforting her, patting her on the shoulder, while I swallowed tears that began to harden and solidify in my heart. We were not wanted here.
“Yup, weera arancha.”  I repeated, to no one in particular, trying to make light of the situation.   Grandpa laughed and  I went on, “dov’e lo sheriffo?”
“A sheriff, yep!  A sheriff.” Grandpa  offered me some salty meat from his plate that tasted burned.  The taste of bacon was not pleasant, and I made an ugly face after I took a bite.
 Evelyn ate silently.
Tina shooed me away even before I was finished, as everyone had gotten up and moved away in silence.  The silence was new to me
“Va, va a fare il letto, go make your bed. “ She gestured , wanting me out of the room.  I left, even though I wanted to know about the ranch and cowboys and sheriffs. 
The Little Sheriff had been a favorite character in a popular magazine from the same name that Tina had obtained and was teaching me about the place called Montana.  I knew Grandpa would know them.      
Later, I pressed Tina for more information.
“We’re in the same place, yes?  Il piccolo sheriffo vive qui da noi?
Yes, she said, to my questions. Yes, go on, go play in the bedroom. Yes, stop asking questions.
“Are we really?” I kept insisting.
“Yes!” Tina said. I liked living in the Far West, like in the movies I watched back home, fighting Indians. I couldn’t wait for the snow to melt and ride on the ranch on big horses.
I followed Grandpa to the barn, to feed animals, and learned names of everything before Tina did.
Tina kept me busy at the kitchen table while she cooked and cleaned by seeing that I learned my alphabet and practiced my letters.
Grandpa found books with simple words I could copy, and coloring books and crayola I could have. He also moved Frank's things out of the room, while Evelyn complained and yelled at him.
 I caught pneumonia that first spring, days and night all looking the same, except when Tina would crawl into bed with me, wake me with her prayers, and soon, wrapped together and singing  old familiar songs, I could fall asleep and dream of  times when I could meet cowboys and Indians.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stats and other tools.

Whenever things get ugly, when people complain and want to get rid of something, a program, an expense, they will quote statistics for that topic, data that they or someone has collectd.  Numbers are black and white and have nothing to hide, no emotional connections whatsoever.

We go to numbers to control our reality, to support our deep-seated beliefs.
We go to numbers to represent our irrational fears.
Numbers don't lie.

And so, I'm doing the same thing today.  I go to the stats of this blog. And here is what I learn. No, I already know this stuff. Here is what I have to confront:

Without Readers, can a Writer survive?

Granted, I tell myself, granted that readers are always fluid, coming and going, fickle creatures interested in their own lives, and don't have much time to stop and say hello even.


I'm already writing in solitude; what difference does this make?
I'm writing because I want to.
I'm writing because I need to.

How long can we ignore statistics?
How long can we work in darkness?

How about you? Do you worry about these things? Do you need readers to keep on writing?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Eight

 Chapter Eight

On Friday morning, after I waved goodbye to the tour bus, I climbed back in bed and folded myself up. What if Steve had actually masterminded this disappearance, worked out a plan to drop out of the rat race? Maybe he was just tired of being in the tour group and found a way to establish  his own pace. He kept me out of the plan so I wouldn’t object. Ah, that must be it.  But, going off with another couple knowing I would not know how to get around on my own was something else. Something about that couple kept bothering me.
The police had called me before a former missing person report had been filed. I guessed the manager’s relative was doing him a favor of checking up on a lost tourist. Or, all police were on alert for unusual events such as this one.  Americans missing in the middle of a busy Piazza would not look good in the papers.  That last thought buoyed me. Yes, Americans count, I thought.  Everyone pays attention to us.  It was a good feeling that gave me hope.
I never did fall back to sleep. Instead, I decided to explore the neighborhood, find things to see and do,  let myself  calm down. Yes, a good walk, a clearing of the mind would help my disposition.
It was Good Friday, and a major procession was taking place right outside our hotel, winding for blocks, with a passion play at the corner piazza. A  man-God, someone with a mother and a father and a country would die today, and His mother  would search the streets looking to find him. She would find Him on the cross, after his death, and her pain will be felt by all believers.

I walked a couple of blocks aimlessly, noticing  people shopping with big bags with children in tow. Many others were taking their place on the street, standing and waiting for the procession to come through.  The procession determined where I'd go, since streets had been closed to traffic, and the shoulder to shoulder crowds prevented anyone from crossing the streets. 
 I stood  a few blocks from the hotel, shoulder to shoulder with people I never met, all of us feeling like lost souls looking for redemption. At the first sight of the Virgin Mary wrapped in her shawl, eyes turned down, tears etched on her child-like face, tall on the shoulders of strong men, tittering with each step they took, a line of penitents behind her, I found myself tearing up.
Something in that face, in that desolation, was mine to feel. This is our destiny, right here in front of us, asking for forgiveness from a higher power, I kept saying to myself. This is day for me to ask for forgiveness. Yes, this is the day to confess and repent. 
We were all pinned together on this map of remembrance.
We were all reviewing the sad contents of our lives, the difficult path to redemption each of us knew was waiting for us.  The face on that statue was too much to behold.  She was real to me. Not a Madonna, but a mother. Oh, I thought as tears streamed down my face and my neck, Oh, how I wish I had a mother now, how I wish my mother too would look for me now that I'm lost.
I want to be found, I wailed in low tones.
I want to go home.
I want to be loved again.
I want my mother.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

  “He probably tried to buy cigarettes and got lost as I did!” I told the clerk when I explained that my husband had never been that late getting back home.  The last thing he did every evening was to purchase a pack of cigarettes so he would be set for the next day. 
I had remained in the lobby with my eyes peeled on the front door, angry and seething on the inside, while acting casual with Gail and her husband who had insisted on keeping me company. I was  thinking Steve must have gone to dinner with the German couple, assuming I would follow, and would have realized that I returned to the hotel.
“Tourists get interested, try new things, give in to their vices,” Gail said,  being polite.
“Steve has no vices” I said, sitting up, “besides, he’s very cautious these days.”
“All of us are,” Gail was ignoring my bad mood, keeping an even tone, “it  was a terrible thing for Americans on 9/11.  Look at how the whole world has been affected too!”
  “Yes. ” I said, remembering that the world was a scary place.
“There is nothing you can do sitting here.”  she added,  “Check your room for messages.  People leave signs.”
I was numb. 
Oh my God! She thinks Steve would leave a note, just leave a crummy note.
 I walked up to the desk  for a spare room key since mine was in the purse I left behind.
 The clerk  checked the computer. Then he asked: “Would you go under a different name?”
“My name is Silvia Arnold.  My husband is Steven Palmer. We're checked under Palmer."
“The computer shows  that you checked out.”
“No. I have not checked out. I’m with the tour group, Umberto’s!”
The clerk made some calls. A manager showed up. Umberto came down from his room.
Gail offered to help and I snapped back with something or other, and she left me there at the counter, with no room key, no purse and no husband in sight.

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.” 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reflections on a stormy night...

Writing is like driving at night in the rain,  a furious rush to get to your destination with everything derailing your focus. Writing is not living. It is reliving, with the sole purpose of getting  out of there, out of the sadness, the fear, the loathsome accumulation of memories that need to be sorted, identified, and presented in small pieces that can be understood and digested by the reader.

To the reader, the book is just fiction, a story somebody made up. The reader can take breaks anytime, days even. The reader may be affected by the story enough to feel the same emotions as the hero. But, in the back of his/her mind, this is just a book, and it will end on page so and so.

To the writer, the book is his/her guts, her ride into that awful night. Granted, most writers use their lives as the basis of stories and build a whole lot of other incidents to orchestrate the final story; but they invariably scrape their own wounds to tell something important to them.

That's how it is with me.

Something in my past life was hard to understand at the moment, caused much pain, was resolved in a manner that left many wounds.  That something wants to be revealed, gets revealed in a work of fiction.

In the present story, Unnamed Madonnas, all I wanted to do is write about my returning to Italy on vacation. The mixed feelings I had on that trip.  That was my motivation.  Then, I looked at how the narrator would feel if she had been too young to remember her country. So, Sylvia is now a woman, whose aunt stole her to America.  In Italy, she wants back the romance of her life, now in middle age,  she wants to fix what's wrong; but she needs to fix other things too.

So, those are the hints I can give you; so, when I break for rests,  you can ask me questions, we can discuss if something is worrying you, the reader. 

By the way, some things are decidedly important markers for those of you who have read any Italian Literature.  Dante is here.

1. The story opens on Good Friday.

2. The first quote, at the opening chapter is from The Divine Comedy, Dante's masterpiece.

3. Lost souls, water, miscommunication.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Five


Chapter Five

On September 11, 2001, on our morning drive to work,  a special announcement  interrupted the traffic report.    A passenger plane had crashed  in New York  and hit the twin towers.  Within minutes,  a second plane also hit the twin towers, and before we arrived at school, a third plane had crashed near Washington D.C.
“My God!” I yelled,” this is the end!”  
Steve said nothing. His eyes were watching the traffic as he reached across the seat to take my hand.  I held his hand for a long time, and then, I pulled out my cell phone  and called our son Ryan away at college in Irvine.   
No answer.
When we arrived at the school where we both taught, students were milling around the quad as usual, waiting for the first class, and nothing in their demeanor had changed. They probably walked to school with friends and had not heard the news. High school students do not tune in to the news first thing in the morning.
We have crazy stuff to deal with day in and day out in this place, I thought.  If the world went crazy, we’ll have another world war, just as bad as the one that determined my mother’s and my fate.
The administration was not ready to give us any instructions on how to handle this event when we checked in.  Steve and I had talked about keeping students busy with regular lessons.
But,  by ten o’clock, every classroom was watching CNN, quiet and somber news updates keeping the school glued to the horrific pictures until the next bell dismissed students to go to another class.
At  3:00 p.m, nobody knew  if school would be open the next day.
On our way home, we stopped to pick up food at the drive-in.  Lines  were horrendous, but people were quiet, patient, listening intently to their radio.
 In the evening, after we tried to reach  Ryan again,  we heard about  Osama Bin Laden and his friends ready to strike again any big cities in America.  L.A. was a major target area, and we were up all night, preparing to evacuate, fleeing to our cabin in Oregon.
Steve spent a few hours gathering sleeping bags and supplies.   After midnight, Ryan called us to tell us that some of his classes had been cancelled, and that security check points and curfew were being put in place on campus.  He had tried to call us all morning, too, he said, but the cell signal was bad most of the day. He informed us that the State Department was telling Americans not to travel.  His plan to go skying up atTahoe had changed, too dangerous to be in popular places like that.
We talked about  picking him up and driving all night to our cabin in Oregon if things got worse. He dismissed us, telling us nothing else was going to happen.
Steve called Denise and told her to get herself and the boys out of Miami.
“This country is in a shit-hole right now. We’d be safer in Europe, in Mexico, Canada, anywhere else.” I had not heard Steve with this panic tone before.
 “We can go to Italy. The flight will be just a bit more than the price of tickets for Denise and the boys to fly to Oregon, or us flying to Miami.” I shouted at both of them.
“No one is safe on planes anymore! Or ships! Or trains! Hell, we are so unaware of our surroundings most of the time, someone can take aim at us anywhere.” Steve was fuming, throwing things across the room, cans, tools.
“They’ll catch the culprits and we’ll be back to normal in no time.” I was not sure myself of any thing I was saying, but I felt better saying it.
The next morning, with a couple of hours of sleep under our belts, we went back to work. Gloom and doom  hovered on each freeway exit, under every bridge.  We drove to and from work, avoiding any other errand, any place where crowds might congregate.  In the evening, we remained glued to the television set, listening to the news, worrying.
In a couple of days, guards were planted at many government buildings.  Our school began to search students’ bags; visitors had to be cleared; nobody was moving around in the usual pattern.
 Faculty meetings were cancelled.
 Everybody rushed home after work.
There was an eerie calm everywhere. People were more polite to each other, sensing doom or rampant anger might come from up with the least amount of encouragement.
We picked up our mail with caution.  Packages were examined carefully before being opened.  Anthrax had been found in somebody mailbox and people had been poisoned for no apparent reason.  Not just airport were being flagged with danger signs, color coded so the public had an idea on how to proceed, but everywhere else.  Our school developed coded messages for the P.A. system, in case of terrorists or strange shooters.  We practiced lock-downs.
We called Ryan to check on him once or twice a day.  He began to be annoyed by all this fuss; we demanded that he kept his cell phone on and on him day and night. He told us that he wasn’t going to give in to the fear of the nation. He was going to go about his business as usual.
People in stores, waiting at gas stations,  had an unusual guarded and alert look about them; we all became more conscious of our surroundings, paying attention to packages or bags left unattended, watching other people for signs of unusual behavior. 
Anyone who looked foreign, who had an accent became suddenly suspect.  Ryan told us that Afghanistan and Pakistan  students at his college had been arrested, and their roommates  detained for hours. Even some good friends of his from high school were now being considered suspect and their lives were changing.  After years in the same neighborhood, some people left, afraid of their own neighbors.
I wondered how and if Steve's disappearance might have anything thing to do with terrorism, with friends or students, or colleagues we might have known, with people we might have met on the tour. I wondered, and was paralized with the same fear.  In this romantic ciry we  were supposed to get back to normal after a very long year of fear and panic eating at every fiber in our bodies.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Unnamed Madonnas-Chapter Four

Chapter Four
“Per me si va…."

At the hotel I asked the night desk for a key to my room. He was new, he said in Italian, and promptly called the manager. He asked me questions about how long we were staying and  told me not to worry, that with Easter vacation and so many tourists around,  my husband would eventually make his way back to the hotel. He added that he had a cousin in the police, and would ask him to help out. His English wasn't very good, and that's the jest of what I understood would happen.
I thanked him and made my way to my room. I planned on staying up, waiting and watching television. I must have fallen asleep as my dreams were erratic and I was in a sweat when that phone call came.

We were both, Steve and I, back at the tiny cottage on the Pacific coast that was our home away from home.  The place, Arizona Beach, was  the name Steve’s grandfather had penned when the place flooded right after he had planted his first crop and saw it flooded after a week long winter storm.
 “I wish we had moved to Arizona!” Millie, his wife, had shouted,  her husband’s foolishness of choosing to cultivate  at the surf line, instead of up above on the bluff. 
He bought the other hundred acres, and built her a permanent place on the bluff. The first cabin got swept away and became driftwood just before the windows were installed on the house on the bluff.
We had bought the place when it came for sale, a decade after his mother died. The place was  overrun by vines, thick brush, streams and forest right at the doorstep. A  creek on the side of the property had become a major waterway, run unspoiled to the ocean. We had saved a good amount of money every year, never taking any vacation, just so we could buy the property. We  spent days cutting the outgrowth around the cottage, collecting wood and building fires every night for cooking and heating water.  Time had stood still here. We had no cell connection, no electricity. This place was at the edge of the world.
Steve’s little  sister, Denise,  her husband and their two little boys  joined us every Christmas down  from Alaska where her husband Ronnie made a living as a fisherman.  After Christmas, they drove  to Mexico until the fishing resumed in Alaska, about six months in each place,  all of them  living like that for years. homeschooling the boys when they got old enough to go to school.
At Christmas, the  place was stressed under the burden of six people. The four adults worked the whole time cleaning the place and taming the woods and the pastures.
  Denise’s husband lost his life right on that river,  the second Christmas there. 
Steve,  Ronnie and the boys all fished together. On that day, Steve had some pick-ups to make and couldn’t spend time fishing.  He dropped Ronnie and the boat at the river’s bank and took the boys with him to the store to pick up supplies, waiting for the sun to shine before exposing them to the cold river.   
By the time he got back, the accident had already happened.
We left Denise and the boys at the cottage that winter, making sure they had lots of canned food, lots of wood, and a new generator. 
That first winter, Steve drove up from L.A.  every month, worrying about those boys, trying to convince Denise to move in with us, and get herself a job and settled in. She wouldn't hear of it.  She insisted she could handle things all by herself and he needn't fuss so much about her.
Ten years later, Steve and I finally had  a baby. Once Ryan was on the scene, I expected to change our usual routine of spending Christmas and summers at the cottage.   We kept going to the homestead as though nothing had happened.  Steve took his nephews to forage for mushrooms after a rain storm, set crab traps, harvest clams and mussels.  He felt responsible for the boys, and had a lot of fathering to do when we were there.    

Many winters, storm after storm downed trees and littered streets and highways, disrupting traffic and daily routines.  Tired and cold, and worried, we kept the fire going and kept ourselves busy. One of these days, I thought, we will be unable to return to our normal lives. The highway will be washed out to sea, and we will surely perish.
Each year, we took books and fishing poles, utility knives, traps, shovels, boots, anything that was needed to make Denise’s and the boys’ lives easier.  We spent days building a Christmas village, making structures like the ones my mother and I had made in Italy and through my childhood in Montana. The village was a recreation of Bethlehem, the manger and Jesus and his family in the middle of the village, shepherds and townspeople attending to their chores.  The boys and I made the figurines out of clay in the summer months; at Christmas time, we added new structures, a silver ribbon to represent a river; a clump of moss to represent a plateau; a shoebox turned on its side and painted brown all over, with wood sticks glued on, to represent the stable.   
On Christmas Eve, we lit candles, sang carols and told stories until the boys fell asleep and the grownups began to yawn too. 
 Finally,  Denise married her boss at the hardware store, and decided to move  to Florida when he  got a  position in Miami. Steve  insisted on paying their air fare from Miami,  so everyone could still return to the cottage at Christmas. 
We took the same picture every year: the boys and Denise sitting in front, Steve and I standing in the back. The heating oil delivery person arrived in time to take those pictures every year. 
When the phone rang, we were all standing in front of that Christmas tree in Oregon.