Festa Della Donna
It is early spring in Liguria. Staying at a farmhouse on a hill above the town of Santo Stefano, the street noise from below makes its way up the hill. Every afternoon that I sit in the midday sun I am tempted to shed my outer layer of clothing, exposing my skin to the heat. The buds on the plum trees in the yard have now swelled almost to their fullest size. Straddling a long wooden bench nestled comfortably next to a table that daily is covered with a clean crisp tablecloth and helpings of cheese, pasta, and wine, I look above my head and study a Wisteria vine. Thick and gnarled with age, it snakes under and around a lattice roof.
Glicine. Other Italian words have come and gone from my memory, but this one for some reason, is there forever. Wisteria. Glicine. In Italy there are single Wisteria vines more than two hundred years old. But on this day the Wisteria is far from blooming, and remains a mass of twisted determined vines sprawling towards anything they can cling to. In time it will drip with clusters of delicate purple flowers, but not today. Today there is only one blossom visible to all.
The Mimosa tree. The weight of the season hangs on its fern-like yellow canopy. It shoulders the anticipation of rebirth as its presence acknowledges all that early spring brings to the surface. Outward it glows, in bright yellow, flinging forth the purest quality of the season.
In the early 1900’s the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in Washington Square, New York employed hundreds of Italian women. Day after day, locked into a room that prevented union workers from entering, they worked for meager wages. In early March 1911 tragedy fell upon the factory. On a Saturday, near quitting time a fire broke out in the building. The young women tried unsuccessfully to escape through the locked doors, and instead began hurling themselves out of the windows. One by one, and sometimes in pairs holding hands, they fell nine floors to the cold pavement of Greene Street, and to their death. One hundred and forty six Italian women, some as young as fourteen, died that day. Their bodies lay lifeless below a burning building. The anniversary of this day is marked by a holiday across Italy. March 8, Festa Della Dona. It is a day that remembers the tragedy of the past, and equally celebrates the women of today. The vehicle for celebration is the blooming Mimosa tree.
From up the hill behind me Mariana comes bounding down in my direction. She is singing to herself. Her small arms are loaded with sprigs of blooming Mimosa that with the help of her mother, aunt, and grandfather, she has diligently collected. Behind Mariana stroll the rest, baskets slung over their arms overflowing with more yellow blossoms. Mariana reaches me first.
“Guarda questi mimosi!”
Belli!” I say and smile at my newest Italian companion.
The others join us and we spread the flowers across the table. Selecting one delicate clipping at a time, we finish our morning’s work by bunching together fifty bouquets of Mimosa, tying each one with a white ribbon and cutting the bottoms so that they are equal in length. Men and women across the country are doing the same, and for the rest of the day and the weekend to follow the flowers will be handed out to women young and old in remembrance of those who were lost, and with respect for those who live today. By the end of the day the slender streets of cities and hill towns will be splattered with yellow as Mimosa are held between the fingers, and cradled in the arms of women.
After lunch Mariana and I decide to walk into town for gelato. On a path through fields of olive trees that eventually brings us to a street and winds us into town, she laughs and talks endlessly about futbol, and her love for Evita. “Don’t cry for me Argentina!” she belts, giving it her best American accent. I listen and react from time to time, as one does to child content to say in her own world. We each hold a few sprigs of Mimosa eager to hand them over to women when we reach town.
On a normally quiet hour of the day the town piazza is crowded. The sun is shining bright, significantly stronger today than it has and the townspeople seem to have brought their siesta outside to exchange greetings with their neighbors. Mariana and I slither our way through the chairs and people that are scattered in front of the gelato bar. I order my favorite flavor, straccatella, a vanilla based flavor with flakes of chocolate. It is very similar to chocolate chip I suppose, but the name straccatella suggests a certain seriousness that chocolate chip never will.
With cones in hand we return outside and join the rest to watch the afternoon take hold. As Mariana flits around the piazza I watch two older men walking side by side towards the sound of church bells. They walk slowly, as old European men do, with their hands clasped behind their back. They are dressed sharply for an afternoon stroll in brown suits and leather shoes. Even in the most remote village, or on the craggiest hilltop, Italians look their very best when they’re in town. This I have learned and grown to appreciate. The two men walk together as if nothing is more important, and behind their backs, between their clasped hands, they each hold a short-stemmed Mimosa. Working away at my straccetella, I continue watching as they approach two young women walking in the opposite direction. The four of them stop and exchange greetings which I cannot hear, but the important part I can see. The old men offer with no expectation, flowers to the young women, presumably strangers. The women thank them and keep walking. A moment of gratitude, a moment of acknowledgment, a moment that says nothing more than I recognize you for being a woman.
Mariana’s voice streams across the piazza from where she has found some friends to play with. Still holding my gelato and Mimosa I saunter over to meet her. An old woman dressed in all black, sitting on a bench at the edge of the piazza catches my eye. Her tired arm extends towards me. Her fingers clench a long Mimosa branch and the arching yellow flowers brush up gently against my arm. She thrusts if forward once indicating that she would like me to have it. “Grazie,” I say softly as I take hold of another Mimosa. As I continue to walk the blossoms bounce in the air and a couple seeds drop to the ground. I watch them silently spin downward and land near my feet. When I reach Mariana I hand the same sprig to one of her young friends. She thanks me and adds it to her collection.
And this is the way it goes for the rest of the day weekend. Blooming Mimosa are passed from hand to hand, almost in silence, across the country. Through the hands of friends, acquaintances and strangers they travel. Women of all ages are given a gift that for one moment they hold onto, and the next they give effortlessly away to another woman. A sprig of mimosa given to you on this day is yours for only that moment. It does not belong to you; it belongs to all women throughout time. What does belong to women in Italy is a tradition that celebrates what they’ve gained, lost, and what they are. Although in remembrance of that day there is little talk, if any about New York City in 1911.
Year after year the Mimosa is the first sign of what is come. The early blooming trees hold hope that the season will change. After a full celebration of Festa Della Donna the streets are littered with lingering yellow. On cobblestones and in storefronts branches have snapped, flowers have wilted, and bouquets have fallen apart. Women have been rewarded with the flowers of trees that claim their strength and shout rebirth. The evidence remains. As the next week begins the color of the Mimosa is a shade slightly duller. At the farmhouse I notice that the plum tree buds have opened slightly, and those on the Wisteria vine are visible. I look towards the full opening of spring. Every year after the Italians celebrate their women, it inevitably does. And so, simultaneously we look back and move forward, always returning to a day that gives power to looking in both directions.