Festa Della Donna

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.

 

 

 

 

Montelongo

Summer 2004

Montelongo

 

            My grandfather’s name was Carmen Anthony Patavino.  He was born in the Bronx in 1911.  He was the youngest of four.  His older brothers, Pasqualle and Giovani, were born in Italy, and he and his sister, Lucia were born in the U.S.  His parents, Anna Maria Micone and Michele Patavino left the village of Montelongo in 1906 for New York.  After Carmen’s birth Michele planned to return the family to Italy, disenchanted with America, but he fell ill and died.  The widowed Anna Maria raised the four children in the Italian neighborhood of the Bronx.  Carmen’s brothers, significantly older than he, worked for an auto mechanic, and at the age of fourteen he joined them.  Years later Carmen fell in love with the company secretary, Helen Marano, and married her.  Together they had two daughters, five grandchildren, and celebrated their sixty-fourth anniversary.  Everything Carmen did he did with care and he did it well.  He told long stories with precise detail and patience while his long slender fingers made silent gestures in the air.  His skin was thick and dark but not coarse.  He had hands that everyone loved to hold.   In his ninth decade he had a full head of hair, mostly white, with still a few streaks of black.  On his left wrist he wore a watch he bought at Bloomingdale’s in 1962.  He died wearing that watch.   He was small but strong, insisting on using his body, until the very moment it was no longer possible.  His house was neatly appointed with relics of his long golfing career, German beer steins collected during the war, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin records, newspaper clippings about the New York Yankees, and framed photographs of his beloved family.  Every well-used tool in his garage had its own place next to his meticulously neat and maintained Buick.  Year after year he grew brilliant azaleas and roses in his backyard.  Carmen was a man who understood that his body and mind could take him where he wanted to go.  Step by careful step he created a life worth admiring.  He took great pride in the things he loved.   He kept his family strong.  Carmen lived ninety-two years.

I had planned a five-month solo trip to Italy.  I wanted first and foremost to spend a significant amount of time out of the country knowing that soon my busy schedule would make even a short trip impossible.  I chose Italy because it was a way for me, to experience something new and remain, at the same time, physically, and emotionally close to my family and connected to home.  My goals for Italy were to visit with a beloved Marano cousin in Torino, to discover the village of Montelongo, see the sights, learn the language, and fall in love with the lifestyle.  I was to fly into Milan where my cousin would meet me, but beyond that my itinerary was quite loose.   I was confident in letting my mood and circumstance fill in the holes of my time abroad.  As my departure date grew nearer I spread an old map of Italy out on the dining room table.  With a pink marker I circled the places that I thought I’d like to go.  Torino, La Cinque Terra, Napoli.   My fingers traced the mountain towns of the Abruzzi, but did not land on one named Montelongo.  I was only able to circle the general area where I thought the village must be.  It remained something of a mystery but I never doubted that I would get there.  I imagined that I would arrive there by bus alone, and I would spend the day wandering in silence trying to imagine people who were my own, living out their lives one hundred years ago.  I would attempt to connect and give profound meaning to a place that gave me only a blurred conception of my roots.  I imagined that I would approach and converse with strangers, in a language that I hardly spoke, hoping that the names Micone or Patavino would sound familiar.  I imagined I would take photographs and leave at the end of the day feeling like I had done something important.  I did not, in anyway, imagine what I was to actually find, for one week before I was to leave on my visit, Montelongo took on a much larger significance.  With the help of the internet I not only located the village, but I located a man who I now know to be my mom’s second cousin, named Marco Micone from Montelongo.  Marco and I quickly exchanged e-mails, phone calls, and photographs of our families.  My mom and I pored over each picture for any resemblance that would make us certain of family.  It was in the eyes.  We learned that Marco and his family had left Montelongo for Montreal when he was a teenager.  He has lived there ever since marrying and raising two sons.  Recently retired, he spent his career teaching Italian and writing plays, in French, about Italian immigration to Canada.  Marco was gracious and kind, openly welcoming us into his life, as if he had been waiting for us to find him.   During his childhood Marco had been very close to his grandfather and remembered him saying that he had a sister who had gone to America.  He had never heard of her since.

“That would make us second cousins ,” Marco said to my mother over the phone.

“Yes,  I guess it would, and our father’s first cousins.”

“I still own my grandfather’s home in Montelongo.  It is pretty empty right now, but you are welcome to stay there as long as you wish.  Let me know when you will arrive and I will ring my aunt Lorenza.  She has the key.  She lives in the house next to the fountain.”

            Within a week we had become family, and thus there was no other way to experience Montelongo than from the house of our family’s origin, the house that our relatives had once called home.    My mother decided to accompany me to the village and suddenly my trip to Italy had a distinct focus.

Grandpa was happiest when we were all together gathered around a dinner table or scattered among chairs, couches, laps, and pieces of the floor.  He was proud of what he and Grandma had created.  But this pride and happiness didn’t begin with us.  It had a past as well.  A man of such strong family values was not just born into the world. Those values came from somewhere and it now seemed possible to put the pieces together and observe the place where they were formed, not only for myself, but more and more each day I felt I needed to do this for Grandpa.  I longed to touch a piece of the past that he had become estranged from, and contemplate a history that had been somewhat forgotten by the rest of us.    There were no stories of the Patavinos like there were from Grandma’s family, and for so long her family was our only connection to the old country.  We had filled in the Marano family tree and had been exchanging letters in broken Italian and English for years.  With his brothers so much older than he, his father dying young, and his mother so burdened with everyday survival, Grandpa had lived much of his life without an immediate connection to his roots. There was something that told me that nearing the end of his life, he wanted to reconnect, that he wanted to be reminded of, and encouraged to contemplate, his past.  He never told me any of this, I just knew.

With the passing of Grandpa’s 90th birthday and the engagement of his first grandson it seemed as if the generations would soon be shifting.  Grandpa was a fighter and was in no way ready to leave us, he wouldn’t be until he no longer had the energy to put on his white gardening gloves and putter in his backyard.  This day would not come for two years, but with the discovery of Marco it seemed clear that now was the time to go.  Working around my mother’s schedule, we planned a mid March visit to the village, and  Montelongo became my trip’s sole purpose.  Everything else became periphery.  Five days in a small village would connect my past and present in ways that I never imagined.

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On the secondary highway that travels south along the Adriatic coast, the towns anticipate summer.   Pastel homes and hotels are boarded up, empty, or under construction.  With them comes a loneliness that cannot be escaped.  The surf rolls in against concrete jetties in shades of bluish brown.  A silver Fiat pulls into a petrol station where the north/south road meets a road running east to west.  Inside the car my mother and I pull out a well-creased map of Italy and lay it on the consol between us.  We locate our destination, the Village of Montelongo, the township of Campobasso, the region of Molise.

“What do you think?  Should we keep going?” my mother asks.

“Probably about another hour, right?”

“That would be my best guess.”

“I don’t know. What do you think?  It’ll be getting dark by the time we get there.  We could stay in one of these creepy hotels or just take our chances and go.”

“You sure they know we’re coming?”

“Marco said he would call them.  Let’s go.  I don’t want to stay here.”

On we drive as the waning March sun sinks lower in the uncharted sky in front of us.  At this moment my mother and I enter into a world completely of our own and are guided through safely, a time and place that will highlight our lives as mother and daughter.  Winding our way through early spring hills of wheat there is nothing left to do but follow the blue and white signs that lead to the village.  The soft hills rise and fall around us in shades of the freshest green, its few inches of growth remaining motionless in the breeze.  Nervous excitement runs through us as we giggle, shedding our roles of mother and daughter and letting them slip down the hillside and back into the hotel room in Umbria where we began that morning.

The road leads us past a cluster of stone houses where it intersects another.  Outside the houses the sidewalk is lined with potted geraniums and rosemary bushes.   We continue on.  “I think that was it,” I say.

“Yeah, me too.  I saw a fountain.”

Already heading out of town and down the other side of the hilltop, I stop the car and turn around, bringing us back to Montelongo.   A group of older men standing in the town center had watched us carefully as we passed knowing that we would be back momentarily.  You don’t just drive through Montelongo.  It’s on the way to nowhere.

We parked the car and I checked my back pocket for the name of the woman, scratched on a piece of notebook paper, who supposedly held the key to Marco’s house.  I turned to my mom, and took a deep breath.  We were in the heart of old world Italy and I was about to leave the comfort of our rented Fiat and become, as never before in this country, very American.  My mom stayed in the car leaving me to be our representative while she watched through the rear view mirror.  In my jeans and New Balance sneakers I walked slowly across the cobblestone towards  five older men wearing wool caps.  Their complexions were bathed in the warm glow of evening, each face a true reflection of Mediterranean twilight.   They discontinued their daily chatter to watch me approach.

“Bona sera,” I say.

“Sera,” one of them responds.

“Dove una donna che se chiama Lorenza…?”

I referred to the piece of paper in my pocket feeling foreign and young.  Simultaneously all five men pointed their equally short arms to a small old woman standing behind a glass door watching as we tried to make sense of her village.  She knew exactly who we were and that we were looking for her, but she waited there and watched as the events unfolded and solidified in my memory, until my mom and I knocked upon her door.

We were greeted by Lorenza, her sister Pepenella, and Pepenella’s son Pepino.  These first moments were a cluster of confusing introduction, however clarified by warm hugs, two cheeked kisses, and the presentation of food and drink.  Lorenza was a slight and wiry woman who wore large glasses and short hair.  I watched as she stuffed a used tissue under the sleeve of her sweater and I thought of my grandmothers who had often done the same.  Time after time I would learn that traditions that I assumed belonged to my family actually belonged to this country, to a whole nation of people.  Pepino, short for Guiseppino, is Marco’s cousin on his mother’s side, the side not related to us.  But what I’ve learned growing up in an Italian family, is that the word cousin can be used to strengthen almost any relation.  I have ten first cousins, but there are at least thirty others that I refer to as my cousins with no explanation that they are actually my second cousin once removed, from the other side of the family that I actually have no blood relation to, or a first cousin of a close family friend.  It doesn’t matter.  Family is family.  And cousins make it better.

Lorenza’s house, where the three of them lived together, was small and had the simple yet refined feel that distinguishes an Italian home.  In the front room there was nothing more than a knotted wood dining table, five short backed chairs, and an old television set back in the corner.  The room was dimly lit.  Behind it was the kitchen where an open fireplace glowed with slow burning olive wood.  Two child-sized wooden chairs sat on either side of the fireplace.  The wall above the mantle was dotted with copper plates and color prints of Jesus.  From the ceiling hung fresh sausages from animals raised, butchered and processed in this very village.  This house would be our base camp for food and direction for the next five days.  My mom and I sat in the front room and replenished our travel weary bodies with pastries, and our first Montelongan café.

Pepenella was a round and toothless woman, dressed all in black.  She did not look much different from the many other widowed women we would see tending and preserving their home of Montelongo.  She wanted to speak to us, tell us of her pained leg muscles, of the clams she would cook for dinner, and of her love for her youngest son who had returned to the village to care for her.  She wanted to tell us of her life because, unlike the rest of the town, we didn’t know anything about it.  She spoke with a thick Molisian accent, dropping the end of each word leaving a sound, low and breathy, to fill the room.

            Pepino, equally rotund as his mother, stood in front of us and reached to the left of the door, under the window, where a rack full of keys hung under the window.  He asked his aunt which keys belonged to Marco’s house.  It was then I realized the role this woman and this house played in Montelongo.  Lorenza was the key holder.  She held them for all the families who no longer live in the village, and they first came to her when they returned.  The keys hung there motionless, waiting to be touched, while their owners buzzed about in large cities living lives vastly different from the ones they once knew.  But eventually they would return, if only for a short visit and be reminded of what they left behind.  Lorenza held the heart of a village once vibrant under her front window.

Pepino left us to relax and settle into Marco’s house.  He offered us the most important staple items he could at the moment, espresso, and an unlabeled jar of hand pressed olive oil.  “Tomorrow we will buy provisions,” he said.  We thanked him and went silent.  My mom and I shuffled around from room to room  for what seemed to be a long time.  The house was small, only three rooms, but the act of tracing the steps of our grandmother and great-grandmother made it seem huge.  The front room was the largest and least furnished.  Its musty walls were painted white and an old leather couch sat unwelcoming against the far wall.  I looked inside a large armoire and found children’s blankets and beach towels which seemed at the moment, completely out of place.  In the kitchen was a fireplace that I imagined had not been lit in a long while.  Above it hung a poster advertising a production of one of Marco’s plays.  A simple table with a plastic checkered tablecloth sat in the middle of the room with four chairs around it.  Next to the sink stood an espresso maker and four small wine tumblers.  The bedroom was off of the kitchen separated by a door with a fogged glass window.  In the room were two single beds made into a double, one dresser, and two night tables.  “It is not the Hilton,” Marco had said to us in his beautifully blended French and Italian accent.  The house was sparse and damp, as a summer house often is in winter.  Marco and his family come only once a year in August when many other Montelongo townspeople return from Montreal.  It is then that Montelongo breathes with life that it hasn’t since the early part of the last century when families sailed across the Atlantic in search of something more.  Most of the year the village whispers a quiet song of desertion.  Old stories travel from widow to widow through the black threads of the clothing worn day after day.

With dampness seeping into our bones, fatigue setting in, and two hours to kill before dinner; we wanted to change into more comfortable clothes.  I lent my mom my long underwear and we made the double bed and got in it.  We laughed and sighed in disbelief.  It was March of 2002, but we could have been anywhere in time.  Warming up under quilts, my mom and I played hang man and tick-tack-toe until the moon rose over Montelongo.

We walked arm in arm across the stone studded streets that had narrowed in the darkness.  We clutched each other closely, fending off the unexpected cold known to this craggy hilltop village.  The sound of our own footsteps broke the silence.  A woman stood with a broom in a yellow lit doorway and watched us with questioning eyes as we walked past.  By tomorrow the whole village would know who we were, but tonight we remained on the outside.  I wanted to tell her, I am Marco Micone’s cousin, my great-grandmother and great uncles were born here, this is my mother.  But I didn’t.  I squeezed my mom’s arm tighter, thankful for her company, and continued into the darkness.

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Cimitero

            On the outside of  Montelongo lay the village cemetery.  My mother, Pepino and I approached slowly on the dirt road in Pepino’s 1960’s Fiat.  The air was significantly warmer, making an effort towards spring, but the northern wind of winter still swept down the greening hillsides rattling the just blossoming olive trees.  The air blew through me and I found myself detached, as if watching from somewhere else, as my mother and I stepped into the past.  There sat tombs, stacked four high, above the ground, each displaying a black and white photo of its occupant, the year of their birth and death, and at least one brightly colored plastic flower.  In Southern Italy the soil is too rocky, and there is no money to dig.  My eyes scanned the first row; Nicolina Carlone, Stefano Brunetti, Lucia Macciagodena, and there were their eyes, staring back at me.  Born mostly around the turn of the century, these men and women of Montelongo represented the generation that stayed behind.  Five or six names made up the majority of the gravestones, one being Micone.  Michel Micone nato 1878 morto 1973, Rocco Micone nato 1900 morto 1997, Rosina Micone, and so on.  All related, somehow, to me.  I thought how glad Grandpa would be to know that his bloodline is long lived.  At ninety he expected at least a few more good years, and he got them.

We slept in, letting the sun rise high enough to spill in through the balcony and warm the kitchen.  It rose with a strength that we had not felt since arriving in Montelongo.  I lingered in its luxury while my mom rinsed her underwear and then her hair in the kitchen sink.  In my pajamas I made her a cup of tea, milk and one Equal, or the Italian version thereof, and sat at the kitchen table to eat buttered biscuits.  While her tea cooled I waited for my mom to join me.  Pepino had planned an afternoon outing to Termoli, the closest large town on the Adriatic coast where we would find a woman known by everyone as Zia Maria.  She was the oldest living person from Montelongo and perhaps she would recall my great-grandparents.  Pepino left us to our own morning which sunk slow and deep into us both.

My mom and I stepped outside to the balcony leaving the sliding glass door open behind us.  The cloud speckled sky was still.  Nothing, not even time, seemed to separate this century from the ones that came before.  In the distance lay the next village, Santa Croce, perched atop the neighboring hillside.  It is visible from here, but from inside the walls of Montelongo, it is not even a thought.  It is like another world, separated if only by a slight contour in the land.  Its people are separate from the people of Montelongo; they have their own fountain, their own key holder, their own stories.  In the distance smoke hovered over a pile of burning olive wood.  It smelt sweet and as it traveled down into the valley that separates the villages.  I gazed over layers of red tiled roofs.  Their clay was cracked and flaked giving way to time and weather, but never completely giving up.  Was it standing here on this balcony one hundred years ago, looking out over the same scene, that they decided to leave?

“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” I asked my mom.

She laughs a little and says, “No, this is like nowhere I’ve ever been before.  Do you?”

“I don’t know.”

I wanted to say yes, to say that somehow it is strangely familiar, that I knew that this place has been a part of me before, that I have stood on this balcony and looked out on these fresh hills, but I confessed no, somewhat disappointed in the ancestral connection that had not materialized in my subconscious.

“Did your grandma ever talk about this place?”

“No, not that I remember really.  No one ever did.  As soon as they left, they cut all ties in order to start over.  And, none of them could read or write, so there was no way to communicate with the ones that stayed.  It was the future they talked about, not the past.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true….How do you think they got to Napoli from here?”

“I don’t know, it already seems so far away.”

As I stood there I contemplated the bravery of shoving off with small children to an unknown place.  They had probably never been to Campobasso, let alone Napoli, let alone New York City.

My mom hung her underwear on the banister and shook her cleansed hair towards the sky.  She was managing quite well with the limited comforts this house has to offer and I felt proud of her self-sufficiency.  We unfolded the yellow plastic lawn chair collapsed in the corner and brought out two chairs from the kitchen.  I settled into one chair with my legs stretched out on the other and open up the green notebook that held our notes.  Our attempts at making a family tree had become a confusing mess of Pepino’s handwriting.  It seemed every woman was named Rosina or Lucia, and every man Michele, Guiseppe, or Pasqualle.  I did my best at untangling the web of relation until, in my mind, the pieces we had, made sense.  My mom was fully reclined with her eyes closed next to me.   She dozed in and out of sleep and I watched her breathe and thought how lucky I was that this sixty-year old woman sat beside me.  Our concerns right then were not influenced by our individual lives, they were exactly the same.  For the purposes of the newly detailed family tree this woman who sat next to me is by title and definition my mother.  But in solidifying this relationship on paper, we were opening up others in reality.  My mother was becoming the friend and travel companion that she had never been before.  I too closed my eyes and indulged in the warmth of our quiet balcony.

It was only hunger and the sound of two solitary church bells that drew us back inside.  My mom and I began to pull out, one by one, the makings of lunch, and place them on the table.  A crispy loaf of bread, a bottle of olive oil, an assortment of prosciutto and salami, fresh parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and roasted red peppers.  These we would tug and drizzle and spread and cut until we had created our own, perfectly constructed panini.  For dessert, oranges and apples, cut and peeled, sectioned and shared with care.

Sitting across from my mom, our spread of food between us, we tiptoed back to her childhood, to New York, to the stories whose details I’d never heard.  She told me of her Sunday afternoon visits around the neighborhood when she would join her grandmother and sit on folding chairs under grape arbors in Mt. Vernon.  She told me of the bed on which her grandmother would lay sheets of freshly cut pasta.  She told me of warm summer nights when three generations would gather on one stoop.  She told me that outside of these homes she sometimes found ridicule rather than pride in being Italian-American.  She told me about when there was nothing, there was always enough for that special something and that made all the difference.  A handmade dress for Easter Sunday, or a new doll at Christmas left my mother and her sister with a sense of gratitude for the smallest gifts and pleasures.  I imagined my grandpa as a young father home from the war, scraping by with next to nothing, spending his days at the auto body shop and evenings with his wife, daughters, and garden.  He took great care of the things that he loved.  He nurtured them with patience, persistence, structure, and strength.  As the stories spilled from my mom’s mouth across the table Grandpa’s words swarmed my head.  “Whatever you do, do it well, and enjoy yourself doing it,” he had said to me once over the phone as I aimlessly wandered through young adulthood.  It may seem like a piece of simple and straight forward advice for a grandfather to give his granddaughter, but time after time those words have made me stop and think, and most importantly slow down, and attempt to fully carry out with success whatever I was engaged in.  This is the best advice I have ever received and sitting there with my mom it became clear that Grandpa lived a happy life by following the advice himself.  He was becoming my hero.

            Peacefully filled we let our bodies process the food and words they had absorbed.  While the rest of Montelongo shut its windows and bedroom doors, so did we.

Zia Maria

We approached Termoli at about mid afternoon.  Pepino, who had ridden in the back seat of our rental, continued his chatter interrupting his own stories to direct me towards the home of Zia Maria.  We rang the bell and a slight shuffle could be heard from three flights above.  The shuffle grew louder until a pair of wrinkled ankles slipped into a pair of shaggy green slippers appeared on the landing above us.

“Zia Maria,” Pepino called out.

“Ciao Guiseppino,” a stuttering but strong voice answered back.

We climbed the stairs to meet her, but already Zia Maria had welcomed us into her life.

“Oh Madonna.  Estati Uniti,” she repeated throwing her long fingers towards the sky.

“Il cugini Americani, Madonna mia,” she continued as we exchanged kisses and followed her up the stairs.

We entered a comfortably furnished living room, much more contemporary then those we had become used to.  Here we were given more kisses from Zia Maria’s son, and his wife Rosina.  We sat down and Rosina brought out a tray of Campari and Perugia chocolates.    Pepino made introductions around the room.  Rosina turned quickly to my mom and me and said “sorelli?”  They were surprised as many others had been and would be, to learn that we were in fact mother and daughter, not sisters.   We had been told before how much we look alike but never had anyone questioned that a generation separated my mother and me.

“Zia Maria, these women have come to find out about their ancestor Maria Micone, born in Montelongo.  Do you remember anything about her?” Pepino asked.  The ninety five year old Zia Maria paused and thought intently for a moment, repeating “Maria Micone” to herself.  I showed her the family tree I had drawn in hopes it would help jog her memory.  She repeated aloud every name written on the paper in a monotone voice gasping for what seemed could be her last breath between each name.

“Rocco Micone, Lucia Micone, Guiseppi Micone, Regina Micone,” she said until she reached my great-grandmother’s name.  She paused once again and finally belted out “Si, Maria Micone!” as she threw her hands up in what seemed like surrender rather than recognition.  There was no emotion in her voice that affirmed our search.   But it didn’t matter.  Zia Maria was certain, no matter who we were and what our story was, that we were related not only to Maria Micone, but somehow to her.  It seemed as if anyone could have walked in off the street and she would have had the same reaction calling them il cugini Americani.  For a moment her arbitrary insistence tumbled my confidence towards doubt.  I looked around and thought to myself, “What are we doing here?”  We have come all this way to drink Campari with strangers searching for a connection that was lost a century ago.   I looked at my mom and I knew she was thinking the same thoughts.   Sitting next to me on the couch she whispered in my ear, “What he hell are we doing here?” and we both smiled, unable to control a small outburst of laughter that had been flowing unconsciously for days.  Her voice was not full of dread or disappointment, but rather of a light and youthful acknowledgment of what is.

And then Rosina turned to me and said,  “Si, lo vedo negli occhi.” I see it in the eyes.

            Zia Maria had no distinguishing memory, no revealing photographs, but the trip to Termoli was worth the effort.  We thanked them for a pleasant afternoon and Zia Maria got up to walk us out.  Again she descended the three flights of stairs shaking her hands towards the heavens on each landing.  She walked us to the street where the car was parked, prayed to the Madonna one last time, and turned around to climb the stairs and finish her Campari.

_________________________________________________________________

As we waited for our homemade pizza dinner, Lorenza and Pepenella offered my mom and me seats in front of the fireplace.  I sat down in the small wooden seat which barely held my rear and felt the dry warmth of the flames.  Pepenella passed with confidence and ease between the living room and kitchen.  A widowed mother needs hardly to speak in her own home.  It has become her life’s companion.  She clings to it with tenacity and rarely leaves it alone.  On the television the nightly show has begun.  Posto nel Sole, an Italian nighttime drama filled with love affairs, scandal, and manipulation.  These two toothless women watch from their hilltop village with anticipation and desire.  They will live out the remainder of their lives like this while unknown worlds on television and otherwise play out in truth and in fiction around them.   Sharing dinner while watching a silly sitcom on TV, my mom and I have often thought of Lorenza and Pepenella, who are no doubt exactly where we left them.  I wonder if like us, it is not the actual drama that they are captivated by, but rather the feeling of reacting to something together.

            After dinner and coffee and Pepenella’s refusal to let us help clean up, Pepino offered to take us to the bar for a gelato.  In Montelongo there is one business and that is the bar.  It does not have a name, just a sign that reads BAR on the outside, facing a lonely street.  There was a soft murmur coming from inside.  A man behind the counter talked quietly with his friend who sat under dim lights alone, drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes.  The cigarette smoke swirled under the light and inside the air felt heavy and stale.  Pepino greeted and introduced them to his two female American companions.  They took little interest in Pepino’s animation as he encouraged us to make the very best ice cream selection.  My mom, who never eats chocolate because it gives her a headache, ordered a chocolate cone.  When she does eat chocolate it means she is happy, for that happiness is enough to fend off any discomfort.  I am not surprised that on that night she feared not the onset of pain.   Right then, it could not touch us.  We strolled back outside leaving the scene inside the bar to continue without our interruption.  The three of us, gelatos in hand, walked without speaking to the middle of the street, the center of Montelongo.    We heard footsteps from behind the church and a solitary voice called out to the darkness.  The only other sound was our own.  Pepino pointed to a few houses and told us, as he had all week, that in them, there is nobody, that their owners have moved away.

Municipio

Pepino walked us to a building which sat nondescript behind two homes on the west side of town.  On the outside was a sign which read Municipio, meaning for our purposes, Town Hall.  Inside we found Antonio De Michele.  He sat reading a newspaper in a folding chair with his feet crossed on his desk.  Pepino explained once again that we were searching for any information that would confirm our connection to Montelongo and our relation to Marco.  Having to spend the day out of town, Pepino assured us that Antonio would help us with whatever we needed.  With the green notebook clutched under my arm we moved into the records room where a long table separated a bookshelf full of records from the rest of the room.   My mom and I stood on one side of the table, Antonio on the other.  Behind it hung a blue and red flag which proudly proclaimed the town where we had found ourselves.  Feeling a little foolish I snapped a photo.  Next to that hung a Xeroxed sign that read “Non Fumare,” Do Not Smoke.  Antonio stood in front of it, pulled a cigarette towards his mouth and lit it.  This, I regret not capturing on film.

We started with what we knew for certain, the names and dates of birth of my great uncles, Pasquale and Giovanni, my mom’s uncle Patty, and Uncle John.  From the shelves behind the table, Antonio pulled out a large leather bound book which documented all births in Montelongo dating back to the 1700’s.  Puffing on his cigarette Antonio opened the book and let the pages fall and separate slowly from one another one by one.   He showed no fear as the burning ember at the end of his cigarette dangled above his town’s highly flammable history.  I thought this funny, but was not surprised, for this was Italy, where rules and laws are only a suggestion, meant in most circumstances to be broken.  Under Micone their names were there, scrolled in thick almost illegible cursive across the wide page.  Pasquale and Giovanni, born to Maria and Michele.  Except there had been another.  The first born, Pasquale, two years prior to my great uncle who as it seemed was named after his deceased younger brother.  He had lived only one week.  Grandpa never knew he had another brother, or my mother, another Uncle Patty.

We then moved to the marriage files which were held together in a similar leather bound book which sat impressively large in front of us on the table.  My mom did not know the date of her grandparents’ marriage, and neither did my grandpa.  I thought how strange that once they are gone that information is so easily forgotten.  I know that my grandparents were married on October 8, 1938 and that to their reception they asked their guests to bring their own chairs because there wouldn’t be enough for everyone.  I hoped that these details I would never forget.  Antonio turned the pages letting them crinkle and fall into place at will until there it was in front of us.  Maria Micone, born Anna Maria Micone, married Michele Patavino in Montelongo on such and such a date becoming Anna Maria Patavino.   Knowing her full name Anna Maria, not simple Maria was immediately important.  I turned to my mom acknowledging in a different light, her full maiden name, Ann Marie Patavino.  She had never known that she held the same name as her grandmother and I saw pride swell up in her as she recognized this.  “That is my name,” she said to Antonio.  He took little interest in these details and continued to turn the pages.  I was gathering evidence and facts, concrete numbers in order to put them down on paper.  But these moments truly belonged to my mother.  For these were people to her, not just names and stories.  They were the people she called Uncle and Grandma.  I suppose she had always known and recognized that they were born in this country but in those times the past was something they tried to forget and push out of their consciousness.  There was a silenced gap between the moments recorded on the papers in front of us, and my mother’s life as an American that had been filled with the rumble of a new city, the talk of cars, and the prospect of tomorrow.  However, I at this moment, felt that silence was becoming something audible as I watched my mother make sense of a history that no one talked about.

“I never knew her name was Anna Maria, not just Maria.  I don’t think Grandma and Grandpa knew either.”

“Really, you think Grandpa never knew his own mother’s full name.”

“Oh, he probably knew, but just forgot.”  I felt sad for Grandpa knowing this.  These are the details he needed to remember.  That is why I was here.

“I wonder how much my uncles remembered of this place.  They must have had some memories.  I just wish I had heard them when I was young.  I can’t believe that this, Marco’s house most likely, is where they were all born.”

            Friends of Antonio’s walked through the room sporadically.  They asked what we were doing and upon explanation found themselves momentarily interested in their own family history.  But after five minutes of page turning, these long time residents of Montelongo lost interest.  There is nothing romantic to them about this town, and about the people related to them. The fact that our relatives were born here and left for America did not impress them.  Why should it?  They left because their lives were hard, and remained hard until the day they died.   For Antonio and his friends this record searching held no significance to an old man who sat at home watching the Yankee’s spring training on TV.  They wished Antonio farewell and were off to do whatever it is they do day to day in Montelongo.  As he lit another cigarette, it became clear that Antonio has become committed to our search which has proven to be the most successful activity yet.  We wonder if Pepino has intentionally withheld this visit in order to stretch our stay out as long as possible.

Why is it that we as Americans so longingly search for our roots?  Is it because we are so displaced from our origins, that our traditions have been so manipulated and blended with others that they have lost their original meaning?  Is it because our blood has been stretched so thin and far away from where it runs thickest that we have hardly anything to hold on to?  And so we look, and we go back to that place to feel at one point that we belonged to something worth belonging to.  I suppose with Grandpa on my mind, this is what I was doing.  I went because he couldn’t, but in doing this for him the time in Montelongo was becoming as much for my mom, and me, and my unborn kids.  As a third generation American it is unusual to be a descendant of one country.   Most of my peers are able to list off a number of places from which they hail, some of which they are not totally sure of.  In all that I do my Italian roots, and the traditions that have remained, have grounded me.  The history we have translated into our present day life makes our family who we are.  We eat 13 fish dishes on Christmas Eve, or try to, and pasta, or macaroni and “gravy”, as we call it, takes precedence over turkey on Thanksgiving.  We toast to La Familia.  Desserts of sfuadele and ricotta pie are always served alongside Sambuca and espresso.  We turn down the lights and nap at mid-day when we are together and practice with each other what we know of the language.  As adults we share homes never feeling the desire or need to be completely independent from each other.  But I suppose for me, all this was not enough.    I wanted to go as far back as I could and see where these traditions came from.  To do this I had to go to Montelongo; it was like going back in time and as close as I was to get to the lives of my great grandparents.    I needed to physically touch and observe the place and its people for myself, and let them seep into me as they had never been able to before in order to navigate my own past and future

We woke to the sound of thunder undulating through the hills.  The air had turned cool again.  Neither winter nor spring had its hold on the village.  Each tried to stake its claim but inevitably the other’s force would be momentarily stronger until the roles were suddenly reversed, creating what we know to be the month of March.  Hail was falling and winter was winning as I jumped from the bed and into warm clothes as quickly as possible.  Outside the produce truck bounced ungracefully over the stone studded streets. “Fruta, verdura” the driver was shouting through the loud speaker to the sleeping houses as if its occupants didn’t know what he was selling.  The truck is the only clamor in town.  My mom and I packed up returning each other’s clothes and toiletries.   I drove the two blocks to Lorenza’s house, parked right in front, walked in the front door, and was offered a seat again in front of the fire.  We took pictures and drank our last café.  What can one say but grazie, to the three who had created the framework for a story that is still being told? We did not make promises of returning or open up invitations for them to visit us.  We knew neither situation was likely.  We drove away and it seemed like a different place than when we had arrived, anxious and unsure.  We had gone from being Marco’s house guests to the relatives of people who had spent their lives in this town.  Though far from calling Montelongo home, we now had something, a piece of the past that was worth belonging to.  But perhaps more so, we now had something that belonged to us, my mother and I.  We had Marco, we had Pepino, we had the house, the hills, the quiet streets, lonesome church bells and we had the memory of experiencing these things together.  We had come to understand our roots, one as a representative of the generation who, at one time, wanted to free herself from them, and the other from the generation who wanted more.  In the process the generation gap that separates my mother and me became for a time, almost invisible.  We were strung together not by age, but by welcoming this town and its people into our vocabulary.  We now had the same knowledge, gained from the same experiences, that we would ultimately pass along to the generations that surrounded us at home.  We did not speak until we had wound our way down that hilltop of stone and green.   My mom having effortlessly endured days without hot water and clean sheets suddenly  wanted, more than anything, a hot shower and a warm bed.  I did not contest her desire nor her insistence on paying for a “nice” hotel and we drove north until she was satisfied.  We slid our way through a small opening of the encapsulating bubble called Montelongo and remained unscathed but changed on the other side.  We could look back, but from the outside the bubble had become opaque and we could no longer see in.  And so we became tourists again speaking English and buying postcards, and I became again my mother’s daughter.  She treated me to dinner and hemmed my pants.  Tomorrow I would take her to Pisa where she would fly, via London, back to Boston.   We would be left to tell our stories on our own, but they would be missing something, until three months later when we could tell them together.

My mom and I have had our share of tearful goodbyes, not because we didn’t know when we’d see each other again, because it’s never been that long, but because we’d miss each other until then.  This goodbye was different.  Yes, we’d miss each other until I returned home, but her getting on that plane in Pisa marked the end of a time in which secretly, we contemplated our past,  laughed in the present, and strengthened our future.  It was a time when we lived outside of time, outside of the realities that were our lives; it belonged to us.  The experiences of Montelongo were tucked away in Marco’s house, in the cemetery, in the olive trees that burned on the hillside, never to be had again.  We were anxious to talk with home, but at the same time we were in no rush.  For as soon as we began to translate into words our experiences they would lose the very thing that made them worth telling.

Leaving her in line to board the plane I walked slowly to the other end of the airport.  Later she told me she watched me the whole way until I disappeared into the train station.  I never turned around, but I knew she was watching me.

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Christmas 2002

On a dark evening I walk into a camera shop in a deserted harbor village.  I take my time deciding which picture frame to buy.  It has to be perfect.  I choose one, sleek and refined with room enough for five 4×6 photographs.  On the floor in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve I select five pictures of Montelongo and place them carefully in the frame.  The Micone farmhouse sits crystal clear in the center.  With a black felt tipped pen I write as neatly as possible, Montelongo, Italy, at the bottom of the frame.  I wrap the picture frame up in green and red paper and place on it a snowman tag on which I have written, “To: Grandpa From: Leigh.”  I was not thinking this would be his last Christmas.

Grandpa put great thought into hanging my gift, trying it in a number of locations, first in the bedroom, then above the fireplace, but nothing seemed right.  On the far wall of the living room hung two individually framed photographs of Grandpa’s parents.  They had hung there, almost unnoticed, for years.     Thoughtfully Grandpa took these down and placed them alongside the pictures of Montelongo.  He hung all three frames in the front hallway of the house where everyone passed through and stalled for hellos and goodbyes.

            “It looks real nice, Doll,” he told me.  “And now, every day when I walk by I say hello to my mom and dad, and you know, they were a real good looking pair!”  The pictures of his parents were moved from a far wall to the front hall, and next to pictures of the village they were born.  In doing this Grandpa had moved this place and these people likewise to the front of his mind.  I had helped bring them there.  Every chance he had now Grandpa spoke to me in the Italian he thought he had long since forgotten.  It was with the same thick accent I had heard in Montelongo.  Somehow it had surfaced and he spoke with an ease that surprised us all.    He was beginning to put all in place, preparing subconsciously for the days that would be his last.  In the year and a half to follow Grandpa and I were closer to each other than we’d ever been.  I often took breaks from the loud bustle of my brother and cousins to spend quiet moments with Grandpa once the dinner table had long since been cleared.  With each visit I made I brought him a box of his favorite pastries and with his full instruction I helped him mulch and plant his garden.  Grandpa spoke to me often of Italy and asked me if I would like to live there.  I told him yes, that it seemed as if at some point I would, and he was contented with this answer, even knowing that he would then be long gone.  In these months I learned that knowing a grandparent in adulthood is a true blessing.  They become more than Grandma or Grandpa in your mature mind.  They become a full, realized person who has lived a long and meaningful life.  I realized now how much of him I shared and that these shared qualities comes not from daily interactions, but from the same blood that runs through Grandpa and me.  It is the same blood that runs through Montelongo.


 

July 16, 2003

It is Carmen Anthony’s 92nd birthday.  It is also the day he has decided to end his dialysis treatment.  Until today he has continued to say, “It’s not my time.”  Instead he waited until all the pieces fit together perfectly and chose for himself the very way in which he would pass on.  The last days of his life were executed with precision and care, just as the decades that preceded them.

Grandpa sits quietly with my mom.  He tells her what he wants for his birthday.

“No junk,” he says.  “I want a perennial garden on the side of the house with six red azaleas.”  He continues to explain to my mom running his soft fingers along the bed spread exactly how he wants it, and how it should be done.

“A scalloped edge coming in towards the center, the bushes four feet apart.  In the fall I want to put a peony in the middle.  I want Mom to be happy.”

Grandpa lies in a hospital bed in his den.  His wife, two daughters , son-in-law and all his grandchildren take turns holding his hand.  At nightfall he wants to join the laughter coming from the living room and so slowly we help him make his way to his couch.  He is surrounded by the family of his creation.  We toast to him.  A resounding “Salute” bounces off the wall and into the crevices of the high ceilings.  And that is enough.  Slowly he returns to his bed passing for the last time the pictures of Montelongo and his mother and father.

Thunder claps send warning of warm summer rain.  I peel myself away from the couch that has nestled my body since mid morning.  In the other room my brother and cousins watch a movie all huddled like children on the living room floor.

“I’m going down to see Grandpa,” I tell them.

“Dad, it’s your one and only granddaughter,” Aunt Emma says as I slide into the chair on the far side of his bed.  He doses in and out of sleep as I sit quietly next to him looking through old photo albums of Grandpa and his handsome WWII days.  He looks up at me and for a moment I look deep into his eyes and know his contentment.  In less than an hour he is gone.

In the hot mid day sun, my cousins and I break ground on the side of our grandparents’ house.  We turn topsoil, and laugh, and make sure the edge is perfect.  We know that Grandpa is with us and we know we better get it right!  We each, including my cousin’s wife, plant one azalea bush and go inside to eat lunch with Grandma.

_____________________________________________________________________________

In my bedroom hangs an old picture of my family.  Under it hangs a picture of my Grandpa.  Under that hangs a picture of Montelongo.  Each has grown out of the one that hangs beneath it.  None can stand on its own.  To their left, on a bedside table sits a picture of my mother and I on our latest trip to Mexico.  We are tan and full of giggles happily sipping margaritas on the beach.  Unintentionally, but not without significance this picture is set aside from the others.  As much as we are both integral parts of our family’s progression through time, my mother and I now have the ability to together, stand on our own. 

Lesson Learned From the Country

Winter 2006

 

                                                                                                        

Lessons Learned From The Country

I was born and raised in the city, but there came a time when it in no way felt like home.  I couldn’t find the rhythm I witnessed people moving to in the city.  Crossing the street was an event, and ordering take out always confusing.  I didn’t get how people could bounce around, or rather get bounced around by city living and remain with their feet on the ground.  It wasn’t something I was capable of.

And so I left for a small, enchanted corner of the world where fields roll in green, forests stand in hard wood, winters are long and white, and all of life moves at a natural pace.  The place I went to is the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, 5 counties that make up the most northeast corner of the state.  Even its name hints at magic, but I am not writing about that place, those towns; I am writing about the country.  No matter where, there are lessons in rural places.

One must be resourceful in the country and while there, I gained many new skills- how to kill and pluck a chicken, how to press cider, how to build cold frames, how to identify a black ash, white birch, red maple, how to fell a tree, and how to store root vegetables.  These specifics, although still of importance and tucked away in my brain, do not surface as the core of what I learned.  It is the bigger picture that has stuck with me, knowing a place and cultivating life.

During the first autumn I spent up North I returned from spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family.  Walking in the woods I was recounting the weekend with a friend and asked her quite casually how the turkey was.  “We didn’t eat turkey,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Didn’t have one.”  I nodded and kept walking.  Of course, how logical.  Aldo Leopold once wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is that supposing that food comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  I was beginning to emerge from spiritual danger.  I was beginning shed the many years I spent unaware of what it meant to use natural resources, accustomed to food and shelter available without question.  I was understanding that everything I consume comes from somewhere and that the origin of that somewhere is often nestled in the country in the form of water, wood, plant, and animal.

I have never been as intimate with a place as I was, and still am with the Northeast Kingdom.  And it isn’t just me who is so familiar with the surroundings; everyone who lives there seems to have the same intuitive knowledge.  In less than a year I felt that my feet traveled the land with a certain amount of confidence.  I could always tell which way was North, where water flowed, and the relative composition of the soil. These are not skills, this is knowledge, knowledge I never had before, knowledge that affects every aspect of living.  I began to internalize these very elemental matters and soon I understood that not only are our resources precious and to be appreciated, but that with anything there comes a process and that growth happens at a destined pace.  There is nowhere this is more evident than on a farm.

For a time I lived in an upstairs apartment attached the home of a family of dairy farmers, Randy Calderwood, his wife Louise, and two boys.  Randy, farmer, father, fire chief, and head plowman, was quite possibly the nicest man in town.  My bedroom was above his garage and on the coldest and darkest winter mornings I would wake momentarily to the sound of his plow truck rumbling, pulling out of the garage, and heading down the hill to clear the town’s many dirt and few paved roads.  At daybreak Randy would be in the barn, chipping frozen ice and feeding his heifers.  Louise loved horses and had three, Sailor, Tucker, and Scout.  Sailor, an old quiet horse was the leader, and Louise’s favorite.  When I moved in the Calderwoods asked me if I’d like to do nightly horse chores to pay half my rent.  I considered the commitment I would be making.  Every night, back at the farm to bring the horses in for the night.  I had to be there or they wouldn’t eat, and the daily chores on Echo Hill Farm would not be complete.

It was fall when I started to take care of the horses and I remember very clearly the sunsets.  Often the sky’s transformation into pink against the silhouette of the Lowell Mountains was my signal to slip on barn boots and head down the hill.  I would walk to the edge of the pasture where the horses had been all day and call them one by one, Sailor always first.  Most often I couldn’t see them but soon enough I would hear the trample of their hoofs heading straight toward me.  With carrots I would greet them and slyly slip harnesses over their heads.  They too knew the routine.  As the nights and weeks passed I began to count on it as much as they counted on me.  Out of the fenced pasture and across the road I would lead them, again Sailor always in the lead.  The South Albany Road, the dirt road that leads to the next town to the north, lies between the Calderwoods’ barns and field.  It is well traveled for these parts, especially at this time of night.  With the reigns in my hand I would wait to cross as a truck rolled home.  Often the drivers would wave, familiar with seeing me at the side of the road, horses in tow at sunset.  In the barn I cleaned the stalls, and filled their buckets with food and grain.  The boys happily crunched and I smelt like horseshit and hay.  I loved it.  Tomorrow would be exactly the same.

Compost does not mature into rich nutrients in one season–it takes many.  Perennial blueberry bushes do not fruit in their first year—it may take many.  People move at the same pace.   Those who live in the country understand that.  Important projects take work.  Connections are cultivated over time, relationships mature, accomplishments are few but thorough, necessary, and powerful.  And each year, each season, become more so.

When I first met him, my friend Wes continually inspired me with the simplicity of his interactions.  He is quiet man, sticks to himself, his tools, and his apple cider. Years ago I would run into Wes at the library checking out books on building a cider press.  Eventually he built that press.  At parties he would announce that he would be happy to take home any empty growler jugs, the half gallon glass bottles that a few local breweries sold their beer in.  You could also catch him slinking around the edges of fields filling his pick-up with fallen apples.  He would go grouse hunting sometimes, but more in an effort to find apple trees than birds.  Everyone was behind Wes and his cider pressing pursuits.  We believed in him.  One year he had a gallon to share, the next a few more.  When he married Liz they stood under apple trees on their land and exchanged the simplest and most meaningful vows I have yet to hear.  Late night around a fire Wes and Liz rolled out gallons of hard cider to share with their friends.  The last time I saw them they invited me to what has become an annual cider pressing party.   Their friends join them on their land and for an afternoon and all hands pressed apples and drink last year’s cider.  It is a working celebration.  In my mind I celebrate Wes’s process, the many years it has taken him to step by step build the life he wants.   “I put a new motor on the press,” Wes said.  “Can press double what we did last year.”  Liz, now pregnant smiled as she sipped on a glass of sweet cider.

The gifts of this life poured in for a time and I absorbed them like sun and water.  In a few years I had farmed hillsides and flood plains, identified a hundred new plant species, and found friends, now like family, who helped each other sustain a life of simplicity.  I was filled up to almost full.  But I guess I eventually reached some sort of capacity because soon I realized that I couldn’t move as freely as I once had in the country.  The beauty was still there but I felt the weather was cold, the work was hard, and some the minds were closed.  I would find myself in the Country Store playing cards with a logger, a chainsaw on the floor between us, watching figuring skating on TV while the winter wind whipped the side of the building.  I would realize this was a good as it got.  There was nothing else to do.  I was missing the landscape I was raised in, the city, and for the first time acknowledged that urban living was part of who I was.  And so, eventually I returned because that part of me had been all but depleted.

I can no longer pay my rent in horse chores, or have nothing more important to do with a Saturday than split firewood for the winter.  My everyday is drastically different than that.   It’s more complicated down here in the city.  There are a thousand things that require my attention everyday, most of which have little to do with life’s barest necessities.   My survival as it seems today is determined by parking, cell phone service, and my bar tab.  I need to pay attention to these things because they are part of my reality, and without them my routine would crumble.  But I know on another level there are elements that support me, this life, and this city.  In the country this became clear; it’s slow and simple there.

For now I make a point to visit and at the close of my most recent trip to the Northeast Kingdom a friend told me to pick some tomatoes from her garden.  “It’s gonna frost soon, so take whatever you want.” Her tomato plants had browned and wilted from the cold and enduring the long dry season.  Haggard, they no longer looked pretty but fruit hung solidly from their boughs in yellow, red and green.  With a plastic Grand Union bag I stood at the top the garden and slipped myself down the isle between two rows of tomatoes.  Scanning each plant quickly with my eyes I searched for any fruit that was beginning to turn from green.  As I passed my hand quickly over each plant, plucking the chosen, I fell into a rhythm with which I had been so familiar.  My body moved without thought as I swayed back and forth between the rows of tomato plants on both sides of me.  My mind refound a place it had known well–that place it goes when I am out in a field weeding or harvesting, surrounded by food and the elements that support it. It is here that my mind has all the space it needs and is comforted by the fundamental pulse of the earth.

With the recognition of this pulse I was capable of returning to city living and not only feel that I could be a part of it, but learn to love it.  Having understood the country, the processes that exist in the simplest forms, and having cultivated a relationship with natural things; I understand too how the city moves.  It pulses just the same, faster yes, more complex and confused perhaps, but the city is fed by the same life force that is reared in the country.

Standing on a rooftop on a warm summer night, I gazed at the landscape of the city.  The lights in the distance flickered above the harbor and the crawling streets in various luminous shades.  Rumbles and voices bounced between buildings and the subway slid across the river carrying people to places they desired to go.  The sky was dotted with flashing red lights set upon towers that rose towards the sky.  As everything else in my view blended together into a cushion of color and noise, the red lights flashed quietly for me.  Mesmerized I watched.  Out of sink with each other they beat steadily in bright red across the city creating an erratic pattern of regular beats.  Silently beating, keeping time, keeping watch, they became to me the red pulse of the city.  That night I found the pulse in satellites and soon I learned to recognize it in my everyday.  I felt it in the flow of traffic, the transition of trends, the emergence of neighborhoods.  And I was part of it.

Now rooted, I can interact with life.  Quite likely there are more lesson to be learned from the country and I will go back there when I need them, but for now I feel at home where I am.  There are lessons here too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lambert’s Cove: A Memoir

January 2006

Lambert’s Cove

A Memoir

A wooded path of scrub oak and pine leads me from my parked truck to the beach.  In winter the gnarled trees are bare, leaving the low angle of light to peer its way without obstruction through this coastal forest.  The ground is layered with brown oak leaves.  Oak, the last to fall, holds on with tenacity, sometimes all the way through a New England winter.  It is winter but no snow has fallen yet.  The leaves remain dry and crunchy under my feet.  I walk as I have walked a thousand times before, alone towards the sea.  I walk and each time it feels like coming home.  Each time I am equally taken by the simple beauty and peace that the short walk brings me.  Each time I feel that I belong here.

Along the path where the oak and pine stop and the beach plum and poison ivy begin, an old split rail fence meanders its way out of the shaded woods and into the cold sunshine.  The poison ivy that shimmers with intimidation in the summer seems bland and harmless on this winter day.  I do not look at with the resentment I would in the summer.  A tattered T-shirt hangs from a fence post and a solitary sandal sits in the sand. Today traversing this sand dune is easy, but in the heat of mid august the grains spill over onto each other burying your bare feet step after step.  I think of summer days I spent here with my family.  My parents would sit in beach chairs in the sand while my brother and I would float on rafts and play in the small surf.  In those days we packed picnics of plums and crackers and listened to playoff basketball games on neighboring radios.  In those days the Celtics won championships and Lambert’s Cove meant something different.

In part it was growing up, and in part it was my parents splitting up, but in young adulthood Lambert’s Cove Beach became an essential part of me.  I turned inward as I never had before and sought the quiet and solitude that I found there alone.   Home had become a place I no longer wanted to be.  The urban condo my parents moved into was lovely, but inside the air was stale. There were few meals and holidays, less laughter and signs of contentment.  It wasn’t a home, but rather a house where we lived as four individuals, not really a family.  The playful days that we all knew well were slowly slipping away and being replaced by a silenced unhappiness.  My parents had been disenchanted with each other for years and with their kids leaving the house, not always thrilled to come home, they were finally beginning to acknowledge it.

Soon we stopped going to the beach as a family and my visits became something I did on my own.  I chose as often as I could, to drive the hour and half south to Woods Hole and cross on a familiar ferry, the Vineyard Sound.  Once there, looking down over the railing at the foaming Atlantic, my mind would clear and quietly ease itself out of the complicated scenario that life had become elsewhere.  The more complicated things became the more I resisted, and this solo journey became not just an enjoyment but a necessity.  When I left the mainland I could breathe again.

Alone on the beach I could really listen to the waves and look with careful attention at every stone and shell as I passed them by.  Having finished high school, unimpressed by the idea of college, but unsure of what to do; I was filled with questions that nobody was helping me answer.  On the beach I allowed my body to fill with the nourishment I knew I needed in order to head out into the world again and attempt to make sense of it.  I fell in love with solitary September beach days when the water was warm and the sun slightly cooled.  I would walk a mile out past Paul’s Point and stake out a spot with no one in sight except the lobster boat off shore, and the cormorants drying themselves on rocks.  With a towel and only sometimes a book I would bask and swim and feel peace, all alone.  Soon September stretched into October, November, December and all the way through the winter.  I always found a way to make it back to the beach.  The luxury of soaking in warm sun turned into the unmatchable exhilaration I was to find from a winter walk on the beach.  The beach in winter brings with it a clarity not present at other times of the year.  In winter the beach is even more my own.  The wind blows past my ears as the cove welcomes large whitecapped breaks. My eyes penetrate across the sound and easily focus on the neighboring island of Naushon.  The colors are bright, the footprints few, and the loud wind and water focus my attention on my next step.  I gaze out over James’ Pond whose brackish water meets the sea at high tide.  Swans float on the pond in summer, but in winter its surface remains empty and still, protected from the ocean by dunes covered in slender beach grass whose tips draw circles in the sand as they move with the wind.  When I was younger I didn’t notice these details and with each visit I paid closer and closer attention, becoming familiar with something new.  The dusty miller that grows out of sun bleached stones, the razor clam shells in August, the jellyfish in October, the water irises that bloom near the fresh water that flows into the ocean from inland, and the cottage tucked back in the woods that the bare winter trees reveal.  When I was younger I did not have the eyes to see these things; I was distracted by the happenings of a contented family.  Only when the contentment became less, and I was driven to solitude did the beach’s true beauty reveal itself.  Each time I returned I marveled at how the beach had somehow changed since the last time I was there. Stones were piled in different places, the tide carved out a new line in the sand, the water a new shade of green.  I looked forward to the change, no matter what it was, and the simple enjoyment of noticing what was different.

While my family was morphing into something new and unfamiliar, I found clarity on Lambert’s Cove.  There, walking alone, pushed forward by the driving wind, things made sense.  I felt like I knew something that mattered. The rest of my life felt like a scattered conglomerate of people and places with no thread that tied them together or secured them to something solid.  In and out of college, and constantly leaving and coming back from various traveling adventures I was searching idealistically for the unattainable.  I was both physically and mentally unable to stay still.  It was not entirely my crumbling family that made me live this way, it was simply who I needed to be at the time.  I went places, I met people, I experienced things for the first time.  But, no matter where I was going or returning from, Lambert’s Cove was there to send me off and welcome me home.  I knew very well that I needed this place.

The last Thanksgiving my parents spent together our family gathered at our house up the road from the beach.  I convinced them to celebrate the holiday there.  I wanted the holiday to feel like coming home, coming home to a place that held more than my parent’s apartment.  This was the house where our memories were and the holiday gathering was an attempt to make us feel like a family again.

On Thanksgiving morning I went for a walk to the beach.  I left the bustle of preparation and again entered my own world.  I walked farther than usual that day, almost all the way around James’ Pond.  I approached a house with many windows that faced the sea.  It was empty, its owners gathering around another dinning table on this day.  I wondered who they were and what they felt about the beach that lay before them. Did they come here to find the same solitude I did, or were they still building sandcastles and splashing in waves?   I will never know but to this day on my annual Thanksgiving walk I think about that house and the family I stood and contemplated that morning.

My cousins were arriving at the house, and I wanted to head back to greet them, but something held me there where nobody knew where I was.  I walked to the top of the small dune that separates the fresh from salt water, and skipped stones at their confluence.  With each stone I was postponing my return. Nobody knew of the intimate relationship I had cultivated with this place, and I was not going to choose now to share it with them.   In an effort to bring things together I was actually isolating myself.  On the beach that morning I separated myself from my family, creating an even deeper rift between the person I was as daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin, and niece, and the individual I was in my own head, walking on the beach on a November morning.

I eventually walked back to the house where the holiday was getting underway.   My mother’s sister and her family have always brought lightness and laughter to our own, and despite our unhappiness this holiday would be no different.  For now, for this day, I was happy to enjoy it and to pretend to be a family that worked. The word divorce had yet to be spoken, and when it was eight months later it would come as huge shock to family and friends of both generations.  We had been pretending for years, all of us, hanging onto a previous notion of family, one drastically different from the one that existed today.  This Thanksgiving was one of our last efforts to hang on successfully.

I cooked garlic mashed potatoes that today are still talked about; we played board games on the living room floor, and made a late night trip into town for ice cream.  I remember the laughter of my cousins, the peculiar comments from my uncle, the quiet presence of my grandparents, and my mom making sure everyone was comfortable.  Who I don’t remember clearly is my father.  In recent years his presence at this house had become less, choosing stay in the city while my mom and I, separately and occasionally together, became the unofficial caretakers of the house on Lambert’s Cove.  In less than a year the house would belong to my mother, and slowly be transformed back into a home where a family gathered.

By the time I was twenty-two I was quite familiar with periodic trips to the beach and it had been a number of years since I had brought someone with me to Lambert’s Cove.  Living way up north in Vermont during the thick of a sticky divorce, my friends were used to me disappearing on Friday afternoons only to return on Sunday with sand in my boots and stones in my pockets.  The beach remained something I didn’t want to share, not because I didn’t want anyone else to enjoy it, but rather because I felt no one would have the same appreciation for it as I did, and more importantly, I still needed it all for myself.  With a companion I would lose focus and potentially not be able to receive all the support and guidance that it had given me time and time again.  To bring someone with me was to take a risk I was not yet ready to take.

In the years that followed my I befriended a fisherman named Matt Breuer.  He made me laugh the way my cousins only did.  On long drives around the Northeast Kingdom in his truck we talked endlessly about our lives, and one spring he joined me for the six -hour drive south to Woods Hole.  We arrived at night to an empty house.  My mom, still in between lives, had not yet settled into the house and I knew this would be one of my last opportunities to be there on my own terms.  “The house” was still an ambiguous place to which no one really took ownership or complete responsibility.  It remained there on Lambert’s Cove Road, waiting for sporadic visits from my mother and me.

Inside we turned up the heat, opened a bottle of wine, and quickly adjusted to the coastal environment.  The Lowell Mountains and fresh water lakes of the North Country already seemed far, far away.  Always eager for movement, Matt had us in my truck and heading down to the beach only shortly after we relaxed.  On the short drive down to the beginning of the path I only half realized what I was doing.  I knew I was about to take someone to my beach and that it was something I had intentionally not done in a while, but the gaiety I felt in my friend’s company that night and always made it hard for me to acknowledge, or care much about the significance.  I realize now looking back, that this night was the beginning of a gradual letting go of what I had tightly held onto as solely my own.

The night was deep and dark.  A slivered moon hung low on the horizon.  Resisting the urge to describe everything to Matt before he experienced it himself I simply kept quiet and listened to him ramble on, taken by the silhouette of the scrub oak trees whose twisted growth was unfamiliar to him.  We walked together crunching our mud-crusted boots on the thin ice.  As we crested the dune the expanse of Lambert’s Cove lay in front of us.  Standing there next to Matt, the wind blowing strong off shore, I felt like I was giving it all to him.  I knew what it meant to me and the essence of that would never change, but from this moment on I would take great joy in sharing.  Matt could not understand this, nor did I try to explain.  It was not that he needed what Lambert’s Cove had to offer, but rather that I needed it less and had more to give.  Very slowly, my own life was beginning to make more sense.  I still had no idea what I wanted from it or how to go about figuring that out, but mentally the gears had shifted down slightly and I felt better prepared to face the unanswered questions.   It was because of people like Matt who offered me a place, usually the cab of his truck, where I felt I belonged.

We walked to the right towards the Splitrock that lies just offshore past Makoniky Head.  The night was remarkably still, little movement of wind and water. The lighthouse flashed red on the tip of the mainland and everything else was quiet.  I delighted in his delight and for the first time since the summer days on rafts with my brother, this experience was not my own.

Later that spring my mother officially quit her job and moved into the old farmhouse on Lambert’s Cove alone.  She spent that first summer transforming a house full of scattered memorabilia into her home.  She painted the walls of the den red, the living room yellow, and covered the Pink Floyd mural my brother painted in the “bunk room” with lavender.  Furniture came in a truck from the mainland and replaced the sun bleached, torn and stained couches and chairs that had been sufficient since 1980.  Old art projects, batik tapestries, and children’s books were packed or thrown away.  By the fall it did not resemble the house that had provided me with the best of my childhood memories, nor the house I later learned to look to when I was in need of comfort and grounding.   I struggled with this change as I was slowly losing the only place that held any representation of my past.  I resisted each renovation as it happened, but gradually as my mom became more comfortable I realized “the house” had become somebody’s home, my mother’s home.  It hurt me more to resist than to accept this.  I paused the first time I said I’m going to “my mom’s.”   It was a reference I was not familiar with, but was welcoming into my vocabulary.

In October of that year I moved in temporarily with my mother.  I would live there, saving money, until after the holidays when I would travel to Italy for an extended stay.  We learned to live together again, still as mother and daughter, but this time as friends and as women.  With the landslide of divorce still freshly sliding down us both, we were adjusting to a different idea of family.  It was not always easy and still comes with its complications, but this is not a story about divorce, but rather about a place and its presence during a time of significant change.

Gradually my New Yorker mother began to slow down and enjoy the pace of life a small island in the off-season had to offer her.  She sat in her robe and slippers in her kitchen, drank tea, and watered her orchids.  She listened to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and made herself the martini she could never before enjoy without a headache.  She built fires in the fireplace and fell asleep to BBC television.  And, she took walks with me on Lambert’s Cove.  In the morning before I would head off to work she and I took her car down to the lot and parked next to the overgrown rhododendron bush.  At first, like I felt with Matt Breuer, I gave it all to her.  I watched her absorb this familiar place with new eyes.  I took her on walks she had never been on, to vantage points of the Sound she had never seen.  We would meander down private dirt roads that eventually turned to all sand and stand on the top of a wooden staircase whose support beams had buckled from the pounding of the last big storm.  Intimidated by my refusal to acknowledge NO TRESPASSING signs, she followed quietly behind me.  Always however, the destination was worth breaking the rules that in the middle of winter on an island full of summer homes, are really meant to be broken.  Standing there we followed the whole stretch of the north shore coastline with our eyes.  An osprey flew over its nest on the cliff to our right and a ferry pushed towards the mainland.  We were both thankful we were not on it.

My mother was gaining an understanding of the beach I had grown to call my own and gradually, the more I gave, the less I felt like the experience belonged only to me.  For a time in my life I needed this place; it was the only place that made me feel whole.  I could hardly afford to share it with others, for that meant sharing a piece of myself.  I did not have enough of an understanding of what that meant to let it go.   My mom learned to appreciate what that time was like for me, and the difference I felt between the rest of the world and Lambert’s Cove Beach.  She was getting to know that difference herself.

That year I found another home in Italy.   I discovered a piece of myself that seemed to be waiting over there for me.  I found a rhythm I felt at ease with, a language I loved to learn, a landscape that felt familiar, and family members I’d never known.  Full of stories for another time, it was a period in which I settled in even more to the ever- evolving person I am meant to be.   When I came home I felt I stood on firmer ground, knowing myself more intimately than ever.  When I returned to Lambert’s Cove I could tell that my mom had done the same.  For her it was not the exploration of an ancestral connection, but rather sinking in and creating on her own, what she will for a long time call home.  On her hands and knees digging with a trowel in the soil, I watched her as she planted zinnias and peonies in her garden.  I knew I had come home to my mom’s house and I knew it was no longer a representation of what was, but rather what was to come.

Walking on the beach together on a late August morning, my mom showed me what the beach had done for her.  She walked with confidence down the path and kicked off her sandals by the split rail fence.  We walked to the right towards the Splitrock and dropped our things.  After warming up in the sun on her towel in the sand, she stood up and walked slowly towards the water.  I watched her tiptoe cautiously over the stones that littered the shoreline and dive under a small wave.  Slowly she swam across the cove, stroke after deliberate stroke. She knew where she was.  She was home on the beach in a way that in the last decade, I had not seen her be at home anywhere.

During that summer I received a postcard from Matt Breuer.  It was sent from Alaska during the end of his guiding season.

Dear Leigh,

How’s it going?  Alaska is good.  The fishing is great

and I’m working my ass off as usual.  I hope you’re

having a good summer.  When I get back in October I

want to come down to the island and hang out with you

and your mom.

Take care,

Matt

I was touched that my mom’s house was a place Matt thought of far away from home.  He had told me once that it was one of his favorite places to visit.  When he did make it back from Alaska I unfortunately could not get away.  But for Matt, going to my mom’s felt enough like going home that he went without me.  He called me one night while sharing a dinner of wild Alaskan salmon with my mother and said he planned to take a walk on the beach when they were through.  I was sorry I wasn’t there but happy he was.  I said goodbye and made him promise he would come up to Boston to see me on his way home.

As my mom’s life had moved away from the rumble of the city and slowed down to a pace with more breathing room, my life did the opposite.  I have learned somehow to thrive on this lack of breathing room in a way I never before thought possible.  In the city my schedule is packed academically, professionally, and socially.  I hardly have enough time to think about what I am missing elsewhere, and for the first time in a while I feel like I have a true home, one that I am not overly eager to leave.  Rarely these days do I cross the boarder of Massachusetts, and my trips across the Vineyard Sound have become something I do on special occasions.  Hanging on the bulletin board in my kitchen where I pass numerous times a day is a picture of Lambert’s Cove.  It was taken on New Years Day a few years ago.  The quality of color does not match the quality present on that winter day, but it is a reminder of the clarity I have always found there.  At times while I’m standing in front of the stove waiting for my espresso I gaze at the photograph somewhat longingly.  It is still my home and it still defines me, but the difference is, I no longer need it.  It is enough that it exists.  Inevitably my clock’s minute hand moves and I too must move on, out of the house and into my day which rarely consists of a solitary walk on the beach.

On brilliant days in any season it is not unheard of to get a phone message from my mom saying that she is just back from a walk on the beach. She is calling of course not to make me jealous, but because she knows that we share the same appreciation for what the experience means.  On days when I am underground riding the subway, or classroom bound I cannot help but be a little jealous.  But more so I am happy for her, happy that she has what she needs, understands that she needs it, and knows that I once needed it too.

Last summer I shuffled though a basket of note cards on sale in a gift shop.  On the cover of one was a reprinted painting of a woman near water.  It was not so much the painting that drew me in, but rather the words.  We go to the sea to find ourselves again.  I bought it for my mom and on the inside wrote a note of thanks.

I will return to Lambert’s Cove this year on Christmas Eve with my brother.  My mom will be waiting for us.  In the late afternoon just before the sun goes down I will head off to the beach alone.  My mom will be in town selling last minute Christmas presents to her best customers, and my brother will be too cold and opt to putter about the house making preparations for dinner.  Alone on the beach on Christmas Eve I will walk, perhaps out past Paul’s Point, making the most of my visit.  The wind will blow and the waves will crash as they have on a hundred winter walks.  I will be greeted by smiles and Christmas wishes from other walkers home for the holidays.  I do not anticipate my mind rinsing through my complicated life, because as it seems right now, it is not that complicated.  Full and challenging yes, but complicated?  Not as it was.

Instead of relief I will be overcome with a feeling of gratitude for all that has been given to me, and all that I have been able to let go.  I will notice, as I have learned to do, that each time I return here it looks different than the last time.  This very fact will remind me again that everything, everyone is forever changing.  Before turning back I will stand on the top of the dune and look out over the Sound, James’ Pond, and the tip of the mainland.  I will try to take it all in and hold it, but I will know that it’s already there.   I will turn and lunge down the other side of the dune.  The oppressive sound of the wind will ease as I enter the woods.  I will walk back along the path of scrub oak and pine to my truck where the keys will dangle in the ignition where I left them.  Back at my mom’s house, my brother and I will open a bottle of Montepulciano and wait for our mother to join us.

Laundry Line

On a slow moving Sunday afternoon I went back to and old file on my computer titled IN PROGRESS WRITING. As I had imaged there was the sketch of an essay in there titled “Clothes Line” created on March 5, 2006. I am not sure I have opened it since until today. But clearly there has been a thread running though my consciousness about laundry, wanting to make its way onto a page.

Like many people I know, I grew up with a big drier in the dark basement of an old home. We used it often. It wasn’t until first my summers at camp and then my college days in Vermont that the drier became obsolete and everyone around me used clothes lines to dry their clothes. I found it a delight to, as I wrote in 2006 “putter with clothes pins and rearrange pieces of fabric.” But then as the winter months wore on (and they surely did in Northern Vermont) the laundry would inevitability go into the drier. It’s not as if we didn’t have dryers, we just chose not to use them when the sun and warmth was good enough. Save the planet.

I so enjoyed these moments of arranging my belongings delicately on a line and then gathering them up when they had lost their dampness and became deliciously warm to the touch, smelling like what I imagine to be the scent of the horizon. There was precision in the placement and tenderness in the touch. Today I live in a country where no one owns a dryer. Where hanging your laundry is as much of a daily chore as washing the dishes and making your bed, no matter what season. But somehow it still retains that momentary state of mediation for me. It is in these quick moments before heading off to work for the day or while simultaneously preparing lunch that I feel most human. It is a pause, a moment to breathe. A chore that I actually look forward to.

The difference here is that no matter what season, no matter the weather, your laundry gets hung on the line, or in your living room, in full view of any passerby or any visitor to your home. To a foreigner, the laundry line can scream….hey look at my underwear…and thus, my personal life. To an Italian, the laundry line just is and letting the personal objects of your home life hang out for everyone to see just adds to the beauty of a culture where intimate moments are plainly visible.

Little Victories

ORIGINALLY POSTED OCTOBER 14, 2011

I have a job in Italy working with Southern Visions Travel. Lately though it feels like I have two jobs, the other being battling the Italian bureaucracy in order to live here legally. But the good news is after a couple knock downs its seems that I am winning. As it stands today I have Italian residency and the subsequent Carta D’Identita (quite useful) a renewable permesso di soggiorno (green card) a doctor that I can see at no charge (imagine that!), an Italian driver’s permit (just need to pass that test) and am supposedly just mere steeps away from being a full fledged Italian citizen. And it’s only taken one year to accomplish all of this.

Everyone who knows a thing or two about this country knows that the bureaucracy here can be a real beast. It is time consuming and infuriating at times. There are rules that make no sense, fees that seem absurd and the amount of steps involved to get from point a to point b seems downright insane. Plus, when the person granted you permission to move forward towards point b. goes on vacation or retires your future then lies entirely in the hands of the person who takes their place. They could have a different opinion about you, about their job, about their lunch, their mother and could either move your process along quicker, or in my case of citizenship, block it entirely. But with swift lawyers and rules that can be bent and twisted…..there is always a way. And you just have to find it.

There is a little sweet victory in each of these moments….when I get just one step closer however small that step might be. Every time I wait and wait and wait for my number to be called or wait the 4 months for my next green card appointment and then end speaking to someone, getting some very important document, most often a highly destructible 8 x 11 piece of printer paper, signed and stamped (oh how they love to stamp things) I feel like I won. Yes!  Another victory. Surprisingly though, despite one particularly rude individual at the post office, the guy in Termoli who put a stop to my citizenship application an some totally bent out of shape man at the Italian embassy in Boston, I can say that most every person at every sportello, I’ve visited, down to they guy who gave me my eye exam at driving school, has been kind to me. They have taken at least a little bit of interest in why I am here and how I am finding their town. And yes I do have to go to driving school….me and twenty 16 year old, cigarette smoking Italians…until I pass.

People ask my why I’m doing this all. Wouldn’t you just give up? No way….I am too close and I am going to win this one.

Mezzogiorno

ORIGINALLY POSTED JULY 18, 2011

Yesterday the thermometer clocked in at 41 degrees Celsius. This translates to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest temperature I have experienced in my 35 years. Yes, it’s a different kind of heat….less humidity, but the sun just beats down differently here and I witness as the world around me adjusts.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way in which climate affects the culture of a place and the way people interact with one another. But I am from a cold climate and so I understand about the culture snow removal, navigating icy roads and generally the way people react to long drawn out winters.

But here in Puglia I am learning a different kind of climate culture. That of extreme hot and blaring sun. I’ve learned (the hard way) that leaving your laundry out in the middle of the day in July will bleach out your clothes. I’ve learned that 8 am is already much too late to go for a run. I’ve learned that my hair turns a bit red under all this sun—who knew? And like everyone else around me, I’ve adjusted.

Around 1:00 in the afternoon we break for lunch…..this is a given, but after the meal, in the sweltering heat of mid afternoon in Puglia there are really two options—get in the water or go to sleep in the coolest, darkest place you can find. Nothing else is all that plausible. Working in the tourism industry and communicating with other parts of the world who operate on different schedules, I do not always have this luxury. But even still, July and August things slow down even for us and these days I begin to feel this automatic pull towards slumber around 2:00 pm. Like the moon controls the tides, the high sun steers me to my bed. It is just what is meant to be done.

If I do happen to be out and about during these mid-afternoon hours among the deserted streets, empty piazzas and shuddered windows  I get this strange feeling. It’s as if this mid-day quiet is part of the larger story of this place, deeply rooted in the past and for a moment, I feel part of it. It is a similar feeling I get when I hear a fog-horn sound on a stormy night on the Atlantic. It’s a bit inexplicable, but the feeling comes from the same place.

This is a year of adjustments in many ways. Adjustments to a new way of living, shedding some habits (good and bad) and picking up some news ones (also good and bad) and generally changing the way I move through my day. For now, deep in the Puglian summer, it seems to make some sense.

To ride, to push

Three weeks before I leave Italy for the first time in 9 months and I am sitting down to write for the first time since my arrival in Puglia. I don’t know if this is my destined time limit before urgently needing to break for the boarder and make my way across the pond, but I am feeling that it is indeed, time to go home. Home perhaps is not the right word, but time to go back…..to the things that I know, to the people that know me and to the things that make here feel a little different. A month ago I would not have said this but something changed right around the time of my birthday. Perhaps it’s because the departure to Boston is growing nearer and perhaps it is simply the ebb and flow of living in another country, but today I feel more American than I ever have and frankly, I’m ready to get my American self on.

Let’s take a step back and look though. I am a legal resident of a town on the southern Italian coast. I work for a company where I get to plan culinary events and collaborate with the incredible food professionals I’ve met along my travels thus far. I swim in the aqua blue sea, shop at the market and delight in delicious food everyday. I have a kitten. I can conversate in Italian and I am currently drinking a lovely bottle or rose that I bought for 7 euro. In effect, everything I set out to do is happening. For this I am proud, grateful, amazed and bewildered.

A week or so ago I was skyping with two of my closest friends. Together the three of us have helped each other verbalize and figure out was to achieve our goals–mostly professional but the line gets easily blurred when you’re chatting with close girl friends over a bottle of wine (or 3) while mapping out each others lives. It’s been a big year. A book deal, a business launch and a move overseas. “So what are your long-term goals?” Suzi asked. ……………………..Silence. I had no answer.

For two plus years I had done nothing but think about this. A gut wrenching state of transition unclear of what changes I wanted to make just hoping to push down some new road. But these last 5 months I have been focusing so much on here, taking it all in and doing my best job that for a period I lost track of my long-term goals. This is clearly not a bad thing as I can easily say this has been a very happy time in my life. And that letting go? Yeah, knowingly one of my biggest lessons in life. But the time has come now to process and evaluate, as I am wont to do, and map out a plan that some includes some thought about the more distant future….whether or not it actually goes that way. I stand by the claim that getting what you desire out of life is a delicate balance between making it happen and letting it happen…….learning when to push and when to ride. And these coming weeks surrounded by the people I love, I think will give me the energy and perspective I need to begin to push again.