“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.” Linda Hoga, 1947. (Native American Writer)
My mother, my father, myself
My father met my mother in 1954, in the decade after the end of the second world war, a conflict for which he had not been a soldier because he was too young to be drafted. A war which had nonetheless, left indelible scars of trauma and poverty in the heart and landscape of post-war Italy. He was twenty-five and worked for ACEA, a post-war national electrical company, precursor of what was to become ENEL. Having to stop his high school studies in Lanciano because the Nazis had bombed the railway tracks, my father decided to alternately get a diploma as an electrician from his hometown’s liceo tecnico. With this, he was soon hired by ACEA to install wiring along the roadways of communities throughout the country. It was a project funded by the Italian government in its aim to rebuild and modernize the infrastructure after the disastrous devastation of World War II, in those fifties of golden promise and technological progress. ACEA stationed trucks of workers all over Italy, in various areas in need of electrical power. My father’s crew was sent to Macerata, a province of Le Marche, several hours away from his home region of Abruzzo.
On one particular morning, while they were installing hydro wires, along the unpaved gravel roads of the tiny village Cessapalombo, my father met my zio Nino, who was riding home from work on his VESPA. Had they never met, I wouldn’t be here to write this story, because it was the spark of that instantaneous friendship that led to his finding my mother. After striking up a conversation with my father, my uncle had invited him and the other workers to drink some fresh water from the outdoor well in the garden of his house. Thirsty and feverishly sunburned in the scorching summer sun, the men had eagerly accepted the kind offer. The invitation was opened up for them to return for cool water any time they needed. It was on one of those thirst quenching refreshment pauses that my father saw my mother for the first time, and in a cliché coup de foudre, instantly fell in love with her.
She was sitting on a bench, sewing in the shade of a hazelnut tree, tacitly absorbed by her task. She was eighteen. Had only been home a year from a three year college residence in a cloistered convent run by nuns, where her mother had placed her to learn the fine art of embroidery. My mother had not liked her stay there and I used to ask her often, why she had never complained or begged not to go, to which she always replied that she couldn’t complain because after the war, times were tough and often there wasn’t enough to eat. Going to school at the monastery was a good way of getting a free education and sewing skills to make a living. But three years in a cloistered monastery were difficult, although peppered with the unavoidable beauty of friendships, budding aspirations and youthful enthusiasm that can only bloom once in the life of a young person between the ages of fourteen and seventeen.
The nights the girls spent whispering in their dormitories under the nuns’ threats to be quiet and to go to sleep or not be fed breakfast the following day; then not being fed the next day regardless of how loud they had been; at noon, watching mother superior at the head table indulging on giant turkey drumsticks, mounds of potatoes and dessert, while the rest of the girls faced a glass of water and a plate with one piece of stale bread and cheese. Thank God for the apple tree in the courtyard! The girls could eat all the apples they wanted from what they could reach up to pick or what fell on the cobblestones. I used to ask her why she didn’t beg her mom to take her home, on those days she came to visit. My mother said she had thought of it. In fact, it was the only thing she wanted more than anything. She had even written letters several times and hid them in her sweater, to sneak them to her mother through the small metal grate opening in the bolted portal, but never summoned the courage to follow through with it, for fear of disappointing everyone. It was only in those brief moments that she could talk to her mother, touch her face and exchange gifts, which she brought for my mom each time: baskets of snacks and clothes, a new red coat one year at Christmas, the colour of which the nuns frowned upon, as it was too extravagant for a young woman in whom they were trying to instill the values of restraint and humility. Austerity, sacrifice, simplicity and discipline: these were the qualities introduced to my young mother’s psyche, to which, out of goodness of character, already primed in childhood by the deprivations of war, she obliged and excelled. In a graduation letter from her teacher, she shone as one of their top students in ability, skill and comportment. She was indeed, beautiful! Milk white skin and raven curls. Her brown eyes, her sweet gentleness must have thunderstruck my father on the fatidical day his gaze unwittingly fell upon her. Entranced by the spell of her momentary, momentous vision, when sweltering hot and exhausted, to quell his thirst, he heartily retrieved the rope and pitcher of icy water from the well.
For days and weeks this continued, with my mother unaware. My zio Nino, who was now on best friends terms with my father and all the other men from the hydro company, was coaxed by him to be introduced to his younger sister. So it was soon after, that zio Nino started inviting my father to the house for meals. To my mother, who was only eighteen, he at twenty-five, must have seemed a lot older and she had made it clear that she was not remotely interested. Infatuated instead, my father did not relent in his attempts to gain my mom’s esteem. So, even when ACEA’s work was completed and the young electricians packed up for Abruzzo, my father returned often, either alone or with a friend, to visit zio Nino, my mother and her whole family, who by now, were all enamoured with my dad’s amiable personality, his wit, humour, intelligence and generosity. From one such trip to see my mother, we have a black and white photograph. My father, dapper in his tweed coat and she, lovely in her red one, both young and smiling, standing by his motorcycle.
The back-story they used to both tell me was that right before Christmas of 1954, all dressed up and handsome, my father had arrived on his motorcycle to claim my mother as his bride. He had inserted newspapers under his coat to protect his chest from the cold wind, as he rode five hours along l’Adriatica from Casoli to Cessapalombo, the only route in the fifties, before the superstrada was built decades later. When he arrived, he unwrapped boxes and boxes of gifts strapped to the back of his motorbike: a huge one with a beautifully frosted confection his mother had especially baked for my mother. It was sponge-cake imbued with espresso and rum, in layers filled with three types of cream pudding, butter sugar frosting on top and tiny silver candy beads spelling the words: amore and Iole, my mother’s name. This and many other boxes with clothes, a gold watch, earrings and, in the last little blue one, a diamond ring. My mom must have been moonstruck, not just by the gifts, but by my father’s good looks and charm. My father at twenty-five, with his green eyes and fair, slicked back, curly hair; his winsome, handsome face; his charismatic voice as he told her stories of his adventures in the service or travelling through Italy. She was overtaken by him and his kindness. She accepted the ring, much to the joy and approval of her sisters, brother and parents, who were eager to make my dad part of their family. In the words of my mom’s father, who had fought in World War I, was a great judge of character and who by now adored my father, my mother was lucky to marry un gran brav’uomo (a great young man).
It was the Christmas of 1954 and as it was customary in Italy in those days, young people did not date. So as soon as my mother accepted my father’s marriage proposal, a small wedding celebration was planned for right after Natale, on New Year’s Day of 1955. This was also because my father lived so far away, money was scarce and it was expensive to travel back and forth. They married right after the holidays, in winter, in a small chapel of a monastery in Colfano, presided by a monk, with family and close friends in attendance. It was both a joyous and sad event in my mother’s tender life, that only in retrospect I now fully comprehend. It was with mixed feelings, the kind that come with all kairos moments in one’s life, that she embraced my father, love and the future, by opening her arms to her new married life in a far away town and said goodbye once again to her beloved family and Le Marche. The promise my father gave to keep her was a house of love and happiness, a wedding reception in his hometown and a honeymoon. For the most part he kept his promise. As young as he was, he had rented a two storey house with a balcony on each floor, in the historical quarter of Casoli. It was replete with top of the line, new furniture and appliances. As it was customary in those days in Italy, his mother had set it all up with bridal corredo or fine linens, silverware and china. Papa’ had also chartered a black FIAT Berlina, to drive them to the church ceremony in Casoli and to the wedding reception at his parents’ homestead in Piano dei Mulini.
We have only one black and white photo of my parents at their wedding, and it’s a bit blurred. My mother and father are sitting by each other, holding hands and happy. There are family members and friends all seated beside them. Behind them is a window with light shining in. A garland of greenery and roses adorns the white muslin cloth of their wedding table. Porcelain plates filled with delicacies catered by my grandmother and crystal glasses filled with my grandfather’s home made wine. In our family photo albums this picture was one of my favourites. There are others too, of my mother and father near the well after their engagement, and of them standing together by the portone of my mother’s parents’ house. There’s a photo of the FIAT Berlina and of my dad’s father in his fedora. One of nonna standing by the gate, under the grape trellis, and one of my mother sitting in a field of daisies and one where, newly married, in a white blouse and polka-dotted skirt, she’s sitting beside a beautiful German Shepherd on the stone steps of Casoli. Old photographs of my father too, dispatching radio messages in his army uniform, headphones and a moustache, during his eighteen month stint in Tuscany, during Italy’s mandatory army program a fare il soldato. Then pictures of me as a baby. My beautiful, young mother holding me. So many photographs after that. Mamma on the balcony with her sister and friends carrying me. Mamma and papa’ smiling at each other on nonna’s terrace, with me standing in front of them. Me in zia Enrica’s arms. Me with nonna and nonno. Years, decades of photographs of us, and then my younger sister’s wondrous addition to the family. Her baby pictures, and then all of us in so many photo albums now stacked in my mother’s living room.
There was so much more to happen beyond those moments frozen in stills. So many additions, changes, erasures. So many more stories to be told, yet today I wanted to write about how two young people’s lives haphazardly came together to procreate my own life. So much beauty they shared! So much love! So much well meaning positivity! So much history in both of their incarnations! It would take volumes to unravel the sacredness of their lives’ code and lineage. They gave me the universe. Treasure from the flames of two lit candles. For so long now their light has gone out, but continues in my sister, in me and in my children’s being. My father’s love of music. His love of words and books. His intelligence, his kindness, love of friends, of travel and history. His generosity and love of all wondrous things. My mother’s gentle beauty, her talent and preciseness in her embroidery, sewing and everything she touched. Her humility, kindness and compassion. Her strength of character. Her miraculous ability to bring peace, comfort, happiness, beauty and order to any situation. Her love of cooking and flowers. Her story telling ability. I will never live up to their perfection. Although I write all this out of love to preserve their memory, my words pale in their shimmering shadow. They are the authors of me, of my skill, of my success, if any. I cannot ever let them down, so I extend my mind, my heart and hand, holding this pen to paper, this morning that I am here writing all this, because they lived and loved, strived and hoped, each to fulfill a dream. I am despite all differences and failings, their hope, their blood and sum. All their traits intertwined in my flesh and personality. I am my father’s and my mother’s extension through space in this segment of time I call my living years. My parents: children of the war. Children of an emerging, idealistic Italy trying to unite. Children from two disparate regions, two disparate cultures: Le Marche’s medieval Vatican State and Abruzzo, combining the peace loving strength of the Samnites and the Franco-Bourbon values of the Kingdom of Naples. A conglomerate of history, dazzling landscapes, musical, artistic, intellectual and spiritual essences. I am that: una piccola Italia away from its motherland body.
My hand as it writes, reaches back to hold my parents’ hands, to caress their benevolent faces and their cherished hills of olives and cypress in Casoli and Cessapalombo. Dark swallows are flying in and out of church bell towers, gliding down through blue to the sunlit valleys and the salty seas. Along the roadways, the hydro wires my father stitched along the skyline still stand. Seamed like silk from my mother’s thread and needle along the cloth in her embroidery hoop, these words I weave into this story are my own life, a tapestry, a book of DNA blooming, my light braided from their light, their world and their love.
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Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews is a poet, an author, and a teacher. She has written seven collections of poetry. Her work has been published in many journals and anthologies. Her poems have won many prizes. Josie was born in Italy. She currently lives and writes in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.