to my grandmother Isabella
After seven months of war in Abyssinia my brother they repatriated him because of a heart condition and they declared him unfit to serve in the war. When they recalled him for the war that came after, we all said to him, but how, they said you were unfit to serve and you’re going to show up? Bah, he said, if everybody did that, poor Italy! They sent him to Rodi, at least if he would have stayed in Florence! At Rodi the Italian division rebelled against the Germans, they wanted to stop fighting, by now we were worn out, they couldn’t go on, so the Germans took the Italian division and made them prisoners, it went well for them, in Cefalonia they killed thousands of Italian soldiers, at that same moment, when the Italians wanted to stop fighting. They put him in a hospital to empty the bedpans, there was that Austrian that when Germany signed the peace treaty said, dottore, let’s go. My brother wasn’t like my father, adventurous, courageous, like I would be, but then he followed him. He escaped through the Black Forest, first he threw away the gas mask, then the knapsack, then the cartridge case, they couldn’t go on, and they stumbled into a group of American soldiers headed by the godson of an Italian, from America naturally. They were terrible times, on one side the war was over, on the other there were still Germans armed with rifles that were killing you, you couldn’t just put on your pants, take the train, the plane and go home. It was a tragic time, the most dangerous, you didn’t know who you might run into, who you might come across. The only good thing for my brother was that he never wore the black shirt, never went to the meetings, he used to say, my profession sends me into all homes, but he’d get on the trolleybus and sit down next to the driver, that’s how he’d talked politics about the war, that it was necessary. But he’d rebelled against the Germans. Italian fascists, nationalists, they remembered the first world war, they’d been enemies, my brother had it with them too for how they’d behaved with the Jews, he wasn’t Catholic, he was Christian because they’d baptized him, but he recognized that the Germans had carried out some horrible actions. In Italy the Jews were respected, I remember that all the biggest merchants were Jews, my husband always said, I would gladly work with the Jews! They drive the price until the end, but when they pay they do it over to the penny. Instead Italians drive the price and then they want to round off the sum reached. Instead they, if it’s five lira and ten centesimi, first they give the ten centesimi and then the five lira. Even without going to Germany, to Holland, to France, to Poland the Jews were exterminated. Here among us many hid them in their homes, they were purged, from workplaces they were fired all of them. Even our priest in Badia, don Coppini, had some Jewish people in his home. They were staying in the villa beyond our phone line, we had an enormous piece of land, before our house had been a laundry, my mother suffered so much to start over there, they were used to living in a small house, we had a garden, now if you want to get rid of a tenant, you incur the wrath of God, then the one who bought sent you away quickly, we were renting, we had awful misfortune, always in Badia, we were living in the house that your paternal grandparents would buy later on, where your father’s sister lives, they would make the casa padronale from the contadino’s house and put the contadino in the miserable little villa. We’ve known each other for awhile! I remember one time I went with poor papa, leather hides agent, like your paternal grandparents, only he couldn’t stay closed up in a shop, he had to go and get my mother in a carriage when she got out of school, we had a beastly life, I don’t remember what I wanted to say anymore. The father of your grandfather was an important signore, handsome, he carried himself well, elegant. One time for a business matter we went inside his shop, me and poor papa, and he said to me, he was kind with the signore and signorine, ah! I want to give you a kidskin as a gift, have a nice pair of little shoes made for yourself. He goes in the backroom of the shop and chooses this marvelous, polished skin, and says to your grandfather, here wrap it up for her. And him, poor man, saw this skin, took it, refolded it like this and that, tried to make a package. Your great grandfather cursed him up and down, you imbecile, all of the creases are going to stay. He should have rolled it up, but he wanted to make a small parcel. I didn’t have the shoes made, we came close to not even having anything to eat. We were always in the same situation, some times we lived well, other times poorly, with only mama’s pay, she worked from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, and she had two children to keep in scuole superiori.
Going down through the fields out of the corner of my eye I glimpse the body of Michele illuminated by the sun, who after having worked in the vegetable garden, just barely concealed by the rows of tomatoes, is washing with the hose left there to water in the evening. He also notices my presence while I continue to walk through the path at whose edges between the vines on whose withered branches the pears are ripened, and after pulling on his pants he calls out to me in order to make sure from the tone of my answer that he has surprised me with his presence while I thought that I was alone. After coming out onto a downhill slope, to enjoy my freedom I make pee pee in the perfume of the lemon balm that crouching down intrudes upon me. While I feel it pour down the majestic figure of Iole, my paternal great grandmother, appears that day in which she set out towards the fields, followed by her progeny as often happened. Now picking a grape from a cluster, now rolling over a pebble with the point of her cane, now admiring a flower, with her measured step. All of a sudden she stops in the middle of the path, inspired expression, her gaze lost in the crest of the hills and in infinity. She stays like this, captivated, and in my father is born the curiosity to know what overtook her thoughts. Remorse, melancholy, regret. She left again in a little while. On the ground where she stopped there remains a small puddle to explain the reason for her pause.
Iole’s father studied in the seminary, near priesthood he repaired to the Duomo every day in order to learn the rules of the task that he would have to perform, and every day a charming signorina went to the Duomo she too, to pray. Seeing her, recognizing her between the flickering of the lit candles, he felt more and more attracted to her, until when that passion became the principal reason for his daily presence in that church. So he sold his cassock, his fine missal, his silver buckles and regalia for chanting mass; with these few soldi and a newfound job he introduced himself to ask her to be his wife. Certainly stunned but also flattered from a sentiment so overwhelming she married him, thus Iole was born, who grew up beautiful and kind. She was an only child. Her family was noble but not rich, for this reason the courting, persevering and stubborn, of Ottavio, leather merchant, seemed tempting to them if not ideal for her future life. In the house where Ottavio brought Iole she had the first two children, Valmore, who was born and died, and Antonio. Giulio and Eugenio were born to future nuptials, which opened the gates of the Lama to have Iole enter finally, as wife and padrona. In full summer, at the sea, Iole who was always dressed in white taking refuge under an umbrella, seated apart respect to the last row of recliners, at noon, in the most suffocating moment of the heat, put on her black bathing costume, not to go in the water, something that my father never saw her do, but to slip behind the cabanas in a rectangle delimited by partitions of white cloth, to have all but her head covered by the scorching sand that the lifeguard poured on top of her with a shovel. While spying on this ritual between the cloths, my father remained bewildered to see Iole emerge red-faced from the sand and covered in sweat, to withstand that torture for a time that seemed infinite to him, faultless as he who must endure with resignation the accident of his own existence.
I didn’t like this laundry, but what did it matter to me, I was a girl, there were nine rooms, my children learned to ride their bicycles in the entrance. There was a staircase to go to the upper floor, a covered terrace, the well that sent water into the house. This well wasn’t enough for a laundry, so it befell these poor devils to move away. We had more fruit than now, there were seven hundred square meters in the Pian di Ripoli, just imagine it! We moved away because they didn’t want to sell it, otherwise there wouldn’t have been this house or your mother’s, the owner died, the wife was left, the son wasn’t interested and put everything in his mama’s hands, she began to sell crates that there were, Badia was all theirs, they were masons. For your mama it was an ugly house, she never invited her friends, it didn’t matter to your aunt, there were some upheavals, it was the time when schools were conducting lessons half a week in the morning and half a week in the afternoon. So your mother and your aunt didn’t go to school on the same schedule, and on days that your aunt was home there were a bunch of children. Instead your mother invited nobody, we had a dirt floor, the laundry put the cart in the entrance. She wasn’t completely wrong, she made me ashamed too. You entered and there was a large room four times this sitting room with a table in the middle. Then there was the bedroom of poor papa and mama, where you were born, beautiful, big with the furniture that they used then and that got destroyed because of the flood, then a small room that opens onto the garden with a French door. It was the children’s study, there were two writing desks. We let the laundry room go, there was a door and you could hardly see. I used it to wash, then another small room and the kitchen. On the upper floor three enormous rooms, well laid out, plus the one that used to be the terrace where they hung the laundry. The owner had it converted into rooms, with shutters, my bedroom with three beautiful windows, then a small bedroom with a window, then the bedroom in which before he got married my brother slept and after the children, with their two small beds. There was a surrounding garden of seven hundred square meters, with an alley of greenery, that greenery that during carnevale was named in a game, you meet someone and say, out with the green! and he needed to always have this greenery to show otherwise he pays the pledge, the green the color of woods, not laurel, that one with the little shiny leaves. We had very beautiful flowers, our gardener worked at the Piazzale Michelangelo for the Comune, he always had his baskets on his mind! He would say, have you seen my baskets? Because just as you went up the avenue there were these big flower boxes of his. In front of the children’s study he’d made beautiful round ones, first he put very small flowers, then flowers a little bit taller, then taller still, until he planted a lily in the center, from India, it looked like an iris. This signora didn’t want to sell it, your grandfather said, if I buy this house, in the back already there’s a lot of land to build the factory. She didn’t want to sell it any price. Finally she died, and the son telephoned right away, listen, I know that you wanted to buy, I’m willing, we would have taken it, but by now we’d already bought, it had cost an arm and a leg. In that house my mama died, she had about ten cats, the house was separated from the school in which she taught by a long path along which there was a building that looked out on the main road. When the noonday bell rang the cats entered from the door at the back of this apartment building, emerged in line on the road and went to wait for her before the door of the school. She liked them, without her they didn’t even feel alive, poor beasts. She died in the kitchen, Armida, a woman from Badia who came to do a little housework, was there, and your mama. She had returned home from school and was cutting the lung in strips to give the cats to eat. She fell to the ground, a diabetic coma, they had recalled my brother to the war, an unexpected thing, another of the mistakes of fascism was to never tell anybody anything, they made decisions and we people knew nothing about them. Who would have thought that we’d wage war in Abyssinia.
The Rail is proudly running Miransù as a serial which began in the December/January issue and will continue through the summer.
Monica Sarsini was born in Florence, where she lives and teaches writing. She is also an artist who has shown her work in Italy and other countries. Libro Luminoso (Exit Edizioni, 1982) was followed by Crepacuore, Crepapelle and others. A collection of her work was published in English under the title of Eruptions (Italica Press, 1999). In Alice nel paese delle domandine (Le Lettere, 2011), Sarsini collects stories written by women from the creative writing class that she taught at Sollicciano prison, outside Florence; a second volume Alice, la guardia e l’asino bianco was just published in Italy.Maryann De Julio
MARYANN DE JULIO is a Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.