to my grandmother Isabella
Iole was tall and imposing, light complexioned, delicate, pale blue eyes and long snow white hair that she held back in soft coils with tortoise shell combs. Every morning with slow gestures, seated before the mirror of the dressing table, she tidied this long hair dampened with nettle juice. My father would spy through the crack of the door and stay fascinated. Her austere features notwithstanding, a seductive aura reminded him of the masculine Renaissance figures of Toscan paintings, nose slightly aquiline, face proud. She wore a ribbon around her neck and long necklaces with big stones and she always had a light tone of blue and violet in her hair. She walked wobbling from one side to the other with every step that she took because of a boy on a bicycle that had run into her and had flung her to the ground in turning around to admire a woman who was crossing the street. The grandchildren filed behind her in order to mime her along the paved road that she crossed to reach her compact garden or the shaded turret that watched over the countryside, her clothes light colored, ample, big hats, straw or piqué with veils about the head, which fell on her shoulders and on her bosom framing the sweetness of her gaze. She put on a number of skirts, the first next to her skin, made of white linen to protect her body, in winter an ample undergarment of wool made by hand, then the shiny silk one to let the skirt of the dress rise when she got ready to sit down, delicate operation that required the help of her servant Giuditta and of another within reach. If it was a matter of sitting down in a deep armchair in the parlor where they were playing music and singing, the act had to appear sumptuous and draw attention to her. While she came supported with difficulty, she let herself go down slowly, but heavily, as if abandoned to an uncontrollable event willed by her and by the onlookers. Her legs began to cross and to open wide until the moment in which she abandoned herself against the back of the chair.
My brother had participated in mock operations after the war, doctors weren’t spared and by and by they recalled him, he was sub lieutenant, they recalled the younger ones to instruct them because if there was a war they would be trained in a manner adequate to pull through a camp hospital. Even if fascism did what it did, I’m not discussing that, then Italy counted quite a bit, even though it was a sliver of land in the water everyone was afraid, it was a courageous people, for love of country, my brother otherwise who made him go, just returned from Abyssinia with a heart problem, he didn’t even see mama again, he was in Naples for embarkation when she died. All the same he never killed anybody, at least he never killed any patient! He spent some ugly moments when he was a prisoner, one time he left the shelter and the city was razed to the ground. At Rodi one day he had a great pain in his side and he was all twisted. A doctor told him, what have you done, where are you going? I have a pain in my side, I can’t stand it! Good God, give yourself half a shot of morphine, it’ll soon pass. It was because of that half a shot that he then had a taste for it, the pain passed and so did the wish that he had to see the family again.
I remember when they bombarded Florence, then they asked us to excuse them, sons of bitches, it was a mistake they said, it’s war, and when it’s war according to them it’s enough. At the Campo di Marte station there were cargo trains with munitions, the allies knew it and they intended to blow them up. They were mistaken by a second and they took out via Masaccio. I was in the office on the top floors in the next street, I was a clerk there, and they yelled to me, signora, signora! All mad, I looked out the window, but what do you want? They signaled to me to look up, I raised my eyes. Beautiful, I saw them, they seemed made of silver, the sky was gleaming, a squadron of airplanes, there would have been a hundred. I hadn’t finished watching these things when the bombs began to come down and a construction of five, six floors was turned into a mountain of rubble. In desperation I slipped under a desk. Then they struck all of via Masaccio, if you had seen the small houses, reduced to a pile of rubble. So many people died, the railroad wasn’t hit, they unloaded all these bombs missing, they asked us to excuse them, your grandfather was listening to Radio London, hidden, light turned out, in the rear of the garden, at least to make the comparison, between ours that was saying that everything was alright and the others that were saying that it was losing like devils! One time in going to sit down in all that darkness he missed the seat, fell on the ground, hurt his spine and finished a bottle of cognac! When they stopped bombarding I escaped running, they never bombarded the center of town, they destroyed things that could be rebuilt, in order to save ourselves we went inside the churches, into public places that we knew would never be destroyed. I took to my heels and I flew into the arms of my husband. Knowing that I was still running towards the center, where he had the small office, I ran into him, I found him in the middle of the street, we embraced each other, if you saw what a disaster, if you saw what a disaster! Be quiet, good thing that you’ve saved yourself. It was the only time that they bombarded Florence, instead Pontassieve! Many trains passed, almost all were wedged into the station of Pontassieve, then in the sky sprouting like flowers of light, beams that they illuminated in order to see where to shoot, and us under an enormous walnut tree in Badia, all huddled together, father, my husband, me, the children, under this tree to look at the lights. The bombs fractured, we found them in the fields, us and two boys, one failed to report for military service and one escaped from a battalion. They were wanted, they jumped into our terrace, we kept them until the end of the war, we all slept in one room, the Germans hardly arrived they escaped through a hole that we’d made in the garden mesh, not many of us had stayed in Badia and we were always together, the priest had stayed, and the baker, so much so that we gave them a gold medal, we who’d survived if we’d eaten and prayed to God, if you wanted to pray to him, it was possible because there was the priest that said mass and the baker that made bread. Parents knew that these boys were ours, they were transferred to town, but the boys from Florence didn’t trust them, in Badia they could run in the fields, there was cereal, rising high, they made shelters under there, there weren’t only those two, there were so many of them, all the young people that justly didn’t want to go and die. They were hidden in the cereal, they went through from the piazza, from the wall of the coalman they jumped into our garden, we had opened the mesh, it was a field full of high grown cereal and they went to crouch down there under. We prepared meals all together, our house had become the center of displaced persons, every one brought something, one rice, one pasta, one bread, and we set some long tables in the big room. My mother and my father were already dead, your mother will have been sixteen years old, your grandfather in this period closed the factory, he stayed home puttering around, digging in the garden, they didn’t recall him, born 1905, digging and gossiping with the people from the neighborhood, in the courtyard we were all friends, it seemed like we were relatives. This situation didn’t last long, the Germans were firing from Fiesole, the allies responding from Grassina, shots were crossing, there was no danger of bombs, planes were no longer passing overhead, but we were afraid of snappers, famous cannon shots because of which even in Badia people died, a woman while she was hanging out the wash, we knew precisely when they were firing, always at the same time, early in the morning, at noon, at four and in the evening, not at night, it was still, only a small surveillance plane passed. At home because of the rumbling there wasn’t even one glass left.
In the summer each family got ready for dinner in the communal courtyard. Iole on these evenings appeared extraordinary to my father, her skirts sumptuous, her hat with the veils and a little umbrella that she held open against the humidity of the heavy dew. The supper was usually spent enjoyably, each table had its conversation, the arguments intersected and then disentangled in order to go back to their own territory illuminated by the lamp over the door of the house. The boys were alert at the table of the grandparents in wait for the event that every so often presented itself. Iole, who had that complicated ritual of hers full of precautions for sitting down and for getting up, that heavy clumsy woman all of a sudden, while eating, raised her gaze and with her eyes wide gave a big bang with her hands open on the table, then brusquely got up yelling, but with her voice broken and choked: “La penna!” The men of the house were all hunters, so inside a crystal vase there was always a good-sized clump of feathers from pheasants for decoration. At the shout, la penna!, Giuditta flew to the credenza, grabbed one from the vase and rushed to tickle the throat of Iole in order to remove the crumb of bread that seemed to suffocate her. Then she collapsed insulted, by the indifference of the adults and by the amusement of the boys, who used to that ritual had rushed over with feigned apprehension. In the end this role of martyr that she had tailor-made for herself she had to begin to bear it for real. The husband Ottavio was no longer seen passing with his suit of white linen, the vest from which hung the gold watch chain, the panama hat with the black ribbon, the white and black shoes, his mustaches turned up, the measured step of his cane walking stick. Even Giuditta died and the war over it wasn’t enough for the boys to play marbles in the yard nor for the girls to stay seated in the evening under the tabernacle of the Madonna listening to the eldest recount word for word the passionate plot of a movie. The men deserted the bocce court illuminated by the acetylene lights and shaded by meddler trees and cypresses. Almost everyone returned to live in town and Iole found herself alone, often ill, when my father came and found her she took his face between her hands, tears in her eyes, her gaze desperate, and covered him with kisses.
These two boys were young and they banded together right away, one fell in love with your mother, I didn’t see these two fools right in front of my eyes, then the youth from the neighborhood all came to our house, in front there was a little house that had been destroyed by a snapper, it fell down from inertia, and it exploded in the house. Nothing happened to the tenants, they had already come to live at our house because of these cannon shots. One time the kids were under the cypress, dancing, singing, one went on later to sing on television, I told them, ragazzi, come in the house, and they wanted to stay there telling stories. After the bombardment under the cypress, we found a sunken piece of snapper I don’t know how many kilos, long like so. If they hadn’t listened to me they would all be dead. Your grandfather had a sack of rice, he didn’t care about expense, it would suffice if need be for eating, really the hunger during the war we didn’t feel it, this sack of rice a grocer had left it for him because he’d saved it for him, we’d run out of pasta, out of rice, they were things that the peddlers weren’t bringing, so he said, I’m going to get it. He went to Florence and his partner had turned it in. He came home furious, this dummy, at least he could first ask me if I wanted it. We gathered the poor, but the neighbors what they had at home they brought it, sure when the government gave the order to go into the fields of the contadini to dig up the potatoes and give some to those that had stayed behind, we refused them, no thanks, potatoes we have them. Without a lot of prayers and a lot of psalms we really did works of charity, in the Pian di Ripoli it’s not like here where you always need to be following with the watering can, you plant the stuff and it sprouts up nice, we had land and contadini who knew how to look after it, when we picked the cauliflower, ask Loredana, they flowered all at the same time, we didn’t know what to do with them, so we said, today we’re picking the cauliflower, who wants them comes. And everybody came. Grandfather had a heart of gold. Some times they used to make fun of me, you never leave him in peace, you’re always after him, but it wasn’t for sex, I was possessive, he wasn’t the type to leave me and his daughters for another, he was too attached to the family, then poor man he never did anything, provided that I didn’t let him breathe, when I lost sight of him I was always saying, children, where’s father? One time at the seaside there was one who told me to my face, I was yelling, children, where’s your father? He’s here, I’m not taking him away from you! I was hardly afraid of your taking him away from me, it wouldn’t even occur to me! And him, Good God, he stuck to me like a leech! But on the other hand he was happy, I made him look good, I was careful not to get fat, I had nice dresses, one all black with pink roses. The wife of an insurance agent had two daughters, one was rather plump, short and she had a gown sewn for her to go dancing, open in the back. What does she want, this poor woman tells me, she wanted to make herself that dress, it doesn’t suit her, a dress in that style would be good on you. Everyone said that all I needed was to put on a rag and I’d seem to be the Queen Taitù! After closing the factory we stayed a month and a half at the seaside, I spent the days remembering, not like now, because I no longer remember anything, I don’t know if widows are all like me, but I miss him so much, and yet I didn’t marry him for love, and I didn’t like sex. I was cold, frigid.
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.