Monday, January 15, 2018

Moving to Italy: James in January

As we thrashed about under conflicting desires, the children pulled us, as always, back to the rhythm of the days. James turned four on January 16. He had insisted that I bake a chocolate cake for Margaret Ann and Matthew’s birthday, and another chocolate cake for his grandpa’s birthday on January 7th.  When I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday, I thought the answer would be a given. He smiled and replied, “Vanilla.”  That’s James. He has a contrary streak that has only been refined as he’s grown older. But he also has a shy side that still leaves him a bit awkward at times. I made his vanilla birthday cake and we sang “Happy Birthday” and gave him his presents. We had bought him a zither to encourage his musical skills, and his grandma had made him some pajamas. My friend Rita had sent a gift from California, but my sister’s gift for him was still in transit. As we gathered around him in our living room at Gabi, he was too shy to open his few presents. That changed quickly when Matthew offered to “help.” He held Matthew back and said he would open them himself. Just as my sister and I had done, my children were growing and interacting and finding their places within the family. They defined their roles, even as I resisted naming those roles, trying to allow them alternative options.

James on his fourth birthday with his siblings

For his birthday that year, James received a gift that no one else did. It snowed. Although it had been cold and foggy and miserable for most of the month of December, it had not snowed enough to settle on the ground. But it started snowing the evening of January 15 and kept going for twenty-four hours. It was beautiful! The landscape that I had loved green and lush looked wonderful in white. We celebrated James’ birthday with a snow party.

George found a piece of plywood, and he added runners with some scrap lumber to make a sled. Then he gave each of the children a ride in the snow in the field behind the barn that didn’t belong to us. In the middle of winter, there was no grass to worry about flattening, and the owners of the field didn’t mind us sliding down the long slope. We all had great fun. The next day the weather warmed a little and the snow began to melt, but we still managed to build a strange-looking snow creature on the side of the courtyard.

While the snow provided fun for the children and a change in the scenery for my afternoon tea, it created problems driving up and down the hill. With ice coating the gravel underneath the snow, the road became very slippery. Even in the snow, a cold damp mist drifted around the road, screening the snow-filled ditches so that driving back up the hill to the house became treacherous. Later that month as the snow and the ice hardened, the car couldn’t get traction on the last steep slope, so George, Zio Silvio, and I tried to push the car while Marino steered. The wheels spun and the car fish-tailed as we strained, and I was sickened by the exhaust fumes of the racing engine billowing in my face. Eventually, Zio Silvio and George used an ice pick and buckets of sand to create traction for the last slippery hundred feet.

The dangerous road conditions gave me something else to worry about every afternoon as the children rode home from school in my father-in-law’s car. But we were to realize those were minor problems. Mother Nature had a few more tricks up her sleeve.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Moving to Italy: Phone call--Part 3

My sister’s tears and her plea for our return disturbed me deeply. In our childhood family, my sister (younger than me by three years) had always been labelled “the emotional one,” and I was “the sensible one.” In her letters to me she shared her unhappiness while struggling to find a job and a place to live after her husband’s discharge from the army. In my letters to her I tried to respond to her dilemmas even as I constantly referred to her proposed visit to us scheduled for that summer—suggesting ways to find cheap flights, asking how she would get time off from her new job, and how long she could stay, etc. I tried to help her distress by focusing on the future when we would all reunite. But obviously it was not enough.

True to my “sensible” label, after we put the children to bed that night, I tried to process what she had asked and what our next move should be. 

On the one hand, in her letters my sister had also shared plans that she and her husband were considering a move to England to pursue his music career. He felt there were more opportunities there for a band just starting out. If we returned to California for them, and they left for England, we would be pretty upset. But it wouldn’t be fair to ask them to stay in California if we returned, nor would it be fair to either of us to base our family’s future on my sister’s desires. 

On the other hand, I knew she was genuinely lonely without us, and I felt some responsibility and guilt for that. After my mother’s death she had come to live with George and me and had been close Paul and James in their early years. She had also stayed with us for a short time between her husband’s postings when Margaret Ann and Matthew were very young. She loved and missed them all. Although she had lived for a year in Germany while her husband served in the army, she had the comfort of knowing it was a temporary posting, whereas our move to Italy was supposed to be permanent. She was not as close to my aunt and cousins as I had been, so after we left she had only her husband to talk to. My letters from Italy reflect my attempts to help her with various problems, but we were too far away to supply the kind of support she really needed.  

When we added together my sister’s unhappiness, George’s continued failure to find work, our dwindling funds, my linguistic isolation from the community, and our growing nostalgia for life in California, it is easy to see why the idea of returning was seductive. We would not only put an end to my sister’s loneliness, but we would return to a system that we knew, with social customs we understood, and to a place where I could communicate, not only with my sister and other relatives, but also with the local grocery clerks. When we looked at the United States from a distance of six thousand miles, we saw all the opportunities that were open to us there, opportunities that were denied us in Italy. After the constant struggle to adapt and succeed, a move back to California seemed to offer relief.

But George and I fought that seduction because we were not yet ready to renounce our dream.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Moving to Italy: Phone call--Part 2

My sister’s sobbing spun me backwards five years.

My sister, my brother, and I heard the siren wail down our street. Then my mother stopped breathing. My sister knelt on the floor and sobbed as she watched our brother start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Panicked, I ran to yell at the firemen, “Oxygen, bring oxygen quickly!” Tall, muscular men in heavy black boots and clanking belts moved in slow motion to fill the bedroom and squeeze us out. When they wheeled the gurney through the front door a few minutes later, an oxygen mask wheezed over my mother’s face. But they could do nothing to bring her back. She was dead of a heart attack at fifty-three.

About a year after my mother died, I realized I was losing the visual image of her face. I could remember the bend of her nose, the dimple in her cheek, and the small gap in her teeth when she smiled, but I couldn’t pull it all together. Because looking at photographs of her could reduce me to tears, I had put them all away. I had been so intent on avoiding the pain of remembering her that I could no longer visualize clearly what she looked like. Worried, I pulled out the last pictures we had taken of her, spread them out on the kitchen table, and looked at them carefully—the black and white Christmas card picture and the colored ones taken under a tree outside. Relief and pain surged through me as I stared at her familiar face. I didn’t want to forget her, not just the way her cheek felt when I kissed her, or the way her voice rose when she laughed, but also the way her whole face shone as she smiled. My children would never know her, but I held in my hand physical evidence of her existence, photographs to go with the stories.  

I brought those photographs with me to Italy and placed them where we could see them as we fussed and laughed and worried through our days. We were being shaped by those days, by those moments that we lived at Gabi. But as we began that New Year, I kept those pictures nearby to remind us of our source.