Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Moving to Italy: Winter Evenings--Part 2

When we watched our old Super 8 movies at Gabi, they became an important part of our winter evenings. Without television, they provided a diversion, as well as a connection to the life we had left behind. 

 The flickering images showed us the babies at around nine months in our back yard in California. Dressed only in diapers, Matthew hangs precariously at the edge of James’ green metal car, knees bending and straightening as he practices standing. In another scene Margaret Ann sits with a bone hanging half way out of her mouth, and her toothless gums mash up and down.  It looks like a small chicken bone. I didn’t let them chew on chicken bones! Or did I? We laughed as I wondered again where on earth she found it. Sitting on the grass, she bobs up and down, and my mother-in-law, not a constant fixture in our lives then, but just visiting for the afternoon, pushes a lock of blonde curls out of Margaret Ann’s eyes. In the background, Paul and James race about pedaling the cars they had to leave behind in California, flashes of light and dark behind the babies. Then four-year-old Paul dances for the camera on the patio, a crazy, loose-limbed explosion of knees and elbows that mirrors his exuberance. James, then two and a half, rushes to join him in a clumsy imitation. They both have bare feet, something not possible outside on the farm. 

Paul and James with pedal car and block wall fence
The movie jumps a couple of months, and the camera pans the back yard. We see the expanse of patio freshly hosed down, so different from the muddy courtyard at Gabi. The flowers that I plant each year bloom in the midst of dark brown bark that controls the weeds. From my Italian perspective, the bark seemed ludicrous when weeds ran wild in the fields around us. Matthew, dressed only in a diaper and a T-shirt, is older now and he has learned to walk, a little stiff, but with confidence. He sobs up at the camera as he crosses the bark in bare feet. He wants comfort, and whoever holds the camera points it down at him as he continues across the grass, still crying, looking up. A flash, and Paul walks out of the back door alone, across the patio, around the grass, and back inside the house. James does the same. They have a long string to pull down on the handle to open the screen door. I had forgotten that string. And I had forgotten screen doors, and screen windows, not yet available for the farm where all summer we were plagued by flies and mosquitoes.

In another movie we see our going-away party hosted by my sister and her husband. It is cool that day in early May, and we are wearing light jackets and sweaters. My aunt—my mother’s sister—my cousins, and their families, gather in a small park near our house to say goodbye. In our living room at Gabi, we called out their names as we watched them ride the see-saw, kick a ball, and run around. A little cousin points at his chipped tooth. My aunt, his grandmother, looks inside his mouth, the soft curls of her short hair brushed by the breeze. No one looks sad.  They are there to wish us well in our adventure, and we look forward to an exciting new life.  Except for my sister’s husband, every adult there is an immigrant. They have known what it means to leave their home and familiar surroundings to travel to a distant land. They know some of the problems we will encounter, but they have confidence we will succeed. And so do we.

When George screened the California movies against our living-room wall at Gabi that winter, the only sound was our exclamations and laughter as we watched our younger selves. In those silent movies we could not hear sirens in the distance, traffic roar past our front door, nor war protestors of that time chant: “Hell No, We Won’t Go.” Nowhere did we hear angry voices tell immigrants, “Go back where you came from!” And there was no slow pan of bumper stickers that declare: “America: Love it or Leave it.”

All of those memories lay dormant as we continued to see what we wanted to see: a happy family in a sunny climate with few worries. We watched the movies over and over, and they kept those memories fresh. They reminded us of the house where we used to live, the people we had left behind, and the independence we had once enjoyed. But they portrayed an image that was circumscribed, scaled down to the viewfinder of the camera. Gradually the off-camera scenes and sounds and feelings faded from our minds, and those happy fragments of flickering light were the images of California we retained. The ground outside our door is washed clean of dust, and leaves, and bird droppings. Our patch of grass shines green under small, bare feet that yield to uneven ground, strengthening arches and tendons. The block wall around the playing children contains them and bars unwanted intrusion. Their silent laughter, reflected on the white paint of our living room wall at Gabi, seduced us all and scattered the seeds of homesickness.

Paul with Matthew and James with Margaret Ann, taken in our California back yard.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Moving to Italy: Winter Evenings-Part 1

As the rain increased and the temperature dropped, the dreary weather discouraged us from taking afternoon walks, and we turned our attention to inside activities. Reading and writing letters was one. We heard from my brother in British Columbia that they had a daughter. Because they lived in the wilderness where the snow was heavy, I had been worried about them. But they had driven into town before her due date to have the labor induced, and their baby, Jennifer, was born safely in a hospital. I was sorry that we were so far away. We couldn’t just drive up to visit them, to welcome the new addition to our family, but I wrote to them instead and asked them to send pictures so we'd have a visual connection to this new little person.
One item that I had made sure to pack before we left for Italy was my camera. On our stopover in England, I photographed the many relatives who turned out to greet us, and when we arrived at Gabi, I photographed our surroundings.  I sent some of these photos back to my sister and my aunt in California, so they could get a sense of our new environment.  As the year progressed, I continued to photograph as many of the ordinary, and extraordinary, moments as our dwindling funds would allow. These same pictures are the ones I look at now to help me remember the people, the celebrations, and most of all, the landscape that defined our life for a year.

The boys left for the asilo in the morning at eight o’clock and returned around four thirty.  It was a long day, but they were very happy. They made friends, played lots of games, and sang Italian songs. Paul learned to form the letters of the alphabet and to draw, and most importantly, they both improved their Italian. As winter wore on, the sun set earlier and earlier, so the boys couldn’t go outside to play after dinner. We needed some other way to entertain them during the hours before bedtime. We didn’t have a television, but we had books and puzzles, and crayons, and Lego blocks. We also had my extensive collection of photographs and our 8mm movies.

That collection of photographs—now even larger—helps reinforce the memories of things I knew, but they also correct memories of things that I thought I knew, memories that are false. For instance, I remembered the statue sealed in the wall of the Apple House at Gabi as the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. However, I was surprised to notice in a photograph many years later, that the statue is instead, St. Joseph with the Christ child. The blue robes on the statue of my memory, are actually brown in the photograph. My life’s experiences all emphasize the importance of mother and child—my closeness to my mother, my great love for my children. I must have imbued the statue I remembered with my own preferences. We are not the same as we were last year, or even yesterday, and our evolving selves affect the way we recall events. Is it any wonder that sometimes “the truth” of what we think we remember is so hard to determine?  I struggle with the photographs from Gabi, and with the letters that I wrote to my sister, to find a way to mediate the “truth” of this experience and to make sense of it.

St. Joseph with Christ child on the Apple house at Gabi