Sunday, December 31, 2017

Moving to Italy: New Years, Part 2

I put on my best dress and some makeup, and George dusted off his suit and tie. At a time when we would normally be thinking about sleep, we drove down the hill to the bar where they had set up a large tent in the open field behind the main building. We entered to a blast of loud rock and roll music. The female lead, dressed in a silver hot pants outfit with fuzzed-out hair, screamed lyrics at the crowd flailing wildly around her on the temporary dance floor. The sides and top of the tent were strung with brightly-colored streamers, and a huge banner hung across the center sparkling with the numbers of the new year. As the music ended, the noisy, laughing crowd filled most of the tables circling the dance floor. I thought all the patrons would be young, but I was surprised to see adults of all ages. 
We scanned the faces of the crowd, but since we knew no one, we sat at a table set for four and wished my sister and her husband were with us. Earlier that day, we had again driven with the children through the foggy, damp hillside to Montaldo to telephone my sister, and again we were disappointed.  At the dance we bought a bottle of Spumante so we could toast them, and us at midnight. We were happy to be out enjoying ourselves for a change, and I even managed to persuade George to dance to a few slow numbers. In between, we watched the crowd, listened to the music, and waited. 
A drum roll began at three minutes to midnight. As the clock struck twelve, the trumpets blared and everyone cheered, kissed, threw streamers, popped champagne, and cut into their pannetone. Along with the noisy crowd around us, we popped our Spumante, toasted each other and wished ourselves a successful New Year. Then we raised our glasses to my sister and brother-in-law. In the open promise of a New Year, Italian or American, we all united in hope. 
For the next hour, the rock band switched to traditional polkas, and it seemed as if everyone danced. The old folks struggled to make it around the floor, but looked wonderful, smiling and nodding as their feet moved automatically to the old rhythms and long-practiced steps. The young people threw themselves into the music as they dashed about, laughing and calling to each other. The middle-aged couples were spryer than the older ones, but curiously, they didn’t smile as much as the older, or younger, people. Did they have to maintain their dignity because their children didn’t have any, and their parents didn’t care anymore? But smiling or not, they all participated in the traditional dances, defining themselves as part of the old and part of the new. Neither of us knew the steps to the polkas, and George didn’t want to make a fool of himself by trying, so we didn’t dance in the Italian tradition. Smiling, we watched and listened, part of the crowd, yet apart from the crowd.
Although the dance didn’t end until 4:30, we left around three o’clock while it was still going strong. Our children would be up before 7, and I had promised to roast a haunch of beef for our New Year’s celebration. As we drove slowly through the damp, cold night up the hill to Gabi, wiping the vapor from the windshield on the inside and steering through the fog on the outside, we reviewed the upheavals of the previous year—the dreams realized and the dreams thwarted. We wondered what the New Year would bring. We guessed it couldn’t be much more exciting than the one just ended.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Moving to Italy: New Years, Part 1

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was quiet. The children enjoyed their new toys and books and spent some time downstairs with their grandparents. My in-laws had bought Margaret Ann and Matthew tricycles for Christmas, and we opened all our rooms' adjoining doors so they could ride an L-shaped path on the tile floors from the kitchen through the living room, through their bedroom and into ours, then back again--giggling all the way. When we weren't cooking or cleaning, George and I greedily devoured the books that had come for us in the Christmas box from my sister. It felt like a holiday, so we ignored the call of the paint cans lined up in the garage. There would be plenty of time for those in the New Year. On some of the days I organized my photographs, and on some of the evenings we watched the 8-mm cartoons or the California movies. As the fog thickened around us, we nestled into the warm house, venturing out only for an occasional food run down the hill. It was quiet but it was not completely peaceful. During that week, memories of New Years past swirled around us in our house on the hill.

I was fifteen during our year back in England renewing our bond with all things British, and alleviating my mother’s homesickness for her sisters and brothers. That year I went out with Brian Casey for my first New Year’s date.  A former neighbor, he lived across the street from where we were staying and had asked me to go out with him on New Years Eve. Always shy, he had blushed to the roots of his red hair as he asked and I accepted. Growing up, he had been my brothers’ friend, and I was comfortable with him, and more importantly, so was my mother. 
On New Year's Eve Brian and I walked down to Stanmore village to his favorite pub where I drank a sherry, maybe two, and no one questioned my age. I looked older, and I felt much older than a mere fifteen. We listened to others then joined in the singing, with me stumbling over the words. When the pub closed, I looped my arm through his, and we walked back through the village then took a shortcut through the alley and into the familiar council estates where I had lived the first part of my life.
When we arrived at the house where my mother waited (and I was sure my younger sister watched through the window), we stopped and looked at each other. Nervous, I wondered what would happen next, when he said something I’ll never forget: “Give us a kiss, then.” Not exactly a line to sweep me off my feet, but he seemed as uncomfortable as me, so I leaned forward and our lips met. But since I had known him almost my whole life, it felt more like kissing one of my brothers.
Brian Casey and me in Stanmore--at a much earlier time!

When Paul was seven months old, we took him to Disneyland along with my mother, my sister and her boyfriend, and my brother Gordon visiting from Canada. It was a bit chilly, but that had kept the crowds away so the lines were short. Gordon, Margaret, her boyfriend, and George went together on the more exotic "E-ticket" rides, while my mother and I took the baby on the milder "A-ticket" buggy or train rides. But we all rode together on one E-ticket ride: “It’s a Small World.”  It hadn’t been open long, and my mother loved it.  However, she said Disneyland overall didn't feel the same to her. Walt Disney had died not long before our visit. We had seen him introduce a weekly television program so felt we had known him, and we were all saddened by his death. My mother felt his spirit was gone from the place he had envisioned and built. That was my mother's last visit to Disneyland. When she died just four days later, I understood what she had meant when I felt her spirit gone from our lives. Nothing felt quite the same without her.

George in foreground pushing the stroller. (r-l) My mother, my brother, my sister and her boyfriend.

The bar/restaurant in Gaminella at the bottom of the hill was having a New Year’s Eve party, and George and I wanted to go. We never went out in the evenings. There were no nearby movie theatres in Valle Cerrina, and even if there had been, we had no one to watch the children. The only available babysitters at Gabi were my in-laws, who went to bed early, and who rarely volunteered to baby-sit, even during the day. We wanted to kick-start our sagging expectations for a life in Italy, and thought a rousing start to the new year would do just that. My in-laws would be asleep, but George suggested leaving all the doors open between the children’s room upstairs and their room downstairs so they could hear any problems. Since the children were all in good health, and since they rarely awoke once they were asleep, I was comfortable with that idea, and my in-laws agreed. George and I looked forward to our first night out in over a year. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Moving to Italy: Christmas morning

On Christmas Eve George and I stuffed four of his socks with little gifts for the children and the usual mini-snacks: this time a tangerine, banana, and foil-wrapped soft cheese. When they were fully asleep we placed these stockings at the foot of their beds, following the tradition of my English family. The next morning we could hear them rummaging around in their stockings and knew that the toys and fruit and cheese would be enough to keep them from invading our early morning lie-in.
Christmas at Gabi was quiet, but with plenty of gifts for the children from my sister, my aunt, their grandparents, and us. Our gifts were modest, just a book each and a small toy—cars for the boys and puzzles for the twins. They were delighted with everything, as children of that age usually are. They were excited just with the act of opening the colorfully wrapped packages. We had spent much of the previous day helping my in-laws make ravioli for our Christmas dinner. Zio Silvio and Zio Remo joined us at the appointed time, around 1pm.  We ate, we drank, and we sent good thoughts to those not with us.
We had tried to call my sister and her husband on Christmas Eve late in the afternoon.  We had dressed the children warmly and driven to Montaldo along the back road. It was a dirt track that was fine during the dry summer, but since there was a fifty-foot drop on one side and a hillside on the other, it was dangerous in the fog. I was very nervous as we crept along, barely able to see the road in front of the car. When we got to the cafĂ©/bar we entered the telephone booth and placed our call. The operator said that we would have to wait because the circuits were very busy. I had warned my sister we would call, and I knew she’d be expecting it. We waited for over two hours, sipping soft drinks and trying to keep the children happy, but we could not get through. At dinnertime, with the fog getting thicker, we cancelled the call. On Christmas Day we tried again after the family meal, with the same results. I was disappointed and I knew that she would be too, but we decided to try again at New Years.  

Margaret Ann eating her cheese

Matthew trying to open the foil on his cheese

James digging through his stocking

Paul playing with a car from the stocking

The boys attacking the presents under our tree

Marino showing the ravioli he and Rina had made and cooked for our Christmas dinner

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Moving to Italy: Christmas--Part 3

Just before Christmas, the asilo put on a play. George and I, with the children on our laps, squeezed into the car with my in-laws in the early darkness of a December night and drove to the asilo. Paul and James had been practicing their parts in the play and singing the songs for a month or more. They didn’t seem nervous. To them it was just another opportunity to play with their friends. We arrived, dropped off the older boys with one of the nuns at the main entrance, and walked with the twins and my in-laws to the little room with the stage. It was crowded with other parents. I didn’t know any of them, and George knew just a few, but they nodded and mumbled polite greetings to us and to my in-laws who made their way to the front. I could feel the other parents' curious stares as George and I sat in the back of the hall with Margaret Ann and Matthew balanced on our knees, close to the exit in case they made noise. The school had an enrollment of about twenty-five students, so there were plenty of parents and grandparents in the audience, but not too many other little kids. Eventually it dawned on me that in this area of single children, most of the little preschoolers had no brothers or sisters. No wonder the parents stared!
The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and I held my breath with pride as Paul led the single line of little Italian children onto the stage. I spotted James in the middle. My little American boys fit right in! Each boy on the stage carried a small, carved wooden rifle, which I thought inappropriate for Christmas, but then I was a stranger, what did I know? They marched together like little soldiers then stopped and recited something. Paul seemed to be the soldier in charge. He had a major speaking part, in which I understood only every fourth word, but he spoke with energy and expression. When he finished everyone laughed and cheered, and I was just another proud parent, smiling and watching and nervous, and willing him to do well. Each child recited something, even our shy James. The nuns had taught them to shout out their lines, so we could hear every word in the back row, even if I couldn’t understand them. All the parents clapped loudly, and Margaret Ann and Matthew who had been quietly watching laughed and clapped with them. Next, while one of the nuns played the piano, the children lined up across the stage and sang the songs that the boys had been practicing around the house for weeks. Listening to the voices of all the children singing together reminded me of my first Christmas in Canada when our children’s choir sang for our parents in a small hall just like that one. The same aura of peace and joy that I had felt as we sang in Canada surrounded us as we listened in Italy. After the finale, a man stood up (the mayor?) and congratulated everyone on a job well done. The audience clapped and cheered, and then they threw candies at the stage, showering the little children as they dived around, squealing and laughing and gathering as many as they could. 
The warm feeling that night was the same as in so many other Christmas concerts, in so many other parts of the world. But for me, the feeling was tinged with strangeness. I had just watched my children march and recite, and I was left far, far out of it. I had no idea what the little play represented. Their voices, which I knew so well, spoke words that I didn’t understand and that worried me. Paul was only five and half, and James almost four. If I couldn’t understand them at that young age, how could I expect to follow where they went in the years ahead?  All of my diligent studying of the Italian language had yielded very poor results, and yet the children seemed able to glide in and scoop up the language without effort, leaving me far behind. But as we drove home that night I praised them and laughed with them and hoped I would eventually catch up.