Wednesday, April 12, 2000

I'll Sleep Tomorrow

"Lazybones, sleepin' in the sun

  How you gonna get your day's work done

  Sleepin' in the noonday sun?"

When I was young, there were lots of tomorrows.   Now the yesterdays outnumber the tomorrows, and each today must be lived for all it's worth.  My father tried to tell me that long ago, but I was young, and youth hears but doesn't always listen.

One late spring morning, in my third high school year, I lay abed in that state between almost awake and still snoozing.  Eyes closed, dimly aware of the sound of birds chirping outside my open window, I gave myself a brief moment to orient time and place.  Yes, I decided, it was Saturday.  Good!  No school!  I snuggled deep under the white sheet that covered me and surrendered to the deliciousness of sinking back into sleep, wave after wave, farther and farther back in my brain, falling, falling.

Suddenly my bedroom door flew open.  "Time to get up!"  It was my dad.  "No sleeping to noon today, lazy-bones!"

"Aw, Daddy..."  How could he be so cheerful so early in the day? 

"No 'aw daddy' about it!  Up!  Up!  You'll have plenty of time to sleep when you're dead and in your grave."

I thought that was a dumb sentiment, but of course I didn't say so.  If he wanted me up before the noonday sun on a precious Saturday, I guess I was doomed to obey, but I didn't have to be happy about it and I wasn't.

Now, when at five a.m., temptation urges me to linger just another ten minutes or so under the soft comforter, I remember and wish he were here to fling wide my bedroom door, to tell me to get up and live the day before it's gone with the wind.  Scarlet O'Hara said she would leave her worrying to tomorrow.  If that's good enough for Scarlet, then leaving my sleeping to when I'm six feet under is good enough for me.  Right now there's too much other stuff to do.

The Carabiniere and Kaiser Bill

Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France.

Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.

                                                                                                             [World War I Chant]

She was just home from his funeral, and held an old photograph of him in her hands, one taken long before they had met.  With regulation red-plumed helmet on his handsome head, he was outfitted in the colorful uniform of the World War I Carabinieri, elite cavalry corp of the Italian Army.  He cut a virile figure astride his horse.  

He had been selective over their lifetime, of the war stories he told her.   There had been some horror-filled times, she knew, because sometimes he dreamed aloud about them, but he only shared with her the ones they could laugh over together.  Through her tears, now, she smiled, remembering. 

It was when I was stationed in Albania.  The fighting was rough there.  (She could almost hear again his telling it, his voice sounding softly in her head.)  My father had been right.  I should have enrolled in the university in Florence as he had wanted, but oh no!  I was young, I wanted adventure, so I joined up.  

When the war was finally over, he had come home to Sant'Alessio, the quiet little village that had hosted his boyhood, but it no longer could hold him.   He had cut loose then and left for America.

"And if you hadn't, dearest," she whispered to his memory, "we would never have met, and then how very lonesome my life would have been!"

One night (his beloved voice seemed to continue,) we made camp after a long day of heavy fighting.  (It was one of his favorite stories, and she could almost recite it by rote.)  We were all exhausted and settled down to sleep.  I  had 

saved some bread and a few walnuts from dinner rations, and ate them as I hunkered into my bedroll.  I was tired and scared and wanted to be homeThen a devilish idea took hold.

"You and your devilish ideas!" she whispered aloud, wishing so much he were really there with her that it hurt.  

It just seemed that everything was too grim.  I had to do SOMETHING!  We were all going a little mad. So I picked the meat out of my four walnuts, and put the shells of each on the end of the fingers of my right hand.  Then I drummed on the metal floor of the barracks, and it sounded like distant horses advancing.

"Che cosa c'e?" some of the men asked in urgent voices, "What is that?  Who's there?"

"Kaiser Wilhelm's clodhopper troops marching down on us," I told them,  "the Germans,  i Tedeschi."   

A few of my companions laughed; others grumbled and said to cut that out and let them sleep.  I allowed everything to quiet down for a while, and then I drummed on the floor again.

This time the Capitano heard my noise  "I Tedeschi!"  he said, and shouted for us to saddle up our horses and prepare for battle.  We stayed at full alert a long while that cold night.  Finally, as the sun came up over a distant collina, the Capitano decided the Germans weren't going to come for us after all.   I wasn't too popular with my buddies that day, but they never gave me away.  It would have been court martial for me if they had.  I probably would have died by firing squad.  They didn't fool around in those days.  There weren't many bleeding hearts around then.  

Mine is bleeding now, she thought.  "Will you stay and talk with me some more, dearest?" she whispered.  But the voice in her head was silent.

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Zia Carolina

Carly's mother was lingering.  In the wee small hours of the morning, several days before, the nurse had phoned her.  "She's begun those little noises they make at the end," she said.  "It you want to see her again before she dies, you'd better come right over."   

Carly hurried to the Home then, all the while wondering why.  It had been several years since her mother recognized Carly at all, although she visited almost every day.  In a sense, her mother had been lingering for a long time -- not really living, yet refusing to die.  She was neither able to remember who she was, nor did she have any memory of those she had loved and who loved her.  She could not even turn herself in the bed, but lay there day after day, vacant and unknowing.   Now Carly sat at her bedside, holding her cold, bony little hand and watching her chest, thin and flat under the silky pink nightgown, rise and fall, rise and fall, at ever decreasing intervals until at length the woman who once had been her sweet and caring mother was still forever.  

"You're gone, aren't you dear?" Carly whispered, and waited for tears that didn't come, and in that briefest of moments before she pressed the button to call the nurse, Carly thought of her mother's aunt, Zia Carolina.

In sixth-grade geography class, the study matter turned to the British Isles, and Brae Ramsey raised her hand and announced that through her great-aunt Caroline, her maternal grandmother's half sister, she was descended from the House of Windsor.  Carly wanted to stand up and say, "Well, I have a great-aunt Caroline, too.  I was named for her. She smokes Tuscan cigars and spits in a bag."   But it wasn't something she was proud to tell her classmates, so she held her tongue.  Zia Carolina really did smoke cigars, though, and, because of the bad taste they left in her mouth, she really did spit into a little brown paper bag. 

Carly first came to love her very unique Zia Carolina at the time of her baby sister's bout with Scarlet Fever.  Alexander Fleming was not to make his serendipitous find for many years yet, and without benefit of penicillin, especially in infancy, the disease was practically a death sentence.  Even at three years of age, Carly, sensed her parents' worry, and one of her first conscious memories was the foreboding she herself felt.  A quarantine sign was tacked onto their front door, and until her sister recovered, Carly was sent to live with her great-aunt.  

The facts of Zia's life came to her later, in bits and pieces from Zia's own after-dinner stories.  Sometimes, when Carly's father's sales job took him on the road overnight to nearby towns, her mother would ask Zia to come for dinner and to sleep over.  Dinner those evenings, because it was Zia Carolina's favorite, was usually spaghetti tossed with lots of butter and five or six handfuls of grated Romano cheese.  Zia always brought a loaf of crunchy Italian bread from her bakery.  After they had eaten, Carly would help her mother clear the plates, but always remembered to leave Zia's knife on the white tablecloth.  Then she pulled her chair close, watching  as Zia scraped scattered bread crumbs with her knife, piling them up into a fat, bunchy mound before her.   She would then flatten the pile with the knife's blade, scattering the crumbs anew, only to re-gather them to her, then flatten, pat, scatter, and gather again, over and over, all the while telling of how her life in Italy had been.  Her Italian words, intelligible to Carly from her earliest beginnings, rolled one after the other, filling the air and hanging there.  It was a mesmerizing time.

By the time Carly's great-aunt Carolina was twenty-five, she was already widowed and the mother of two boys, ages two and four.  She had had, besides, two miscarriages and a child die in infancy.  Her husband, a poor peasant, left her with a legacy of a rambleshack lean-to in a little farming village twenty-some miles from Pisa, and an infection.  She did not find out about the infection until he himself  lay dying of it, and then it was too late to be furious with him.   She referred to it later, in America, in her after-dinner stories, as "quella malattia" (that illness,)  because to call it by name would have embarrassed her with the disgrace of it.   This, too, was in the days before Fleming's penicillin, but the local doctor, because she had no worldly goods to speak of, and because he knew her to be a good woman, an innocent victim, treated her, not only free of charge, but so well, that all that remained of  quella malattia was a bulbous, wart-like blemish near the top of the bridge of her nose, marring her otherwise pleasant round face.

Once cured, she found employment in a small cigar factory at the far edge of town, and in exchange for a few tenths of a lira per day, a neighbor lady cared for Carolina's boys while she worked.  This was in the days when liras were not shelled out in hundreds of thousands.

All day long she sat and rolled tobacco leaves into Tuscan cigars.  Before two months had passed, she began, like her fellow workers, to smoke.  It was in defense of handling and smelling the pungent tobacco for hours at a time.  They were permitted four breaks per day and one free cigar per break.  Soon smoking and spitting into a small paper bag became habits, both of which she took to America with her, along with her two small sons, Pietro and Candido.  They settled in Pittsburgh, where a brother of hers, Carly's grandfather, had already made his home.

Carolina struggled to learn English, and in fact, never did really speak it very well.  Nevertheless, she managed to gain employment as housekeeper to a wealthy Pittsburgh family.  Her boys were permitted to share her servant's quarters.  She enrolled them in Sacred Heart School, and little-by-little, Carolina and Sons were on their way to finding the American pot of gold, or a meager facsimile of it.

Carly never did know exactly how they had eventually ended up owning a neighborhood bakery shop in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, nor how and when Pietro and Candido learned the baker's trade.  It all came about long before the Scarlet Fever episode, by which time the facts were already buried in family history, no longer important enough to be told.

Candido eventually married a quite religious young woman named Serafina, whose parents had come to America from the same village some twenty miles from Pisa.  When their son was but a toddler, Candido was diagnosed with cancer.  That disease, too, Carolina referred to as "quella malattia", not because it was a disgrace this time, but because somehow not putting a name to it might minimize its threat.  It didn't work; he died less than a year later.

Well, the years tumbled after each other, as they do.  Pietro never married, but continued to run the bakery, supporting not only himself and his mother, but his widowed sister-in-law and orphaned nephew as well.  He was, it seemed, that particular type of dutiful person who always gets the short end of the stick.

When World War II came along, Pietro was deferred as head of household.   After V-J Day, his widowed sister-in-law Serafina married a returned serviceman, an Irishman.  Rumor had it that he had been a chaplain in the service, but had since left the Cloth.  They moved with Serafina's teen-aged son to Erie, Pennsylvania. 

It was about that time that Pietro thought about marrying a young widow who came in daily to buy a loaf of bread, but then Carolina, like Candido, developed cancer and needed Pietro's filial care.  She was then in her middle seventies, and suffered terribly for over a year.  At the time of her death, Carly was newly married.  She and her husband Bob went to the funeral.  She took it pretty hard.

After Mass, outside the church, Pietro took her arm.  "Don't cry so, Carly," he said.  "My mother wouldn't want you to be sad.  You know what her byword always was....'Allegria!'  Carly, she suffered so much, that her death is a real relief, and that's how you must see it, too."  Carly resented his saying that, but in deference to his bereavement, held her tongue.

"You and Bob come in the limosine with me," he continued.  "I don't want to ride in it all alone.  I think Mamma would like it that you two keep me company."  All the way to the cemetery, Pietro regaled Carly and Bob with stories of his mother.  There was the time," he said, "when she asked Candido to go downtown with her for new linens the family she worked for needed.  Mamma didn't trust her English enough to try to buy them by herself, but Candido said he had promised Sister he would dust the erasers after school, so I was elected to go with her to Kaufmann's.

"In the bedding department, she found the sheets she wanted and told me to tell the clerk, but I was just seven, and very shy and couldn't  bring myself to talk to the clerk, so tall and imposing.   In those days they dressed very formally.  Anyway, I refused to speak.

"'Digli lo!(tell him!')" she said, giving my shoulder a slight slap.  Well, I just couldn't, and this went on three times -- her smacking me and saying  'Digli lo!' and  my shaking my head no, until finally she had to tell the clerk herself.  'Please....Eh....senda two dozen shits to my boss.  He rich.  He pay.  This where he live,' and she handed him a slip of paper with the address.  The clerk sniggered as he wrote out the order, and I was so embarrassed I went off to the other side of the floor, to wait for her at the elevator.

"When she caught up with me, she said, 'Why you no talk for me, you bad boy?  And why the clerk he laugh like a stupido?'   I explained to her what she had said and what it meant, and she belted me again.  'Believa me,' she said, 'this ting no happen to me no more!  From now on  ci metto un elle'  (I'll put an L in there.)  And ever after, sheets for her were shilts."  

Carly couldn't help but chuckle, but stopped abruptly.  Suppose someone seeing her through the windows of the car should think she did not love Zia and was laughing because she was dead?

Pietro went on to tell of the time when she had wanted eggs, and unable to make the grocer understand her heavy accent, started to cackle like a hen, but the grocer thought she wanted a roasting chicken.  In the end, she had to squat like an egg-laying hen for him to realize what it was she wanted to buy.

"Pietro," Carly said, "I'm not comfortable with all this joking on the way to Zia's burial. It's just not respectful."

"Oh, Carly," he said, "my mother would have laughed with us, don't you remember how she was?  It was so hard for me to watch her suffering all this past year, that I'm almost giddy with relief now.  She would understand, I know."

She thought...giddy with relief?  Doesn't he care at all?  Poor Zia!

Within two years, Pietro himself was dead of cancer.  Carly wondered if Zia's gonorrhea (the original quella malattia)  had anything to do with the three cancers.  There didn't seem to be much logic to her theory, but still she wondered.

Now, waiting for the nurse to come in, Carly remembered Pietro and forgave him the stories he had told on the way to the cemetery those many decades ago.   Someday soon, she hoped, she would be able to remember happy thoughts about her dear mother, too -- memories to replace those of the last few years.   

And if it should be that I will put my own children through anguish like this at the end, she thought, I pray they will be wiser than I have been, and will rejoice at death's setting me free.