Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Santa Rita of Cascia

When I entered our neighborhood church in Italy, for the very first time, I was drawn to a statue,which is rather hidden from view, unless one enters through the far right door. She sits protected and dimly lit on a stand directly behind a wide pillar. In front of her is an array of small electric candles. Primo gave me permission to take her picture one day and told me her name: Santa Rita, saint for all things impossible. Recently I discovered she is also the saint for battered women and illness.

I was fortunate to be home in Italy on May 12 to celebrate Santa Rita's "Feast" day. Marina told me one afternoon we needed to hurry to be on time to attend special services in a very ancient church, which had been opened especially for the occasion. I wasn't sure what was being celebrated, but I'm always ready to follow Marina to church.

When we arrived, the tiny chapel was overflowing, with people hovering outside on the front steps. There was standing room only inside. Marina motioned for me to enter by myself. I squeezed through saying, mi scusi, mi scusi. It was a most amazing sight inside.

The church was packed with women, each carrying bunches of roses or flowers. The bouquets varied in their presentation. Many of the offerings were wrapped in simple newspaper or cellophane. The smell of flowers, mixed with perhaps incense, created an atmosphere of innocent sweetness. I felt like I had been transported to a higher plane. After the mass each woman approached the alter to leave their colorful offerings. Marina patiently waited for me. I was one of the very last to leave.

That evening I accompanied Primo and Marina to our main church for mass. The small statue of Santa Maria had been moved out of the shadows to a central place of honor. She was surrounded by hundreds of yellow long stemmed roses in baskets.

Primo told me the roses had been blessed and they were as if Santa Rita herself had touched them. I took a rose and Marina choose one for Nonna. My yellow rose has faded and disintegrated to brown pedals now, but I have a picture of Nonna, holding her fresh rose.

In Firenze I discovered Santa Rita inside Chiesa Santo Spirito. I last visited with her in June, while trying adjust to Leo's illness. There's a little gate to get into her alcove but I never feel awkward purchasing a candle for lighting, then entering the gated area.

I always feel calmer after visiting with her for a few minutes.

I've researched on the Catholic website and discovered this:

Santa Rita's dates are medieval, 1381-1457, but her canonization modern, 1900.

Patron Of: Infertility, Healing Of Wounds, Loneliness, Tumors, Difficult Marriages, Sick, Sickness, Widows, Desperation, Impossible Situations, Abuse Victims, Sterility, Bodily Ills, Desperate Causes, Forgotten Causes, Lost Causes, Against Loneliness, Parenthood, Victims of physical spouse abuse, Wounds

Prayers to Saint Rita:

Dear Rita, model Wife and Widow, you yourself suffered in a long illness showing patience out of love for God. Teach us to pray as you did. Many invoke you for help, full of confidence in your intercession. Deign to come now to our aid for the relief and cure of {name of sufferer}. To God, all things are possible; may this healing give glory to the Lord. Amen.


O santa Rita, noi ammiriamo il tuo coraggio e la tua costanza nel imitare Gesù nella testimonianza della fede e della carità, sia assolvendo fedelmente i tuoi impegni quotidiani sia affrontando con fede e speranza anche le situazioni più difficili; e sentiamo vergogna per le nostre frequenti incertezze, per la nostra pigrizia e per la nostra incoerenza: aiutaci a diventare pienamente responsabili del dono della fede e quindi ad operare sempre il bene con lo spirito cristiano, affinchè il nostro prossimo possa più facilmente unirsi a noi nel lodare il Padre. Amen.
Padre nostro. . . Ave Maria. . . Gloria al Padre. .

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Love Arrives

Leo and I are both problem solvers. As a child, in my mind, I would work out every checker's move possible, before making my choice. As a child Leo experimented with electricity and often shorted out his parent's home.

We had created a big problem: We had fallen in love. First, Leo offered to break off the email contact. He told me he didn't want me to be hurt. Too late for that Leo.

I thought through all the scenarios. Leo's wife had not had any feelings of tenderness or love for him for at least ten years. I felt pity for her. Leo had taken to heart her disinterest. He seemed a little battered to me too. If I continued the relationship it would mean letting go of the hope we would live happily ever after together. The shield I had put up, prevented any local men from seeing me. I had no interest in being under a man's thumb again. We would hurt no one if we continued. Our children were grown. In fact, his college-aged son had moved his girlfriend into the family home during this extended birthday trip. Leo was not happy about that, but never made too much of a fuss.

My choice was, live life with love. Leo's choice was begin to change jobs so that he could find work here and spend as much time as he could with me.

I introduced Leo to my friends and family immediately on his next trip. Everyone loved him. I always told the truth about us. It was clear to anyone nearby we were deeply in love. When I'm with Leo anything seems possible. And Leo? He has changed. He has become more confident and outgoing. He was so happy. He has changed careers and has written more than one book. He has a large circle of friends in America.

Leo suffers from high blood pressure. He carries his medication and cuff with him when he travels. The first time he checked his blood pressure with me, he looked startled. He tried again and told me the cuff was broken. We would need to purchase another one. Really, I said? Let's take my blood pressure to see. My readings were fine. We purchased an electronic device, more modern, and he discovered our local Fry's Electronics store. Leo does love gadgets and found paradise in Fry's. The new cuff showed the same lower blood pressure readings. Guess what Leo, you feel no stress when you're with me. "True, true."

We have been very happy and content together. Leo has a closet of clothes, shoes, underwear, handkerchiefs. I even iron his t-shirts. Unbelievable, but true. He cherishes being a handyman here. Even when he is not here, I see his presence. He has installed towel racks, light fixtures, patched walls, torn apart the antique balcony doors and re-screened and repainted them. He has hung pictures, fixed broken furniture and installed a big plasma TV screen. All the tile has been freshly re-caulked and now I even have a portable dishwasher and microwave. "Francesca, you really do need these modern appliances. Please do not call the microwave an alien device."

When we eat our meals at home, we always remove our shoes and touch our bare feet together. After 10 years, it still feels thrilling. Leo rents a car when he visits. During our outings, I rest my hand in his belt waistband. It's comforting and not distracting to him. He smiles.

Leo leaves me love notes. I have saved them all. Some are still in their original locations...the freezer, the salt box, the linen closet, on my clothes hangers, in my drawers. I love to rediscover these notes. I never tire of reading them. Once he left a blue note sticky, stuck onto the inside front door.

It's still there and it says (in Italian):

Note for Francesca:

  1. Don't leave your house keys outside in the door.
  2. Leave your mind open, so I can visit you in your dreams.
  3. Don't eat too much chocolate.
  4. Don't think you're alone, because someone is always with you.

Signora Leone has become more independent over the years. It made me happy to hear this. She even took dancing lessons. I hoped she might find the love of her life. Often she would send me little gifts. Leo tells her he stays with a family here. I've always believed she has known otherwise. I used to have nightmares about her accusations but not lately.

When I visited Leo in the hospital a few months ago, he introduced me to some members of his family. He said it was only right. His son wrote me a lovely letter afterwards.

I did not meet his wife at the hospital. I had already encountered her. Once when Leo was conducting a conference in Italy, I was in the audience. The room was elegant with chandeliers and heavy drapes. A table with computers had been setup on stage. A large screen illuminated the presentation. Leo had been speaking at the podium. The small audience was enthralled.

Suddenly I heard an annoying loud clickity clack clickity clack as someone made their way down the aisle. How rude I thought. I turned to my right to see who would do such a thing. A short woman, determinedly making her way, down down, closer to where I was sitting. To my surprise, she chose my row. She noisily sat down about three seats to my right. I peaked at her profile as she proceeded to constantly swing her feet back and forth, like a happy child in school. Her short legs prevented her feet from touching the ground. How rude and annoying, I thought as I focused back on Leo.

Leo finished his talk. The woman to my right stood up and made her way toward me. I was horrified....it was Leo's wife. I recognized her from photographs I had seen. She totally ignored me and proceeded to hone in on the elegant, fur-clad woman sitting directly in front of me.

Signora Leone was almost touching me as she leaned in, to the side of the woman to get her attention.

I was sitting still in shock as I heard her exclaim in Italian "That's my husband!" I did not understand her other remarks. I was holding my breath. That fur-clad woman was a well-known theater costume designer. By watching her body language, it seemed to me that she had snubbed Signora Leone. Without a look in my direction, Leo's wife departed.

I remained seated as the presentation had come to an end. I heard Signora Leone clicky-clack out of the auditorium. I was still frozen in place. I waited to see if she would reappear, surely to congratulate her "husband" on his fine talk. But she was gone.

I felt very shaky. I do avoid confrontations for a reason. I may be shy but I am not meek. I hold back because I will defend myself if pushed. This woman I instinctively sensed was a passive-aggressive sort.

I casually made my way outside and then quickly turned and walked until I found a large bookstore. I stayed inside for an hour while I calmed myself. Leo had tried to telephone me, but my phone was off. I did not want to respond until I had stopped shivering.

Finally, I answered. "Where are you Francesca? I've been looking everywhere for you!" Leo, you didn't tell me your wife would be there. I would have never attended. I would never have embarrassed her by my presence. "I'm coming to get you. Don't worry. It's ok."

And when he arrived he said " Oooh I've never seen you flushed and angry. This is interesting." I responded, I don't like to feel this way. This is my defensive mode. I need to be calm. He took me to buy chocolate gelato, always an antidote for my stress. I told him what had happened and he answered, "Don't worry, she's just like that."

After that day I knew the source of Leo's stress.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leo comes for a visit

It's been just 10 years since Leo came to visit me in the US for the first time.

In late summer, Leo wrote to tell me that he would be coming to California on business for an extended period of time. This would be his second trip to the USA. We had not seen each other since San Gimignano but we had continued to carry on email correspondence. I also had had the opportunity to observe some of his business activities by watching his Internet webcam. During the summer months he and his colleagues followed and broadcast live, a summer Fair, as it traveled to various Italian beaches. I watched volleyball tournaments, dancing contests, food vendors, beauty pageants and normal people milling about, all though the lens of a webcam.

Each weekend I would awaken in the middle of my night to observe what was happening at the Fair. Leo's group had several fixed cams setup, plus a portable one. It was through the portable one I was once able to observe a tent of perhaps ten woman getting facials, each covered with a greenish blue clay mask, as Leo interviewed them! It was fascinating. I was even able to watch attendants setup beach umbrellas and chairs, in the Italian fashion. Neat, tidy and orderly. In Italy one rents a spot on the beach and it's not inexpensive.

During the Fair days, Leo and I were able to communicate in live chat mode. I always let him know when I had arrived on-line. Leo would make it a point to casually step in front of one of the cams for a minute or two so I could see him. I also observed a rock concert in Sanremo with its brightly colored stage lights. I snapped lots of computer screen prints of the events. I treasured that summer in Italy!

I responded to Leo that I could certainly pick him up at LAX whenever his schedule allowed. Then September arrived and one afternoon I drove my old Volvo to LAX and picked him up. My car was not too reliable, but I felt secure in making the trip straight up and then back down the freeway.

Our meeting at the airport was not a bit awkward. He was thrilled to be in Los Angeles. As we left the airport, he saw signs pointing to Marina del Ray and asked, could we make a quick side trip? He had been there once before during his first trip to the US. I agree, but suddenly I was not feeling very calm.

I never drove my car too far from home, always worrying about a breakdown. It had over 250,000 miles on the odometer. But I made the side trip and Leo was happy. The only thing I remember about that afternoon is the car would not start after we had stopped to sight see. The engine finally did turn over and I nervously drove us home in the dark, praying the car would not break down on the freeway. Oh how I hate to drive at night. My night vision is not good and I worry about other drivers. Leo was distressed for my nervous state.

At that time I lived in an adorable two bedroom, small cottage rental. It had a fireplace and was within walking distance to the beach. I had my own kayak and hand trailer to pull it to the beach. My two sons had lived with me here but had both already departed in anger for parts unknown.

One girl friend was horrified I was allowing a MAN come and stay with me. It was improper, even if he was using the second bedroom and there was a lock on my bedroom door. An Italian man was even worse. She suggested he stay down the street, in a friend's home which was currently unoccupied. I declined her offer.

Another friend, an Italian woman, warned me. "Be careful Francesca! He is an Italian man. He only wants something from you, perhaps a foothold in America. He may think you have money. Italian men are self centered and only think of themselves. Don't let him steal your heart. He has nothing to give you in return. He will use you without regard for your feelings." I listened, but her bitter words didn't feel right to me.

My third friend, a romantic like me, gave no advice. Instead, she did me a favor. It was Leo's birthday and for the first time in his life, Leo was celebrating it outside of Italy. I ordered a helium balloon birthday bouquet. Early in the morning, my girl friend picked up the gorgeous bouquet and secretly left it in my patio. It was her own idea to stop at the bakery to purchase breakfast treats.

When Leo woke up later that morning, I had already brought in the balloons and pastries. He was stunned, really. We decided to pack up the breakfast and walk to the beach overlook to eat. It was there he released into the wind, one balloon which he had taken with us. He had written our two names on the balloon. Leo is also a romantic. He enjoys planning activities that are memorable. He appreciates living.

He told me more about his life. About five years before we had met, one day, alone in his home, he had suffered a stroke. He was able to place a quick call for help to his doctor before he passed out. During this experience he recalls approaching the light during this near death experience, and being told it was not his time to die. He thinks often about the message he was given before he was sent back. Afterwards, he worked hard to change the direction of his life.

During his birthday visit we spent most of our time on the beach. He loves the heat of the sun and the fresh ocean air as much as I do. I had always been afraid to play in the waves, but he held my hand and told me not to be fearful. We laughed like children and had such fun. A stranger offered to take our picture. Wherever we go, strangers seem to always offer this service. I suppose we always looked like a blissfully happy couple.

We took my kayak out and enjoyed navigating the Newport Back Bay. I asked questions about his life and we spoke about his wife. Apparently she had always been a bit fearful about life and had never learned to drive a car. Then, she experienced an early menopause and her personality had changed. I listened and wondered what kind of a life Leo really had in Italy. He tends to brush off the negative to only focus on the positive.

Leo flew back to his group after spending a few days with me. It had been a pleasant visit. I had never dated even one time after my divorce. It had been so painful and my sons had been so angry, that I really had no desire to ever spend any time with a man again. With Leo, it was possible to have a friendship. I was comfortable and unafraid. We were able to communicate. I think the language barrier worked in our favor because we had to work to find the right words. We carried our big dictionary everywhere.

Two weeks after his birthday trip, Leo returned for another visit. He was so easy to be with. I decided life was short and I would take a chance. Our relationship progressed. I asked him when he was planning to return to Italy. His American trip was coming to an end in a few weeks and he was departing from another city. So, tell me, I asked, who else is in your group...your colleagues? "No..." Sometimes I surprise even myself with my naivety. So, who is with you? "My wife..."

I could feel my breathe leaving me. His wife...was close by and I was ... here. For a shy naïve girl I had really gotten myself into a situation I had never intended. In that moment, I think Leo, seeing my eyes, realized he needed to be honest, finally. He hadn't really been dishonest, but by omission he had deceived me. I quietly cried as I drove him to the airport. He told me it was impossible to leave his wife. He had obligations in Italy to his extended family. He was a Godfather and what would his nieces and nephews think? He needed to set a good example for them.

My heart felt broken. I was foolish after all.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The doctor's house call

I'm home sick today after getting a flu shot yesterday. I'm here alone in bed, slightly feverish. Zuppa rustica (rustic soup), a variety of dried beans and grains, is simmering on my stove. I have a nice pantry full of Italian products. Leo always brings me a full suitcase of food to supplement the items I've brought back. Leo is back in the hospital for tests. They did a spinal tap today. I'll have no more information until he's able to write to me. I'm worried, as usual.

Zuppa Rustica

Serves one sick person for several days

200 grams of mixed beans, legumes and grains
1 liter water
olive oil
1 clove garlic, halved
1 shallot, minced
1/2 carrot, chopped
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 small dried hot peppers
1 Tablespoon tomato paste (from a tube)
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

Saute vegetables briefly. Add water and bean mixture. Cook on low heat for 3-4 hours.

Ladle into bowl and drizzle with good olive oil. Top with freshly grated cheese.

I've been sick three times in Italy. The first time, I was sick in bed for four days, at home. I never knew that Rosa had given up her bed for me each time I came to visit. She shared the room with her sister Marta. In Italy, there are no build-in closets. In Primo's home, all clothes, shoes, purses and undergarments are stored in a room containing huge armoires, which line every wall. There's also a sturdy chair and a small round table to hold the day's choices.

For this reason, the bedroom where I slept away my flu was peacefully quiet with little foot traffic.

Before my arrival, Rosa had relocated to the spare bedroom in Nonna's half of the house. Primo and his brothers were born here in this house. At that time it was big enough for a family of three boys. Later, when Primo brought his bride Marina home, it was divided into two equal parts.

Nonna occupied the original half. Her heavy rosewood furniture is still there, as always, sparkling and shining without a speck of dust. Upon entering Nonna's kitchen, I feel like I’ve stepped back into time. Its sturdy oak cupboards, now painted a pale mint green, remind me of a more simple time when things were built to last.

Primo has shown me a miniature electrical schema, hidden behind a large painting. When he was a boy, this schema was connected to the main electrical wiring. Tiny electric lights indicated where electricity was in use in the house. Primo's father was an engineer, as is Primo. I am fascinated by this electrical wiring.

The frosted glass door into the bathroom has a small knob above the door handle. One dark night I inadvertently brushed up against that knob and all the hall lights came on. When I discovered no one else was awake, I retraced my steps and located the knob. Of course, when I touched it, the lights turned off. The next day I asked Primo to tell me more about his childhood home. I think he likes my scientific queries.

The second time I was ill with bronchitis. I had been attending Scuola Leonardo da Vinci School in Firenze. That winter for two weeks I had my own room in Signora Rusticini's home. The school arranges accomodations in private residences. The cost is nominal. I have stayed with a variety of hosts and they were generally an older woman. The school requires that the student's room have a bed, desk, chair and lock on the door. A portion of the refrigerator is set aside for the student. Laundry facilities are not provided. One shares the bathroom with the family. The homes were always extremely clean but it was obvious the student room provided extra funds for the household.

Sig. Rusticini is a widow who raised five children by herself. Now, she supplements her pension by taking in female students. She has two rooms for this purpose. Often, there has been a second student in the home, but I've never socialized.

Sig. R and I became friends over the years. One evening I came home at 9 pm, after having been gone since 7 am, and she was very distraught. "Madonna Francesca!! Where have you been? I was ready to call the police. I'm responsible for you, if you disappear. Why do students just come and go without talking to me?? "

I clearly realized my mistake. She was lonely for company. The money was a necessity but in addition, she had hoped to bring some young life back into her home. Instead, we students treated our accommodations as though they were hotel rooms.

I had never paid the supplement for nighttime meals with my host, because I wanted to have the freedom of spending evenings as I pleased. I could not afford restaurants, but I enjoyed shopping in the local COOP supermercato, neighborhood rosticceria (shop selling roasted meats and vegetables), bakery or salumeria (selling prosciutto or salami products). I purchased just enough for an evening meal, which I ate privately in my room. Often, I gathered this meal and dessert from different parts of the city. In my room, I would eat and then complete an hour or two of homework. Yes, I am a bit of a loner.

After that night, I made it a habit to spend one hour an evening with this sweet elderly woman. She spoke no English and this is how I became known as Francesca, my middle name. She could not pronounce my first name. Once or twice a visit we prepared cakes in her kitchen. When I visited Rome one day, I brought back two large baba, a sweet yeast muffin, drenched in honey and rum. She was thrilled as we sat together late that night eating baba. She was a night owl, which made it convenient to share the bathroom with her two students. We students always left the house before 7 am. Classes were held from 8 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday, with special outings each weekend.

She was painfully poor. She had retained her lovely furniture from her married life but often I saw her cut up small pieces of fruit, carefully cutting out spoilage. She was proud so I tried to bring her treats she would enjoy, like flowers or herbs for her window. Once I took her a quilt I had made and she cried. It was so cold in her apartment. I needed to layer double clothes when I was inside. She used the lap quilt to stay warm during her evenings watching TV in her kitchen, the warmest room during the winter.

I returned home one day to discover she had ironed my clothes, which I had brought home from the lavandaria (laundromat) and had carelessly left on the bed that morning. She cleaned my room daily and would shake her head at the books and food I had purchased. “Madonna Francesca, it will be impossible for you to get this all stuff in your suitcase when you go home.” “Madonna Francesca, why are you buying so much pasta? Don't they make pasta in America?”

I love to cook and in Italy I always search out and try new types of food. Whenever I bought fresh milk and left it in Sig. R's refrigerator, she suggested I purchase the much cheaper irradiated milk. I explained Italian fresh milk was so delicious. I never told her I was afraid to drink her boxed milk. Yes, I know it’s not radioactive, but I could never force myself to swallow a drop. I would carry her trash down the long flight of outdoor stairs whenever I found a bag placed near the front door. I was always careful to take away the remnants of my meals. I never wanted to show off the exotic foods I was purchasing.

Once I bought her some nice freshly pressed olive oil from an exhibition which I attended in the piazza of Chiesa Santa Croce. I was secretly so proud of myself. Nothing is as important as good olive oil for cooking. Opps!! She was not impressed. One look at its color and then one taste and “…ahhh...the green is not quite right Cara Mia. Let me taste it. Ohhh...this oil is not as good as from my home town of Siena...but thank you for thinking of me Francesca.” By that time, my tender feelings had already toughened up in Italy. It was just her Italian ways. My cultural education was progressing. She was a dear person, talking to me as one Italian to another.

It was so cold the week I had bronchitis while staying her home. I hated missing school. When I only continued to get worse, I knew I needed antibiotics. I called Leo for help.

He drove right away into Firenze. He'd met Signora Rusticini before. In her entry hall, they seriously discussed my situation and decided a doctor needed to see me right away. I think Leo made the call to the doctor. They both came into my room to tell me the doctor would arrive within the hour. Leo left to do some errands. Sig. Rusticini told me I must prepare to see il medico. First, she needed to change the sheets of my bed and air out the room. I was to change into a clean night gown and freshen up. She moves quickly for someone in their mid-eighties!

She situated me in the bed like a princess and we waited for the doctor. I was surprised to discover doctors make house calls in Italy. I was glad I had cash on hand. I calculated what I thought he might charge me. I wanted to be ready with my money. I placed my purse on the bed, the money already counted out inside, so I would not need to fumble for it.

What a nice professional doctor! He did not speak English but my Italian had improved enough that I could understand abbastanza bene, well enough. I did have bronchitis.

He wrote out a prescription for two medicines and told me I needed to take the antibiotics and drink a potion daily, to loosen up the congestion. It was then necessary to get outdoors and take some fresh air. He said it would be ok to return to school within a day.

I asked him how much I owed him. He said...something.... Excuse me? Could you repeat? He again told me there was no charge. Impossible I thought. It was Sunday afternoon and I was not even a citizen. I already had calculated that fifty lira would equal about 75 dollars. I thought it would be fair fee. The walk-in clinic in the US would have cost 65 dollars. I rolled the money so he couldn't see how much I was paying and handed it to him. He put the money into his jacket pocket without looking at it, spoke briefly with Signora R and then he was gone.

"Well she said, that went well. Leo will get the prescription filled for us and bring it by later." I thanked her for her help and said I hope I paid him enough. “You paid him?” Yes, I replied, cinquanta (50). “Cinque (5), good good. That was a nice thing to do Francesca.” Oh no I replied cinquanta..fifty not five. She looked horrified. “Madonna are you crazy? You paid 50? Francesca, even five would have been over the limit. The government pays him. Mamma Mia!”

She left me, shaking her head. I think she let it go because surely I was a bit delirious, not in my right mind with illness...or perhaps a little more eccentric than she already thought.

I never have regretted paying that nice doctor. With the medicine and fresh air, I recovered quickly and was able to return to school.

The third time I was sick, it was again with bronchitis. At school, I wrote down the name and address of a British doctor. His flyer directions were easy: Come to the clinic on Porta Rossa during specific hours and wait your turn. I visited that doctor, filled my own prescription at the pharmacy and did not miss a day of school. I felt more confident taking care of myself in Italy.

I continued to stay with Sigorna Rusticini each time I returned for a school session. I have not attended school for a few years. Recently, I have gone to visit her, but no one answers the house buzzer. Now I think she stays in the countryside with a son. The outside stairs may have become too difficult after she began to have back problems. I'm sorry she probably thinks I have forgotten her.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Watching Marina

I’m having nightmares again. On top of that, a panic attack started two days ago. I have been worrying about Leo. He is learning to walk again and I'm concerned he's not getting enough structured physical therapy. In the hospital, it seemed to me that he was taking too much medicine and he has been in varying levels of lucidity for 5 months. Thank goodness his mind is more clear now.

Leo has been discharged home instead of to a rehabilitation clinic. I suspect he was a difficult patient in the hospital. He was bedridden for too long, past his tolerance point. His exterior is normally calm and controlled. He's had many years to perfect this behavior. I think this illness has scared him to his core and it has unraveled the methods he previously used to live in his environment. I believe he has spent years and years being slightly afraid of Signora Leone’s anger. He is an expert in avoidance. I recognize my own avoidance behavior.

I'm in no way a witness but I think Signora Leone is a good caregiver. Leo is at home, just where she wants him. In the beginning of their marriage, Leo tells me, they decided the home would be her job and his would be in the outside world. I think they did a disservice to themselves with that decision. They stopped doing fun things together years ago and went in diverse directions. In my opinion, there is duel anger simmering in their home. And now, Leo sounds depressed and fearful to me. The balance he so carefully maintained has slipped. Does he know depression is an indication of unresolved anger? Probably not. Not in this weakened vulnerable state. It’s too much to face right now.

We all adjust to our environment in unique ways. I remember the earliest visits to my Italian family. The first time I heard Marina’s voice raise, I felt a tightening of my chest and a sense of panic. In my childhood, loud voices were the signal for me to hide in my closet. I learned to avoid conflict at all costs. Those loud voices quite often escalated into physical violence. And then in the opposite direction, my father would go months regarding me as not there, invisible, not worth speaking to. As an adult, I am now a fierce advocate of communication.

But with Marina, I very quickly realized her raised voice was not cause for alarm. No violence followed, ever. I watched and analyzed her. No thrown items, no tears, no pleading, no submission to her will. It was such a pleasant release of my anxiety, to trust I could change my perception of the raised Italian voice. Marina’s anger is like steam quickly expelled from a tea kettle. No harm is done.

Marina naturally shows her frustrations and no dangers lurk nearby. And now that I can sometimes understand the words of her outbursts, I smile a little. She is so fortunate. She enjoys the freedom to express her emotions.

Primo is steady as a rock. He has been surrounded by four women on the premises for years. I need to ask him next time, how he release his stress. Is this why he goes to the gym every day? I never tire of watching Primo with Marina. Their love is so strong. Sometimes his eyes twinkle when Marina is angry and he turns to me and says in English “Marina is in charge here.” He in no way discounts her outbursts and he doesn't feel threatened. I need to talk with Primo about his philosophy. He’s a good male role model.

I've never had nightmares at home in Italy and it’s been a blessed relief. I feel safe there. Marina never yells at me but she does do that charming Italian gesture, with her hands clasped in prayer mode, she moves them up and down. “Madonna...you can’t sleep with the windows open, you’re sure to catch cold Francesca.” “Madonna...Francesca, you've washed your hair this morning after having it cut and set just yesterday afternoon?”

Or she does no hand gesture which is worse! With five people chattering and snacking in the kitchen as she’s preparing dinner: “Too much noise in my kitchen…shoo!” but the door is closed only partially as we exit.

I love Marina! She is good hearted to her core. She is open with her emotions and so honest. I love to watch her work with Anna, who comes in weekly to clean. She and Anna work as total equals, chatting away, cleaning the house spotless together. I’ve seen Marina lovingly prepare early special dinners for Nonna. Something simple and delicious to entice her to eat a little. I've watched Marina prepare for Rosa's wedding, making sure the event was simple and tastefully elegant. Under wedding pressure she never nipped at me, even as I became a pest, as I tried to capture the entire day in my camera.

She attends mass everyday and sets a quiet example for me. I'm always welcome but never pressured to tag along with her. She corrects my Italian lovingly. I don't feel stupid or embarrassed.

Usually, each afternoon, Marina rests and has her break watching her favorite soap operas. This is her uninterrupted time. Otherwise, she's a whirlwind, never stopping. She's the first up to prepare Primo's coffee and she's the last one to bed at night. I admire how she runs her household. But she frequently looks tired...

Marina has taught me every one of her cooking secrets. She patiently has helped me to roll fresh gnocchi with a fork and make ravioli from scratch. Once I innocently asked how to prepare octopus and that very afternoon a large fresh octopus occupied the refrigerator. Oh yes, dinner was delicious! Boiled octopus with potatoes.

She lets me raid her refrigerator as I want and shares her kitchen with me. She tolerates my water glass on the counter. She finds that glass no matter how hard I try to tuck it out of sight. She gently stacks and makes order of my magazines, dictionary and copious cooking notes, which I invariably leave on the kitchen table. Marina likes spotless order. I try very very hard to live neatly out of my suitcase. I know the stress it causes her when she sees clothes strewn about.

Culturally, in Italy, the tone of the household follows the personality of the woman. I am so grateful Marina pulled me right into the heart of her family.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ilness in the family

I have no pictures of Bella, Primo's sister-in-law. She had had cancer but had been in remission for years. Illness struck her again unexpectedly. This time she decided to a take a stand to refuse all chemotherapy, even though the family pleaded with her to fight once again.

I did not know Bella very well. The last time I saw her she did not appear to be ill. My Italian had improved enough that I could understand simple conversations. Marina and I went alone to visit her one afternoon and I received a nice tour of her home.

She would not let me take her picture. She looked so beautiful but I didn't press her. Marina told her I was desperate to obtain a certain recipe I had eaten at a mutual friend's dinner party. The wealthy hostess would not share the recipe. Not even Primo could convince this socialite to divulge it.

As we sat in Bella's living room, trying to understand the motive for this lack of sharing, she suddenly began laughing and exclaimed "Yes yes, I know now why she won't give up the secret recipe!! She didn't make that sauce! She probably bought it at a restaurant!... She doesn't KNOW the recipe."

Penne with Pepper Sauce (Primo's version)

For 4 people

350 grams penne pasta
1 large yellow bell pepper
100 grams of panna da cucina or half and half
Salt for the pasta water
Olive oil
½ cup of grated Parmigiano cheese

Burn off the skin of the pepper over a grill pan.
Skin the pepper and slice into thin strips.
In a large skillet, briefly sauté the pepper slices in a little olive oil. Blend in the half and half and Parmigiano cheese. Bring to a slow simmer.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente.
Drain pasta thoroughly and add to the sauce. Mix well and simmer the pasta in the sauce for a minute. Taste to season.

Serve immediately

That laughing moment we all shared was the last time I saw her. As her condition worsened, I was not able visit my family. Marta wrote it was a difficult time for everyone. Bella lingered and suffered until the end arrived. She had continued to refuse chemotherapy. I suspect her children and husband could not understand why she would leave them without a fight. Even today, many years later, Primo's brother still has not recovered from the shock of her loss.

During that long year, I became desperate to get back to Italy. I could not intrude on my family's grief and I had no money to be a tourist. Then I found a solution on the Internet. I would go to school and stay with a host family.

San Gimignano

We quickly walked to Leo's car. I admit I started to feel more than a little nervous when he opened the car trunk and started removing his jacket, his tie and then his shoes. I hovered near the passenger door, not sure if he was actually going to strip right down to his underwear and change his clothes. It was something I didn't want to witness.

I felt relief when I saw he was only putting on a sturdy pair of tennis shoes. It was another warm day and I was roasting in my dark woolen suit and dress boots. I was too shy to even remove my jacket. Leo asked if I would like to go to San Gimignano. The words San Gimignano sounded poetic and he seemed enthusiastic about the side trip. I agreed right away. We began to drive through Tuscany, the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. I relaxed and knew I was safe.

It was springtime and the sky was a clear azure blue. I could see the hill town high above the green valley as we made our approach. Cypress trees dotted the landscape. Leo pulled into a gravel parking lot and let me know we had arrived. I was uncertain of our exact location. From that angle it was impossible to see the town's towers. Young olive trees lined the parking lot and the inclined walkway to the town. We began the long walk up. It was steep and the gravel was slippery, but I kept my distance from Leo, although he offered me his arm several times. As we rounded the last corner, the town magically appeared right in front of me. I was spell-bound. I know now San Gimignano is a must see tourist spot, but at that time, I was a shy girl seeing a hill town for the first time. Once inside the walls of the city, I only had eyes for the buildings. I never "saw" the tourist shops.

I know Leo was surprised. Perhaps he had thought to take me on a little tourist excursion...see the shops, eat some gelato, take in the local color. Instead, he saw something else. I wanted to put my hands on those old medieval buildings. I wanted to look at every detail, the windows, the doors, the arches. I strained my neck skyward to study the towers. For several hours I took pictures, hoping to capture it all inside my camera. Leo allowed me to take the lead and we explored paths leading to the outside walls and the living areas. He spoke to me about the history of this area. It was here that I first noticed ceramics in the style of Andrea della Robbia.

I was enchanted that afternoon in San Gimignano. When it was time to leave, Leo wanted to make a quick stop inside a ceramics shop. He was searching for an item and then I saw him purchase something, for his wife apparently. I signaled I was done and would wait outside. As he left the shop, he handed ME the small package. I was...embarrassed. I gently pulled off the wrapping and found a charming lidded container. I had to turn away from him to hide my tears. It was so silly to cry over such a small gift that I was sure meant more to me than it did to him. I tried to regain control. He could not have fathomed that no man had ever done such a kind spontaneous thing for me. Leo has a heart of gold, which is not appreciated by his family.

Even today, it makes me cry to think of that gift. It caused so many years of disappointment to just bubble to the surface. Don't men realize that moments such as these are what we women crave? A simple gift and a wonderful day with absolutely no strings attached.

As we walked out of town and approached the gates of the city, I had a crazy wild feeling that I needed to touch this wonderful man, just for a second. Due to the incline and my slippery boots, I had already accepted the offer of his crooked arm to keep steady. I had noticed that this Italian custom was really quite practical, without any of the romantic American connotations. I decided I would do it. I knew I would never see him again.

And so, ever so cautiously, I touched two fingers to the inside of his wrist. Just once. He told me months later he felt a jolt of electricity at that moment. I felt a jolt too...but it was totally impractical to even consider. This was a married man. A happily married man as he had written months prior. I focused on the "happy." I was only his guest for a few hours. The countryside had gotten to me for a moment. The setting was just too romantic.

As we returned to the car, Leo picked a tiny piece of olive branch for me. He also placed several small shards of ancient Etruscan pottery, which he had brought for me, into the little lidded container. An elderly man, who was parked nearby, offered to take our picture with my camera.

That late afternoon picture shows a glowing couple, standing close to each other.

A few hours later I was speeding north on a train, heading home to my family.