I can’t imagine anyone not liking my Italian teacher.
I see her at the front of our class. A first floor room with opened, screenless windows. Trees outside, and a warm September breeze moving the air in the room.
She was maybe 23, from northern Italy, and she’d only been in the US two days. You wouldn’t say she was beautiful, but she was everything you see when you think sweet and sexy. Her hair was almost blond, she had soft blue eyes, and she wore glasses that weren’t exactly flattering. I think they had fancy light blue frames. She was built cute as a 23 year old can be built, and she wore dresses. All of us were in sloppy jeans, and there she was in a sleeveless dress, a cottony kind of fabric in an A-line shift that came to the top of her knees. And she didn’t shave her armpits or legs. Yes, she was cute and sexy in some kind of 23 year old, stylish, old world, northern Italy, kind of way.
She hardly spoke any English. She could say, hi, and, thank you, and she joked about us teaching her bad words.
Today. Yes, today. Today, it’s an October evening and I’m looking for my old Italian grammar book, and my mind wanders to an image that’s just easy. For life as it is, for the worries and challenges, there’s a picture from the past that’s just easy.
Those classes were wonderful. They weren’t hard for me. After years of Spanish classes, I did some American blend of Italian/Spanish, and she understood. She smiled, behind those glasses, and it was cool. It’s hard to explain how some people are easy. Easy in a wonderful way. There’s not a person reading this who wouldn’t absolutely love my Italian teacher.
When I hear Bob Marley, I see shades of tangerine and vivid pink. And pictures in tropical greens and blues and yellows. And one of those small half-circle type windows, with sheer white curtains gathered neatly in a fan, to block out the afternoon sun.
Outside on the covered porch, someone waits in the shade of painted wood. A fancy overhang, and thin carved spindles. Tiny glass chimes, multi-colored prisms, hang down between the spindles, quiet and motionless on a day that’s warm and still. And past the cover of the building, blue skies. Gravel and grass, magenta-colored flowers, and lush green sandy vegetation.
I pick up the scent of stewed chicken.
The imagination’s funny. It takes a little of this reality, and the flavor of a song or a memory, and without beckoning, it floats some kind of blurry image your way. Like the soft elements of it all have been waiting around in your head, waiting for something to stir them up.
All those delicate flowers we planted in May, or June, they’re strong and showy now. Or they’ve withered and died. The tomatoes are tall, healthy, nearly out of control, ready to pick. And tall blades of grass that used to be bright green are a shamble of bent, disheveled straw.
The last days of summer always feel a bit restless. Maybe bittersweet. Like we’re living in yesterday’s moment, and holding off tomorrow’s worry. We try to relax, but there’s a nagging feeling … it’s almost gone.
We learned about souls in the first or second grade, not long after we learned about God. Maybe it was part of getting ready for our first confession. Preparing…that’s what they called it…preparing for our first confession.
There’s a soul in us, they said, in the middle of us, and it wasn’t our heart. Other than that, they were fuzzy on the details. They didn’t tell us how it looked, like they might if it was an arm or leg, or even a stomach or brain. What I do remember was that we are born with a clean soul. Before you got old enough to sin, your soul is clean. Perfectly clean.
Then you sin, and it’s not so clean. If you sin a lot, if you commit a mortal sin, or even multiple mortal sins, your soul turns. Then, if you go to confession, and say your penance, it gets washed clean again.
Back then, I pictured the soul like a circle. It wasn’t in my heart, and it wasn’t in my head, but somewhere else inside me. It was a very nuanced part of our being, although I knew nothing of nuance and I had a very mixed up idea of what it was to be a being. So I pictured the soul like what I would describe now as a pie chart. If you’ve been good, you have a nice clean circle, and if you’ve been bad, well, you can picture that pie chart.
To this day, I love the soft, hoof to dirt rhythm, of a gallop. Clop clop clop clop, horse and rider, dust flying, in an old western. Clop clop clop clop. It’s sound and picture and smell and dust and dirt and powerful horse, all in a background sound that fills the brain.
When I was little, I played tap dance. With patent leather shoes banging and making as much noise as I could on a linoleum floor. It was silly and noisy, clicking and knocking the heck out of those shoes and that cheap floor. I love. I love that sound too.
But tonight it’s a cold dark winter night, it’s late, and I’m half asleep. Tick tick tick. The slick, scraping sound of icy sleet hitting windows, brushing glass. Tick tick tick. I’m inside, and feeling protected. Safe, I suppose. Yet the sound calls, barely calls, beckoning me from a desperate, a desperately soft floating dreamy winter numbness. Tick tick tick, calling me out from some sad sense of empty waiting. Tick tick tick. Out there in the dark. Tapping at the window. Tapping at the subconscious. It taps me on the shoulder. “Wake up. Listen, girl, listen. Yeah, girl, you. You hear that? Wake up, girl.” I get up and look, I guess hoping to see something in the darkness besides sleet hitting the glass. Out there where you know there’s nothing but dark and cold. What did I hope to see? I think something to make me look, to rouse, to look up and smile. Yeah, something to shake the numbness, to make me look up, and about, and smile.
When I was little, we went to 12 o’clock mass on Sundays. That’s what it was called, 12 o’clock mass. Back then Catholics didn’t sing the same songs as Protestants. I don’t think singing Protestant songs qualified as a sacrilege, but some songs were Catholic songs and some were not. My recollection, anyhow. Like the Catholic Lord’s Prayer was different from the Protestant Lord’s Prayer. Although we called it the Our Father. In the confessional box, the last words from the priest were always, “For your penance, say five Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.”
It so happened that while we were getting ready for 12 o’clock mass on Sundays, there was a cartoon show on TV called Davy and Goliath. Davy was a little boy with a dog, Goliath, and the show had a religious theme of some sort. I liked the show but I never got to see the end because we left for church about fifteen minutes before it was over. The intro music for that show was A Mighty Fortress, and since then I’ve always loved that song. I think as a kid I found the words impressive. Mighty and cruel hate and Sabaoth. Abideth and doth. And the melody was sort of compelling. But I knew it wasn’t a song we ever sang in church.
One Sunday in November, Davy and Goliath was pre-empted, or maybe it was interrupted. It was that weekend when almost all the shows were pre-empted. Back then, breaking news was truly breaking news. As it turned out, that week, the previous Friday, my parents had to go to the funeral home because one of my uncles had died. I suppose I was young enough I didn’t have to go with them. When it came time for my parents to return home, some aunts and uncles were with them. I guess to pick up their kids, my cousins, who stayed at our house too that Friday. With the oldest in charge. When they walked in the house, in their Sunday best funeral home clothes, all the kids, including me, and the cousins, were jumping up and down on the beds. I don’t know how it started. I guess it just looked like fun. The grown ups were so angry. I’m not sure this is important, but it is the context for me that following Sunday.
My memory is that we were getting ready to leave for church on Sunday and the TV was still on. I think we all looked at the screen because they were going to show the guy who killed President Kennedy. We were standing in the living room watching and could see a lot of people in camera view, and they brought a man out in handcuffs. I remember thinking something like, “Is that him?” It seemed seconds later, one of the men on the bottom of the screen moved toward the prisoner, poked a gun into the suspect’s waist, and shot him. Right there, on TV while we watched.
Kennedy was just killed a few days earlier. Now, there we are in our living room, the guy who shot Kennedy was already caught, and some other man walks up to him in the middle of the press and the police, and shoots him dead. It seemed nobody even moved to stop the shooter. It was surreal. I’m sure I didn’t know that word back then. But it was the feeling we’d all had that whole creepy weekend. Surely, someone would come on TV and tell us some story other than Kennedy was dead. I think we expected them to say they got it wrong. It was a practice or a drill maybe, or somebody else was killed and they just thought it was Kennedy. Or they thought Kennedy died, but he was really still alive. Well, that didn’t happen. Now it was two days later, and they were saying this guy we just saw on TV got through the crowd and shot the suspect. The suspect who shot the president. Huh??
I was thinking, “Can we all go back to Davy and Goliath and A Mighty Fortress?”
But no, we turned off the TV that Sunday, piled in the car, and went off to 12 o’clock mass.
The words we write are part of who we are. That was my motivation, I think.
I decided early this year to work on collecting my bits of writing in some sort of permanent way. Not to publish it, but to have it for myself. Also to have it for those in my life who might care to read it, and maybe keep it.
My goal was to assemble it all in a way that would make turning pages a pleasure. Something with sturdy covers, good quality paper, etc. Nice enough to wrap in tissue paper and hand to someone as a gift.
It started old school with printing copies and storing my work in a three-ring binder. Functional, but certainly not gift worthy.
Eventually, I decided to use the formatting from one of those companies that produces photo calendars, photo cards, and photo books. And chose their simplest style 8 inch by 10 inch photo book product, which includes stretchable text boxes.
I selected about 25 of my written pieces and some of my photos, and set to work. It was tedious. There was no ‘cut and paste’, so it took a lot of ‘delete and re-type’. Start overs, and of course, proofing. It was a project to make everything fit and have a sequencing and flow that made sense and looked good. I enjoy that sort of work, but it’s not something you can throw together in a couple of days.
Ta da … I completed one collection in the spring, and I just finished another for the winter. This isn’t an ad for photo companies, but their production and the paper products they use were more than I hoped for. Coffee table book quality materials, glossy pages, attractive covers, and nice binding. It optimized what I had to offer.
The costs were reasonable, and I’m happy to have a personalized keepsake to gift this Christmas.
For me, for myself, I get to leaf through the pages and feel like the words I write matter. And see that they have a little bit of permanence.
This is about Rose. I knew Rose all my life, minus the first five or so years, which I don’t remember very well. Rose, like her husband, was a second generation American. Their parents came from Italy.
She was small, a little over five feet, and pretty. Even when she was old, almost ninety, she was still pretty. Her hair turned from red to white, but her face was pretty and smiling. I see it now. Rose was probably the sweetest, kindest, nicest, most energetic, hard working, generous, human being I’ve known. I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Yeah, she was all those. You can probably think of some other ‘nice’ adjectives, and those would fit too. Her husband called her Rosy.
In the summer Rose and her husband spent a lot of time in the back yard. They sat there in the evenings with a glass of wine. Sometimes they played cards. It wasn’t a big area, a little bit of grass backed up to a tall hill covered with trees. And nestled at the bottom of the hillside a statue of the Blessed Mother. Everything about the space back there felt old country. It made you feel like you have nothing to do in life but sit, laugh, tell a story, and take it all in. There was a square wooden porch/deck attached to the house, and a screen door that took you right into her kitchen. I know, because I’ve been through that door. The last time was after my mother died and Rose called me in to see her new living room furniture. There are parts of us that just don’t grow up, and I thought at the time if I couldn’t still have my mother, I wanted Rose to be my proxy mother.
Rose was in the middle of making anise flavored cookies. She asked me if I was hungry, if she could get me some pasta. I don’t remember what kind, some gnocchi or whatever. She made her own, of course. There was no Mueller’s in that house. And it seemed to me she whipped up home-made pasta as easily as I whip up a sandwich or bowl of cereal. I’m probably exaggerating, but not too much. Picture the wood block countertop covered with flour, some chopping implements, and bowls and cooking ingredients scattered here and there. Old appliances. That was her kitchen.
Oh, and there’s the flowers. Tall bright colored flowers all around the metal fence in her front yard. Hanging baskets on her tiny front porch. Flowers up and down the side of her house. Flowers on the deck, flowers in the backyard. She loved her flowers, and they loved her back. Rose was well into her eighties and she would weed and fuss with her flowers the same way she did when she was thirty.
I thought about Rose yesterday, and this flower’s for Rose.