Visit to Italy gives form to Mom's memories

May 09, 1993|By Joy Schaleben Lewis | Joy Schaleben Lewis,Contributing Writer

MASSA MARITTIMA, ITALY — Massa Marittima, Italy

"Ciao, Cecilia," shouted my mother as we looked down across the steep vineyard. "Dove stai?" "Where are you?" she shouted.

A door opened from a lone hut nearly overgrown with green vines. A humped figure dressed in black waved. Her dress was muddy, her shoes torn. At 90, this frail woman still worked among the grapes of Massa Marittima, the Tuscan hill town where my mother was born. She hobbled toward us, leaning deftly into her cane.

"Bella, cara, tesoro," she said, reaching up to caress my face. She was calling me "beautiful, dear, treasure." I bent down to kiss my great aunt. Once, more than half a century ago, she had held my mother's hand in the piazza. Now, her hand clasped mine.

In the days that would follow, many more hands would lovingly clasp mine. My mother had finally lured me to Italy to meet the relatives. At the time, I was 23 and not particularly keen about vacationing with my mother in the old country. But, she insisted on paying my way, and I was faintly curious about her place of birth.

The fifth of seven children, my mother was christened Ida Pia Eleka Arnella Elena Androvandi. As a child, I impressed friends by rattling off her name-litany as a tongue twister. But that was all I'd concede was different about my mom. I preferred her to be 100 percent American, not Italo-Americana, as she would identify herself.

I never could understand why she was so Italian -- kissing everyone and making such a big fuss about family. As for all those people back in Italy with odd names -- they were her relatives, not mine.

And her childhood had been so poor -- not enough to eat, living in two small rooms, no running water, no electricity. She only owned two dresses when my grandmother took her brood to a new life in America in 1923.

They had settled in southern Illinois, where my grandfather had been working in a coal mine for several years. In this new world, my mother, at age 9, had enough to eat but not much more. In all her girlhood, she never even had one doll, ever -- a fact she told me every time she reminisced about her childhood.

By comparison, my growing up was a carefree and secure existence with two younger sisters and a brother in a well-off Milwaukee suburb. I had a new doll every Christmas.

"Joy-a, get in the car."

After one day in Italy, Mother had taken to pronouncing my name Italian style. "We're going to drive Cecilia back to Massa Marittima and then meet your Aunt Anita."

She was in her element. For one thing, she knew the language. What's more, people in Massa Marittima treated her like visiting royalty, hugging and kissing her, calling her name as she walked the cobbled streets, bringing her gifts of welcome. She'd been back several times and had become kind of a town heroine. And because I was her daughter, I, too, was instantly beloved.

I was amazed by the beauty of Massa Marittima, a walled, medieval stone city teeming with arches, alleyways, stepped passages, red-tiled roofs, green shutters and wrought-iron balconies rimmed with flowerpots. Below, olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields reached 10 miles to the sea. On an exceptionally clear day from the terraces of homes facing the Mediterranean, I could see all the way to the resort town of Follonica 10 miles away and even beyond to the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled.

Massa, as locals call their hometown of 10,000, was immaculate, just like my mother's house in America. And its people had many features similar to my mother's -- fine bones, narrow hips, straight noses, blue eyes, smooth light-olive skin. The women, petite like my mother, were "dressed to kill," as she says -- and does. That means looking "molto bella," especially when promenading arm-in-arm in the piazza at dusk.

Massa Marittima, acclaimed for its artisans and nearby silver and copper mines, is sectioned like a three-layered cake. At the bottom is the Borgo (little village). At the top is Cittanova (new city), where my mother was born. In the middle is Cittavecchia (old city). "All eyes notice you here," Mother warned, frowning at my bermudas and tennis shoes as we strolled into the main square.

Nooks of memory

How proudly she showed me the nooks and crannies of her memories -- the big stone basins at the foot of the hill where she washed clothes as a small girl, the huge clock tower with its sweeping view of the valley, the frescoes in the Romanesque cathedral and her once favorite place of play -- the so-called "500 Steps," a steep, wide passageway leading to Cittanova.

And then, of course, there were all the "parenti" -- relatives. Each morning over cappuccino in the piazza we'd review:

"Let's see," I mused, "the old woman in the hospital with the broken hip is Maria -- another great aunt. Narciso is the man with the little farm who gave rabbits to GIs during World War II; he's your cousin and therefore my second cousin."

"No, no," she interrupted. "In Italy, you don't have second or third cousins -- just cousins."

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