Los Angeles basks in constant warmth with its ever- present
sunshine caressing everything it touches, winking at newly watered lawns, blushing and blurring the edges. Seasons change like Polaroid picturea, intriguing the senses before catching the eyes.
“Quick, let’s go shopping before fall fashions give way to spring suits.” We say jokingly.
Time sits still, posing for photos.
Our lives, Uncle's, his wife's, his three babies', were languid reflections, plastic toys bobbing in the backyard pools, leaves streaming from one end to the other, suddenly settling at the bottom of the drain.
Five years had passed in suspended animation- in a spell brought out by some evil force.
At first, I felt a trusting innocence. Everything new and green.
Then, a sudden cold winter chill, a whip-lash on a freeway going eighty miles an hour. I felt too scared to change lanes, frozen by fear and disbelief.
Yet, every letter I sent back home showed nothing but broad smiles and sunny dispositions.
The truth sat behind the camera.
The truth was revealed on Sundays.
Sundays. I went to the eight o’clock Mass. The prayers were in Latin, ancient language of my people, still with me through those rituals. Every mass felt as if my Mother and I were together, she with a shawl covering her head, bowed in resignation, grateful that I had escaped a fate like hers, thanking God and the Virgin Mary for the life her daughter was enjoying.
“Oh Mamma, If you only knew!” I was praying to the Virgin Mary, and talking to my Mother, one and the same to a crying heart.
“Please, Mother, Virgin Mary, guide me, save me from my anger and my loneliness.”
"Why, daughter, why are you unhappy? You are ungrateful and spoiled. How did this happen?" These were the words I heard spoken back at me.
I couldn't explain my life.
I only wanted to end it.
I NEEDED to send a message to all the saints.
I needed a miracle.
After church, I prepared the day’s main meal and waited for the rest of the family to gather together. I waited, watching television, watching Donna Reed and her perfect world where children were loved and families were whole.
On Sundays, Uncle went to ride his bike, his wife read the Sunday paper, and the children watched television snacking on potato chips and dip. Nobody ate the meal I had prepared.
On Sundays, Uncle’s wife would barge in my bedroom room and rummaged through my papers, my clothes before telling me what the problem was.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, feeling like a sinking raft.
“Do you want rats in the house? You are used to rats, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Well, this is not your rat infested hovel back home. We are civilized here.” She was holding a piece of bread that had been left on the table from lunch time and shouting at the top of her voice.
Mortified, confused with shame and disappointment, I tried to explain the bread left on the table: “Uncle was at the table. I thought he had finished!”
I just wanted to scream.
The truth was that we never sat and ate like the family I knew. Back home, everyone came to the table for the main meal. First, while waiting for everything to be ready, we snacked on olives, celery. Then, taking up our assigned seats, with Papa’ at the head of the table, the midday meal would be served. The whole meal was woven with story telling, singing.
“Mangia, mangia” Mother encouraged. The meal would end two, three hours later, when
groggy from all that food, people took a long siesta, discussing “sotto voce” so the little ones and the very old could nap comfortably.
I loved those Sundays.
Meals were prepared according to recipes passed down for generation. Never written, never changed, the ingredients came from our farm, seeds carefully stored and carefully passed down from family to family. All of life’s moments were shared at these meals. Grandma Maria Rosaria would join each of her seven children, once a week for a midday meal that would stretch into the evening. She arrived before noon, right after the last Mass, and she regal us with stories about her childhood, when as an only child, her pa‘pa, the padrone of the masseria, would take her on buggy rides, visiting neighbors, checking on the land that nourished them for generations.
“These hazelnuts taste just like those on that piece of land by the river, the one your great-nonna got as a wedding present. Have not tasted any thing that good. Too bad I lost it all when we went to Brazil. Those crooks sold the land right from under us. We lost everything.” Those ‘crooks’ were her brothers who instead of managing the land, saw an opportunity to sell and cash in the profits.
Invariably, the conversation would include her greatest adventure, her time in Brazil. She lost a child there, and disappointed and homesick she and Nonno returned to Italy penniless. Nonno died a few years later, leaving his wife with seven children to raise by herself.
She spoke of humid heat, of flowers of exceptional perfume, mango and bananas, fruit I had never tasted. She painted canvasses of extreme beauty and extreme harshness, life and death in the same frame.
Papa' would sing a song about a man living away from home, missing his mom. Tears streamed from everybody’s faces, especially at the end: “ Mamma, solo per te…..E per l’amore not ti lascerei mai piu”, (Mamma, because of you, ….and for that love I will never leave you again). Papa’s voice, a beautiful tenor strengthened from years of performing at weddings and anniversaries, was grandma’s pride and joy.
We tasted happiness with each bite, each song, each movement. It felt like the joyful harvesting of grapes, family and neighbors singing along as they collected grapes from one vineyard to the other.
A lifetime sat with us at these meals.
And Sunday was our day to splurge, cook a stuffed rabbit, redolent with garlic and basil, stuffed with leftover bread, sage and wild mushrooms. The meal was begun after Mother returned from the early mass, the mass for Mothers and old ladies .
The rabbit was fattened in the cellar, months of scampering among wine flasks, eating scraps we brought down every time we went to the cellar, four, five times or more a day.
Always with plenty of tomato sauce to coat the homemade pasta, the rabbit had stewed for hours, perfuming the entire house, sending inviting perfume to the whole neighborhood. Sunday meals lasted all day, until every thing had been eaten and everyone felt satisfied.
The world was full with food and company on Sundays.
On Sundays, I was famished and lonely.