GOWANUS Winter 2002
By Sheila Wright
the week before Easter and we have arrived at Capodichino Airport, Naples.
Two and a half months pregnant with our second child, I am tired, woozy
and hot. Gino's brother, Peppe, has come to meet us. He says
it's cold. He's wearing a high-neck shirt and black leather jacket.
I swelter in a cotton dress. Gino has five brothers and sisters,
but I especially like Peppe. He is fun and charming and drop-dead
gorgeous, the kind of stylish Italian who has to fight women off when he
travels to North America on business.
We climb into the old white Seat ("say-at") Ibiza, a Spanish knock-off of the Fiat Uno that Gino and I owned when we lived here. Gino automatically straps on his seat belt. Peppe looks at him, surprised. "Three years in Canada have certainly changed you," he laughs. The Seat has a few more dents, layers of grime and cracks in the vinyl upholstery, but it can still run red lights, and that's the important thing in Naples. I have always admired Peppe's driving. He weaves his way through the congested streets, honking and dodging, but miraculously never hitting anything or anyone. The dents in the car must have come from somewhere, but I've never witnessed any accidents. As we pull away from the airport, he speeds up to merge with the traffic, muscles his way into a space between the two lanes, tears toward a stop sign where he accelerates again and roars down the hill toward his parents' house over a lethal combination of cobblestones and potholes. I feel queasy sitting in the back holding our fifteen-month-old son, Morgan, on my lap. The boy is thrilled by the ride, especially by the fact that he's not strapped into a car seat.
A few more eternal moments of bouncing and lurching and we bully our way across a busy thoroughfare into a maze of side streets. This is the quartiere, the neighborhood where Gino and Peppe and the rest of the Mellone kids grew up. The apartment buildings are not tall, perhaps six stories maximum, but the narrowness of the street makes them seem to tower above us. Laundry hangs from every balcony, sometimes right across the street. Sheets and tea towels wave like flags at a racetrack.
As usual, there are no free parking spaces outside Mamma and Papa's building. Peppe stops in the middle of the street, blocking car traffic, but not motor scooters which whiz past unheeded. With Morgan in my arms, I make a dash for the front door and wait while Gino and Peppe unload the bags. Then Peppe is off again to find a piece of sidewalk where he can park.
It is Easter, but that's not the reason we have come. Gino's mother is dying. She was very ill when we came last year and underwent a miraculous recovery while we were here. The family has summoned us again, but there will be no recovery this time. Everyone knows Gino has come to say good-bye.
Mamma has been in hospital, but now she is home, her five children caring for her day and night. Gino wants to do his part, if only for the ten days we are here. We enter the apartment and are led by Gino's sister, Laura, to Mamma's bedroom. Gino is shocked to see her swollen face and the dark circles that expand into her cheeks. She tries to sit up but falls weakly into Gino's arms. He cradles her head against his chest, sobbing. After a moment, Mamma looks at my expanding waistline. She lays her hands on the small bump which will one day be her grandchild. She knows him already. "It's a boy", she says. My instinct tells me she is right; seven of her eight grandchildren are boys.
I leave Gino and his mother alone and take Morgan to meet his grandfather. Papa hugs and kisses him and holds him up to see the canary in a cage on the balcony. Morgan is fascinated by the bobbing yellow head and squeals as the bird pecks at his finger. I am pleased to see him laugh, and I hope that at least Morgan will find some joy here.
This is no vacation. I would
love to show my son all the glorious spots his father and I used to visit.
But they will have to wait for another time. We won't take the hydrofoil
to Capri; we won't picnic in the pine forest above Sorrento; we won't build
sandcastles on the Amalfi coast; we won't spend magic, laughing days in
the apartment where Gino and I spent our first years together. Taking his
turn by Mamma's bedside and helping his brothers in the glove factory will
take up all of Gino's time. He wants to make up for all he hasn't
been able to do, both for his mother and his siblings.
I try to help out around the house, but the family insists that I am in a delicate condition and must rest. Sitting on a chair next to Mamma's bed, I find I am shy. It is difficult for me to find appropriate Italian words at the best of times. Now I am at a complete loss. I want to hold her hand, but it is hidden under the blanket. After a few moments, I put my palm on her clammy forehead and smooth back her hair. Then I leave my hand there and close my eyes as hers are closed. I imagine her life and the lives she has given, including my own two children. My second child will never meet her face to face, and Morgan won't remember. This makes me infinitely sad. Mamma once told me how she gave birth to Gino alone on this bed. She pulled the frail newborn to her breast and felt his tiny heart beating close to her own. Now, thirty-seven years later in the same room, her son yearns to save her from the cancer that is quickly destroying her.
I am startled by a voice at the door; it is Gino's youngest sister, Daniela, come to give her mother an injection and change the colostomy bag. Except for the operation in hospital and brief check-ups from a private nurse, the family does everything. They administer intravenous medication, give injections, measure blood sugar and pressure, change dressings and colostomy bags. No one trusts the health service in Naples. Patients in hospital can expect to have their belongings stolen or, worse, come home with a new illness. Gino's father contracted hepatitis while in hospital for a simple operation. Gino had his foot butchered while in for a wart removal. People who can afford it prefer to pay for private care, which is usually, but not always, better. Part of the problem is that most public practitioners have a private business on the side and are rarely available or willing to work in the dirty, understaffed, underfunded hospitals. Gino's parents struggled financially for many years when their first child, Claudio, fell ill with polio. The only decent care they could find was at a private clinic in France.
Part of the reason Gino and I decided to move to Canada was so I could have safe pregnancies and so our children could grow up in a healthy environment. As newlyweds, we enjoyed the infinite pleasures of Italy and were able to ignore most of the hazards and corruption. As a family, we find that good food, wine, sun and sea are not enough. Our priorities have changed. We see everything through the eyes of parents.
Morgan will eat nothing here. Nothing, that is, except bananas and taralli. Taralli are large sweet biscuits made of flour, sugar and butter. I am worried and embarrassed. At home he likes everything, especially pasta.
"Make him some pastina with broth and parmiggiano," suggests Laura.
"He can have some of this," says Daniela as she uses a serving spoon to stuff pasta stars with veal sauce into Vincenzo, her two-year-old son. Not one star falls onto the checkered tablecloth knotted around his neck. Morgan makes a face.
"Try homogenizzati!" calls Mamma from the bedroom. Like all Italian women of her generation, food and feeding have been a specialty since she was old enough to help her own mother in the kitchen.
After lunch, Daniela takes me shopping for homogenizzati, which turns out to be jarred baby food. We also buy some rice cereal and yoghurt, Morgan's favourite breakfast in Canada. Daniela insists on paying for everything. She treats me like a guest, which makes me uncomfortable. I remember, however, that the same spirit of generosity is one of the things I find so appealing in Gino.
The next morning I have rice cereal
and yoghurt for breakfast while Morgan munches on a Tarallo. The
end up as lunch for the courtyard cats.
Easter arrives, and so do the giant chocolate eggs. Every adult in the family gives a twelve-inch egg to each child. The eggs are wrapped in bright foil and hide wonderful toys inside. A brisk trade goes on between the five cousins present. All shapes and sizes of stuffed animals, key chains and gadgets are spread out on the floor.
Morgan receives eight eggs. I confiscate most of the chocolate only to find Papa feeding it to him for breakfast the following day. I keep my mouth shut. Cake, chocolate and cookies are considered perfectly acceptable breakfast food in Italy. I'll be able to undo the damage when we get home.
At dinner there are eighteen of us around the table. Even Mamma, wrapped in a blanket, is helped to sit on a chair and join the feast. Daniela, Laura and the sisters-in-law have prepared lasagna, which is served in great hunks overflowing the plates. I have been fooled before, but I know now that this is only the first course of many. I am no longer afraid to leave food untouched. All the other women do it. Sometimes I pass my leftovers to Gino, but even his enormous appetite has trouble dealing with meals like this.
Next comes salad and baked fish. I quickly cut the head off mine and shove it under a piece of lettuce. I am still Canadian enough to abhor the sight of fishy eyes watching me eat. Then there is roast lamb with potatoes and vegetables. I am full now. With all the kids tearing around and a soccer game on TV, no one notices that I don't eat anything. While we clear away most of the debris, a plate of salami, prosciutto and cheese is passed around. Finally there is pastiera, the traditional Easter dessert made with grains of wheat, ricotta, orange flower essence and sugar. Each woman has made her own version and the men argue over whose is the creamiest or sweetest. There is enough left over for many breakfasts to come.
I am exhausted and still full by the
time we go to bed. Gino sleeps in his mother's bed; Papa is too old
and frail to help his wife, so he sleeps in Daniela's old room across the
hall. Morgan and I have the pull-out couch in the living room.
I close the windows tight, but the noise from outside is deafening.
The motor scooters never stop, and people are always shouting up to the
balconies or down to the street. At two o'clock every morning the
garbage truck comes, crashing and banging to the tune of breaking bottles
and crumpling cans.
During the days I try to nap with Morgan in Papa's room, but there is construction going on in the courtyard. Sometimes I take Morgan to the only oasis I can reach by foot, the botanical garden. Once out of the quartiere, there are no sidewalks. This is the road that leads down from the airport and it is always busy. I try to stay well over to the side but parked taxis block our way and we are forced too close to the Seats, Fiats, motorcycles and buses that roar past, spewing toxic fumes at Morgan's level. The tiny portable stroller bumps and bounces over the cobblestones, and I sweat with fear and effort.
I can see the tops of some palm trees beckoning over the fifteen-foot stone walls that surround the garden. I push on and finally, breathless, reach the tall iron gates where the guard looks us over and waves us inside. The noise from the city is instantly dulled by the high walls and lush greenery. The air smells fresh and clean. We wander on smooth paved paths through shady groves of plane, palm and fruit trees. We even visit a Canadian maple. The garden soothes my eyes, ears and lungs. I sit on a bench, breathing and relaxing while Morgan naps in the stroller. Thanks to the guard at the gate, there aren't any drug addicts or beggars here. There aren't even any papagalli, which literally means parrots, but in Neapolitan slang refers to annoying men who pretend to want to know the time and then sit too close.
Hunger takes us home. We arrive to find Papa watching soccer. He has the windows open and the TV on full blast. Not surprisingly, he suffers from severe hearing loss. I wave and smile, having long since given up trying to have a conversation with him. Sometimes I can choke out a word or two in Neapolitan dialect, but shouting it in just the right tone with all the accents in place is beyond my capabilities. Anyway, he loves Morgan and there are no language barriers between the very old and very young.
I find myself wishing for home and am glad that the days and nights are passing. I feel sorry for Morgan, who is obviously distraught by the changes that have come into his life. He is afraid of Mamma and cries when we bring him close to her, her pain and suffering palpable to him. The tastes, the sounds, the smells, all are foreign. Even the tile floor confuses him; he is used to rolling around on soft carpet. At night he clings to me for comfort.
The day of our departure, Peppe comes to get us at five o'clock in the morning. We give Mamma one last kiss and she crosses herself. She has always wished us buon viaggio this way. I secretly wish the same for her.
I cry all the way to the airport, but Gino is controlled and in charge. Over a quick cappuccino at the airport café, I see the pain in Peppe's eyes as he says good-bye to his brother. Both of them know that everything will be different the next time they are together. Morgan laughs as Peppe tosses him in the air. "Fai il bravo," Be a good boy, Peppe says, and kisses him on both cheeks.
We go through the gate towards our life in Canada where we will wait two months for the phone call that comes at four a.m. We will light a candle in front of Mamma's photo and give thanks for her release. Another five months and her grandson, Dylan, will be born. The first thing I will notice as I gaze upon his tiny face is how much he looks like her.
(Sheila Wright [email@example.com]
is a freelance writer and language teacher in Canada. She spent three years
in Southern Italy where she met her Italian husband. They now live in a
small village in Ontario with their two children. Sheila's previous work
has appeared in Journeywoman
Magazine and IslandMania.com.)