Friday, April 13, 2012

Tocco da Casauria

This is the last assignment of this semester's writing class. The assignment was to write a lyrical essay. I am still struggling with essay writing but essays are my favorites to read and to write.

At the top of my list of the most admired women is my maternal grandmother, Emilia. She was a beautiful woman, full of grace, class and courage. Most of my childhood was spent at her side, my fondest memories began in her home.

Its Monday morning, from the little yellow radio in the kitchen I hear the familiar theme song of one of her favorite shows….”sing everyone sing, sing everyone sign, all of your troubles will vanish like bubbles, sing everyone sing”………

After many trips to central Italy, we made a very good decision one late Autumn and spent a lovely week further south, visiting Sorrento and the gorgeous Amalfi Coast. Our plan was to drive directly north at the end of the week, to our final destination of Orvieto before returning to the states to prepare for our Christmas holiday.

As I enter the door to the kitchen, I see the mounds of pasta dough on the black Formica counter. The long narrow rolling pin is whirling to the tune…..sing everyone sing….

Was it the romance of Sorrento or the call of the open road that set my dear husband Joe to his generous offer of a side trip. "Let's set the GPS for Tocco da Casuria". My heart leapt and my response needed no second thought. Very soon after, we were on the road. The unusually warm November weather that we had enjoyed was changing and we left Sorrento with clouds over our heads and the threat of rain.

After sharing our greetings, I walk away from the kitchen, down the long hall that leads me to the “Little Room”, that which belonged to my mother and aunt so many years ago. I glance into the big bedroom and see the special sheet, draped the entire length and width of the bed, the pasta sheet, now holding almost the weeks’ worth….sing everyone sing…..

Tocco da Casuria is a tiny town in the province of Pescara in the Abruzzo region of Italy. It’s patron is Saint Eustachio. A small town with a current population of 3,000 inhabitants, located high in the mountains. The birthplace of my grandmother whose grandfather came from the nearby town of Capistrano as a stone mason. He left his home for the job of creating the relief work for the Municipal Building in the center of Tocco before meeting her grandmother. We knew little more than that when we set out that day for our drive through the Gran Sasso mountains along roads that were more modern than we could have imagined.

My grandmother Emilia was educated by the nuns. In my mind as a child, I was sure that she meant that she left her home, taken by the clergy women, never to return. I thought that she only learned how to embroider but as the years went by, I realized that she was smart, nicely educated in many areas, and especially classy for an immigrant…..sing, everyone sing…..

If you ever find yourself in Italy and you do not like to miss lunch, you should know that it is necessary to plan your day very carefully because lunch time is sacrosanct. The entire country shuts down for it and it happens at the same time every day, everywhere. So, from noon until two, streets empty and the serious work of preparing, eating and relaxing starts. It was at this very time that we saw the sign we had so anticipated and headed off the highway and up the hill to the official blue and white "Tocco da Casauria" sign assuring us that we were in the right place. Slowly, we proceeded, around the curves and into the center of the tiny but pristine town. Empty streets, this was not a tourist town and this was lunch time.

When I was still a teenager, my brother became ill and my parents had to go to California to help him, leaving me behind. My grandparents came to our house to stay with me and my grandmother continued to do her domestic duties which now included reorganizing some things for my mother. One day, I opened the pantry door and found that she had labeled some canisters, her way of helping my mother as she tended to her child….The flour canister now had a perky new label which ready "Flower" remained that way for years to come......sing, everyone sing……

As we wound our way, we easily found the Municipal Building with relief work , a row of the most heavenly stone cherubs encircled the building, my great-great grandfather’s work, beautifully adorning it. My heart started beating, faster and faster as I tried find anything that would be familiar to me from my childhood memories. I had so few. I just knew about the convent, the church of San Eustachio, and the houses with the dirt floors, now long since replaced.

My grandmother had stomach problems. The doctor across the street in the Bronx had the solution. Routine surgery. Some news about Potassium loss. We’ll be there tomorrow to visit her. All of your troubles will vanish like bubbles…. A phone call, instant heartbreak. I was the one to tell my mother….sing everyone sing.

Slowly, we walked around the paved stone road in front of the church. I tried the ancient door, it was locked. My disappointment lifted as I allowed myself to realize that I was touching the very same door handle that she had touched, walking on the very same pavers as did she, looking out at the very same snow-covered mountains that my grandmother observed every day for the first fourteen years of her life. I studied this view, took it all in for what seemed like a very long time before I realized that the sun was shining, the clouds had lifted.

She’s here….here to greet me…..all of your troubles will vanish like bubbles so sing everyone sing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Auntie Mae Brandt

My mother gave me one great gift in my life when she chose her very best friend, Mae Kelt, to be my godmother. She was the most vivacious, beautiful woman I had ever known and she, childless for most of my childhood, treated me as her own, the daughter she wished she had. I was the object of her affection and she always made that very clear to me. She knit for me, bought for me, baked for me and shared me with her friends and family just because she was proud of me. I vividly recall, to this day, almost sixty years later, an outing to New York City, a first trip to see the Radio City Musical Hall's famous Christmas show. I can't remember the outfit I was wearing but I do remember my high emotions. As she held my hand and we waited in the long line to enter the theater, I pretended she was my mother. Later that day, she treated me to my first trip to Rumplemeyer's ice cream parlor on Central Park West, the height of little girl nonchalance. I don't recall this, but she has told the story over and over as the years went by, about how sophisticated I was and how amused everyone was by my ability to order my confection. I have a feeling she was one very proud auntie, pretending to be a mommy.
There were so many birthdays and Christmases that were made so much more special for me by a doting Aunt Mae who always had just the "right" gift, the prettiest of cakes, cards and special birthday dinners. The memory of those times still gives me an incredible feeling, like a little child rapt in anticipation, over and over again.
Auntie Mae was gorgeous. Slender, well-heeled, beautiful hair and skin, a true Scottish lass who bore the pain of the loss of her equally beautiful Danish sailor bridegroom, just weeks after their wedding, with grace as she finally re-entered the single world. She was wined and dined by many a charming man, desired for her great looks, beautiful figure and adorable sense of humor.
If she had a heartbreak, I as a child had no knowledge of it. To me, she was a constant source of happiness and fun, fun, fun.
When she finally remarried Arthur Brandt and became pregnant with her only child, she did not abandon me. Richard, fourteen years my junior, became part of the nonstop wonder of our relationship. He was a perfectly beautiful child with a wonderful disposition, adored by all. Her joy was obvious as she now she had her own child to shower love, attention and pride upon. Never did she ever make me feel that I had lost my place in her heart.
Instead, I felt that Baby Richard made all of our lives happier and all of our celebrations richer and more meaningful.
Aunt Mae was there for me as I grew up, supporting my entrance into adulthood and cheering me on. It was she who bestowed the first string of pearls upon me. It was she who made certain that I would have a proper bone china tea set, hand selected by her cousins and sent to me all the way from their home in Scotland. It was Auntie Mae who made,by hand, the most beautiful of all the gifts my babies ever received. Items that are still held in special places, as lovely as they were when I had my first born, forty one years ago. Hands of gold produced sweaters that my granddaughters have only recently worn, still in perfect condition, a testimony to the quality of work and love that went into them.
I can hardly have a dinner party without being reminded of the gracious ways in which Aunt Mae entertained her own guests. The "Aunt Mae" china is used on my table with a lovely pink tablecloth, just as she used it before me. One day, my daughter will use the same set and hopefully, her daughters after her. I only hope that it shall forever be referred to as "Mae's China" and that it will cause it's present owners to have a moment to think about all the love and admiration that it has come to represent.
I also hope that my granddaughters will have relationships with their own godmothers. It's sad that my daughter lost her godmother, her Aunt Patty, before she graduated from college, years before she married. I'm comforted in knowing that Sara had a godmother who loved her in a special way too and, like my own godmother, can never be replaced.
My godmother died, peacefully, this morning.
Rest in peace, Auntie Mae and thank you for just about everything a little heart could desire.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Guest Post

Patty Hughes is a member of my writing class. She's also affiliated with another of my pleasures, the Barnstable Comedy Club. We've both rescued and fallen in love with dogs and she's lucky (?) enough to still have hers. For all of you who have the same love......enjoy!

Let him know you’re in charge! “He thinks HE’s in charge! Take control!” So said Ryan, a flaming 20 something who gelled his hair upward into a curl on the top of his head.

That’s good advice I responded with a hint of insincerity. I’m not in charge and I know it!
I can’t lie to myself. From the moment they pulled him out of a stinky cage at the far end of that 18 wheeler, I was lost.

“Tater”, drawled the burly tattooed man. “That’s funny.” “I have a cousin named Tater.”

I was momentarily distracted by the thought of some guy in Oklahoma with an improbable name and then I took my scruffy little sweet po-tater in my arms and he gazed meekly at me with those soft innocent brown eyes fringed with white lashes. From that first giddy moment, I knew with a certainty, that I was not in charge and that I would spend the rest of my days devoted to his doggy desires.

After a few days the trouble began. Left home alone, he got into trouble with the wood pile. He was positively contrite when I returned. If his little cropped tail could have been between his short stubby legs, it would have been. I hurried to reassure him that I was looking forward to vacuuming the entire house anyway and not to fret about it. Cookies kisses and hugs followed.
Next it was the toilet paper roll, ripped from its holder and torn and shred in some mad rampage room to room. I ran for the camera. He posed nonchalantly amidst a cloud of white tissue. “You’re a bad bad boy!’ I cooed adoringly.
He chewed the bottom of a folding screen …nothing a file and a little paint couldn’t fix; a plant stand, the arm of a wicker sofa… He took a bite out of a hymnal…as if it were an apple.

I started taking him with me everywhere I went.- just to be safe, but leaving him in the car had its own perils. He got hold of a pen. He had a new spot and it was blue. My prescription sunglasses were mistaken for a chew toy.
One night I let him outside with the half-hearted suggestion that he “get busy”. My Christmas lights went black..
One snow boot lost its sole; the computer power cord was severed. I was worried. The problem was escalating.

In desperation, I convinced my bachelor neighbor that the dog thought of him as “Uncle Jim”. He bought it. - Tater went down the street to watch the Super Bowl, but not before I lost a leather boot, my pocketbook strap and a sneaker. When I went to get him, he was out cold, glutted with Cheese Doodles and Dorito chips, his little freckled tummy full to bursting with forgotten food from the kitchen floor.

My outdoor garden bench took a hit, a Feng Shui manual called “Move Your Stuff Change Your Life” appeared in the back yard,- sending me a cryptic message , an entire bag of curtains was dragged from a bedroom closet and deposited in a different room. He’s redecorating! I joked.
The keyboard foot pedal, it’s power cord and an extension cord became defunct . Guess he doesn’t like music, I quipped. “You’re a BAD DOG, yes you are, a BAD Doggie, yes you are ! Yes you are!” He flopped onto his back and began to wiggle.

He got tangled up in a roll of duct tape. One foot stuck to the floor when he walked.

The breaking point arrived the day he charged past me out the door and I dove under a UPS truck to save his life. I experienced an epiphany as I lay there on the ground, holding my shattered leg. My rescue dog has “issues“.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step. So,
I signed him up for an obedience class, the dog equivalent of a 12-step program.

There were 6 exasperated, fed-up and worn out people sitting in a circle with their problematic dogs . Ryan, the instructor, in gabby girlfriend style said, “Lets’ go ‘round and introduce ourselves and tell us why you’re here.”

“Hello, my name is Bill,” Bill shouted to be heard above his barking dog…“and this is Rusty.” “Rusty barks at everything.” Ryan jammed a toy into Rusty’s mouth.

“Hi, my name is Ellen,” a very apologetic Ellen announced, “and this is Coco.” Ellen sat a little apart. “Coco hates other dogs.” A tiny snarling mop of hair peered out from under Ellen’s chair. Certainly Tater’s occasional incontinence wasn’t as bad as Jane and Frank’s pooping poodle!
When my turn came I panicked wondering which bad habit to announce. “Tater chews things”. I said stoically.

Meanwhile, As Tater strained at his leash to grab Rusty’s discarded toy and investigate the reclusive Coco, an overzealous pit-bull puppy knocked him over and pinned him down. Ryan gave a rousing command and 6 obedient adults stood and practiced using a clicker in one hand while holding a leash and silently offering a treat to their bewildered pets with the other.

Our dogs, waiting patiently for us to master the awkward routine, got tired and sat down to wait it out . To all appearances, our dogs had mastered the first lesson - ‘SIT” But, in truth, they were confused by the strange sound emanating from 6 clickers simultaneously, the invention of some marketing genius no doubt, but the treats were good and plenty. In our hands we held our last hope and clicked a little SOS message to our respective dogs. Swatting and yelling hadn’t worked; maybe communicating with our pets in the aboriginal language of the Masai is what they needed.

I was so proud the first time Tater “SAT”. I began to show off a little as I had already taught Tater at home how to “sit UP.” I received a commanding “NO’, from Ryan but fortunately not with a rolled newspaper. I learned that Ryan is “in charge.” That’s called “sitting PRETTY” he explained in his Chatty Kathy style. He has to “SIT”.

After that we learned the cardinal rule of potty training. There was a solemn hush when Ryan revealed the secret, “Never let them see you clean it up!” after a thoughtful silence I raised my hand, tilted my head to one side, - an attention getting trick I had learned from my dog. - and asked “WHAT?”

The explanation was lost on me as I tried to get into the mind of my sub-equatorial speaking dog. Had Tater seen me take apart the vacuum and scrub all it’s moving parts after encountering a surprise on the Oriental carpet? Was that the problem? Was I to blame?

“Never punish your dog after the fact” “You have to catch them in the act.”

I feigned sleep that night holding a flashlight under the covers waiting for Tater to make his move. Sometime around 2, groggy from sleep he dropped off the bed and waddled quietly from the room. Like a commando I leapt from the bed and caught him with my flashlight in a telltale crouch. “NO” I said, and I kinda meant it, and to my surprise, he complied. I’ve been a light sleeper ever since.

I suspect Tater’s hiding something from me though. Learning to SIT was all a little too easy. He wore a bored “been there, done that” sort of expression, like my friend Jim wears at every social function that reads , I‘m just here for the food.
I like Ryan’s gabby girlfriend style though and I’m sure I’ll get the hang of this “taking charge” thing and being “in control.” In the meantime, I bought a kennel to lock him up, just in case.

There’s just one big problem as I see it. The damn dog is diabolically cute! Today he “SAT” without the aid of a foreign language and “DROPPED” a paper towel he had retrieved from the trash. He’s very smart! We haven’t even covered FETCH and DROP yet! And,… to top it off, under all that curly white hair,… he’s pink!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Recently, I read an essay which was written by a man who professed his lack of patience with a peculiar habit of his countrymen. He told of how the Italians don't like to answer invitations or, if they do, they tend to avoid making a commitment. One never knows, when planning a party, how many of those invited will simply show up. He finds this to be particularly aggravating and seems to think this is a breach of etiquette that is unique to the Italians. I beg to differ, having issued many an invitation or other type of query that required an answer or at the very least, an acknowledgement. I know the author's frustration and hold no hope that the trend will reverse any time soon.
I have my own personal etiquette peeve. Mine involves the loss of several time-honored and very uncomplicated series of words: please, thank you and you're welcome. Simple, to the point and ancient. Babies, the world over, have been taught these words. Prayers have started and ended with them, so have relationships and wars. Favors have been bestowed or withheld pending the mouthing of these easy expressions. Our first words, our earliest forms of communication. Do or die, especially with figures of authority who patiently awaited their utterance.
My best friend Cam recently brought this to light when she told me that she has yet to receive any acknowledgement whatsoever for a gift she thoughtfully chose for her niece's birthday. She was visiting me at the time of the purchase and together we ooohed and ahhhed over the perfect choice. We agreed that her niece would love the hand crafted pottery bowl, ornamented with shells which would remind her of her beloved Cape Cod. The party came and the gifts remained unopened. Surely a note would soon follow. After all, the recipient was a well-educated physician, celebrating a fifthieth birthday. To this date, one year later, neither she nor her sister in law who's gift was a rather large sum of money, have received anything from their niece.
What's happened? Where have the words gone? Why have they left us? Where are they now, at a time in history when we've needed them more than ever before?
As amazed at the times I have expected to hear a simple expression of thanks in vain, I am equally amazed at the times I do hear words of gratitude. That is a very sad note. Is a nod of the head supposed to signal thanks? Has "you're welcome" been totally replaced by "no prob"? Or, is it all down to the symbols used by the new generation as they text, tweet and social network on Facebook with a little "shout out"? It all escapes me. I refuse to buy it. I want to be thanked, the good old fashioned way, with simple words. No nods, signs, symbols of facial expressions for me, thank you. And if this is a "prob", I ask that you please consider a shout out so I will know, especially if I have invited you to a party.