[In the book, this excerpt immediately follows the one posted last week. To clarify the scenes following, our daughter Casey and her college boyfriend, Charlie, broke up shortly before we left for Italy. Also, Dave's father, Colombo, was in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke the preceding fall.]
Casey has undertaken a cooking project. Dave and I suspect that her industry masks a whirl of thoughts. Rather than kneading, she pounds the pasta dough, her brow creased in angry concentration. Pinching off portions of the wad of dough, she rolls long sausage shapes, one might say, penile in form. The rolling is vigorous and punishing and her expression while chopping off small pieces to create the more vaginal cavatelli is one of grim satisfaction.
“You know,” she announces, her eyes flashing with passionate evidence of her Italian genes, “If he would put himself in my shoes for a change, that would be nice, but Oh no, he won’t.” She points at me with her knife, jabbing the air at a spectral Charlie for emphasis. “I know what’s going on here. He wants to hook up with a freshman and I won’t tolerate that.”
Although she's engaged by the events of each day, she misses Charlie, and we still hear her muffled sobs at night. For two years, she has envisioned a life with this boy. Although she's heard nothing from Charlie, a number of her girlfriends have written to report his activities. In August, he was honest in telling Casey he doubted he could wait for her, and apparently he is spending a lot of time with one of the new students.
I draw my daughter’s attention to her rolling and cutting, to the evocative shapes of her dough. She laughs and whips that penile pasta more aggressively, gleefully twisting it to painful pretzel contortions, “Take that, Charlie!” in every twitch.
In the midst of Casey’s tirade, Dave asks plaintively if we’ve seen his “kitchen glasses.”
He has been in a slump for the past two days. He was inordinately concerned when he thought we were on the wrong road to Lucca and now, he’s irritated about his glasses. This morning, he told me that he’d dreamed Mr. Latuga, an old family friend, spoke to him from The Other Side to tell him that Colombo had joined him and was doing fine. During our first week in Italy, Dave was distracted from worry about his father, but every conversation with those at home, while reassuring regarding Colombo’s status, stirs Dave’s guilt about going away.
A hunt for the glasses is initiated. As his annoyance billows, Dave’s mouth thins, zipped to withhold stinging words. I know he's thinking, "Why can’t she just leave my things where they are? What is this compulsive need to pick up and neaten?"
“If I moved them, I put them on your bureau, “ I say tightly as I droop after him, checking the bathroom, the guest room, the laundry. I do this a lot – traipsing about in search of Dave’s belongings, struggling to fend off his gloom. “I didn’t realize you had ‘kitchen glasses,’” I explain in clipped tones. “I thought you just had several pairs of glasses – general category – and if I put them with your things, it would be all right.”
“Is it a problem if I leave a pair in the kitchen?” his tone implying that an anal-compulsive such as myself should be committed.
“Perhaps you could use your ‘bedroom pair,’” I snipe.
Casey, dear child, shares an eye-rolling “men are idiots” moment with me. It is good to have another woman around. She says, “I’ll take a quick look and I bet I find them.”
She steps into the hallway, kneels on the floor to look under the armoire… and triumphantly brandishes the missing glasses.
“You must have dropped them when you fell last night,” says Dave.
After returning from Lucca, I missed the step from the kitchen into the hallway and fell, twisting my ankle. I must have been doing a little surreptitious straightening on my way to bed, and deviously flung the glasses out of sight when I tumbled.
So yes, it was my fault.
Cortona, site of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, is an enchanting place - incantevole! The moment the surrounding walls are breached, the town extends her hospitality with an invitation to the W.C. Pubblico. What joy! Most of our excursions involve lengthy drives to our destination, followed by painful clenching upon arrival while scouting out a bathroom. Bella Cortona to spare us that search.
We’ve come to Cortona for an antiques show advertised on a wall in Fonterutoli. After our experience in Lucca, we confirm the details of the show with a group of genial old fellows sitting in the main piazza in the shadow of a large watermelon slice. A watermelon slice? Yes – a mammoth slice that would feed the village, but for its being made of steel. It must be a remnant of an exhibit of some sort, but it’s an odd complement to the medieval Palazzo Comunale that dominates the square with its wide stone staircase and massive clock face. I ask for directions to the armory where the show is being held and one of the men rises from the bench to escort us.
“Non e necessario, signore! Per favore, non voglio le disturbare!” I protest.
“Prego, prego. Andiamo!”
I am embarrassed about the imposition, but our guide insists on taking us to the door of the armory. He leaves us with a wave of a work-toughened hand and heads back the way we had come.
“He thought you were a babe,” says Dave.
We buy our tickets and enter the building. As we wander from room to room, studying the exhibits, we bask in a sense of legitimacy. In this context we are not solely tourists who mangle the language; here we have value as potential buyers.
We peruse dark oils of nursing Madonnas, suffering Christs and sumptuous still-lifes and take note of the prices on the vendors’ cards. Apparently, we will not be buying any paintings. Another booth features antiquities - mammoth terra cotta urns, marble lintels, and a marble washstand dating from 600 AD. That such ancient artifacts can be purchased is stunning, but again, we check the prices; they’ll not be purchased by Sylvestros. What we are able to afford is cookware: a hand-hammered, wrought iron grill dating from the early 1800’s. In terms of Italian history, it does not rate the term “antique,” but it will fit perfectly in our 1780’s home.
We return to the car to stow our well-wrapped package. The logistics of fitting the bulky piece in a suitcase when the time comes to leave Fonterutoli is also stowed away for the time being. Unencumbered by grills or cares, we set out to explore Cortona.
As in all the hill towns of Tuscany, houses and churches of stone nestle side-by-side along narrow roads that scale steep inclines. Flowers cascade from containers mounted on wooden doorways, balconies and the sills of green-shuttered windows. Clumps of moss grow like fuzzy hedgehogs from chinks in the ancient stone wall that flanks the path to the summit.
Occasional signs urge us to visit Santa Margarita. We’ve never heard of her but when an elderly signora sweeping her stoop points earnestly upward, saying, “Santa Margarita,” we comply.
It is not an easy climb. Casey takes it as her charge to enliven our photographs by lying on the ground, face contorted, pretending to claw her way up the path. We pass an elderly couple inching along, encouraging one another, “It can’t be much further.”
It is much further, as it turns out, but it’s worth it.
Like a guardian sentry, the nineteenth century church keeps watch over a sea of countryside – open fields, farmland, villages, vineyards, and, far in the distance, a glimmering lake. Inside the neo-medieval structure, soaring arches painted with vines rise to deep blue domes spangled with stars. Santa Margarita herself is our hostess. She rests in a glass case on the altar, her worldly remains garbed in simple robes and a white cap.
Dave extols this practice of displaying relics – a finger, a head, the whole skeleton if you can get it. The Italians are at ease with death. Their deceased saints and loved ones remain among them. In fact, Italian cemeteries are happy places to visit. Each headstone bears a photograph and the dates of birth and death. Bouquets of flowers and plantings adorn the graves, and luci di compagnia, literally “lights of companionship,” give comfort even in darkness. One senses the lives behind each headstone, and when visitors walk between the rows of graves, I imagine the spirits nudge each other, glancing up in curiosity just as any Italian sipping his coffee at a café might do.
Every town, no matter how small, has its own wall-encircled cemetery. In Fonterutoli, departed family members are buried in an enclosure of white-washed walls, a serene extension of the neighborhood. Cortona’s huge cemetery seems to float mid-air, built into the side of the hill.
We light candles for Steve, Colombo, Cam and my parents, then purchase a pamphlet about the saint and collapse in a pew to rest and read.
Margarita’s story is very Cinderella, without the romantic ending. After a childhood of abuse by her wicked stepmother, she was swept away as a young woman in an affair with a wealthy landowner. She lived with the gentleman for nine years and bore him a son. Then one day, while out walking her dog, she came upon the body of her lover. The cause of his death remains a mystery.
The family of her beloved wanted nothing to do with her, nor did her father and his nasty bride. Margarita ultimately dedicated herself to helping the poor and was named Cortona’s patron saint after her death. Her son followed his mother’s example and became a Franciscan monk.
Sometimes I envy the security of those pictured in sepia photographs or old paintings. They know the ending. They are finished with life’s rude jolts and the specter of losing loved ones. Margarita’s skeleton, encased in glass, is surrounded by yellow lilies, flickering candles and fragrant incense. Those bones, once cloaked in flesh as vulnerable as mine, lived the words in this pamphlet. Death seems a peaceful resolution to her difficult life.
As we sit in the pew, monks in floor-length brown robes sweep past on their way to prayer in the side chapel. I hope they’ll chant.
Dave believes that he lived a past life in the Middle Ages. He has memories of his robes and sandaled feet in the dust. He claims that if anything happens to me, he will return to that long-ago life and enter a monastery. He watches the monks and checks out their moves.
A hum fills the church; I can feel it in my chest. The incense smokes, its perfume heavy. The monks are shadowed beneath their hoods. Candle flames shiver as men’s voices drone, singing ancient words. The sound swells, a river of spirit, borne to the heavens as it has been through the span of centuries.