by Ginda Ayd Simpson
Davoli March 1995
Thirteen years had passed since I last saw Davoli. As I watched my three daughters grow into young women, I realized with a sense of urgency that I must not lose any more time before introducing them to San Leonardo. We made our travel arrangements and traveled to Calabria by train, leaving from Rome's central station. Not long after boarding, the swaying and clicking rhythm of the train had lulled me into a half-sleep where an intricate web of recollections were my dreams. I thought of my mother and the first time we visited the family in Davoli. My mother must have acted on feelings similar to those that inspired this trip for me.
Now, all these years later, my daughters were restless to be off the stuffy train. After six hours of togetherness, they were only interested in their comfort, impatient to continue the journey to Davoli by car. They were curious about our family that I had spoken of so often but how could they have possibly understood what was about to happen. I knew. I felt it stirring deep inside me. Would I recognize Toto? Would he know me? Would the distance that separated us in time and place have changed us?
Hissing with Herculean effort, brakes screeching, our train pulled into the station of Lamezia Terme, a busy hub on the Adriatic coast. Mike leapt onto the platform to receive our luggage as we handed the pieces to him one at a time. I was leaning out the exit door, turning my head this way and that in search of Toto's face among the frenzied throngs of people shouting hellos or waving good-byes. Moments after we descended from the train, it began to pull out of the station. With a clanking of metal, a clanging, an ear-piercing whistle it charged ahead in the direction of Reggio, the city at the tip of Italy's big toe. We each picked up a bag and followed the signs for the sottopassaggio, the underground walkway.
The passengers and baggage that remained on the platform faded into the distant land of my peripheral vision and it was as if Toto were the only man at the station. I saw him clearly then. My, how he had aged! Had I also? He saw me in that same instant. Stomping on the cigarette that nearly fell from the stretch of his smile, he rushed towards me and we fell into each other's embrace. A tangle of hugs and kisses united Toto and my daughters into a new knot of Corasaniti, another link, on an old unbroken chain. In that moment, I vowed to myself, never to let thirteen years go by without returning to San Leonardo.
The route we took from Lamezia stretched across the narrowest point of the Calabrian peninsula that kicks up its heel between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. It was not a long drive, especially with Toto at the wheel of his smoke-black Audi, but the highway felt like an endless ribbon of asphalt as it traversed the low hills between the Sila Piccola and Le Serre mountain ranges. We were bone weary and I was eager beyond words to be home, to see San Leonardo once more. It was cold and rainy this mid-March evening and in the mist I saw only phantoms in the fields and olive groves that lay at the foot of the rocky giants that lay sleeping on the side of this sinuous road. Calabria perfumed the air, pungent and unmistakable, a well-stirred mixture of field and mountain, of sheep and wood-burning stove, of citrus and ancient vineyard.
Toto and I exchanged news of the family on both sides of the ocean and we recalled with fondness past visits. We acknowledged and expressed our appreciation of the tradition of our togetherness.
"Think about it," I said to my cousin. "My grandfather, your Zio Giuseppe, left Italy in 1913. In 1938 he brought his children to Davoli and then my mother, a generation later, brought her children. And now it's 1995, Toto, and today I am bringing you mine," I said with emotion.
"Quasi cent'anni!" he exclaimed with a jubilant look of pride at the realization. Yes, together we understood what a momentous occasion that was. God willing, we would see the 100 year anniversary of our family maintaining ties, a hand-woven ribbon of love that stretched across the Atlantic and that has held up for nearly a century. That day, we tightened the knots woven in the past and began to weave the new length that would pull us into the 21st century.
The girls were asleep in the back of the car and Toto and I fell silent. Lost in my own reminiscing, I was surprised that an hour had slipped into the night. Already we were on the Lungomare, the coastal highway that lies like a serpent along the eastern shores of Italy. We had cut onto this road, turning our backs on Catanzaro, the capital of this southernmost province, and Soverato, the city of our first arrival so many years ago. It started to rain but I left my window open just a crack to savor the invigorating air of the countryside. The windshield wipers danced a tarantela to the beat of the continuous drizzle and the rhythmic tapping on the hood of the car was soothing. The girls dozed on.
Before long, we were turning to the right, crossing the little bridge that spans a shallow ravine where I have never seen a trickle of water. I always loved that turn, a feeling that has never changed in thirty-five years. It is where I always shift gears emotionally. On the right we passed Maria and Vittorio's rustic stone house and their plot of land. Toto shifted gears too as we began to climb the curving asphalt road that leads to the mountains where medieval towns are cradled in their clefts and on their rugged shelves. Hugging the side of the rising mountain, the road snaked its way upward. In the dark I could not see but I felt the massive presence of the steep hills to the right where olive groves and vineyards gave way to pasture land, guarded by slender green-black cypress trees. Wizened Indian figs clung to the slopes and lemon trees scented the clean night air. To our left were an ever-deepening valley banked by pine forests and chestnut groves, rocky cliffs, wildflowers and terraced plots of cultivated land. The stream, its water mountain-pure and still collected for drinking, lay too deep in the valley to be seen from the road above. We passed the little shrine on the side of the road where devout peasants leave offerings of fresh flowers. We drove by the sign that promised us that Davoli was just 2.5 kilometers away. Rounding the final bend, I saw the little white church of Santa Lucia, illuminated by the moon above. I saw our umbrella pine, a tree for which Giuseppe had paid an additional sum so that we could call it ours and in a few more minutes I would be beneath it sheltering branches. We made a sharp turn at the shrine to Santa Lucia, restored ten years earlier, where an electric candle cast a warm light on her painted image and served to welcome us as we pulled into the private gravel and dirt road that led to San Leonardo. We were home!
San Leonardo March 1995
I had not seen San Leonardo in almost thirteen years. When we came in the summer of 1982, my last visit, we stayed with the families at Davoli Marina because San Leonardo was under renovation. As we followed the drive that circled around the back, I found that the house had changed. The original stone structures of the surrounding homes, sturdy farmhouses, were all occupied except for one, which had been abandoned for as long as I could remember. The frantoio, where the olive oil was made, remained unchanged and even though the house itself was no longer painted that deep Etruscan red and a second story had been added, it had the same feel to it. Toto explained as we were unloading the luggage from the trunk of his car and bringing in our suitcases, how he had altered the original floor plan inside, without changing the exterior structure. Throughout the renovations and the modernizing, he succeeded in maintaining its original rustic character, in keeping with the land that surrounds it and with respect to the dictates of traditional rural architecture in Southern Italy.
Like the old house, cement stairs led to the wooden doorway, which Toto salvaged from the original entrance, into the new foyer of his home. Wonderful aromas were already wafting from the kitchen, savory scents much like those of the past. Abandoning her cooking, Nella joined her daughters in welcoming us. Nella always looked the same to me. Her auburn hair was short and neatly styled. Although her face had aged, she had maintained her slim figure and her flare for fashion, paying careful attention to keeping current with the stylishness for which Italian women are known. High-spirited and intelligent, her face revealed a discerning thoughtfulness and her deep-set eyes like cut topaz gems, glimmered with amusement. This was the same Nella that snagged Toto's heart three decades ago and had held him through trials and triumphs ever since.
Beside her, their daughter Laura was caught up in the commotion of our reunion, and I found it difficult to understand her lively chatter. What she did communicate was a child-like affection and longing to interact with her American cousins. Laura, at age twenty-six, had paused emotionally at about age twelve. Her young spirit was encased in a woman's body, as the years developed her physique at the normal rate, not waiting for Laura's mental development to catch up. Their youngest daughter, Evelina, was there but her quiet demeanor, I soon learned, was only the lid on her jack-in-the-box personality. The resemblance to her mother was so striking, I felt like I was seeing an apparition of Nella in her youth. Giuseppe, their only son, was in Sicily where he attended university.
We interrupted our visiting long enough for Toto to show us the changes he had made to San Leonardo. The old house was primitive with stone floors and unadorned stuccoed walls with the simplest of light fixtures hung from its low ceilings. Now the floors were of fine ceramic and fine wood furniture graced the spacious living-dining room where treasured bric-a-brac was displayed, and fine embroidery embellished the tables. Through the draped window behind the divan was a view of our beloved umbrella pine.
At the end of the foyer there was a full bathroom designed with contemporary fixtures and ceramic tile. A small sitting room used to occupy this space. Three and a half decades had passed but framed in my mind, a domestic scene surfaced like a turn of the century painting. It was a cold winter evening and Caterina, Toto's mother, was in this room with her neighbors. Those women, joined in friendship, sat hunched together encircling a brass brazier filled with burning embers to keep them warm as they carded and spun the wool from their sheep. I did not understand the dialectal gossip they exchanged but the room was filled with a warm serenity and when they lapsed into silence, I could still sense their unspoken communication.
Ciccio March 1995
The moment we arrived at his gate, I saw him waiting under the arbor of his terrace. The noonday sun was luscious, filtered by the vines, dappling the ground with a pattern of white light and blue shade. He stood tall, unbent by the decades spent in the field. Afflicted with a skin disorder, the surface of his face was a patchwork of copper and pink tones; the pigmented parts bronzed by the Mediterranean sun and the rest turned a permanent pink long ago. My eyes took only brief notice of this for life had etched a road map in the sun-parched terrain of his face; all the roads began at the fountain of his smile and ended near the oasis of his eyes.
It was then that, without a flicker of warning, I was drawn into his soul. His eyes held me in a warm embrace while his lips murmured "Virginia, rimani qui, non te ne vai mai." "Stay here, don't ever leave." His large earth-worn hand engulfed mine while I received his whiskered kisses on both my cheeks and in that moment I did not ever want to leave. I lingered in the surge of pleasure as the transfusion of his affection coursed through my veins. Ciccio… He is my mother's first cousin. He was born at San Leonardo. His father and my grandfather were brothers.
Rosa, the woman he vowed to love and cherish more than fifty years ago, was by his side. She was a beauty back when Ciccio first saw her in the fields by the sea. In her youth she wore her long shining hair coiled on the top of her head. That day she wore her dark curly hair cropped short and the natural lack of gray was a contrast to her aged complexion, a crinkled brown parchment revealing the many crossroads of her long life. Her thick glasses made it difficult for me to see into her eyes. Her bosom hung low on her short frame, a soft cushion behind the apron she dons each morning, an apron often splattered with tomato sauce or a dusting of flour.
As was the custom of homemakers in Calabria, Rosa seldom sat at mealtime. Buzzing around the table, she saw to the needs of her family and guests. She hovered with a large platter heaped high with fried eggplant or extra chunks of provolone cheese. Slicing through the thick crust of the coarse homemade bread she had wedged in the crook of her arm, she dealt out new pieces as easily as if they were playing cards. "Mangia, mangia!" she implored.
We were always urged to consume more than we comfortably could, and it was Ciccio's habit to urge us on to drink. "Bevi, bevi!" he would plead with a twinkle in both eyes. He was proud of his homemade wine and indeed it was the best red in the circle of our family's winemaking. I selected a seat some distance from him as I always found it difficult to resist his proffering of more wine. I preferred to watch his merriment through the clearings in the forest of wine bottles on the twelve-foot long table as he tempted and teased his dinner companions. Plastic bottles of water were planted among the wine bottles but he warned us often: "Non bevi quella; l'acqua non e buona!" "Don't drink the water; it is no good!"
On the day it happened, Rosa was standing behind the chair where my daughter, Bridget, was seated for pranzo, our mid-day meal. Laughing merrily at the familiar family antics, Rosa cradled the back of Bridget's head in the cushion of her breasts and placed her strong hands on Bridget's shoulders. Looking at her husband with pride and tenderness she said: "Questa e una ciaramella!" "She's a ciaramella, isn't she?"
Being a ciaramella is being part of the Corasaniti family, usually a member with a genetic streak for pure, undiluted fun and hardheaded determination. It is a family nickname the origin of which has been lost through the generations. The word itself means "bagpipe" and many varied explanations exist but in our family the expression adds up to only one significant meaning. Rosa was saying that Bridget was one of us. That same day, Ciccio went down in his wine cellar and brought up a bottle of wine from the year she was born. Bridget was twenty-one.
I believe deep down in my bones that it was in that moment, in that tender touch, that it happened. Bridget received the transfusion that links all of us. She too is a Corasaniti.
This is an excerpt from Deeply Rooted by Ginda Ayd Simpson, an Italian-American artist/writer now living year-round in Umbria. For more information about her work, visit www.gindasimpson.com.