Apr 2009

Time Still Passes

“Whose car is that?”

I glanced out the window, but could not help identify who might have arrived to visit our eighty-seven year old neighbor Augusta. She has been feeling poorly lately and a steady flow of family and friends have been stopping by.

Luciano concentrated for a moment, his brow furrowed in the effort. Then it relaxed as he came up with a name.

“It is a granddaughter. She does not come often. This is not a good sign.”

Augusta lives in the end house of our “borgo” or group of farm houses typically strung together as new addition to the family requires more space. There she puttered about her garden as her four children grew, moved away and had babies of their own. Her husband died, the little boy next door grew up and married an American woman, and various hens have come and gone… as has a tumor, that hasn’t left.

Now the doctors have sent her home, unable to operate, and her family is closing in about her. And the fact that Luciano not only noticed an unfamiliar car, but then could remember who owned it and the relationship of that owner is not an unusual thing here.


I wiggled my feet in their new high heeled boots, admiring them as we sat in the pews waiting for the funeral to begin. An elderly man gently settled at the organ, removed his hat and carefully placed it on the gleaming wood near the keyboard. The brass-plated panel in the wall was worn to bare metal around the coin slot where one could drop fifty cents to illuminate the church, whose white, austere walls seemed too modern to contain such dilapidation. Mourners continued to stream in as I quietly said to Luciano, “All my life in the United States I never went to a funeral. This is my third one in Italy.”

“I am sorry. Is it because no one died?”

“No. It just seems that funerals were something for only close friends and family. It didn’t seem necessary to go to the funeral of someone I never knew. Here it does. Today for David’s father, a man you never met.”

“When I was a child I went to funerals because I cared about the person who died. Now I go because I care so much about the person who didn’t.”

“That makes sense.”

Suddenly we all stood, the organist stepped on his pedals and the church doors swung open. David walked in, shoulder to shoulder with his brother, their mother small with sorrow between them. Their father’s coffin, swathed in a thick coat of flowers and on invisible wheels, floated behind them down the aisle. In the crowd at the door I could see many of our friends, their usually laughing faces still and sad. I am pretty sure that none of them had ever met this man, but then they were here for the ones who survived.

A few days ago I read a story about a woman who lay in a New Jersey hospital bed in a public psyche ward under the name “Jane Doe” for fifteen years. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, she had been found wandering a shopping mall in 1994, well-dressed with an empty purse and no absolutely recollection of who she was. Now in 2009 a local detective finally tracked down her daughter in a nearby town who had no idea that her mother was languishing in this mental limbo land. They had had a falling out and the daughter thought she had returned to Columbia over seventeen years before. While the detective must have felt pride in finding an identity and perhaps more dignity for this woman, I wonder how the disconnected daughter must feel to discover her mother not only still in the country, but empty and confused in a nearby hospital.

Again I am struck by the knowledge that this just would not happen here…not because families do not fight, they do, but because lives seem to be so intertwined. Blame it on years of hardscrabble life where neighbors kept tabs on each other or ancient community lines drawn by dialect or geography, it seems like it would be very hard to disappear, at least without a full report at the dinner table.

One of my students had missed so many classes that I began to feel worried and annoyed at the same time. How dare he? Ok, he had signed up for the Business English only to have the opportunity to chat, but really, what kind of disrespect was this? But when a student mentioned that he might be sick, I grudgingly softened and gave him a call.

“Where have you been? We haven’t seen you since Christmas and I hear you are not feeling well.”

“Well, let’s say it is not the flu.”

“We miss you in class…”

“I know, I know. I was the only man in a room of five women.”

“Ok, that is part of it, but we miss your point of view. When can you come back?”

“I don’t know…it actually might be a good for me, to forget. But I don’t know…”

“Well, we should talk about your taking some classes next year. We can give you a discount since you missed so much…”

“Hmmm. Don’t know about next year, but let me think about it. It is very kind of you.”

“Ok, take care and hope to see you soon.”

“Goodbye, Serena.”

Yesterday, one month after, one of the teachers saw the notice of his death posted at the Conegliano cathedral. Shaken, I called Luciano to ask him to look up information on his funeral. When I mentioned the name he immediately and very calmly said, “Pio X, Saturday, 10:30.”

“How do you know that so quickly?”

“He was David’s father.”

This still rattles me. I had known that David’s father had been sick, but how could we have known that the elegant, thoughtful man discussing the vagaries of the fluctuating market was his father? Or that his teacher was the wife of his son’s coach and friend of over twelve years?

I am sad that we never had that conversation.

The crowd heaved around the family standing near the waiting hearse. I felt the squeeze in my chest as our tall, strong friends each gently kissed David’s tear-streaked cheeks, then stepped back a respectful distance as the supportive throng closed in.


Easter weekend was heavy with this sadness as a mass funeral was said for the victims of the earthquake in Abruzzo. Photos of the rows of flower draped coffins filled the local newspapers, the service was carried live. Small white coffins containing children perched with little gold feet on the coffin of a mother. Relatives wandered between the rows, lost in grief. But the priest, a very important man sent from Rome, using his most sonorous, melodic voice to pull everyone back together. As the incense rose from the swinging chalice, the ageless funereal ceremony pulled the past and the future together…and the supportive throng closed in.


Back at the house Anna Maria gave us a full report on Augusta. She has left to stay with one of her daughters, only two kilometers away, but it might as well be hundreds as she waved goodbye to her house and two neighbors.

“I am leaving my little house and I won’t be back.”

Anna Maria tut-tutted and Giancarlo gave a short speech, as he tends to do in moments of importance. Then Augusta got into her daughter’s car and made the journey of two kilometers and eighty-seven years to a modern apartment in downtown Mareno, leaving the old house shuttered and blank, waiting for the next step.

Now I look out the window and one of Luciano’s many cousins has just arrived with her new baby, Anna, seven months old and bouncing in Marika’s arms. They are walking passed Augusta’s garden to visit Anna Maria and Giancarlo…so we have to run down to say hello.