May 2012

The Happiest Thing


“This is the happiest thing I have ever seen. Look at this, Luciano.”

I held up the macaroon in the palm of my hand. The handmade almond confection was wrapped in a gaily decorated paper, the edges tasseled like a party favor. I felt as if I blew on one end, it would unfurl with a snap and toot. This box of soft macaroons was a gift from my friend Carlo who, with his wife, had visited the town in Liguria where they have been made, one at a time since 1955.

“Here, try one.” With all the solemnity of transferring a jewel, I handed one to Luciano, who tore into the wrapping and swallowed it whole. It took all of two seconds. I didn’t even have time to reclose the box. But then, he is not a sipper.

“It’s good.” He said, “Small, but good.”

Making a mental note on how fast that thing had disappeared, I hid the box. Luciano would never eat something of mine without asking, but why tempt the man? And I want to keep at least one of these happy things around for a while. I then went back to scrubbing the grill from last night’s dinner which, a moment ago had been a bit of drudgery, but now just wasn’t so bad.

How many moments of pure happiness are there in a day? As Topo, my little blue car, and I motor around the Veneto with my classroom in the trunk I see many things; snapshots of life, a simple moment of bliss. I started collecting them in a file called snapshots but have not been able to link them until I held that frivolous, excessively wrapped sweet in my hand.

A circus from Eastern Europe passes through nearby Susegana every year, setting up a battered tent and staking the camels out in the scruffy cornfield near the industrial park. Jaded elephants, the heavy leg chains having become indistinguishable from their thick skin, sway in the shade of the big top while nearby shoppers flow into the local big box store looking for flat screen TV’s or cook pots. It is such an incongruous sight that I always slow down as I pass…and it was there that I saw a moment of happiness. Between the shabby circus trailers set up on the edges of the encampment, I saw a man sitting in a red chair in the rough grass. His ruddy face was turned to some friends sitting at a nearby picnic table. They were laughing. Standing behind the smiling roustabout was another man, with muscular arms raised, studiously cutting his friend’s thick black hair.

Not ten minutes later I passed a white house that gleamed in a sudden show of early spring sunshine. In the garden in front of the house a small girl was pushing a wooden swing with all her might. Leaning back on the swing, a woman in a blue apron had her hands on the chains and her feet in the air. Her head was back and her eyes were closed with her face in the sun, taking a break from morning chores to travel through space and time to the moment she was a child pushing the swing with all her might.

A whitewashed 50 gallon drum sits against an ancient house built on a once narrow dirt lane; the only thing separating the front door from speeding cars is a painted stripe on the pavement. Someone has planted a wisteria tree in that banged-up drum and now it blooms, blissfully beautiful against the worn stucco.


A nonna walks down our street in her housewife dress and apron. She seems to have just stepped out of the kitchen for a moment for in her hand is a cook pot. As I pass she stoops to gather the tender wild greens that grow everywhere in this season and throws the handful into the pot. Lunch.

The gas station on the road to Treviso has a handwritten sign out front.
Menu di Asparagi. The gas station.

A vigorous orange gerbera daisy grows in a chipped coffee cup set on a stump.

And last Saturday afternoon I heard bells outside the window… I know that sound anywhere: ice cream truck.
In my mind I am suddenly a child, running wild with my brothers and sisters in the back yard with summer hardened bare feet, stained purple with fallen mulberries. The bells ring at mid-morning and all play stops as we run
screaming to the street, “Good Humor Man! Good Humor Man!” We balance on tiptoe on the hot asphalt street, choosing a popsicle from the gay illustrations on the side of the truck and then pay with the wadded up bill that my mother had stuck into someone’s pocket, just in case. As the driver shifts into drive, turns on his bells and motors on, we stand in a circle on the grass and eat; the younger ones, not always able to keep up with the heat, lose some of the ice cream in melted streaks down their bare brown tummies, but it doesn’t matter. They are hosed off easily enough.

In Mareno di Piave I leaned out the window and saw the ice cream man dishing up a scoop for our neighbor. No prepackaged ice cream here.

Now as I tell Luciano about my memory, the name “good humor man” just rolls off my tongue and he laughs at me.

“Why, was he always in a good mood?”

“Hmmm, I don’t know. I never thought of it, really.”

In fact, I realize that for us it was a state of mind, not a brand name. How could it not be? Here in our quiet hot afternoon and in an official white coat, the vendor bent over the buckets of homemade,
produzione propria, ice cream. Then he shifted his truck into drive, turned on his bells and motored on… the happiest noise ever.

ice cream truck