Nov 2009

Scratching the Surface

“Where have you been?”

Anna Maria had just driven in, gingerly guiding her little car around to the back of the house. It was midmorning on a sunny October Thursday and not normally a time she is out driving.

“The cemetery. I wanted to get there to put in new flowers before the weekend when it will be too crowded. You know, it will be difficult to get a ladder to climb up to the high tombs. It’s a mess. So I went today. Let’s hope the flowers will last past Saturday.”

“Very clever.” And it was. For her to get in, deck out la Nonna’s tomb and get out before the expected throng on November 1st was certainly smart. On
Tutti Santi, a day for all the saints that don’t have an official day, the cemetery is the place to be and the tombs have to look good. It is normally a quiet place with rows of tended tombstones, each adorned with a photograph and varying qualities of flower displays. While the faces gaze out from eternity and the flowers wilt quietly, it is not a lonely place, with constant visits from families keeping the tombs in order. We go often to say hello to la Nonna and I compliment Anna Maria on her flower displays. She likes that.

On November 1st, however, the place is exploding with fat pots of chrysanthemums. Bundled grandmothers, restless grandchildren, and daughters and sons in heels and elegant coats, stroll from grave to grave admiring the displays and remembering the faces. Woe to the family who did not freshen up the flowers and polish up the marble. People would talk. Just because you are dead doesn’t mean you can let yourself go…


Here in Mareno di Piave things move at an achingly slow pace that can, for a let’s-get-it-done-now kind of woman, set my teeth on edge. Or life suddenly speeds up to such a frightening pitch that I cannot always keep up. Everything seems so much closer to the bone here, more immediate, more tangible.

From the moment we touched down on Italian soil, life events have whipped past me at a dizzying pace.

Luciano and I went immediately from the airport to pick up my car Topo from a friend’s house who was mysteriously absent. We had our suspicions--- his girlfriend was extremely pregnant---but had no way of confirming them. And of all things, Topo, who is sometimes capricious, would not start. I turned the key again, Nothing.

Not being confident in my ability to pop a clutch, I pushed while a disgusted Luciano did the popping. Topo was extremely reluctant but, it turns out, that while we were pushing that car up and down the street (wearing the clothes that we had put on in Berkeley twenty-four hours earlier and a world away) our friend Massimo’s daughter was being born. Topo sprang to life with a roar.

The very next morning Luciano and I, not a little discombobulated, got gussied up and went to a wedding. As we stood in front of the church in San Vendemiano awaiting the bride, Massimo appeared, his face flooded with joy and exhaustion. He stood and beamed, swaying to side to side a little with fatigue, wished the groom well and then disappeared to return to his new daughter, Adele. Later at the luncheon, sometime between the fourth and fifth course (about five am California time) I looked down at the grilled prawns with octopus and experienced a gentle out of body experience…this was not how I usually wake up.

The newlyweds were still on their honeymoon and Adele was home, turning Massimo’s and Marzia’s quiet world on its ear when I got a call from my friend Roz, whose normally bubbly voice was thick with emotion.

“Serena, Ursula is dead. She was in the hospital getting a check-up and during the evening she got up to get a paper, slipped and fell and never regained consciousness. She is gone.”

I was truly shocked. Ursula, an ebullient Irish expat who adopted Treviso as her home over thirty years ago, seemed truly beyond the ordinary constraints of time. She delighted in the written word, the well-orchestrated debate, and the struggle for lost causes. Ursula sat at my mother’s side at my wedding dinner, translating loose and fast the Italian that swirled about them. She was ferociously independent, voraciously sociable and never tired of the search for knowledge… how appropriate that she died, quite suddenly, looking for a newspaper.

It was she who inspired the first story I ever published, with her mink ball festooned dress that she gave me to satiate a craving I had for fur. No one really seem s to know how old she was…somewhere between eighty and eighty four. I guess it does not matter

Her funeral was lovely, as funerals usually are. Her coffin was swathed in green and white flowers and her Irish family stood and spoke in English and bad Italian. I have never seen Italians speak at a funeral… it was moving beyond words to hear her story from her nieces and nephews eyes and in their lilting Irish brogue rising gently through the gilded space of the Italian church. She would have loved it and in fact it is still shocking that she was not there sitting in the pews, ready to jump up afterwards and head for a restaurant for a glass of prosecco and a chat.

Sia la strada al tuo fianco
Il vento sempre alle tue spalle
Che il sole splenda caldo sul tuo viso
e la pioggia cada dolce nei campi attorno e
Finche non ci incontreremo di nuovo,
Possa Dio proteggerti nel palmo della sua mano.

May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind always be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

A birth, a wedding and a death…in less than a month. Before coming to Italy I had never even been to a funeral and knew few people actually having children. Marriages? Even farther and fewer. Here life gushes by, raw and immediate…not sure why. But I’m watching the edge closely.