Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Ciccio and My Cugini Calabresi
Excerpt from Ginda's book "Deeply Rooted". To learn more or order your copy, visit www.gindasimpson.com.
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, 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 buona!" "Don't drink the water; it is no good!"
On that 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 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. I have been told that the word 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.
That evening we begged not to be fed anymore. I got down on my knees for emphasis and in mock supplication I prayed for a day of rest: no food, no wine. I asked to spend the following day at San Leonardo with my daughters, fasting in a sense from the Food and feasting on the surrounding vistas. Ciccio and Toto reluctantly agreed to my request.
The girls and I woke early, filled with anticipation at the thought of solitude and of silence. Feeling adventurous, Bridget, Bernadette and Rachel planned a hike down to the mountain stream. They packed a picnic, fun-filled and unbalanced, of bread, a bag of almonds and a bottle of Toto's wine.
I was alone and it was glorious. I set about sketching the house. Silence surrounded me, broken only occasionally by the whisper of trees, the sweet song of birds and the flutter of their wings, the buzz and crackling sounds of summer insects. Color was everywhere, intense and inviting, but I was working in black ink, my pen following the lines, the structure, the texture of the house. I felt the warmth of the umbers and sienas of the stone, the cerulean blue of the sky, the gold and green of the fields and the resultant emotion filled my pen with its own ink. My eyes traveled the contour of the big clay pots and I could feel their terra-cotta warmth. Vines climbed randomly over the stone and concrete and the bougainvillea reigned brilliantly above them painting a superb blue-gray shadow on the sun-drenched walls. I could have cried from the pure beauty of that moment and I wanted time to stand still.
I was surprised later by the sound of tires crunching gravel as a car rounded the bend. It was Toto. I was pleased to see him and relieved to learn that he had not come to take me to eat with the family. Aware that I had not consumed anything since the night before, he suggested that we have a bite together. Admitting to a hint of hunger, I succumbed to his invitation to join him, forgetting my vow to fast. Cradled in his arms was a loaf of crusty bread and fresh ricotta. He had made a special trip to the mountains to buy the cheese from a shepherd. I was easily swayed.
I sat and waited for him in his cantina where huge vats of wine and olive oil kept me company while he disappeared to gather more supplies. The air was still and cool, thick with the scented essence of vine and olive, of old wood and damp earth. Several old ceramic amphorae were standing in the corner, jugs that once held the wine my great-grandfather made - proud reminders of the past, before the days of plastic barrels and metal kegs. I got my sketchbook out in the hope that my marks would capture their handsome dignity, silent testimonials to the enduring goodness of life.
It was not enough that Toto had seduced me with cheese made that morning in the mountains. He returned now with a huge bowl of salad: tomatoes tossed with sliced red onions, fresh garlic and basil, swimming in a sea of his olive oil. A peasant's lunch fit for a king.
I tore off wedges of bread and sopped up the oil and juices of our tomato salad, popping an olive in my mouth from time to time. The ricotta was divine and so was the moment. We talked about our children and our dreams. Toto's pride for his family and his paese, or village, permeates his life. The townspeople of Davoli wanted him to be mayor. The citizens of Davoli were aware of his gift; a gift for caring that reached far beyond his obligation to family, church and community. His efforts to preserve the popular traditions and architectural character of his village while constantly seeking improvement and growth had not gone unnoticed or unrewarded. A modest man, he had decided not to accept the position of mayor because he felt that he could achieve more outside the constraints of political office.
At home, even though every modern convenience is now available, he persists in the time-honored customs of producing salamis, cheeses, wine and olive oil from his land in the old-fashioned way. It is vitally important to him that these customs continue for their integrity, their folkloric charm, not to mention their gastronomic qualities. His unwavering belief that the values of family and faith must endure, no matter how rapid the changes of the twentieth century, keep him focused on this commitment.
Toto talked of his children and of his responsibilities to teach by example, to be honest, to work hard, to honor his family name and to contribute to the betterment of his community. And so he does. In 1984, Toto opened a center for the care and education of handicapped children, the first in the region. Driven by the desire to provide to the special needs of his own daughter, Laura, he created an environment of acceptance, love, and learning for many children like her.
Hours passed as Toto and I talked. Enclosed in the simple, secure space of his small cantina, I learned about Toto's life. My respect and admiration for him swelled to the very confines of his wine cellar and I was grateful that our precious home and heritage were in his capable hands.
The joyful sound of laughter could be heard in the distance, breaking our philosophical meandering. Before the girls even reached us, Toto and I surmised from their giggling that they were intoxicated. Drunk on red wine consumed in the afternoon sunshine, heightened by the pure fun of their outing, they arrived breathless and eager to share the stories of their escapade.
"Mom, you won't believe what Bridget and Bernadette did!" Rachel blurts out before her giggles overtake her.
"We went skinny-dipping in the stream but Rachel would not join us. She was too afraid that someone might see!" Bridget interrupts her testimony.
Raising my eyebrows in mock horror, I ask, "You took off all your clothes?"
"Yes, and Rachel ran away with them, leaving us stranded."
Rachel had not made them worry for long, caving in to their shouts and threats. Forgiven, she was given a splashy welcome as she joined her sisters, wading barefoot in the chilly water and cracking open the almonds on the rocky banks.
Spontaneous and spirited, my three daughters are proof that they did not have to be born on this land to inherit their Ciaramella traits.
The following day we went to see the old monastery/estate where Pop was born. Petrizzi - the very name sounded musical. It was late afternoon - that time of day when the light is magical. We piled into Toto's car and drove towards Chiaravalle in the mountains. It was a winding road that climbed the rugged slopes where cypresses and umbrella pines stood guard over sloping fields of wild vegetation, pine forests, cultivated fields and ancient stone farmhouses.
"There," Toto pointed excitedly. "Can you see it?"
We were rounding a wide curve and in the distance we could see the old structure. Soon, Toto steered his car off the asphalt road and shifted gears as his tires rode over the crunching gravel. We drove through a shaded grove of chestnut trees dappled with a delicate pattern of honeyed light. We passed an ancient fountain from which fresh stream water spilled and could easily imagine a peasant girl, maybe even my great grandmother, filling her clay jug.
In full light, the monastery stood before us, majestic in its warmth and simplistic architectural design. It was a spiritual place in its beauty even if it no longer served as a center of religious fervor. Originally a monastery, it had become a private estate centuries ago and was now owned by descendants of the original proprietors. The couple, both architects had restored and furnished the rooms in classic, rustic furnishings appropriate to the period, displaying an extensive collection of regional pottery and wrought iron.
Tonio, the caretaker, met us at the entrance. A man of middle age, he was not tall but solidly built. His black curly hair and strong Greek features gave him an aspect of provincial nobility and his profile could have graced an ancient coin found in the sea. It was in his eyes that I could see the profound passion he had for Petrizzi, which he acknowledged as we stood in its courtyard. He had played here as a child, often being chased off the grounds by the landowners but always coming back, drawn by some unknown force. Apparently his attachment to the land and his persistence in never straying far from its boundaries paid off in his later years as he was eventually hired to oversee the estate.
With evident pride for "his" castle, he gave us a tour of the grounds, the interior rooms, the chapel and the wine cellar. From the shelves of the cantina, he took a bottle of wine from the same vineyards my great grandparents had tended a century earlier. Thoughtfully he presented it to me and although the wine was of recent vintage I will always cherish it as if my great-grandparents had pressed the grapes themselves and it will remain corked as long as I own it.
Upstairs, he showed us the rooms once occupied by the tenant farmers and Toto knew from repeated oral history, which of these rooms had been occupied by our great-grandparents. It had remained virtually unchanged. A small room with walls covered in green paint, muted by years and neglect, it contained a few scattered remnants of farm and domestic equipment. But, oh, how full of vital energy it was, even if only in my mind's eye. The communal kitchen was still intact and a great camino was at the heart of it. Its great wooden beams charred black from centuries of cooking and yet still seemed to hold the essence of hearty stews and wholesome breads cooked on long winter nights.
Lastly, we visited the remains of what was once the church, now almost in total ruin. There was no roof; the walls were crumbling and the one behind the altar was missing altogether. Beneath the azure blue of that Mediterranean sky that now served as its roof, we looked past the main stone altar to the sea in the distance and we were spellbound.
"Oh, Mom," Bridget gasped. "I want to get married here!"
Excerpt from Ginda's book "Deeply Rooted". To learn more or order your copy, visit www.gindasimpson.com.
About the Author
© Ginda Simpson, 2005
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