Milan and family
The train approached Milan. The land was flat, a strange jumbled chessboard of green and yellow. The corners of the fields were all square. The violence of the Sicilian sun had abated. But here too the wheat was already bleached and reminded me of Van Gogh with the red of the poppies and blue cornflowers blending into purple as we passed by. The wheat had been combed by the wind and the marks of the comb still showed. Yellow. Green. Yellow. Green. A pattern that was man-made. In the hot sun men with small curved sickles were cutting the wheat and tying it into bundles, each one just so far from the next, a measurement that was the rhythm of man and his work. He was the machine that had been and would always be. The poppies glowed red in the golden wheat. I could not help but think of the Little Prince. “And the fox said, I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. … but you have hair that is the color of gold. … The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat.” Square plots of water. Rice fields. I had seen a poster for a movie where a woman in skimpy clothing was bent over cutting the stalks. What do these fields look like when the rice is ripe? There was no one working in them now.
Two people entered the compartment. Husband and wife. She was wearing jeweled sunglasses, heavy lipstick, was somewhere in her late fifties. They spoke in Italian, complaining of the trains, of the service, of the crowded conditions. “How much better our trains. One never has to stand.” They were from the States and called that their country. But their Italian was a local Italian and obviously, Italy the country of their birth. When I said that I had had to stand in trains in New York and Massachusetts, they didn’t seem to hear me. After they left, another Italian woman quite indignantly remarked that after all, if they had traveled first class, they wouldn’t have had any problems. They had talked about Miami Beach. I could picture them – he had made money, she spent the winter there, in jeweled sunglasses and a fur coat, complaining.
Andrea wanted me to meet his family. His father had written that their home in Milan was always open to me and when I arrived at the address he had given me, his father was looking for me up the street in the outskirts of the city. He greeted me with a broad smile and led me through a break in the wall to a hard earth courtyard where a few skinny fruit trees were holding up lines of laundry. The third door in the long shed-like building was theirs, greenish with a pink curlicue marking it from the other doors. As he set me down at the kitchen table, he apologized for the rooms and their appearance, for of course his wife was not well. She would be along presently.
Andrea had told me that his father was 76. Although not tall, he had a broad back and a great stomach, rather like one of those wooden figures that cannot be tipped over, but always rolls back into an upright position. His skin hung in a loose dewlap under his chin, covered with a short white stubble that turned into a moustache at the proper place. I soon discovered that if there was someone to listen, as now, he sat at the kitchen table and talked. In English, in Italian. Of the years spent in England – forty years ago. Politics and the war. He had been wealthy with property in Rome where they then lived. But he was not a fascist and had to sell out and leave the city. Then in Pisa they lost all except a few plots of land and a place in a tiny village in the mountains. It was here that they held out during the war. A third child, the youngest, had become sick and died. But the two older ones survived. And always for what they had, they were thankful. Still they were also aware of what should have been. The boy should have continued studying, but there was no money. The girl now worked in an office and made $40 a month. They received an infinitesimal amount from the government, and could live – could subsist – thanks to the work of the Signora, by trying to sell the family land which was too out of the way to sell easily, and by what their daughter, Anna, made.
Andrea’s mother finally came in and did not seem so tiny until I stood up to exchange greetings. Slight and bent, with white wavy hair, her face was lined but she somehow did not seem old. Perhaps it was her fairy tales that kept her young. Of a flea, who was taken for a princess and repaid the kindness by giving its one drop of blood to save the queen. Of an infant, who came to earth on a star, and had trouble adjusting to the ways of the earth children. Of that which kept the earth happy, that which was called “Dream”. She sat by the window and sewed on an exquisite blouse for her daughter and told me of the life she had when first married, in a grand house, with many servants. Her brown eyes were wide as she spoke of her husband, and they reflected a love still to be seen in the tenderness of a glance or a touch between them. “He has not a single fault,” she told me, “and he comes and helps me with the dishes and is afraid I will do work beyond my strength.” She spoke in a clear sweet voice, telling me of the customs in Lucania where she taught sewing and embroidery many years ago. And of the lady who was supposed to pay her 3000 lire for a dress, but who refused to pay more than 1000 lire when she saw the house they lived in on the grounds that anyone living in such a poor house should be ashamed to ask for more.
It was true. The two rooms were poor. And too small for three people. Before Andrea had married, there had even been four people living here. A curtain separated the bed in the corner from the rest of the room. That was Anna’s. The only running water in the house was by the entrance door with an outdated sink and a toilet. The door hung badly and had to be dragged across the floor to open and close. It was not yet really hot, but flies buzzed in through the open window, settling on the bread and slices of cheese. Outside there was a green garden, not theirs, where the earth was level with the windowsill and in winter water came in through the walls.
Anna had been at the doctor’s before going to mass. She now came home in time for supper. “So this is the American girl. We had been wondering what you would be like. She won’t be thin. But then she won’t be too fat either, we said. And she will be blond.” Well, they were pretty close. Anna herself was not tall, and had a sturdy body and a warm smile. Her eyes were large and very like her brother’s. I felt accepted and liked her immediately. Dinner was ready. Andrea’s mother told me to sit in the corner seat next to a scarred radio and a jumble of papers. They did not have much, but today there was meat. For supper and breakfast, there were big bowls of caffe latte into which bread was broken. Still, there was always enough to throw a few crumbs out the door for the birds. And the three grey cats who came and stood at the bars of the window did not go away as hungry as when they came.
The next day, Anna and I were to go to Campino to the empty apartment where they had stayed during the war years. Meanwhile, we talked while Andrea’s mother mixed the powdered milk for supper. “We had milk delivered to us for a month without paying for it. So we told the milkman to stop our deliveries until we again had enough money. The next day, our daughter brought home two big cans of American milk (powdered milk). We lost almost everything when a bomb fell on our business and house in Pisa. But we were alive and never a day passed that we did not have something to eat for ourselves and the children. It was not always much, but there was always something. We have faith in God and know that somehow we will be taken care of.”
Andrea’s father spoke remarkably good English after such a long period of disuse. “Perhaps that is its name, but I fancy not. Now if I could find someone to put up the money, I could publish my material on the reform of the language.” For years he had worked on this reform of his language. I was not quite sure how it worked though. He sat and talked and fancied not, and the powdered milk stayed unmixed while his hands emphasized a point, or forgetfully held the spoon.
To be continued . . .