Chapter 1. Florence

I hold an old memory now.  From the haze of many years it comes into focus:  the Tuscan hills lit up in autumn in burnished golds and reds, softening my heart.   As evening descended on the city of Florence and the cypresses stood tall and proud around the old stone house on this fall day, our little family began to settle in for an evening in the villa.  My mother had packed us up, my stepfather and me, and led us off to Italy so she could be close to art –as far as I knew, that was the reason.  She had spent several years in art school in the early fifties after we moved to San Francisco from the East, and had adopted the bohemian artist’s path when she was married to my father.  She appeared to be driven by beauty, its creation and acquisition.  She had been so stunning as a young woman, and conditioned to being called beautiful, that she became obsessed with the idea of the beautiful life as she grew older  – perhaps.  Or maybe she saw her future as some sort of blank canvas waiting for the right eyes.  This dream, along with her own trust fund income, brought us to the Villa dei Cipressi above Florence in 1956.  There had been other moves before this one, in between the uneventful divorce from my father, followed by a quick marriage to a man she had met while working as a cocktail waitress at the Tin Angel, a San Francisco jazz club.   My stepfather Raymond was smart and eccentric, raised with many siblings in a poor Norwegian immigrant family from Brooklyn.  He loved books and drawing and had a handsome angular face scarred by childhood small pox.  I was becoming used to moving by this time, and just put my head down and forged ahead the way I had to when she failed to explain the reasons for her choices.  I don’t remember being either scared or excited about moving to a foreign country thousands of miles away when I was only eleven.

That evening in Florence, the sun had gone down finally and we sat around our large oval dining table as candles cast a small umbrella of light above us in the giant stone “sala.”  Steaming pasta with butter, a big bowl of Parmesan, a roast of pork all perfumed with rosemary, surrounded by shiny dark green zucchini and brilliant tomatoes, and of course a salad of beautiful wild lettuces.  My mother had put the red wine in a glass carafe where it shone like a ruby.  She always knew how to create a beautiful picture.  We even had soft white cloth napkins and white plates with little gold edges on them.

As she and Raymond served up the food, they talked about how they had to find a cook and housemaid to cope with our needs, while I wondered about the unusual little school I was going to and the possibility of finding new friends there.  They clinked glasses ceremoniously and she exclaimed with a broad smile: “Isn’t it too divine, Mag?  Here we are in the most beautiful country ever!  Aren’t you happy, darling?”  I wasn’t sure about the “divine” part.  I hadn’t fallen for this place yet, it had all happened so fast after all, the divorce and the new husband, I just wasn’t ready to be charmed.   But I was just a little curious about starting seventh grade with a bunch of American ex-pats in an ancient Italian palazzo.   She didn’t wait for my answer to her question about being happy, but turned toward my new stepfather to issue instructions about the necessary calls in the morning so we could get some domestic help.

So off I went to Miss Barrie’s American School housed in a huge dark, damp- smelling building on the Via dei Bardi on the right side of the Arno across from the city center.  A tiny dowager, a certain Miss Barrie from Boston, ran the place quite invisibly, relegating the mechanics to Mr. Faust, an imposing tall gentleman who sported large horn-rimmed eyeglasses and old world manners. There were about twenty-four of us in all at the school, a motley crew of young Americans aged about eleven to sixteen, thrown together in Latin, Italian, and English classes, and huddling on cold mornings while Mr. Faust intoned the basics of Algebra to us in his German accent.  Looking back, I mostly remember the dark main room with the large oval table and a rickety ancient iron chandelier hanging down from above, where our little voices echoed dramatically against the high ceiling, and how the room was lit up periodically by the perky Miss Barrie herself, looking the part of Bostonian matron in her crisp dark suit and ruffled white blouse, as she announced in perfect diction:  “now boys and girls, we are going to go on a grand journey to discover the beautiful mind of William Shakespeare…”  I believed in her from the very beginning.

Our school was a claustrophobic little world really, but I felt comforted by the closeness; it made getting used to all things foreign easier. Eventually I found a young boy to focus my attention on, with pearly white complexion and pale blond hair, and I spent many hours trying to make myself known to him. I must have succeeded, because before long Michael and I were writing little personal notes to one another, delivering them into jacket pockets in the coat closet, or passing them off directly in class under the large table when we happened to be sitting next to one another.  Living with this little secret was exciting and strangely familiar, like the times I used to hide chocolate candy-bars for myself in my desk back home, or rifle through my mother’s dresser drawer to smell the lavender sachet and feel the soft things she put there.  I understood concealment.  This boy and I knew something different was up between us as we grinned stupidly at each other across the rooms we inhabited at Miss Barrie’s, but I’m not sure we knew to call it love.

Back at the villa later in the afternoon I sat in my bedroom with tall ceilings and wrote in my red leather journal about feeling lonely and confused by my beautiful mother who preferred her evening cocktails to my company.  I was alien to her, as her company had been probably been alien to her mother long before.  Even though she had been tended in childhood by governesses and such, she mother chose a new and modern look to her life, without any nannies of course, and I was simply overlooked.  I wrote too about Michael and me, and about how adorable my stepfather Raymond was.  I think I had a crush on him from the start, which he seemed to encourage – he often smiled right at me and made plenty of time to talk; he appeared to like me a lot.  Some nights he sat with me in my bedroom and sang the same mournful English ballad “Greensleeves” again and again in his strange, atonal voice, making me feel quite special.

Before long we had the warm, bountiful company of our new cook Elda in the house, and she served us our dinner in the giant living room by candlelight, of course: a big white tureen of soup, and platters of steaming eggy fettuccini, crusty scallopine alla Milanese, and a perfect green salad.  Ecco, il pranzo!  Buon appetito!  she’d announce proudly as she beamed at my mother and the rest of us.  She soon became my hero, and I followed her many afternoons after school into the kitchen and stayed to watch her do her magic there.   She made creamy mayonnaise from scratch, pouring the thick olive oil into the egg with reverence, and “straciatella” soup – golden chicken broth with whipped eggs in it – as well as a spaghetti carbonara, hearty peasant pasta with salt pork and egg, lots of butter and cheese.

I often gave up my journal writing to sit with her in the kitchen as warm light poured through the windows from the west, and I watched her gently wash dark leaves of basil, slice perfect tomatoes, and grate parmesan while humming a warm melody to herself.  When she picked up a chicken to prepare, she did it with joy, patting its plump pink body with her big hands that were dark red from all her hard work, smearing the olive oil all over and stuffing it with big handfuls of rosemary.  She had hand-picked that very chicken from the butcher’s that morning, and knew it to be the perfect one for our dinner.  Every once in a while, I accompanied her on her shopping trips, and watched as she joined the animated conversation with the cheese man, the produce lady, or the baker with his huge white floury arms, both of Elda’s hands moving continuously to persuade and cajole, everyone’s voices rising and falling.  It was opera and dance right there in the morning sunshine.  I learned in those moments just how seriously Italians took the daily gathering of food.

My mother had been a pretty good cook when I was younger, but this buxom young woman who tended our kitchen was a magician.  She had huge breasts and dark hair that fell down her back in giant waves, and eyes that flashed dark and loving.  She taught me the vocabulary and the dance of food.  The lettuces were belissime (most beautiful), the tomatoes meravigliosi (marvelous), the chicken perfettamente fresco (perfectly fresh). She took a purple eggplant and sliced it into perfect white disks, she held a shiny red pepper in her hands as though it was sacred, cutting it then into perfect rings on the wooden board, and she examined all the different lettuces and wild greens with great care before tossing them in the salad bowl.  She saw me witnessing her.  She lit up the kitchen with animated gratitude, a deep husky laugh coming from her expansive body as she began to share stories of growing up in southern Italy – vuoi sentire una storia della mia vita in Calabria?  –  You want to hear a story of life in Calabria?  I was studying Italian at Miss Barrie’s then, but it was from Elda that I really got the language.  And the food of course.  She and I ate and talked together as days and months passed; we laughed, chopped vegetables, poured golden olive oil, whipped eggs, grated mountains of cheese, and found friendship.