Checkpoint Childhood

In my grandparents’ garden there was and still is, now diminished in size by my fiftyfive-year-old glance, an artificial hill called La montagnola. Towering trees patrol the surrounding gardens while thick bushes keep secret the path that spirals up along minimal flanks and leads to a clearing the size of a rocking horses carousel. Up there would we lay down in lazy summertime afternoons, bird singing and insect humming in our ears. Cast beyond the tree crowns, our glances could meet clouds playing hide & seek with sun or get stranded. An exercise I most liked was keeping my eyes wide shut and imagining myself dead. Wasn’t falling asleep a daily exercise in dying?

La montagnola had existed long before us kids as well as our grandparents. It is part of the estate they had bought in the early Thirties, together with a garden – its monumental weeping mulberry, orderly and colourful flower beds, neat gravel sidewalks, round goldfish tank whose wrought iron fence would later try to protect its dwellers from our raids.

My grandparents were country people. They both sprang from small landowner families, mostly uneducated farmers. Their catholic imprinting shaped their life vision, developing in them a keen sense of resilience and self-denial. My grandpa Gino, the eldest of five siblings, was the only one who receive higher education to obtain an agronomist diploma. It did not take long before he got hired as administrator by landed gentry residing in Rome and Milan and possessing estates in the Marches. Farm production cycles established my grandparents’ family agenda. Their life rhythms soon tuned in with rural cycles: wheat harvesting, threshing, plowing, wine harvesting along with the silkworm breeding activity she had inherited. In time land ownership and proper education would become a priority in their family project, assuring their two girls – my aunt and my mother – economic ease and cultural equipment for a better life. Harvest after harvest, savings had been put aside till opportunity had arisen and investments made both in land and higher education, because “money makes us rich but education makes us noble”, read a ceramic plate hanging on my grandmother’s dining room, for anyone to know.

Nonna Augusta had attended formal education till somewhere near to a middle school diploma. Since a very young age she had loved reading and writing poetry. After a lifetime spent jotting down verses, at seventy-five she indulged in having a selection of her poems self-published. How many times visiting them already as an old couple, would we see nonno Gino in his snow-white apron meticulously setting the table while smiling to us “hush… the poetess is composing”. To this day, her poems collected in I silenzi del cuore (Silences of the heart) keep their healing power. Nonno Gino‘s memory also stays with me. As his employers grew older, new generations stepped in but many of them lacked sense of commitment and ethics. Those were la dolce vita days. My grandfather’s advice became more and more crucial for most of his younger employers. In retrospect, I can see him as a typical representative of the emerging middle class: purposeful and vigilant, with his mixture of popular wisdom and professionalism, he had made his small contribution to the so-called Italian economic miracle.

Back in the Seventies we were just kids busy in their clandestine fishing at the goldfish pond, creating our complicated parallel worlds beneath the mulberry cathedral or just playing hide & seek across all nooks and corners of the big garden.  A suspicion that things did prove more complicated than we assumed must have flashed on us the day our grand-grandma Olimpia passed away. We sensed that an action was needed and we came up with the idea of an impromptu funeral to be held in the big room on the ground floor of the old house. Keeping a central corridor in the middle, chairs were arranged like pews facing the altar/ dining table. There, Lillo solemny bestowed on us a funeral service in memory of nonna Pimpa, with my brother – older than Livio but less ambitious – playing the altar boy. Curiously enough did we later learned that the very room we had staged our religious rite in, had actually served as an official temporary place of worship after the big earthquake in 1930 had hit the nearby parish church: a white stone plaque sporting the Holy See coat of arms placed onto the house external wall keeps memory to these days.

We were not living in the same house. Our three cousins stayed with our grandparents in the old house. The three of us – our youngest brother would arrive many years later – spent their holidays in the new building, a three-storey house built on an adjoining plot of land. La Montagnola marked a no-man’s land between the two gardens. In fact, the place that we most valued was la grotta. To us the dark and damp grotto at the very foundations of the hill proved the most mysterious and thrilling part of the whole garden. That silent barrel vault space that in very old days had served as cellar and storage room, was kept off limits from us all – adults and children – by a heavy rusted padlock tightened to iron gratings. In fact, once did we venture inside there in candlelight accompanied by our cousins’ father.

Zio Elvio had a limp lag and curiosity for anything local and historical, no wonder he was a history teacher. He spent long hours collecting old keys, stamps and any kind of exotic items. He was also very creative and loved experimenting with sculpture but even more with drawing. He created series of countryside o seaside landscapes especially with crayons. The last time I saw him in his studio he was ninety-two. He was still as curious as ever and his ritual of allowing you to pick up and take away one or two pieces amid his miniature landscapes was still in place. I reckon now the magic of those moments, with him so silently proud of sharing fragments of his imaginary world. Since we were very little he had been entertaining us all with stories he would make up or read, or playing us songs on his mangiadischi – a portable 45 rpm record player -, like Enzo Jannacci’s Vengo anchio! or Cochi e Renato’s  La vita l’è bella.

The grotto had left in our nostrils a sniff of humidity and a sense of sweet gratefulness for our adult guide. Meantime, our father had always been up in the sky if not in heaven. As hard as I try to find him at any point in those long summertime days spent in my granparents’ garden, I just cannot: he would always be somewhere else – flying in the sky, travelling abroad on a mission, sailing to Croatia with friends, riding his flamboyant motorbike. Summer days would pile up with sunny mornings spent mostly at the beach which was located just five minutes’ walk across the street, and afternoons spent playing around the two neighbouring gardens. We would move back and forth between the old house and the new one via il cancelletto, a small green iron gateway marking the border between two sovereignties as much as educational visions. It was a checkpoint of sorts where universal family rules applied: it kept closed during siesta time, with each family expecting their kids either to take a nap or read Topolino or books, or just get bored for the sake of it. Truth is many breaches daily occurred at the cancelletto, with boys often venturing across each other’s zones, and us girls preferring idle chatting by the gate. 

At official playtime a number of different games kept us busy – we most liked to play the grand hotel, the bar, organise theatre shows, arrange bazars. In fact, set aside the before-mentioned totally self-run funeral service, all such games required a degree of planning and an active contribution from adults: in a way or another, sooner or later, all of them – except for our flying father – had contributed or at least showed up. Adults’ life was indeed a major source of inspiration for most of our creative games. Like the time we created a performance using the grotto gate as a backdrop, with us wearing our parents’ apparel. My born-actress sister Lalla co-starred with born-actor cousin Lillo whose nickname up today is Bruce Willis. And here comes the memo to write about lingerie, because not only was I the playwright but also the prop master and from my mom’s drawer I had the chance to pick up one of her fanciest transparent babydoll ever, for my sister to wear in the opening scene.

The production process had kept us busy for a whole weekend, also due to the continuous hysterical scenes from my cousin Giovanna who could not get along with the idea that she – despite her being the cutest of us three – was not fit for the role. We had to work quite hard with my eldest brother, the best ever problem solver for all technical aspects, but the small crew finally made it. I cannot tell for sure how many years have passed by since that Sunday afternoon but I can still flavour the thrill and the sense of gratefulness we had when our spectators finally began to flock in, sharp on time, complying with the advertising poster Lorenzo, the youngest and the most intellectual of us all, had drawn.  After having duly paid their tickets, spectators silently took their seats on the heavy and uncomfortable iron garden chairs. In fact, they turned out to be only three of them – nonna Augusta, nonno Gino and zio Elvio but their final applause convinced us that everything had been worth while.