New York, Italy, Virginia, Italy, Kentucky…Italy

My mother was a collector of letters and photographs.  She filled old shoeboxes with meticulously hand-written communications from my father’s Italian relatives, their fragile parchment leaves folded within envelopes bearing intriguing foreign stamps and exotic return addresses.  Bunches of letters bound together with thin rubber bands, their cohesive elasticity pushed to the limit, filled the corners of her closet, were tucked under her bed, and occupied the shelves in the green-painted hutch originally intended for crockery, while oversized and heartier legal documents were crammed into manila envelopes marked Soragna Farm, Liguria Affair, or, simply, Italy.  The years passed, she ran out of room, and even more letters eventually took the place of the spirits bottles in her elegant old liquor cabinet.

Yet there was a decided devotion to the care she took in maintaining the scores of letters exchanged with my father before and during their marriage, most of which were shielded from the harsh New Mexico sunlight by an inexpensive desk centered under her bedroom window.  Occasionally, when she was out watering the garden, I would sneak in to read whatever I could easily access in an unlocked drawer, a far safer way to snoop than staying longer when she would go out shopping.  If I had too much time, I feared, I would disturb whatever invisible order there was in her placement of the letters and she would surely know I had been going through her things.

My parents’ love letters kept alive everything she remembered about my father, everything she wanted me to know about their relationship.  And although the letters between them were clearly her most cherished, she kept virtually every other type of missive as well – those from friends whose relatives had been killed in the War, those from her stepdaughter when she and her husband traveled through Europe, those from my Aunt inquiring about our welfare after Dad died.  She kept as many documents as she possibly could that marked her passage through life.

I wore my mother’s jewelry, dabbed her perfumes on the undersides of my wrists and behind my ears just like she did, and decorated my face with her lipsticks and eye shadows.  I longed to grow up and fit into her clothes and shoes.  But mostly I was obsessed with her letter collecting habit, which crawled so far under my skin that when I was around 14 I, too, began saving whatever letters and postcards I received.  And I have done so ever since, stashing most in a suitcase at the back of my bedroom closet but storing the important ones in a turn-of-the-century Mexican chest in my living room.

But while my mother’s collection emanated from a genuine passion, mine began as a mere imitation of hers, my theory being that if I did what she did I would have what she had, which was knowledge of my father, who died when I was five.  Born in 1897 and 1915 respectively, my father and mother wrote letters out of necessity, the only means through which to communicate across the oceans, mountains and rivers that separated them from their families, and sometimes from one another.  Telegrams only relayed crucial small bits of information – Tuo padre è morto – and telephone calls were wildly expensive, so they relied on blank pages, onto which they would pen every emotional, factual, political and nakedly revealing personal detail of their lives.

My friends’ parents never seemed to express any emotional or physical affection, and I often wondered whether any of them cared about one another at all.  But the feeling between my parents was expressed to the fullest in their letters and I was somehow energized by the obvious time they took whenever they were apart to write, often daily, and to record for one another the humdrum minutia of their days – my mother’s lazy Saturday afternoon doing the laundry and manicuring her nails, my father’s jubilance at having finally cleared the front yard of weeds at the beachside bungalow in Florida that would be their home.  To me that minutia revealed their trust in one another, the sense that nothing about their lives was too trivial, embarrassing or unimportant to share.  But then my parents had met toward the end of World War II, a time when it was unwise to take anything for granted, and I imagined that my father, whose own father and older brother had both died in World War I, and whose mother would also be dead by the time he was 23, took particular pleasure in my mother’s innocent and feminine description of waiting for her red nail polish to dry, the promise of a night out, dinner and dancing, and the sound of laughter and of being together signifying a celebration of life itself.  They rejoiced in one another’s company and were unapologetically and almost proudly sentimental.  It is almost all too easy to be wooed into romanticizing her life, my father’s life and their life together and to altogether ignore the hardship that I know befell them not too long after the War ended and they moved to New Mexico. Still, my mother seemed more herself, more honest and more at ease on paper than I knew her to be in person after my father died.  She was softer, warmer, more curious and vulnerable, and those letters made it possible for me to know her in ways I might never have been able to had she not saved them.

When I was in college she would send me scores of articles, notes scribbled in the margins – Send to Giselle, File Italy, Save – frequently about an artist, poet or writer who had died and whom she had admired.  I preferred the early smile-filled photographs of her and my Dad…at a tiny airport in Winchester, Virginia, at the Hialeah racetrack in Florida, camping in the Sandia Mountains…and it made me slightly crazy, all of these death announcements arriving in the mail.  Yet I would keep them anyway, afraid to throw them out, afraid of breaking the communication spell she had cast over me, knowing somehow that I had to keep the sad ones as well as the happy ones.  As her fear of dying grew, I began to feel she was imploring me not to forget about her, sending me things to remember her by.  And when her letter writing habit was finally fully stopped in its tracks by Alzheimer’s, I began to miss the constant stream of letters, post-cards, notes, articles, photos, books and magazines that had come my way for so many decades.

My own life has changed dramatically these past four years.  After thirty years of working and living only in New York, my marriage has added Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky to the places I have called home in one way or another.  I have three adult stepchildren, a sister-in-law and brother-in-law and their assorted wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, children and dogs and cats, one of which was our beautiful and sweet Black Labrador, The Great Gatsby, who passed away in June.  Yes, there have been graduation ceremonies and college recitals and plays, and weddings, and…funerals.

With all of this change has come my geographical separation from a core group of friends whose physical presence I had long depended on and, yes, even taken for granted.  Truthfully there has always been a great degree of moving around among my friends; friends get married, they have children, they change jobs.  Some of them have died.  Yet there is a discernable difference between being the one who stays and the one who moves away.  And as I look back on my father’s personal move from New York – where he had also spent over thirty years of his life – to Washington, D.C., and the subsequent journey he took with my mother from D.C. to West Palm Beach to Nashville and finally to New Mexico, I cannot help but compare my own geographical journey to theirs, and try to record the many emotional, creative, intellectual and spiritual changes it has brought to my life.

Although I was not blessed with beautiful handwriting like my mother or father, like them I’m hypnotized by the power of a personal letter.  And even though my father, who became a pilot early in his life (he met my mother when he was teaching her to fly) would surely have been fascinated by my ability to virtually travel all over the world on the internet, to send and receive letters with ease, and to post photographs online with the push of a button, I don’t think he would ever have abandoned the call of the blank page.  Nor do I believe my mother would have, for they built the house they lived in with their own hands, grew their own vegetables, kept laying hens and milk goats, and preferred cooking for friends rather than going out to eat.

The muscat grapes and figs and currants they planted around our house ripened when they ripened, the bread my mother kneaded and placed in a ceramic bowl on a stool in front of the heater rose when it rose, the cross country flight in their plane from West Palm Beach to Albuquerque took as long as it took, and a letter from my father’s favorite Aunt made its way from Soragna to New Mexico in its own sweet time.  Fast was quite simply not the language they spoke.

These new web writing pages are in honor of the wonderful written and spoken conversation about life and our journey through it – often a look back through time, sometimes a celebration of the present, and always an invitation to imagine the future.  They will also be a place to share the work of creative friends, whose own journeys through life are an inspiration to me, and to start new conversations with new friends I will meet along the way.

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4 thoughts on “New York, Italy, Virginia, Italy, Kentucky…Italy

  1. Paul,

    You are kind. If I have succeeded in getting you to stop for a minute and to think about Italy and sipping a glass of wine, well…I couldn’t have hoped for more.

    Thank you for taking the time to read, and to respond.

    Giselle

  2. For some reason, as I was reading I found myself thinking about some of the rural Italian scenes serving as backdrops in the various Godfather movies while your words rode along and kept me company. They did not shout, and the piece seemed okay if I read it at my own pace, at leisure. I do not know if what I am saying makes sense to you but I did not feel a rush to finish as one does with a mystery, but an invitation to sip, as one might feel with a fine glass of wine.

  3. Deanna,

    Thank you and welcome home! What a gift you will be giving these young people you met in South Africa by corresponding with them. It will change their lives as well as your own. One of the blessings of writing nonfiction, for me at least, is being able to more fully understand the layers of my life through the written word. There are silent expressions of life experiences, verbal ones, too, but the written ones – letters – have special meaning for me. And I couldn’t have said it better…trips are indeed about coming to terms with relationships, with ourselves…in the midst of whatever circumstances at the moment.

    Keep working on your book…fragments or not! In fact, I quite like fragments. And let’s talk soon…

    Love to you,
    Giselle

  4. Giselle,
    I just returned from South Africa. i have been thinking about the power of the actual written word–(letters!) and am going to be writing several to some young people who I know have never received a written correspondence. I am not fully landed yet; have so much more to write about and school is coming up soon.
    I wanted to send you this and let you know , I love your piece. It evokes my own memories and letters I have, often such sensitive stuff, I leave them for years at a time.

    I do hope to come to NY. I don’t know if you are there infrequently, but sometime, yes…I would love to come. I am about 40 pages into my book, but it is fragmented. About my trip to Africa, yes, but mostly coming to terms with relationships, myself in the midst of a beautiful, torn country.

    Blessings!

    Deanna

    p.s. Please let me know if you know of any agents who may would be willing to read a sample!

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