The Memories of Childhood

As I drift off to sleep I float into a hilly pasture. The air smells of pine, broom and something else – something bodily and perhaps slightly obscene. People are speaking in a language I don’t understand. I awake to listen and the dream is lost.

It was thirty years ago today that my mother died. I had been thinking of her all day. Had she lived she would now be one hundred years old. Sometime during the last week of her life, she forgot English. She could speak only Italian and her dialect at that. Only my brother and I understood her, so we became her translators, telling the doctors what pained her, fulfilling her requests for forbidden foods which we covertly brought to her, but of which she never ate more than a bite. She told us for the last time stories of her youth in the mezzogiorno.

Her family lived in a stucco house that lay on the edge of a wide pasture. They were land-rich, but money-poor. They raised sheep and sold the cheese made of their milk to the neighboring village. My mother’s brothers took turns staying in the fields at night to throw stones and any wolves that might wander down from the mountains and attempt to carry off one of the sheep. By the time my mother was a young woman, the wolves had been driven even farther south, but memories of ravaged flocks persisted and one or another of my uncles always passed a sleepless night.

Had this been my dream? Had I been re-living the life of the Old Country – a life that, after all, wasn’t mine? But I know my mother’s native language. Why couldn’t I understand it?

The light coming into my bedroom changes from pale to bright. A young woman is in the fields next to the stucco house. She is picking beans. It is wartime. A mounted officer is watching her. She is watching him in return. She becomes aware that she has watched too long and bends over to resume picking. I see the swastika on his uniform as he urges his horse toward her. He bends forward and tries to lift her onto his horse. She slaps him. Realizing what she has done, she steps back horrified. But he is an officer and a gentleman. He apologizes – in German.

I see his face – this handsome German officer. Strong, slightly square jaw, high Eastern European cheekbones, light hair. Probably blond. I really can’t tell the color of his hair in the black and white photo. Photo? Yes. I found the photo in the back of my mother’s jewelry drawer after she died. There was not a lot of jewelry – a string of pearls, a jet brooch, scatter pins of a snake and a snake charmer. The photo was in the back under the Mother’s Day cards my brother and I had made in elementary school. I was touched that she had kept them. The officer in the photo looks like my brother when he was in his twenties.

In 1943 my mother married an American, my father. It was shortly after the American invasion of Italy as the Allies marched north from Sicily. My brother Carl, or Carlo as she always called him, was born in Italy in 1944. My father marched northward and continued to fight. After the War, he brought my mother and brother to New York where I was born in 1946.

I remember the photo. I had first seen it when I was about five years old.

“Is that my Uncle Vito?” I had asked. I knew about my uncle who had been killed in the war.

“No,” my mother answered. “He was a friend. He was killed too.”