The Tinker and the Tailor

“Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,” Tracy sang as her grandmother unbuttoned her coat. “Does that mean I am going to marry a thief when I grow up?”

“No,” said her grandmother. “Maybe you will marry a rich man.”

“A thief could be rich.”

“You don’t have to marry a man who is one of those things. You could be one yourself.”

Tracy thought about this. The coats were neatly hung in the closet and Tracy was tired after having played in the park. She curled up on the sofa where her grandmother was knitting. “Tell me a story   — a true one.”

“When my mother – your great-grandmother – was eighteen years old, she was what was called in Italian ‘nubile’ which only means ‘ready for marriage’. To acknowledge this, she insisted on being called Regina instead of just Gina and she began to behave in a queenly manner. There were few suitors in her village in the mountains of the Cilento, so Regina’s father began to take her with him on Saturdays when he went to the market in the neighboring village of San Lorenzo, where he would sell sheep cheese and the ricotta his wife made.

Campora from a Distance

Regina was herself skilled at needlework. She was known in the village for her lace and had edged the linens for her trousseau and for those of her friends. To prepare for the Saturday market, Regina had made several white muslin blouses and worked various lace patterns for bodices, collars and cuffs. These she brought with her as samples.

Regina and her father left before dawn on Saturdays. They walked down from their mountaintop village to San Lorenzo. Their donkey pulled a cart laden with dairy products, but Regina carried her wares on her head. Her mother had taught her how to coil fabric to cushion the weight and help hold it up, so Regina could walk for long distances without tiring her arms or shoulders. That was how all the women carried baskets of fruit and vegetables.

When they arrived at the marketplace, Regina helped her father set up their stall. His space was next to that of Signore Pasquale the tin worker. Signore Pasquale brought his son Bepe after Regina had been coming with her father for a few Saturdays. It occurred to Regina – without too much reflection upon the obvious – that her father and Signore Pasquale were trying to make a match.

Bepe was himself a capable craftsman, even better than Signore Pasquale. Bepe quickly fashioned candle holders, bowls, serving platters from the sheets of tin that filled their stall. San Lorenzo was a rich town that lay in the valley between two mountains. The townspeople brought their pots for Signore Pasquale to repair, as well as their scissors and knives for him to sharpen. They almost always bought one of Bepe’s delicate tin baskets or a candle holder or even one of what he called his objects d’art. (Bepe read a lot and had dreams of going to America.)

When Regina began to grow restless in the afternoon warmth, her father suggested that she take a walk through the market. Perhaps she could find fabric or embroidery floss that would please her. He had already that morning taken a commission for a set of bed linens to be picked up at this stall this time next month.

San Lorenzo was only a few miles inland from the port of Salerno. Soldiers and sailors on twenty-four hour leave roamed the marketplace searching for gifts to send back home or trying to find young women to invite for a drink. They looked handsome in their uniforms, but Regina considered that their interest in her would be too fleeting.

She returned to the stall, loaded with sewing materials and also spices that she had purchased from an Arab merchant. The tinkers’ stall was empty, sheets pulled over their wares.

‘Are you hungry?’ her father asked her.

‘Oh, yes!’

‘Well, when Signore Pasquale and Bepe return, we will go to the Café Sapienza for a small feast. They will guard my stall from market thieves, as I am guarding theirs.’

Regina wondered if Bepe and his family were well off, but decided only to observe them rather than ask. It was just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man, of that she was convinced. She would wait and see.

‘Babbo,’ she said. ‘Last night I dreamed about Nonna Francesca. She was making pizzelli and she offered me one. I did not know if I should accept it.’

‘That is a good sign,’ replied her father. We must buy a lottery ticket. That may help you decide.’

After Bepe and Signore Pasquale returned, Regina and her father covered the goods in their stall and made their way to the café in the town center. A decrepit and dirty beggar approached them and asked for alms. Regina’s father gave him a coin. ‘For good luck,’ he explained. Before they reached the café, they stopped at the tobacconist and bought their lottery ticket.”

“Did they win?” asked Tracy.

“Yes. Did you know my real name is Pasqualina, not Patsy?”


December Farewell

He laughed at all I dared to praise,
And broke my heart, in little ways.

From THE SPRING AND THE FALL by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The autumn when we were still lovers and living in Naples, seems to be the time I was most contented with my life. Time, in fact, had dropped away and we lived from moment to moment. Or rather I did. My lover was absorbed in his painting. Like a true Neapolitan, I took pleasure in the bright mornings when, daily, I would go to market to see what was on offer for lunch. I expanded these shopping excursions to include a stroll along the bay. It would have been a pity to waste such a lovely day by hurrying back indoors.

Vegetable Market[Photo: Vegetable Market]

Swordfish for Sale in Via dei Tribunali
[Photo: Swordfish for Sale in Via dei Tribunali]
By the time I returned home it was time to cook. Nothing planned. No forethought. I cooked whatever fresh fish and vegetables were to be found in the market at the time.

After lunch, he went back to his painting while I tidied the kitchen. Then it was siesta time when all the shops and banks and business concerns closed from one to four o’clock. When it was too late for me to try to work on my writing, we would awaken, shower and dress for our evening passeggiata, stopping at some trattoria or other for an antipasto and a glass of wine.

My lover left me shortly before the winter solstice – December 12th to be exact, the day before St. Lucia’s Day. I had returned from a visit to the sibyl at Cuma to find him gone. .I had heeded the sibyl’s omen and was not surprised by his departure. I had reflected upon the hand gestures that my “friend for life” and guardian demon had made to me one morning not so long ago. My lover had shown signs as well; he had begun to “break my heart in little ways…”

That first evening was hard nevertheless. The next day I did not know what to do with myself, so I went walking through the streets of Naples. Down along the lungomare and up Via Roma. The warmth of the summer had been prolonged that year which was why I had ventured so far out of Naples to Cuma. The sun continued to impose itself on all the unsheltered Piazzas. The shadows were chilly, though. Seeking some kind of obscurity, I left the open brightness of Piazza Dante for the enclosed shade of Via Tribunali, passing through the old city gate, Port ‘Alba.

“Alba means white,” I thought, putting whiteness behind me and wandering into the darkness of the historic center, the old part of the city. Buildings squeezing upon each other lent their shadows to the passersby. I nearly stumbled on the grey lava stones that made up the streets.

I had come to the church known as Santa Maria ad Santa Maria del Purgatorio-Exterior of CryptArco. Its presence was signaled by two brass skulls with crossed bones posed on three-foot high columns in front of its entrance.

[Photos: Santa Maria ad Arco -exterior of crypt and brass skull]

Santa Maria del Purgatorio-Skull 1Here the cult of the dead had originated. Having despaired of help from either the Church or the king, poor Neapolitans began to adopt skulls from this ossuary. They brought offerings as they could afford to them and prayed for them.

In return, they asked that the souls whose skulls were cared for now intercede with God on their behalf. This church is usually closed, but today it was open in honor of St. Lucia’s Day.

St. Lucia of Syracuse, Sicily had been executed in the early fourth century. She had been born into a wealthy family who had arranged her marriage to a man who was pagan. Because she had consecrated herself to Christ and wished to follow the Christian precept of giving one’s worldly goods to the poor, she began distributing what was essentially her dowry. Her betrothed, of course, became quite annoyed by this act of charity and denounced Lucia to the Roman authorities. This happened around 305 AD, at a time when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. Lucia was sentenced to death for not worshiping Roman gods (including the emperor). Before her execution, so her legend goes, her eyes were put out and she is therefore known as the patron saint of the blind, as well as one who refused marriage.

Perhaps the date of my lover’s leaving was also auspicious. St. Lucia was, after all, known for having preferred martyrdom to marriage. Another hint dropped by fate.

I entered the church and descended into the crypt that was below, where I gazing at piles of bones. In the seventeenth century, when the church was consecrated, the crypt had been an ossuary for people too poor to afford burial. There are no adequate words to describe the cult of the dead. It is something to be seen and felt rather than described.

“The dead. The last resort,” I thought. I left the crypt and ascended out to the street where, in front of the church, I came upon a skull encased in glass — a skull crowned with a tiara and surrounded with roses. I found myself encountering another Lucia.   This Lucia was not a holy virgin whose story was the archetypal legend of early female martyrs, but had been a real woman. She had loved and been loved and now her skull was enshrined in this church. The placard below told her story: This Lucia was nothing like the saint whose name she bore; this Lucia had committed suicide because her parents would not permit her to marry the man she loved. Nowadays, so I’m told, couples whose parents don’t want them to marry bring her flowers and leave lighted candles on the stones below her shrine in hopes that she will intercede on their behalf and cause these obstinate parents bless their children’s choice of spouse.

I had nothing to offer Lucia. I had come to her shrine without awareness. I had tried to be blind to my lover’s misdeeds. What was this double Lucia – the martyred virgin and the virgin who died of longing – to me now?

Turning aside, I saw a presepio, the manger scene, in front of the church. Today was December 13th, not long now until Christmas. The shops were decorated; fresh pannetone was on display. I gazed into the presepio trying to distinguish all the folk there. It was more than just a Nativity scene; it included all the common people of the village – the housewife throwing out water after having cleaned the floor; the baker putting a loaf into the open hearth; the woodcutter and his donkey loaded down with faggots ascending the mountain – all the people of the village and the Holy Family at the center.

All at once a hand holding a single rose thrust itself in front of my face. I turned and met my “friend for life”.

“Merry Christmas,” he said in Brooklyn accented English. “Buon Natale.”

Tied to the stem of the rose was a red plastic chili pepper or cornicello, an ancient fertility symbol that the Neapolitans use to ward off the evil eye and which they also regard as a bringer of good fortune.

Grazie,” I responded. I reached into my jacket pocket and proffered him a five-thouand lire note. He shook his head.

Per buona fortuna,” he said, then touched his cap and walked away in the direction of Piazza Bellini. I was left wondering what good fortune the new year would bring.