Maria was the only one who could calm Isabella when she was in the throes of an emotional collapse. No matter how I tried to hold her close, rock her, pat her back, she would wriggle out of my grasp and I would follow her around the villa, grabbing her to prevent any destruction of precious statuary.
In response to Isabella’s sobs, Maria always appeared – in whatever room my vain efforts at comfort happened to be taking place.
Maria was always calm and that serenity had a soothing effect on Isabella. Maria seemed to be possessed of some ancient wisdom – long-kept secrets and stories that have been floating around the villa and the city since the beginning of time.
“Come,” Maria would say in Italian, which Isabella could speak fluently, but which I was only just beginning to comprehend, “you see how your crying makes your mamma sad. Let’s go all three of us to my rooms. I will make us a cup of tea and tell you a story.”
And Isabella would cease mid-tantrum! I was always relieved by Maria’s quiet manifestation. Her room were far from the family’s apartment. How did she know? I was always jealous of Maria. What did she know about my child that I didn’t?
Maria had her own small kitchen where she brewed a strange kind of tea – made of roots and herbs. It was bitter and sweet at the same time. To this she added honey and a slice of orange. She on the calming effects of this brew.
Isabella would sit on the floor while Maria was making her potion. Usually out of nowhere would emerge Maso, Maria’s black tomcat.
“He is a good cat,” Maria would say. “See, he has a kind face.”
He was all black, with green eyes which I loved. I would be sitting on the small couch by the fireplace. Maso would jump on my lap.
When the tea was served, Maso would move to the side and Isabella would climb onto my lap in his place. And Maria would begin a story. I was grateful for her tales for I had no books to read to Isabella. In those days books in English were hard to come by in Italy. Maria knew all the old myths and superstitions. Reciting these, she transmitted to Isabella the wisdom of the ancients. I was happy for Maria to give Isabella what I couldn’t.
“What story shall we tell today?” began a period of tender serenity.
Ogni tanto un’immagine dei tempi passati mi pare, nonostante che io non l’avessi mai richiamata. Mi capita sempre in qualche parte di Greenwich Village, e di solito verso sera, quando la luce del pieno pommeriggo comincia a sbiadire. Un’immagine del mio primo amore sembra sfiorarmi il viso e poi se ne va, mi faccendo rabbrividire, ma di spavento o di felicitá, non lo so.
La settimana scorsa mi é capitato nella stazione metropolitana di West Fourth Street. Stavo sul treno E . Non avevo nessun’intenzione di scendere lá, ma per forza passavo per questa maledetta stazione prima di arrivare alla stazione Spring Street. Qui avrei incontrato la mia amica Janna per cena in un ristorante molto alla moda, come le piace.
Ero lontano da pericolo adesso. Vivevo fuori dalla cittá, in una casa che dava sul mare. Tutto que é aperto, non chiuso com’era la villa dove vivevo con Sebastiano. Questa villa era stata circondata da mura, e c’era una piscina profonda in mezzo. La casa del mio amore.
Non sarei mai scesa a West Fouth Street, ma al momento giusto quando il treno si é fermato in stazione, ricordavo che non avevo soldi con me. Sapevo che c’era una banca vinco alla stazione. Anni fa, questa banca fu O. Henry’s Steak House. Qui, d’abitudine, mi aspettava Sebastiano, il mio amore. Ho ricordi felici dei pasti che abbiamo mangiato in questo luogo, o al meno che ho mangiato io – manzo sanglante e una bella quantitá di vino rosso. Lui non mangiava mai niente.
Salivo la scala per ragiunggere la banca e Lui era lá per strada. Vedevo Sebastiano di fronte alla porta, com’era la sua consuetudine molto tempo prima. Ma forse non era una fantasama. Quando mi sono avvicinata, un ratto mi passava di corsa e mi guadarva con tenerezza.
Allora, sono un pò sorpresa di trovarmi una donna anziana, sola e senza figli. Quando ripenso alla mia vita, mi chiedo che cosa avrei dovuto fare diversamente.
Prima di tutto, non avrei dovuto sposare Sebastiano. Quel diavolo vive ancora e benché mi voglia sempre bene, credo che sia meglio evitarlo. Non molti giorni fa l’ho visto nella stazione metropolitana di West Fourth Street. Passava vicino a me e mi gettava uno sguardo triste e bramoso. Ho fatto finta di non vederlo.
All’inizio del nostro matrimonio, mi sembrava che la vita con Sebastiano sarebbe stata esotica e piena di aventura. Volevo scappare dalla mia famiglia stretta e borghese. Volevo trovare amiche oltre quelle che avevo e che non mi piacevanno. L’ho fatta finita con Janna . Lei sfruttava di tutti e viveva sulle spalle degli altri. Ed anche con Arabella. Quella pretendeva di essere premerosa, ma in fatti provava a intromettersi negli affari delle sue amiche Sebastiano mi offriva independenza.
Ma c’é bisogno di rifletterci. Se non avessi sposato Sebastiano, non avrei avuto Isabella. Sopratutto rammarico come sia stata breve la sua vita. Se potessi fare qualche passo indetro, l’avrei badata meglio – molto meglio. Non l’avrei mai portata in quella piscina maledetta di fronte alla nostra villa. Darei tutto quello che ho realizzato dopo – bellezza, soldi, fama – se potessi tornar al fatidico giorno e se non mi fossi addormentata nel sole, anche per un attimo, anche se fossi stanca da morire.
Alle fine, ero benedetta solo con Isabella. Le altre cose che la vita mi ha regalato mi valgono meno di niente. Non guarirò mai di averla persa.
Rosemary grows in a pot in my kitchen window. Tonight I am making roast eggplant and will add some of this pungent herb. The sharp aroma, the tender prickliness of the leaves will let me remember a long-ago meal – with you, when we lived in Parma.
We had small garden outside our apartment where we grew zucchini and rosemary. Although you had brought us to Parma because of its architecture, was not the best place for you. It is a city famous for parma ham and parmesan cheese, not to mention horsemeat tartar. Yes, raw horsemeat seasoned with black pepper and garlic and herbs. You were vegan and angry with me because the night before I had eaten horsemeat tartar in a restaurant on Strada Republica. You had asked me how I could have even thought of ordering such a mean when I was with you. You had pasta with tomato sauce – no cheese. Parma is not a city for vegans. I refused to be intimidated either by you or the horsemeat tartar. It was wonderful!
Still annoyed with me, the next day you closed yourself in the living room which had become your art studio. You were constructing a photo collage of Parma Cathedral. Your mind was on your work and my presence irritated you. I tried to be quiet and read, but you were fascinating.
I watched while you caught Parma’s quiet dignity in your pictures. You encapsulated tranquility in your mounting of Parma Cathedral and the Baptistery, dating from the 11th century.
You brought us into intimacy with the cathedral, through the ancient wooden doors,
into the peaceful cloister.
We peeked into the courtyard,
then entered, resting at last close to a fountain.
So precise. So particular. You were so observant of light, shade, color. Your talent amazed me. Feeling guilty and shunned, I resolved to follow your example and be attentive in my own work.
I decided to roast the eggplants I had bought that morning to try to pacify you. But no red sauce. Would you like it? I hoped so. I picked two ripe Zucchini from our little garden and snipped tall sprigs of rosemary.
While you were busy attaching, joining, bonding, I assembled the ingredients and started to cook.
I sliced the vegetables into thick rounds. They were very fresh. As I cut they released the moisture that they had received from the damp soil. I minced garlic. Its acrid odor is deep. Like the earth, it clings and nurtures
I heated olive oil over a medium flame until its fruitiness exploded and it shimmered in the pan. I added the garlic, salt and rosemary. This herb makes all the difference. Rosemary is a dweller of the air rather than of the earth from which it springs. Its singular fragrance rises filling the kitchen with a piquancy that reaches upward. Earth smells and air smells in the fiery oil.
I coated the watery vegetables with the other elements – the fire, earth and air of the herbs sautéed in oil and lay then on a flat baking sheet and. I put them in the oven and hoped that they would be done within an hour. I didn’t understand the centigrade thermometer. I estimated three-hundred-fifty degrees Fahrenheit. I would have to keep checking.
An aroma from the kitchen aroused me from my meditation on you. The vegetables called me. The elements had combined to make an enticing dinner.
Some art forms endure over time and even make it stand still– literature, painting, photography. Others are consumed with time, disappearing even as you enjoy them — dance, theatre, music. A dinner carefully prepared must be taken at the peak moment. I called you and you came. Your art could withstand time, mine not. For a brief while we shared our pleasure.
This evening after so many years I am content in my kitchen with my potted herbs. I pick the rosemary for a present dinner. Rosemary always makes me think of you. Rosemary for remembrance.
My first Thanksgiving with my new wife’s family. My wife is famous for her pumpkin pie, her mincemeat pie and her sweet potato cupcakes – all made with traditional New World ingredients setting off “Olde England” traditions. They are gracious, my wife’s family. They suggest I bring a traditional Thanksgiving dish of my own. I agree.
“What are you bringing?” they query.
“A lovely concoction of eggplant and other things.”
“An old family recipe I learned from my landlady in Naples”
“That’s not traditional.”
“Depends of where the tradition originates. For me the tradition of being thankful originated when I was living in Naples.”
I was an art student wandering through the churches and museums of the most artful city in the world. I had rented a small apartment in an old palazzo in Via Pisanelli and often Gina the landlady would invite me to come down to her apartment for dinner.
In Naples Thanksgiving Day is just another Thursday. The day before I had attended a sculpting class and afterward I wandered around the Historic Center looking at guglie.
I had never been one for sentiment, but something about the chill that had only just now crept into the air and the recent appearance of chestnuts in the open air markets made me thing of roast turkey and stuffing.
There was no question of returning “home” for Thanksgiving – no time and no money foreclosed that option. So when Gina asked me why I looked sad, I told her about Thanksgiving and said I felt the lack of celebration that year.
“Tomorrow we will have something special for dinner,” she promised.
Gina was famous for her caponata. Every guest who came to dinner requested it. It was always a little different every time she made it. When asked for the recipe, Gina willingly gave it, but because she always improvised, so that when her friends made caponata it was always different from hers.
The next day, Thanksgiving, Gina went to her favorite vegetable market in the Spanish Quarter.
I brought Gina a swordfish steak from the market on Via dei Tribunali,
and hung around her kitchen and watched her while she prepared that and the caponata. All the while we sipped some excellent Lagrima Christi.
Since I have a very good visual memory, I was able to duplicate the Thanksgiving caponata and it has been my traditional offering ever since:
First, cover the bottom of a heavy 2-quart pot with olive oil (about 1/2 cup) and heat it. When a drop of water sprinkled on the oil sizzles, it is time to add oregano, red pepper and parsley – lots of it – and a little salt. (All this is to suit your taste.)
Next in this mixture of oil and herbs sauté 4 cloves of minced garlic, 2 ribs of celery and ½ green pepper, all chopped up. Cook until the vegetables are soft and translucent.
Add 4 medium salad tomatoes, chopped.
When the tomatoes have melted and the mixture seems like a sauce, add one medium eggplant, diced in about one-inch pieces. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. The time it takes depends on the eggplant, but it’s usually ½ to 1 hour.
When eggplant is cooked, add 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 2 tablespoons of capers in brine, and ½ cup olives, green and/or black. Cook another 10 minutes just to let the flavors blend.
If you let the caponata sit several hours before serving it, the flavor improves. You can even prepare it the day before.
I am thankful to Gina for this delicious dish and for all the other wonderful things she made for me.
I told my wife’s family that I am famous for my Thanksgiving caponata, but I never give out the recipe.
“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.
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.
‘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?”
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.
[Photo: Vegetable Market]
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 Arco. 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 cryptandbrass skull]
Here 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.
Grimaldi knew something interesting was afoot. There was much hustle and bustle in Anna’s kitchen. She and Salvatore were speaking loudly in strange words that Grimaldi was just beginning to understand, although when they spoke to him they said the familiar words that Jon had used. Grimaldi had twigged that when Anna talked about latte, she meant milk and that carne meant meat. When he heard these words no matter what the language, Grimaldi would come running to his bowl.
Grimaldi still missed his old home. He still grieved for Jon, although he loved Anna. The combined hubbub and melancholy drew Grimaldi into the kitchen, where he jumped up on the windowsill to sniff good smells and try to figure out what was going on. His thoughts drifted to the beings that had disappeared from his life. He knew that after Jon had vanished, Jon’s mate Lucy did not want him and had moved to a place called Naples, leaving Grimaldi with Anna and Salvatore. He would henceforth be Anna’s cat.
As far back as Grimaldi could remember Lucy had never liked him. Lucy did not like cats and for his part, Grimaldi did not like Lucy. On a bustling day like this, just before Jon vanished, and Grimaldi was still in his old home, he had stretched out on the kitchen table, knowing that Lucy had gone out, so would not come in and throw whatever was at hand at him. She had no business being there, but was allowed to stay only at Jonathan’s sufferance. Lucy cooked and cleaned. That Grimaldi would give her. She did not encourage him to stay around when she was cooking, however; so he would plop himself down in the middle of the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, pleased when Lucy would just miss tripping on him. She never shared tidbits from her plate. Jonathan did. Grimaldi heard the key. He jumped down from the table and stood in front of the door.
As Lucy entered, he put his tail in the air and slowly walked away from her up the stairs. Lucy snarled at the cat’s departing rear and went into the kitchen to continue her preparations. She noticed cat hairs on the table and felt the surface. Warm. “Damn that cat!” she shouted. She left the kitchen and went to look for him. She felt like throwing him out the window. Jon spoiled that cat and that cat was awful! When she couldn’t find Grimaldi, Lucy returned to the kitchen. She grabbed paper towels and soaked them with soap and hot water and scrubbed the kitchen table. She could not begin to think of cooking with cat stuff all over.
Grimaldi in the meantime was very pleased with himself. He had gotten away with something. He considered jumping up on the bed but then thought he’d better not push his luck. He knew that if Lucy eventually figured out that he had been sunning himself in the middle of the kitchen table she would have it in for him. He meandered into Jon’s studio.
Jon was absorbed in his painting. There was a cup of cold tea and a cheese sandwich on a side table. Grimaldi jumped on the table, lapped up some spilled milk and nosed the sandwich. He pushed the top piece of bread off and ate the cheese. Then he yowled his Siamese yowl. Jon turned around and smiled. He loved to look at Grimaldi. The cat was beautiful. Grimaldi sat and regarded Jon, blinking his blue eyes.
Jon stopped painting to admire Grimaldi. His colors were perfect – dark brown tail that began to meld into a sandy tan touched with sienna on the body and to flow back into dark brown down the graceful legs and upward to the ears. This warm autumnal brown, color of dried and dead leaves, was startlingly interrupted by the blueness of his eyes. There was something in the eyes that recalled the Mediterranean. But viewed from afar. Gazing down on the sea from the mountains above Amalfi. A blue like a cool bright turquoise (but not quite) sliced by glints of white sunlight. Jon could never quite capture their luster in paint. They were defined by light, not pigment.
In Jon’s mind Grimaldi was always associated with Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Years ago he had spent the autumn in Naples, looking at art and taking classes at the Accademia di belle arti. One day, returning from hiking the mule trails that wind upward from Amalfi, Jon had arrived in Naples and was making his way through the Circumvesuviana train station when he had spotted a mother cat in the dilapidated garden on the side of the passageway. She was nursing a number of kittens. Kittens of all colors – black, tiger, calico, even a single Siamese. It was odd that this mother cat was nursing so publically. It occurred to Jon that she might be hoping that some passersby would adopt them, for they were big enough to be on their own. Jon had been tempted to take the Siamese, but did not because the difficulty of getting a cat back to the States would have been too great.
Later, when a friend had two Siamese kittens he wanted to “get rid of” Jon took them, much to Lucy’s dismay and over her objections. They were regal; their coloring told of sand and sea and a distance that no human could ever transverse. He named one Grimaldi, for the ferry company that travels the seas surrounding Italy, and the other Grazia for the grace by which the kittens were saved from the kill-shelter.
In Jon’s studio, Grimaldi finished Jon’s lunch. He warbled, jumped down and careful not to disturb Jon’s paints, wove himself around Jon’s legs. He rubbed the easel with his upper lip to mark Jon’s place as his own. That was when Grimaldi smelled it. He smelled not Jon’s scent but an odor that meant the end of life. Grimaldi’s instinct was to hiss and run away from him.
Grimaldi had not forgotten his littermate, Grazia who one day suddenly emanated this same deadly odor that rendered her unfamiliar to him. From the time he first smelled it, had Grimaldi kept her at a distance. Grazia crept into the basement where she hid behind the furnace. She had stayed there for two days until Jon crawled underneath the furnace and pulled her out, limp and dusty. He had wiped her off and laid her ever so gently in a box. He then had put the box into the car and drove off. He returned alone.
Grimaldi did not like the way Grazia had changed and then vanished. Jon seemed dispirited too, as if he were retreating behind his easel but Lucy did not notice. Only Grimaldi was aware of the sense of something coming to an end.
These events had happened a long time ago in the span of a cat’s life, yet they were still with Grimaldi. His recollections were soon, however, sidetracked by Anna who was unusually busy in the kitchen. Interesting smells were floating all around. Grimaldi decided to take advantage of Anna’s good nature and plop himself down in the middle of the table to see what he could procure to eat. Anna didn’t mind. She was glad of the company and happy to be in a place that did not relegate cats to outdoors where they were expected to hunt their own food. Her adopted culture condoned treating animals as sentient beings, which Anna knew they were. So, working around Grimaldi, Anna began her American Thanksgiving preparations. She was making pumpkin pie, another custom she had adopted.
She offered Grimaldi crumbs of crust; she put a bit of condensed milk into his bowl. He happily consumed all, but when Anna opened the can of pumpkin, he went mad with delight. He mewed and rubbed her legs, nearly tripping her.
“Pumpkin is for cows, not cats,” she told him.
When the pies were finished baking, Anna put them on the dining room table to cool. Grimaldi jumped on the table and tried to lick one. Anna picked him up and carried him out of the room. Then she closed the door.
While Anna was relaxing, reading the Corriere della sera Grimaldi made his way to the door of the dining room. He jumped and grabbed hold of the door knob with his paws. As he dropped, the knob turned and the door opened a crack. Grimaldi pushed it open, jumped on the table and ate the center of one of the pumpkin pies, grateful that he had figured out a way to get in and grateful that Anna loved life too much to deny any creature a measure of enjoyment.