In the Beginning

My parents’ lives began in Italy. In Southern Italy, to be precise, in the small villages that dot the area below Naples; an Italy that is nothing like the idyllic images Americans may have of Tuscan vineyards, where romantic men ride mopeds and buxom women with impossibly dark eyes hang laundry on the line, grape vines and lemon trees winding along the background as they do in fables.

This is the Italy—especially when my parents were young, in the mid-1950s—of women with whiskers protruding from their cheeks and teeth missing from their mouths, of vendettas, of grievances settled without the law, of dusty brown-and-gray fields sprouted with potato plants and hazelnut trees, of worship of patron saints because curses abounded and people were envious and not afraid to use them to usher in your demise. It was a time and place where magic and Catholicism mixed, where God was often God and the devil in one—He made you suffer and He saved you from even worse suffering—and doctors cost too much to be called upon or they took chickens as payment, but who had a chicken to spare, let alone a lira, so herbs and women with The Sight were used to cure, as were prayers and penance and sacrificial gifts like the one my mother made after her wedding day. She brought her wedding dress to a mountaintop where the church of the Madonna di Montevirgine sat and left the gown on the stairs as offering, asking in return for a blessed marriage.

During Easter, as teenagers, my parents took a fold-out box record player that spun 45s and, along with friends and a lunch of bread, cheese and fruit, traveled up into the mountains to la fontana vecchia, the old fountain, which dates back to the days of antiquity and whose waters, flowing out of the faded stone façade beside the small chapel where the peasants once gathered on high holy days, are deemed the purest a man can drink. There, they danced. A scattering of teenagers breaking the heaviness of the land they were born into with their white pocket t-shirts and pink swinging skirts, breaking the brown monotony of the fields with their laughter, with their records spinning some song by Little Tony or Bobby Solo. In those days, it was both as dark and innocent as that.

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