by Natalia Nebel
First Room in Italy
At my grandmother’s house in Italy, I shared a bedroom with my sister Clara. My bed was near two large, glass doors that opened onto a balcony. A clothesline ran across it, and every late morning Marisa, my grandmother’s cleaning lady, hung clothes on that line, and every late afternoon she took them away. The practical use of what I considered our balcony bothered me, felt invasive. Our room had an armoire and a large chest of drawers in it, both filled with blankets and sheets, only a little space set aside for the few clothes we had. We weren’t poor, but my mother had been a child in Italy during World War II and she’d retained a frugality brought about by food rations and heatless winter nights. She never became comfortable with the prosperity that marriage to my American father gave her.
I remember one of her brothers, Peppino, telling me how anxious my grandparents were over my mother’s 1957 marriage to a near-total stranger who’d take their daughter to the United States. When I was in high school, on one of my annual summer trips to Italy, Peppino told me that my grandmother, to soothe herself before my father’s arrival for the wedding, would say, “He seems like a respectable young man.” Peppino began laughing at this phrase, and I joined him, because my father was more respectable than she could have imagined. His morality, which had been passed down to him from his German father and Canadian mother, had its source in a puritanical worldview that was the anthesis of the generous and forgiving Italian approach to life. I was nine months old on my first trip to Italy when my mother took me there to meet her family, my family. Three months later, on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean back to America, I learned to walk. My mother said that the ship’s listing developed my balance, and that the ship’s captain “fell in love with me” and spent hours with his arms stretched out towards me, encouraging me to get up and begin trying again whenever I fell.
In the room that Clara and I shared, the sun that came in through tiny shutter gaps woke me early every morning. I wanted to get out of bed and rush downstairs, eat a slice of just baked bread loaded with Nutella and drink fragrant milk that came in small, triangular boxes, then go outside and explore our village’s main street and public garden with my mother and Clara. Instead, I had to be patient. And so, within the background noise of a rooster crowing, I turned on my side to watch the sunlight that came in through the shutters go from pale to bright, and waited for my mother to wake up so that I could start the day.
My mother, her four brothers and her sister, spent twenty thousand dollars each to replace a chapel that had been built by our ancestors on the road that led from our village Pieve Torina to the highway and the world beyond our mountains, fields and streams. The chapel had been built in the early nineteenth century to commemorate a miracle. Coming down the winding road from their estate, comfortable in a carriage pulled by two horses, my great-great-grandparents were saved from a bandit who waited for them at the intersection of their road and Pieve Torina’s main street; a bolt of lightning crashed out of a cloudless July sky at the moment he came out of hiding. Thunder made my great-great-grandparent’s horses rise on their hind legs, caused the coachman to lose control of the carriage, and forced the bandit to turn on his heels. Out of gratitude for God’s intervention, my ancestors built a small chapel on that site, and organized an annual July procession from town to their chapel. They held a mass in front of its stone altar and a painting of the Virgin Mary that they’d commissioned.
The new chapel was much larger than the one that it replaced, and at night its expensive stone walls were lit by hidden solar lights to discourage vandalism. The altar from the old chapel had been transferred there, but because the painting Madonna had been stolen in the 1970s, an artist painted a new Mary that included a miniature depiction of the miracle: lightning, panicked horses, fleeing bandit. My mother told me that she’d asked the artist to add a scene of a car accident that my sister Clara and I had survived, but that there hadn’t been enough space.
I was a junior in high school and driving the family car with Clara as a passenger, when we were broadsided at an intersection by a pickup truck on a street near our suburban home. I remember our car spinning up on a lawn that belonged to one of my classmate’s. It came to a stop near a tree. Clara and I stepped out of the totaled car without a scratch. My classmate’s mother came out to make sure that we were all right, offered us water that we said no thanks to, and then left us to call the police. Clara said that there was no reason for her to be there, since she hadn’t been driving, and she turned her back on me, began to walk home. I watched her become small and smaller and then disappear when she turned onto another street. While I watched her, two men got out of their pickup truck and yelled at me. One of them asked me where I’d learned to drive, and I said, “New Trier East,” because that was the answer to their question. For some reason, they stopped yelling at me after my response. I stood on the lawn by myself, waiting for the police to arrive, conscious of being completely alone thirty feet from two furious men. The next day, my father raged and called me terrible things because the officer who’d inspected the car told him that I’d been playing the radio loud.
It shocked me that my mother had thought of asking an artist to paint a deeply frightening and shaming an experience of mine, and maybe that’s why I never joined the reinstated chapel ceremonies. The closest I came to participating was when I was in my mid-thirties and, inside my Chicago home, I watched a video that my cousin Luca posted online of a procession, a mass, and then a reception on the surrounding green. My large family talked, drank white wine, ate local cheeses and Ciauscolo sausage near our chapel that depicted a two-hundred-year-old miracle, while cars on the highway sped by beside them.
Best Room in Italy
My grandmother’s dark, silent bedroom was a great mystery for me when I was young. I entered it only once as a child, at the invitation of Uncle Venanzio. He visited my grandmother three times a week, and when he was with us, his tallness, black beard and confident voice dominated our home. A doctor, he’d check his mother’s blood pressure and blood sugar levels on every visit. One afternoon, he left the door to her bedroom open while he was doing these tests, and when he saw me as I went from my bedroom past my grandmother’s room to go downstairs, he said, “Come in, come in! Spend a little time with us! I’m taking your grandmother’s blood pressure.”
I entered, too overwhelmed by the surprise of this invitation to speak. My mother and her siblings considered their mother a saint, and so I felt that I was entering not only my grandmother’s room, but a sacred place. The room’s furniture consisted of one large bed with a highly polished, walnut headboard, an armoire, and a dresser that was twice the size of the one in the room that Clara and I shared. Over my grandmother’s bed, there was an antique, wooden cross no more than eight inches tall with the fading, gold outlines of a painted Christ, and on her dresser, a white linen cloth with a basket of colorful flowers embroidered on it. She had an adjoining bathroom, the only bedroom in the house that had that luxury, and her window looked out over our home’s patio that was paved in lovely aqua-color tiles, a lawn with a few trees for shade, and a field adjoining our lawn that wasn’t ours but that we had full use of for our soccer matches. The rooster that I heard every morning lived in this field, but neither he nor the chickens were there during the daytime.
My grandmother Peppina was wearing one of the custom-tailored black dresses that made up her dress collection. That summer, I’d noticed that her dresses weren’t completely black. They had subtle, dark gray patterns made from extremely thin stripes, small dots, dashes or tiny leaves. She’d begun wearing black at the age of forty-five, after her son Gabriele died during the war, shot by a deserter whom he’d come across one night while patrolling with a group of friends. In Pieve Torina, the many old women who dressed in black like my grandmother made it impossible to ignore mortality, and even as a child in Pieve Torina, seeing them made me feel connected to an ancient stoicism and a time when every decision had meaning and importance within the context of a community.
That day when I entered my grandmother’s room, she smiled at me and her eyes shone warmly. I stood in front of her while she sat on her bed, a blood pressure cuff around her upper right arm, and I didn’t speak because I didn’t know what to say. And so, all I did was take in the person whom I’d been told was a saint, my grandmother who kept her grey hair braided into a bun at the back of her head, who moved slowly, even timidly, and who smiled often but who remained mostly quiet, like me.
Ten years later, in 1985, my Uncle Mario inherited that house. He slept in his mother’s bedroom and added to it a tiny room with a window that looked directly into trees. My Paradise Room, he called it. There, he kept a desk and two chairs, one for deskwork and the other to relax in. I thought this room elevated from the rest of the world because you had to walk up two steps up to enter it. Mario died ten years later, his three sons inherited the house, and two decades after that, when I was in my late forties, my cousins gave me that room to sleep in when I returned to Pieve Torina to heal from brain surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. I lived and worked as a translator in Chicago, but I considered my Italian family’s tiny mountain village my home. My mother inherited a house near my grandmother’s which went to Clara and me after she died, but I preferred to stay with my cousins and feel again the happiness that I’d known as a child.
My cousins’ children played billiards and board games until past midnight, just as we had when young, and even though they kept me awake, it gave me pleasure to listen to them and know that my grandmother’s room would be theirs one day, the fourth generation in that home. I also understood that my grandmother had heard us from her bedroom at night when we thought her asleep, and I became grateful to her for never asking us to quiet down. And when I was in her room, I moved carefully, afraid of interrupting the deep silence that she’d left behind.
Two nights before I was to return to Chicago, a rattling noise woke me up. I opened my eyes, understood that all the furniture in the room was shaking, thought “This is an earthquake, but it will stop now.” It increased in power before it finally stopped. I waited for a half-minute before getting out of bed and opening my door. My cousin Roberto was in the landing along with his twelve-year-old son, Riccardo. Roberto had turned on the hall lights, which meant we still had electricity. The three of us went downstairs to the large kitchen-dining area. I sat down on a couch, Riccardo sat down on the couch across from me, and Roberto sat in Mario’s favorite, red leather armchair. Riccardo noticed that I was shaking and brought me a blanket. Eventually, our cousins and their children who were staying in the homes that they’d inherited from their parents came to my grandmother’s house, and before long there were twelve of us in the room.
“I heard an explosion, a horrible bang,” “I got ready to die,” “I didn’t run even though I wanted to.” And then, “What’s that?” We listened. Car doors were slamming shut and engines starting. Roberto said, “People are leaving,” and Riccardo asked if we could go too and Roberto said, “No,” without hesitation. I wasn’t sure that the worst was over, and like Riccardo I would have liked to leave, but I didn’t have a car or anywhere else to go. And so, I remained there with my family listening to cars fly past us on the highway while we talked.
Another earthquake struck our region three months after that. Its epicenter was a half-mile from Pieve Torina. It destroyed my family’s five homes and our commemorative chapel, and it made our town uninhabitable. Evacuation, and then Pieve Torina and its homes were cordoned off. The government went on to raze all the town’s structures and, in compensation, provided full-time residents with small, factory made homes on the outskirts of what had been a four-centuries-old town. Shortly after that, my cousin Ugo emailed me a photo that showed our home’s collapsed walls and exposed rooms, and I remember looking at it and feeling a sadness too profound for words or tears. And then, unexpectedly, I was grateful that my parents were no longer alive. Their deaths meant that they’d been spared the loss of our history, our town, our homes, and our beautiful rooms that we’d thought permanent, but were not.
Natalia Nebel is a writer and translator (Italian to English) whose fiction and translations have been published in a variety of literary journals, including Fifth Wednesday Review, Burnside Review, Great Lakes Review, Free Verse, Prague Review, Triquarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Newcity and Chicago Quarterly Review. She’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and was nominated for the AWP First Journal award in both the essay and short story categories by Northwestern University where she’s enrolled in their MFA in Prose and Poetry program. Her personal essay “Lazarus” was named a notable essay by 2019 Best American Essays.