Sperlinga’s Man — and Woman — Caves


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Who would want to live in a cave?  Cold, dark, inhospitable, perhaps. But generations of Sicilians and Materans lives in caves, up until th 1960’s. About a month before our  Sicily trek, I read  in The New Yorker about the grotte, primitive limestone cave dwellings in Matera, a town in the boot of Italy. in the 1920’s  Mussolini tried to move the cave dwellers of  the Sassi (“rocks”, or “stones”)  into   the “green countryside,” but he wasn’t successful. After World War II, well-meaning city planners  who moved  residents found into  standard  shoebox apartment complexes. The empty caves became havens for low-level criminals—sex workers, drug dealers. Then the artists began to move in, plumbing and electricity were installed, Sassi became a UNESCO world heritage site, and today, the caves house fancy nightclubs and trendy restaurants.

I was so caught up in reading student essays and portfolios and computing final grades, that I failed to pay close attention to our Sicily walking tour itinerary. I’m surprised to learn that Sperlinga, the locus of our Day Three afternoon walk, features grotte, too, though not as complex as those in Matera—no common courtyards where residents of the caves congregated, baked bread in a common oven, no hours-long walks down the rocky hills to work in the fields. And certainly no nightclubs or chic bistros—at least not yet, and not likely in the near future.

After lunch on Day Three, we climb into the white van. The three overflow trekkers ride along in the Skoda station wagon with Martina, and we drive from the Villa Raino to Sperlinga, a distance of 20 kilometers. We’ve been promised a tour of Sperlinga’s eleventh century castle, but earlier in the day, back in the Gangi café, our tour leader Stephen learned from the barista that the fortress was closed to visitors due to falling rock. When we approach the fortress, we see construction tape laced up and down the walkways carved into the rock. Like many of the Sicilian roads, this structure is either under repair or scheduled for repair someday— and access is impossible. All we know is that the site is chiuso per frana— which translates as “closed due to a landslide.” Stephen tells us a bit about this castle’s history—a fortress thousands of years ago, tunnels and catacombs used by early Christian sects, the Angevins sought protection there during a siege by the forces of Aragon, in the thirteenth century Vespri siciliani; the Sicilian Vespers. Though most of Sicily rejected the Angevines, Sperlinga protected them. Thus, the plaque near the castle entrance, in Latin: Quod Siculis placuit sola Sperlinga negavit (Sperlinga alone refused what pleased the Sicilians).

The siege of Sperlinga lasted 13 months.By the early fourteenth century the castle had come into the hands of 1324 by the Ventimiglia family—whom we remember from our earlier walk around Gangi.

But we cannot climb up the fortress and explore the tunnels, so it’s on to the Caves.images

Martha Stewart might not find  the caves hospitable environments for easy living. We climb up worn stairways hewed into the side of the sandstone. Near the top we steady ourselves by grasping the old iron railing on the edge of the narrow walkway, then it disappears. I have a bit of vertigo as I hug the side of the path nearest the cave doors. I try not to look down into the small yards of houses beneath us, but cannot ignore laundry hanging out to dry, potted plants, rubbish bins, old tools leaning up against houses. I look back to my right as we come to the first dwelling. The battered wooden door stands half-open, and inside are fragments of old furniture, cook pots and crockery. I peer inside where the ceilings and walls are blackened from smoke, and we notice the chimney near the front of the room. The cave is small—tight quarters, about three meters on each side. A bit of light comes through the door into the first room, but the second room is almost completely dark. Most of the rooms have a single light bulb strung up in the ceiling, but one imagines more elaborate setups when people still lived here. One author recounts a cave home complete with functional microwave, wainscoting, wood paneled walls and even wedding crystal!

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As we move along we peer in to each cave, seeing the sparse detritus of those who last lived here in the 1960’s: a mattresses, a coffeepot, a lone chair, a rusty tool. The commune of Sperlinga purchased the cave homes a few decades ago, and relocated the holdouts to cinder block apartment houses. But a few intrepid folks might have camped out here not too long ago, perhaps for a tryst or an overnight anthropological adventure.

I think about the generations of those who lived in these caves, from recent memory back through the centuries, from different cultures, under different flags and crests, ruled by different absentee royalty and churchmen who traded Sicily back and forth while people cooked their meals, had their babies, made love, quarreled, and left their caves to their children as an inheritance.

One of our group who has walked on ahead  calls out to the rest of us, “This one has a lovely terrace!” We follow the found of her voice  through a two-room cave and onto a stone balcony almost the size of the second room. We look out from our perch onto newer structures, cheek by jowl with the caves. Perhaps I’ve been in the caves too long today, but to me they’re a far better sight than the boxy yellow apartment building in the foreground from the cave terrace. I bet Martha Stewart would agree.

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We walk around the village a bit but it begins to rain, the day grows cooler and by the time we return to the Villa, all we want is a cup of tea. The young woman who works at the desk brings us glass pitchers full of hot tea with lemon and a plate of warm vanilla cookies the mama has baked. We relax on our easiest day of the trek, a mere  9.5 kilometers, and gird our loins for tomorrow, a demanding hike through the Parco della Madonie.

Day 3 ends with a fine supper: two primi, pasta with broccoli and salsicce, and spaghetti with basil and tomato sauce; a secondo of thinly sliced grilled lamp chops and more salsicce. The dolce is fruitti—local strawberries, cherries and apricots—and chocolate cannoli. We eat heartily, because tomorrow we will walk 23 kilometers to our next accommodation in the mountains of the Madonie Park.

 MC Escher Cave Dwellings Near Sperlinga, Sicily,1933

Sicily from the Center to the Sea, Day Three: Commune Di Gangi and Sperlinga

Gangi, from the road below
Gangi, from the road below

I would‘ve scoffed if someone had told me I would spend my thirty-first wedding anniversary schlepping up a very steep hill a half hour after breakfast. Seven of our group set out from the Villa Raino for the village of Gangi, not far away in distance, but at a much higher elevation than our lodgings, a former baronial estate. Martina will drive the others into Gangi for the morning’s tour through the town, said to be one of the most charming in Sicily.

A young woman who works at the Villa yells at the white dog, still loitering around the carpark, but he seems to think he belongs here.  He he runs away a short distance and when her back is turned, quietly returns to the car park for a lie-down.

The small knot of walkers is assembling. I look across the grounds of the villa to a mountainside dotted with sheep, perhaps the same ones I had seen the day before as my husband and I walked gingerly down the slope that led away from Gangi. For me, that was no challenge. Today, it’s another story. I take a deep breath as we start moving, our leader Stephen out in front.

Once we are on the paved road, I see that the climb ahead is dramatic and daunting. I’m winded before we are ten minutes into the ascent. I bring up the rear, but make it to the top of the slope, then a little higher onto a road back into Gangi. A couple of donkeys watch us as we move along at a good pace, now that the lane is almost level underfoot. We spy Martina in the white ATG van just ahead; she’s just dropped off the other four at the meeting place, a small café. We order espressos and cappuccinos, and after a ten- minute caffeine infusion, are off to explore Gangi. Stephen provides us with background on medieval, modern, and postmodern history. It’s an ancient town, built –one theory goes—by the Greeks, or more likely, by the Romans. In the thirteenth century it was destroyed during the Sicilian Vespers War, and rebuilt in the early fourteenth century by the Ventimiglia family.

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We walk past the Palazzo Bongiorno, now the Town Hall, and on to the piazza del Popolo, where a plaque commemorates vittime della Mafia, the victims of the Mafia. Some of us pull out our cameras or our cell phones. Stephen tactfully tells us it’s bad form to take photos of ourselves under the plaque. He tells us of the Mafia’s long history in Sicily, from the hired men whose job it was to protect baronial estates of absentee rulers and landlords—off living in Swabia or France or elsewhere—from roving bandits who raided the farms and estates. Over time, these protectors assumed more and more power, and were, in effect, the only ones controlling the brigands, a private police force of sorts. The Mafia persists, but in different ways—perhaps not so visible to tourists, and perhaps more focused on protection schemes for shops, construction contracts, and the more mundane stuff of HBO television series?

We pass by the town fountain and learn of the siege of Gangi in the late 1920’s by Caesare Mori, known as the Iron Prefect. Appointed by Mussolini to eradicate the Mafia, Mori, with Il Duce’s blessing, carried out house to house searches, tortured, took hostages, including women and children, and specialized in humiliating his victims. When we get home, we’ll see if we can track down the DVD of Il prefetto di ferro, a 1970’s film by Pasquale Squitieri, starring his longtime companion Claudia Cardinale.

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Sobered by the accounts of sieges, absentee princes, the Mafia, and Partita National Fascist, we visit a couple of Gangi’s thirteen churches. We maneuver up steep lanes, past houses with large terra cotta pots of geraniums and herbs on doorsteps, and up narrow stone stairs to the Chiesa Madre, dedicated to San Niccolo. Here, we pass by nineteenth century artist Filippo Quattrochi’s carved wooden sculpture of San Gaetano, and walk behind the altar to the sacristy. Occupying one enormous wall is Salerno’s seventeenth century masterpiece, L’ultimo Giudizio, The Universal Judgment. Patterned after Michangelo’s version of this theme in the Sistine Chapel, the painting seems hidden away in this part of the church, but as we soon learn from the priest, the painting was moved from the rear wall of the church when an organ was installed there a few centuries later. The painting is rich with New Testament imagery—St Michael the Archangel, souls waiting to be ferried to purgatory, Christ at the center, the Virgin Mary kneeling at his right side, the separation of legions of the saved from those of the damned, the cherubim and assorted other angels. We could spend the rest of the day there, picking out details and puzzling over their theological significance.

But there’s much more to see, so we move back into the nave and have a look around at the side altars and the sculptures. Just when we have had our fill, Stephen and the padre begin to converse by the church door. He’s a small, round man with glasses, and he speaks with great confidence and authority. At first, Stephen listens, then translates for us. Then as the back and forth between the two speeds up, I try to catch some vocabulary that is close enough to my high school Latin and my elementary school Italian lessons with Signora Clement. I decipher about one out of every ten words: poesia, musica, danza, morte. We all nod; some of our group knows Italian, so they nod more knowingly. Art was always a matter of close communication between the artist and the clergy, the padre tells us.  All this history and art, as well as the climb up Gangi’s hilly lanes, has made us hungry, so it’s back down the mountain to the Villa for another delicious lunch: a salad of ripe red tomatoes, and another of radicchio, blue cheese and pear, charcuterie, pecorino and provolone cheeses, crostini, sundried tomatoes, ripe apricots. There’s Sicilian wine, of course– one red and one white, and to finish it all, the dolce. Martina has wowed us once again.

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               Next: The troglodyte caves in Sperlinga.

From Enna to Gangi and the Villa Raino: the First Long Walk

The Enna Duomo
The Enna Duomo

Our first morning in Sicily is dry and sunny,  a good day for walking. We gather in the breakfast room at the Grand Hotel of Sicily at 7:15, and find that we are a bit early. The hotel workers hasten to accommodate us, and we survey the generous offerings: rolls, bread, croissants, yogurts, eggs, muesli, butter, jam , peanut butter, honey, Nutella, and of course, the most necessary item—coffee. We’ve slept well, but our jet lag persists. After breakfast, we return to our room, quickly pack up our bags and leave them outside our room for Martina to take to the van. We meet our tour leader Stephen in front of the hotel. We’re right in the town square, and we wander around a bit as we wait for the other trekkers.

Enna is seated in the very center of Sicily—Cicero called it Mediterranea maxime. We notice wildflowers and weeds growing out of chinks in the walls below the hotel, and look over to the Duomo only steps away from the parking area in front of the hotel. The very tall doors are closed. I walk up the steps and peer at the inscription over the door. By now all eleven in our walking group have congregated. We climb into the van, and Stephen takes us on a spin through Enna and to the Castello di Lombaria. He parks and we walk around the Castle. In the distance, we can make out Mount Aetna, though clouds blur our view. I imagine smoke pouring out of it, but all I can discern is haze on haze. It’s my first volcano.

Etna
Etna

We return to the van, drive to our nearby embarkation point, and leave it behind for Martina to fetch while we make our way towards Gangi, a distance of about 21 kilometers—though I am still mentally converting kms into miles. The rough road from Enna is an ancient one, running alongside fields and pastures. We begin with a steep incline, and suddenly more than half of our small group has made it up the hill. My heart is pounding and I am sure I will never catch up with them, never mind complete the five-day walk to Cefalu. I stop to take some deep breaths, remembering what my yoga teacher says about belly breathing. A fellow walker stops just behind me on the path. It’s Charles, who says dryly, “We all went up the hill like goats, didn’t we?” I try to laugh and take in deep breaths at the same time. I start on, breaking deeply as I go. Lesson number one: pace myself.

It’s late spring in Sicily, and wildflowers are everywhere. Bright red poppies grow in the fields, next to rocks, in the tiniest spaces in stone walls or stone walks. Thistle, dandelion-like stuff, and rugosa line the drove roads. The group bunches up when the road is more or less level, and spreads out in a line when the road is steep. From time to time we stop at the intersection of our road with another, and sometimes we take the one less traveled, a grass path that takes us by small farmhouses and little vegetable gardens with artichokes, an olive tree or two, tomatoes. We navigate barbed wire fences and gates fashioned of more bared wire and crude poles made from tree branches, tied shut with an old piece of rope. Just when I think I cannot take another step, Stephen points to the macadam road in the near distance and tells us that Martina is waiting there with lunch. We walk on for another fifteen or twenty minutes, the white ATG van a welcome beacon.

Santuario di Padre Pio
Santuario di Padre Pio

We  picnic near a small roadside shrine in honor of Pio of Pietrelcina, canonized in 2002. Revered for his piety and wisdom, for much of his life, Padre Pio bore the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, and. As if to prove this, a photograph of his face and hands showing the colorized red stigmata sits on a small stand next to the statue on its pedestal. Flowers in planters surround the base. And soon, some of us enter the little shrine, balancing our plates of insalata di frutti, rocket and shrimp, and ripe tomatoes with olives as we settle onto the wooden benches. Others prefer to sit on a stone wall adjacent to the shrine, soaking up sun and drinking Sicilian wine. Martina has chosen two for today There’s melone and dolci. A few of us take turns crossing the road one by one and availing ourselves of the plein air loo. (I notice that we two lone Americans on this trek are adopting Briticisms. ) I’m ready for a nap after my four ounces of wine, but we have at least three more miles through the village of Gangi, said to be the most charming in Sicily.

I pull myself to my feet. Okay, as Padre Pio says, “Pregate, speranza, e non ti preoccupare.”—“Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” I try not to worry that I won’t make it through 13 miles of walking today.

Today is the Feast of Spirito Santo in Gangi, and preparations are well underway for the event, which begins that evening. A traveling carnival  has set up its rides and stalls  across from the Chiesa de Sancto Spiritu. We peek into the church,  then wend our way up and through the city. The hills are killing my calves. My husband’s feet are starting to complain. Neither of us says this aloud—a simple look exchanged between us conveys our state of mind.

The last leg of the trip is downhill, a rest for my taxed cardiovascular system, but no break for my spouse, whose wide boots and narrow feet have made a bad marriage. The road we walk out of the city passes by several homes with loudly barking dogs, some of which race up and down along the fence, warning us to scram. The houses become farther and farther apart, and we see chicken and roosters, and the occasional goat penned in with yet more barbed wire. Quieter, more phlegmatic dogs sit quietly in rough driveways. We round the bend and there is the descent—a dry road encrusted with large rocks, and cracks large enough to get a boot stuck in. Stephen points to a tiny spot at the foot of the mountain, far into the distance. “See that L-shaped building? The villa where you’re staying tonight is just beyond that,” he tells us. I can’t see anything but fields and sheep.

The descent is easy for some walkers, but we lag behind, as I want to keep my husband company and try to distract him as he painfully maneuvers down the hillside. We notice small shrines where driveways meet this road, little boxes with glass doors and the Virgin Mary inside. A farmer escorts his large flock of sheep across the road, from pasture to pen. Two dogs marshal the sheep. We stop to watch the action, and to rest our feet. A few paces later, a white dog begins to accompany us.

“Hello!” I say, then I realize the dog likely knows only Italian, so I try my limited stock of phrases from Signora Clement’s lessons years ago.

Giorno! Andiamo, I say, andiamo! The white dog sticks with us, down the hill, onto the paved road, and on up the road to the Villa Raino sign. He lies down next to a truck in the carpark. We are so far behind that when we half-stagger up the walk, everyone else in our group is sitting at small tables on the terrace.

“We’ve ordered beers!” they say. “Shall we ask for two more?”

Never a beer drinker, it occurs to me that a beer is exactly what I want. Plus a hot bath. Plus two Advils. Plus a nap.

Two out of four isn’t bad. We drink our beers, my husband limps off to tend to his feet, and we take turns showering in a slender contraption that looks like a tube (or the Orgasmatron in Woody Ellen’s 1973 movie, Sleeper) . We don our dinner clothes (the trip organizers from Oxford, U.K, called for “smart/casual” so we’re not sure if we are over or underdressed). There is an unusual tamarind infused aperitif concocted by the padrone, the Villa’s owner, and then prosecco to celebrate surviving our first walking day, albeit with a few bumps, grass burns, and sore toes. Stephen outlines plans for the next day: We will walk to Gangi and then drive to Sperlinga to tour the troglodyte cave dwellings.

We move on to dinner inside the Villa’s dining room. Martina describes the primo, the secondo and the wines, and we refuel and imbibe. And we get loud. Very loud. I wonder if we are driving the Villa’s French guests away.

The food is fresh and local, the mama who does all the cooking knows her stuff, and by ten o’clock, our bellies are full of pasta and chicken, and we fall into bed dreaming of wild fennel taller than we are, red poppies, and rocks– an endless array of large, pointed rocks underfoot as we scale the steep Sicilian hills.

Walking an Ancient Road  to Gangi
Walking an Ancient Road to Gangi

Sicilia, Walking from the Centre to the Sea. Day One: Enna to Gangi

Cathedral doors at Enna
Cathedral doors at Enna

In  early morning from  Boston via Dublin, we arrive  at  Gatwick Airport, London’s smaller terminal, a former aerodrome. Sleep-deprived, we wander around looking for a good breakfast, stumble upon a Pret À Manger, and consumer steel cut oatmeal, sandwiches, and fruit. Because we have seven hours to kill, we seek out a good coffee spot, passing the ubiquitous Starbucks, and finding a Lebanese café. The coffee is excellent, and we drag our wheelies down to the British Air desk to check our bags for the early evening flight to Catania.

The British Air agent directing traffic to various check in desks sends us to the shorter queue. She has unexpected good news for us: We’ve been bumped from economy class to first, which means we can park ourselves in” a posh lounge” (her words)  with coffee, tea, wine, salad bar, sandwiches, and comfortable chairs and sofas to doze on as we cope with jet lag. There’s even a private washroom area where you can go into your very own bathroom, complete with fluffy white towels, soap, shower, and commode. We’ve been on the road (or in the air or airport) Boston for 15 hours with little sleep, so the British Air lounge is a treat and a lifesaver. Thirty-six hours in the same clothes goes much better with a little wash-up, and this is definitely several notches above the airport restrooms. We take turns falling asleep on the plush armchairs. Around 4 PM, the lounge grows  noisy with the clatter of glasses, cutlery, and people conversing boisterously. I open my eyes and make a face.

“Look around,” my husband says, “People are having cocktails.” Almost every women over forty is holding a large stemmed glass of white wine. I wander past the coffee and tea station and around the corner, where the lounge continues in a space the same size at the first room. Along a mirrored wall is a full bar, stocked with spirits of every kind, most of them the expensive ones: Sky Vodka, Bombay Gin in its ice-blue bottle, Macallan and Oban single malt whisky, Johnny Walker red and Johnny Walker black. Sparkling cocktail glasses of all shapes and sizes, and red and white wine glasses line the shelves. A solitary man helps himself to some brown liquor, pouring it carefully into an ice-filled tumbler. I stroll back to the tea and coffee section and make myself a cup of tea.

We leave the posh lounge and make our way to the gate for our flight to Catania. People are queuing up. I notice two women with lovely silver hair sitting in the waiting area and chatting like longtime friends. When we line up, one of them notices my backpack, and the green tag our Oxford, UK group has issued. Introductions are made, and we meet Primrose from London and Lindy from Cambridge, who themselves have only just met in the waiting area. This is the recommended flight for our walking tour group. I scan the line for more of those green luggage tags.

The plane is small but the ride is smooth, and the dinner in first class is unexpectedly tasty. What we don’t realize is that almost everyone else on our “recommended flight” to Sicily will be ravenous by the time we land—they’re having only soft drinks or tea or coffee, not even a biscuit or a handful of peanuts.

We move quickly through Italian customs and congregate outside the single luggage carousel. We find our bags in short order and turn 180 degrees to see our tour leader and manager, with their official green shirts, waiting with a few people, all of whom have the familiar green tags on their luggage. Stephen, our tour leader, is a wiry, tan guy with a buzz cut. He’s speaking Italian one moment, and English the next, His accent is hard to pin down. It sounds like an admixture of English German and Italian.  As we soon learn, he’s from the States–Oregon, to be precise–but hasn’t lived there for years. He advises us that once all the group is present, we will be whisked off to the hotel in Enna, about 45 minutes drive away, where we will have dinner straightaway.  I look at my husband—signaling to him, oh, would that we had not consumed that full meal on the plane! All I can think about is sleep. Except for our catnaps here and there, we’ve been awake for 36 hours.

Introductions are made, there are handshakes and smiles, and most of us climb into the official tour van, while three others ride in the Skoda station wagon with Martina, tour manager and the hotel, food and wine expert. I nod off about a dozen times during the 45 minute drive. I keep opening my eyes to see mountains and fields, but I’m struggling to stay awake. I hear the others conversing in their perfect British accents.

“Dinner as soon as we arrive, in a very nice restaurant in the hotel— but not run by the hotel,” Stephen, our tour leader (I’m starting to think of him as our handler) announces. I look at my husband. “I’m not hungry,” I whisper. I, who am almost always hungry,  just want to go to sleep.

“We can’t not have dinner,” he says. “It would be rude. Besides, we’re getting the walking agenda for tomorrow.”

The Grand Hotel of Sicily, right on the central square of the provincial capital of Enna, is nothing like the Grand Hotel Budapest. It’s a smallish hotel, with a few potted palms across from a high reception desk, a tiny lift to the upper floors and a modest breakfast room off the lobby. We leave our luggage in the van—Martina and Stephen will tend to that for us—and walk downstairs to a very chic restaurant housed on the lower level of the hotel. I’m afraid that if I drink a glass of wine I will fall asleep in my plate, but I accept a glass of white, and listen to Martina describe the rest of the menu. “Tonight we will have a very fishy dinner,” she says, smiling broadly. We begin with three kinds of fish carpaccio. The swordfish is my favorite. The primi, pasta with local wild fennel, tomatoes, and tiny shrimp; the secondi, brochettes of swordfish and calamari. Then, salad. Then local fruits—pears, cherries, apricots and something I’d never eaten before, loquats. I don’t feel hungry, but I eat. And eat and eat. It’s all delicious.

Sated, we stand up, say our  buonanottes, and push in our chairs.

“Bags packed and outside your doors by 7:45 tomorrow morning,” Stephen announces. We will walk around Enna briefly, then  the serious trek begins. We’ll descend into a valley and walk  several miles along a drove road on the way to our next hotel, an old villa down the mountain outside the city of Gangi, reputed to be the loveliest in all of Sicily.

Bellies full, eyes already half closed, we climb the stairs to our room. On the small balcony we notice an exercise bike, and for some reason, this strikes us as extremely funny. We wash faces and brush teeth, set the mobile phone’s alarm for 6:45, and within minutes fall asleep.

Our hiking boots sit lined up in the corner, next to the brand new trekking poles. We have no idea how much our hearts, our calves, our quadriceps, our feet and our general balance will be challenged on the morrow, when we attempt to navigate the steep inclines and descents of the road from Enna to the postcard-perfect village of Gangi.

Wild fennel on the drove  road from Enna to Gangi.
Wild fennel on the drove road from Enna to Gangi.

Long Before I Went to Sicily…

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Every Tuesday afternoon, my friends Anne and Judy, and another girl I didn’t know as well because she was in the grade behind us, were unavailable for afterschool stuff—bowling at the Harford Lanes, a visit to the Hamilton Branch of the Pratt Library, walking home along Harford Road so we could stop at Wimpy’s, a penny candy store run by a very old man who patiently waited for us to choose one small sweet after another, which he slipped into a tiny paper bag. They had much more serious things in mind.

At recess there was talk about the Italian lessons. Anne’s mother was from Italy by way of Ethiopia, and she had married Anne’s father just after the war ended. “She’s a war bride,” my mother said, and she explained to me what that meant.

Mrs. Clement was refined and kind. She still had her strong Italian accent, and every word that came out of her seemed to end in a vowel. “Lina” was how she pronounced my name, and I loved the sound of it. Her real name was Enrica, but Dr. Clement called her Ricky. She wore delicate gold earrings, nothing like my mother’s bright round button earrings, all costume jewelry. She was a housewife, but the most well dressed one I’d ever seen. And she was the most cultured person I knew in those years. Dr. and Mrs. Clement took me along with Anne and her sisters downtown to classical concerts, the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo, and the art museum. Mrs. Clement cooked chicken cacciatore for the Girl Scout U.N. day potluck supper—it sounded, and tasted exotic and delicious.

So Mrs. Clement gave Italian lessons. I wanted in on that. Anne asked, Mrs. Clement said yes and welcomed me, and soon I had a special composition book for Tuesdays after school, an Italian grammar, a book of poems we had to learn by heart, and a copy of Pinocchio, in a special paperback edition that came with pages still uncut. Mrs. Clement used a letter opener to slit them open. The book looked like no other I’d ever seen. I scanned the first page for the name Geppetto, which I knew from the Disney movie. It wasn’t there. Mrs. Clement explained that this was the original story, and the puppet maker was called Mastro Antonio, and Geppetto appeared a bit later in the book. I skimmed the first page, looking for familiar words. There wasn’t a single one. This was going to be a lot harder than I had expected.

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Clement said. “We will start with some simpler words. The Adventures of Pinocchio— Le avventure di Pinocchio—must wait.”

We learned conversational Italian.

Come stai, Lina?

Molto bene, grazie, Signora Clement, et Lei?

We learned Italian telephone etiquette.

[Telephone rings]

Pronto! Chi parla?

Pronto, buongiorno. Sono Lynne!

 

And we learned poetry.

Primavera, una fatina.

We sat, four intent pupils and Signora Clement, around the dining room table, our books spread out next to our teacups. A plate of cookies, sometimes homemade, sometimes Oreos or Vienna Fingers from the package, sat in the center. The time magically flew by. I knew that at 5:30, I must be waiting at the door with my schoolbooks—and my Italian lesson books—packed, so I could dash down the front steps of Anne’s house to my mother, waiting in the driveway, always exhausted after her long teaching day.

Arrivederci, Signora, Anne, Judy, Charene.

Buonasera, mama. Come stai?

My mother smiled, and said she only knew French, and she wished that she, too, could learn Italian.

Andiamo,” I said. “Let’s go, Mom. I’m famished.” Mom put the Chevy wagon into reverse  and backed onto the street.  I could hardly wait till next week, when we would start  Le avventure di Pinocchio.

My poem, “Patissiere,” won an Honorable Mention in …

…the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards, and will appear in the Paterson Literary Review, Issue # 44 (Summer 2016).

If you’re near the Paterson NJ area next winter, come  hear me read imageson Saturday, February 6, 2016–details to follow!

May 17 in the Garden: Defining the Edges as I Consult the Genius of the Place

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Edging is  not my favorite garden chore, especially when the ground is as dry as it’s been these past weeks. My Preferred Method: line up the edger, push as hard as I can, and when met with resistance—by the thatch that seems to be everywhere in the back yard—jump on the edger to push through the matted sod. My edging is inferior to my son’s work, but he’s working till 11 PM so I’m on my own. My husband comes behind me and rakes up the pieces of sod, grass, stones that I trail behind me as I work my way around the large circular garden and up the hill.

I get sidetracked by the evening primrose, which each year mount an assault on the other perennials. No matter how many I yank up by their roots, the primrose find all available real estate and spread out around and within the marguerites, the Montauk daisies, the lupine, the iris. The proper roses could take a lesson from these invasive, fuzzy –leaved primroses.

The best part of the afternoon is the mulching. This year I ordered two yards of rich brown pine bark mulch, dumped unceremoniously in the driveway, which means parking our cars on the street for a week while we whittle the pile down. By five o’clock, the pile is a flat circle about four inches high, so I sweep up what’s left and shovel it into plastic tubs and drag it into the garage.

There is more edging to be done in the gardens in front of the house, but not today. I hook up the sprinkler and turn on the water, delighting in the way the dampened mulch looks chocolate-brown against the green of the perennials—daylilies, sedum, lupine, columbine, hosta.

Next step: discouraging the deer and rabbits from lunching on some of this stuff. I start a checklist for tomorrow: deer away, hot sauce, eggs, Great Horned Owl statue, scare tape.

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And the choreographer in me starts planning the steps for my rain dance.

“Walking at Day’s End”

Explain to me how the sea
Puts parentheses around the years
Since my father held my waist,
We jumped the waves,
And he sang off key to me.
So much time has stacked up….

 

You can read the full poem here, in the May 2015 issue of Poetry Pacific !

May 2 in the Garden: What I Did When I Should Have Been Reading Student Papers

When we drive up the dirt road to the cottage at noon this Saturday, we can see how taking down the three tall black locust trees at the very front of our property has opened up the sky. The underperforming rugosa that stood just next to the tallest locust can now get the sunlight it needs to grow, instead of sitting there year after year, a four-foot tall stick of a thing, with leaves but never blossoms. Its hairy stems already look more robust. I consider dosing it with rose food, even though I’ve been warned—rugosa are invasive around here.

Spading up earth that is more sand than anything else, excavating a large hole for the pink spirea I’ve dug up from my garden at home, carrying the sand back into the woods and dumping it—I can’t wait to tear open the bag of lobster compost. I mix a generous bucketful of it with dirt I’ve brought from home, and prepare the spirea’s new home. Then I run out of dirt—I always do when I garden on the Cape. So it’s back to the fenced- in vegetable garden to steal some loam for the spirea. “Promise I’ll return it,” I say to –to whom? To what—the spinach and arugula seedlings peeking up through the rich soil ? The garlic I planted in the cold rain last October? The dirt itself, sand, compost– and that expensive loam I bought last spring?

By four o’clock, I’ve raked and re-raked the bumpy terrain that our tree-cutter left when he and his Bobcat left the scene two weeks ago, and have installed the spirea and a small white azalea near the edge of the yard. I scatter some of the wood chips from the enormous pile the tree cutter left after he pruned branches of our neighbor’s large oaks that hung high over the fence, but dangerously near our little cottage.

Mary, our neighbor from up the hill, drives up the lane in her silver convertible. It’s too cold to have the top down today. She stops and calls out, “Looks lovely!”

“Work in progress,” I call back, and pull a trug full of roots and clods of junk grass back towards our woods, where a little valley forms the dumping ground for garden detritus– a huge, open compost pile.

By five, it’s time to put away the rake and shovel, leave my sneakers on the kitchen porch, and stumble inside for two Advil and a big glass of water. Soon the grill will be fired up, and the swordfish we bought earlier will be competing for space with corn on the cob, the first in from Florida this season, and a green pepper we’ll char for the salad.

The temperature falls to 40— a spring night on Cape Cod.

Three Poems: “Diva,” “Preparations,” and “Judgment”

Three of my poems  about the “Sixties, just published in Foliate Oak Literary mag–“Preparations,’ “Judgment” and “Diva” –in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

 

 

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Tree Cutting: Evicting the Black Locust

It’s been a long day of transplanting monarda I brought from my old community garden plot, picking up small stray branches, and replanting three dozen day lilies that were uprooted when the Bobcat, driven by George, our landscaping guy, pulled up one of three black locust trees, these strange undesirables that send out roots and runners  from the front of the property to the house. I’ve heard that black locust roots can penetrate a home’s foundation to do their magic, or their damage. Three of these towering invasives provided almost no shade but dropped ugly pods into the gardens and  shot out roots—and seedlings—in all directions. And those roots have the oddest, most unpleasant odor. In between stints digging, removing sand, adding compost to the  sandy holes and planting the bee balm and the uprooted lilies, I returned to the cottage and read first drafts  of  my students’ research essays.

It was more satisfying to transplant the monarda and the daylilies.

After a long drive home, and a tasty skillet meal of leftover bowtie pasta, mushrooms, a handful of frozen peas we almost forgot about, and some red pepper, it’s time for two ibuprofen and a hot shower. The final episode of The Americans is on at 10.

George was still handily picking up logs and brush with the Bobcat, when my Prius and I pulled out of the rocky driveway and headed towards Boston. The garden is starting to come alive, and without the black locusts.

The winter now seems very long ago, and I say, on with the spring.

“This is About Letting Go” in UK Yoga Magazine, April 2015

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Spring, Now and Then

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A friend asked me to send her a photo of the first robin I saw this spring. But the robins have been back for quite awhile, poking their beaks through the slowly melting mountains of snow, now hills of the stuff. Walking towards one of the oldest buildings on campus yesterday, as I climbed up the 40 slate steps to the door, I glanced back and saw a robin. No, two. No, there were three and as I stopped and watched them for awhile, I counted seven. I haven’t yet graduated to a smartphone, so I had no way to snap a picture of them, an extended family of robins.

The white crocuses outnumber the yellow ones emerging in our small front garden, by ten to one. The fingerling potatoes were more sprout than tuber after a week in the pantry. The thermometer says 35, but the sun is strong, and the landscaping trucks have emerged in suburban neighborhoods. Red Sox opening day is around the corner. It won’t be long before students will be lying out on the grass reading, talking, or just wool gathering.

On days like this, when I was an undergraduate, people would gather at the Sundial, in the center of the Columbia campus, for a rousing speech by an antiwar activist, or the reading of poetry by the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Kenneth Koch.  By late April of my junior year, students would take over Low Library, the administration building, and then march to Morningside Park to protest the new gym about to be constructed on a popular neighborhood playground. From there, more campus buildings were occupied, and we were all caught up in the political drama, whether activists, fellow travelers or observers. We thought the whole world was watching, and perhaps it was, if only briefly, before people turned back to their spring duties, picking up fallen branches, cigarette butts, and discarded candy wrappers from the parking strip.

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In print and online in Grey Sparrow Journal, Spring 2015!

You can find my work here.

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Primavera, una fatina: Vernal Equinox Blues, 2015

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Spring break for my college began three days ago. In this part of the world, the vernal equinox officially happened yesterday at 6:45 PM. Last night, another inch of snow, perhaps more, fell, freshening up the grey ragged piles of the stuff left over from February’s blizzards. Daffodils’ green shoots have appeared in the small garden that runs along the cement retaining wall in front of the house. The tall Norway pines branches are dusted with white–again.

One of our snow shovels is stuck fast in an ice pile on the deck. Leggy rose bushes, buddleia and spirea are calling me to prune their splayed branches. I have no idea where I’ve stashed my pruning shears, and one of my work gloves is missing. Black plastic trash bags stuffed with miscanthus clippings last November are still buried under the snow, around the back of the house near the arbor vitae. I see the yellow plastic drawstrings peeking out from the snow pile. If the snow ever melts, I will transfer the detritus from plastic to paper bags and put them out on the curb for the recycling truck.

Five or six large dry branches fell during the winter’s storms, so when the snow melts, we’ll make a burn pile and secure a permit to have a little fire before the rock garden comes alive with perennials. We’ll rake up the accumulated piles of sunflower hulls and scat under the bird feeder.

Today we’re feeling trapped inside, reading the news of two ongoing trials in Boston, pondering why our hockey team has been faring so poorly of late–and looking forward to attending a Red Sox home game in April. Today might look and feel like winter, but we’re more than ready to store our wool caps and gloves, and retrieve our baseballs caps from the back of the closet.

A memory from many years ago leaps to mind, a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Mrs. Clement’s kitchen table. It was a warm Baltimore spring. Our Italian grammar books and literature readers were spread out on the table next to half-cups of tea and a large plate that was nearly empty of cookies. On Tuesdays we had Italian lessons after school, and our homework for that day was to memorize a poem, Primavera. One by one, each of us four recited the lines, stumbling here and there. Mrs. Clement gently corrected us, helping us through the exercise. Primavera, una fatina

And now, I think to myself, Primavera, dove sei?

This week’s publications!

Three of my poems, “Diva,” ” Preparations,” and “Judgment,” have been accepted for publication in the May 2015 issue of the University of Arkansas’ Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, 

The 365th Day

This is the day we do that summing up.
Annoying, isn’t it, the way
we tally and sort the year’s days
into the things – or people – we like and those
that caused us pain? …

~You can find the rest of it here.

Flyin’


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At 6:30 a.m. on a snowy Thursday, BWI is already buzzing and the security lines are long. A young woman in turquoise sneakers with bright pink laces and a white down coat is right behind me in line. She jostles me as I’m tossing my belongings into three gray bins. I quickly stash my gear: my laptop, out of its case, my toiletries in their quart-sized Ziploc bag, my tiny handbag, and my jacket. I’m not moving fast enough for Ms. Turquoise Sneakers, and she starts to reach around in front of me, swinging her single plastic bin, but I quickly close the gap. I shoot out mental darts at her, warnings that say “Don’t mess with me, girlfriend.” She backs off about four inches and I nudge the bins down the metal table to the rollers, then push the first bin onto the conveyor belt and watch it all disappear into the x-ray machine.

I step quickly into  to the X-ray body scanner. I hold my arms over my head. My feet are firmly placed within the painted yellow lines on the rubber pad. I pretend to be George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” intent on speeding through the screening process.

This has been the airport drill since 9/11. I remember what it was like before, when I ran into the airport 10 minutes before my flight, jogged to the gate, and breathless, handed over my ticket—a real paper ticket purchased from a travel agent and sent to me through the U.S. mail. All seats on every flight were reserved. There were always window seats available. Dinner was served, or a sandwich, if it was a short flight. I paid cash for a glass of wine or a cocktail, two or three bucks at most. There were no laptops, no mobile phones. Smokers sat back and lit up cigarettes, exhaling smoke that traveled up and down the aisle. Passengers pored over newspapers or read paperback novels. The flight attendants— model-thin, under thirty, all dolled up in short skirts and full makeup— we called stewardesses, and males in that position were so rare that nobody bothered to call them much of anything.

There were cheap student fares on the New York-Boston or Boston-BWI shuttles, $25 each way, easily affordable even on a student’s budget. No reservations, standby for the cheap fares, and there always seemed to be one seat left, so I never planned my trips far in advance. Either I got on, or I waited for the next shuttle. With a novel to read, or a journal to scribble in, I had plenty of time to hang out at the airport. Long distance calls were expensive, so I would wait until I reached my destination to call a friend from a payphone. If my friend didn’t pick up, I called another one, until I found someone willing to fetch me from the airport.

There were small adventures along the way. When flights were delayed, I might hang out and meet a potential romantic partner. I might finish reading a novel, or The New York Times, all four sections, every column. I might write—using a pen and paper!— a sonnet or a four-page letter to a faraway friend reporting on school, job, roommates, and social life. Days and weeks might pass before I heard back from the letter’s recipient. And in the time between the posting of the letter and the response, there was time to wonder, imagine, fantasize, explore the possibilities. Did she sleep with that married guy from work? Did she go on the Pill? Did he break up with the love-the-one-you’re with girlfriend and choose the one who had gone off to Paris for a year ? Did they move to Vermont to start an organic farm?

At the airport, I might doze, sitting on the floor against a pillar, substituting my coat for a comforter, and trust that the airline personnel would rouse me when it came time to board. Sometimes, I missed my flight, and waited for the next one.

Less scheduled, more serendipitous, less structured, freer. Those who are the same age now as I was then, live in an environment tightly orchestrated by Siri, Tivo, Nest, Instagram.

Oh, what they‘re missing.

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What Do We Do When We Are Waiting

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I’ve spent the past day in the hospital’s family waiting room or at the bedside of my “loved one,” as the hospital volunteers like to say, doing what one does in these situations—waiting. It begins as soon as I park the car and make my way the fourth floor surgical unit. I wait to be escorted into the surgical unit where my loved one is also waiting—waiting for the nurse to review the medical history, take her blood pressure and check her pulse, waiting to be hooked up to the IV, waiting for the surgeon to see her and explain the procedure, waiting for the anesthesiologist to stop in to go over the conscious sedation protocol, waiting for the nurse to bring the gurney to wheel her into surgery.

We wait for over three hours. Everyone in our entourage is hungry, especially the loved one, who has fasted for 30 hours, with no more than a sip of water to take her morning medication. When she’s finally wheeled down to the operating room, I wander to the coffee stand, grab a 4 PM lunch. I return to the family waiting area, where there is more waiting to be done. Time passes, in a blur of nonstop television news coverage on a flat screen TV, reading a mystery novel on my Kindle, thumbing through a newspaper someone has left on an end table.

At last, the surgeon appears. All has gone well, he says, explaining the details. It will be a couple of hours more until the loved one is ready to be discharged. More waiting. The day slides by in minutes, half hours, hours of waiting, walking, stretching, bathroom visits, sanitizing hands for the twentieth time, more waiting.

At the end of the day it ‘s hard to fall asleep because the waiting has had an odd effect on me: after so much waiting, I am curiously energized. I find it impossible  to read myself to sleep. The digital clock says 12:30. I must be up and ready to leave for home by five. “Sleep fast,” my late, wise mother used to advise in such situations. So I do, tossing, awakening every half hour to find the green light of the clock staring at me: 3:30 4:15, 4:45. This time I wait until an hour before  dawn, when I can slip on my backpack, zip up my down coat, and head home and back to work.

I will be busy then, back in my teaching orbit, and done with the waiting, at least for the time being.

 

Waiting for Snowstorm # 6


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Blankets, yoga strap and two foam blocks rest on the yoga mat that I’ve stretched out before the fireplace. To make room for our impromptu back-stretching sessions, the rug is rolled up, placed tight against the CD cabinet. Sun pours in through the picture window. In the kitchen, containers line the windowsill, catching to drips from the ceiling, the result of ice dams on the roof. The compost container in the kitchen sink is stuffed with used coffee filters and their grounds, old tea bags, and vegetable parings. The freezer holds more compost, because it would be foolhardy to attempt our way through the five-foot high snowdrifts to reach the composter by the back fence.

Our 21-year-old cat hasn’t been outside for two weeks, and shows no signs of missing her nightly ten–minute strolls from kitchen to back deck and garden.

We’re caught up on laundry, and we’ve sorted through all the old bills, statements and old grocery lists that normally clutter our desks. We have gathered all our tax documents for the annual April ritual with the IRS, weeks away.

We’ve called my husband’s nonagenarian parents every day, even though we know they are safe, warm, and well nourished, tucked in at their senior living residence 22 miles away. Our sons email or text from their apartments in town—we’re fine, we’re digging out, we’re making pizza/chili/tacos tonight.

We have listened to Aretha Franklin singing diva favorites, Bill Evans on the piano—a 57-year-old recording that sounds strikingly contemporary, young Cecile McLorin Savant working her vocal magic on jazz standards, the Senegalese Orchestra Baobab. We have watched The Americans, Downton Abbey, and the Bruins on television—as well as twice daily weather reports on the New England News channel, where the reporters seem to have camped out for days in the studio.

Snow. More snow. And then, after a few days, more snow. Biblical snow, says our friend Elizabeth. We have no need of a gym to work our muscles: instead of using hand weights or fancy exercise machines, we shovel snow and hurl it five, six feet high, over the growing snow hill beside the driveway, or we carry it into the garage and tip the white stuff out the garage window onto a hollow made by the high winds.

Our next-door neighbor walks down the middle of our newly plowed street, walking Lily, his beagle. Lily sniffs the road and pulls at the leash. I lean against my snow shovel for a moment and say, “We are hardy New Englanders.”

“That’s what we need to keep telling ourselves,” Mark replies, and we both laugh. Lily pulls at the leash again, and off they go down the street, stopping at each house where an intrepid shoveller is clearing a walk or driveway. The wind is strong, dusting newly dug-out cars.

For dinner, we roast a chicken and make popovers. Tearing the golden rolls open, we inhale the aromatic steam, and settle in for another winter evening.

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Upon Finding That The Ceiling at My Office at Work Has Leaked

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The ceiling in my office leaked,

my carpet is a mess.

How long it will remain like this

is anybody’s guess.

 

Some books are trashed, some DVDs

are bathed in flakes of paint;

The scent of mold, and mildew there’s

enough to make one faint.

 

My 9th grade Odyssey is fine,

my con law books as well.

But one tenth of my holdings

are really shot to hell.

 

My car trunk’s packed with cartons

of stuff I want to keep.

I’ll have a Buddhist outlook,

and try hard not to weep.

Short fiction: “Take Gutman,” in Drunk Monkeys Online Magazine

Find the story here.

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On City Snow Days Gone By– Baltimore Sun Op-Ed, 2/8/15

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I grew up in the 1960’s, in a housing development that backed onto a small woods. Until our woods was razed and supplanted by apartment buildings, we used the “forest” to build forts and act out scenes from televisions shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We wore coonskin caps, carried toy rifles and used paper percussion caps to simulate gunfire. In summer, we played baseball in our backyards. Sometimes a fly ball would vault into the woods and get lost. Or a loose foul tip broke a basement window behind the makeshift home plate. There were rivalries: the boys against the girls, the bigger kids against the younger ones. But snow was the great equalizer.

More than two inches meant an official Snow Emergency in Baltimore. All cars were ordered off the major thoroughfares, and sometimes even the smaller residential streets like ours in Northeast Baltimore near the county line. Snow tires weren’t unheard of, but more often, people drove to the local gas station and had chains installed on their tires. Riding in a car with chains was a noisy enterprise at best, and sometimes one of the links would come loose and rap at the wheel cover—we called them hubcaps. Soon the ride sounded like a morning in a noisy Lowell textile mill— crash, clatter, crash, clink, bang….

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Click here to read the rest of this story  online in the February 8, 2105 Baltimore Sun.

Happy to report…

that my short story, “Take Gutman, “dm-logohas been accepted for publication by the online magazine “Drunk Monkeys.” Stay tuned for  publication details, forthcoming!

Baby, It’s ColdS Outside (and in)

January cabin fever sets in when the cold that’s been making the rounds comes home with you. I saw a butcher in our local grocery store preparing a package of Angus ground beef while his nose collected a big drip, no doubt the result of his spending too much time in the walk-in meat refrigerator before he came out to the warmer area.  Please, don’t drip snot on my hamburger, I thought.  I wondered, will cooking kill the germs? I sighed in relief when he finished wrapping the chopped meat in white butcher paper, weighed it, and slapped on the price tag. I tried not to stare at the drip that hung precariously at the end of his large, sharp nose. And I tried not to laugh.

I think back to where I might’ve met this cold virus. There’s a long list of suspects. The manicurist where I got my nails done, at Nail Perfection! Suze’s a warm, funny, kind person who came to the U.S. from Vietnam by way of Thailand two decades ago. The day I dropped into the nail salon, Suze had such a bad case of laryngitis that she couldn’t speak more than a whisper. “Go home!” I said, “Carrie can take care of me, or I can come back tomorrow.” Suze shook her head, took off her coat and said what she always says to me: “Pick your color, Lynne,” The salon, a small space crammed with four manicurist stations, was almost deserted. The salon owner, Carrie, wore a paper medical mask and applied gel to another client’s nails. On the overhead television, the local news reporters covered a bad traffic accident, then a feature on service dogs. Suze finished my manicure in record time, and left before I finished drying my nails under the magic machines that seal the nail lacquer in ten minutes. I may have left with more than dark blue polish on my nails–Suze’s cold and sore throat.

Or perhaps it wasn’t that at all. My cold and laryngitis might have originated with my friend or his partner, who hosted us for dinner that same evening. There were post-holiday hugs all around when we arrived, and more than a few sneezes. The day before I came down with my sore throat, I heard one of our hosts had been laid low by the rhinovirus.

In summer, at least it’s easy to go outside and bake in the sun, even go into the ocean and submerge, to clean out the sinuses. Winter in New England means the humidifier going all night, the heat on 68 during the day, 60 at night, layers of sweaters and heavy socks, lots of herb tea with honey, and a 20 year old house cat who thinks she wants to go outside, but never lingers outside for more than 30 seconds.

This time last week, I was in Miami, riding the eco tour tram around the Everglades, enjoying the egrets, the anhingas, and the alligators. Later that day I sat at a table outside the U of Miami Starbucks, sipping an Americano and reading my novel. I’d shed my boots, temporarily, for sandals. It was a joy to wear a sleeveless cotton shirt and linen pants. I ‘m starting to see why old people flock to Florida for the winter.

Give thanks for the following: over the counter cold medications, Bengal Spice tea, the Britta water filter pitcher, and fat, juicy, sweet red grapefruit piled up on the kitchen counter. Things could be worse.

New Year’s Non-Resolution

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January is the time to clean up and clean out. People are crushing and discarding old cardboard boxes, leaving the naked Christmas tree by the curb for the special post-holiday trash pickup, and packing themselves into the yoga studio, so that swan diving into Uttanasana won’t do, and everyone has to bend forward with arms stretched straight overhead so that we don’t crash into one another. The lines at TJ Maxx are more for returns than purchases. The mail delivery has fallen off dramatically, from those welcome stacks of Christmas cards from far and around the corner, to clearance catalogs from the few stores that haven’t heeded the request to Stop! Stop sending me catalogs!

Perhaps the days are growing longer, but it doesn’t seem so from where I sit. When I look up after an hour or so of deleting old emails and organizing files on my laptop, it’s dark. Darker than dark. No moon. Fog. And on the street, little piles of slush. The house should be warm and cozy, but not until I’m settled at the counter with a cup of tea do I stop feeling chilled. I’m trying not to think about how nice it would be to crawl under the electric blanket and the down comforter, double comfort, with an Elena Ferrante novel.

Buck up, I say to myself. Tomorrow the sun might come out, and if it doesn’t, who cares? I’m going to take a car to the bus, a bus to the airport, and then a plane to Miami, where I can break out my new walking sandals and warm up my New England bones. Partly cloudy, the forecast says. But partly cloudy and 80 sounds just about all right to me. In my head appear visions of tee shirts, sunscreen and a net bag of tree ripened oranges. An ode to key limes is in the queue.

My old friend Gina will pick me up at the airport and speed us off to dinner. I’ve done the work of de-Christmasing the house, boxing up ornaments we never use—and that no one ever really liked in the first place—and giving them away to an elderly lady who answered my Craigslist posting. The white amaryllis in the kitchen window isn’t close to blooming, so I won’t miss the January flower show.

When I get back in a few days, all freckled and warmed up, the acorn and spaghetti squash I’m up and leaving on the kitchen counter will be waiting for me, and the cubanos of Little Miami will be a pleasant memory.

Just remember to save a spot in the yoga class for me.

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© 2015 Lynne Viti. All rights reserved

New Year’s Musings

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The  people who lived up the lane here have moved away, and the ground around the tiny cottage where they stayed for two or three seasons—has finally frozen, a few weeks after earth moving equipment disrupted everything to install a new septic system. The backhoe left a sizable rut in our dirt road, and one of the neighbors had to write to the absentee landowner, asking her to get the guys back to repair the road. In our absence the woman we hired to blow all our leaves back into the woods behind our cottage has come and gone, job well done. Only a few leathery oak leaves cling to the inside of the deutzia bushes. Everything else looks dead. I know it’s merely dormant, waiting a few months to send out buds and then leaves.

It’s a time to rest. We’re listening to old Bob Dylan on the IPod speakers, and catching up on old issues of  Audubon magazine and The New Yorker. At night, I’m still plodding through the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, finally realizing that I need not commit the minutia to memory in order to get a sense of the man as he assumed the mantle of power in the Oval Office. (So far he hasn’t even moved into the Oval Office, out of deference to the nation’s shock of losing Kennedy just days before).

The bright sunlight reveals every speck of dust in the kitchen. I try wiping down the cooktop and using the polishing cloth to shine the stainless steel. If I were sticking around this empty shore town for a few more days, I might take on bigger projects—replacing a spent light in the spare bedroom, washing the duvet cover, dusting under all the furniture, pruning the deutzia now that the leaves are gone and I can see the shape of the bush, as my go-to garden expert Carol Stocker recommends.

But isn’t it much better to laze, this New Year’s morning, and listen to Dylan sing “Spanish is the Loving Tongue”?

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Dusted

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Growing up in Baltimore, I rarely saw a white Christmas. Perhaps once or twice. The closest we came, most years, was a cold, gray Christmas. And every few years, we had a Christmas Day that seemed more like early spring than winter: the Christmas I tried out my new roller skates, making my way up Hilltop Avenue and then cruising down the hill on the sidewalk, trying not to get caught in big cracks, learning to control the speed , sometimes only stopping myself by skating onto someone’s patch of lawn. The Christmas my sister and I walked down to the tennis courts at Burdick Park and played for an hour or so. After a few minutes we peeled off our sweatshirts and continued practicing serves and baseline shots, working up a sweat .

I identified more with the verse of Irving Berln’s song than the chorus: “But it’s December the twenty-fourth/ And I am longing to be up north.” Christmas cards, the lid of Christmas cookie tins, billboards advertising cigarettes or Coca-Cola featured Currier and Ives –like scenes of horses-drawn sleighs making their way through snowy fields. But in Baltimore. Christmas was decidedly somber– or perhaps golden sunny– but not white.

Perhaps this is why I like living in New England. Last night I stood on the deck stringing lights along the railing. Tiny snowflakes had appeared  without much warning from the weatherman. The snow was intermittent. After supper, we went upstairs and watched the 1951 “Scrooge,” that old black and white rendition of A Christmas Carol, an essential part of our holiday rituals. By the time we made our rounds to turn off the outside Christmas lights, the flurries had subsided.

But they must have resumed while we slept. This morning we awoke to a light coating of snow in the yard, just enough to coat the buddleia and a few dried, spare perennials outside the bedroom window. “Bleak, but with a nice dusting of snow,” my husband said. Traffic to the bird feeder was heavy, with juncos, sparrows, cardinals, purple martins zooming in and out, until they exhausted the seed supply and decamped for another buffet in a neighbor’s backyard.

From where I sit and write, I can see the pale green lichen that covers the outcropping of ledge along the garden. The last few fallen leaves, the ones that escaped my rake last month, are now disguised by snow. The palette is subtle and neutral—green, brown and white.

Just another inch of snow—enough to preserve this winter garden’s beauty, but not enough to clear from the driveway and front walk—will make our New England Christmas just barely white.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Irving Berlin.

“The Daily Shot,” Wellesley College Website, December 17, 2014

Photo credit: Ellie Neustein
Photo credit: Ellie Neustein

You can find it here.

Connections Magazine, Winter 2014 is out–read my short story, “Tony, Bennett, Aldous Huxley and Eddie” on

LAN_ConnectionsFallCover_FINAL_web You can find the story on Page 10,  here.

Star 82 Review: see my poem…

cover-2-4

You can find the online Star82 Winter 2014, here:
http://star82review.com/2.4/viti-models.html

Glimmer Train July 2014 Very Short Fiction Award HONORABLE MENTION

http://lib.store.yahoo.net/lib/glimmertrain/2014-July-VSF-HONORABLE-MENTION-list.pdf

Very happy to report that my short story, “Tony Bennett, Aldous Huxley and Eddie”  received an Honorable Mention out of over a thousand entries in the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Contest, July 2014. Yowza!

2013 in review: Thanks from the Author!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 45 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Report on NaNoRiMo (National Novel Writing Month)

I ended up, as of the morning of Dec 1st, with 39, 600 words. That’s about halfway through a Zero draft, so I am continuing  on this project. Thanks to all of you who read the excerpts as I pumped them out!imagesall during December, and hope to complete a zero draft by the end of 2013.

Snapshots: True Stories

http://www.telegraph.co.uk
http://www.telegraph.co.uk

(1) 1964.

Mary Jane and I, just sixteen,  wait in the lobby of the old Baltimore Civic Center, waiting for the doors to open so we can be seated for a performance of the Royal Ballet. Suddenly a not-very-tall, muscular young man walks by us and smiles at us. He’s gone around a corner before we realize it ‘s Rudolph Nureyev. Mary Jane and I squeal  as we grasp each other’s hands and jump up and down in our high heels and nylon stockings and  Sunday best dresses. We’re in heaven.

 (2) 1970

Rick and I are walking back from a movie, or perhaps  a late dinner at Le Potiniere, on West 55th Street, where we always get free drinks because the owner thinks we’re a charming young couple. It is near midnight. A not very tall, very square-looking  grey haired man in a burgundy sport coat is staggering around a few yards away from steps down from the sidewalk level to a restaurant or perhaps a bar. He’s with two or three couples, and it seems he’s arguing with them. One of  the men takes him by the elbow and says, Ed, come on, it’s time to go home. Rick and I look at each other, amazed. It’s Ed Sullivan. A really big show, right there on West 55th Street. We can’t wait to call our mothers and tell them.

(3)  1978

Maureen, Peggy and I are  on West 47th Street looking for the Plymouth Theatre. We have tickets to see Runaways. Maureen is driving an enormous maroon  four-door sedan   her father gave her when he bought  a new car. We ‘ve dubbed it the Pimpmobile. We’re running late. Stop and ask someone, Peggy and I tell  Maureen, who  is stopped in traffic. She lowers the driver’s side window with the fancy automatic button, and  calls out to a guy jogging down the block in very short running shorts, “Where’s the Plymouth Theatre?” He stops, catches his breath, and calls over to us.” Two blocks down, 45th Street!” He jogs off. It’s Dustin Hoffman.

Check out “Meat for Tea: The Valley Review,” Spring 2013 issue

pages 42-43, two of my poems,

“May Day”

and

“Brantwood Lane Miscellany”

meatfortea.com

caxton_dinner

The Oven Bird’s Cry: Teacher,Teacher, or CherTee, Cher Tee?

The oven bird

The oven bird, seiurus aurocapilla, a variety of warbler,  resides in the Northeast U.S. in summer but winters in Florida and Central America. The oven bird  likes to be heard, but not seen–rather like a shy child who won’t stop talking but stays  in her room. It’s  known for its loud and ringing call, “Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, ”  or alternately, “chur-TEE chur-TEE chur-TEE.” Although birdwatchers reported seeing (or perhaps only hearing)  oven birds on Cape Cod near my summer digs as late as last December–our very warm winter in these parts– I’ve haven’t yet seen one this spring. Yet I know his voice, insistent and strong, because it’s in my ears as I plant a summer garden, attempting to transform a sand pile full of weeds into my approximation of an English cottage garden. As oven birds enjoy a diet of terrestrial arthropods and snails, I’m certain some of these warblers will be by sooner or later—I’ve spied dozens of snails in the long-abandoned garden in front of my kitchen.

Here’s what the oven bird sounds like—more a call than a song, but quite attention-getting:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ovenbird/sounds]

New England’s iconic poet Robert Frost memorialized the oven bird in his sonnet of the same name. The work was published in 1916, in the collection called  Mountain Interval, published by Henry Holt and Company. For Frost, the oven bird is not so much a singer as a philosopher who looks ahead to the melancholy of fall even as summer is at its brilliant, sun-drenched best. My grad school professor, the late, brilliant Anne Davidson Ferry, taught me that  Frost’s poem was  an obvious reworking of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” part of a conversation between poets across  two decades. Still, as bleak as Hardy’s 1900 work seems, Frost’s is even more poignant, and what he teaches us is both disturbing and necessary.

 The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

        5

He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.

        10

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Zen Dishwashing


for Tony

 

First, you’ll need a dishpan

preferably a cobalt blue plastic dishpan that

your mother bought in Poughkeepsie

and a couple squirts of

dish liquid. Green’s the best.

Take a mug with you,

leave the food-encrusted bowls

stacked where they are.

Really, they won’t move.

Walk barefoot to the bathroom

in your favorite pajamas

(or pyjamas if feeling British)

and turn up the faucet

to scalding.

Fill the dishpan two-thirds full

with hot water straight up

from the bowels of the dormitory;

don’t burn your hands.

Placing the mugs and bowls gently

into the now-sudsy pan, carry it,

treading carefully back to your room.

Don’t spill.

Add the dirty dishes.

Go away for some hours,

come back and remember

they’re still there.

Use the yellow dobie pad

to scrub off  bits of

Special K,granola,Cheerios

oatbran,wheat chex.

Leave the pad, take the dishpan.

Throw a towel over your arm

like a waiter in a New York bistro.

Pad back to the bathroom.

Rinse off each plate and mug

spoon and knife

the pan.

Above all, don’t forget the pan.

Lay the folded towel there.

Stack the dishes,

take them home

go about your business.

Repeat.

© 2012 Lynne Viti . All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

Getting To Christmas

Photo by Marvin Lightner, http://www.exploratorium.edu

When our  sons  were young, my husband and I began a tradition of taking them to a play or concert on the weekend or two before Christmas. For several years, after Mister Rogers featured two principal dancers on his tv show, both boys were fixated on the Nutcracker Ballet. In those days, we economized by choosing a  production by Walnut Hill School . We figured that at  age four and seven, the kids wouldn’t notice that the ones executing the pas de deux and the grand jetés were mere high schoolers. We settled on the matinee, and burgers at Friendly’s afterwards.  The next year my father-in- law gave us  tickets to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker.  So decked out in reindeer sweaters and corduroy pants, the boys not only enjoyed orchestra seats at the ballet, but were delighted to shake hands with the fully costumed Nutcracker prince and  Sugar Plum Fairy as well as one of the mice, at a fancy cocktail reception in the Boston Four Seasons Hotel.

All too soon, the boys became  too macho for the ballet, and my husband suggested  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By this time a “fancy” dinner– any restaurant that did not serve pizza as its specialty dish–became part of the holiday theater experience. We drove to Providence, saw an Angels in America– inspired Christmas Carol (ghosts of Christmas past, whirling overhead on a pulley contraption; female Ebenezer Scrooge), and got soaked clear through our coats walking in a downpour from the parking lot to a snazzy Italian restaurant –wine for the parents, pizza for one boy, and pasta for the other. The next year, we  went to  Christmas Revels at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and afterwards, tucked in to TexMex food. Our younger boy loved the Revels—the costumes, the audience participation singing, the period instruments, and most of all, the antler dance. But the older one, by now in his early teens, decidedly did not. He rebelled, the next year staying home in bed with a fever–or perhaps  he meddled with the thermometer to escape revelling. We got a last minute babysitter (our church  rector’s son, as I recall) took our ten year old and  skipped the dinner out that year.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales went over pretty well with the boys  the next year, or perhaps what they really liked was  dinner at Legal Seafoods on a bustling night in a suburban mall. At the play’s intermission, the kids asked us to buy them nosewarmers-–worn by the actors in A Child’s Christmas, and sold at intermission to benefit the Boston Repertory Theatre. We suggested they spend their own money; they decided to forego the nose warmers.

Over time, the holiday outing metamorphosed–or faded–into dinner and a movie, and once the firstborn went off to college in Maine, the tradition fell off altogether. At first that made me sad: it was another sign that our children were forging their own ways in the world and did not want to adhere to their childish ways. They had plans of their own, and these excluded  their  parents.

But with the disappearance of our foursome’s family ritual, there came a new one: the empty nesters’  holiday outing.  This year at summer’s end, my husband ordered tickets for Stile Antico, an early music group of twenty-something singers from Britain. For two hours last night we sat with a couple hundred others in a grand, marble arched Catholic church in Cambridge. Until a few moments before the concert began, frigid air from the street flew into the narthex and into the back of the church where we sat in straight backed wooden pews, still bundled in our coats and woolen scarves. An enormous advent wreath, at least six feet in diameter, was suspended from the ceiling where  the transept and main aisle intersected, its wide  purple and pink ribbons stopping just short of the tallest concertgoers’ heads.

“First one to see someone you know gets a prize,” I whispered to my husband, who responded, “Bet we don’t know a soul here.” A striking woman with long  white hair gathered back walked by, and I recognized her as a former administrator from the college where I teach, but that didn’t count because I didn’t really know her, nor she me, before she retired a decade ago. Almost immediately after that I spotted a former student from several years ago—long enough that it took me half the concert to remember her name. She didn’t see me, so that didn’t count either.

The singing began. First, the women’s voices, clear, strong, sweet, emanating from a place I could not see from our pew near the back of the church. Then men’s voices joined the women’s, as the singers quietly took their places in the chancel. The women wore fashionable black dresses, the men, black shirts and pants. But the singers were merely the vehicles for the music, and to a lesser extent, the words— Tallis, Byrd and plainchant. The music made by these thirteen young voices swallowed up the Latin prayers. As I looked out over the audience, the music went into my head on the wings of the church Latin  I had learned as a child and adolescent before the days of Vatican II, when the great theologians and bishops banished the Latin Mass to a few outlier parishes. Old, familiar phrases— qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis, magnificat anima mea Dominum, swirled around my head, and then as the singers repeated and repeated the words, the sound fused with the words, then made its way into my head and my heart. I was no longer sitting in a cold church a stone’s throw from the Harvard yard,  with hundreds of strangers in  wool or down jackets. I was somewhere else, where human voices were so excruciatingly lovely and moving that it seemed the closest one could ever get to choirs of angels, or whatever you might call otherworldly, near-perfect beings. These  voices became pure sound, capturing me, eliminating all distraction, bringing wonder, then calm.

Stile Antico

As though jolted from deepest sleep, loud applause  brought me  back from where the voices had taken me.  We ducked out of the church just as Stile Antico finished an encore, a 16th century Spanish motet.  Cold and hatless, we walked back to the car, threading our way past pubs overflowing with ebullient young patrons in Santa suits or elf costumes.  We were  forced us back into the twenty-first century.

Over the next few days my husband and I enacted our own rituals from the years when we first met, the time Before Children:  last minute book buying at New England Mobile Book Fair, reviewing our gift list to be sure we didn’t favor one grown son over the other; lugging the Christmas tree up from its bucket of water (usually iced over) in the garage; giving the living room its annual deep  cleaning, from under the carpets to  the  corners and crannies of the sofa.

Today is  Boxing Day,  and the trick is to stay more than a  step ahead of the December blues. The leftovers from  Christmas dinner are stowed in the fridge. The cousins from Maine left this morning. Two lone pieces of pie sit covered with plastic wrap on the kitchen counter. Most of the detritus of Christmas–the bows, the gift wrap, the boxes–has been sorted into recycling bins in the garage.

At  5 pm it’s fully dark. I turn on the outside Christmas lights and make myself a cup of tea. The house, so full of laughter and talk of politics and music and jobs this time yesterday, is silent. The days are growing longer, imperceptibly, but confirmed by the daily newspaper’s almanac: ” Sunset, 4:17 pm. Day of year: 360.”

Before we know it, we’ll be cutting  forsythia to force its brave yellow blossoms from tall, spare branches, early notes of  spring.

What We Were Wearing: From Weejuns to Bob Dylan Boots

I was seventeen,  standing in the foyer of Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins. In our ongoing campaign to meet college men, we  had come out on a school night  to Hopkins, to some sort of political meeting, or perhaps a poetry reading. My best friend MJ was with me, and so was our friend Alma, a year behind us in school. My mother had recently taken up knitting again, and she had turned out some fuzzy mohair sweaters. This night, I wore a pink one, loose and fuzzy, over a short dark skirt.

 Whatever event had brought us to the Hopkins campus was finished, and Alma’s very tall, very handsome rosy-cheeked brother was there to take her home. His friend looked short, but only because Bill was so tall, well  over six feet. He wore a navy blue shirt black tie, and jeans. Later, after he and I dated for the second half of my senior year, I came to learn that Bill thought this attire made him look vaguely like a Mafioso, but to me he looked like a Baltimore City police,   uniformed officer, but without the badge. Nobody dressed this way, at least no college guy I’d ever seen in real life.

 Wearing the dark brown skirt and white blouse uniform of Mercy High School meant that I never had to make decisions about buying clothes for school. Coordinated outfits, mostly sweaters and skirts, were absolutely necessary for Sunday Mass, Friday night CYO or going to plays or basketball games at Calvert Hall or Loyola.  The styles were dictated by Seventeen Magazine and the junior fashion boards at Hutzler’s or Stewart’s, the local department stores, which in turn probably received their marching orders from Seventeen and  Glamour . I had carefully assembled a small but workable out-of-school  wardrobe. Though I not yet  persuaded my mother to buy me a pair of Weejuns, I  had a few Villager skirts and sweaters,  the requisite Chesterfield coat with velvet collar, and  a shoulder bag that was the envy of my school friends.  Even on  the coldest winter day, we didn’t wear hats, or hoods. We eschewed scarves. Gloves and the Chesterfield coat were enough for us, no matter how frigid the weather.

 But once I started going with Bill, my preppy style didn’t play so well. He was an actor, which is to say he tread the boards at his all – male college, and sometimes, at  Mount Saint Agnes, its sister school across town. The theater crowd was sophisticated and cool. They had parties at the apartments of people who were at least twenty-five  and  sometimes—amazingly, to me—even older. They might gather around a small television to watch a special  broadcast of Brando in “On the Waterfront” while they drank scotch and smoked Marlboros or Benson and Hedges. One couple, Ray and his lover, were out of the closet–both in their late twenties, both in college, both army veterans. They, too, were in the college theater group.Ray and Fred  lived together in a large studio apartment on Belair Road, in a blue collar neighborhood, where rents were far cheaper than in the student ghetto.

From the time I was fourteen, my mother endured much moaning and crying on my part over my boyfriendless state. “You’re not  fat,” she would say. “You’re fine. Not every boy likes a rail thin girl.” By the time I started going out with Bill, she was so relieved  to see me with an active social life that she never asked for details on where I was going.  And I, in turn was vague. So long as I was home by midnight, I could do as I pleased. She trusted me to make good decisions, she said.

This particular night I wore a wine colored merino wool knot dress because Bill had sent a handwritten note, couriered to me by his sister before homeroom a few mornings earlier. “Kindness of Alma” was written in ornate script in the lower left corner of the envelope, and for the return address  F. J. Talma,   Francois-Joseph Talma, a nineteenth century French actors whose persona Bill had adopted.  In his letter, in florid, formal prose on vellum stationery, he  outlined the schedule for the Saturday night.  He told me the precise time  he would pick me up  and directed me to “wear dark, dark colors.” My mother wouldn’ t hear of my wearing black, so the burgundy wool dress — bought the year before for an afternoon  tea dance at the Naval Academy– would have to do. I laid out  the Chesterfield coat and  Bob Dylan boots.

 “Oh, we’re just going to a play and a cast party after,” I stold my mother. Indeed, there was a play—Genet’s  The Balcony, which I barely understood, and a party afterwards at the home of  a couple in their late twenties  who lived around the corner  from the Northeast Baltimore police headquarters, in the upstairs of a two–family house.  Everyone was older than me, and everyone was drinking. I sipped at a glass of white wine, and found myself watching—not really participating—in a conversation between two Mount St Agnes seniors  and a Jesuit from Loyola,  adviser to the drama club. The girls were tall, blond and sophisticated, and they laughed and chatted and then sang, for the benefit of Father Whatever His Name Was, a parody of a Broadway show tune. I knew the song, “Can Do,” from Guys and Dolls. “Can’t do, can’t do, “ they sang. “The Church says we can’t screw. Can’t do, can’t do.” The priest threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I was shocked. I  tried to show no sign  of even  mild surprise as I  half-smiled and backed away. I  found a sofa to sink into, and looked around the room for Bill. He stood in a far corner near the kitchen, holding court. “So I said to the professor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of pathetic fallacy. Rather, I think Dylan Thomas was…pathetically phallusy!’” Everyone laughed. I looked at at my watch and saw that it was 11:40, and even though my house was only  ten minutes  away, I became anxious.

 I was quiet on the drive home. Bill lit a cigarette and he, too, was silent. His mother’s car, an older model Dodge Dart, had no radio. I felt I had disappointed him, though I‘d tried my best to be the cool and sophisticated intellectual girlfriend I thought he wanted me to be.  He kissed me good night on the front porch. I didn’t ask him in.

 My mother was still awake down in the basement family room. watching an old movie on the black and white television, something with Rita Hayworth. Dad was upstairs  in  bed, long asleep, and Mom was in her pajamas and bathrobe, drinking  ginger ale.

” Didn’t we see this once, at the Northway Theatre,when I was  in fifth grade? ” I asked her. “Remember, it was  a school night. I fell asleep on the ride home, and  you had to tell me  how it ended.”

“Sit down, sweetie,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t that Rita Hayworth a beautiful girl?”

Dancing Girl With Headband

My mother was a born  dancer. Not a hoofer, nor a chorus girl. For most of her working life she was an elementary school teacher. But at heart she was a child of Terpsichore, muse of the dance. And I’m not referring to classical ballet or modern dance, though she clearly saw the value of these, enrolling my sister and me in the Taylor Avenue School of the Dance so we could learn to plié and arabesque with the other little girls. My mother loved any popular dance. But most of all, she loved the Charleston.

 She often told us about the time she won a Charleston contest at St. Rita’s fair, when she was thirteen. The prize was five dollars, and she beat out a dozen other Dundalk girls in the competition. I can only imagine what they danced to—a gramophone with a large horn for sound production? A live band from the local Moose Club or Knights of Columbus, perhaps.  And when my grandmother got wind of the news, either from a neighbor or perhaps from the happy prize winning dancer herself, my mother was whipped and punished, and one can only wonder what happened to that cash prize, likely confiscated. Whether it was jealousy or a sense of propriety that made my grandmother react this way, I  never figured out. More to the point, this episode did not cure my mother of what my grandmother called “making a spectacle of yourself.”

 When my father’s extended family gathered for holiday parties and the topic of dancing came up, my Uncle Bill would talk on about how he and my mother “could really cut up a rug”  back when they were young and running with the same crowd. At weddings, my mother would be the first one  out on the dance floor, though  my father could barely manage a foxtrot because of his bad leg. In the ‘Sixties, she was more than willing to get up and do  the Twist with me or my sister.  When I was in high school, she would watch Shindig! with me and my sister, rising from her chair to Frug or Hully Gully along with the television dancers. We thought this was hilarious, so long as she did not carry on like this in front of our friends.

 But most telling of all was the time my father stayed home with us while my mother went off to one of her state teachers’ conventions, this time at the Alcazar, an old downtown Baltimore ballroom and auditorium. I was  ten, and my sister, six. For weeks our mother had regaled us with stories of the comedy skit that she had helped write, highlighting education issues over  the  previous five decades. To show the changing times, her friend Jessie, one of the principal actors, reached under her chair and selected a new hat, choosing a variety of styles,  from broad-brimmed 1915 chapeau to Jackie Kennedy  pillbox. On the last night of Mother’s convention, our father told us to change into good dresses because he was taking us somewhere special. We’d already eaten, so we knew we weren’t headed for  Howard Johnson’s, our idea of dining out. He was very mysterious, simply mentioning as we headed downtown that we were in for a surprise.

He ushered us up to the balcony of the Alcazar’s auditorium. Onstage, sitting at the head of a conference table was Mother’s friend Jessie Parsons. She bent over to stash the 1915-era hat she had just removed from a large box under her chair and placed a ‘Twenties’ style cloche  on her head. Laughter erupted from the audience. Then, she appeared– our mother, in full flapper regalia—a sparkling shift, feather boa, long ropes of beads, high heels, and a feathered headband around her short coiffure. Charleston music blared from the sound system. And dancing next to her, wearing an old raccoon coat and waving a pennant, was Jessie’s ex-husband Lee. My sister and I bounced up and down in our seats and squealed as we watched our mother kick and strut, while Mr. Parsons executed the Bees Knees step perfectly. Teachers from all over the state rose to their feet, clapping in time to the music.  And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Mother and Mr. Parsons took a bow, to loud applause. My father whisked us out of the auditorium, though we pleaded with him to take us backstage to see our mother. “Did she know we were going to be here?” we asked. Our father just laughed and shook his head. “Your mother sure  is a wonderful dancer,” he said, and then he became quiet.

Perhaps he was remembering a  night many years before, when he was young, able-bodied and athletic. The Great Depression  may have hovered in the background of their romance, but that night they put their  worries aside for a few hours. That was the night he proposed, while they were dancing slow and close  at the Dundalk Post Office Outing, as the little orchestra played on.

Goats and Wild Peonies and Gorse, Oh My! Walking the Madonie Mountains

 

Asphodel in bloom
Asphodel in bloom in the Madonie

 Of asphodel, that greeny flower/ like a buttercup upon its branching stem-/
save that it’s green and wooden-/
I come, my sweet/  to sing to you.                                                   –William Carlos Williams

 The weather is clear, promising to be a good day for a very long hike. Signor Conti, the apron-clad padrone of Villa Raino, joins us to bid goodbye to us, and we set off onto a new route, up a long ribbon of farm tracks. The road slopes up gently. As we walk, we glance over at the mountaintop village of Gangi, and I can hardly believe that we climbed down from back up to, then back down in a period of 36 hours—hard walking.

Beehives on the Farm Forad from the Villa Raino towards Geraci Siculo
Beehives on the Farm Forad from the Villa Raino towards Geraci Siculo

But we haven’t done truly hard walking—yet. We make our way through boggy, then rocky paths. My cardio performance is much better by today, but now, a new hurdle: balance, which is just as important. So is avoiding sliding in the mud, or slipping on wet rocks as we cross streams. The trekking pole comes in handy, though I wish I had two of them, as a couple of my fellow walkers use. We walk for three and a half hours, up, up, up, through thickets and around prickly bushes. The fragrance of wild herbs fills my nostrils; we walk amongst thyme, sage, mint, oregano, rosemary, parsley, basil—two and three foot-high bushes of the stuff. Twice we stop briefly to pull a long drink from our water bottles and share the trail mix of salty peanuts, raisins and walnuts.

Where we turned from farm tracks to mountain road
Where we turned from farm tracks to mountain road

We look back to where we began our morning trek. A stone wall lies in the far distance. It looks very, very small. Ahead, we have three kilometers up and down yet another mountain, before we reach our lunch spot. I tighten my bootlaces, readjust my grip on the trek pole, and fall in line behind the others. We walk up more rocky slopes, sometimes balancing precariously on rocks that are partially wedged into the sod, sometimes jamming our boots into the side of the hill to get a toehold any way we can. After another half hour of rugged terrain, we hustle up a steep slope and climb over the guardrail onto a paved road into the village of Geraci Siculo. After those steep ascents and descents this morning, it takes a minute to get used to the level surface. Across the street is a small café. A few workingmen stand around the entrance talking and laughing. The white van is parked net to the town square, and Martina is setting up lunch in the well -manicured little park. At the public fountain, with it spigots gushing Geraci Siculo’s famous pure water, we step into line behind the guy who is filling two large containers, and one by one we fill our small water bottles.

Village park, Geraci Siculo
Village park, Geraci Siculo

Martina has created three more salads for us: green beans with onions; curly lettuce, iceberg and peaches; greens with goat cheese. I try speck for the first time, and a sharp pistachio-infused hard cheese. We devour glistening black olives, and drink four bottles of wine, two red wine and two white. Martina passes around sesame cookies.

A nap would be the most suitable sequel to this repast. But there is no nap and no more rest. We visit the café’s rest room in turn, and commence the 14 kilometer hike.

where I climbed-Madonie

I am in no way prepared for the longest, most difficult walk of my life. Peer pressure gets me started and moves me along as we set out on the level road out of Geraci Siculo. Soon the hills begin, then they become sharper, with more and more pointed rocks protruding from the paths. In fact, the path often disappears—only Stephen knows where the path actually is. The trail twists and turns. The terrain changes quickly, from meadows of wildflowers and herbs to craggy hills. Where the path is blocked by gorse, Stephen pulls his secateurs from their leather sheath and clips away until there’s room for us to pass without tearing our rousers or scratching our calves.. The ascent is the most demanding we’ve encountered. The descent is equally tricky. We pass a few goats, each with its own bell, then more goats of all colors, and soon we are walking through a forest of goats. They stand up on a high wall to our left and call to us, or perhaps they are jeering. On our right, we see even more goats, their iron collars and bells clanging, calming. A few of the kids wear face guards; it’s time for them to be weaned.

goats-Madonie

We walk on, and on, and on. About an hour passes, and we come to a small village. Martina pulls up in the white van. She carries a liter of peach tea and a stack of plastic cups. She pours a cold, sweet drink for each of us. Two more trekkers decide to call it quits, and accept Martina’s offer of a lift to the hotel. I don’t want to miss the Holly Wood, or the possibility of seeing wild peony, flowering asphodel, or perhaps a wild boar. I adjust my daypack, tighten my bootlaces yet again, and we are off for the last segment of our walk. It’s now late afternoon, and Stephen reckons we will arrive at the ski lodge by 6:30.

Madonie Mountains
Goats in the Madonie Mountains

Time seems oddly suspended. I can’t tell if we have been walking now for an hour, two hours, or more. Or perhaps it’s only been 15 minutes. We navigate up rocky slopes, sometimes so steep that I have to look at the path and my boots and not down the side of the mountain. Even the goats have deserted us. We stop to admire a wild peony, then carry on through tall thistle, more mint, more sage growing between limestone rocks. We walk into the dark holly wood, ducking under low branches. I want to ask, “Are we almost there? “ like a child on a family vacation. We leave the wood and walk under a highway overpass with pillars that rise 300 meters. We walk on. Stephen points to the next mountain top— our Alpine ski lodge. I sigh. It will take us hours to get there!

Wild boar in motion near Alpine lodge,Madonie
Wild boar in motion near Alpine lodge,Madonie

We walk 150 meters down the slope from the paved road. Then we pull ourselves up the hill and walk a little faster, now that we’re on the macadam. We see the sign for our ski lodge. Halfway up the hill those ahead of me make a shushing sound, fingers to their lips and point to the grass slope alongside the road. A wild boar roots in a small thicket. We can see its snout and its forelegs. There is more rustling and we see three babies. I stop to take a few photos. We drag on, and hallelujah! our welcoming committee—my husband and three others from our group stand at the front door of the hotel, cheering us on. We are elated, and exhausted. Job well done: 24 kilometers up and down rough terrain. All I can think of, besides removing my boots, is food. We remove our mud-encrusted boots at the door, and carry them into the lodge.

Moths on thistle,Medonie
Moths on thistle,Medonie

Dinner includes much of what we’ve seen growing on our trek today—two primi, a thick minestrone of chickpeas and beans, and then pasta with a 14 herb pesto. The secondo is a manzo stew and potato. A dolce, fresh strawberries with a small scoop of vanilla gelato, and of course, the substantial Sicilian bread and read and white wines. I sleep soundly, dreaming of pointed grey rocks, noisy goats, and mother wild boar teaching her young to forage in the underbrush.

The Madonie
The Madonie