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.

4 thoughts on “Long Before I Went to Sicily…

  1. Lynne,

    Keep writing! After your Italy trip hope to see you. Get in touch before the summer is over.

    Stay Well, Go well

    Love,

    Sondra

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  2. Lynne – hi, this is Debbie Clement Swanson, Anne’s next younger sister. Thank you for this sweet skip back and behind to a world which no longer exists but still remains very real. You touched my heart in a special place and I will send this to our children who lovingly remember Nana and Nonno. I only wish I had half the grace and elegance Ma had! I remember crawling under the table and generally being a nuisance during those Italian lessons. I have one of those grammar books to this day – still covered in a Montgomery Ward’s paper bag – the “book cover.” Ah, Baltimore memories, cherished and sweet. Blessings to you!

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  3. Like this. Reminds me of being in Collodi in Tuscany where there is a magical Pinocchio Park.

    Suzanne Yates

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  4. A sweet memory, Lynne. I had a woman like that in my life as well, another war bride. One summer, she taught a few of us Italian. Too bad I remember very little of it. God, was she beautiful. What a nice thing to write about after your trip to Sicily: your first connection to Italy.

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