Friday, January 19, 2007


The howls of children playing in the narrow streets floated into the room like echoes from this own youth. He knew that the vigor of the day, now ebbing into twilight, found new life extension in those small bodies bristling with a timeless energy that knew no bounds. How well he could remember the vitality of those tender years that refused to let a darkening sky cut short the play and fun; when games went faster, trying to cheat the falling night and stay some precious minutes more while mothers called and called.

The aged Don Pietro got up from his heavily-cushioned chair. His home was dark, except for a small glowing fire and he placed another log onto the red embers there in the fireplace. So accustomed was he to the arrangement of furniture, he needed no light at night to move about. Besides, using electricity meant more bills. He did without unnecessary expense even though he had lots of money. A main comfort to him in his old age was seeing how well he could conserve what he had, to keep from the bill collectors what rightfully belonged to him. It was like a game, an old people's game. That's why he had a fire burning - he heated his tiny place with his daily fires well into December, wearing sweaters and sleeping under three old army blankets at night.

But Don Pietro loved to sit before the fire, to feel its warmth on his legs and to meditate on the flames. And he was not one to brag about how much he conserved by not using his lights or to caution a visitor against the expense. That was not his style at all. Rather, his visitors were treated lavishly, always. He kept a well-stocked pantry for such special occasions and in the corner was a neat and orderly bar which he stocked with only the very best liquor and a few of his favorite red wines. Once, sometimes twice during holidays, a boy came by with groceries, firewood and whatever else the old gentleman might need. he had come to cherish the peace and solitude of his old age.

Yes, now a widower who had outlived even his three children, he was content in these last years living as he did. Still an able cook who enjoyed preparing good food, Don Pietro ate sparingly, usually just some breakfast and some dinner in the late afternoon. He bathed each day around dawn and dressed in a suit, often tweed in the colder months, and a silk necktie. He looked dapper in his simple elegance. And his clothes hung trimly on his tall, handsome frame.

Each morning he went for a stroll after his breakfast. He lived to feel the early morning sun on his face, to hear the rustling wind in the tall trees, to give his hearty salutes to those he met along the way. This, he thought, was the world as God meant it to be and he felt blessed by a special wholeness of life he had not felt since his boyhood days in Barcelona.

Those who knew him revered Don Pietro and his gentle, kind manner. The bones of his face seemed sculpted. It was a face tempered by time, without looseness, retaining character. He had a stoic quality that made his full head of white hair seem like it belonged there, just as a lion's mane must have its place. In his slow and deliberate stride he brought a sense of secure changelessness to those who saw him on his daily rounds.

But change was coming to this tiny island. change had been creeping into the lives of these Italian islanders since the early '70s when the United States Navy first established a small base to support its nuclear submarines. And Don Pietro had profited handsomely from the presence of the U.S. military. They needed housing. Don Pietro began negotiations with them at once, ultimately selling off an entire hilltop extending inland for perhaps two miles from one beach up and over the hill to another beach, all of which comprised a respectable chunk of island property. Soon a road was built that looped around the hilltop. Along here many homes sprang up, all of which enjoyed a panoramic view of the coastline and the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea below.

Before long, corn flakes had appeared on the grocery store shelves and shop signs in English beckoned for the Yankee dollar. Meanwhile, the native islanders, Don Pietro among them, took it all in good humor. Like Europeans everywhere and the whole world really, since the post-war years of the 1950s, they all knew that America had the money, the science and technology, the pop culture that seduced. Since the war years, wave upon wave of generations saw America as the embodiment of the modern world. The United States reigned supreme in its preoccupation with bigness, its manufacture of fantasy and garish plenitude. Accordingly, its over-sized cars started to show up on the streets of the island. Don Pietro noticed the Italian men stare with wonder at them when they first confronted these wide-bodied Chevys and streamlined Fords suddenly creaturing their roads. And he noticed too when this amazement soon receded to a kind of respectful awe as the cars became more and more commonplace. But when the young people of both sexes saw their cars, their American clothes and gadgets, their big-framed features, the world on their island was forever changed. In as much as it seemed like a change aiming outside the orbit of the island's forefathers (Garibaldi among them), Don Pietro felt sad, not quite forsaken, but sad.

Yet for Don Pietro and those of his generation who came into their prime before the Second World War, innovations bringing change remained for them only curiosities which livened up their old routines. The traditions they followed were the traditions of their father before them. Especially here in Italy, where family bonds were so strong and an open heart was cherished as the highest, most noble of attributes, this new technology was all fluff, window dressing. Don Pietro's generation had matured with the old values intact, more or less. They sought the simple comforts of the family, content with securing the kind of life they had always known - a life that had almost always brought them contentment. And the wisdom of the years brought with it that growing awareness of God working in their lives. Their lives reaching such a state, they felt no yearning to move beyond its treasured simplicity.

With a sigh, Don Pietro set out for Caroline's villa, one of two old estates located on the extreme top of the hill which were excepted from the old Navy land purchase. He had retained one villa as a country retreat for himself and the other he had sold to Caroline long before the Navy had arrived. Caroline lived far away now, only using the now-decrepit villa in the summertime. She was in her 70s, somewhat younger than Don Pietro, but like him her roots were foreign - French. they were old friends and Don Pietro was the informal caretaker of her place in the off season. Every other Thursday he drove to her villa to make sure everything was all right, sometimes checking on his place too while he was there.

His old Peugeot bumped along the long dirt drive and came to a stop at the end. getting out, Don Pietro made his way down the garden path to Caroline's villa. There it stood, seemingly impervious to the ravages of time, its single tower rising up from the dark foliage. Don Pietro could see the whiteness of the walls fading, and that the red, Spanish tile roof needed attention. Yet the villa had signs of having once been touched by love, though a love now long neglected. He knew that the place had become too much for her to care for as she advanced in years and Don Pietro gladly accepted the job of conservator and the protector of this property which he too loved.

On this visit, Don Pietro studied the villa's exterior with a dreamy detachment. Where once the villa had stood as a sturdy landmark of a dream realized, it now took on a new character. Don Pietro reflected that as the navy homes were built nearby and the other changes were wrought in the landscape, so had their lives changed. The villa had become a reminder of times past, a relic which must now have become more of an expense for Caroline than an enjoyment. Still, she struggled along with it, just as he did, because these villas were part of their life blood and they would never abandon them.

So on this particular Thursday, Don Pietro, inexplicably moved by a certain nostalgia, decided to do something he rarely did - he would go inside her villa fro a quick look around. He turned the key in the lock and stepped inside. The walls were decorated with a few of Caroline's oil paintings - local scenes of scrub and rocks and sea. Signs of life from an earlier generation were evident here and there: a shelf of dated books, some with French titles; in the closets a stack of sturdy old wool blankets were neatly folded; the kitchen had an odd assortment of archaic kitchen gadgets and the cabinet was filled with delicate and finely-painted, mismatched plates. Don Pietro smiled to himself as he inventoried Caroline's things, remembering the pleasant company and conversation of days past which he had enjoyed within these walls.

Soon locking up, Don Pietro found himself in the late afternoon sun on the villa's stone porch. That porch was built for marvelling at the immense view below. With the sun on his neck and a gentle wind wisping at his face, Don Pietro collected himself to seize the moment - to observe and to continue reflecting and dreaming. Through the tree branches he looked down the hill, over the new, red Spanish tile roofs. Down below, the sea jutted inland forming a small, rock-strewn bay. Close-cropped bushes and dwarf trees clung to the rocky hill faces. A rough, rocky spit of land embraced the upper side of the bay. Closer in, on the left, overlooking the bay was a promontory of rocks which were squared-off, piled, almost pieced together. Back beyond the spit was more water. But way off to the left, the horizon of sea was broken. Following the waters that fed the bay were tiny islands and behind them, in the mist, towered another mighty island - Corsica.

Don Pietro gazed out upon the sea. the sky was clouding up now and it was getting very cool. Another winter was setting in. He felt both the joy and the weariness of his eighty-odd years. A thought struck him just then...although things around him had changed, a certain changelessness remained as the world churned on season after season. In the soft glow of the afternoon, on the point of a hill, under an ageless Italian sky, as wind and water kissed the coastal rocks below, Don Pietro tenderly contemplated on this thought. As he did so, a philosophical air swept up his spirit and brought him comfort; he understood that the rambling emotions, under pressure from the ambitions and tempered by knowledge of a divine presence among us, destine us to become part of the patterned design of an asymmetrical repetition - of themes and myths and a collective unconscious that knows desire yet feels the pull of non-desire - a balance of forces, of beingness sometimes touched by madness yet built upon reason, brought together somehow to further the ends of that most noble aspect of humanity - its Oversoul.

Here. Now. Don Pietro touched his past. He saw the future, while both were fused at this moment into an all-embracing present.

Feeling no sadness, the old gentleman strolled back to his car, content and thinking only of sitting by this evening's fire.

November 11, 1993/ Isola Maddalena, Italy

No comments: