Neapolitan Cousin

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The taxi from the airport was surrounded by boys with rags. Leaning out, the driver shouted imprecations as they swiped the windshield. “Cholera,” warned one friend; “pickpockets” warned another: “sling your purse across your body and clutch it like a life preserver.” Finally safe, high above the streets, in Naples’ only sky-scraper–“grattacielo”–I stared down at the old castle, squatting like an enormous egg on the harbor. What had I done, coming solo to Naples, with only a few years of Italian on my tongue?

Several years before, my soon-to-be-ex and I had met my father at this very hotel, then driven into the mountains. In Pescopagano, where mountains crouched close on their haunches we found an ancient cemetery, but no family graves, only bins of femurs, digits, skulls in the Ossarium, Who could tell which belonged to the great-grandfather Michael, reputed to be a horse thief, who’d died when my grandfather was seventeen? There was no hope of identifying dates and names, but, miracolo, real-life relatives put us up, the portion of the family who’d stayed in this mountain town while others crossed the ocean for the grey-green mountains of Pittsburgh–Gonellas, in particular, one of whom, Maria, married to a well-to-do lawyer, had reclaimed an old tower for modernity.

I had to have more; I had to prove that my life wasn’t fractured irrevocably by divorce. Writing to Maria, I learned that her sister Giovanna lived with their mother outside Naples. Giovanna taught middle-school. Would she come into the city to meet me? In Naples everybody lived life in the open. Glancing into a butcher’s shop, I saw a lovely woman in deep conversation across the cold case with the butcher. He reached across and gave her cheek a pizzichille, just as my father used to do with me–little pinch kiss. Women walked arm and arm, men hugged and kissed each other on both cheeks. Motorscooters sped by as I hugged the walls.

Giovanna was adorable: small and light, with golden curls above her school-teacher rimless glasses. Where did I want to go, as a tourist? she asked in clearly enunciated, standard Italian. I pointed up up to the rim of the city where the palace/museum of Capodimonte stood. Trip-trip-trip went her little heels as she inquired of bus after bus if they stopped at the museum. Eventually, as the motor strained up the steep hills, the panorama of turquoise bay, and distant islands spread before us. We looked down into apartments where households were making beds, preparing pasta–our vision almost as close as a window-washer’s.

The huge red-facade of the Museo di Capodimonte (head of the mountain) fronted a lovely park where we sat to catch our breath. Built by the Spanish-Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies, Charles VII as a dwelling for his Farnese mother and her huge art collection, the museum did indeed rival the Vatican’s collection with room after room of Titians, Caravaggios, Raphaels and many minor followers. But it was the porcelain collection which sent Giovanna clicking around the gallery, repeating “Beh, Beh, I did not know such excellence existed.” I too was intrigued by story-telling scenes of monkey tormenting parrot, or lifelike birds swaying on branches as they pecked at fruit.

By now, Giovanna and I had eased into tentative friendship. I could speak well enough to answer her questions about gli Stati Uniti, and to understand her family stories of Italy. Her father had immigrated to Pittsburgh where he’d been forced to stay by the war, leaving Giovanna, her older sister Maria and their mother Elisa in starving Pescopagano. Eventually they packed the little they had in a neighbor’s cart as he traveled down the mountains into Naples to sell the town’s two cheeses: Burro, a soft mozzarella with a buttery center, and Cacciacavallo or was it Caciocavallo? This cheese, like two little provolones connected by a cord was thrown over the horse’s neck to go out and “bing, bing” shoot, Maria had emphasized. The cavallo clearly meant horse, but was the first part of the word cacio for cheese or caccia for shoot? Maria said shoot.

Naples at the end of the war was swarming with British and American soldiers. For a while Elisa worked in a military hospital, cleaning and making beds, but leaving the two girls locked in a room all day long. This dangerous city was no place for two bambine to wander alone. Soon, she acquired a commission from the hospital to stitch sheets. Her prized possession, a sewing machine, thus allowed the three to take lodging with two other families in a large room; each family group separated by sheets hung on wires.

“Even wars end,” said Giovanna. By now we had left the museum, and were walking the Old Quarter of Naples where she showed me the Policlinica where my great-uncle had studied. Its facade lined with beautifully blue accacia trees. “Finally my papa reunites with us,” Giovanna said, as we walked a narrow, cobble-stoned street in the old quarter, so narrow it wasn’t designated Vico for street, but Vicolo, diminuitive street. Suddenly a roar. A motorscooter shot by. Giovanna let out a cry and clutched her throat. The scooter passenger had torn a gold cross from her neck.

Weeping as we sat for relief in the ancient church of Santa Chiara, Giovanna said over and over, “It was from my father. It was all that remained from him.” When her father returned after the war, he could not find work, though he’d been trained as an engineer. Within a few years, he immigrated again, this time to Ethiopia, which had been an Italian colony for a short time. He send money back to Naples, but later died in Ethiopia, never having returned.

As I held her hand and murmured my few words of condolence, “peccato, peccato,” too bad, too bad, I felt keenly the irony of this loss, falling on the daughter of Italy rather than on the distant American cousin. With my tourist caution, I’d worn no jewelry; Giovanna, no doubt wanting to dress up for her visitor, had put on a cross which she perhaps always wore. I felt deeply the sadness of separation and war, which had barely touched my immediate family–my father being too near-sighted and flat-footed to be drafted for World War II. And wished intensely I could comfort her for all she and her family had lost.

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