Our Continental Summers

Italy- no photographer

We were intending on staying for at least three weeks in the village outside Rome. My father had a work assignment in the city but always liked to situate us in out-of-the-way places when we traveled in Europe. He was a photographer, someone you might have heard of but only if you worked in scientific or industrial circles. He took pictures of things like cutting edge machinery or classified experiments or industrial construction that was controversial. Gerard and I thought he was a spy. Father found it amusing, said he was a boring documentarian.

We followed him all summer, and often for a month in winter when Chicago got too desperately cold for mother. He didn’t do glamorous work but he was expert at what he did and we got to be “semi-nomadic”, mother said with her airy laugh. He would be gone a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and we’d stay behind in a pensione or dusty hotel. He thought it better for the family than leaving us alone in a foreign metropolis. My mother shrugged; she was used to going anywhere on a moment’s notice and anywhere was better than nowhere. She was interested in meeting new people. If we got lucky, they might know someone who had a villa, and then my brother, Gerard, and I would be in heaven, scampering down the maze-like corridors, getting lost in the rooms that opened onto a large garden, splashing about in a spring-fed pool.

But this time, it was a small pensione that stood crumbling on a corner of the village. There was a swift, snaky river nearby. Gerard liked to explore things there and waited for some village boy to say hello. If that didn’t happen, he pestered me. I’m the elder by five years. I had no choice but to watch over him when mother was occupied, which was often. It wasn’t so hard.

Gerard was the sort of boy who, by age ten, had memorized several lengthy passages from books: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Bradbury. He said it was partly in case we couldn’t find libraries or book stores with English books–he could always entertain us with his oratory, a recitation of a sonnet or climactic scene. He also wrote poems occasionally. He was certain he would be a writer or actor. Mother found it so charming she would insist Gerard perform from time to time, which father found embarrassing for us all. Gerard didn’t mind much; it was a talent and he knew it. But the point is, he was a boy who found ways to entertain himself and when he didn’t, he found whatever you were doing entertaining, as well. I guess we had that in common.

But if Gerard loved living in his active mind, I loved paying attention to the world. I simply observed and sometimes took notes or pictures. It excited me. Father suggested I was like him but I wasn’t convinced. I can’t tell you why I had no real hobbies. I suppose it was because there was plenty happening wherever we were as well as within our family. I wasn’t distracted by boredom. I think Gerard saw much, but he was circumspect about his ideas and feelings, even then. Maybe he just wanted to keep them close. He would never point out weaknesses or mistakes of others without serious thought, and then felt the need to apologize in the telling. I watched, gathered data, and when I remarked on something it was given its due, at least to the extent of my understanding. I had a surfeit of opinions, mother said more than once, frowning.

“Nina? Hello? Where did you get that?”

I was on the dirty little terrace, sunbathing on a white towel. I had bought a new two piece suit, bright blue, modest enough and begging to be tried out. I wished we were near a pool or sea and wondered how clean the river was.

I lifted my sunglasses. “Gerard?”

“I found a puppy down by the creek and he just begs to hang out with me. I can’t get him to leave me alone.”

Gerard doesn’t like dogs. He likes undomesticated animals. We once had a Persian cat he half-admired but she made my father sneeze. Though he was gone a lot, off the kitty went, to my mother’s anger. There were long white cat hairs everywhere for weeks.

I sat up. “What’s he look like?”

“Maybe the kind that corrals sheep? I don’t care. But it’s black and white. It nips at my ankles which is annoying. It’s downstairs, I’m sure, waiting to pounce. Maybe we ought to find out whose it is?” He looked down into the piazza. “Mother looked busy.”

I, on the other hand, had been wanting a dog. Not that I could likely smuggle one across the continent but I could least make friends with a stray for a week or two. I put on my cover up and sandals, crossed the breezy rooms and followed him down the narrow stairwell.

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It ran right up to us. A border collie it was, splattered with black and white and very fuzzy. It had a collar but no helpful identification tags; many dogs in the village ran free. I knelt in the grass and it licked my face and yelped. I picked it up.

“Nina, don’t get cozy. Let’s find out whose it is. What else do you have to do but sunbathe? I avoid too much sun.” He pointed to baseball cap and sunscreen on his nose.

“That’s the point of summer! Lying in the sun and doing nothing. I like to glow; it takes sun. Not everyone feels compelled to be productive. Not even you, I noticed.”

“I was thinking all morning. About world building in sci fi novels.”

“Yes, well, thoughts are like air molecules to you. You might die if your mind went blank.” I put the puppy down and the three of us started off.

It was that time of summer where everything vibrated green. The trees were conversing with each other and the river was keeping company with children and old people. Two crude toy boats turned and bounced in the current. I spoke to shopkeepers to see if they had lost the puppy or if they knew anyone who had. My Italian was halting and basic; they often didn’t understand me until I pointed to the dog and mimed my question. A woman with huge dimples and crooked teeth who ran a small dress shop pointed us toward a cafe, whether to get a hand out for the puppy or to further inquire I wasn’t sure. The little dog greeted everyone, dashed off only to return to my heels. Looked up at me with happy eyes.

When we turned the corner and headed down the next alleyway I saw them at the end. I wasn’t surprised. Mother had been spending her mornings and some evenings with a small group of people, two from England, one from the village and another from France. I didn’t see the English couple, only the two men.

“I wonder what mother would say if I asked her if we could keep him awhile.” I scooped up the puppy and it laid his head on my shoulder. “This puppy is perfect.”

“Never. Father will be back in three weeks. Then we’re off to …?”

“Berlin, then the Netherlands, then Scotland for awhile. I think father will have more time to be with us then.”

“At least we can understand Scottish.”

“Don’t count on it, it will be taxing for us there, too,” I said, then slowed my pace, as did Gerard. I put my arm around his shoulders. When he saw mother he didn’t pull away.

She was drinking espresso with Jean-Charles and Roberto. They’d had dinner with us once. Mother had talked them into giving us a countryside tour the third day we were there. She was good at that. Jean-Charles was a businessman on holiday. Roberto had a villa three miles out; we had passed it on our tour.

If you had known mother you would have had to say she was beautiful. “Exquisite” is how our father put it when he saw her after being gone. She usually dressed up for him. Young for age thirty-eight, she laughed and talked to others easily, pulled people to her as though she was a radiant passion-flower in a field of clover. You couldn’t help but look at her, listen to her soft voice, her smart words. She knew all this but acted nonchalant. Maybe that was one reason people who stepped into her presence stayed there too long. Especially men.

It was part of my job to watch over her, too, for father. For the family. It was so easy for her to be taken away by the attention, to find hands on her hands a comfort, the gazes a delight, others’ conversation filling like a fine meal. I knew that. I missed our father, too, and wished we had him more. But I also knew she was foolish at times. Careless.

So when we saw Roberto lean forward and kiss her cheek, then lingering at her ear I walked right up to him.

“Anyone’s missing puppy sitting at this table?”

Roberto blinked and smiled at the puppy, then reached out and rubbed his ears. Mother looked away from me, past Jean-Charles who just have a little wave. Her face was pink from sun or being seen.

“I know I’m missing my mother so how about a swap? One great, available dog for our mother.”

“Nina,” mother said, her lips taut.

I dumped the puppy in Roberto’s lap and the Border collie immediately jumped up and licked the man’s face. I winced. Mother’s hand went to her throat and she started to say more, then got up. She thanked them for the espresso and left. We walked to the river. She talked to Gerard, asked him what he wanted for dinner, if there had been a poem written. I knew she felt sorry. But I kept hoping the puppy would find his way back to me. He did not.

Sometimes I knew I was good this, averting small disasters. Gerard agreed, sadly. I called my father. I whined about the boring village and why couldn’t we come to the city so we could visit museums and learn the history of Rome? He knew. He came. And that is why we left after only five days and got to see Rome. We had our father with us in every country that summer. But I still think of the puppy I lost.

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy

My Childhood of Gardens

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.

I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.

Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.

My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.

And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.

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The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.

There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.

Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.

I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.

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How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.

There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.

I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.

How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.

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