Fresh Ideas: Our memories serve as our muse
May 23, 2012
What gets passed along from a mother to her children is her character; it enters into them as surely and inexorably as water flows from a fuller vessel into a less-full one. – Laurence Shames
It’s from my mother that I learned to love story telling. Her stories aren’t about heroes and heroines, but about our family’s character, roots, and identity. They describe landscapes and attitudes, define ties and obligations, confirm resemblances, explain the inscrutable connections and inevitable rendings that bind families. As in most stories about Italians, her stories are about love – love of place, of people, of ritual.
My mother’s stories – like her own mother’s stories – come from the “Old Country.”
For our family, that means the inland mountains of Lago and the coastal sands of Amantea at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
In one story, she tells of standing at night on the balcony of her bedroom in the pink villa, just tall enough to rest her chin on the wood railing. From there she would watch flickering bonfires across the valley, smell the burning leaves, and wonder what lay beyond the hills thick with olive trees.
She tells of walks with her mother in Carolei, the familiar streets loud with red geraniums. She would run to touch the stones of an ancient Roman watchtower, turn to see what the Romans saw from that vantage point atop a hill, press her ear against the wall to catch the sound of ancient footfalls.
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She describes the river where wild fennel grew, and tells how my grandmother – an adventurous girl who knew the river and its ways – waded to the island to pick blackberries and was rescued by a dashing beau on a shining Palomino horse when a flash flood threatened to sweep her away.
She has harvest stories, like the olive harvest when boys climbed the olive trees to shake the heavy limbs, olives falling like black raindrops onto white sheets that laughing girls held beneath.
She tells of holy days – of incense that rose like ghosts around the altar, of the Mysteries of the Rosary and the Madonna’s promises to the faithful. She speaks in a soft voice about the luminous young woman draped in blue who spoke to her and her sister in the orange grove, how the woman covered the face of the baby she held, how the priest told them it was a dream.
I especially love her stories of food and feasts. Even now, when I cook, I think of the women who came before me, how they might have rubbed dried basil between their palms and scattered it, like offerings, into bubbling red sauce.
My mother has stories for everything, stories told by the mothers who came before her: how to bless a new house for good luck; how to chant prayers for l’occhio diabolico, the evil eye; how to whisper to crying babies; how to watch the moon for the right time to plant; how to urge seeds to leave their safe husks behind and grow.
Of all the gifts my mother gave me, the most precious are her stories. I know the words by heart now, for her stories are becoming part of my own.
• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.