- Historic Sites
“certain … Complications”
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
“Luigi,” her mother asked in a mellifluous voice, “you like Natalie?” I merely nodded enthusiastically but respectfully, as I could not speak. “Natalie likes you?” she went on. I modestly pulled an interrogative face and waited. “I hope you speak Italian with her sometimes. She must get some practice. Italian is very useful in New York, don’t you know, particularly with bootleggers and headwaiters in good restaurants. They give you a better table if you speak their language. They say that some people who know Italian can even understand the words of an opera and follow the plot, not that that makes much difference.” I found the strength to assure her I often spoke Italian with Natalie. I promised I would speak more, although it was more vital for me to fortify my English.
She continued: “I love your language. I don’t understand it, but it is so musical. It is the language of love. There’s nothing more charming than a shipboard flirtation like yours. You’re only young once, I always say. But there is one thing I must absolutely tell you. When we’re in New York, do not try to see Natalie again. She has plenty of beaux. You won’t like it. And my husband, her father, disapproves of Italians. He dislikes having them around the house. They make him nervous. Italians, he says, are all right in Italy but even there he thinks there are far too many of them. So promise me not to call or write. You understand, don’t you?”
I said I did, but, of course, I did not.
Soon enough, certain incomprehensible complications of American life caught up with us inside our jealously preserved Italian stronghold.
We had taken our old cook and maid from Italy. Decorously dressed like ladies, they had traveled second class on the Duilio , and visited us every day in the more expensive class. Each evening the maid Ida had laid out mother’s evening dress before dinner and tidied up our messy staterooms. The cook collected the recipes of some of the Duilio ’s tastier dishes. They loved us like their own family, loved mother almost more than her own children did. They had known us since our births. They always said they wanted to die in our house. Within a few weeks in the United States they had both disappeared.
The maid had met a portly Italo-American widower on the boat. He was bald and middle-aged, with a pasta-filled silhouette, and many rings on his fingers; he had a good business of sorts (probably a funeral parlor), owned a beautiful house with a garden somewhere in New Jersey, and a resplendent car. The temptation was too much for her. She was no longer young. She married him suddenly without warning us. She came to announce her new status, wept, begged to be forgiven, and kissed us all as if we or she were shortly to die. During the next few years we saw her once in a long while, mostly at Christmas time. She came in a funereal black, chauffeur-driven limousine, all dressed up with dowdy American clothes and wearing incredible hats precariously perched on her permanently waved hair. She sat with hands crossed over her belly, fingers spread out to show off her rings. She brought us little gifts and told us endless tales of life in darkest New Jersey in the midst of a complicated and emotional Italo-American family. She wept copiously.
The cook left us only a little later. She had been stalked and captured by a neighboring American lady, who had first seen her at the Italian grocery store. The American lady spoke a little Italian and was rich, perhaps not really rich but richer than we, anyway, which was not difficult. She had patiently cultivated Maria’s friendship, taken her to the movies on her days off and translated the subtitles, asked her to her home for tea, and finally made her an offer she could not refuse. The cook, too, wept copiously when she announced she was leaving, kissed all our cheeks, kissed mother’s hands, promised to be back as soon as she had saved a little money. We never saw her again. Probably an even richer American lady had taken her farther away.
Mother resolutely faced the domestic crisis. She remembered that her first cook, the one she had hired in Milan just after her marriage, a peasant woman named Palmira, had come to the United States with her husband and must live not far from us. She traced her. Palmira came, driving her own car. She was now a widow with two sons; she was much fatter than mother remembered her, and had smartly bobbed hair. She wore a dirty diamond ring. She told us she was doing well, making and selling bootleg wine, beginning to distill grappa and experimenting with whisky. She left her home, sons, vats, and customers for a few days, for old times’ sake, only to help mother in her emergency, but could not stay. Her affairs needed constant attention. She had to defend herself from competitors, pay bribes to policemen and prohibition agents, as well as protection money to her protectors. She had to produce and deliver cases and cases of her brew. (The wine was barely drinkable, the raw grappa not bad, the whisky poisonous.)