This short story was written by my mother 60 years ago while she was a young woman studying in and traveling through Italy. The original was written in German, and I translated it into English. Today is her birthday, and I am publishing this in her memory. I miss her every day, forever grateful for all the wisdom she shared with her daughters.
The aroma reminded me of eau de cologne, the sea at dusk, and freshly polished wooden furniture. Granny Nidia welcomed me, softly squeezed me in her voluptuous bosom, and pulled me along the corridor, which resembled a fortress hall where you would make your way only at knifepoint. Many floor tiles were broken; walking on them felt like hammering on piano keys out of tune. Shortly after my arrival, we had to sit and eat; I looked at the Easter eggs in small baskets, the new cups, and the bow on the olive branch. That evening, I barely had the energy to blow out the burning candle before the Madonna before going to sleep. When I woke, I was indeed there, where I wanted to visit, the sun was shining, and Grandpa Gennaro was making coffee. Unlike most southern households, he was the house’s cook while Granny was his taskmaster.
I had just put on my high-heeled shoes when I got stuck on the linoleum floor of the dining room. “Don’t you dare ruin my floor,” said Granny Nidia and rattled in a high-pitched voice, “Don’t stain the tablecloth; it’s new! – Gennaro, is the coffee ready? And the cups, where are the cups? The eleventh plate, where is the eleventh plate?” When Granny Nidia started to count, it was better to walk out on the balcony and keep the potted majestic cacti company. Their maid’s name was Pasqua (Easter!); she had two sharp corner teeth and looked like a vampire, which may not be kind but accurate. Along with the meal’s leftover bones, she would also toss the silverware in the trash, which I thought was amusing, peculiar, and bound to horrify Grandma.
After breakfast, Granny Nidia put on her new pink hat and fastened her pearl necklace with great care. Grandpa buttoned up his freshly pressed vest, and the Neapolitan blue-red Easter began with all its comical consequences while I thought, sheepishly, that I could enjoy myself for once! Granny Nidia took the elevator down, which was frowned upon (to go up it would cost twenty lire), and Grandpa and I bravely walked down the whole five floors to the super’s wife, who sat spider-like and with squinting eyes in her smudged glass cubicle, staring at my knees.
Once outside, one could observe the sky as blue as the Madonna’s worn taffeta baldachin in the alleys, which six young men were carrying while prancing through mountains of spinach and lifeless fish. Drums, trumpets, and cymbals merrily followed them; fragrant oranges rolled over people’s shoes and bare toes. Granny Nidia was delighted while Grandpa Gennaro giggled and clapped his hands. The Easter procession went through many backstreets around Via Roma; all the strips of yellow laundry transformed into fluttering festive flags. It was the purest happy mayhem.
We went to the Church of the Maltese Knights, and Granny Nidia started to quarrel because Mass had already begun, and she hated to be late. Halfway through the service, she sent Grandpa home because the roast was to be supervised.
Once we survived the lengthy Easter meal, we crammed the neighbor’s boys in Grandpa’s car and drove to Lake Lucrino, a friendly shore town dotted with long fishing nets. When Granny Nidia wanted to go right, she said to go left, so Grandpa was constantly stuck in second gear and sweated a lot because he was supposed to show me the city of Naples from a distance. Since Granny Nidia always knew what was best, we stopped short of a minefield preceded by a sign that read, “Do not enter. Military zone.” So, we saw nothing and had to stop for a meal again to deal with the energy expended and the stress incurred. I suffered through the snack and lukewarm wine, disappointed by the twists and turns and the absence of a view.
We made our way back to the house; I do not know how we managed. That evening, the phone rang, and it was Giacinto, a good friend of the family, who wanted to go out with me. Granny Nidia had nothing against it (probably because she was too tired to think). She elicited a firm promise from him that he would bring me back by midnight and not a minute later.
Giacinto drove as if all the world’s grandmothers were after us, and I could not blame him. I had had enough of wrong directions and improvised meals. Then, to reach the dance club, we had to get out of the car and squeeze ourselves along a tight passageway through which torpedoes were shot a long time ago. I felt like a mouse that a cat awaits with eagerness and perseverance. After the tunnel came a wooden bridge crossing to a small island lined with red paper lanterns, a pub, and many young people dancing and flirting.
Giacinto kept looking nervously at his watch, and we stayed only ten minutes – so long had been the drive. Small trade boats were anchored in the fishing harbor, gently rocking in the lapping waves. At that moment, I wished I owned one of them to send everything uninspiring and awkward somewhere far away, Giacinto included. He seemed to want to stay and whisper sweet nothings in my ear – the thought made me roll my eyes. I smiled politely and sipped a glass of water with a spirited slice of lemon bouncing around the rim.
Despite all our efforts, I was a minute late getting back to the house. I ran up to the fifth floor, muttering frustration at the multiple meals making me heavier than I should feel, hoping to find a credible excuse for my tardiness. Granny Nidia would not believe a car accident, let alone red traffic lights. When I walked into the living room, she was puffed up like a mad hen, her gray braid curling around her shoulder like a snake. I could hear Grandpa Gennaro laugh uproariously from the bedroom. When Giacinto dropped me off, he said I should dream of a knight on a white horse, probably thinking of himself. My thoughts were interrupted by Grandma’s intimating, “I do not want people to gossip. No matter who, they are all the same! To bed with you!”
The following day, Grandpa felt unsurprisingly sick. Pasqua strolled through the house, cleaning this and straightening that. Granny collected washed silver spoons from the sink, wrapping them carefully in tissue paper and stashing them away in a velvet box – likely not to be used again until Christmas. The neighbors’ sons, who my grandparents were looking after for the day, looked at me with their wide carbon-brown eyes that seemed to have been covered with gel. Annoyed by their snooping gazes and the relentless muttering around me, I called Giacinto, who promised to drive me to Vesuvius. In the meantime, Granny Nidia realized she was missing three silver spoons and did not comment on my desire to go for a drive and let me go without questioning – it was afternoon, after all, daylight.
The road to Vesuvius on Easter Monday was a sight to behold! Hundreds of men, women, children, mules, baskets, dogs, empty bottles, plastic knives and forks, tilted hats, and tousled hair. In tiny houses on short stilts, people were selling, as rumor has it, holy water to the unsuspecting people of the north, and all around the slopes of the volcano, balled-up, greased sheets of paper rolled aimlessly on the ground. Oh, but the lava was there, the crater extending over raven-black fields, undisturbed by the mayhem. Somewhere we looked up at Parthenope. “There, where the pain stops,” is the name of one of Naples’ hills. I wished I had some pain and a real knight on a white horse. I suspected that Giacinto was looking forward to his small knives and lances. Truthfully, he was a good man, mostly punctual and helpful, if not a bit soapy. At my grandparents’ house gate, he told me I was beautiful and wished to kiss me. I politely declined, and he stared at the tips of his shoes.
While in the elevator, I felt like riding up through pointing fingers and broken spears. I clenched my teeth during the evening meal and looked first at Granny Nidia (her eyes were on the soup) and then at Grandpa Gennaro (he looked like a snow-covered cactus). Finally, I thought that the grandparents of Naples, who drove in second gear and got lost in minefields, were sweet, despite missing a few spoons and their raised, stern voices. I smiled at them. They loved me a lot and were not even my natural grandparents. They did not have children, let alone nephews and nieces, but to them, I was family. Without them, I would never have seen authentic Naples during one of its most frenetic festivities.