Sitting in my living room in the middle of an ice storm, I became consumed by isolation. The kind of isolation only nature can impose, when our customary creature comforts are severed. No phone, no electricity, no heat or television. Only a flicker of light from a single candle and the limited warmth of the fireplace. In place of the inane chatter from the television the fluid memories of my childhood.
I rest my head against the back of the couch. The numbing hiss of the fire is broken by an occasional belch from the burning wood, each flare-up igniting an image from the past. So much of who I am is rooted in the years my family spent in Italy. Flavia, our beloved housekeeper, my dearest friend and traveling companion for her weekend trips home. Her bedroom, with a lovely little terrace encased by grapevine, was the stuff of romance novels. I remember standing on that terrace eating grapes, enamored, even at four years-old, by the sheer beauty of Italy.
With another pop from the fire, now I am standing in the pasture across from our rented house. All around me are sheep, the plaintive lambs crying out to their mothers for food or reassurance. Their coats match the Biblical description of the hair of Jesus: wooly---warm and soft. A sheep's demeanor, as I recall from those days, is likewise warm and soft. The shepherd kept baby bottles with milk for the orphan lambs. He would encourage me to feed the hungry babies, which I was always eager to do. I remember his coming two or three times a week. I so looked forward to those days. He imparted simple lessons about nature and kindness that live with me today.
As a log drops from the fire, my thoughts jump to the two little girls who lived next door. Their images are fresh in my mind's eye yet their names escape me now. What memories of them remain are of three little girls curious about the world around us. We are unaware of any difference between us. After all, they have two long pigtails and so do I. We wear similar clothing. I have learned their language; we understand each other.(I don't remember ever not understanding them, even before I learned to speak Italian.) Between us race or nationality presented no barrier because none of our parents told us they did. And nothing within that village acted as a barricade to our friendship. So when the three of us went to the little store at the end of the road, we were just the little girls from down the road.
The wood on the fire shifts with a violent thump. My mind shifts to our move from town, to the Army base. The flames from the fire have subdued, as has the warmth. And I am remembering being chased home from the bus by the white American children. Being treated differently by my teachers at the American school where the military kids are taught. I remember becoming aware of the differences between my black American family and the white American families. My father in particular, so determined to make it in white America's world that he didn't even see how his children were suffering.
Perhaps because he was impotent to insulate us from that hatred he chose to ignore its existence. But in his denial of what his children faced he denied our very humanity as well. Today I understand how difficult it is to raise children. I also understand how difficult it must be to have to look away from their pain, especially when you have no power to change it. What my parents chose to do was empower us with the knowledge that no one was better than we were. But what do such things really mean to a five year-old? What do they mean when your teacher is telling you that, by virtue of your skin color it is simply not possible that the white boy seated beside you copied his answers from your worksheet? For my brother those kinds of experiences worked to spur him on. He excelled all through school and seemed to relish the competitive challenge. He's much like my father in the way he withholds his feelings. For me, school was a prison where my own knowledge could be stolen, and used against me.
The fire is gasping its last and I need to move to stoke it. As the flames rise again and emit their heat, I again rest my head. I'm swept back 44 years. As the flames weave their way up, my memories are of a five year-old walking off the Army base to the farms just beyond. There I spend many afternoons helping with the chores, basking in the warmth of acceptance. It was to be the precursor to my life as a racehorse groom. Afterwards a meal served, according to Italian custom, in courses. A typical meal: a little bread and wine, a bit of olive oil for dunking, and then a simple soup, followed by pasta, perhaps some meat and to finish, a salad.
On the days I didn't go to the farms, the farmers' children would come get me. We would collected multicolored leaches, or tadpoles, or tree frogs. My poor mother often found petrified tree frogs in my dresser. I simply couldn't grasp their need for food and water, or even for air. Because the Americans' bigotry wasn't limited to race, the Italians and I rarely played with the American children.
A farmer gave me a small black chick, which I brought home to keep as a pet. That night the chick, which was in a bucket next to my bed, actually jumped into my bed with me. By morning it was pasted to my sheet, flat as a pancake. I had killed my little chick. After some contemplation and a good talk from my mother, it was clear that the chick had committed suicide. After all he jumped into bed while I was asleep. How could I have known? I was soon given another chick. I named him Baby Huey after the popular cartoon. Baby Huey was a house pet that followed me everywhere . As he grew into a young cock, replete with crown, he traveled with our family to the beach. The most heinous crime occurred that day: someone stole my Baby Huey from his cage in our family car. That was the one great injury I suffered at the hands of the Italians.
Off in the distance I hear a snake-like sound. I must be in a deep sleep, as the snake like sounds come from the ice-soaked wood in the fireplace. Once I realize that the sound isn't caused by something slithering across the room, my thoughts return to Italy. Motherdear my maternal grandmother came to visit us for a month. My baby sister had been born, and Motherdear couldn't wait until our return stateside to see her third grandchild. My sister was born just before I turned six; I was enchanted by the richness of her dark-chocolate skin. Her eyes were not almond-shaped like my own, but rather were wide open like a doe's, taking in everything that lay before her. Her eyes encapsulated her core: dark, tender, and open. Her birth was, like everything else I experienced in Italy, pure joy and discovery for me.
The fire has reached its peak, clamoring to reach the top of the chimney. My eyes close again, and there stands Motherdear, impeccably dressed, trying her best to evade a pigeon bombardment in St. Peter's Square. (Quite a feat, since there are more pigeons than people.) We take a carriage, and I get to ride bedside the driver, whom I regale. Years later Motherdear would still marvel at my ease with both the language and people of Italy. Perhaps because my parents and the other young officers and their wives socialized, she thought the same niceties applied to the American children. The truth was that the white American children chased me home nearly everyday. One day, exiting the bus, I challenged anyone willing to take me on. I had resolved to face them one at a time, regardless of their sex or size. The first to accept my challenge was a little blonde girl. I quickly dispatched her by bending her fingers backward. No one else stepped forward. I was a far fiercer fighter than they were prepared to take. I never again left the bus running.
As the fire subsides again I wake up, and realize that that single incident is a sort of blueprint of my life, I simply do not accept conventional wisdom. Instead I challenge it.