Maria (as I will call her here ) is one of my oldest acquaintances and one of my dearest friends. She has been coming to help me clean my floors, keep things dust-free and tidy, and save me hours of housework for as long as I have been here. She saw my children born and watched them grow up as we all matured together. She struck me from the start with her easy and genuine smile, her positive outlook and caring demeanor. This is a rare commodity in these hill towns where diffidence, legitimately-earned owing to centuries of foreign invasions, is the rule. She is scrupulously honest with her friends, and can be diabolical with her enemies. If there is anything you want to know, any information about anyone that isn’t official, she will know about it. Her version may turn out to be larger than the truth, but I can count on getting any gossipy tidbits from her, before they go to press. She often says that she would love to be alone, free from constant scrutiny, and yet she could never live without her small town. She is an integral part of it. I am very fond of her.
“Family Landscape” mixed media
Maria’s life has not been an easy one. She lives in community housing with her mother and father, an although she would like to have a place of her own, she is aware that her parents depend on her for support, both economic and emotional. Ours is a small town, and modest unsavory deeds shine brightly in this overcast atmosphere of shared knowledge. Families provide one’s identity, and if one member has committed a sin, all will be tainted by association. Once committed to communal memory, an unfortunate incident is rarely, if ever, forgotten.
Her parents are an interesting couple, her mother an intelligent foul-mouthed and iron-fisted busybody who still applies heavy make-up and peroxide at sixty-five. She is one of those women who understands that her control of the situation depends upon her playing her cards close to her chest. I like her! Her father is mouse-like, a reserved and hesitant cultivator of a small plot of land, an ex-drinker. Maria confided to me that as a child, after each episode of drunkenness and predictably despicable behavior, her father would wake them all up to require that they eat the compensatory ice cream he brought home to them. She told me that recently she tried, yet again, to eat some ice cream. She was not surprised to be overwhelmed by nausea, just like the times before.
She was one of five siblings, now four. One beloved brother was lost to a drug overdose. Working in Germany, trying to make some money to send home, he died in isolation and was discovered after many days. They brought him back for his funeral service, where the presiding priest chose to lecture the congregation on the evils of drug use. This provided Maria with her final reason to cut herself loose from the overweening and proprietarial hypocrisy of the local church. Judgments given so easily require the addition of a smidgen of empathy before they are applied to a family, one already reeling under the weight of tragedy.
Her oldest brother is known as one of those people who cannot be trusted, and many a finger has been wagged in his direction when something of value disappears. He is an opportunist, someone who is up and about in the wee hours. He is a gatherer of available merchandise, some of it already the property of others. He supplies firewood, and therefore he is a wood-chopper, a cross-cultural category which implies unsavory traits. Opportunities present themselves in special ways for him. He sued a friend of mine who ran a small gas station, because his teenage daughter (walking along looking at her phone) stepped into the open manhole where my friend was refilling his tanks. She was only slightly injured, but thanks to her father’s adept legal maneuvers, her sore ankle supplied the family with extra funds for a year. My friend, who had four small children, was given only the opportunity to worry.
Maria’s sister has many children, a hard-working husband with serious heart trouble, and a house which she imagines is running hard in an imaginary “Joneses” derby. Her character does not shine for its altruism. If given a gift, it will be immediately rated according to brand and selling value. Home-made gifts or donations of time and effort are rarely appreciated. She often begs for free babysitting from her sister when Maria has time off from her work. She always has a favorite child, chosen serially on her good days, and the others jockey for position as her “pet” in order to profit from the associated perks.
Another brother is a collector of metal scrap, and he possesses an honest heart, even if he may be persuaded to behave to the contrary on occasion. He has a garage in the Centro Storico which is stacked to the ceiling with interesting antiques, and a wife from Naples who has just given birth to their first son. They live over their small store which stocks a few paper flower arrangements, souvenir postcards, lightbulbs and assorted sundries. They do a brisk business at Christmas in artificial trees and figurines for presepi.*
Maria is tainted by a reputation which is not of her own making. It doesn’t matter really what she does, as she is part of a clan which is known for its less-than-exemplary behavior. This, I imagine, has been her lifelong motivation to behave as she does; she is scrupulously honest, excellent at her job, and demonstrates a punctuality which is almost scandalous in this part of the world. She has had to deal with people who would not pay her for her work, a recurring theme which , each time it occurs, causes me to cringe. Humanity, empathy, recognition of merit; all seem to be lacking in regard to those who aren’t high in the pecking order. Money, for many, occupies the highest rung on the motivational ladder, just above familial love and the Pope.
She is assumed to be an “easy” woman, an ignorant woman, a person of little moral integrity. All these things are not true, and yet these things will define her as long as she remains in the same small town where her family is known. I believe that Maria is an uncomfortable presence for many, a kind of moral thermometer which measures the extent of their mediocrity. Most people prefer to stand next to someone who doesn’t illuminate their flaws so clearly. And yet she shines on brightly, and it is clear for all to see.
I wish her a long and happy life; she deserves it.
“Morning” pencil on paper
*presepi: traditional Christmas creches