A death here, a death there…(part one)

We shift our eyes away  and sidle toward  another subject if we can. But I believe most of us are curious about our inevitable demise, (of course we are curious about our own, but who can we ask?)  and it is particularly enlightening to observe how other cultures deal with IT, when the time comes. Our customs, naturally,  say a lot about us.

L-153 tweak for blog

“Rusty Gate”  oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches

My mother passed away recently, and my father followed her by only a few months. We lost my husband’s parents, my brother-in-law, a couple of friends, all  in the past few years.   So I have had occasion to experience the contrasts in how we treat our dead, those mysterious  and terrifying leftovers of the people we once loved.

My mother was efficient in her passing, not one to needlessly draw out her time in the spotlight.  After all, she wasn’t discussing politics.  We called the “funeral home,”  that most uncomfortable term,  and a soulful duo appeared, he tall and she short, demure and helpful ravens in swooping black coats.  Disguised in a black zippered bag, she was rolled away, negotiating the doorways on her last exit from her home.     Since my mother’s specific request was not to have any viewings, a practice she considered crass and an  indulgence of base human curiosities, we never saw her again.   Our dealings with the funeral folks were short and sweet, just a subdued shuffle around the casket car lot, the exchange of documents and signing of checks, and off she went on her final flight to her  resting place in Oklahoma.  She  told me that the term “at rest” would soon mean much more to us as we put on years.  She was tired.    As to the preparations carried out in the facility, the less known the better.  I think we all understand that the ultimate, “prepared” version of our deceased relatives is nothing if not husk-like.   When my father followed her, the mechanics were the same, although his hospital death  allowed for even less family participation, making the “undertakings”  even more obscure.  He would have appreciated the pun.

Here in Basilicata things are different.   There is no “funeral home.”  Among the first  to know will be the local printers shop, who will prepare the black and white  manifesti*  which will go up around town before the deceased begins his or her preparations for departure.   Provisions for the body’s burial are entirely the responsibility of the closest relatives, and  home is where the funeral starts.   Those preparations usually involve  washing and dressing, maybe shaving, combing the hair and placing the hands upon some treasured item.  There is no embalming.   The household where the deceased lived prepares for visitors by placing the body in a central position, usually on the dining room table, and chairs are circled around the periphery of the room  in anticipation of a day of visitations by friends and relatives.  We arrive, are greeted, a hug or  a nod, a few words, and we find a chair and sit down.   Sometimes a daughter, a brother will be carrying on a long conversation with the deceased, softly  murmuring, chuckling, or more rarely, tearfully grasping at  clothing or swaying from side to side.     There is hushed conversation between visitors, mostly remembrances of episodes in the life of the  departed, but sometimes wholly unrelated to the matter at hand.  “Remember when he fell out of that tree stealing figs?”   “What did you buy to cook for lunch today?”  “Did you hear about Pinuccio who is still in jail?”    Each visitor is free to stay as long as he needs to, or wants to, or, in my case, as long as I can stand it.  It is distressing for a “sanitized” American to participate somehow.   I admire the customs immensely, but intellectually.  I am uncomfortable.  Until recently, there were  places where a family could hire one or more women, the “prefiche,” who would carry on  lamentations for a fee.  These “chiangenn”**  have often made their appearance  in  literature, understandably: they are  equally fascinating and horrifying.

In a small municipality, the funeral procession is on foot from the home to the camposanto.***    Visitors to Italy may note that the most attractive area of a little town is often the cemetery, clipped and polished and centrally-planned.   Family chapels are complete, and the larger areas of communal use are tastefully decorated  with flowers on saints days and birthdays.    What a contrast to the rusty  rebar and cement which  festoon the town’s buildings, adding subtle anguish to  our streets, unpainted stucco revealing that a dwelling for the living  is of secondary importance after all.    Larger cities often have towering cement cell blocks of tombs, accessible from indoors, the crusty concrete bleeding white lime deposits, fading  pictures of loved ones.  Anemic electric candles flicker in the gloom.   These are not peaceful places for contemplation, and I am reminded of our “self storage” lockers for our overflows of junk…  “Self-storage” indeed!

We are used to saying our final goodbyes and leaving our loved ones to their final rest, in peace.   Things are different in Italy, but more on that in part two.

*posters

**  lamenters, (in local dialect)

***cemetery

The Rush of Time

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Tutti frutti

It might be a common wish to have a fruit tree orchard, a grove of earthly pleasures on warm afternoons, a taster’s paradise of juices and perfume…the dream is attractive. A few years ago I had the pleasure to translate for a few hours for Francis Ford Coppola, (and he didn’t need me, he did quite well with his remembered dialect) walking around the grounds of his future hotel here in Bernalda. As he strolled the gardens, he expressed his desire to graze on fruit as he walked about, plucking from the collection of fruit trees he hoped to cultivate there. I hated to tell him that the high walls and shady pine trees already there would effectively prohibit that plan from realization. Fruit trees need sun, and wind, and bees, and a life which is not confined by high urban walls. ” Casale alle 7:30″, pastel on paper

One of my favorite imaginary places is a cloister, home to an indolent harem, fountains amid fruit trees, dappled shady areas and not a single thing that has to be done immediately. The reality of trying to have fruit trees is different, however. I planted a lot of fruit trees over the years, and some are still with us while others have become fireplace fodder, providing heat much more successfully than they provided fruit.

When I was growing up in Texas my mother, being a good farm girl who survived the Great Depression, told us about the importance of fruit in her early life.  She grew up in an era when having an orange for Christmas was anticipated for months. She tells us about how, off to college and working to pay her tuition,  her greatest treat was to have a gift box of apples under her bed. She would try to limit herself to one a day, but rarely was able to keep her  resolve. As a parsimonious adult, she often bought the bargain fruit, the littler ones, the ones in a big bag for a fixed price. I can remember wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to eat an orange, with its sour taste and leathery sections and seeds, an exercise in how to spit out hard stringy pieces of fruit into a napkin. Grapes were tasteless, pears were often woody with a hint of mold, and apples had been rolling around in the bin long enough to have lost their turgidity,  their stems mummified. Bananas were just disappointing, purchased yellow and eaten brown. I may be exaggerating, but this is how I remember fruit as a child.

So the local Italian fruit, bought in season, or picked in person from trees and vines, was a revelation to me. It has been a lesson in time-appropriate consumption;   buying things as they become available, and counting on the fact that if they are available they are probably at their peak of quality. Our trees have been cantankerous about producing, luring us into euphoria the first year of production, showering us with buckets of flavorful fruit at the outset, only to hold back each successive year until only one or two lonely and bird-sampled and ant-infested pieces were offered. We gave up on peaches quickly; way too hard to get them to produce, and they often needed chemical treatments just to survive onslaughts of fungus, mold and insects. And birds. Better to buy them, and get only the good ones. My granny always said, “Use the best first, and that way you always have the best!” And sometimes, only sometimes, the best fruit is at the store.

Figs! Never have I been so impressed by the generosity of a tree, a tree which requires no fertilizer, hardly any water, and only a cursory trimming by any wannabe arborist every two years or so. You can cut off the growing end of a branch, stick it horizontally in the soil with only the tip bent up and out, and in a couple of years you will have a tree. If I had another lifetime to learn, I would concentrate on my grafting skills, maniacally creating multi-varieties onto the hardy root system of a single tree. Grafting is similar to pulling off a sting operation; the tree and the foreign twigs must be fooled into overlooking their differences and creating a single living creature from the parts. We think we have triumphed, but who can tell what the trees know?

Apricots grow well here, and they fit in well with our “no-treatments” ideology… (meaning “too much trouble”). You haven’t really tasted an apricot until you have nibbled it directly from the tree on a hot June day. It doesn’t get cold enough for cherries right here, although over the hill the trees produce prolifically. Plums grow and produce care-free, as do persimmons and loquats and all things citrus. The oranges which hang on our trees until May are the sweetest and most mouth-friendly I have ever encountered. Nothing else comes close. Many times I will stay on the tractor an extra hour because oranges are at face level as I work around the trees, and who could resist? The steering wheel is often sticky.

Maybe when you think of Italy, prickly pear cactus might not come to mind. But there are entire hillsides covered with mounds of them, a “fluffy” version with meaty paddles which are full of juice, hardly a sticker to be found. In the autumn the plants are covered with huge red fruits which, having grown up in the Texas hill country, astound me by their friendliness. They are nothing akin to the hard little tongue-grenades that cows eat in Texas. But I will make an admission: We buy Sicilian prickly pear fruit by the case at the supermarket, and rarely go out to gather them ourselves. The fruits (ficchi d’india) which come from Sicily are superior even to our own. They are about the size of bartlett pears, day-glo magenta to blackest purple. There is a word in dialect which has always intrigued me, nun-dru-zzu-le’-she, which describes the effect of eating many of these together with lots of grapes. Apparently the seeds of both fruits fit together in such a way that all intestinal motility will grind to a halt. I would say that if the language has created a specific word for the condition, then the warnings ought to be respected!

Grapes are in a category all their own. You need considerable expertise to have vines, and so far multiple distractions haven’t allowed me to delve into wine-making. But I remember back when our group from the University of Texas was doing survey work, walking the territory five abreast, eyes to the ground looking for sites, filling our bags with fragments of the past. A terracotta shard, collections of stones, darkened earth all testify to the rich history of this area. It was a daily Easter egg hunt with bonuses:  fruit!  We couldn’t wait to walk the areas covered by grape vines, trudging along under them in the dappled shade and stuffing ourselves with grapes picked from huge hanging agglomerations of the most astoundingly ambrosial grapes any of us had ever tasted. Again, I cannot begin to describe the flavor and how it eclipses any kind of grape, anywhere. “Uva Italia,” long may you reign. I apologize to the farmers who unknowingly contributed, even if it was only .00001 percent of the total harvest. They should know they made an indirect contribution in the name of science!                                                                                          “Another Summer Salad”  oil on board