Winter 2009

 

NONFICTION

 

Only a Heartbeat Away

 

by Sylvia Fiorita Smith

 

 

There is only one other country in the world besides Canada in which I cannot be wholly a tourist, and that is the land of my parents’ birth, Italy. This means that in spite of living and growing up an entire continent away, my life has been intertwined with the lives of people I barely knew and never saw, but who played a significant role in the way my heart would love, swell with pride, break, and ultimately heal.

 

My mother encouraged me to write to my cousin Lucia, who was only a year older than me, and so, we exchanged letters and photos since we were very young. My mother wrote often to her family, and I remember when one of those pale blue airmail envelopes with the strange looking stamps arrived, her face would light up. I had learned to read Italian by reading those letters. They were often filled with similar information and questions. “I hope this finds you all well, as we are,” they began, and ended by saying “greetings to all, affectionately yours,” and “scrivimi presto,” “write to me soon.” Before the public telephone was installed in the small town, before email, the familiar handwriting of my grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins on thinly lined paper was my parents’ link to their loved ones left behind.

 

I went to Italy for the first time when I was a fifteen-year-old teenager. I was very shy and awkward at first. Landing at Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome after a long, sleepless flight, I saw a small group of people waving frantically at us. I recognized them immediately. My mother’s sister and brother and their respective spouses had come to greet us from Calabria. My mother fell into their arms, sobbing, heaving, and laughing, embracing one after the other. I stood nearby and watched from the side, the way I always felt when my parents and older siblings talked about Italy.

 

Put simply, I wasn’t there, ever. No one had seen me, held me, watched me grow, even a little. Thanks to my mother who missed her family so much, I was at least introduced to people in old photos and included in the greetings. She had also sent them pictures of me as a little girl. In a black and white picture of my family and of my aunt’s family here in Canada, all ten of those posing had come here by ship or plane. I was the two year-old in the front and centre and la piccola canadese, the only, little Canadian. While thinking about all of this, I was grabbed, kissed and held tightly by my aunts and uncles at the airport as well.

 

I had asked my mother, before that trip, if she thought my relatives would like me because they didn’t know me. She reassured me that Lucia would be thrilled to finally get to meet me.

 

It had never occurred to me to worry about that before. No matter how much correspondence between us, essentially all these people were strangers to me. Whether they were happy or not, lived or died, could only be felt by me in terms of how my parents were affected. I was safely untouched by those burdens. My mother wore black when her mother died in 1961. I was only six years old, too young to appreciate the pain of losing a mother, especially one she never saw again after coming to Canada. She felt frustrated, I realized, after so many years when I unearthed a photo of my grandmother lying peacefully in her open casket. I always thought of it as a morbid object, but it was my mother’s only way of helping to put closure on her loss.

 

After sixteen years of saving enough money to return, she was determined to not let the same thing happen with her father. That one month spent among her family made me realize how happy she had been in her native country. I also learned quite quickly that no matter where I may have been born, blood is blood after all. All the cousins, and there were many, were equally loved, scolded and fed by every aunt and uncle. It was, to use the popular maxim, an entire village which raised its children.

 

We celebrated a cousin’s wedding and I was a bridesmaid. Lucia and I and other cousins of the same age pulled pranks on older ones. Our mothers threatened to tan our hides. We stayed out seated on wooden benches late into the night watching for shooting stars. We talked about me growing up in Canada and how everyone marvelled at how similar Lucia and I were. We had the same mannerisms, voices, creative ideas and idealistic notions about love and life.

 

Then the night before we were set to leave for home, Lucia and I could not sleep. We sat in the kitchen side by side, crying and hugging until finally the morning light seeped through the closed shutters and my aunt and mother found us both there resting our heads on each other’s shoulders.

 

“Damn America!” I heard my aunt Lina exclaim. “Look at them. How are we going to separate them now?”

 

But we did somehow peel away from each other. I flew home to embrace once again the country I belonged to. I continued to speak English, learn French, speak a dab of Italian at home with my parents and go on to university and work. Our correspondence took on a different tone. It was less stilted, more intimate. We wrote about our young adult lives and the bittersweet longings for new adventures, which meant letting go of our safe, protective boundaries and carefree lives. We were both ready to risk falling in and out of love. Whatever happened, we would never be the same two girls we knew so well that summer.

 

It then became more apparent to me that getting to know and love my extended family in Italy would mean taking a leap of courage. I would miss many events and once again, be on the outside looking in. In leaving for a better life, I realized my parents’ courage was twofold. They were brave to face a new world as well as to leave a familiar one. Now, I could empathize a little more.

 

One day, the letter arrived. Lucia sent news of her engagement to Tonino, and included beautiful photos of the two of them taken on the same day. They looked so happy, so in love. Lucia’s face was radiant and Tonino was handsome, his eyes warm and sparkling. A mixture of pleasure and sadness filled me. Lucia was entering a stage of life that I could not share with her. She had told me about Tonino, how they had met at university and how nervous she was when he had come to ask my uncle for her hand in marriage. I had teased her about not having had any say in the matter. I would not meet the man of her dreams, the man who would become her husband.

 

As her wedding date neared, I cried that I could not share in her joy. I was already married by then and expecting my first child. I simply could not afford to go back. She had not been able to be at my wedding either.

 

She surprised us all one day by calling to say that she and Tonino would be spending their month-long honeymoon with us in Canada. I was overjoyed. My husband and I spent many happy hours with them, but time goes by all too fast and soon they were gone.

 

With marriage, children, work and all the responsibilities that come with them, my cousin and I phoned each other occasionally, but wrote less. We were both just too tired and lazy by the end of the day.

 

With time, phone calls arrived more frequently from Italy. Most of them broke sad news to my parents. Lucia’s mother passed away suddenly. Nephews would die unexpectedly from a heart attack or sudden illness. My heart ached to realize that going back would never be the same. Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it is a cruel reality that it also makes it hurt more. With no support and comfort from a wider family, my parents grieved alone, often feeling guilty they could not be there for their loved ones.

 

Late in the spring of 2000, Tonino began to call me, usually early on a Sunday morning. “Wake up, sleepyhead. It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” he cheerfully demanded.

 

“Maybe where you live,” I responded, groggily.

 

“So, when are you coming to Italy?” he asked for the third Sunday in a row.

 

“Where am I supposed to get the money for a big trip?”

 

“Ask your father. He’ll give it to you,” he insisted.

 

He persisted for weeks. I was too shy to ask my father. I didn’t think he should use his money to pay for my trip. But Lucia, Tonino and their siblings bombarded my father on his birthday with greetings and a request to send me to Italy. My father couldn’t resist, so off I went with my twelve year-old son in tow.

 

Lucia and Tonino met us in Rome. It was eighteen years since I had seen them and twenty-nine years since I had first set foot in Italy. They had two children by now, one of whom was my son’s age, and I hoped that they would replicate the closeness Lucia and I felt for each other.

 

Of course, visiting for a relatively short time is always complicated. Everyone wants a morsel, and you need to parcel yourself out so that no one is disappointed or offended. Inevitably, it does happen, no matter how hard you try to make everyone happy.

 

Tonino, with his effervescent, personality teased me mercilessly. He knew my fear of water, but he was going to take me out in their boat, he promised. If he felt nice, he wouldn’t throw me overboard! He wanted me to eat his spaghetti with octopus. He took my son and his to the beach every day, while Lucia and I prepared lunch back at their kitchen terrace. Lucia, a noted artist, had painted a seascape mural on one wall. It was a delightful place.

 

One late afternoon, we went down to the beach with the children. Tonino, an expert swimmer and scuba diver, decided he would go snorkelling for octopus. I guessed he was serious about me eating his spaghetti specialty. My stomach felt queasy, but I wanted to please him. He arrived back about two hours later holding a white plastic bag in one hand and a seashell in the other. My son looked at it longingly. It was a small, smooth, marbled conch shell and Tonino handed it to him. “Here,” he told Geoff. “It’s for you. Take it home and put it to your ear so that you will always have the sea wherever you go.” Geoff’s eyes shone and he held it protectively in his hands.

 

That evening, I ate the spaghetti and went out in the motorboat. I hung on to the sides as Tonino revved the motor faster and faster, enjoying the unsure grimace on my face.

 

Lucia was caught off guard. “What made you get into the boat?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know. I guess he just inspires confidence,” I laughed.

 

The next day we left for another relative’s home. Tonino was unwilling to let us go, but I reassured him we would be back in a couple of days. I kissed him and said, “See you on Monday.”

 

Those were the last words I spoke to him. The next afternoon, my son and I were being driven along the rocky Calabrian coastline, admiring the rustic fishing villages and stopping to take pictures of high, windswept waves. Only hours later Tonino would drown in those waters, not far from the same shore where we waited for him to return home from snorkelling.

 

The horrible news was delivered to us while we were at Lucia’s sister’s home. Geoff was devastated and we held ourselves together somehow to comfort this little boy who had come to love and admire his “zio.”

 

I realize that in my lifetime, I have really only seen my cousin Lucia three times. During that terrible summer when she lost Tonino, I was sure I would be pushed aside in favour of more familiar people, people who knew her better and who could provide what she needed. But it was me who listened to the poems she wrote for her beloved and who lay down beside her as she played their favourite song. I sat beside her as mourners filed into the terrace to pay respects to Tonino who lay only a few feet away from the seascape mural in his coffin. When he was brought to the cemetery to be buried, she hid her face in my shoulder and heaved each time she heard the mason pound another brick into place as his crypt was sealed for all time.

 

I stayed for another six weeks. It was no longer a vacation, but a time to be with my wider family during an unbearable nightmare of loss. That is why I can never be just a tourist in Italy. I can never let go of the love and emotional attachments I have made with the people my parents left behind. In joy and in sorrow, I want to be there for them.

 

When we left to return home, Lucia and I cried again and this time, my cousin Rosanna echoed my aunt Lina’s words spoken twenty-nine years earlier. “Damn America!”

 

I could no longer be physically present for Lucia but I knew she would be in good hands, and with or without me, she would have to travel alone through a dark tunnel of grief. I reassured her, however, that I would always be only a heartbeat away.

 

Our contact for two years after the tragedy of Tonino’s death was fairly minimal. Though she tried hard to conceal her feelings, I knew from phone calls, that I reminded her of what happened.

 

Last spring, my two daughters visited their grandparents’ native country and met their relatives in Calabria for the first time. They stayed with Lucia and they had a chance to visit with others. She lavished them with love, food and attention. They could not understand why their grandparents chose to leave and now talk about Italy all the time. They too, will never just be tourists there.

 

My heart healed with seeing once more the radiant smile on Lucia’s face as she embraces my two daughters in a photo. Like me, they worried about feeling awkward among people they never met. I reassured them not to. After all, they too, quickly learned, blood is blood.

 

 

“Only a Heartbeat Away” won Second Prize in the Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in May 2008. Sylvia Fiorita Smith is a freelance writer living in Montreal.

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