Storing up Memories
by Delia De Santis
The bus snaked along in the cool, narrow valley surrounded by tall mountains and steep hills. The driver knew where we were going and he let us off right by a small sign with an arrow indicating the direction of the village. The sign said Capino.
My father-in-law’s house, on the right side of the lower piazza, was the only detached dwelling there. The way it stood, facing the county road below and at the same time looking out onto the village proper, made me think that in early times it must have been used for enemy lookout. Perhaps the house had been built by a feudal lord who had his own army to protect his wealthy domain. All the other houses were tenement-like, with round arches and passageways, and were situated on both sides of the wide cobblestone avenue joining the lower and upper piazza.
A shortage of time prevented me from researching the local history. But the cornerstone of Papa’s house had the number 1576 engraved on it, and judging by the style of architecture throughout the village, I assumed that the construction of the rest of the homes had taken place around the same time.
Inside, most homes had been renovated to suit the contemporary tastes and needs of the people, but the outer features were unspoiled by modern hand. Except for the front door of an old bachelor, a man they called The Postman.
The door couldn’t be missed. It was modern. In fact, it didn’t even seem to have been manufactured in Italy. The delicate carvings of birds and flowers on it had the look of Chinese artistry. And the way it stood, set among massive walls, roughly hewn steps, porthole windows, and doors that were stark and heavy, made it into a jarring incongruity. Out for a leisurely walk one evening, I paused to look at it.
Nearby, a teenage girl I had met the day before was standing against the corner of her house, waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up with his motorbike. Her name was Francesca. She was dressed in tight black leather pants and jacket.
“What do you think?” she asked, butting her cigarette in a pot of geraniums.
“Well... it’s different,” I replied, smiling.
She looked at me with disappointment. I had let her down. She had expected a different response, one with substance and conviction.
“But—don’t you see?” she pleaded. “In fifteen years all this ancient beauty will be destroyed—gone forever. Like it never existed.” She wanted me to understand, wanted to make sure I grasped it fully.
“Do you really think that will hap- pen?” I said, thinking it over for a minute. “There must be regulations. Surely the province must have laws set up for the preservation of landmarks... architecture, history—things of that nature.”
“Laws... that’s a laugh. Wait and see how fast things will change after the road has been paved and the street lights installed.”
“Oh, yes. I heard about that. They took up a petition... the young people were against it.”
“And then see when the old people are gone... how quickly new people will buy up their properties. The air so pure and fresh around here... skiing close by, and the sea not even an hour’s drive away. This place will be heaven for the pleasure seekers, the spoilers. They’ll change the face of the village all right, with their money and their clout.”
Francesca had made a pretty good case for herself. What else could I say to her? I had no way of really knowing what would take place in the future... no way of reassuring her. Nodding, to show her that at least I understood her concern, I remained silent.
Obviously, to the idealistic members of the new generation, the door of The Postman’s house was a sad symbol of the future of the village.
To the older people of Capino, however, this particular door stood for something else, totally unrelated to replacing the old with the modern. The men of the village openly profaned it by spitting on it, while the women, trying their best to be more polite, restrained themselves to mere angry gestures.
“Just look at it,” my husband’s great aunt said to me one day, as she disdainfully flicked her chin toward it. “Pale wood. Yellow! Just like the man who owns it. They should have hanged him!”
By now The Postman began to intrigue me more than his notorious door.
The man had acquired his nickname many years earlier, when he held the fine position of county postman. After a few years, he had been fired from the job. He had been caught taking money out of letters arriving to the wives and to the parents of the men who had emi- grated to Canada and the United States. Money that could have been used to buy such badly needed things as shoes for the children in winter, and medicine for the sick and the elderly.
Somehow, The Postman had managed not to go to jail. But in a way his punishment had turned out to be more severe than prison. Most people wouldn’t have anything to do with him anymore, especially the people of the village and its surrounding areas. Ostracized, he had been forced to become almost a total recluse.
I happened to meet him one day. I was coming back from getting drinking water at a nearby fountain. The field path I was on was narrow and I politely stepped aside to let him pass. However, the man had no intention of moving on, as I had expected. It was starting to rain, and suddenly he was standing in front of me, sheltering me underneath his large umbrella.
I was a little scared but soon told myself not to worry, after all he was only a petty thief, not a murderer.
But what a furtive little fellow he was! In fact, it wasn’t at all hard to imagine him late at night, with only the flame of the wood stove to give him light, cleverly steaming open the letters, over a pot of boiling water... and care- fully pulling out the bills from inside.
He started talking to me right away—without introducing himself.
“Oh, you’re Giovanni’s daughter- in-law, aren’t you? You married the youngest son, Tonino, the one who was a teacher and now builds houses... And your own parents, aren’t they from Cassino?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Actually, I was born there myself, too.” I thought that I might as well be friendly.
“I see, I see... born right here—in our country. That is why you speak Italian so well.” Then just like that he went on to a different subject—he began talking about Canada.
It was amazing how much he knew about Canada. He asked me if I lived anywhere near the Windsor/Detroit tunnel, and how far I was from the locks—the canal at Thorold. “Near Niagara Falls,” he added, showing off the extent of his knowledge.
Suddenly it struck me that not only had this man taken the money out of the letters, but he had also read them.
“Oh... where did you learn so much about Canada?” I asked, daring to be a little mischievous.
Quickly, he stiffened. The Postman moved back, the umbrella going with him. Standing there, a few feet away from me, he pouted for a minute, then began whistling to the wind.
At seeing his unusual behaviour, an involuntary chuckle came out of me. It was too late to do anything about it.
Now he was completely offended. And to let me know it, he pursed his lips, his mouth a tight round hole in the middle of a bush of ash coloured beard. Then, suddenly, recapturing his poise, he glanced over his shoulder at me and primly walked away.
I wondered where he was going. The path didn’t lead anywhere, except to the fountain—but he wasn’t going for water—he had no container with him. Was he planning to go to the bot- tom of the field just to turn around, making it look like he had a purpose in mind, a destination? Had he, in his desperate need to talk to someone, devised our encounter? I wondered about it.
Curious to see exactly what he would do, I stood there for a while. But then it started to rain harder and I decided to hurry back to the house, instead.
“I didn’t realize we were out of water,” my father-in-law said, “or I would have gone for you. You got yourself wet.”
“Yes, a little. But it was worth it,” I smiled. “I finally got to meet The Postman.”
Papa laughed. “So what did you think of him?”
“That’s the strange thing,” I pondered. “I didn’t like him... but then I didn’t dislike him either.”
“Well, it’s all right to feel a little sorry for him, but not too much, though. He’s a pretty resourceful fellow. He can take care of himself.”
“I must say, though, he is a little weird.”
“Oh, for sure. But don’t be fooled into thinking he’s crazy, because he isn’t. And, in a way, he still lives by his wits. He’ll do anything to figure out ways to meet the tourists and the summer people when they’re out walking, just so he can talk to them for a while.”
“Planning for winter,” I heard myself murmur. “Storing up memories of his summer conversations.”
“You’re right. You put your finger right on it. That’s exactly what the man does, creates a little diversion for him-self in the summer, that way he has a few memories to get him through the long winter months.”
“I’m sure he’s on government pension now... but it must have been hard for him with no income after he lost his job. I heard the farmers around here wouldn’t even give him work for a day—not even picking up stones from the fields.”
“Well, he didn’t starve. His father had a bit of money, left it to him when he died. And then there’s a strip of land that used to belong to his mother—he worked that. He might have had to ration his food sometimes, but in the end he always managed.”
I shook my head. “But aren’t they ever going to forgive him? I know what he did was wrong... opening the letters, stealing. That was such a long time ago.”
Papa shook his head. “Not the older people. They’ll never forgive him.”
I thought of the old villagers and the wonderful way they had treated my husband and I and our two sons since the day we had arrived there for our three week vacation. Many had invited us into their homes to sample their renowned nocino, a rich brown liqueur they made from walnuts. The women had given our boys fancy ice cream treats, which they bought especially for the children visiting the village. And a little old man, who must have been over ninety years old, had given us several truffles. He had gone out to the field himself to dig for them, with the help of a dog trained to pick up the scent of the potato shaped spurs, regarded as a delicacy in many countries. His eyes gleamed with pleasure as he presented us with the gift. “Take them to America... you’ll be able to enjoy a few meals of fettuccine con tartufo,” he said.
“How strange. It’s mostly the older people who have been really nice to us, so hospitable and caring. They have treated us like family.”
“Oh, I know,” Papa said. “They would give you the shirt off their back. But don’t forget, they’re still village people—mountain village at that. Oh, they try... they modernize their homes and speak the real Italian, sometimes even pretending they’ve forgotten their own dialect, but they’ll never really change. Not the ones who have never left this place, never been away.”
My father-in-law had left the village when he was seventeen, returning there to live only after he retired. He had spent most of his life in Rome, and travelled in many countries. And even now, when he felt burdened and closed in by the mountains, he would go back to his apartment in the city for a while, until he felt ready to return once more to his ancestral home.
“They carry their grudges to the grave,” Papa stated.
It was hard for me to understand how these people would not try to for- give and forget, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t judge them. Not fairly anyway. They were part of a landscape I could never belong to, a world I could not quite enter. It had to do with mountains and rocks... the formation of the place, the steadfastness of the surrounding nature. I would accept them as they were. That was how they had accepted us.
Later, I also found myself thinking about change, and the manner in which it takes place. I thought about the young girl Francesca, her nails painted silver to match the spikes on her black leather jacket... and her desperate need to preserve certain aspects of the past. And I also thought about the old people with their modern kitchens, and the shiny Fiats parked in front of their houses, but who were unable to let go of a mentality that was still somewhat ancient.
That evening, it was raining hard and I couldn’t sleep. Standing at the balcony door of a house that for many centuries had belonged to my husband’s family... and someday would belong to my husband, and then again later to our sons, I watched a torrential downpour drawing a swiftly running river on the stone covered road below. The scene was almost as from biblical times... and a sadness came over me, knowing that someday that road would be paved... the appearance of the village would change, and with time the inhabitants would change, too. But in my mind, Capino would be preserved always as it was that summer, in the year 1978.
Delia De Santis lives in Bright’s Grove, Ontario. Her most recent book is Fast Forward and Other Stories (Longbridge Books, 2008). She is also co-editor of the anthology Sweet Lemons: Writings with a Sicilian Accent (Legas, 2004).
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