I used to stand at railway tracks, my toes against the ties, while trains approached. I held my breath as they lumbered past, tuned to the whine of metal on metal, their weight a tornado in my chest, their speed reverberating in my heart.
“You are crazy,” my brother told me years later. “Don’t you realize how lucky you are that you weren’t decapitated?”
He should know, transportation safety being his line of work. He pointed out the obvious dangers: 1) the air turbulence around the train; 2) the stabilizing 6×6 stakes in the side pockets of the rail car that can fly out; and 3) the banding straps holding the loads in place that can come undone at one end and become gigantic moving razorblades, band-saws, guillotines.
I pondered the possibilities of these unpleasant dangers, recalling a railway track in White Rock, where I once saw a decapitated cat — head on the ties, body on the gravel, neatly severed, as if the cat had chosen that exact moment to cross.
“And not only that,” my brother continued, “do you know the anxiety you’re causing the conductors on board?” He paused. “When they see someone that close to the tracks, they assume it’s a suicide waiting to happen. Can you imagine watching that and being able to do nothing about it?”
Late afternoon in Roma Termini, a torrent of travellers ripples to and fro — tourists, Italians commuting to jobs, families, business men/women. I move among them in trepidation of my return to Rutigliano, a place intrinsically tied to my childhood, with its joys and sorrows, a place I’ve returned to repeatedly in the past decade. I spent my early childhood here with my aunt Ida, who loved me so extravagantly, I sometimes worry she loves the little girl rather than the adult in front of her, her memory of me as intact as mine of her.
At Binario 19, I board my train for this journey between Rome and Rutigliano, this familiar buffer between my Canadian city life and my aunt’s inner life.
We glide slowly out of the city, the train almost soundless on its high-speed rail. Graffiti brands every available visible surface: trains, fences, the sides of ties, posts, the walls of buildings bordering the railyard — an urban clamour for attention. Trains skirt the rear of cities, the buildings blackened with soot, images you won’t find in guidebooks of monuments and sculptures, of obelisks and paintings and seaside festivals. Trains traverse the landscape, anonymous and familiar, their whistles time signals, their coaches magic carpets to a better life, their weight an awakening vibration over ballast and ties, over the gravel and broken stone of lives.
In the past year and a half since my last visit to Zia Ida, I’ve remained steadfast in my belief that she is immutable, though my uncle has warned me that she is changed.
The Eurostar slowly picks up speed. There is no lulling sound to this train, no rhythmic clack-clack clack-clack, no side-to-side motion. We shoot past Roman walls, archways, ruins, a pine forest, yellow and red buildings, terracotta roofs, open fields, farms, olive groves, vineyards. We enter tunnel after tunnel, wide valleys, the Apennines in the distance, and finally the Mediterranean. I have taken this journey so often, I can almost close my eyes and still see ruins, tilled fields, cows, buildings, herds of sheep, all mixed together, old and new.
She is changed, my cousins say, without explanation, their tones apologetic, tender. I hear changed for the better, though my Zia Ida is etched inside me as perfect: one of the people on earth who has always loved me completely and unconditionally.
In twilight, stones begin to appear in the fields, more and more of them, then stone fences, stone terraces holding back hills, stone walls encased in chicken wire. Then fields of wild cacti, laden with prickly-pears. This is an arid area of Italy, and water for agriculture is brought here by the Apuglian Aqueduct, which stretches for over two thousand kilometres, and passes through 99 tunnels and over 91 bridges — an unbelievable feat, like love.
Near Bari, nostalgia settles in my chest, not for myself, but for my mother, who lived here until she was thirty. I wish she was with me to recount her stories, her past elusive. Buildings assume the verdigris of clouds reflected in the dusk. I long, too, for the Zia Ida of memory, anxious about the changes. When I called her from Rome, her voice was languorous, detached. I think of all the times I didn’t phone her, because she’d want to talk for hours and hours, lamenting, always lamenting. Zia Ida has always seen the glass half-empty, as if she is incapable of joy.
Swarms of birds fly low; tall tall pines sway like black umbrellas against the darkling sky. At the station in Bari, I change trains and when I arrive in Rutigliano, Elma, my aunt’s housekeeper, is waiting at the open door. We hug happily. She is family now, has been with my aunt for ten years, since Zia Ida rescued her from an unscrupulous employer who — after bringing her on a government program from the Philippines — kept her in a tiny airless room, and forced her to clean his friends’ houses on weekends. Zia Ida sponsored Elma’s husband, Sammy, and their child Ian, who is now eleven. During the past decade, Elma has had two more children: Giulia, five, and about a year ago, Marco, who all consider Zia Ida their grandmother. They all live here with her, a three-generational family.
“You must not expect your aunt to be the same,” Elma says to me. “She is okay, but not the same.”
I walk down the hall to Zia Ida’s room, my heels clicking on the marble tile. Last door on the left, and there she is, as always, in bed, and I rush to embrace her.
She looks up, languid, her eyes indifferent.
I draw in my breath, and lean down to kiss her cheek. She smiles weakly, and I try to hide my disappointment, hold her hand and say her name. On other visits, my aunt’s eyes would light up with utter joy on seeing me. Today, nothing. She lies there, passive, looking at me, but I could be anyone.
“Zia Ida is having a bad day today,” Elma says, quietly, patting my back. “And it’s late. Maybe tomorrow…”
A bad day, I repeat in my head, a bad day, as if the sun were responsible. Tomorrow she’ll sit up, and we’ll talk for hours. A bad day, a tape loop. The warnings return. She is changed, they all said. This is more than a change, this is a vacancy. I think of all the summers I’ve spent with her this past decade, grateful to have listened to her stories. Has she given up now that she’s given me the saga of her life — the tracks she’s followed and left behind? Isn’t this what we all crave: to be remembered as we recall ourselves?
Zia Ida closes her eyes and falls asleep. Elma leads me out to the kitchen, where she makes me a cup of coffee. We speak easily, because Elma speaks perfect English as well as Italian and Tagalog.
“Probably a small stroke,” Elma says. “Not enough to do too much damage, but some …”
“She is so passive,” I say, a giant lump in my throat. “It doesn’t seem like her at all.”
“Today she is not having a good day,” Elma repeats. “But you’ll see, tomorrow or the next day, she’ll be better.”
How does one recuperate from a life gone wrong? All her friends are dead. She has few visitors, the family scattered around Italy, and us in Canada. My cousin thinks Zia Ida was in love with a married man, and when he died in 1998, she went to bed, relinquishing life. My mother thinks Zia Ida is lazy and instead of lying around, should have been doing something to make her life meaningful. I think there’s truth to both. After all, being in love with a married man is a kind of laziness, and when Zia Ida took to her bed, I suspect she believed that like a tragic heroine of a nineteenth century novel, she would die of a broken heart. Instead, here she is, almost ninety, and as my uncle says, “with the inner organs of a 30-year-old. She’ll outlive us all.” For her, being alive is a suffering.
In the morning, my cousin drives me to the only hotel in town. I sit on the single bed, in the small spartan room, dismayed by how quickly my expectations have been undermined, like karst topography, the cave-in on the inside. I want to return to my aunt’s room, to her apartment, to the same old house where I spent my early childhood. I want to return to the same place, to the same memory. I want to return.
We settle into a routine: mornings I spend with my aunt, though it’s disconcerting to sit at her bedside, while she lies, silent, unless I speak to her. How often I have lain in the dark of her bedroom, listening to her urgent outpouring, as if there were not enough time in our lives to say everything. Perhaps she was anticipating this exact moment, this path from which we can never return.
In the afternoons, I walk around the countryside in the early afternoons, when she naps, and everyone is inside at pranzo. In less than a kilomtre, I cross a bridge over a Roman aqueduct and find myself in olive groves and vineyards. I circle the town several times, burning away the anxiety I feel over this new aunt. Instead of she being the storyteller, our roles have reversed. I am now the one who speaks of my mother, of us all in Canada, of all the years I’ve been away. She listens intently, nods in all the right places, but when I finish whatever story, she asks me questions that confirm that she has not grasped what I’ve said. At the end of each day, I return to the hotel downhearted.
Some afternoons, I board a train and ride to nearby towns, where I wander, aimless, across cobblestone streets, around Roman walls, inside churches and outdoor markets. At dusk, I wait for the next train, my toes against the ties, my brother’s words in my ears: Can you imagine watching that and being able to do nothing about it?
Two days before I’m to leave, Ian comes in from school, excited. “Nonna, Nonna,” he calls.
Zia Ida stirs. She loves Ian intensely; she loves all her adopted grandchildren. I know this from other visits.
“Today, we studied Dante!” he says, and from his school satchel takes out his scribbler.
“Bravo,” she says.
“Dante was born in Florence in May or June 1265,” Ian says, bouncing on the bed. “In 1285, he married Gemma Donati. That was your surname too, wasn’t it, Zia Genni?”
I nod. “Before I got married,” I say.
“Before you got married three times,” Zia Ida says.
I’m amazed that she remembers this, and wonder what would have happened had she remarried when she was left a widow. In this small town, it would have been almost impossible for her to have a second romance at the age of thirty-three, a woman who was barren. We have all deserted her, I think, to make our own lives, to escape her expectations.
“This is what we learned,” Ian says, opening an illustrated version of The Divine Comedy to the beginning of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for the path which led aright had disappeared.
I am enchanted by his intensity and delight. He’s in grade five. I can’t imagine Canadian grade-school children citing Dante. I can’t imagine Canadian university-educated adults citing Dante, unless they’re pursuing a degree in literature or classics. In fact, last term, in my first-year university Creative Writing class, my students proudly announced they didn’t read literature. This omission was reflected in their stories, which began innocently enough, that is to say, they began as stories about people like themselves or their parents, or their imagined versions of people older than themselves —wizened old men of 30, 40-year-old grandmothers who thought only of knitting and baking, etc. However, once established — however thinly — these benign characters suddenly and inexplicably stabbed people on busses, shot everyone at work, quartered and ate children, dismembered friends over drug deals, and did so in agonizing detail, so that every single wound, every severed body part was lovingly described.
As I read from one story to the next, the pattern continued, and soon I felt as if I were watching TV, the channels switching so quickly it was impossible to catch the narratives or the motives — only a continual outpouring of blood — a violence as obscene as it was nonsensical and sensational.
These young people were not writing their own stories, but those reflected from television, their stories someone else’s version of reality — a fictional world of crime and adventure, a cartoonish existence of surfaces.
Perhaps, I then thought, this is actually a reflection of our culture and society. Perhaps they really are mirroring their market-driven manufactured selves.
In contrast to this, here, in Italy, schoolchildren study Latin, Greek and philosophy in high school. What better way to understand the roots of words, the roots of logic and reason? Schoolchildren can name sculptors, poets, artists; they can recite classic poems, point to monuments and know who built them; recognize paintings and painters; they are proud of their heritage, and knowledgeable about history. I wonder why our education system has been dumbed down, as if we don’t believe our children are capable of or interested in learning.
By the second line of Dante’s Inferno, my aunt is reciting with him, eyes sparkling, as she intones the words.
After a few verses, Ian closes the book, and says he has homework to do.
“Do you want me to keep reading?” I ask her.
“Magari!” she says. I wish!
I open the book, and begin to read, my tongue tripping on the archaic Italian. I sit at her bedside all afternoon and read The Divine Comedy, while Zia Ida recites along with me, often correcting my pronunciation, or stopping me only to say, “You know what that means, don’t you?” and to explain. Or she anticipates: “This is the part where they come to the burning lake.”
I’ve stood at railway tracks, my toes against the ties, while trains approach. Now I sit at my aunt’s bedside, my hand in hers, and hold my breath as years lumber past, tuned to the whine of flesh and bone. Today, we journey together through Dante’s Inferno, through his Purgatory and Paradise, our eyes wet, our hearts open to each other, to the magic that is poetry — a language through which we can finally communicate.