The Son She Never Had

La famiglia, courtesy of R.T. Norton

Luca inhaled deeply and then parked his cigarette in the ashtray. He turned to me, wearing a very decisive expression and said: “You know…” He paused. “…You are the son she never had.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him pointedly.

“You know it, the good son, the one she had always hoped for…but the one she never actually had, until you finally arrived!” He punctuated with his mischievous staccato laugh.

Sei pazzo,” I exclaimed, “She has two sons, you and Simone.”

“Yes, I am. But not about this. Somehow, you have become the third son; the good one that she now measures us against. The one she now uses against us,” he proclaimed, as he reached for the coffee that his mother Elide had brought us only moments ago.

How did this happen? When did this happen? Luca’s comments put me in a reflective mood and caused me to start leafing through a mental scrapbook of memories of my previous visits with la famiglia.

Our story together began in the primavera of 1989 when I arrived in Rome for a three day visit. Immediately, I was confronted with an interesting cultural difference. The planned duration of my three-day visit was deemed to be unacceptably short. After all, I was famiglia even though I had only just met them. Luca was the exception as we had been friends for a couple of years by then.

This was radically new thinking for me since I subscribed to the fish theory of travel. House guests are like fish in your refrigerator. Best to throw them out once three days have passed, as a wise Dutch friend once told me, and this has stayed with me over the decades.

Overcoming my cultural reluctance to be an imposition, I put an offer on the table I hoped would satisfy them. I would extend my visit to an entire week. Their facial expressions, eyebrows arched delicately to induce guilt, told me that this was not a serious offer.

My saving grace was that I had a commitment in France in eight days’ time. This was a tangible reason to leave, though barely justifiable in their eyes. After all, as the old saying goes, all roads lead to Rome, so why would one need to go anywhere else?

It was 1992 before I returned to Rome and to my adopted famiglia. What took you so long to come back? was initially in their eyes. This was quickly overshadowed by the epic welcome of their beaming smiles, warm embraces, and the traditional kiss on both cheeks.

Over the first glass of wine, Ilio, the family patriarch, asked me about my igloo in Canada in his usual deadpan tone, as the rest of la famiglia laughed. Let the games begin, I thought, and deftly changed the subject by asking Sir Ilio why he no longer topped up my wine glass as he had during my previous visit.

His reply was very matter of fact: “Roberto, on your first visit you were a guest, and now you are famiglia. Well, famiglia serves themselves, and you can reach the wine from where you sit…can’t you?”

Elide, his wife, smiled and rolled her eyes as if to say: Here we go again, just like old times. We share a special relationship, Elide and I, and it was from this relationship that the son she never had myth grew. You see, I don’t speak much Italian and Elide does not speak any English. Our communication is an eclectic mixture of spoken word, hand gestures, facial expressions, and pantomime.

Luca, ever the curious one, began to analyze how his mother and I were able to communicate. Under cross-examination one evening, Luca queried his mother in Italian and then me in English, about our topics of discussion that afternoon. Our responses were eerily similar, and Luca was pleasantly baffled at how two people who do not share a common language could still manage to communicate.

Eventually, after careful deliberation, he decided that it must be a case of reincarnation. Elide and I had been mother and son in a previous life, he hypothesized. His theory, he proudly announced, neatly explained our ability to communicate with each other in the absence of a common language. He went on to support his argument with evidence of my affinity for Italy and my seamless adaptation to the lifestyle.

Luca was definitely on a roll now; and he concluded his case by coming full circle: I was the son she had never had in this life, and the son she had once had in a previous life. Elide smiled at this theory and informed her son, Sei molto pazzo!

Speculation and hypothesizing are beautiful pastimes in Italy. Old World cultural traditions weave the social fabric into a rich tapestry that serves to keep daily life entertaining. Living in the New World, in a young country like Canada, I can’t help but be fascinated by the Old World pedigree of the Romans. Their storied heritage is an ever-present touchstone for their modern descendants – a sacred talisman that can end a debate at any point since any challenge to the pedigree can be causally dismissed as New World thinking. Luca has enjoyed using this tactic against me on many occasions.

Notwithstanding their ties to their past, most Romans that I have met display an eager curiosity about the ways of the New World. However, the caveat is that their interest rarely translates into an adoption of these New World ways. Unsurprisingly, the roots of the old ways run too deep, as Luca has reminded me with statements like: “Roberto, Romans have been doing it this way for over 2000 years. Who are we to question the enduring traditions born of such an empire?”

I experienced one of these traditions first hand a few years ago when I was recruited to help Luca pick up some appliances and kitchen cabinets for his new apartment. What I initially thought of as simply a chance to help my friend, and in a small way repay him for all the kindness that he and his family had shown me, became so much more. I was treated to a fantastic cultural experience that eventually led me to a paradigm shift.

Meeting up with Luca, his brother Simone, and their father Sir Ilio at the rendezvous point, I innocently inquired “Where’s the truck?”

“What truck?” Simone asked.

“The truck that we will use to pick up and deliver the appliances, furniture and kitchen cabinets,” I replied.

Simone gave me his shy smile while Luca burst out laughing. When he recovered himself, Luca translated my words for Sir Ilio. In response he raised his eyebrows and nodding in my direction he exclaimed, “This one needs help, doesn’t he?” Sir Ilio then turned his gaze to me and punctuated his words with a disappointed shrug to indicate that he had expected better of me.

Luca and Simone both shared a laugh at my expense. Luca then patiently explained to me that my idea of renting a moving van was an extravagance. In Rome you simply call your father and brother, and / or an uncle or three, who arrive on the appointed day with their vehicles.

Having my idea laughed at, and so quickly dismissed without even the slightest consideration, put me on the defensive. I had fallen in their esteem, especially Sir Ilio’s. I needed to reclaim that or, at the very least, mitigate the damage. How could I manage to convince them of the merits of renting a truck today?

Well, that ship had already sailed and nothing I said was going to make it change course. Pointing out to them the efficiencies of renting a truck were only grudgingly acknowledged. They were even more stubborn than I was. It was time to let this go and to get re-focused on the task of helping my friends.

In the end, it took a few hours and some heated debate over a couple of espressos. The result was two fully loaded cars, one of which had a refrigerator tied to the roof rack and a dishwasher protruding from its open rear hatch. The other car had a kitchen table, turned upside down, strapped to its roof. Upon that table rested a stack of kitchen cabinets that was crowned with several chairs. This eclectic sculpture was painstakingly lashed together by Sir Ilio with a series of small ropes and cords. To my eyes it looked like a disaster patiently waiting to happen. No one else seemed concerned.

The dynamic of our mission had changed. I had been quiet for a while now, but in that moment I felt compelled to speak. Hoping to appeal to their sense of reason, I expressed my concern over the safety and the legality of navigating these sculptures through rush hour traffic.

Sir Ilio shook his head slowly and asked his sons: “What are we going to do with this one? He still hasn’t clued in.”

“Don’t worry Roberto, it will be fine,” Luca said, as he gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. I was not reassured in the least. I made one last ditch attempt to stave off the pending calamity.

“We still have time to rent a moving van?” I suggested hopefully.

“We don’t rent moving vans. Andiamo!” the three of them barked at me in unison. And with that the matter was closed to any further discussion.

​”Fine, suit yourselves,” I muttered under my breath.

Predictably, the drive to the apartment was painstakingly slow. It was an extremely circuitous route that took our bizarre caravan down all manner of side streets and goat paths. We could have walked there faster, I thought to myself. With every corner and pothole I braced for the inevitable crash of tables, chairs, and cabinets as they escaped the car roof, briefly winning their freedom, and ending up splintered in the street. In a perverse way, I almost hoped for this outcome so that I could tell them that I had told them so.

Thankfully, I never got that opportunity. We arrived at via Turatti with our cargo intact, and my Nostradamus-like disaster prophecies unfulfilled.

Sir Ilio began untying his collection of knots in order to liberate the furniture and cabinets. While Sir Ilio was occupied with that job, Simone and I tackled getting the dishwasher and the refrigerator up to the apartment. Luca enjoyed a cigarette as he surveyed the street life.

As our work wound down, it suddenly dawned on me what the lesson of the day was. I realized that a process could be inefficient and disorganized, and yet therein lay its simple truth. My famiglia had shown me that although the task of moving was what had brought us together, our true mission was to enjoy our time with each other as the task was being accomplished.

The memories of our day together were like a beautiful painting. What began as a blank canvas was now covered with laughter, debates, discovery, cooperation and accomplishment. Our painting would have lacked depth, character and meaning if we had chosen to accomplish this move as quickly and efficiently as possible.

With the mission completed, our visit now shifted to the dinner table. Naturally, the events of the day were discussed as Elide was very curious to learn how they had unfolded. Sir Ilio, ever the diplomat, gave her a succinct version that did not make any mention of my preference for New World moving techniques.

However, Luca felt no shame in crowing about the triumph of Old World over New World as he savoured another cigarette. Clearly, diplomacy is a trait that Luca has not inherited from his father.

Elide enjoyed his story but glared disapprovingly at the cigarette. As soon as it has been stubbed out in the ashtray, immediately the next one was lit. She scolded Luca with a “Basta!,” then turned to me and exclaimed that he is incorrigible. Refocusing her attention on Luca, she admonished him for not being be more like me.

“Ah, yes…” he replied, “…the good son who doesn’t smoke; the son you never had,” punctuated with an exclamation point of laughter.

This response elicited a dismissive wave from Elide, who rose from the table and escaped from the expanding cloud of blue smoke into the kitchen to begin the coffee.

The tavola, I quickly realized on my first visit to Italy, is the primary hub for social interactions. Whether it’s lunch at a trattoria with friends or colleagues, or dinner at home with famiglia, spirited discussions at the table are the norm.

The topics are free range and run the gamut, from the local events to world affairs. Politics and the state of the economy seem to be universal favourites. That is really no surprise given the copious amount of incendiary material provided by Berlusconi during his reign.

As a straniero, my relationship with the tavola is a special one; well it is to me, in any case. Hailing from a culture where food and family meals around the table hold less daily importance, experiencing the tavola in Italy was a revelation of sorts. It felt like I had finally arrived at the place that I had been searching for. The generous invitation to take a seat at the tavola told me that I was finally with my famiglia.

Reflecting back on it after all these years leads me to think that I probably ate my way into la famiglia’s hearts. In all honesty this came quite naturally, as I have a healthy appetite and a deep appreciation of Italian cuisine.

“Complimenti, mi piace molto!” is an important phrase that I learned early on, and have used often, as Elide is an absolute genius in the kitchen. She never seems to get tired of hearing me say this. We are in harmony, as I expect to continue to enjoy her delicious cuisine and to pay her this compliment for many years to come.

And yet, I have always wanted to do something more than simply pay her compliments. For years I have suggested that we open a small trattoria, and each time I do, the response is the same. Elide’s smile says she is flattered, and she tells me that it is a nice idea, simply to humour me, I suspect. Yet her eyes betray her as they dismiss my suggestion as New World thinking.

Typically, the conversation goes something like this: I muse aloud that a trattoria is a lot of work, and deftly switch gears into my next idea: a book of Signora Elide’s recipes. La Cucina di Elide. It’s a natural,” I proclaim. With the hope of enlisting an ally, I attempt to draw Luca into the conversation by playing the guilt card: “Since you have no sister, when your mama leaves this earth… so will her recipes; unless we take action now,” I say to him.

Senti, Roberto…” he reluctantly agrees “Of course, on the one hand you are correct. However, once again you are complicating my life with yet another one of your seemingly endless supply of projects.” And then he emits a weary sigh, shrugs his shoulders and reaches for his cigarettes.

Elide scowls at him, emits a plaintiff “basta!,” then shakes her head in resignation and retreats from the smoke yet again. In the sanctuary of her kitchen, she starts a second round of coffees for her sons: the one she has always had and the one she has never had.

Excerpt from Via Roma by Robert T. Norton (2021), available here and here.

Robert T. Norton is a multiple winner of the Accenti Photo Contest, including a grand prize win in 2009 for his photo “Passeggiata.” His other publications include Meditations on Photography: Connections to Creativity – Vol. 1 & 2, and Full Moon Poems Whispered by a Muse.


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