When I was a child, summer started after the last day of school. On that day I would wake up very early in the morning, I’d take the bus and go to the train station with my father. We would embark on a train crammed full of sleepy commuters, surrounded by an unbearable, acrid stench, and I’d fall asleep, rocked by the sound of the train on the tracks. Dad would wake me up, we would get off and in his legendary 500, we would drive to his office. There, I’d sit in a corner with my comic books or my drawing books and I’d wait for the time to pass. At some point dad would call me and we’d have lunch. He’d take the lunch box wrapped in aluminium that mum had prepared for us out of a brown bag and we’d eat together. After that, he’d open the office again. At the end of the day, we’d take the bendy road back to the village.
I was welcomed, by a crystal air and fresh breeze that wiped out the heat wave of the city. The air had a persistent smell of horse dung, mules, donkeys, goats and chickens that overwhelmed every stone of the road, every single house, it even overwhelmed the church. In front of every door there was an iron bar on which one could scrape his shoes, but even by doing so dirt would inevitably follow us in to the house and the smell would impregnate our hair, linen and walls…. after a while you didn’t notice it anymore and you’d become part of the collective smell that made us all equal, beyond class struggle.
There, in the big house, Granny and my aunts welcomed me and, after the first bath, we would wait for everyone else to come back. I used to go out, on our terrace, with Granny to do the “Lombard lookout post”, we’d stay out until I saw my uncle and aunt riding their horses with their saddle-bags full of goods. At that point the celebrations started, I as the Queen of the house received all the attention for the next three months.
At night I sunk into that enormous bed of three wool mattresses that embraced me as a warm cocoon. In the morning I’d have freshly milked milk for breakfast, with plenty of sugar that I used to leave at the bottom of the mug to have it after I’d finished the milk, spooning it out with the tip of the teaspoon accompanied by a tiny cube of bread that had been cut from the loaf with geometrical precision; first cutting slices the length of a finger, then into stripes and finally into cubes… every slice compact and the white part of the bread covered by tiny holes that every homemade bread made with natural yeast and baked in a wood oven has. The taste of that milk and bread stayed in my memory, I tried to find it again (with poor results) in every cup of milk and in every slice of bread I’ve had since then.
The days passed, life was calm and slow, every new day had a different rhythm.
After having fed the chickens, Granny sat down to knit socks with her four knitting needles and told me stories. She told me about her mother, whom I looked alike, about her husband, my grandfather who died while he waited for me to be born, just a month after his death. She showed me the pictures of my father as a child, chubby and naked on a leopard skin, or upright in his Figlio della Lupa* uniform. She showed me his school reports, handwritten in black ink, with a string of 10/10 and complimentary comments… and I enjoyed having these old papers and books around me, their yellow pages and the smell of the house, of burnt wood and of freshly baked bread.
Everyday was a new discovery; they were all there to take care of me and there I learnt most of what I now. One day we baked biscotti, another day bread, one afternoon we went to the grove and another one to the Villa. If the weather wasn’t good and I couldn’t go out, I’d cut images out of newspapers or play with my Barbie, for whom I build a house on one of the window seals. Thanks to my doll I learnt how to crochet (I had to make tiny blankets and curtains!).
I read a lot and I never got bored, even if there were no other children, because I had to may things to see and explore: bed sheets to embroider, the loom to weave linen, the eggs o find in the basket and place them, still warm from the saw dust. And in the countryside picking fruit from the trees, walks through the olive groves “See! My father planted this one when I was born, and that one was planted when uncle Enzo was born, that one…”, the grape harvest, crushing them with our feet in the milestone.
My summers were never hot. I left the heat in the city. There, in the tiny village, I’d go out with my jacket and slept with two blankets.
Now that world doesn’t exist anymore. But every time I close my eyes, listen to a sound or smell something everything becomes real again. It is sweet to get lost in these memories.
*Figli della Lupa: An organisation during the years of Fascism in Italy that had to be compulsorily joined by all the primary school students.