I don’t tell him nearly enough, but my father, who is an architecture connoisseur and long-time Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast, is a man in my life for whom I am truly grateful. As a small gesture to show him some love, I booked us tickets to tour Wrights home and studio in Oak Park. To our great surprise, we discovered that the Robie House, gem of the Wright Prairie style movement was offering gratis entry today as well. After a lunch at a Forest Park diner, where we took a seat at the counter to enjoy our lunch, we headed south to Hyde Park. And that is where we found out that the whole city was offering the opportunity to visit architectural gems, with a tour included, for free. Apparently, it had been going on all weeekend, and we had been ignorant of the facts and late to the party, as it were. But, late or not, we arrived, and it was an absolute treasure of a day. I couldn’t possibly list all the things that I not only love and appreciate about my dad, but also have had the fortune of inheriting from him as well. My time with him was incredibly fulfilling; from the dialogue and laughs to the deep understanding and appreciation for art and design. It was beautiful. Pictures cannot capture a meaningful relationship in its entirety, but they are wonderful triggers that will transport me to precisely this day for many years to come. (Featured image is Wrights home)
All my life I have been searching; searching for that spark, that intrinsic motivation that drives me, compels me to be. Through the years, its never been a what or a something that has moved me, it has always been a who. One night, after we had been sampling the previous year’s selection of reds, Leo pointed this out to me. “You have to know it somewhere inside of you, Lille. There is a qua within you that makes it happen. Maybe you just need to discover it; search yourself until you find it, and when you do, never let it go.” I sipped the wine carefully and tucked his words away in some foreground of my mind. I didn’t know what to say. He was right, he knew he was right. I knew it too, and therefore, there was nothing left to say about it.
I sat by the seaside the next day, watching the waves toss themselves over the pebbles of the rocky shore and felt more like one of those stones being washed about and dragged back and forth rather than the steadfast waves guiding the direction of it all. I squinted my eyes to look past what was directly before me in order to see the afternoon yachters mooring off to the side of the cliffs in the distance. I wondered what it would be like to be an anchor; to know your path and hold fast to it. The anchors would root down into the sand or the boulders of the sea floor and wouldn’t budge until they were pulled up and away, compelled to sail along to a new destination.
I pealed off the gossamer sundress that Leo had bought me the previous week and, in my bra and underwear, stood up from the comforting heat of the grey rock to wade into the warm embrace of the Mediterranean. I lay on my back as the water lapped over my stomach and legs. Arms outstretched, hair floating in all directions away from me, I thought, “I am the last ship; without moorings and without a course to lead me to a destination. What am I going to do?” Folding my body in half, I sank down until my lower back met the sandy bottom with a gentle bump. My fingers dug into the sand and pebbles and I tried to hold on as the bubbles escaped from my lips and nose. It was useless, of course; for the sand slipped through my fingers, and the pebbles were not enough to keep me down. Moments later, I floated to the surface, blinking away the sunlight and saltwater.
The dress clung to the water droplets that slipped down my body as I walked up the path back to the city. Moments later, they would be an effervescent memory. There was nobody around, of course; everyone in their right mind was sleeping the afternoon away, following the prescribed norms of southern Italian culture. Not me. I was the fish out of water.
When I came back to the house, Sonia, Leo’s mother, was sleeping on the white couch where I usually did my afternoon reading. Her mouth was slightly agape, one hand rested behind her head, and the other was laid over her minimally round, middle-aged stomach. It was amazing to me just how peaceful she looked when her matriarchal prowess was tucked away into the sub-conscious. Just hours before, she had been commanding me around the kitchen in her usual mix of Italian and English. She had become flustered because I didn’t understand that she wanted me to serve the mozzarella in the clear glass bowl rather than the usual green one. Her English abilities had failed her, and she had just shaken her head at me, voicing her displeasure in fluent Italian. Leo had tried to gently chide her, also in Italian, because he knew that those moments were ones of excrutiating embarassment for me. She had turned to him, gesturing to me with her ever moving hands, demanding some answer that he had not been able to give her. He had simply raised his hands in surrender, shook his head, and exited the kitchen. And I took the salad and the mozzarella in its correct bowl and had slipped silently from the room. His father, already seated at the table reading a novel, smiled up at me and squeezed my arm gently. Damiano knew what ailed me. He never said a word, but his eyes were always kind and empathetic, and I had to turn away to keep from tearing up in front of him. I also knew that he never spoke to his son about anything other than the business, family, and how to produce your greatest life’s work.
That night, when Leo came in from the vineyards, I was sitting at the table, a book open before me, and a half-eaten sandwich lay abandoned on the plate to my right. He was singing, so it must have been a productive day. He popped his head around the door jamb of the kitchen. “Ciao, carina, bueno serra. How are you?” he asked, smiling. I looked up, acknowledging his presence. “Ah, you’ve eaten already, bene,” he added, glancing at my sore attempt at a meal. His brow furrowed and he came over to me, hands on his hips. “Hey, what is it? Hm? Di mi, carina.”
What should I tell him? I knew he was exhausted, and frankly, so was I. Exhausted by life itself. “It’s nothing. Would you like something to eat?” I asked. He had already begun munching the sandwich remnant. He waved the hand that wasn’t guiding the sandwich to his face. “No, don’t trouble yourself. It’s alright.” He finished the sandwich, wiped the oil from his fingers, and with one last furtive glance at me, went back into the kitchen. He came back with two glasses and a bottle of wine.
“In vino veritas,” he said, opening the bottle and pouring us two generous glasses. “Now, tell me: what’s troubling you?” He was relaxed, his body positioned openly toward me. He wanted to hear.
“What can I tell you, Leo? I’m struggling with this, like I have been since we arrived here,” I replied, focusing on an imperfection in the wood of the table.
“Why are you struggling? Are you unhappy?” He was looking at me, waiting for me to make eye contact. I didn’t.
“I don’t know that its a matter of happiness, really. I just feel lost, unmoored. Like the last ship in open waters.”
“What can I do?”
I looked at him. He was quite serious.
“I don’t know.”
He sighed. “Lillya, you’re alone a lot, I recognize that. And I wish I could be with you more. But this is our life now. We wanted this life, you agreed to this life. Isn’t there something that you can find for yourself?”
“How, Leo? I don’t speak Italian well enough, your mother points that out daily. Your family still treats me like a stranger—“
“My family is waiting for you to feel like you are part of them. They are ready to have you any time you are ready to have them.” He lowered the volume of his voice. “This is all in your head, carina. Nobody wishes you anything else other than to feel at home here.”
“Your mother wishes you had left me in Portland.”
“She wishes no such thing. Such nonsense.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t use the right dishes, I don’t understand her ways, I can’t cook, I don’t sleep in the afternoons, my Italian incompetency is an abomination. I offend her, and she’s always around, so there is never a time where I feel like something I do might be right. And you don’t see it because she is your mother and she is in charge, without question.” My eyes were blazing as I looked at him. He sat back in his chair.
“My mother loves you as if you were her own daughter. She gets upset with herself for failing at her part of the communication—”
“Bullshit she does.”
“Let me finish. She was saying that, if only she could recall her English a little faster, she would be able to make the most beautiful lunch with you. Those were her words today.”
I shook my head and looked away. He leaned forward in his chair.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Lille. What do you want? You don’t know. Do you want me to marry you? Would that make you feel like you belong then? Do you want to be my wife? Italian by marriage, eh. Hm?” Again, he was serious.
“I don’t need you to marry me, Leo.”
“It’s not a matter of need, carina, it is a matter of what you want. Find that, and you will find peace.”
With that, he got up, took his glass and went outside, pulling the newspaper from under my magazine on the coffee table on his way.
Moments later, I joined him. He put the paper down.
I took a deep breath. “I don’t have a family that supports me like you do. Never have,” I said quietly. “You are right about me, you know. I have no idea what I want, or what moves me. I don’t think I’ve ever known.”
My family history was a story quite on its own. My parents were older when they conceived me, and my mother often told me that she had considered “a quick procedure” to take care of the “situation”. She was a career woman partnered with a man who loved work as much as she did. She doubted heavily that there was room for me in their lives. But, my father wanted me more than anything else, and as soon as they found out they were having a daughter, he refused to let her speak of anything but their future as a trio. That was the first step down a long path of resentment for my mother.
The second came with my name. Lillya. An uncommon, if not unheard of, girl’s name. My father loved the name ever since he had read it a novel about the Russian revolution. He loved history. My mother, on the other hand, was one of those Americans who thought history had no business being taken seriously in modern times. Much to her chagrin, the nurse scribbled down Lillya on my birth certificate, and they left it at that. No second name to mitigate the first. Instead, she chose to remind me at every opportunity that I was the greatest battle she ever lost. And she did lose. She lost my father, who died of heart disease when I was five. And she lost me slowly thereafter.
I tried to love her. She was my mother, after all. But the wounds she inflicted with her cruel words never had the chance to heal. Even after I had moved out of her house, had accomplished years of higher education, had been successful in every job I had ever set out to take, she still never saw me as anything but the embodiment of the worst possible situation. When Leo had met me, my father’s sister had taken me in and given me shelter from the last devastating meeting I had with my mother. We hadn’t spoken since.
“Lille,” he said, bringing me back to the present, “my family is your family. Whatever you decide to do, we are all behind you, amore.” He gave my hands an affectionate squeeze. “I need to see that sparkle in your eyes. I haven’t seen that since the first time I took you down to the seaside. But I know it’s there, in here—“ He placed his hand on my sternum, “—somewhere. Let it out, carina, and you will be at home anywhere you go.” He kissed my forehead and I reveled in the fact that he loved me enough to put up with the confused, lost, head case that I was. If only I could change all of that.
But I could. And I would.
When he came home the next night, I was covered in flour but had managed to make homemade ravioli with the help and patience of his sister, who spoke more English than she cared to let on in front of the rest of her family. I had also ventured down to the morning market to pick up some bread, fresh fish, and a few in-season vegetables that I sauteed in plenty of butter. I was, admittedly, somewhat drunk, but my spirits were higher than they had been in days, weeks even, and when he hugged me I knew that he was both surprised and happy to have found me using my time productively. And it felt good. Very good.
After dinner, I switched on the radio, and I practiced my Italian by singing to the lyrics I was sure of while Leo and I washed up the dishes. Ever the entertainer, he joined in, making up the words as he went and causing me to laugh until my full stomach began to hurt. After that, we made love on the couch after a shot of Limoncello, and went to bed.
Again I lay awake with my thoughts. Maybe if I spent less time at the harbor, alone and contemplating my failures, I would be able to immerse myself in something that could ignite my soul again. The question was: had it ever been ignited previously? I couldn’t say.
Leo knows his mind until his mother comes into view. Then, he only pretends he’s standing on principle. I watched these interactions with a certain level of bemusement, but mostly I wondered at him in utter confusion. For being one of the most confident, decided men I had ever met, Mama Sonia made quick work of him. Because if she wanted him to have more sauce on his pasta, the ladle would hover over his dish, they would banter for a few seconds, and then the contents would be spread over the plate, and that would be that. Not that I had any room to criticize; I let her do whatever she wanted with my food and otherwise. I already knew I was no match for her strong will and fiery spirit, so I did not ever choose to put up any resistance. Leo, though, did resist as if to further give her what she wanted, as if that was an integral part of the interaction. Somewhere in all of this, the myth (or was it?) of Italian men being mama’s boys sprang to the front of my mind. Even if it was true, though, what was I going to do about it? She was a constant figure in our lives now. We weren’t a million miles away on the coast of the Pacific Northwest; we were on the southern mediterranean coast of the Italian peninsula. These two were juxtapositions; like the smooth squid and the spiny urchins that the sun-weathered men fished from the sea and laid side by side at the market. Nevertheless, I would have to reconcile with the fact that he was no longer exactly the same man I had met and come to know in Portland.
My acceptance of this fact happened slowly. But, I learned quickly that nothing is accomplished or happens rapidly in the small seaside towns of southern Italy. The heat mixed with the heavy sea salted air does something to the brain, making it lackadaisical until around ten in the evening. Suddenly, at that time, front doors begin to open, restaurants fill up, and the piazzas are boasting plenty of life.
One night in August, a few months after we had arrived, there was a festival for one of the many patron saints. Seemingly the whole town followed the procession of the statue, walking behind the wheeled cart through the streets and down to the quay. Being a devout Catholic was to stand on ceremony; more strongly felt was the presence of Grappa and homemade spirits than the blessing of some pertinent yet stoic saint.
Southern Italians Live for The Night; that’s what I decided to name my memoir, should I ever establish the gumption to write one. For me, being out late was like discovering a whole new universe that I hadn’t actually ever realized existed to such a caliber. I had never been a late-night venturer. I much preferred quiet evenings at home to a long night of bar hopping or anything resembling an outing that dare cross into the wee hours of the next morning. Sleep and I shared a symbiotic relationship, and that was one partnership I was perfectly satisfied with. Of course, along came Leo with his tendencies to throw dinner parties where the meal itself lasted four hours at minimum, and a night out would easily lead to making friends with the owner of whatever restaurant or bar we found ourselves in, who then allowed us to stay for another round or two in the spirit of great conversation.
In the beginning, like in every new relationship, I was energized enough by my interest in and pursuit of the man himself. After awhile, though, my yawns became more and more indiscreet until I began limiting myself to the number of outings I partook in. Leo, God bless him, found no fault in that; he would go with friends and they would do exactly what they had always done while I stayed home in the company of a book or some other form of media.
But not here. My reclusive evening tendencies simply wouldn’t fly; if one wanted to have any manner of social life at all in southern Italy, one did not stay at home every evening. The afternoon nap was just as necessary to sleep off the effects of an indulgent meal as it was to stave off any unwanted tiredness come nighttime. Nights were for perusing the streets and enjoying society on display. Shops were open late. It was the inverse of the rest of the world, but that was the Mediterranean way.
So, when Leo pulled me up from the couch, wearing a fresh shirt and a pair of cotton pants, I went into the bathroom to freshen my face, add a little color to my lips, and then out we headed. Sometimes we would be in the company of some members of his impossibly large family, and sometimes we would stroll along, hand in hand or arm in arm, just the two of us. In those moments, a little drunk on whatever we had had a few glasses of, I knew that, as long as I could feel his body next to mine, I could make it here.