Monday, December 1, 2014

Down Three Steps - A Spirit reaches out from the Grave

Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being one of 18 Italian Canadian Women chosen to contribute to the best selling anthology, Mama Mia: Good Italian Girls Talk Back by ECW Press. I was able to travel to Toronto for the book launch and to meet the other fascinating women. It was one of the most memorable journeys of my life. I recall standing in front of a large crowd at Toronto's Columbus Centre reading a brief excerpt of my short story. And when I did so, I could see people in the crowd wiping away their tears. It was a moving, profound moment for me to learn my story, my words could move people.  

Here for the first time on my website, I'm posting my story. It is 100% true. It happened exactly like I describe it. Enjoy!

Down Three Steps
Mirella Sichirollo Patzer
© copyright 2014 Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

It was early morning and already the hot Italian summer sun caressed the back of my neck and shoulders. The day was already in bloom with the promise of warmth and brilliance. A solitary figure, I sat in smallness on the edge of the fountain in the center of the piazza. This was the village where my mother had been born, had played as a child, had survived the war, and had married, the town that held painful memories, the town she had abandoned. These were my thoughts as I waited for the bus that would take me to the seaside town of Ortona.

On a mere impulse, I had traveled from Canada, alone, to find myself now standing where my mother had stood many years before when she left her home for the last time to immigrate to a new land of promise. Now, All it took was an Air Canada flight to Frankfurt with a connecting flight to Italy and I was here, part way around the world.

I was just eighteen years old, my future was yet to unfold before me, and the spontaneity of my romantic adventure enchanted me. There I sat, in the village where my mother was born, where her mother and her mother’s mother were born, and I felt a profound affinity for it. Pride and wonder at being amidst my Italian roots filled me. Here my past was just as entwined and entrenched in the rich soil of the land that had been in my family for generations as the old grape vines and fruit trees that grew upon it. Yet, my mother had abandoned this life for a new Canadian one, trading it for one she hoped could carry the full weight of her future hopes and aspirations; and of my two siblings, I alone knew the reason why. 
         
My thoughts wandered to my mother and the revealing conversation we had shared several months before in the kitchen of our modest Canadian home. Long suppressed, painful secrets swam up from the murky depths of her memories that evening as we shared a cup of tea before the last rays of the day faded. It was a brief moment, a quiet conversation, but one that imprinted itself indelibly in my mind and heart. The story came unasked from her lips, a brief glimpse into her ability to endure, and it changed how I thought of her from that day forward. As I sat listening, mesmerized not only by her tale but with the faraway look in her eye, and the twinge of anguish in her voice, I was yet to comprehend how her story would one day reach out from the past and touch me as no other story has touched me since.  
         
She never spoke of the days of her youth, but that particular evening she did. She talked of the small village not far from the Adriatic coast where she had been born and as a child had endured and survived the horrors of World War II that infiltrated the serenity of her little town.
Several years after the war ended, she fell in love and married. He was a handsome man, my father, who had journeyed from northern Italy in the aftermath of the war in search of work. He found it on the lands of my mother’s father, harvesting the abundant grapes that hung plump and ripe from the vines. It was 1954 when they married and by the time the next year’s grape harvest would be complete, their first child would be born. 
  
Sadness glazed her eyes as she continued into the next part of her story. In her eighth month of pregnancy, illness fell upon her like a heavy pall. The great Asiatic Flu pandemic of Europe succeeded in spreading its wrath into their village to select her as its victim. For days, she suffered and in her delirium, she dreamed. Maria, her mother’s best friend and their long time neighbor, came to her in a dream. Maria hovered over her bed like the spirit she was.

“Ella, I came to ask for your help, for a piacere; a favor from you.”  Maria’s voice was all knowing, soft and compelling, with a certain hollowness that continued to echo long after she finished speaking her words. “I need to borrow money from you, Ella.”

In the darkness of her semi-consciousness, my mother managed to respond. “Maria, I have no money. We have been married only a year. Our lives together have only just begun and every lira must be saved to make a good life for our baby. How can you need money when you are already dead six months?” 

In a haunting voice, Maria responded. “It is important. I need it and I cannot tell you why. If you do not have money, then go to my husband and ask him for it. He is a good man and he will lend you some. If he is not home, then go into our house. Stored in the top drawer of the dresser in our bedroom, under the bed linens, there is money. I ask you to go and get it for me.”
“What will you buy with it?” 

“I must purchase a small plot of land. I implore you to get the money for I will need it very soon.” 
Maria waited emotionless, eerily suspended in a bright light waiting for my mama’s response.

“Where?  What land?” Mama’s strength was waning and the impossibility of Maria’s request disturbed her.

“The land is down three steps and to the right. I implore you that I must have it. You must get the money. I will return soon to get it from you. It is required.”  And with that, her light faded and my mother fell into a tormented, uncomfortable sleep.  
   
In the telling of this, her most painful memory, my mother paused. If there was anguish in her voice before, now there was haunting tone of pure grief. Too immersed by her tale, I let her continue uninterrupted.

“Soon after, my fever broke and I began to slowly feel better. A week had passed since I dreamed of Maria and I had almost forgotten about the dream when the first of my pains began. Still weak from the illness, it was a difficult birth, but somehow I managed and a son was born to us. Your father and I were very happy and we named him Antonio, but only a few hours later, our happiness turned to alarm. There was something wrong with Antonio. He would not nurse.  Fearing my milk was still tainted with the illness, a friend of mine, Giovanna, who had recently given birth herself, tried to nurse him. Still he was not able to nurse. He was ill, too frail. A doctor was called, but he only shook his head and whispered in hushed tones to me and your father. The illness had transferred itself to Antonio. He had been born with it. There was nothing to be done but wait and hope.”

Mama’s eyes welled with tears that had been suppressed for far too long. Yet she continued. “But our hopes waned swiftly because Antonio died in my arms four days later.”  Even many years later, I could tell the memory was vivid, the pain still alive, unbearable to this day. Yet, she continued and I braced myself for I could not fathom what was left for her to tell me.

“I barely remember the funeral other than it was a cold rainy day in January. Never before had I seen such a small white coffin. Your father carried it to the church himself. He refused to allow anyone to help. The entire village followed behind us. Afterwards, we placed Antonio in a hearse and we traveled to Ortona to bury him. When we arrived at the cemetery, our solemn procession walked through the lonely graves until we found the one meant for Antonio. It was in the children’s area of the cemetery and as we approached and I saw the location of the grave, I screamed. It was down three steps and to the right – just as Maria had foretold.”  The memory faded.

The release of air from the bus’s brakes chased away my thoughts. Several people had gathered near the fountain where I sat and began to step up into the bus. I stood and followed, smiling at the driver as I carefully slid my lira into the coin collector. I chose a window seat near the middle of the bus grateful the window was open to allow the morning breeze in to blow through for the short journey to Ortona. I studied the beautiful landscape as the bus drove away from the village.

“You look like your mother.” A voice said. 
I turned to the woman who had just spoken who moved from her seat across the aisle to sit beside me.
“How do you know me?  How do you know my mother?”  I asked puzzled.

I studied her. She had a pleasant face already tanned by the sun. Her eyes were kind and it felt as if they smiled at me. “San Leonardo is a small village and news travels fast. I heard you were here and I am glad to meet you. I was a friend of your mother.”  Her smile gave me permission to trust her. 
“My name is Mirella,” I said.

“My name is Giovanna.”

Piacere.” I thanked her in my rough Italian that carried a heavy Canadian accent.

She asked about my mother and our lives in Canada. The conversation was amiable and it felt good to meet someone who had known my mother when she was young. As she spoke, a new vision of my mother came to life, one full of the vitality and joy of youth, of the pranks and mischief of the young, and of the contentedness of their lives. Like all conversations with strangers, however, we soon ran out of things to say and we entered into a brief, silent lull. She broke the silence first.

“Where are you going?”

“I promised my mother I would visit my brother’s grave, but I’m not exactly sure where the cemetery is, and I would like to purchase some flowers first.”

“Ah, yes,” she said in a solemn voice. “I remember the sadness of it. I tried to nurse the baby, but he couldn’t.”

“You?  It was you?  My mother told me a friend had tried to nurse the baby. She has never forgotten your kindness during that terrible time.”

“There is nothing I would not have done for your mother. She was my friend. She will always be my friend. I have missed her all these years.”  She paused again. “I am on my way to work which is not very far from the cemetery. I am a little early this morning and could accompany you there, if you wish.”

I was touched by her kindness. “I would be very grateful. It is difficult when you are a stranger.”
  
As the bus wound its way down the narrow highway and around the sharp curves that led to Ortona, I felt a melancholy set in. My mother’s past had become present and it hovered in the air like the scent of the grapes that decorated the countryside. I felt a peaceful curiosity and I wanted every moment to sear itself indelibly in my memory to cherish long after I returned home.

Soon, the verdant slopes of the olive-clustered landscape gave way to more houses and with it, I began to smell the first scents of the freshness of the sea breeze. We had arrived in the port town of Ortona. As the bus made its way through the quaint streets to the center of town, Giovanna pointed out the landmarks – the town’s fountain, the walkway over the port. Before I knew it, our ride was over and Giovanna gathered her purse as the bus came to a halt in the center square.

Together we walked up some hilly streets and at the top of a rather steep hill, we found ourselves standing before the tall iron gates between the marble walls of the entrance of the cemetery. Just in front of the gates was a woman vending flowers. I bought a grouping of pure white carnations and daisies.

Giovanna guided me through the rows of graves, past the mausoleums, beyond the walls that housed neat rows of graves until we finally arrived in the small area for the children. We walked each row, reading each tombstone, and we could not find him.

We walked to the office and asked a nearby workman (gravedigger). He leaned against his shovel and wiped the sweat from his brow. Then he pointed in the direction of the children’s graves, the same ones we had searched one by one. He offered to help us and returned with us to the children’s section again. Now the three of us searched and still we could not find him. The gravedigger advised that perhaps the grave was no longer there. It was normal for graves to be exhumed after twenty years and the bones placed into a smaller box and then placed in the wall. My disappointment showed. Giovanna looked at her watch. She had to leave for work otherwise she would be late. She took my hand in both of hers and apologized for not having found my brother. She kissed me on both cheeks and wished me well and sent her best wishes to my mother. The gravedigger turned to leave.

As Giovanna turned to leave, a knowledge suddenly overtook me. I knew not where it came from or how, but it possessed my thoughts and a certainty suddenly replaced my disappointment. It was as if my brother called, begging me not to leave. I gripped Giovanna’s arm. “No wait. Please wait.” With a vice like grasp on her arm, I turned around and behind me was a row of large, overgrown bushes. In the middle of the row on the ground were some odd, flat stones, untended, with long blades of grass and some weeds growing from it.

Driven by the unknown reality and knowledge that had possessed me, and still holding Giovanna tightly, I stepped on the stones and pushed my way through the overgrown bushes dragging Giovanna with me, and behind her the grave digger incurring scrapes on our bare legs and even a rip in the summer dress I wore. On the other side was an abandoned, long forgotten area of children’s graves. Before me were three steps. Down three steps and to the right I found him. He knew I was there and he led me to him. 
© copyright 2014 Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

Mirella's Tira-Mi-Su Recipe



Tiramisu

I am crazy about Tiramisu! It is my all time favorite desert. So needless to say, I've tried many different recipes. But this recipe stands out as the very best! It looks more complicated than it seems, but it is easier than you think and well worth the effort. If you want to make it a little easier for you, simply don't make the sponge and use Lady Fingers insead! That's what I do.



Ingredients: Hot Milk Sponge 

MILK, 1/4 cup 
BUTTER, 2 teaspoons butter 
FLOUR, 1-1/4 cups 
BAKING POWDER, 1 teaspoon 
EGGS, 3 
SUGAR, 1-1/4 cups 
EGG YOLKS, 3 



Ingredients: Mascarpone Cream 

ESPRESSO COFFEE, 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons 
HOT WATER, 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons 
SAMBUCCA, 3 tablespoons 
MASCARPONE, 1 cup 
KHALUA, 2 tablespoons 
EGGS, 3 separated 
SUGAR, 6 tablespoons 
HEAVY CREAM, 1 cup 
VANILLA, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla 
SALT, a pinch 
COCOA POWDER, enough to sprinkle 
POWDERED SUGAR, enough to garnish 



Directions: Sponge Cake 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 


Grease and lightly flour an 8 by 11-inch sheet tray. 


Heat milk and butter until the butter melts. 


Stir the flour and baking powder together and set aside. 


Beat eggs, sugar, and yolks. 


Fold in the flour mixture and the milk. 


Pour into the prepared pan. 


Bake for 10 minutes. 



Directions: Mascarpone Cream 

Combine the espresso, water and the Sambucca, and set aside.


Combine the mascarpone and the Khalua in a large bowl, beat until smooth. 


In a medium bowl, beat the eggs yolks, and 3 tablespoons of the sugar together until smooth. 


Set over a hot water bath and beat for 3 minutes until light and foamy. 


Remove from the heat, and without waiting beat this mixture into the mascarpone mixture. Set aside. 


Whip the cream until the cream holds a firm shape.


Fold in vanilla. 


In two small additions, fold about 1/3 of the mascarpone mixture into the whipped cream. 


Then fold the whipped cream into the remaining mascarpone mixture. Set aside. 


Beat the egg whites and salt on medium until foamy. 


Increase the speed and add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, beat until glossy, not dry. 


Fold the egg whites, all at once into the mascarpone.



Directions: Assembly 
Cut the sponge cake in half crosswise.


Place in a pan large enough to fit the halved sponge cake snugly. 


Moisten the cake with half of the espresso mixture. 


Top with half of the mascarpone mixture, spreading it out evenly. 


Sprinkle generously with cocoa powder, and powdered sugar. 


Top with the other half of the sponge cake layer. 


Moisten with the remaining espresso mixture. 


Top with the remaining mascarpone mixture, spreading evenly.


Sprinkle generously with the cocoa powder and powdered sugar. 


Refrigerate, uncovered, for 2 hours.