A Tuscan Childhood

If our children are ever to fight the deracination of modern life by being builders of Catholic culture, they must first be romanced by it, must learn what it can look like and feel like and, yes, especially after another long Lent, even taste like. Some deservedly popular children’s classics, however, may subtly inculcate a habit of disdain for the old world from which we will have to draw for whatever of culture we can crib together today. Not that we have to throw favorites like Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn under the train.  Pa Ingalls and Father Woodlawn were good men, and we can all admire their particular virtues; but something is wanting. As Catholics, we are different. We find it hard to sympathize with Pa’s desire ever to be pushing away from the community and into the trackless prairie, or with Father’s scorn for his European roots.  We feast at home and at church. We have lady statues on the walls, not china shepherdesses on the whatnots.

One way we can show our children the beauty and saneness of daily life in a Catholic culture so as to tempt them to want to recreate it is to redress the imbalance in their reading. We should by all means enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder and Carol Ryrie Brink and others like them with our children. But we can temper their individualism, Protestantism and sometimes smug Americanism with other equally delightful books by authors who loved the customs which twenty centuries of Catholic Christianity bequeathed and which have contributed so much to sturdy human happiness.  Let us leave Almanzo Wilder in Mother’s neat and teeming New England larder, pleasant though it was, for other kitchens from which flowed even more substantial delights.

One of them is Allinda’s in Nino, Valenti Angelo’s memoir of his Tuscan childhood.  As the twentieth century begins, Nino and his mother live with her father in his family home; they have remained in Italy while Nino’s father works to save enough money to bring his family to join him in America.  From the beginning therefore we have a special connection with this little Italian boy. One day he will be an American just like us.  Angelo’s memoir, though stretching from the time of Nino’s early childhood until he leaves Italy at age eight, follows the pattern of other children’s books and relates the events of the unfolding year.

The story has almost the quality of an idyll; the world remembered is protected, unthreatened. Its pace is contemplative. No Indians or wild animals menace its inhabitants. The sins are small and usually comic. Children will love Signor Ditto, Nino’s blustery godfather, who drinks and sings and tells jokes and makes very good wine, and who, despite the protests of the smiling “fat signora” his wife, even gets in the ring with the gypsies’ giant fighting bear at the fair; and his spoiled son Julio, who bears most of the suffering in the book in the form of punishment, either natural or applied, for his carelessness, sauciness, or general intemperance.  Angelo was an artist before he was a story teller, and his artist’s soul feels deeply and remembers long.  He gives us beautiful descriptions of some of the things that moved him as a child: a Tuscan sunrise; the haunting music of the gypsies; the olive harvest; and the three-mile procession to the tiny chapel on the hill above the village called Tre Croci, during which Nino has immense relief when his mother finally permits him to remove his too-small shoes at the twelfth station!

What a picture of feasting Angelo gives us, too, in words and in his own wonderful illustrations from woodcuts.  One day Grandfather caught an enormous carp and, jovially expansive, invited the Dittos to dinner.  “Allinda rubbed the huge fish well with garlic and olive oil.  She placed it in an iron skillet.  Then she spread over it finely chopped rosemary, thyme, sage, and fresh green parsley from the garden.  Mushrooms and tomatoes, and dried peppers would be added later on.  Nino stood beside his mother as she prepared the fish for the oven.  The fragrance of the herbs made his nose twitch…” Their guests arrived, Signor Ditto walking “with long swaggering strides, singing at the top of his voice and carrying a large bottle in either hand.” Could Grandfather be blamed if he had remembered Ditto’s good wine when he gave the invitation?

Angelo recalls the room with table set just before the guests entered. It “felt restful. Filled with an atmosphere of friendliness, deep and silent.” The illustration here shows the two families around the laden table with heads bowed.  A madonna stands in a niche in the wall; garlic hangs from the ancient rafters; Grandfather’s dog Caesar waits for his share. After cutting the polenta and serving everyone, Grandfather said the “Our Father” aloud. Then the wine flowed and laughter followed. The day in the fields had been long and the work hard, but there was joy and bounty at its close.

Even more bountiful was the Easter celebration.  First came the Eucharistic feast, “chanted in low sonorous tones.” Here and throughout the book Angelo remembers what it feels like as a child to experience these things. During mass, Nino cranes his neck to see what the altar boys are doing and wishes he could be one. Grandfather corrects him for squirming as he tries to spare his aching knees. He was “glad when the kneeling was over, and he sat back in the seat and thought about God and Easter.” Afterwards, the peasants “streamed out into the sunshine… greeting and saluting one another.” Fr. Bellarosa in his long black cassock “with buttons running all the way down the front, walked through the crowd and chatted with the village folks…he fingered a long string of beads that hung almost to the ground and wore a silver cross that glittered in the sun.” Nino likes Father Bellarosa and is glad when he says he will join them at Casa Checci because “he would not miss Allinda’s good cooking for anything.”

The artist Jacobo, the pastry cook, the cobbler, the mayor and “his dark-eyed wife” and many other friends gathered under the grape arbor around the long table in the courtyard at Casa Checci on that cloudless Easter Sunday about 100 years ago.  Allinda had cooked for days, and the fruits of her labor began to appear in a magnificent hospitality: first were huge bowls of soup with thickly-sliced bread; then ravioli; rack of lamb; heaps of fried squash, fried quail, and chicken; salad followed; then cakes and tarts and panettone and cookies; finally came black coffee with cheese, nuts, candy and cognac. “Signor Ditto drank a toast to the House of Checci, and Nino felt very proud indeed.”  The day ended with song and dancing.

Perhaps the only thing wrong with this book is that in the end they must leave. They must leave Grandfather’s  centuries-old chair, and the family farmhouse, and Fr. Bellarosa, and the villagers, and even, perhaps, Grandfather himself; indeed, all the things Nino has known and loved. Despite the promise of America, and the desired family reunion ahead, at least one reader found herself weeping as Nino said his sad goodbyes, and murmuring, much to the surprise and wonder of her children, “Don’t go!”

But go they must, as, in God’s Providence, did so many millions, some few of whom were able to keep alive in the new world some of the ways which had sustained their families in the old.  You can learn about how Nino’s family fared in the sequel, Golden Gate.  An appreciation of the blessings of life in America need not and ought not exclude a reverence for the Christian past.  Let us remember and when possible recover the traditions that not only help us to lead good lives but also make them joyful, and then substitute them—or at least books about them– for things like i-pods and x-boxes that contribute to isolation and even alienation.  And the earlier we start, the better.

By

Kathleen Blum hardly ever leaves her kitchen in Pepperell, Massachusetts.

  • MarkRutledge

    Not only have I enjoyed reading Ms. Blum’s fine article, but have added a new, useful word to my vocabulary at the very first line: “deracination.”  There’s a whole lotta deracination goin’ on, too.

  • Kalpakgian

    What a delightful, evocative article that captures the essence of old world hospitality! May these kinds of cooks, families, friends, recipes, and celebrations ever be a part of a truly human life. I must read NINO. Thank you for (occasionally) leaving the kitchen to serve us this delicious nourishment for the heart and soul.

    Mitchell Kalpakgian

  • Lynn Fleming Aeschliman

    Wonderful, charming, and so true. Bless you Kathleen Blum for sharing this story.

    Love from our Tuscan hilltop were the caring, extended Italian family is still being lived.

    Lynn Fleming Aeschliman

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