Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dysfunction, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

I think it's time I introduced you to my in-laws. (The squeamish and overly-sensitive are strongly cautioned to read no further).

I'll begin with a photo--it hangs in my mother-in-laws' salotto. It was taken in the '70's, during the vendemmia (wine harvest), on the family property. In it my father-in-law, Gaetano, stands with a proud patriarchal tilt to his head, his arm resting on a wooden cask full of inky grapes. Dead center is my diminutive mother-in-law, Elena, staring stoically ahead, her lips pressed into a thin line. Leaning into her, their shoulders touching, is the youngest sibling, my sister-in-law Silvia, who even at age 13 was as meaty as a longshoreman. The oldest, Giorgio, 16, stands rigidly next to Gaetano, forcing a smile. And Luca, 15, next in line, hovers close behind Elena, almost completely obscured by her, a pained expression on his face. My future husband Paolo (third sibling, aged 14) stands apart from the rest--off to the far left and toward the back--cuddling a skinny little dog in his arms, a big grin on his face.

To me, this picture expresses the entire gestalt of the family. Gaetano is one of those old-fashioned, fist-pounding-the-table patriarchs who thinks his word is law, his wife is there to serve his needs, and his children should be seen but not heard. He is under the delusion (which the family conspires to perpetuate) that he rules the household--when it is clearly and unequivocally Elena who everyone turns to. But Elena has a passive-agressive way of wielding her power and influence: brought up to defer always to men, she uses subtle means to get her way. She is physically frigid--rarely caressing her children or grandchildren--though she expresses affection, I suppose it can be said, through her tireless service. Giorgio has always played his role as eldest son to the hilt--shouldering responsibility at an early age to win parental approval from an insensitive father and an emotionally- and physically- distant mother. He still tries so hard, poor guy (though the stick up his ass has to be a major impediment). Luca, who rarely opens his mouth (in two years he's maybe said five words to me), has never traveled outside of Tuscany or lived apart from his Mamma, having long been trussed by the apron-strings--even when he married his 19-yr. old pregnant bride, they lived in his parents house, raising their two sons there, and only moving upstairs into the newly-created apartment in the mid '90's. Silvia, poor thing, built like Gaetano (big-boned, thick square body, simian-length arms) has a fairly jolly disposition and has always been the dutiful daughter, never venturing far. Paolo was always the dreamer, convinced there was a life out there that merited exploration--he did everything to scandalize his provincial parents, and to get away from them: hiked the Appenines alone, practiced yoga and deep-sea diving, explored Scientology, visited the Hare Krishnas, started working as a teenager so he could buy his own wheels, insisted on doing his own ironing, taught himself English, got a job for Princess Cruise Lines and sailed the Orient, and moved to the States.

I think of my in-laws as the Italian version of the Beverly Hillbillies (minus the fortune, of course). They live on what is now about a million-dollar property (though Gaetano bought it in the early '70's for something like $7000), an ex-casa colonica on over an acre of land, with a pretty view of Fiesole--which sounds quite grand, but they camp on it like gypsies. Gaetano has always thought that land that wasn't used for growing vegetables and raising chickens and rabbits was land wasted, thus every inch of space is crammed, leaving no room for a garden to just sit in and (god forbid!) enjoy. He's got olive trees shouldered up to grapevines, with vegetables huddled underneath--no space between rows for walking, even. Ugly, cobbled-together shacks litter the property, and an old barn is stacked with mountains of junk Elena can't bear to part with: old mattresses, moldy pillows, termite-ridden furniture, rusted old bicycles and mopeds, even an ancient exercise bike she's convinced she may use someday to benefit her tired circulation. Old chairs and rickety tables lie about the courtyard, along with rags, buckets, laundry tubs and Elena's shoes (men's, size 41) left to air out.

[We live in the downstairs apartment of what used to be the single-family dwelling (with Luca and wife Patrizia upstairs). Actually, back when they first bought the place, it was still a rustic farmhouse, with our unit being the animal stall, and the living space upstairs. Now the nonni are across the courtyard in the converted garage, Silvia is just down the street, and Giorgio across town where he can be under the thumbs of his wife Rossella's well-off parents. Nice and cozy.]

My Father-in-Law

Gaetano, 83, is almost beyond describing, but I will try, dear Readers. He was raised as a sharecropper near Vicchio, a town north of Florence in the Mugello, and did not even complete middle school. His mother, Assunta, was a big, hard woman whose only thought was of work. She preferred chickens to people. Gaetano was the youngest of six children, the only male, all five of his sisters built like pachyderms and as ugly as pus (seriously, these are women so homely they can stop traffic). As a boy, he got up before dawn to work the fields--he told me once how he loved the big peasant breakfasts they would break for and eat at about 7:00am (a habit he keeps to this day): platefuls of stale bread soaked in olive oil and scattered with raw onions, maybe some boiled potatoes, and wine. He is doggedly religious, attending Mass and Rosary every week, regularly confessing, and mumbling from his prayer book every evening before dinner--but this does not keep him from pawing at women when he gets a sly opportunity, or spouting racial epithets, or refusing to fetch his long-suffering wife even a cup of tea when she is sick in bed. His conversation consists mostly of sayings--hillbilly rhyming wisdom of the "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" variety--repeated with the conviction that he speaks the scintillating truth. He has been known to, on occasion, regale the dinner table with the Hail Mary in Latin--perhaps his one great intellectual achievement.

As a child, he had pneumonia and apparently nearly died. Since then, he has harbored a mortal fear of bathing or getting wet and chilled. So, he bathes only once a week: Saturday evening. (Presumably, this cleans him up nice and proper for church on Sunday). Regardless of how much he sweats and works, regardless of whether or not it's July and 105 degrees out, regardless of the fact that he wears thick woolen underwear even in summer--the man will not bathe during the week. He continues his daily ritual of scarfing a huge peasant breakfast: a great plateful of bread doused in oil, thick slices of prosciutto hewn from the haunch with his pocketknife, raw onions and garlic, maybe some tomatoes and cucumber in summer, washed down with half a bottle of wine. He reeks--reeks--of garlic, onions and wine, and stale sweat. (When I was in the first months of my first pregnancy, I couldn't stomach being around him at all--the stench brought on waves of nausea). Amazingly, he goes around the neighborhood like this, even occasionally to the bank or doctor, his shirt stained with sweat crescents, his rough, sawed-off pants showing dusty socks and mangled once-were-shoes below. I guess cleanliness is not next to Godliness, after all.

Gaetano's fear of catching a chill is so great that even in the thick of high summer, he will not let Elena open the bedroom window at night to let air in (no air-con, of course!). He sleeps year-round with a wool scarf around his neck for protection. Poor woman, lying next to that rough, stinking maiale, suffocating in an airless room in 90 degree heat, never dreaming of speaking up or inconveniencing her husband--if that's not cause for sainthood, I don't know what is.

He typically comes in from his orto (where he spends the entire day, from pre-dawn til dusk) filthy, his white hair dusted brown with dirt and bits of hay sticking from it--and without washing even his hands, plops down in his chair, sets his pocketknife next to his plate, flicks on the TV and waits to be served his meal. Once, Elena yelled at him because he had ants crawling all over him, and he barked, "they're my friends!"

He rarely drinks water, even in the heat of summer, always preferring wine (his own homemade, of course), which he insists is better for you than water. He probably goes through one and a half big, bulb-bottomed Chianti flasks a day--and easily two or more in summer. Last summer he drank too much of his own brew during an outdoor family dinner, and when teased and chastised about it, got all macho and indignant and bragged that he wasn't drunk because he could stand on one leg. So, to prove it, he stood on one leg....then promptly fell into the patio umbrella and knocked it, and himself, to the ground.

My Mother-in-Law

Elena, 77, is the epitome of the well-meaning woman: the dutiful daughter turned dutiful wife, the striving Christian, the good neighbor, the tireless nonna. She was born and raised in Luco di Mugello, the second-eldest of five children. Her mother, Nonna Anita, a wonderful woman, lived to be 100, passing away just last year. Elena, like many others, had a pretty tough life--they were not well-off and during the war, because they lived in town and did not have access to their own crops, they experienced real hunger. She met Gaetano at a church social. She told me she was never "in love" with him--it was simply a matter of them both "wanting the same things", i.e. to fulfill their Christian duties to procreate and create a god-fearing family. Poor Elena got pregnant right away and remained that way for the next four years. She was nearly destroyed physically--the midwife told her in no uncertain terms that she better take a break or risk serious consequences (so she did, permanently, informing Gaetano that she was now to be regarded as off-limits. Naturally, as good Catholics, birth control was out of the question--but my guess is that she was secretly relieved to have an excuse to banish those grubby paws). During this time of four kids being born in four years, Elena was also living with and taking care of Gaetano's invalid parents and an aging uncle. (And she got no help from her husband, let's remember). I don't think she ever gave a second thought to all this craziness--she was brought up to believe that life was hard and that the only salvation was to do one's duty without complaining, and that the pay-off would come in the next, more heavenly, life.

Her understandable loathing for Gaetano does, however, express itself in the only way she deems morally acceptable: ceaseless wifely nagging. We're talking a marathon of nagging that has lasted some 50 years, nagging of staggering proportions, great tsunamis of nagging that roll over his hulking frame, trying to diminish him, causing him to pour another tumblerful of wine out of the flask that is always within his reach.

Elena's only real way of expressing any affection (and discharging her Christian duty, of course) is through her helping of others--and this she is always ready to do, whether it be family or neighbors from the parish. She is the classic Italian mamma in that food is also her way of spooning out generous heaps of love to those she does, deep down, care about. She is the typical donna di casa e chiesa, housewife and church-goer. Her world literally consists of the radius of home, the little church down the street, Silvia's house, and the shops and open market of Piazza delle Cure, a 10-minute walk away. That's it. She has never visited the Uffizi, never seen the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel, never been to Pitti Palace. She is always busy, bustling about the house doing endless chores. I have never seen her sit on the sofa--she only sits on a rigid, high-backed wooden dining-chair. She has never worn a pair of trousers in her life, instead preferring demure woollen skirts and thick hose, and sensible shoes on her enormous feet. She stands at about 5'3", wears dentures (has since age 40), is slightly hunch-backed, slim but with thick wrists and splayed rough hands and those platypus feet that plant her squarely on the ground. In her multi-colored smocks over hodgepodge clothing, kooky flowered straw sun hat (summer) or mushroom-puff wool cap (winter), and men's shoes which she often prefers--she looks like an immigrant clown. The only convictions she holds is that the Church is always right, that Jesus is our saviour, and that one must sacrifice everything for family. The thoughts in her head never dally with the existential or dance on an intellectual plane: she's thinking what should she prepare for lunch, do Gaetano's socks need darning, will her grandkids' fever turn into something worse, the plants need watering.


Surely this is not a typical Italian family--more like something Fellini would conjure up in one of his darker moments. Does one laugh or cry or splutter in unbelieving dismay at their existence? Dear Readers--I simply don't know. I myself waver between all three of these behaviors, perhaps favoring "splutter in unbelieving dismay."

Yours--in spluttering, unbelieving dismay,



  1. Windhorse6:38 PM

    Chickens? Rabbits? Weekly baths? Woolen underwear and scarves in summer? My dear, you are a Connecticut Yankee in King Gaetano's court!

  2. Splutter. It sounds not unlike some of my distant family in Ireland. Except they were all very jolly about things most of the time.

  3. That is hilarious....my grandfather was also afraid of chills. So much so that he would wear a full suit (no tie) to bed every night under thick covers - in the middle of summer!

  4. Martin2:37 AM

    Treasure these people - they are the end of an era. Hope you're keeping more substantial notes. (And Le Cure: a favourite area!)

  5. I have reams of stuff on this family--I could write a book!

  6. Maybe this is your germ for the book; in the style of magical realism :)

  7. LOL Jody! I think you've hit on the perfect literary style for me :)


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