In Italy last December, I paid a visit to my Great Great Aunt Vittoria, sister to my Great Grandmother Lucia.
Nonna Lucia was one of three equally strong-willed sisters. Vittoria was considered the more refined of the trio and the same summer that I broke my back and leg, she broke her hip in a fall in her apartment. Gone was the forceful, plucky Vittoria – in her place was a frightened, frail and paranoid old woman who began to systematically drive everyone in her extended family (that is to say, Lucia’s descendants in Guatemala) crazy. Never married and having borne no children Vittoria had also outlived most of her friends except for Pietro, her erstwhile lover who retained enough affection for her to brave the rancor of his daughters and bring her the food and supplies she was no longer brave enough to go buy for herself. Her apartment became littered in small bugs and clutter. While she was recuperating in the hospital, my father set about trying to rearrange the apartment so as to make things easier for her when she returned with a walker. When she did come home, her rage was volcanic that her things had been touched.
Hungover from a lovely lunch at La Birreria Peroni (wurst alla tsigana and a mug of Peroni larger than my head), I visited Vittoria in her apartment near La Piazza Bologna. I had seen her last when I was 17 and she was a hale, robust Italian woman of 86, giving it back to the raucous, foul-mouthed staff at Cencio la Parolaccia in Trastevere better than they dished it out. In December of 2005, she weighed as much as I did, her eyes bloated behind heavy glasses and her legs, which she had always been so proud of, were withered as my arms.
She said she had nothing cooked to offer me but I must have tangerines. Would I like some tangerines? I supposed I would. I must also have some Sambuca, she said. Still feeling the effects of that afternoon’s beer, I politely tried to decline but she became frantic, pressing a sweating glass into my still shaking hand. A stale package of cornetti also found its way into my purse at her insistence.
Pietro arrived. He was jolly and extremely dear. He chatted with me and showed me a picture of when he was young. Vittoria became jealous and kicked him out of the house cruelly – “Via! Via!” – but thought better of it almost as soon as he was gone. Beckoning me to the bedroom, she held her shaking hand out to silence me as she dialed his number on the rotary phone near her bed. “Pietro,” she said. “I’m feeling sick. You have to come tomorrow.” Whispering to me, she said, “Tell him I’m feeling sick!” I hemmed, I hawed, but her eyes watered and I couldn’t say no. Sighing, I told Pietro she was sick. “She’s not sick,” he said. I looked at Vittoria – she wrung her hands in suspense. “She said she feels sick,” I said slowly.
We discussed her injury. “I am afraid to leave.” she said. “I am afraid to get hurt again.” “But Zia,” I told her. “You are so much stronger than that. I was afraid, too, when I got hurt but here I am – traveling thousands of miles to come see you! You already walk so well – you don’t even need the cane.”
“Ah, Dio,” she sighed. “If I was well, I could take you to a nice restaurant.”
“We can go!” I said. “I’m here. I’ll help you if you feel nervous but I’ve seen how well you walk. You’re so strong! We can go to the restaurant around the corner. Think how nice it will feel to breathe the outside air. And you haven’t even seen the Christmas lights this year.”
“Ah, Dio.” she said.
“You got hurt inside your apartment.” I told her. “The outside is safe!”
“Ah, Dio.” she said. “I hope Pietro comes tomorrow.”
She showed me her apartment – the toaster, the washing machine, the Fiat refrigerator crammed with broken plates. “Ah, Dio.” she said. “What a shame we can’t go out some place to eat.”
She asked if I thought she looked well. “Of course!” I told her. “I’ve come to love you well already,” she said to me, though she had to be reminded of who I was when I arrived. “Please write to me! Please come visit me again!”
“I will,” I told her. “But I have to go now.”
“You can’t!” she said. “It’s dark.”
“That’s fine,” I told her.
“No!” she cried. “You can’t go outside in the dark. You have to have a cab!” My standard “I live in New York City” excuse meant nothing to her. She wrung her hands and cried, “Ah, Dio! Ah, Dio!” and claimed that her phone wouldn’t work to dial the number of the cab company. She hobbled to the next door neighbor and begged them to call on her behalf. “She has to have a cab!!” she cried, wringing her hands. “Ah, Dio! Ah, Dio!” her eyes lit up. “And if she can’t find a cab, then she can stay here! Yes, better she stays here tonight.”
Through my pity and sadness, I felt a panic – and even stranger, a dawning feeling that perhaps she was right; perhaps it wasn’t safe to leave. Suddenly, leaving was the only thing on my mind. “I’ll be fine,” I insisted. “Calm down,” said the next door neighbor peevishly. Vittoria pressed her shaking hands against the paper thin skin on her cheeks.
The cab came. “When you get outside,” she cried, “Wave to me from the street so I can see that you’re all right!”
When I got outside I looked up but I couldn’t see her. I arched my neck and somehow saw her neighbors who were wearily watching from their own windows but I couldn’t see Vittoria herself. I sighed, waved frantically in all directions, and alit the cab.
I called her from inside. “You didn’t wave to me!” she shouted. “I asked you to wave and you didn’t!” Through my apologies, she began to heave sighs of relief. “I want you to call me tomorrow.” she asked. “Can you do that?” Of course I could. Back at the hostel, I sagged in sadness – the stale cornetti stuffed in my bag, the sambuca still burning my lips.
Vittoria died last January. In my family, I gained the distinction of having been the last family member to see her before she died. Vittoria had lived like a pauper but actually had quite a lot of cash – concealed by habit from her years in the World Wars – including her pension from her years working for the Ministry. The money went to Mami Rina – my grandmother – and her cousin, Walter (son of the third sister, Noemi). Mami Rina wanted to get rid of all of the things Vittoria had had in her apartment but my Tia Elena – who stayed in Rome with Mami Rina for 6 months to settle the estate – begged her to reconsider. They would ship everything to Guatemala, she announced, and the great nieces and nephews (my father, my aunts and my uncle) would draw items from a lottery. It was during our family trip to Guatemala that the boxes arrived and the buzz of the lottery circulated through the family.
The lottery drawing happened while my cousins and I were climbing the volcano. When I got back to Mami Rina’s house, my mother proudly showed me the things she – er, my father – had won, including a chartreuse oriental coverlet, several smudged glasses, a ceramic Eames figurine. Awesome, I said sadly and went to lie down a bit. At length, Mami Rina called me in to her bedroom.
She handed me a check.
“Vittoria had a lot of money,” she said. “You were the last one to see her before she died.”
The check was for … I can’t even say how much. Several paychecks.
My eyes filled. The cornetti had been fine.
I said I couldn’t take it. Mami Rina said not to be silly – she would have wanted me to have it. She had no children of her own and I’d been good to visit her during her last month. Plus, it would help with my move abroad, wouldn’t it?
I took it. I folded it in my wallet.
I had thrown the stale cornetti away. And I hadn’t written to her – I had called her a couple more times when I was in Italy and that was it. And then she died – alone.
Vittoria’s death reminds me that people in my family are very good at being miserable when we don’t have to be. Vittoria had insisted on staying in Rome – as opposed to moving to Guatemala where she would be surrounded by a large, vibrant family who could help her – but she had never even left the apartment to experience the city she refused to leave. She was afraid to move, yet she was strong and walked better than many other 94 year old women I’d seen. I, too, have inherited that spark of inherent drudgery. It is a spark I feverishly wish to expel from my genetic code. I have been unhappy at my job and in my so-called career for years, all the while refusing to do anything about it out of fear and that keen desire to feel terrible about myself. Until now.
I will not remain unhappy. Ironically, Zia Vittoria’s legacy will help.