Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa was a Old Woman

Milan, Italy - Holiday 2002/2003

Even for tough, entrepreneurial, prairie women, our previous year had been a pestilence.

My mother and I were both mourning losses of decade-long companions – my husband of eleven years and her beloved Burmese cat of seventeen. Then my older brother, her first born, tragically died. After mourning him in a series of catastrophic illnesses, my take-no-prisoners, femme-fatal, businesswoman mother tumbled into my care. At 80, fearfully large pieces of her memory and life had fallen away. For the first time, she needed my strength and I needed a vacation.

I wanted to see beauty again. We journeyed to Italy in mid winter and post holidays. But we found the Italians were not finished celebrating. Leave it to them to extend the art of festival to early January.

Italy in winter was our prescription for healing. Italian New Year is a panoply of perfect distractions, all edible either by mouth or eye: the pasta, the prosciutto, the panicotta and the lights were everywhere. People watching, strolling around the central square, and cafĂ© sitting are Italian-perfected pastimes and all-season confections. The Italian holiday broth is a reduced and savory stock of the most delicious that humanity has in it – an intoxicating blend of lights, fires, and feasts that shines only that much brighter for the season’s early darkness.

Surprising things happened. The first lovely strangeness was that no one suspected we were Americans. Why is having a beautiful, ancient woman on your arm such great camouflage against being tagged as an American tourist? Vacationing with your mother is admittedly not idolized in travel magazines, but apparently it is viewed as rather un-American. Perhaps our cultural insistence on freezing time and denying death tags us rather than celebrating them both with zest. One Italian couple even came up and asked us for directions - in Italian. It was delicious mischief to pretend Italian lineage; it made us happy all afternoon.

The second revelation was that Italians seem to have a high appreciation for old ladies – their own and the imported ones like my beautiful mother. They love watching them. There were even little old lady dolls – everywhere in Italy. In America, we do not love our old women. We deny them. We hide them under winched-up cosmetic surgeries, achieved only elsewhere in a skydiving freefall. But in Italy, we saw appreciation everywhere. The native old crones, dressed in black, sitting and talking wildly on the edges of their town’s square, paused to watch us pass with silent smiles. It is a great gift to live enough, and long enough to reconcile. All mothers and daughters are on a journey in dramatic topography, but suffice to say, that my mother and I are friends and have an easy affection for each other. We would walk arm in arm even if her fragile bones and titanium-reconstructed joints did not need the support. That sight of us walking together consistently touched people. Reactions moved across their faces like some silent tide invoking memories of their own dead. Together, we were a matched set in living time-lapse; I look at her and my own death affectionately looks back at me.

If you can love that face the world changes.

The third and most astounding epiphany was “Santa Claus” was a grandmother. The little old lady dolls were of the beloved La Befana. It is the type of twist in temporal geography that I have come to associate with traveling: that needed pinch of salt in the sauce that allows you to recognize and savor the flavors of who you are, by where you are.

The kind, corrugated crone, La Befana, is an ancient wise woman with rosy cheeks, headscarf, big nose and – a broom. La Befana is written letters by children, posted in the chimney. La Befana brings presents for their stockings which are hung on the fireplace according to their annual behavior index: coal or sweets? She comes on broomstick through the window or down the chimney. The legend has it that La Befana was invited to accompany the three wise men on their journey to see the Christ child but she insisted on finishing her housework; she promised to meet up with them later. Apparently, she has been racing after them ever since with gifts and the help of her improved transport. The holiday season ends on January 6 when the La Befana dolls are burned in effigy. Their burning is an e-ticket to send La Befana on her journey back to their ancestors; She takes with her the negative things of the old year and leaves behind both gifts for the new of their line – the children – and economic prosperity for all. La Befana’s intention is to reaffirm that bond between the family and ancestors through an exchange of gifts. She stands for the continuity of family, hope, and magic at a time of year that has always asked us to renew ourselves or die.

When you travel, the outer landscape you see reflects the inner landscape where you are. In spite of your efforts to the contrary, the answers are all right there in front of you to the questions you couldn’t ask. Italy is a perfect place to mourn losses by celebrating the loveliness of our days and memories, now. La Befana comes back every year to teach Italians about loss, about burning up the old and igniting the new.

On our last dawn in Italy, I left my mother sleeping and took an early walk to Milan’s Duomo and the square. With the sound of my new Italian boots echoing off buildings, I found a peaceful spot to await Italy’s magnificent pink light to illuminate the filigree of their restored Cathedral. Like a pressed rose in a favorite book, this remains with me - as well as the next moment for its utter and stunning contrast. Suddenly, the square began to populate. People of all ages were smiling and laughing. The air started to buzz with the unmistakable energy and noise of hundreds of Italian motorcycles – all joyously circling the square: Italian style parade. It was the annual La Befana Road Rally for hungry children. La Befana had traded her broom for a Ducatti and had hundreds of consorts (Bufanos) roaring to celebrate the gift of her prosperity.

La Befana sat astride the biggest of the motorcycles painted with orange flames. That wise old woman was surrounded by handsome Italian men and being honored for who she was and the wisdom that she brought.

La Befana is smiling because she has let go and embraced the new – and, of course, because she lives in Italy.

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