Thursday, 25 January 2018

Love that is passed on

Emma took a deep breath and hugged her husband.

'Off you go now. Valeria said she might come round later.'

Federico held her tight and stroked her hair. He shrugged on his jacket and kissed her.
His voice was full of concern.

'Are you sure you'll be alright here on your own?'

Emma opened the door and smiled.

'I'll be fine. I feel as though she's still here with me.'

Emma  closed the door behind her husband and walked towards her mother's bedroom. She buried her face in the pillow as she had done as a child whenever her mother went to Florence to look after Emma's grandmother Anna.
She breathed in the scent of lavender and rose that her mother had always worn. She let the tears come.

 'Oh mamma, mamma, I miss you so.'

  Emma took the small wooden chest out from under the bed where she had placed it the day before.
One of the removal men had found it tucked away in the old cellar.
 He had handed it to her with great reverence as though it contained hidden treasure.
 She'd had to force it open because there was no key and she gasped as she lifted the lid. There was a huge pile of letters carefully arranged and tied in bundles with faded red ribbons. Emma lifted the first one out of the chest. It was addressed to her father in her mother's beautiful handwriting. She didn't know what to do.
She felt like she was prying and was reluctant to read them but somehow she wanted to, to feel part of her mother's life again.

Emma didn't know much about her mother's intimate feelings. They had never had cosy chats and heart- to- heart talks. There was just one anecdote that her mother  loved telling.

In the Summer of 1939 ,her mother ,Amalia, had gone to the mountains in the north of Italy for a short holiday with her two brothers,Giorgio and Giancarlo.
There they had met Emma's father Toni who was staying at a hotel called 'Il Paradiso'. Toni was a quiet serious young lawyer. He told them that he had been invalided out of the Army due to his severe asthma and the doctor told him the mountain air would do him good. It was soon evident that he took great pleasure in Amalia's  company and every time he rang their hotel to ask to speak to her, Amalia's  brothers loved to shout out to her,

'Amalia, Toni is calling you from Paradise.'

When the time came for Amalia and her brothers to return to Florence, Toni had already mentioned marriage and they were soon engaged.
Toni and Amalia were married in Florence in 1942 and settled in Toni's hometown in the north of Italy.

Emma knew that her mother had gone for two years without being able to see her family and communications were very difficult.

That was about all she knew.
The temptation to read the letters was strong.
Emma went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee. There was the old china biscuit barrel shaped like an elephant that Emma had loved as a child. She took a biscuit out and brushed it against her lips thinking of her mother buying them for her, knowing they were her favourites.

Her phone rang, it was her daughter, Valeria.

'Mamma, I keep thinking of nonna Amalia. I miss her so. Please could you look for her recipe book? I would love to learn to make her special recipes.'

A lump came to Emma's  throat. Her mother had been such a wonderful cook. How she would miss all those happy family meals.
She tried to sound bright and positive.

'What a good idea Valeria, we can carry on all Nonna's traditions.'

Emma went back to the bedroom and picked up the letter on the top of the pile. She looked towards the photograph of her parents on their wedding day. She blew them a kiss.

' Forgive me for reading your personal letters mamma and papa, but I want to feel you near me again.'

She gently opened the first letter. It was dated 1942.

Caro Toni, dear Toni,
It won't be long now before I can call you my husband, my love. Just the thought of calling you so fills my heart with a joy I never knew could be possible. to lie next to you and wake in the morning and be able to kiss you on your eyes and awaken you, it is a dream that I never dared hope for.
Some more wedding presents arrived today. A pretty pink rug for the bedroom and a glass lamp. I can hardly bear to wait to see your dear face illuminated by its glow and to step on the soft carpet in the morning with my bare feet as I slip from your arms.

Emma stopped and gulped down her coffee. The pink rug was under her feet, worn thin over the years. She tried to imagine what it must have looked like when it was new. She took off her shoes and wriggled her toes in its softness. The glass lamp was there too. Her father would read by its light every evening. Emma wiped away a tear and carried on reading.

Oh Toni, Giorgio and Giancarlo send their best regards. They still love to tease me about you coming from Paradise. They have all their friends laughing. But you do my dearest, you do.
Please tell your dear mother and father that all is arranged here for them to stay at the Milton Hotel. I am so longing to call them mamma and papa. They have already shown such great kindness to me. My own dear mother and father have arranged for a short holiday on the Tuscan coast after our wedding. I can hardly contain my excitement at going to see your beloved mountains with you for our honeymoon. You are such a dear. To see the mountains that you love so much through your eyes will be an emotion beyond my dreams. You say there is a mountain called The Rose Garden where we are going, it is such a romantic name.

Emma had to stop. The letter was so personal, so warm and full of love for her father. She broke down in tears, an unfathomable pain in her heart ,but there was happiness there too, knowing that her mother had felt such intense love.
She knew her parents had spent their honeymoon in the mountains near Cortina and every Summer they went to the mountains for their holidays. Her father always seemed to find solace there, it was where he could drive back the demons that haunted him since the war in Africa.

Emma put the letter back and then picked up the packet underneath. These letters were written in her mother's elegant handwriting but were addressed to her grandmother in Florence. She opened the first one. It was dated January 1943

Cara mamma, dear Mum,
You are always in my thoughts, along with dear papa, and my dear brothers.
How brave Giorgio is to be putting himself in such danger. For you dear mother it must be so hard to re-live what yourself had to do. Poor Giancarlo with his broken leg, but at least he is near you. Toni is working hard but has had to find a new partner. I have got a bicycle now and it is easier for me to find luxuries such as butter. Yesterday I cycled for thirty kilometres to a farm near the mountains. They gave me butter and wine and some of the maize flour that is so abundant here. I have tried to make tomato preserve but it is not as good as yours dear mamma. How I miss the flavours of your cooking.

Emma put the letter down. She closed her eyes and thought of her mother on a bicycle. She tried to read between the lines of the letter. She knew that her grandfather Pietro had been a doctor in the First World War. Her grandmother, Anna, had travelled around with him and given birth to three children on the way. These stories had always been told with humour and love. Emma was beginning to realise what a gift that had been, to hear these women talk in such a reassuring way. Emma's Uncle Giorgio had also been a surgeon and had gained a tremendous reputation for his skill. He had gone on working until he was well into his Seventies.
Emma thought of what life must have been like then. She thought of her beloved country. She liked to think of it as an elegant leather boot with the toe gently swinging in the Summer breeze. Perhaps in those days it had seemed more shabby. She knew that the First World war was a tragedy and the mountains near her home bore many scars. The Second World War was more difficult to understand. Reading her mother's letter reminded her of things her grandmother had told her. Friendships were torn apart and families forced to flee. Italy became a country at war with itself. Her grandmother, Maria, had always been wary of expressing any views and told Emma to be careful, that many an enemy has been made by talking about politics. Emma thought she was being dramatic but even now all these years later, Federico thought the same way.
Emma picked up another letter addressed to her grandmother. She gave a start as she noticed the date, November 1948.It was when she was born.

Cara mamma, dear mum,
My dearest treasure is sleeping now and so I can at last write to you. I cannot find words that are good enough to describe the joy in my heart. She is so beautiful and has the sweetest, dearest nature. Her little hands already hold mine so tightly. Her little head is so soft and silky. She has your dark hair and dare I say your blue eyes. We have called her Emma, after your dear mother from Venice. Toni is enthralled, he sits and stares at her for hours. It will not be long now before you see her for yourself and can hold her in your arms. She makes the dearest little noises. Oh mamma now I know how you must love me, I know how you must feel about me. I have been thinking of you so much bringing me into a country at war, I feel so blessed to have brought Emma into a country at peace. Surely this must be the start of a new hopeful era for us all.

The tears were streaming down Emma's face, she sobbed into her mother's pillow. She felt the full deep, heart- wrenching pain of her loss.
Emma had guessed from her mother's casual remarks that her Uncle Giorgio was her grandmother's favourite. She had been so dazzled by his golden curls and his overwhelming brilliance. When Emma was born her mother must have realised at last the full power of a mother's love. She thought of the love linking the women in her family, like a chain. Anna, Amelia, Emma, Valeria.
Italian women reaching back into the past and onward to the future united by the immense power of their love for each other.

The doorbell rang. It was Federico, standing there with a huge pizza and a bottle of wine. Her heart lurched as he held it towards her.

'I thought you might like this, '

He kissed her on her wet cheeks.

'Oh Federico, thank you, thank you.'

Then she saw that Valeria and her boyfriend, Marco,were standing behind him holding a cake box from her favourite Pasticceria.


Later when they were all sitting round the kitchen table where Amalia had served so many delicious meals, Valeria's boyfriend stood up.
He cleared his throat and held up his wine glass.

'I know this is a sad occasion and I would like you to know what a privilege it was to know Nonna Amelia. I too will miss her terribly.'

Marco paused and wiped his eyes. His voice was low and full of emotion when he spoke, his words coming out in a rush.

'I don't know if this is the right moment but we can't wait any longer to tell you.
Valeria and I are expecting a baby.'

There was a lot of laughing then and hugging and kissing.
Emma felt her mother's love warming her. She felt her presence, all  the love that her mother had given her and then  passed on to her daughter, was now in this room.
 
The beautiful dome of Santa Maria del fiore


Le Pale di S. Martino del Castrozza


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