However, that morning we found Maria Pia sitting in the armchair, her left foot resting on a stool.
‘I’ve strained it. Nothing much. I’ve used egg white for a plaster cast.’ Caterina butted in,
‘She wouldn’t go to a doctor!’ Maria Pia’s wide smile shone in the threadbare room.
‘It isn’t swelling. I don’t need to go. We didn’t have doctors where I come from.’
‘Where is that, signora?’ Mother likes nothing better than hearing how other people live
When she travelled to Italy she used to stay in small hotels and saw the public side of Italian life in museums, churches, bars and restaurants. This was what she really wanted to sample: everyday life
‘Over the mountain…’ then Maria Pia paused. We nudged her on, encouraging her in turn, so she began her story.
‘There were three cottages, three families in a clearing for charcoal burning.’ The fire flickered across the browned walls meeting streaks of sunshine through the open door. ‘I looked after the goats first, sometimes the sheep or pigs. The kids skipped more than the lambs.’ I thought of Mauro’s mother, the nonna taken on walks by her nanny goat, stopping here and there to tug at the banks above the track or crop our clover and dandelions. The goat would appear under our olives, blinking, nose up at us as if we were trespassing, while the old lady would be gathering brushwood some way behind.
‘We were five living children. Two – or was it three?’ she looked up at Caterina who shrugged her shoulders, ‘died as babies. I did go down through the woods to school when I was six or seven. It was opposite San Giuliano where the cobbler and blacksmith were, more than three kilometres away, I think, very far anyway, and I was cold and hungry. I cried so much that mamma said I could stay behind. I was the eldest, and my brothers and sisters copied me. We were all busy anyway. The woods were alive then, animals moving around with children or old folk looking after them.
‘I helped mamma carry baskets to the market in Montesasso, one on each arm, and one on my head. We got up in the cold, before dawn. She let me fill them with bundles of charcoal, kindling wood, eggs and goat or sheep cheese, chestnuts – it depended on the time of year – also mushrooms. We didn’t keep eggs for ourselves because they sold first, and we needed the money. Then the cheese usually went. What we couldn’t sell we tried to exchange for flour, yeast, soap – things we couldn’t make. If we were very lucky, we sometimes bought a pair of shoes for papà. The only money we made was from selling produce at the market, so we were always short of what we couldn’t make or find in the woods. Most was done by barter. I was cold and hungry but mamma was pleased if the baskets were heavier going home. We were exhausted; it was slow going uphill. If they were light, we’d be carrying back what we hadn’t sold or bartered, but if heavy it meant plenty of flour for bread and pasta, soap, paraffin and candles, potatoes and onions and some other vegetables if in season. Mamma and I got so tired in Montesasso, sitting all day on the ground. If we were lucky and arrived early enough we’d find a place under the eaves to shelter from the sun or rain, but where people passed by. Especially rich people. Sometimes they gave me an apple or a sweet, or occasionally shoes, a bit of clothing, even money which mamma quickly took when nobody was looking.
‘No, we didn’t have a kitchen garden like here. Papà said the padrone Gadini would come and take whatever we cultivated, and he couldn’t read or do numbers. That’s why he was suspicious, and so was Renzo. If you don’t understand what’s being written down, you think you’re being cheated.
‘We were too high up for olive trees. We had snow, a lot of snow in winter. Oh, the cold. I can never forget the cold! The chilblains. I couldn’t sleep for rubbing them, and still they went on tickling and aching. And going to bed hungry. Mamma made bread, occasionally pasta with the flour we carried up from the market, but there was never enough of it and we always seemed to be hungry.
‘On feast days the priest before Don Luigi sometimes came up to bless the Madonnina in our shrine, bringing old clothes and such like. Mamma would be anxious and got up especially early to make egg pasta if she had managed to find enough flour, as he expected a meal. She had to use the eggs she was saving up for market and some of the ham from the one pig a year the padrone allowed us to keep for ourselves. We occasionally had chicken. I learnt how to kill and pluck the old ones that didn’t lay any more. One chicken didn’t last long. The priest seemed to eat too much! We didn’t eat red meat as the animals belonged to the padrone. He came, or sent his farm manager to count them after lambing. At Christmas, if she remembered, his wife would give us a few bottles of olive oil, which had to last a whole year. Otherwise mamma used lard.’
She was smiling and wriggling the toes on her injured leg as she recounted these hardships that were becoming history as she spoke.
‘Granny died when I was quite young, but I remember her spinning wool, and mamma did too. The spinster was an important person, always a woman, as without her the others couldn’t weave cloth. We helped make rag rugs and patchwork covers from old clothes and tufts of wool or we knitted by the fire in winter – socks and leggings and pullovers and blankets. There were never enough covers so we slept with all our clothes on. And still it was cold. Mamma cut down men’s shirts and trousers for my brothers, so they flapped around like scarecrows when they chased straying animals, or were fooling around on the woodpiles. We didn’t have enough clothes or shoes. Papà made wooden clogs for us but our knitted socks got so cold and wet in the rain and snow, and heavy with sticky mud. Everything took days to dry. The only thing we had in plenty was firewood. We could take all the dead wood we could find.
‘There was a lot of quarrelling over garments. The first to get up took the best clothing and shoes even if they were too big, and the last had to use clogs or go barefoot. We had to walk everywhere. I remember once,’ she laughed, ‘when I had to wear mamma’s old skirt and blouse held up by string and hurriedly tacked down the sides, because the others had taken all the clothes! In summer it was better. We wore less went barefoot. It wasn’t cold and it was easier to find food in the woods.
‘In the war my sister got polio and nearly died. Everyone – Germans, English, partisans – passed by us. All three families in our clearing helped an escaped English prisoner of war. They took turns to leave bread for him in a little hut high in the mountain, where he’d collect it when the coast was clear. We children weren’t told why they were carrying food into the woods, in case someone asked us.
‘Sometimes we’d just meet and tell stories or sing together. We’d gather outside for dances in the woodland clearing, round a bonfire in winter with leaves and twigs to absorb the mud. Polka, waltz, mazurka, quadrille with the best accordionist we could find. I’d meet other woodlanders and one, an old woman, used to ask me to run errands, even giving me some money for it!’ Maria Pia lowered her voice to a whisper so Caterina wouldn’t hear. ‘I was careful not to tell my parents, because I had to scurry off and leave the sheep while I took the little parcel to someone. For some sort of cure. Later I learnt they were potions or spells to have, or not have children, or little cloth dolls to stick pins into – magic, that sort of thing. I suppose she was a kind of witch.
‘Spirits? I remember a man used to shout out about spirits and told us not to go to some parts of the mountains. Older people said it was because he knew there were truffles there and was trying to frighten people off. Others said that the wolves were all those who had died a violent death – the unquiet spirits. They would howl in winter and padded outside the house whilst we were shivering inside. If you opened the door you could see ten or twelve red specks, eyes of devils. Sometimes we made a huge bonfire in the clearing to keep them off the sheep pens and chicken sheds as the hens wouldn’t lay out of fear, and away from us, especially babies.’ Caterina, busy round the stove, reminded us,
‘Wolves used to prowl down here in the winter, right down the valley’.
‘True,’ said her mother, continuing, ‘An ox panicked and killed a child by the ford where we first met. It was frightened by sprites, the souls of children who die young, like my brother and sister and my two little girls. Not bad spirits, just mischievous. Was Marco killed after you came? He was Oreste’s grandson. Or great grandson. A nice little boy, but always straying down the valley. Not that there was anything wrong in that. These things happen.
‘Try washing clothes without soap! I can still see mamma counting the egg money in the market and thinking what she could buy with it. Soap always came first, then flour, then paraffin for the lamps, and candles if there were any coins left. I helped her wash in a mountain spring, freezing cold in winter. It wasn’t far, but wet clothes were so heavy and the ground rough. I would hold one end of the trousers or shirt while mamma would twist and twist until it ran dry. Then she would shake it out and put it in a wicker basket. We pegged the washing outside or on a rope across the room where we lived and ate and slept. Sometimes the sprites would play with the garments and pull them off the pegs, so they fell and got smudged on the earth floor and mamma had to rinse them again. The wrung clothes still dripped. I tried to get away from them, close to the fire, but the men blocked it from the rest of us. They played “beggar my neighbour” or “scopone’” by firelight when the paraffin lamps and candles ran out, with mamma as near as she could get to the hearth, mending and cutting down clothes, patching or knitting. Always busy.
‘When it was hot we had fun washing ourselves in the waterfall on the far side of the clearing. More often than not we heard the sprites, my little brother and sister, giggling and tumbling around in the brambles and rocks above us, often making us spill the water we had to carry to a large metal tub. In cold weather it stood by the fire warming all day. Then hot water was added from the pot always hanging near the grate before papà took the first bath. Then my brothers, then me and my sister. Mamma was always last, because she had been rationing out the bits of towels or old clothes we’d dry with, making sure nobody used too much soap. Except papà. She herself usually bathed when we were all in bed across the room. Other days we’d wash in cold water using a bowl on the stone ledge where we rinsed the plates after the dogs had licked them clean, and poured the water out through a spout in the wall. I was always afraid a snake might wriggle in, but it never happened! There was a lot of water carrying all week, but Monday for clothes washing and Friday for a bath were the worst days.’ She looked at us, heard our unspoken question, and laughed.
‘Where? I knew you’d ask me that. We went in the woods, usually. Otherwise in the hole papà dug leaving two planks on each side, a pile of earth, a wooden spoon, and a heap of big leaves if he remembered – dock, or chestnut. If we found a newspaper we’d save it to light the fire or tear into squares for the leaf function. He made a sort of tall shed out of poles with twigs woven between them, and moved it when the hole was full, after he’d dug another one. Each of the cottages had its own, and they’d move it around their nearest edge of the wood.
‘In winter the pigs were in the sty and fed scraps from our meals, but in spring, summer and autumn I had to take them into the woods until sunset. Nobody had a watch. We returned at dusk, got up at dawn, or earlier in winter if it was market day. The wind blew all the time in winter, except when it was very, very frosty and the air bruised noses and cheeks. I chewed grass, twigs, anything I could find, and was always hungry. I liked the late spring and summer best, and autumn before it got too dark and bleak, with the chestnuts roasting on the fire, though it wasn’t so nice when they were all we had to eat. Those months weren’t so lonely, as there were more people in the woods, more to gather and eat, much more to do while looking after the animals. Berries, wild lettuce, mushrooms. I was bending down early one June looking for tiny sweet strawberries, when I noticed a pair of old shoes on young feet standing just where I knew the plants grew best. I sat back and looked up to see Renzo who had a wide smile on his face,’ and she cupped her hands round both cheeks as tears gathered above them.
‘That smile never left him,’ Caterina said, ‘even when losing at cards!’
‘We got talking. He was a woodcutter, but did a bit of everything. Most days he came back with his mule – nobody around us could afford one – laden with sticks or logs, sometimes charcoal. He always gave me something: flowers, berries or nuts, or bits of wood with funny shapes – anything to make me happy! I had to move around with the animals, but he always found me. That was the best summer of my life. I had no shoes, only clogs and two frocks to my name, but I was happy as a skylark. I was warm, I wasn’t hungry because we found a lot to eat together in the woods.’ She was whispering again, ‘I had hidden the witch’s money in a tree trunk and told nobody except him’. Out loud, ‘In September he asked me to marry him. Then he went to papà who said he would give me a she-goat for a dowry. We had to wait for two years to find a landowner willing to have us farm his land. Families like ours who owned nothing and didn’t work for wages were still expected to find dowries for daughters. Signora Gadini sometimes gave us sheets she didn’t want, or cloth she had left over. I was given some white material, so I spent the next winter making my wedding dress, and there was enough left for underwear such as I had never had. The stitching was wobbly, as I couldn’t see properly by firelight. Even so, I felt quite a lady, especially when the signora returned with shoes for me and two shirts for Renzo.
‘After the war, the other shepherds began to move down to the hillside farms. When Renzo and I married, we were the only mountain family left. We walked more than three kilometres to San Giuliano to get married, but our return was much slower because everyone called us in for refreshments. We and our friends sang on the way up to my family for our wedding lunch. It took so long that our guests had already arrived and stood looking out for us at the edge of the wood! That evening we went to Renzo’s house where we ate supper and danced the night away to the best accordion player from all around here.’
There was radiance in her voice as Maria Pia gathered us into her wedding story.
‘Soon afterwards the farm next to Quinto fell vacant, and here we have stayed. Gino was born a year later. I lost a girl. Then Caterina here. I lost another baby girl before – or after – Arturo. I think he was the last.’ Caterina was frowning, mumbling something about not wanting me to take her mother’s photo because she was wearing the nonna’s cast-off dress. Maria Pia just smiled and wriggled her sprained ankle in its egg-white cast.
‘Am I better off now? I’d never go back. To the snow and the rain. And hunger. Everyone has left the mountains, even the charcoal burners. A few return by car. Nobody wants to live up there, not even strangers like you. All the shepherds’ cottages are in ruin. My children work on building sites or in factories and all their children will go to school. Gino keeps this farm going in his spare time and I tend the kitchen garden, hens, rabbits, the usual. I don’t want to go back to see the ruins, not even to get the mushrooms or strawberries in the places I know they grow best.’
Mother’s subsequent silence continued almost unbroken over lunch. Maria Pia had told us of a way of life that went back to when the first woodlanders cleared the undergrowth and settled with their flocks in mountain glades, high above the hillsides where Gianni’s ancestors later began cultivating his valley.