This is a piece of writing I consider mix narrative and poetry about my grandmother. I was inspired to write about her by a collection of poetry by Nickole Brown called Fanny Says, poems about her grandmother.
The Old Woman in Flowers
A smile, please,
for the old woman in flowers sitting before me. Vittorina Pedrini.
She speaks casually but peaks over my scribing hand with no hope of understanding english.
"Non Ho molte belle storie," she reiterates. I don't have a lot of good stories.
But I can see the ghost of history lingering about her face like a foggy breath, sometimes so thick she must dispel it: channel bygone days to some listener, any listener.
The flour powdering her elbows
is the generations of ink stains on my finger tips,
and the mixed-grease-and-sweat towel thrown over her shoulder is the pair of old shoes I still haven’t thrown away.
Her short, dense curls are like tightly coiled bronze wires, but oh how she
misses the long blond hair brushing the bottom of her back
like the golden wheat on her fields used to brush the bruised sky.
Her eyes look blue to me, but
"Sul documento d'identità, sono verdi." On my ID, they're green.
"e mio marito li amava." And my husband loved them.
And I know which one is more important to her,
words linked like a phone call to the past,
a smile to the lips.
A second, please,
for a girl born in 1931, under the smoky skies of fascist Modena, Italy,
in the household of two parents, a mammona, and a babbone,
and a multitude of chickens in the backyard:
friends and food alike.
A moment for her as her eyes wander to the windows and she tells me how
every other day her babbone would trace the edges of roadside ditches with his red cart,
every other day like clockwork,
gathering weeds to feed those chickens.
Because "Il pane lo tenevamo noi." We kept the bread for ourselves.
Even now on the countertop sits a basket of white bread, thick slices cradled like newborns wrapped in hospital cloth, wisps of steam drifting like pale fingers counting.
"Il pane nero," she still thinks, "È il cibo dei poveri." Black bread is food for the poor.
A pause, please,
for the winters unlit
but for fires,
for the schemes of frost on the morning glass,
for the hot coals dropped in her shoes
like old flames, now useful just to warm her toes as she treads on ice.
But she remembers the spring in her backyard, the wet touch of life bubbling, breaking through the rocks,
the traffic of neighbors during the summer, the free passage today foreign,
today blocked by fences and gates and walls
and locks and alarms and calls.
She remembers her dog Bobby, and splitting her already dwindling meals until her father found out,
until he split his too,
so they could all have a little more.
A song please,
or just a sound, perhaps,
for the alarm and
for rapid feet on hard ground
and for the machine guns firing overhead
shaving the grass from its roots and the leaves from the tree.
Passer-byes had hung bells from its delicate branches, glistening in the fair wind.
It was their fatal glimmer that caught the German pilot’s eye,
but it was a mother’s instinct that threw them all in the ditch,
the waters from the last rain still smudging the shores with grime,
just as the bullets cracked the sky like
peal of thunder,
glass shards and wood splinters flying.
"Mia madre ci ha salvato la vita," she nods. my mother saved our lives.
Or the time when Vittorina saw them fall,
oh how slow they seemed from afar,
as if the bombs would never actually reach earth,
they would never
destroy those homes and lives.
But they fell, like thick black grapes, they fell.
A cry, please,
for the crowds of innocents drained into the streets by the SS,
for the curtains closed and
for those who turned away.
A cry for her grandmother, who took a pitcher of water
to their lips,
who thought curtains too thin to hide, too thin to pretend as if
no one was seeing this.
A cry for the sixteen year old SS soldier,
barely a child, a stupid little brat,
who slapped the pitcher from her frail hands, spilling the water so many
thirsted for onto the scalding pavement and the dusty feet.
Shame, shame upon those who watched the crowds.
A cry for the old woman in flowers sitting before me,
recalling a time when she was young and pretty and proud to work at a taylor’s shop at Piazza Mazzini.
The same time when the surviving crowds were trucked back in,
the same time a young jewish girl ran to embrace her,
crying in a language Vittorina could not understand.
Moments later the girl was pried back and the translators explained that Vittorina looked like her sister,
that was all.
She looked like the sister not yet found,
that was all,
another lost from the crowd.
The next day was the first time she hid behind the curtains.
A sigh, please,
for the first time she tasted chocolate,
when the rough hand of an Australian soldier offered her a shiny wrapper.
Or for the first time she tasted pineapple,
or the first time she used bug spray.
The end of the war brought more than just peace."c'erano meno zanzare, e più lucciole," she recalled. there used to be less mosquitos and more fireflies.
A sigh for her friend,
who fell in love with an American soldier despite the fact that she
could not say
what she thought
and could not understand
what he said.
oh, another smile
for the first time she met her husband to be,
for the crowds of poor teenagers who walked barefoot to the dance so that
they might not ruin their shoes
with the long walk.
A smile for the flowing skirts she twirled when the mothers weren’t looking,
for the old Italian dances she was so good at,
for the boy’s foot kicked out to trip her,
to catch her attention and ask for a dance,
a dance beneath the hay-filled rooftops of a poor man's barn.
Oh, a smile for those nights when war was forgotten.
with pinched cheeks and shiny teeth,
for Vittorina and her friends,
who didn’t know what a date was but wanted to buy one,
who didn’t want to seem foolish but didn’t know what they were called.
A laugh for her,
who finally asked "uno di quelli, per favore." one of those, please.
and almost broke her tooth with the first bite because
no one had goddamn
there was a pit.
A laugh for the girl who burnt the pink skin on her stomach
red to hide the still-hot bread beneath her shirt,
to run to Vittorina’s house and share it with her instead of her sisters.
A laugh for the good despite the bad.
But a prayer, now,
for the loss of time.
A prayer for her first child, who found the kingdom,
A prayer for her husband, who followed their son,
A prayer for her brothers, who left her,
A prayer for old age, for experiences forgotten
and stories left untold
for my grandmother.
For her youth and midlife and old age.
I tell her I’m writing a poem about her
and she scoffs
as if it were a dumb idea but I know
she’ll ask my mother to translate it.
A poem for her smiles and her tears.
A poem for her cooking,
for her love,
for her family.
A poem for all these years.