From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 12
Images from the Past
There are certain images that remain indelibly etched in memory as one travels down life’s sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth path that constitutes each person’s universal but unique trip -- from the warm and secure comfort of the womb to whatever lies in the great beyond.

In trying to recall our experiences in Gioviano that stand out to this day, there is one ever-so-frightening image that periodically returns to my mind, as well as a few that are more mundane but nonetheless provide classic glimpses into life in an Italian hill town many years ago. The frightening image was of our little Anna, lying in a heap on the dirt floor of the cantina after having fallen through the trapdoor on the main floor of Casa Giorgio. At that point in my life, I became somewhat of a fanatic about child safety.

The most memorable and graphic snapshot into the life of a stalwart and proud people that had survived centuries of indescribable hardships interspersed with moments of great joy, was taken in by my eyes and my mind on a terribly wet, cold, and dreary day in the dead of winter, sometime during either December 1973 or January 1974.

Many of the houses in Gioviano were abandoned and had fallen into various stages of decay. Exploring these remnants of the past in the narrow and sometimes tortuous streets of the village was like entering a time warp and finding oneself in another century. The house with the grandest stemma, or stone coat of arms over the doorway, was just opposite the church.

I thought that the house was abandoned by the looks of its ancient and decayed front doors, its windows without panes in places, and some of the other usual definite signs of abandonment. So, I climbed the stairs to examine the beautiful carved portal with its double-headed eagle and goblin that dated to the 16th century at the latest.

One of the two once-majestic double doors was partially ajar, and I could peer into the shadowy interior of the house. The floors were of wide boards, some of which had holes and gaps in them from centuries of wear and attacks by tarli, the little insects that devour ancient wood and which infest some of our own antique furniture to this day.

There was no electricity in the house, and the only interior light came from the glow of embers burning in the fireplace in the large single room that constituted the third, but formal level of this four-story medieval house. As my eyes got accustomed to the shadowy darkness of the interior, I saw sitting in a chair an old, old woman, dressed in black as was the fashion of Italian widows.

Her chair, which was of a style from the 18th century, was huddled as close to the warmth of the tiny fire as possible, and she had draped herself in a black homespun woolen blanket to ward off the penetrating cold. I was shocked at the sight of a living soul in an uninhabitable house and didn’t know if my intrusion into the dying embers of her life should be made known as she struggled for warmth from the dying embers of the fire. Should I not disturb her, as she had not seen me and was unaware of my presence? I took one last glance at a scene that today, and even then, one might find only in a painting or described in a storybook.

Perhaps I should have knocked and entered and learned something of her life and 4+offered to help her with her fire, or brought her a drink of water. But, fate would have it that I felt uncomfortable, having intruded unknown and by accident, so I retreated to Casa Giorgio and our little fire in our fireplace that was the only source of heat for my family. The image has never left me, and I often wonder about the poor old woman struggling alone against great hardship and against great odds. I never saw her again, and as the reader will soon discover, her home--years later--became our second home in Gioviano.

Perhaps the cutest image I have retained from that era is of a precious and beautiful little girl who was dancing and squealing with glee as she described taking her first real bath in a real metal tub with real hot water. In 1973, very few houses in Gioviano had running water, much less hot water. Her parents had purchased a large metal tub and had heated some water over the stove. Then, they proceeded to give the child, (who was three or four years old) her first real bath. I can still see the look of delight in her eyes as she told us of the fun that she had and how marvelous the experience had been. Sabina is still one of our best friends in the village and was married this year, for the first time, as was our Anna. A few summers ago we purchased our fifth house in Gioviano from Sabina.

Another vivid image that has remained with me all these years is that of Sue, Anne, Dog and me all cuddled up for warmth on extra-cold winter nights on a homemade mattress on an antique double bed that barely fit into the tiniest room in Casa Giorgio. Our only heat was from the fireplace downstairs, and after the embers had died down and the little heat that climbed the stairs had virtually frozen, we soon understood how people in this valley had lived for thousands of years. Eventually we purchased a kerosene heater but left the window open at night to keep from asphyxiating ourselves.

The last of the four most vivid images from that era is of Emanuela perpetually grinding tomatoes for sauce and making fresh pasta to feed to me, Sue, Anna, and the soldiers who came to help me rebuild the roof on Casa Giorgio. She would invite us in for hot coffee and a hot meal, rather than see us have to eat cold C-Rations. The most amazing stone fireplace imaginable is located in the kitchen of the huge Barsanti Palazzo. Each year I ask permission from her daughter and granddaughter to go into the kitchen and gaze at the fireplace. Afterwards, I recount to her descendants the wonderful experiences that we had had living next door to their mother and grandmother.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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