From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 38
Ice-Water Sponge Baths
My father was born in 1911 on a poultry ranch near Chilhowee, Missouri. He came from tough, patriarchal, Scotch-Irish pioneer stock. He recalls sleeping on the porch in winter and waking up the next morning with a layer of snow on his blanket. My mother’s family had entered Missouri from the east about the same time in the first quarter of the 19th century, but settled in the more sedate Mississippi Delta, rather than follow Daniel Boone to the far frontier.

They had both been born in the era when many Americans had no electricity, used a privy, and took cold-water sponge baths, so it isn’t any wonder that they seemed to revel in the nostalgia of “living like our ancestors” in Casa Giorgio the first night of their arrival, but soon were anxious to enter the modern era of electricity and hot water.

When they arrived in Gioviano, they walked to the little store and found Sig. Lotti standing in the door.

“He was so pleased to see us but hadn’t gotten the card we sent from Germany. He went back to the house with us and showed us the kitchen and bathroom, with which we are really pleased. When we get electricity, so the water isn’t like ice, it will be really livable. The new front door is awfully nice too.”

My mother is acutely attuned to sounds, colors, textures, people, and animals around her. In Gioviano, there was the village clock to keep her counting off and on that first night, because her description indicates that the clock awoke her on only an occasional basis or her description would have been more accurate.

“I shivered for ages. The town clock strikes every 15 minutes, usually three low strikes followed by three long, strong ones. Occasionally it changed to two at first, followed by four, and finally, this morning it got up to six!”

“We are to take Sig. Lotti to Lucca Friday to see about getting electricity. He’s really a precious man, and guess what -- exactly 11 days younger than Kenneth.”

By Thursday, October 16th, they were running low on firewood, which they would need to be able to warm some water in the fireplace and thus take the chill off of their sponge-bath water. My father had yet to discover the mother lode of firewood in the cantina in the form of some antique furniture I had stored there, which to him looked like “junk.”

“We walked up the narrow streets in front of a tractor pulling a trailer load of wood. We hoped it was for us -- and it was. The man dumped it in front of our house and left. Then he came back with Sig. Lotti to collect. We explained we had to go to the bank before we could pay the 45,000 lire for 700 kilos. We invited the men in for coffee and wine. Later, Kenneth fixed a shelf in the kitchen and put some nails in it so we can store our food and hang up our pots and dish towels.”

Friday, October 17, 1980: “Sig. Lotti was waiting in a doorway, all dressed up in a suit with his inevitable black umbrella. We had cappuccinos at the bar in Piano di Gioviano as we waited for the priest who was to accompany us to Lucca.”

“It took at least an hour to get signed up for electricity. The main problem was that Casa Giorgio had been abandoned for decades, so has no number and isn’t on the map of Gioviano! Even after convincing the officials that there is such a house, Kenneth was told it would be six or seven months before they would bring electricity to it!”

“As the men negotiated, I sat in the car. The wait didn’t seem long at all for the street was full of Lucchesi in cars, afoot, and on bicycles. The people on bicycles had to maneuver in and out amongst the cars. How they managed with an umbrella in one hand and often a bag of groceries on the handlebar I’ll never know.”

“Back in Gioviano, Kenneth drove six nails into our fireplace so we can dry towels and washcloths, and when we need to, a few clothes by the fire. Kenneth is putting up an old ox yoke to make into a coat rack. That will help no end in keeping the place tidy. We keep the big, black kettle with water in it over the fire also.”

“Shortly after lunch I shampooed my hair and sat by the hearth to dry it, and at night we take sponge baths by the fire, so we are getting by rather well. However, the new wood is green and smokes a lot, so every now and then we must open the door and window and clear the air.”

“Would 1981 shove Casa Giorgio into the modern era of electricity and hot water? Would the little house that everyone thought Giorgio was crazy for buying leave room for Giorgio and family when they were able to join the throngs?”

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