From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 55
Strange Convergences

Parallel Lives Converge
Since returning to Texas in 1974 from my tour of duty in Italy, we began to collect Texas antique furniture and stoneware. For a number of years, I had heard the name “Rodgers” mentioned many times. Apparently, the name belonged to a family that was competing with us at catalog auctions and through the network of pickers and traders that deal in handmade Texas antiques. However, we had never met any of the family members after all these years.

Through a third party, the Rodgers had asked if they could visit us and see our collections when they would be in Huntsville for the 2006 freshman orientation of their daughter, Kathryn Lea (named after Margaret Lea Houston) at Sam Houston State University. Sue and I were in Italy, but our son, Andrew, was staying in Huntsville to manage our businesses. So, I said that it would be perfectly okay for him to show them around.

After the Rodgers’ visit, Andrew called excitedly to tell Sue and me what great people they were and how knowledgeable they were about Texas stoneware in particular. I guess by now you are wondering what is so strange about two sets of people being interested in stoneware and never having met. That’s not the “strange convergence”. Please be patient. The plot thickens.

While visiting Andrew, he of course told them that we couldn’t be there because we were in Italy. Susan Rodgers then told Andrew that Italy was their favorite country, having traveled the globe since the 1970s, and that they had just bid on a house they had fallen in love with in a special place that he had probably never heard of.

“It’s just about a mile outside of Barga on the road to Sommocolonia,” explained Susan, expecting Andrew to ask, “Where’s Barga? Never heard of the place.” For years, Andrew grew up staring out his bedroom window at Barga and Sommocolonia, and he walked the streets of Barga ever since he had taken his first steps as a baby. So, he was overwhelmed by this strange convergence, the strangeness of which wouldn’t end there.

After we finished talking to Andrew, I couldn’t wait to call Susan and Rick Rodgers to have fun discussing our mutual interests. Susan was at home, and we had a marvelous time talking about house buying, Barga, Gioviano, foods of Italy and a zillion other subjects. I don’t mean this as a flippant or sexist remark, but I felt like we were two middle-aged female school chums at our 40th high school reunion who hadn’t seen or talked to each other for 40 years.

I later sent Susan an e-mail asking her to fill me in on their adventures in Italy for a chapter about how our parallel lives had converged although we hadn’t even laid eyes on one another yet. I wanted to know how they came upon the Garfagnana region, which is in fact little known by Americans, since it is off the beaten track of the classic tourist destinations of Florence, Rome, Venice, and Pisa.

Hold on to your seats and buckle up, because the convergence gets even stranger yet. Susan wrote back telling me about their travel adventures.

“We were teachers in the 1970s. After giving keys and cats to our in-laws, we were off for a three-month vacation each summer for 10 years! It wasn’t long before we noticed that Italy took more and more First Places, in our list of favorites.”

She went on to say that after the long three-month adventures of the 1970s, they had to reduce the length of their trips because of the arrival of three children and because of the fact that Rick took a corporate job. Corporate managers normally don’t look too favorably on three-month vacations. They figure that if they won’t miss you for three months they won’t miss you for three years or ever.

Last April, the Rodgers planned their trip to Italy around Anna Bianchi’s books, Zuppa and From the Tables of Tuscan Women, which inspired them to travel up into the Garfagnana and beyond.

“In fact, Chapter 9 on page 271 mentions two Texans (but not by name) who had spent many years in a small town north of Lucca.”

“Sounds fascinating,” I told Rick. “Let’s head on up that way and see if we can find those two Texans and buy their place as I am sure that they’ve probably tired of it. So wouldn’t you know that on the way to the airport I realized that I had left the town name at home! Never mind, we had a great time exploring and experiencing our dream location – then back to Texas – back to work.

“George, do you think we found our two Texans in Italy?” Then Susan sent the following name: “Signora Velia Fontanini of Gioviano.”

I wrote back that there was no Velia Fontanini in Gioviano, but that the Fontanini family owned the Fontplast factory down in the valley across the Serchio from Borgo a Mozzano and that most of the members of the family lived in the vicinity of Bagni di Lucca. Thus, Anna Bianchi must be mistaken about the town with the two Americans in Gioviano.

The Fontaninis, incidentally, manufacture lovely presepi (nativity scenes), some of them quite large. My wife eventually carried a whole set of these figures back to Texas, one large piece at a time in her suitcase over a period of many years. The complete presepe may now be seen on permanent display in the Chapel of the Nativity at Waterwood, Texas. I also told Susan that the Fontaninis had supplied the life size nativity figures used in the movie, Home Alone.

“Is this ‘strange convergence’ drama over yet?” you must be asking by now. No, it’s not-- but if you are completely bored by it, it is okay to skip to the next chapter.

Our American friends Eddie and Shirley Dye live in a house that shares a common wall with Capanna Susanna, our second house in Gioviano, which now serves as our guesthouse. Having finished my chapters about World War II, I was getting antsy so decided to take a stroll around the village. Eddie usually has a bottle or two of freshly opened wine, and if I play my cards just right, he will offer me a glass to get my opinion about its flavor or quality. Being just a little thirsty, I knocked on their door.

Eddie was in his garden, so I visited with Shirley while staring at an open bottle of white wine and hoping that she would notice and offer me a glass. That didn’t happen until Eddie came in the house, but in the meantime we had fun gossiping about this and that.

Eventually, I told her about my chapter about German atrocities during the war and how happy I was that Gioviano had been spared. She mentioned the bravery of John Fox in Sommocolonia as well as how the people of Gioviano were at first frightened of the Buffalo Soldiers because they had never before seen a Black person. Once they had experienced the kindness and generosity of the Buffalo Soldiers, the fear dissipated and was replaced with friendship and respect.

Shirley then told me that a friend of ours, who was born near Bagni di Lucca, had suffered a tragedy in her village during that awful time. One of her cousins who was only two years old was thrown up into the air by a German soldier and bayoneted to death because the family, the Fontaninis, refused to divulge the names of family members who were partisans.

“Fontanini!” I exclaimed.

“Oh you know who I’m talking about—Velia Fontanini.”

“I know Velia and Gaetano Chiappa,” I responded, “ but no Velia Fontanini.”

“George, you know that Italian women always keep their maiden names when they marry. Velia still goes by her family name of Fontanini.”

I had forgotten the name and author of the cookbook that Susan had mentioned in her e-mail, so I could only tell Shirley about the Rodgers and that Susan had read about Velia in some cookbook.

“I have that cookbook!” exclaimed Shirley. “It was written by Anna Bianchi. I left it in Huntsville, but I believe the name is something about Tuscan women.”

She went on to say, “Velia and Anna Bianchi came over to visit us while Anna was working on the book. They spent quite awhile here in the house talking about food and recipes and about Gioviano. I had no idea that she mentioned ‘two Americans’ living in Gioviano, until I bought the book.”

By then my mind was a little boggled. This “strange convergence” had many twists and turns in it, and to think I have yet to formally meet the Rodgers.

When we all get back to Texas, we will ask my father to prepare his extra-mean risotto con pepe verde (rice with green peppercorns) and invite to dinner all of the role players in this multi-faceted “strange convergence.” Kingpin’s special recipe for risotto can be found in the appendix of this book.

As a footnote, Anna Bianchi and her cousin, Sandra Lotti, founded a world famous cooking school, Tuscana Saporita, which is located in an ancient villa at Stiava in the Province of Lucca. Both women have written many books about Tuscan cooking.

Rodgers Strange Convergences Addendum
December 29th and 30th, 2006 added a new chapter to the strange convergences associated with Rick and Susan Rodgers. I had wanted to meet them since learning of their existence some seven months before, so I invited them to come to Huntsville to tour our Texas antique furniture and stoneware collections. It was a strange and wonderful event filled with several mini-convergences. Time and again, the Rodgers would exclaim that, in years past, they had either attempted to purchase or had bid on several pieces of both furniture and stoneware that are now in our collection.

When we reached the section of our warehouse where we store various items for the Prison Museum, Rick spotted the apparatus that operated “Old Sparky,” the now retired electric chair for the prison, and he exclaimed that his grandfather had been Warden at the Walls Unit in Huntsville. The grandfather hated to execute the condemned, knowing that so many of them were innocent but economically disadvantaged African Americans who had been railroaded by a corrupt “justice” system. So little has changed, I might add.

The next day I met the Rodgers at our Chapel of the Nativity in Waterwood, our first church, on Lake Livingston. They immediately recognized the nativity figures as having been manufactured just down the road from Gioviano in the Fontplast factory just across the Serchio from Borgo a Mozzano. They had fallen in love with Borgo during their trip to Italy in November and thought of trying to purchase a house there. I suggested looking in some of the villages just above Borgo at elevations that rise above the frequent winter fog banks that sometimes hover over the flood plain of the Serchio.

The Rodgers had come bearing gifts for my parents, as had the Magi to Baby Jesus at this same season so long ago: arborio rice, fresh lettuce and tree-ripened lemons from Rick’s garden, homemade biscotti (cookies), vino and a huge panettone (cake). Kingpin, who is like a cross between some 19th-century military commander and Grandpaw Simpson, orchestrated the preparation of an Italian feast consisting of massive servings of risotto con pepe verde, insalata mista, along with wine and mineral water followed by more wine and biscotti for dessert.

One of the last strange convergences came when Susan recognized my 95 year-old father as the only professor during her stellar college career at Sam Houston State University to have given her a “B”. For about a half hour we had to watch her closely to make sure that she didn’t do the old rascal in for having tarnished her almost perfect transcript. Fortunately it turns out that he had taught her in his infamous audiovisual aids class in which she had made an “A” so we no longer had to worry that Susan might sprinkle some arsenic on his risotto and tell him it was Parmeggiano.

Last, but not least in the strangely parallel paths of our two families, was Susan’s purchase and use of the many filmstrips and videos that my mother had written and produced about Italy over the years. Susan said that during her teaching career, that she would be given a hundred dollars to spend on teaching aids each year and that she would always spend the money on some of our productions such as my mother’s eight-part series on Italy as well as her productions about the Etruscans, Magna Graecia and Sicily, Venetian Palaces, Dante, Florence, Christmas in Italy, and others. Will the strange convergences never end?

The Hogs Ate up my Little Brother
While we’re on the subject of strange convergences, my father had an equally strange convergence a few years ago in Lucca. He tells it in his own words as follows:

“A few years ago, I was walking down the street in Lucca, Italy and greeted a stranger with buon giorno.”

She replied, “You’re an American. Your accent gave you away.”

We started talking and laughing about something one of us had said. She was almost hysterical and said, "I haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate up my little brother!"

I said, "Lady, I haven't heard that expression since I left the farm 70 years ago. Where did you hear that?”

"In Missouri," she responded.

”Where in Missouri?" I asked.

”In a little old town that that most Missourians don't even know." she said.

“What was the name of the little old town?" I asked.

"Chilhowee!" she replied.

“I guess I do know Chilhowee. I was born there!" I exclaimed. Then we laughed so hard neither of us got the other's name. I often wonder if she has told this story as often as I have.

To add to this strange convergence, I told the Chilhowee story to a new acquaintance in Waterwood. He replied, “I know where Chilhowee is. It is on the highway between Kansas City and the Lake of the Ozarks. We went through there just last week looking for wildflowers”

The Return of Wayne Gray
The Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and biologically diverse natural areas in East Texas. Its 716 acres include five miles of undeveloped shoreline on Lake Livingston, which for a number of years has been the target of numerous developers wishing to purchase it.

Just across Waterwood Bay, waterfront lots are currently selling for around $1,500.00 per linear foot of shoreline and up to $450,000.00 per acre. So, developers find it impossible to believe that the Cathedral is not for sale at any price, unless of course, no development would ever take place.

One of the groups salivating over this pristine natural area refused to give up hope of acquiring the Cathedral along with the Great Spirit Wilderness and its several miles of incredibly beautiful shoreline. Our Wilderness is home to eagles, alligators, beavers, river otters, pelicans and many other wild creatures. Just as we were about to leave for Gioviano a couple of years ago, I received a rather frantic phone call from the president of one of the companies that wanted to create some Disneyesque fantasyland on our properties.

The president desperately wanted to meet with me to negotiate some kind of deal before we left for Italy. I said that I didn’t have time but rather facetiously added that if she really wanted to meet with me, then it would have to be in Gioviano. I never believed for even one second that she would take me up on the invitation.

About three days after arriving in Gioviano, I received a telephone call from Dubai. I couldn’t believe my ears! A voice that I hadn’t heard in decades was on the other end of the line. It was Wayne Gray, the man to whom we sold our Volkswagen in 1973 in order to raise the money to purchase Casa Giorgio.

He said, “Meet us at Pisa Airport tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.”

“What are you doing in Dubai?” I demanded. Had I had false teeth they would have dropped out and hit the floor right then and there.

“I’m your developer friend’s attorney, and we have been working on a project in Dubai,” he responded. “We thought that we would drop over and spend a few days with you in Gioviano so that maybe you and the developers can work things out to your mutual satisfaction.”

“That’s wonderful. It’ll be so great to see you again. You can stay in the Palazzo, and the others can have Capanna Susanna all to themselves. You’ll need your own car however, so I suggest you rent one at the airport. Do you still remember how to get here?”

I simply could not believe it. What were the statistical odds of Wayne Gray and George Russell, by sheer accident, reconverging in Gioviano after 31 years? Just think about it for a minute--there are virtually millions of attorneys in the world, since Shakespeare was unsuccessful in eliminating them. So, the odds were amazingly great that the very attorney, who had been one of my best friends during my three years in the Army in Italy, would also be the attorney for some developers who were obsessed with acquiring our Cathedral property.

To make a long story short, Wayne, Sue, and I had a great time together reminiscing about the past and catching up on each other’s lives. The developers, on the other hand, became extremely frustrated with the fact that the only way that we would part with the Cathedral would be for it to be perpetually protected as a nature preserve.

The company was especially anxious to re-create Portofino around one of the bays on the shores of the Cathedral. Portofino is of course, one of our very favorite towns in Italy, and we visit the seaside village almost every year. The concept was great, but what would become of our beavers and river otters if all of a sudden bulldozers moved in and created a small city on top of their homes and those of their fellow creatures as well?

Needless to say, no deal was consummated, and when we returned to Texas, Sue and I donated a mile of pristine shoreline, including the proposed site of Portofino, Texas, as America’s first and only Beaver and River Otter Sanctuary. I don’t know what became of the developers, but Wayne and I now communicate at least once a week via the Internet. The strange convergence reunited two old friends after many years of being apart.

Hush Puppies
I didn’t mind my years in the military except for having to wear combat boots and shiny shoes. Kids in East Texas back in the 1950s didn’t wear shoes at all during much of the year and especially during the summer months when our feet would get so tough that we could stand on hot asphalt without pain.

Thus, when leaving active military service in 1974, I began to wear the most comfortable sandals I could find. I usually wear out a pair or two a year, and so for the last few years I have been purchasing new pairs of French made Mephisto sandals on the Via Filunga in Lucca. In Italy, they are much less expensive than in the States and even cheaper than in France.

About 20 years ago, I was in the habit of wearing Hush Puppies sandals until the style that I liked was discontinued. I was walking the streets of Gioviano in my Hush Puppies when I encountered a man I had never before seen.

He stared down at my feet and declared in English, “I made those shoes!”

“What are you talking about?” I said, “I bought these shoes at Rogers Shoe Store in Huntsville, Texas, and I know good and well that Hush Puppies is an American brand, so it is impossible that you made my shoes.”

“What’s your shoe size?” he responded without argument.

“Size ten,” I said.

“Hmmm, that’s about a 43 or 44 over here,” he replied. We then parted.

The next day the same man arrived with a big sack and handed it to me, and said only one word –regalo (gift). I looked inside the sack, and there were three pairs of brand-new Hush Puppies sandals identical to the ones that I had on my feet.

It turned out that my new friend Piero was the manager of a shoe factory near Lucca that had a contract to manufacture sandals for the Hush Puppies company, and he had been telling the truth about making my sandals.

This new neighbor had recently purchased the ancient tower house “in Castello”, the highest point in Gioviano and was in the process of restoring it as a weekend or summer home.

The Pyramid of Cestius
Amongst the really exciting events that take place in the vicinity of Gioviano are the monthly antique fairs held in the historic streets of Lucca, Barga, Viareggio, and Bientina. We try to attend at least two of these events every summer. It’s not that we need anything at all, but we go just to look at the marvelous accumulations of objects from both the remote and recent past.

The art of bargaining is also a great pleasure of mine. I have had the most luck in getting a sconto (discount) on an item by making the vendor laugh with some of my antics and stories. I talk to them about our abject poverty, my old hungry mother, our starving children, the current worthlessness of American dollars and just plain old chiacchiera.

Some of the vendors have known us for years. Even if we are not in the market for their “objets d’art”, they are happy to see us and even recount objects that we may have purchased from them many years before. One such vendor is from Senegal in West Africa. Each year he goes back home to his family and acquires many wonderful examples of cire perdu (lost wax) bronze work which he brings to Italy to sell. Over the years, we have acquired ten examples that grace the dining room of Palazzo Margherita. Even though we haven’t purchased anything from him in a number of years, he still sends an occasional postcard from Senegal to our home in Texas.

Although Palazzo Margherita was purchased with its furniture intact, there were still many walls on which to hang paintings in addition to the 53 examples of my mother’s artwork. She produced them in the little suite that had once been the office of the master of the house.

At one antique fair a number of years ago, we were walking through the streets of Lucca, admiring the hundreds of displays of antiques of all kinds when I spied a marvelous painting of the type that was in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th century when exploration of the monuments of antiquity was all the rage in Europe. After intense bargaining, the painting was ours. We had been looking for the perfect gift for my father for Father’s Day. Since he needed absolutely nothing, the painting, if nothing else would amuse him because of the hodgepodge of ruins from antiquity that it illustrated. So, to Gioviano we returned and hung the painting in the library that served as my mother’s office where it hangs to this day.

So what is the “strange convergence” you must be asking at this point? Well, here is the rest of the story.

One Saturday, about three years ago, at our Sunset Services at the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral, we were discussing each person’s preference for a final resting place. My father immediately said that he wanted to be cremated with his ashes put into an Etruscan-style urn and then placed in a pyramid. The next day, a contractor came to my office in Huntsville and said that he needed work. I asked him if he had ever built a pyramid, and he said “no” but that he was hungry enough to try.

Thus began the construction of the Russell Pyramid on the shores of Lake Livingston in East Texas. My father had traveled to Egypt several times and loved the Cheops’ Pyramid, but a scaled down version would not have left enough head room inside. He remembered that one of his favorite pyramids was built into the walls of Rome. It was the Pyramid of Cestius, built around 18 B.C. So, we decided to construct a 1/6 scale model of the Cestius pyramid for his final resting place. We added three windows in the shape of crosses and had the interior frescoed with murals depicting the four seasons at four different times of day –sunrise, midday, sunset, and nightfall.

When we all returned to Gioviano the next summer, I happened to study, for the first time, the various ruins in the painting that I had purchased at the antique fair in Lucca some years before.

“Kingpin!” I yelled. “Come here quick! Look, there is the Pyramid of Cestius!”

All through the years that the painting had been hanging on the wall, none of us had ever stopped to study the jumble of ruins that graced the canvas. Thus, we were totally unaware that the same pyramid in the painting was the example used to build my father’s tomb.

Incidentally, he has since decided to forego entombment in favor of “Green Burial,” which is a burial of a deceased person within 24 hours without embalming. The body is placed in the ground inside a wooden casket or directly into the ground without a casket, either wrapped in a blanket or placed inside a cardboard box

Updated December 22, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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