I remember the first time I met the Marchesa. It was on the balcony of Arrigo’s brother’s house. Below us was that vast expanse of valleys and hill towns and fields spread out in every direction.
Vast is a small word to describe a space that is so large it is quite possibly infinite, or at least seemingly infinite. The balcony was perched on the side of the palazzo, the palazzo was part of the ancient town walls, and the town sat at one of the highest altitudes in the territory. The balcony afforded fabulous, almost impossible views across to other, generally lower, hill towns.
Arrigo was the one who had brought me to this ancient palazzo. It was the first time I was meeting his family, you see. It was one of the houses where he grew up. It had been in his father’s family for as long as anyone could remember, or at least for countless centuries. Which is rather a long time.
When we parked the car down below the palazzo’s venerable walled garden, his brother and brother’s wife were out on the balcony enjoying the warm, thick August breeze. Or that was their cover, anyway. They were also there to catch the first glimpse of me.
We entered through the summer entrance. I would learn months later that in the summer, one enters through the walled garden, while in the winter, one walks through the town to enter the formal hall. Both lead you to marble stairs with ancient frescoes depicting family crests and symbols.
We enjoyed a glass of wine with them in the ancient living room that now was theirs.
Arrigo suggested we go out to look at the view.
When the Marchesa arrived, I had already been on the balcony for a while with Arrigo, admiring the view.
Arrigo heard her voice carry from the frescoed entryway into the living room and said ‘Mi sembra che sia arrivata’, ‘I think she is here’. And he slipped back inside the dark recesses of the palazzo.
“Should I come with you?”
“No, no, wait here, I’ll be right back.”
I smoothed my dress and tucked my hair behind my ear. I took a breath of the dry August evening wind. I looked back over the far reaching expanse of gold and pale green countryside. The summer sun was still strong enough that when I glanced towards the door which led into the living room, I couldn’t really see inside. Voices were getting closer.
And suddenly there she was. She burst into the balcony, full of curiosity and a desire to find me, to know me, she came to me like a heat seeking missile.
Who was this new girlfriend of her youngest child? Would she measure up? Would she be worthy of her son?
She wore an ankle length elegant summer dress, her long thick white hair wound around many times then pinned meticulously in a bun, sun spots on her face telling the truth about her eighty seven summers between Italy and Greece. Her smile found mine.
We exchanged the necessary formalities. Italy is still today very formal in its social exchanges.
“Piacere di conoscerLa, signora”, I said, using my most proper Italian, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Signora.” I had rehearsed it several times.
“Piacere mio,” she responded. “The pleasure is mine.” I felt her taking me in, measuring my own long dress with her eyes, analyzing the fabric and determining it to be linen, absorbing my choice of the neutral beige color, glancing at my bare arms, my simple sandals.
It was August in Italy, and I had chosen my dress with care. I had sought an understated elegance that would allow me to be cool in the summer heat and not seem like I was trying too hard. I must have squirmed slightly.
Arrigo interjected to me, teasing, “Afraid of the mother in law, are you? Paura, eh?”
“Afraid of me!”, the Marchesa exclaimed.
“Of course not! Arrigo, you’re terrible!,” I said to him, but actually I was afraid. Not of afraid of her, per se, but afraid of not passing muster in some way. Arrigo had been pestering me for weeks that she would eat me up, that I should be afraid of meeting her.
“Arrigo!” she reprimanded him. Then she turned to me, “Oh, I know him well, very, very well.”
Arrigo laughed and stepped back inside to join the others.
The Marchesa and I both turned and looked back toward the view.
“I remember the first time I came here. I was like you,” she said. I sensed her fly light years away, quickly entering another epoch in her past. “My breath was taken away by it all.”
I felt her be in three places at once – in my place on that balcony, imagining what I must be thinking. Then in her own shoes so many, many decades ago on that same balcony, and then physically present next to me as well that August evening.
“The view is stunning, truly,” I responded, absorbing delicately her impressions, learning about her, learning where she was going with these memories. We took in the beautiful views of the countryside that were expanding in all directions before us.
“All of my children are divorced, you know. All four of them.” She looked at me, as if she were revealing her Achilles heel. “Probably because I myself was divorced, a very long time ago.”
I was surprised by her directness, by her sharing such personal information with me, a complete stranger. Her own intensely private history, the lives of her adult children, her reflections on all of them. I nodded, listening, and she continued.
“Probably it’s my fault. Probably they absorbed my divorce into their subconscious. And now every one of them – divorced.”
She was confessing her secrets to me. But I had already heard her story from Arrigo, at least his understanding of it. He was not even born when much of it happened, and then he entered onto the stage of his parents’ lives so late.
Hers was a miraculous story of true love found, and true love lost. Then, a loveless, desperate marriage, and soon the quest for a protracted divorce in 1950’s Italy, when divorce was barely possible.
And then that first true love that somehow, impossibly – impossibly for all odds against them, impossibly for 1950’s Italy – impossibly, became possible again. The stuff of film, the stuff everyone dreams of. But that is another story, it is her story to tell, not mine.
I don’t remember re-entering the living room. For me, that evening was only on the balcony with the Marchesa. At a certain point, Arrigo’s brother said, ‘Mamma, noi andiamo a cena, vieni con noi!’
But she responded, ‘Amori miei, io torno a casa adesso. Sono vecchia, e sono stanca’, ‘My dears, I am going home now. I am old, and now I am tired.’
When she had left, Arrigo nudged me, teasting, ‘Paura, eh? Paura! You’re afraid of the future mother-in-law!’
But I didn’t flinch, I responded, ‘No, she was lovely, I’m not afraid of her.’
And I winked at him.