On Easter break during my ‘semester abroad’, I went to Sicily to visit family. A couple days in, my cousin, Gianfranco, dragged me along to his friend Nino’s. Seems his wife had just birthed their first child, a son. What luck. Something to celebrate. Not much else had gone Nino’s way since graduating from architecture school.
Most of the architectural demand in their town ran to cookie-cutter apartment buildings constructed by ‘connected’ developers, which he wasn’t…‘connected’, that is. His career never got off the ground. Poor guy had to sell fruit at a fresh-air market while he resumed a languishing courtship with his pre-university girlfriend, Mariella. Between biological clocks and insistent parents, they finally married and, good news: little Massimo was the result. Bad news: they had to live with his parents in the bowels of the city.
That was the backstory I got from Gianfranco on our ride downtown. After circling for twenty minutes, we finally squeezed into a spot that required perching our passenger-side wheels on a narrow sidewalk to allow room for traffic—pedestrians be damned. Clothes lines spanned narrow streets between five-story tenements shading us with wife-beater undershirts and wide-load panties as we hoofed the last couple of blocks to Nino’s.
When we got to his building, I almost reached for a holy water font, it felt so much like a church—the gray marble floor worn from centuries of traffic, the cool damp, the muffled street sounds. But instead of the smell of beeswax and incense, I got the tenement fug of sweat, garbage and garlic. I breathed through my mouth as we mounted the stone steps, staying on the worn groove in the center and gingerly fingering the slick, wrought-iron banister for balance on the way to the fifth-floor landing.
If I let my imagination run, I could pretend we were in a medieval palazzo…which it sort of was, come to find out, when Nino ushered us into a regal, high ceilinged bedroom where his wife was propped up in a four-poster letto matrimoniale. Probably the same bed where it all started nine months ago. The bedspread, pillows, Mariella’s clothes were all white—a bookend to her wedding day. And there she was, hair just so, chin up—queen for a day.
I was impressed. She had a fancy, knitted shawl that she used to cover herself when it was time to nurse the newborn. Despite her efforts, I did catch a flash of engorged breast and dark brown nipple. Was it lack of practice or perhaps the one time, in an otherwise prudish society, when she could get away with sharing? Ha!
Nino was a blue-beard, cleft-chinned, handsome man. His wife not so much. I wondered why he hadn’t paired with a better-looking woman. But then I recalled a rumored stereotype that Italian men married plain women so when they ‘stepped out’ they wouldn’t have to worry about someone else ‘stepping in.’ But, as I looked at Mariella, there was no denying she was striking, in a glowing way. She seemed to say, ‘I worked hard to get to this moment—waiting for Nino to finish school, carrying this baby all those months. And now look, I made a son for my husband, for my family, for all of us. Aren’t I something? And now all I have to do is spend all my time raising this beautiful boy. That’s my job.’
That’s when the gramma swooped in to burp the baby and hold him in the crook of her arm for all to see. Next, she made a grand production of changing his barely dampened diaper and pausing for a dramatic moment to give one and all a good look at the fresh, new family jewels nested there. From our station behind the cookies and brandy table, I watched Nino’s father glory in his grandson’s endowment—a worthy link in the family line. On cue, we all toasted the new parents with a cin-cin.
A young woman entered the room carrying a basket of plump purple figs. She hunched her shoulders, “Scusi,” she whispered as if afraid to be intruding. She glanced quickly at Nino then to Mariella. “Posso?” she asked, seeking permission to approach Mariella.
“Si, si. Grazie,” Mariella’s mother said, accepting the fruit and setting it on the table next to the bed. Mariella nodded in thanks.
“She works with him,” Gianfranco whispered. While the woman leaned over to peek at his baby, cooing in appreciation, I found it hard to picture her stacking pyramids of oranges with Nino. More than pretty, she was gorgeous, despite her plain-Jane clothes and hair wound in a traditional, ageless bun. Why did I have the feeling that she had deliberately dressed-down for the occasion? Her porcelain complexion colored slightly as she walked toward Nino and us. She accepted a cookie from Nino’s dad and demurely munched it with arms crossed under her fulsome chest.
In the sudden gap in conversation, I could feel tension in the room. Something was going down. Mariella pretended to be smoothing lacey covers but was studying the woman. Nino was deliberately acting casual and uninterested—too much so. From where I stood, I watched the woman finish her cookie, nod politely to Mariella, walk behind Nino on the way to the door and slide her fingers below his shoulder blades. Nino’s father caught it too. His face gleamed with the same smile he had for Massimo’s parts. Mariella caught the ‘that’s my boy’ grin.
Once the door closed behind Nino’s friend, Mariella tossed a towel over the figs and shoved the basket to the back of the table. Then, all the while staring at Nino, she gathered her son, held him to her chest, and chin high, glared at her husband. People think Italians are loud and talkative, but they can also say a lot without uttering a word. And what I heard Mariella saying at that moment was, ‘There is room in this marriage for shared affection. If you insist on caring for another woman, I won’t object as long as you don’t embarrass me—us. But I can share my affection too. And Massimo here, is going to get every bit that I’m denied. Deal?’
At the time, I remember thinking that when I completed my studies and started my counseling practice, Mariella in that marriage bed would be my personal archetype for an array of family dysfunction that I’d tab—momismo.
You can imagine my surprise, some thirty-five years later, when cousin Gianfranco emailed me that Massimo was coming to Chicago with his wife and might I want to show them around. Massimo. My last memory of him was a bare butt in the air. Now, he was going to be attending a conference on Urban Planning and had an afternoon off before his flight back in the morning. Pretty thin connection. He wasn’t even family, after all. But it would be a chance to brush-up on my Italian and more importantly, the therapist in me wanted to see how he turned out so I could confirm my theories on smothering mothering. Not that I hadn’t treated enough effects of that dynamic over the years. Still, there might be a paper in here. I hadn’t published in a while.
I waited for Massimo and spouse in the Ritz Carlton lobby. I had no idea what he would look like as a grown man. But, when a couple dressed like a GQ cover stepped out of the elevator, I knew we had contact. Massimo had his father’s cleft chin and elegant, tall frame wrapped in a form-hugging, blue serge suit, slick tan shoes and carefully mussed black hair. His wife was every bit his equal in good looks and style—so much for plain-wife cuckold insurance. She was short, or rather, short-waisted, over toned legs which made you think, grounded—a sports car versus a willowy model. Her mauve business suit with cerulean-blue silk blouse and matching pumps were set off by cascading auburn hair. Together they projected a striking look…what Italians would call, bella figura. I stood and said, “Ciao, ragazzi.” It took a moment to register my greeting and decide who I must be, before Massimo hurried over with open arms and a welcoming grin. I broke out of his exuberant hug to offer my hand to the woman. She had a firm grip and held my eye with a practiced smile. “Gianna Palmeri,” she said. Why did I think—politician or real estate agent? After a moment of sizing me up, she must have decided I was all right—a warm smile spread across her face. I liked this couple and looked forward to an enjoyable afternoon and evening together.
When I suggested, half-joking, that we share a Chicago deep-dish pizza for lunch, Gianna slowly shook her head. She hadn’t come all this way for knock-off Italian food. I liked this lady more and more. So, we had Thai around a lazy discussion of Nino and Mariella. He was retired. She grandmothered three grandchildren from Massimo’s sister and brother. I chose not to broach the subject of their own family plans. But then Gianna mentioned their son, ten, back home with her mother. The way she said it made it clear they were deeply involved in their careers and not in a large family. He was working for a government housing agency with prospects for advancement. She was in regional politics.
Before long, Gianna was peppering me with my thoughts and feelings about the Me Too movement and women marches here and abroad. And, almost before I could respond, she was onto Italian women’s sympathetic responses and the universality of misogyny…and…and…and. The more I watched Gianna hold forth, the more I saw a CNN host. In this case with a slight accent to go along with crisp, incisive commentary and flashing hazel eyes. Massimo sat back and smiled throughout. He was comfortable with his opinionated, assertive wife. In fact, he seemed downright pleased.
Was he just an outlier? Where had this attitude of wife as bread-winner, not just bread-maker, come from in just one generation? Did the hovering mothering he would have experienced make him so secure that he could challenge the ways of his fathers? Or had he felt so suffocated with unconditional cherishing that he sought a partner who would cosset less—caring but not doting?
Earlier, I had asked my wife, Ellie, if she wanted to meet these folks, have them over for dinner. She hesitated, not knowing Italian. But I assured her I could translate and guessed that one or both might know some English. Then it was a question of food. She was concerned about cooking Italian food to their standards. After a moment’s reflection, I told her to make my favorite, and her best, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. Just be us, I told her.
They gratefully accepted my invitation for a traditional American meal and were eager to fill the afternoon exploring the Miracle Mile and strolling along North Beach. Massimo dipped a finger in Lake Michigan and asked if he could drink it, accustomed as he was to the salty Mediterranean. Both were fascinated by a resale record store and bought enough LPs to need another suitcase for the flight home.
Dinner was a success. Ellie, hit it off with Gianna who spoke adequate English. Actually, both of them had a command of the English language far better than my catch-phrase Italian. So, we babbled along with compare-and-contrast of life here and abroad. But as the meal progressed, Gianna became less and less animated. Over brownies and ice cream, Ellie noticed that our guest was slightly flushed and glassy-eyed. “Are you okay, dear?” she asked.
Before she could answer, Ellie had her palm on Gianna’s forehead. “She’s got a fever.” While we were registering the implications for lodging and travel, Ellie disappeared and returned shaking an old-fashioned, glass thermometer.
“No, no. It’s nothing,” Gianna objected, palms out, before clenching her mouth shut.
“Don’t be silly. We need to know how bad this is. Now open your mouth,” she demanded while opening her own mouth as if demonstrating to a child.
Gianna dropped her jaw, as much in surprise as compliance, and Ellie shoved the thermometer under her tongue. I finished my dessert before the ice cream melted, Massimo following my lead.
“102,” Ellie announced. “You’re going straight to bed.”
“But, we have our room…” Massimo began.
“So do we. Our daughter’s bed is all made-up and ready to go. Besides, who’s going to take care of her in a hotel…room service?”
“My things…” Gianna faltered.
“For now, you can use one of my nightgowns and I’ll get you snugged in.”
“They have a flight in the morning,” I explained.
Ellie lowered her chin, “This lady is not going on any eight-hour flight with this kind of fever. So, forget that, Rich. Let’s give her some aspirin and a good night’s sleep and see in the morning. We’re only a half hour from O’Hare and can drop them off if she’s feeling better. In the meantime, you and Massimo can get their luggage and check out.”
I looked at Massimo who raised his eyebrows and waggled his hand in a classic, ‘mamma Mia’ gesture. I took it as praise for Ellie’s take-charge moves. We both watched his in-your-face wife being meekly and gratefully lead to the downstairs bedroom like a sick child, complete with rounded shoulders and ‘poor me’ sniffles.
Massimo and I shared a comfortable silence as we cruised down the Dan Ryan. Finally, he chuckled and remarked, “Your wife. She is a mother, no?”
“Oh, yeah,” I replied. “And sometimes I know to get out of her way.” Massimo patted my knee, “d’accordo.” We were connecting, Massimo and me.
I circled the block while he went to their room, packed their things and checked out. On the way back, we stopped for a beer at Maro’s, my go-to pub. Nice place. Not a lot of noise. Just a few regulars and a ball game over the bar. You could talk there. So we talked. Or rather I pumped him.
“How do your wife and mother get along?”
“Is okay…now. At first, Gianna has to learn my mother’s favorite food for me. But we are busy. Don’t cook much.” He flicked his hand in a ‘what-can-you-do’ gesture. “I eat my mother’s food all my life now we go once a month for Sunday dinner.” He rocks with a suppressed chuckle. “That satisfies my nostalgia for home cooking.”
“That’s it?” I asked, “just food?”
He smiled sheepishly, “Well, there was underwear too. My mother, she want Gianna to buy my socks and shorts at a certain store. We laugh all the way home.”
“I’m curious,” I continued. “You seem so well-adjusted.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I have my own theories about Italian men and their overweening mothers.” Massimo, circled his beer glass in the condensation puddle on the table. Perhaps I had gone too far.
He looked up, challenge in his eyes. “Maybe you think about men from when I was a baby. We are not all the same to women. Men have to give space. Take a chance.”
I nodded my head, concurring. “But then, you can get hurt.”
Massimo studied my face, reading me, as though I had revealed a pain. Well, what if I had. A counselor has to unload sometimes, too. And if not to a guy he hasn’t seen in years and probably never will again, who can he confide in?
He looked away. “Succede.”
“Yeah, shit happens.”
He tipped his glass toward me. We clinked. The kid is wise for his age. We had one more beer. He got into peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor. Then we drove home in silent companionship.
Next morning, Gianna still had a mild fever but was definitely on the mend so Massimo arranged for a late afternoon flight. After breakfast, Ellie and Gianna sat in our glassed-in porch and looked out on the extensive garden Ellie maintained. A cup of tea in one hand and a flower catalogue in the other, Gianna listened to Ellie carrying on about her hot house and her seedlings and favorite plants and how best to graft roses.
I went to my study for twenty minutes. Checked emails. Made a couple of calls. When I came back, I paused outside the door when I heard Ellie holding forth in an aggrieved tone. I felt like a counselor-in-training observing a staged session. Only in this case, I was the subject of the discussion.
“So, I’ve been working with plants all my life. Ever since I was a kid helping my gramma put coffee grounds around rose bushes…”
“That is good for them?”
“Uh-huh. It acts like compost, amends the soil.”
“And they wake-up from all the coffee,” Gianna giggled at her joke. She was feeling better.
Ellie went on. “I worked in a plant nursey during high school and later worked full time once Lorie and Tom were in school. I love plants and even got my master gardener certificate.”
“Bravo!” Gianna said.
“Yeah, but in the middle of all that, Rich, has to butt in.”
“I don’t understand, butt in.”
Ellie sighed. “Look. Flowers and gardening is my thing. I can share. He helps me with the heavy stuff like the compost pit.”
“Compost? I don’t know this.”
“Doesn’t matter, what I’m getting at, is he has to compete with me. He just can’t let me have my own thing. Somehow, he needs to show me up, that he can do better than me. I studied hard to get my Master Gardener’s certificate and I volunteer at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. But what does he do? He goes and gets a degree in landscape design.”
Well, this is strange, to be the third party to your own dissection. I’m torn between wanting to barge in and defend myself and hearing the rest of Ellie’s complaint.
“Uhm, let me use an example,” she says. “I know. Say your mother does something really well. Not just the usual mother stuff. Say, she is really good at making pastries.”
“My mother, yes, everyone love her cannoli and biscotti.”
“Exactly. So, what if your father starts making cannoli too and his own kind of biscotti?”
I wait for Gianna’s response. “That’s what butt in mean.”
“Yep,” Ellie says, “you got it. Look, you’ve got a couple of hours, why don’t you just rest. I’ll call you for lunch. Something light. Grilled cheese and chicken soup maybe?”
Well, damn. I go back to my office. Check receivables. Over lunch, Gianna looks fully recovered, if a little wan. I wonder if it’s my imagination that she catches my eye more than once in critical appraisal. Am I going to be an American male archetype for her?