Then, when she returns briefly to Italy to attend her mother’s funeral, Martina discovers that she may have been born left-handed but was trained to be right-handed. Back in New York, struggling with this new revelation, this possible suppression of an identity, she meets a high-culture Italian official who tempts her to return to Italy with a prestigious job offer. While weighing her options, she quite unexpectedly meets up again with her first great love, a man she has not seen in more than twenty years.
Just as in Duranti’s internationally acclaimed best-selling The House on Moon Lake, the question of destiny is at the heart of Left-Handed Dreams. Can Martina resist the urge to treat life as a puzzle that she can somehow deconstruct and solve? Indeed, by the end of this taut and resonant novel, this expatriate must learn the essence of “naturalezza,” an Italian word that means “a way of being, of feeling without always being aware of one’s being.” Her story, infused with all the luscious food she prepares and enjoys with the men who come into her life, makes this a delectable, provocative read.
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About the Author
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By Francesca Duranti
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Francesca Duranti
All rights reserved.
They say she died at seven-thirty in the morning, just as my plane was landing at Leonardo da Vinci. The pilot had circled over Rome for almost an hour trying to find his way in the autumn storm that was raging over the city. Eventually he made his way through the clouds and let the plane drop like a stone in a well. When the wheels touched the runway I let go of the armrests and looked at my watch: seven-thirty, exactly.
I could put together a lecture for you students from all this, beginning just at that point, because more than once, in the days that followed, I thought about my arriving the moment she was departing, puzzled by some mesmerizing although indecipherable implication of destiny's perfect timing.
Let's begin there, from my landing at Leonardo da Vinci, after my sister Carmelina's urgent call.
Racing along the endless people-movers in the airport terminal, I barely made it to the connecting DC-8 that took me on a bumpy climb back over the storm clouds. Thirty-five minutes to fly to Pisa, another thirty-five for a taxi to take me to Nugola Vecchia, where my mother was already laid out in her black dress, her hands folded over her missal, her face shiny smooth, her nostrils transparent like one of the wax saints in the churches of our native Lucania.
Carmelina stood by the coffin, she too dressed in black, flanked by her husband and her two sisters-in-law. The four of them were stiff and solemn, like carabinieri standing guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She stepped forward and embraced me, her chest heaving with sighs of disapproval.
"She asked about you right till the last she hoped to see you just once more," she said.
"I hoped the same," I replied.
My sister Carmelina—Milly now—speaks with a strained Tuscan accent that in nature doesn't exist. She aspirates her Cs so hard that she's had to be operated on twice for polyps on her vocal chords. Out of respect for our Lucania, I make an effort when I'm talking to her to bring back an echo of our native accent, as unnatural as hers by now.
My sister was born when our family had already moved to Nugola. She married a dentist and now lives in Livorno. She's lost touch with the past. She doesn't know anything about Lucania, because she hasn't been back to the South except for a few Christmases many years ago. Though I'm older, I can't remember those visits very clearly either. But it's as if she had never even breathed that special air that my parents had brought with them from Lucania and that permeated our house. It wasn't just the southern accent that they both retained until they died, it was more the Christmas and Easter customs, the food, certain kitchen utensils, the way bread and preserves were made.
What never came up were facts about the past. One in particular I would need a few hours after my mother's death, one only she could provide. That's why I find that whim of fate so puzzlingly meaningful: why let me get there just as she departed, she who had probably been the start of it all?CHAPTER 2
The coffin had been set up in the dining room. There was a humble smell of cleanliness—furniture polish, laundry soap, floor wax. The shutters were closed in mourning, but the sounds of traffic from the highway in the valley below could be heard through the open windows. People came, mostly Carmelina's friends, who embraced us, stood a moment before the coffin, and then left. "She looks as if she were sleeping," they all said. It wasn't true, fortunately. Mamma's face had the beauty and incomparable dignity of death, as was proper. I once went to a funeral parlor in New York to pay my respects to an old colleague's dead wife. I remember that when I saw her so tarted-up I couldn't help thinking that poor Mrs. Garrison looked as if she were about to step out of her coffin and go hit the streets. Looking at my beautiful mamma, I thanked heaven that my country hadn't yet adopted the American practice of putting makeup on the dead.
The wreaths began to arrive and soon converted the clean smell of the house into something stagnant and sickly sweet. I let myself be embraced by many callers I didn't know until I couldn't stand it.
"I'm going out to stretch my legs," I finally said to Carmelina. Then I added, "I've been in a plane all night," but she shrugged her shoulders without a word to forgive my desertion.
I hadn't been to Nugola Vecchia in years. Usually my mother came to see me in America. Whenever I went over to spend Christmas in Tuscany, we would all go to my sister's in Livorno. And the few times I went to Italy on summer holidays we would rent a house together a few kilometers south, along the rocky coast of Castiglioncello. Although Nugola, where I was raised and where my sister was born, is only a half-hour drive from either Livorno or Castiglioncello, I hadn't made the trip back in a very long time.
It was unrecognizable, defaced by an ugly bunch of houses that had been built on the hill called Poggio di Mezzo, the Treasure Island of my childhood. Back then it had been only a huge sand dune covered with dense woods of oaks and hornbeam, and here and there a few pines, holm oaks, laurels and arbutus that kept their green leaves all winter. That's what I miss in Central Park, so bleak from Thanksgiving till spring.
Students, I'm talking about over thirty years ago. I know how you figure time at your age. Thirty years for you is like a tunnel dug into the past where one gets immediately lost in a darkness of immeasurable length. And I actually had the same feeling myself as I tried to remember the dune as it had been—a perfect dome covered with trees, with a chunk missing on the north side where they once used to excavate sand.
On that yellow, creamy slope, the bee-eaters had dug their nests and would come back every year in April, bringing with them the enchantment of their brilliant tropical coloring. Their churring could be heard from afar. One morning in spring I'd wake up and hear them coming back.
There was another small area, right on the hilltop, where trees and bushes didn't grow. Perfectly round, it was carpeted with blackish moss forming a magic circle—perhaps the site of a charcoal cone long ago—surrounded by a dense Mediterranean thicket. That was the Elephants' Ballroom.
Every day I would go to my Treasure Island. Beneath the tangle of heather, I would find mushrooms, which my mother would dry and sell, and wild asparagus. I would pick arbutus berries for my father to make illegal grappa, or look for other treasures, like sharp white—and black—ringed hedgehog quills, thirty to thirty-five centimeters long, or fossil shells millions of years old, going back to a time when Nugola was covered by the sea.
All this had now disappeared. I walked across the village from one end to the other, as far as the cemetery, and back again to what once had been Poggio di Mezzo. The dune had been leveled and squared off, the Elephants' Ballroom no longer recognizable. Which one of the parking lots occupied the area that used to be carpeted with blackish moss? I didn't have a point of reference because all the trees had been ripped out and replaced mostly by cement, or by straggly hedges of an obnoxious blue evergreen, or by even more incongruous forsythia bushes at the entrance of the desolate condos. There was an unbelievably ugly pizzeria where the sand pit used to be, and not a sign of the bee-eaters.
I stayed on in Nugola for two days, putting my mother's things away or wandering aimlessly about the countryside. The village had become a squalid suburb. The farmers from Lucania, who came north soon after us, had now left or died. Others from the South and those few genuine Tuscans who hadn't been citified before our arrival were all changed, like my hill, Poggio di Mezzo. When Carmelina came over to help me pack our mother's things, or when we spoke on the phone, I tried to remind her of the Elephants' Ballroom, the mushrooms, the bee-eaters. But I understood perfectly that she only pretended to remember, not to disappoint me by admitting that her memory and mine had selected our recollections in opposite ways, erasing what we had in common and turning us into strangers. I've already mentioned her forced, overdone Tuscan accent that de-southerned her. But then, with the death of our mother, even the memory of Nugola, where we had been poor farmers, had become a cumbersome link to a past she no longer needed. I realized that from then on, family to her meant the tribe of her husband's blondish sisters. So enthusiastically had she been mingling with them year after year that even her alien dark eyes and hair had blended in, become domesticated. That's how she is. Some people have to forget in order to move on—like some Italian-Americans who can't speak the language of their forebears, and who name their children Dexter, Savile, Sean, Kenneth.
My eyes will always be black and my hair will go grey but never yellow. I was a year old when we left Potenza—and yet I don't feel I'd be myself without the memories of Lucania that my mother passed on to me. Then there are the memories of Tuscany, the Tuscan colors of Treasure Island, the cafeteria at the Stanic refinery, the sea cliffs of Calafuria, the University of Pisa, and lastly the memories of New York when I had just arrived—when helicopters used to land on the roof of the Pan Am Building and the gays were holding their first big demonstrations in Central Park. They are fragments that form a system, a language I talk to myself in. A language without words, if it's true that words are used to share one's thoughts with other people. Mr. Ceccarelli, the manager of the Stanic cafeteria, and Dr. Paoletti, the retired director, possess some scattered fragments of this language, but so few that when they utter them they sound like a scratched record, stuck for eternity on the same notes.CHAPTER 3
They were both at the cemetery, Mr. Ceccarelli and Dr. Paoletti, but with so many people there, I didn't have the time to talk to them as I would have liked.
So the next day, driving my mother's old Fiat, I went to Stagno to visit Mr. Ceccarelli, who had given me work in the cafeteria from the day my father died until I went back to school. He was older and more deaf.
"How's America?" he asked.
"So-so," I answered. Every time I go to see him, he asks the same question and I give him the same answer. He emerged from his kitchen, drying his hands on a white tea towel, and we went to sit at a table in the empty cafeteria.
"Is your work going well?" I asked.
"I'm satisfied," he said. "I have two Filipino girls now who do what you and your mother did. They're slow but very thorough. And you? When will you be returning to Italy?"
"To do what?"
"What you do there. Don't we have universities in this country? Haven't you been away from home long enough?" Even this was part of the script, like the last thing he said as I was leaving: "Have you been to see Dr. Paoletti?"
"I'm on my way there now."
Dr. Paoletti, for thirty years the executive director of the Stanic oil refinery and now retired, had been in his day a fanatic of haute cuisine. Unmarried and perhaps a homosexual, he had a house all draped in velvet and paved with marble; he held legendary dinner parties there for his friends. It was he who made it possible for me to go back to high school and later to university, paying my tuition fees, buying my books and, at Mr. Ceccarelli's suggestion, offering to take me on as his personal chef de rang. The work was fun for me and didn't interfere with my classes.
He still lived in town in the same eighteenth-century house with a dock on the canal and a great arched carriage entrance framed in pietra serena. It took me a half hour to drive through the beastly traffic from Stagno to Livorno, and another half hour to find a parking space. I walked up the D'Azeglio wharves for a hundred meters and thus fulfilled my pilgrimage of gratitude.
"Have you been to see Mr. Ceccarelli?" he asked.
"I've just come from there."
"I don't give dinner parties anymore. My few friends who aren't dead have problems with triglycerides, or cholesterol, or diabetes, or high blood pressure. I'm all right but everything tastes the same to me. How ironic: I cultivated the love of good food as one of the very few vices I could still enjoy in my old age. Mr. Ceccarelli sends one of his girls over every so often; they bring me small meals to put in the freezer. But not one of them is as intelligent as you were." That too is something he repeats every time. He had shrunk to a mere shadow. His voice too had changed.
"Maybe it's because I'm old and don't really desire anything anymore, but I think I'll never be keen on helping young people—male or female—get on with their studies. These days too many of them go to college anyway. The dumbest jackasses get a degree and then don't know what to do with it." That's what he told me and I'm afraid he was right. Then he added, "But you were something else. It was worth it, and you've proved that."
Before leaving, I dashed down to buy the ingredients I needed to prepare him a perfect risotto alla milanese—with beef marrow, onion, saffron, butter, parsley and lemon zest—cooked to just the right creaminess. I set the little table he always uses now, since he eats alone; but I moved it to the window, facing toward the sunset on the sea. The day was clear and the island of Gorgona was visible on the horizon. I used his splendid silver, his family crystal and china. I arranged the yellow roses I had bought in a Limoges vase. I sat him at the table and kissed him good-bye.
"You'll see, you'll enjoy this," I said, but I didn't believe it myself. I walked along the canal, thinking that maybe the next time I came to Italy Dr. Paoletti wouldn't be around anymore.
I stayed on for two days in those desolate rooms that had been my mother's home. It wasn't the farm house I had been brought up in; this was smaller, modern and dull. She had moved her things and herself there without much enthusiasm. The preserves she had continued to put up every summer were loaded into the Fiat and taken directly up to the eleventh floor of an anonymous high-rise apartment building in the city where my sister lived. There they stood, incongruously lined up on the shelves of her Scavolini kitchen in purple Formica: the sun-dried tomatoes, the bottle of olive oil with garlic cloves and hot peppers, the aubergine marinade, the pickled red onions.
In Mamma's house everything was clean and in perfect order, and yet those four rooms seemed never to have been lived in. I thought that perhaps my mother hadn't lived anywhere for years, from the time I had left for America and my sister had married. From that time her heart was not with her anymore, but half with me and half with Carmelina and her children.
I didn't even unpack the small bag I had brought with me. It was there sitting on a chair, as if I were staying in a hotel. From the window I couldn't see the country I remembered, but only the dismal suburbs that were gradually cementing together the beautiful old Tuscan cities and villages. I missed my New York apartment. I even missed all of you. I missed the Machine that was waiting for me on its cart next to my bed.
There was nothing left for me to do in Nugola. I had arrived too late to hold my mother's hand while she was dying. It was too late for everything. I called Alitalia to change to an earlier flight to New York.
Some play solitaire; for years I've played bridge by myself, every morning before going to work. I deal out the cards and play all the four players' hands, forcing each one not to remember his partner's or the opponents' cards.
The evening of the funeral, as I wandered unhappily from one room to another, I remembered I hadn't brought cards for my solitary morning bridge game. So before going to bed I went out to buy a deck at the local caffé.
That too had changed for the worse: plastic everywhere; new, indifferent owners; no one playing tresette at the tables. Only one thing was the same as in the old days: the cards they sold were not the bridge cards I always use, but the narrow ones they use to play tresette, made of cheap coated paper with grey backs. The numbers were not marked at the four corners, but just at the upper left and lower right.
Excerpted from Left-Handed Dreams by Francesca Duranti. Copyright © 2000 Francesca Duranti. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSaturday: Risotto alla Milanese,
Tuesday: Lobster Armoricaine,
Wednesday: Salmon en Papier,
Thursday: Artichokes alla Giudia,
Porcini and Potatoes,
Sunday: Rhubarb Sorbet,
Monday: Gateau des Adieux,
MARTINA'S TÊTE-À-TÊTE COOKBOOK,