back to Italy
I will never know why, because I never asked, but in 1963 we came back to Italy.
Again, we separated from my father who stayed in Manchester England. My mother, my sister and I went to live in the quaint little village in Molise where both my father and mother were born and where my grandparents still lived. I could not speak a word of Italian, but I think I still understood it. The first of October was the date the Italian school year began. No uniforms in Italian State Schools, boys and girls wore overalls with a white stiff collar and a ribbon tie. Since then, many things have changed: Today only primary school kids still wear i grembiulini, and in 1977 the notorious school opening day was brought forward to mid-September. My school had black overalls and the ribbon was red. I was in the 5th and last year of Elementary School equivalent to English year 6.
My age helped me absorb the cultural shock.
My new teacher was Don Celeste. Looking back at it today, what a nice name for a teacher. Don is not a title; it has to do with earned respect in a community. Nothing to do with the mafia either. Celeste means the lightest blue in the sky. Don Celeste was near retirement age he was 60 years old, a short, chubby, and pensive man. Always with books and sheets of paper falling from his briefcase. He was from the most respected and educated family of the village, and at that time he had been the mayor of Filignano practically for all his life. I was in a class of twelve, with eleven boys, most of them were a year or two older than me. Boys who after school helped their family in the fields or lead to pasture the family herd of sheep and goats. They were young men more than boys.
That was one of the reasons why our teacher put me in one row of desks all by myself and all the boys in the other. I did not know then that it also was the first time that classes in Italy were mixed by gender. I can imagine today, how difficult it must have been for a senior teacher like Don Celeste to adapt, he had probably only taught boys for all his life and now he had in his class for the first time, a sole little shy girl that did not even speak a word of Italian. I think classes with both boys and girls were established in Italy that year or the year before.
During that year I built two lifelong memories. One November morning I was woken up by the voices of the women chatting from one window to the other. We lived in public housing of eight flats that had been built after WWII to house the families that had lost their homes during the war.
In the summertime, it was customary for the women to say good morning, and have a chat, if they happened to open the window at the same moment early in the morning, but it hit me as very unusual that day, in November when the cold weather already held a grip on the hilltop village. “Yes! it’s true!”…..the radio“ “I can’t believe it” was what I heard still laying in my bed. It was the 23rd November 1963, the news of JFK’s assassination had reached a little village of the Italian Southern Apennines.
We didn’t have a television, like many others in the building and in Italy. No television, no newspapers, the radio was the only connection with the world. That’s why it took the news some time to arrive.
I can still feel the atmosphere of that day. There was a very particular silence walking to school. The adults we met, spoke in a low voice as if they were sharing a secret. Nobody seemed to think that we, the children, should be informed. I had understood what had happened because my mother always had gossip magazines around the house that she shared with her friend. They took turns buying them to save money, and John Kennedy and Jacqueline were always on the front pages. My mother told my sister and me stories about the couple as if they were the royal family.
At school, for the first and only time I can remember, I didn’t find my teacher Don Celeste in the classroom. The boys started playing around, fighting, teasing each other, and staging the terrible news by miming the shooting as if it were a cowboy movie. After what I felt was a very long time, Don Celeste rushed in without saying a word. He put down, on the desk, his briefcase and the radio he held in his arms. He plugged the radio in the electric socket and finally looked at us with the angriest look as if we were JFK’s killers. We were all still standing up, as we did every time an adult entered the classroom: “Now sit down and I don’t want to hear a word till it’s time to go home” and that is what we did. We sat there all morning looking at the teacher that sat at his desk in front of us, with his ear close to the radio listening to the news. When the school bell rang, he looked at us for the second time that day and said “Go home.”
They say everybody remembers what they were doing when they got the news of JFK’s death. I was 10 years old, and I remember it as if it were today.
….to be continued
© Photo copyright Patrizia Verrecchia. All rights reserved
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