Here in Italy, news on paper or TV is scaring us with apocalyptic predictions for next Autumn. No Russian Gas to heat our homes, water rationing, skyrocketing fuel prices, and our economy is going back decades. As I live in Rome, how can I not add to this ominous picture the garbage? Waste and rubbish go happily arm in arm and have changed our world.
That’s why lately, everyday life challenges have brought me memories of my grandmother Modestina. Her name was her omen: Modestina means modest, humble, and my grandmother certainly was. She was born in 1905, so she lived through two world wars, the Spanish flu in 1918-1920, a lot of childbirths and too many deaths. When my grandparents met and married, my grandfather Giovanni was a handsome young widower with two infirm daughters who needed a wife. Someone told him about my grandmother, describing her as a sound, godly spinster living in Filignano, Molise; at that time, you were a spinster just after your twentieth.
Every time I take home groceries, after putting them away, I have a bin full of wrappings that most times weren’t even necessary. It doesn’t make much sense to compare life today with life so many years ago. Everything was genuinely different. However, I certainly remember Nonna Modestina did not throw anything away. I think life had scarred her. The dread of having to live again, what she had already faced, cancelled some words and actions from life.
Whatever piece of paper entered her home was put to serve. If it was decently clean and soft, it served as toilet paper. If it was dirty, it was good to light the fire. If it was from a magazine, it went to line the drawers or the cupboard shelves.
Not every home had a washing machine in Italy then and for many decades. Granny hand-washed whites and clothes all her life. No liquid soap, a piece of Marseille soap. In the bathroom, there was a jar where she put the tiny unusable pieces of soap. When the jar was filled, she placed the chips in an old battered and burnt aluminium pan. First, she let the concoction bubble on the fire to dissolve the pieces of soap. Then like a benevolent witch, she added some mysterious ingredients and, finally, when it had cooled down, she started modelling out pieces of soap of the right size for her long elegant hands worn out by work and ageing. I like to think she uses those hands to play the piano in another life.
Food wastes went to the farmyard animals, kept near the orchard in one of grandfather’s junk cars. What didn’t suit the chicken and rabbits was fertilising for the vegetables. I can still smell the celery she grew; it had a unique scent I continue to look for. I even tried unsuccessfully to grow celery on my terrace, testing different varieties of plants. I think it has something to do with senses and memory. It has been up to now an unrepeatable sensorial experience.
Sometimes she let me help her dig out the potatoes, but I had to be very careful because she got angry if I split a potato with the hoe. Those were the only times I saw her lose her infinite patience.
She was also a master mender. Her clothes were always clean and tidy, but if you looked up close, you could guess spots where she had spent time closing a hole or a tear. After many years of usage, new clothes became working clothes, and after that, patches to mend working clothes, and I can’t be sure, but I think she has never thrown a garment in a bin.
She inspired ten years old me to create my cookware. Empty sardine cans became my frying pans; tuna and tomato cans were my bigger pots.
Nonna Modestina didn’t know how to play, but she taught me how to make a doll with a handkerchief.
© Photo copyright Patrizia Verrecchia. All rights reserved.
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