Italy saved my life.
I first arrived there in the summer of 1969, 14 years old and thousands of miles removed from the streets of my New York City neighborhood. I left behind parents waging a futile battle against a crumbling marriage and a jagged mountain of debt and my closest friends beginning their surrender to the allure of drugs and a life of petty crime and one-way jobs that always follow in their wake.
I didn’t know what I would find in Italy but knew, even at such a young age, that whatever it was it couldn’t be much worse than what I was leaving behind. We lived in a four-room 10th Avenue tenement railroad apartment whose windows cracked and froze during long winter nights and were incapable of capturing even a slight breeze across many a brutal August summer. The night before my flight was to leave for Rome I sat with my mother on the stoop of our building, each of us cooling off with a Puerto Rican shaved ice cone. “You sure you want me to go?” I asked, speaking in Italian since my mother stubbornly refused to learn English, her one rebellious act against an American family and a way of life that for her amounted to little more than a prison sentence.
She nodded and then pointed to the street and the apartment buildings and clusters of neighborhood people milling about doing their best to escape the summer heat. “Do you want this to be the rest of your life?” she asked. “If you do, then stay and your father can find other uses for the money. But if this isn’t want you want, then get on that plane and go to Italy.”
“What’s there that’s not here?” I asked.
“You tell me that when you come back,” my mother said.
She stood and walked slowly back up the steps and into the hallway of our building. I finished the rest of my ice in silence.
My Italian journey was divided into two parts. I was to first travel to Northern Italy, to Florence, and stay with relatives for three weeks. From there, I was to head south, for the long trip by bus, train and boat to the island of Ischia where the bulk of my mother’s family lived and where my bloodlines began.
In Florence I met aunts, uncles and cousins who treated me with great affection, accepting me at first sight as a member of the family. I was teased about my “New York Italian” and put into the care of a five-year old cousin who through giggles and hearty laughter helped navigate my way to speak Italian as it was meant to be spoken. I met two uncles who had each been prisoners of war, helped one another survive, lost touch for nearly fifteen years and then re-connected when both, by magical coincidence, ended up marrying two of my mother’s sisters.
And it was in Florence that I first met Michelangelo.
My cousin Paolo, on a quick stop-over in Florence on his way to Ischia, gave me a book, in English, about the man Italians for centuries respectfully called “The Divine One.” I read through that book in one night. The massive scope of the work Michelangelo produced over the course of a long life was probably lost on me during that first reading. It was the life behind the work that caught my attention. Michelangelo’s father was often in debt and would usually turn to his son for help out of his financial troubles. It was a pattern my own father had already begun to establish with me and one which would only grow in volume as I grew older. Other members of Michelangelo’s family, either due to jealousy or simply a need to live off the merits of another, also took financial advantage. Again, it was a pattern I would see repeated over and over in New York between my parents and relatives who came knocking for money even when we had so little to spare, knowing we would never, ever see the loan repaid.
That next morning, I walked into what would become my favorite sanctuary in the world—the magnificent church at Santa Croce. Within its massive and impressive walls, a ceiling that to my eyes seemed high enough to touch sky, were buried many of the most renowned and revered men of the Renaissance—from Dante to Galileo to Machiavelli to Rossini. But the tomb that caught my eye was the first one on the right, just off the entrance.
The tomb of Michelangelo.
I stared at in silence, ignoring the tourists milling around me trying to secretly snap a series of photos, my Uncle Neri standing several feet behind, allowing me the luxury of time.
I don’t know what it was about that morning standing there in front of a sculpted tomb sealing in its grip the body of a mortal who spent a lifetime doing the work of an immortal. All I knew at that moment is I had found both a place in Santa Croce and a man in Michelangelo that I could embrace and call my own. A place where I would find comfort and solace and an escape from the difficulties I knew I would need to confront over many a decade.
And across those years and through many a rough patch of ocean, it was reading about or seeing the works of Michelangelo and visiting that very special church in Piazza Santa Croce that helped me navigate those turbulent waters.
After Florence, I ventured south to the island of Ischia, 18 miles off the coast of Naples, to spend the rest of the summer surrounded by the warmth and love of my mother’s family. There was one among the many whose loving embrace I was quick to accept who had, along with Michelangelo, the most profound affect on me. She was a short, stout woman with thick hair the color of a cloud, brown eyes that sparkled and a gap-tooth smile she only gave to those she most loved.
She was my Grandma Maria.
Grandma Maria always wore black and had from the day my Grandpa Gabriel gave in to a long and fruitless battle to cancer, three months before I was born. She was a woman of few words, hated gossip of any kind and never told anyone of her problems. She had survived a brutal war, ventured to Naples every day during those long, dark years to buy what she could in the black market to feed a family of six and loved my Grandpa Gabriel from the first moment they touched eyes. She always had a pocket full of candy and a pot of coffee brewing on her small stove. She lived in a two-story white stone house a short walk from a pristine beach she never visited.
She had nothing in common with Michelangelo yet the two combined, in that memorable summer of 1969, to help direct my life to a more positive path. Michelangelo did it through his life and his work. Grandma Maria did it by the way she lived her life and the stories she told. Those stories were always shared over cups of hot Italian coffee, drunk the way Grandma Maria prepared it—two sugars, one small piece of chocolate and a splash of Stock 84, an Italian brandy—sitting at the large wooden table in the center of her living room. The house was neat and sparsely furnished and there were only two photos on the walls, across from one another. The photos were large and wrapped in thick ornate wooden frames. One I knew was of my Grandpa Gabriel. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a thin moustache and thinning hair highlighting a handsome face. He was a shepherd by profession and was still much beloved in the port area of Ischia, decades after his death. He was a man generous of spirit and quick to laugh. My mother had once told me of the time he gave away all the summer clothes Grandma Maria had stored to the poor residents spread out across the mountain region of the island. My mother and her sister Nancy were the first to discover that other young girls were wearing their dresses and went to see Grandma Maria about it. She listened and shrugged. “Your father said we can buy new dresses but they can’t,” Grandma Maria told them. “Simple as that.”
It was the other framed photo that caught my eye. It was that of a handsome young man, thick and rich dark hair combed back in the Hemingway style, eyes filled with energy and life. I didn’t ask about him at first, allowing myself time to get to know and love the old woman who sat across from me.
Then, one day I did. Grandma Maria sipped her coffee and turned to stare at the photo for a few moments and then looked back at me. She folded her thick, wrinkled hands and sat straight up in a hard-back chair. “I was in the hospital in Naples, giving birth to my last child, Joseph,” she began. Her voice was, as always, warm and soft as if it were coated with syrup. “When it came time for a few of us to leave, the nuns were preparing the babies to go home. Your grandfather stood watching them from behind a glass partition. He glanced over and saw one baby alone and off to the side. He turned to a nun standing next to him and asked, ‘Is that child sick?’ The nun shook her head. ‘E figlio di nessuno,’ she told him. He had been abandoned. Your grandfather asked what happens to him now? The nun told him he would be sent to the orphanage where he would be raised unless someone adopted him.
“Your grandfather stayed quiet for a few moments and then turned to the nun. ‘Can we take him?’ he asked. ‘He will be our son.’ The nun knew us and, even better, knew your grandfather and the type of man he was. The nun smiled and went to get the forms which he signed and handed back.”
“He come to talk to you about it?” I asked.
“No,” Grandma Maria said with that special smile that’s kept only for the warmest of memories. “I was getting dressed when a young nun came into the room holding two babies in her arms. Your grandfather was behind her. He looked at me and nodded and smiled. I came to Naples to give birth to one son and went home with two. We named the boy John and while we never favor one child over another, it was clear your grandfather adored the boy. John was special, caring, good heart, a happy boy and a hard worker. He often got up at dawn with your grandfather and together they would go off to tend to the flock while your mother and aunts helped me run the grocery store. That was their special time together.”
“What happened to him?”
“The war,” Grandma Maria said, quick to lose the smile. “He went into the Navy, was assigned to submarine duty. A British destroyer dept-charged his submarine and he died just weeks before his 20th birthday.”
I fought back tears and watched as Grandma Maria turned and prepared two more cups of her special scalding brew for us to drink. “Your grandfather was home, up on a ladder, fixing one of the outside lights when he saw the car pull up. They had come to tell us that our son was dead, to say they were sorry he died in a war he did not start, to give us a flag to remember him by. Your grandfather didn’t move from that ladder. ‘Keep your flag and get back in your car,’ he told them. ‘I didn’t ask for your war. I want what you took from me. I want my son. Can you give me my son?’ The young officer shook his head no. He got back in the car and they drove away. It would be another 11 years before cancer killed your grandfather. But in my heart, I always believe he died on that day.”
I went back to Ischia and Florence every summer until 1975 to spend time with both Michelangelo in Florence and Grandma Maria in Ischia. I went there as a boy and came back home taking tiny steps toward becoming a man. They both helped pave my way, make a difficult journey easier, their company always welcomed and often desperately needed. I have learned so much from both and when I have had failings in my life, as so often has happened I always feel guilt over having disappointed them.
One was a genius whom I never met but feel as though he is as close to me as an old, doting uncle.
The other was a stubborn, loving woman who gave me her heart. I still remember all her stories, the funny and the sad and my time spent with her still lives deep within me. I spent my summers in that stone house until that August day in 1975 when Grandma Maria took her last breath. She lay on a cot under the framed photo of the man she loved, her thick left hand wrapped around the fingers of my right. She was surrounded by family and friends, dying in proper company.
In the decades since, I have visited Italy often. America may be where I make my home and where my wife and children live. But Italy is where I belong, where my most memorable memories are stored and where the two people who helped save my life rest in their well-earned peace.
My friend Michelangelo, a giant of the Renaissance.
My Grandma Maria, a woman who both loved me and showed me how to love.
In my mind and in my heart, they live side by side.