Elizabeth S. GriffinTrieste, Italy
pass the cemetery every time we enter and exit Piccione (the name means Pigeon in English). The town of a few hundred inhabitants is down the way from Colombella (Dove). The cemetery angles up a small hillside covering about an acre in all and sits along a stretch of asphalt that has become increasingly industrialized. Despite the trucks and other modern activity, you can still feel the one-small-town-down-the-road-from-the-next sense of country life. There’s a flower shop near the front gate, with a picture perfect fountain out front. Crypt filled blocks, 4 and 5 tiers high, act as walls to border the cemetery. From within, there’s an orderly kept courtyard with hundreds of small tombs complete with fresh bouquets and week-long burning candles. After 15 years of regular family visits to see my husband’s relatives in Central Italy, I was pleased to finally have the chance to accompany Aunt Alma on her regular Sat morning mausoleum cleanings at the local cemetery.
First stop, the Benci family tomb. It’s understated but still one of the largest mausoleums around built entirely in white marble. There’s a slender glass front door to peer inside. On the opposite wall sits a small replica of the Madonna and Child – a fresco from the 13th century which adorned a wall in the center of Piccione and was later transferred to a museum. A lantern hangs down low in the middle over a large vase of flowers changed on a weekly basis.
On one side, along the top of the tomb is Ernesto and Giulia, the set of grandparents who died so long ago, no one talks about their date of death. Their “slot” is high enough; I hurt my neck straining to see the dates of birth and death. Next down, using up the full slot on the second tier was Federico Benci – our son’s namesake and a main stay to the life and riches of the Bencis in Piccione. It was he who created the family crate business, he who preserved food ahead of time during the war for the entire community which was used when it was time to hide out while the Nazis passed by and levelled the town, and it was he who commanded. Federico’s wife Alide is next down and again occupies a full crypt tier. She was Alma’s mother in law and ruled the family for 25 years just like her husband after his death. After Alide, there are 2 blank spaces. One, Alma said, was for my husband’s father and the next down for my mother in law if she wished. On the other side are uncles at the top – Erminio and Ernesto, and cousins Ezio and Eliana on the second tier. The last two are again blank, I presumed for Alma and her husband, but I waited for a quieter moment to ask. She explained as she began to ready herself to clean that after 30 years the corpse is transferred to a smaller container within the crypt to make way for others. That leaves space for the new, depending on what choices the younger generations make.
Alma walked around back to pull out her own personal broom, dust bin, and cleaning swath, even though these are all supplied by the cemetery itself. She said she preferred to have her own. And stored them in a back hidden cubby hole to do so.
Alma took last week’s vase and tipped it out on the dried lawn in the courtyard. “Ah,” she says, “flowers don’t last at all these days.” I looked down on the light pink lilies with purple baby’s breath with envy. Those flowers would have stayed in water at least another week at our house. But they were past their prime and for those interested in protecting the family image, ready to be thrown out. From there, she walked down the small stairway leading to the entrance of the cemetery to the flower shop.
I was thinking how I had put on a nice dress for our morning outing assuming I needed to look respectable for a stroll in the cemetery. And I felt I had made the right decision when Alma said she needed to go upstairs to change before we left. I was surprised when she came to the front door, ready to leave. She had replaced her old housedress with yet an older one. In front were two large pockets. She pulled out some cash that was stashed in one pocket and wiped her brow with a large handkerchief stuffed in the other. From there she walked into the flower shop. She stated her opinion clearly to the saleslady. She said she wanted tall, dignified flowers that held their own for as long as possible with pretty colour. Alma’s voice was forceful and rather uncharacteristic, in public anyway. I wondered if she were taking out some of her resentment for she had been grumbling something in days past about flowers being stolen and sold twice.
Alide, Alma’s mother in law who died a few months back, had left her wish for the flowers always to be fresh. After 55 years of living in the same household, Alma was ready to live up to yet that duty as well. And besides, she was already in the habit of cleaning her own mother’s, aunt’s, and uncle’s tomb along with the Benci mausoleum that had always been in need of regular cleanings. Still there seemed an extra urgency in Alma’s voice to do it all right. Total bill, €55, a massive bouquet of small violet mums, pinkish baby’s-breath, along with orange and yellow star burst looking freesias. It was a bouquet almost too big to carry.
We returned to the family tomb. Alma chatted as she went using “oh bea” as she spoke. In the Umbrian dialect, they use the first syllable of the name, along with “oh” to call out someone’s name. It’s a sign of affection, and usually ends each phrase when speaking in a familiar or casual setting. For example, “what’s for dinner, oh ma” (short for mamma). In this case, the Piccionese use BEA to stand for BETTI, the short name for Elisabetta. And likewise, I refer to Alma as “Oh A.”
Alma laid all the flowers on the grass near where she had dumped out the old ones. The cemetery was in a frenetic but tranquil bustle now – headscarves, housedresses, house slippers, and women cleaning. They used ladders to climb up to their family tombs, dusted, shined, changed flowers. The scene reminded me of a beehive, a sense of mission with very busy movement.
I started to look around as Alma cleaned on. I noticed a somewhat strange but fitting structure in the middle of cemetery at the far end. There was a gorgeous patchwork design on the ground, and as I came closer I saw it was a rock garden with each square filled with a different colour of pebble – more squares than I could count, each filled with hundreds of one carefully selected item. The patchwork led up to several large boulders and marble walls creating a gracious entryway. The eye went first to a large almost life size photo of a 26 year old sailing champion and high potential in the Italian Navy. There were certificates and dedications abound. The structure was entirely in marble with space for natural light to stream in at all times of the day. The sense of space was closed and yet open with the rock garden always in view. The marble slab covering the grave was blank but Alma later told me it was usually decorated with seasonal themes – Christmas, Easter, etc. Alma came up to get me and said these parents do nothing but spend on this tomb. Their son died 18 months ago and this is what they had created.
Back again at the Benci mausoleum, Alma had used up about half the flowers. The other half still lay on the grass. She whisked them up and instructed me to follow. Next stop, her own family tombs.
This was a more modest set up. There were 3 or 4 gravestones on the 4th, 5th, and 6th tiers which I could see are the less attractive positions since they are neither at eye level for public view, nor easy to access for cleaning. Alma made her way with the ladder. Each vase of flowers that was held in place by an iron ring was lifted out of its position. She dumped the flowers out, and replaced them using the remaining flowers. Each marble slab was dusted and shined. Lastly the marble stone at the base of this column of graves was swept and mopped. As I watched the clockwork order in which she worked, I wondered if anyone knew of Alma’s cemetery routine. She had two unmarried sons in their mid-forties with no prospect of new women or children entering the family, especially from the local towns.
As she worked Alma told me of those who had died around us: the 9 year old over there who died of meningitis, a friend’s aunt who dropped a cigarette on her stockings in the car and ended in flames, those who died in the war, those who died in other accidents, longer lives, shorter lives, circumstances, stories. The accounts came so fast and steadily I could feel my knees giving way to the weight of the remorse close ones must have felt. In the middle of the bustle and the sort of mental checklist of those Alma knew and died, the mother of the 26 year old sailor entered the cemetery. She stood proud and stopped often to greet the other women. Alma instructed me to tell the mother I had visited her son’s tomb and that it was beautiful. I did what I was told. The mother looked at Alma, without a doubt as a way of asking about my accent and origins. Alma said I was American which I found odd. I would have said, she’s my niece or something like that but I suppose family ties were taken for granted when cemetery cleaning was concerned. The mother then responded that they had built the tomb as a celebration to the living, not to remember their infinite pain as parents. The public was invited to use the space whenever they wanted, to read the paper, to think, to sit. Then she moved on. Alma and I finished our work.
I pondered the idea of going to the cemetery to sit in a tomb to read the morning paper. But then again, grieving has its own projectiles.
”Ciao Mamma, cocca mia. Ci vediamo la prossima settimana.” (Bye Mommy, my sweetness, see you next week). I watched as Alma kissed her mother’s crypt and spoke in a voice equal to when she spoke to me.
We put the cleaning utensils away and collected ourselves to leave. All the flowers had been used in what turned out to be 5 bouquets. Those pretty lilies along with the others were now stuffed in the garbage bin. I walked back to the sailor mausoleum to say goodbye to the mother but she was sitting quietly in prayer and I decided not to bother her. On our way out I went ahead and asked Alma where she would like to be buried, within the Benci crypt or within the column of tombs of her family of birth. As if she had thought about the answer all her adult life and knew well the diplomatic implications involved, she responded almost joyfully, “it doesn’t matter just as long as we’re all together.”
We drove home. The mid-day heat had turned intense. It felt oppressive in the car. Alma was sweating drips. As soon as we drove up the driveway, she flew into the house and sat in her nice cool kitchen almost panting. I wondered, in fact, if she might suffer a bit from paranoia since, come to think of it, she NEVER leaves the house. Or, it may have just been the heat.
Then again, maybe, she realised only at that moment to whom she had inadvertently taught her legacy.
Elizabeth Griffin is the Director of the Italian American Association of Friuli Venezia Giulia in Trieste, Italy, www.assitam.com
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