Friday, August 27, 2010

Mamma Rita's advice

Mamma Rita thinks that instead of trying to publish my memoir in the U.S. or New Zealand, I should publish it in Naples.

This idea may at first seem unreasonable. Not only is my book written in English, but it’s about Naples. I imagine Neapolitan readers would much prefer to read about rainforests filled with the pitter-patter of flightless birds than their own city in all its grimy, gory details. And if anyone deserves literary escapism, it’s the Neapolitans, who have endured centuries of corruption, earthquakes, plagues, volcanic eruptions, Camorra shootings and famine. Is it really fair to add to their sufferings with my own 450-page book?

But I have implicit trust in Mamma Rita’s advice. Let me give you a few reasons why.

Her intuition. Rewind to 1989. There were no security checks at airports (remember, we used to just walk on to the plane?). The Berlin wall was still intact. Maradona was still thin and playing for Napoli. And in a small town outside Naples, a 40-year-old sinner (Catholic for “divorcée”) named Rita had just agreed to help out her friend Santina, an exchange program coordinator desperate to find one last host family for a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C. Santina showed her a photo-booth shot of a girl named Heddi (“Eddie” in Italian), which for some reason made Rita crack into that childlike laugh of hers that scrunched her eyes into temporary blindness.

The next day, Santina informed her of a slight change of plans. She needed to swap her exchange student with another girl, named Tania.

“No, I don’t want Tania. I want Eddie,” said Rita.

“What’s the difference? You haven’t met either one of the girls.”

“I want Eddie and that’s the end of that.”

Intuition, that stingy slap in the face of reason. And Mamma Rita knew exactly when to deal it. Now, because of it, twenty-three years later her son Massimo owns an Italian restaurant in Chicago, my son calls her “Nonna” (Grandma), and she still starts all our phone conversations with, “I’m going to come over there and beat you up for not calling me sooner!” before splitting into that succulent laugh.

Her broken heart. Literally the day after Mamma Rita picked me up from the train station in the rain, looking as irresistible as – in her own words – a wet stray, her long-term boyfriend announced that, despite his medically-confirmed sterility, he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Dinner plates went flying. Framed photos shattered. Several times the telephone eclipsed the chandelier on its trajectory towards the wall, where its impact was camouflaged by the cracks already left by the 1980 earthquake. The German shepherd whimpered in the corner. As for the new exchange student? Well, talk about an introduction to the Italian language! Let’s put it this way: I learned the most important words first.

How does all this make me trust Mamma Rita’s literary advice? I don’t know but I just have this feeling that broken-hearted people are more worldly and that people with perpetually happy love lives just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

Her cooking. Do you want to know how to make any Italian immigrant shed a tear for mamma? Well, Mamma Rita told me how: add a garden-fresh tomato to his pasta e fasul. Want a zestier minestrone? Just before serving, add extra garlic browned in oil. A sweeter bolognese? Add a diced carrot. The best meatballs? Use stale bread. Salt? By the fistful. Feeling ill today? Eat pasta with lemon and oil.

Not only can Mamma Rita cook her socks off, she is also a custodian of the most foolproof gems of traditional Italian cuisine. I think you’ll agree with me that a person with such unassailable culinary advice is bound to give sound literary advice.

Her legs. I realize this is not a typical reason for trusting someone, but Mamma Rita has legs that no 63-year-old should be allowed to have. Slender, taut, hairless and eternally tanned, those legs have caused envy in many women and distress in many hopelessly married men. To have legs like that, she must know something the rest of us don’t.

Her connections. If you have spent any time in Southern Italy, or Brooklyn, you will know that it’s all about who you know. Being unconnected in Naples is the practical equivalent of being either one-legged, half-deaf or a tourist; it’s a handicap which makes everyday tasks – such as sending a package or finding an authentic restaurant – colossally complicated. But when you know people, the right people (though you’d be wrong to interpret my ever-so-subtle wink here as an allusion to the Mafia), you can stride hurdles that most of us in the ‘civilized’ world would not even dream of overcoming.

But Mamma Rita does not boast a list of mediocre connections: she is über-connected. Let me give you an example. To prod her devious employer into allowing her her due retirement, she enlisted the help of a friend, the head of one of the largest hospitals in the area. Naturally, this doctor falls into the category of married men with a hopeless crush on Rita who contents himself with downing the occasional espresso in her presence, especially in the summer when her legs are at their most saturated, and her eyes and wit at their most sparkling. It is also natural that he would write and sign a document on letterhead stating that Rita suffered from an ailment (which, by employment law, need not be named) requiring urgent treatment of a duration of no less than three months, and that this specialist treatment was offered only in America, more specifically Chicago, where (by the most astounding luck) her son resided. Did her colleagues believe her? Probably not. But did it matter?

Mamma Rita spent those months laundering Massimo’s socks or simmering ragù in his central city apartment, dining out with all his friends and practicing the sixteen or seventeen words of English that she has carefully amassed over the years to acquire a host of cosmopolitan friends and devastate a throng of suitors. And because every day she went religiously to the gym, she also lost a good deal of weight. To match her new relaxed and healthy self, at the end of her stay she decided to pop into the hairdresser’s for a snazzier, shorter look. When she flew back to Naples and returned to work, jaws dropped. She stood before her co-workers, gaunt and with hair that had only just started to 'grow back' after her ‘treatment’ in the U.S.

“Have you seen Rita? The poor thing.” Their whispers fell into respectful silence, and they haven’t questioned her since.

Indeed, I trust the advice of a woman who can instil fear and reverence in her colleagues for taking three months off to do aqua aerobics in Chicago.

So, another one of Mamma Rita’s connections is a publisher in Naples. Need I say more?


  1. Gorgeous writing Heddi. Missing you and, after reading this, your cooking. Love, Catherine

  2. Your compliment means a lot to me. It means even more to me that you took some time out of a very busy period to read my lengthy posting. Missing all of you too!

  3. OK, so I'm your family,. and ok, I might be biased but you are hilarious and so much of this reminds me of exactly how you speak and think and how often you crack up. You have range!!!!

    Your biggest Fan, Fleezia

  4. Well Heddi, I too am enjoying your posts even though I don't always leave a comment.

    You are a very talented writer - I have 2 thoughts - one that 60 something publishers turned down Samuel Beckett before he got one of his plays published, and the second that one writer I heard speak at the Auckland writers festival wrote 4 novels before she got one published.

    I absolutely encourage you to keep going, only you will know what direction that needs to go in.

  5. Dearest Heddi, Like Mama Rita, I found you irresistible on first sight ;-)

    I am thus biased in many ways, so don't feel I can properly critique your work - however I loved this story!

    Will Mama Rita get in trouble if anyone she knows from work reads this? Or will she be able to flash those legs and eyes and get away with it even if they do?


  6. Dear Barbara, thanks for being my never-ending fan! Am I really funny when I talk, though? I think I'm not fast-thinking enough, but writing gives me the time to think about how to be funny. But, since I'm still new to humor in writing, my only tool thus far is 'Gogolian specificity'. Hey, that sounds like a posting all of its own, don't you think?

  7. Thanks for your encouraging stories, Mary Anna. I'm still trying to figure out the next step to take that could lead to publication. It's a mixture of intuition, hit and miss and lateral thinking. This blog is the lateral part of all that, am I'm enjoying it no end, with readers like you.

  8. Dear sis, your brother also brought up the possible 'trouble' for Rita and I did feel a bit nervous when I actually published this post and put Mamma Rita online for all to see. Hopefully I removed enough personal details for her to be identified. Also, it's a story she herself tells to everyone with great glee, as she is quite proud of her mischevious ways. I'm thinking of publishing the translation of the posting so that she can read it too. Then, once I've had her blessing, my mind will truly be at peace!