Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Open at my own risk

I just received the most precious of packages: a box full of my stories, letters and diaries dating back to my first year in Italy at the age of sixteen. I hadn’t even realized they’d been lovingly kept all these years in our family basement in D.C. While most people’s first instinct about finding the melodramatic diaries of their adolescence would be to burn them all in a giant bonfire, my instinct is just the opposite: let’s write a book.

To those of you who say, “Oh no, not another memoir! How many memoirs can one person write? Do you really think your life is that fascinating?” I say that I myself would read nothing but other people’s memoirs and listen to their life stories all day long if I could. Perhaps I should have become a therapist.

Although it’s clear from the dates that the very first chronological diary is missing, these two surviving ones on the desk before me may contain most of the material I need to write my second book, a memoir about how a young American exchange student thrown into a depressed Southern Italian town finds her life prospective transformed by meeting her host mom whom everyone lovingly calls “Mamma Rita”. Chills run down my spine as I run my fingers over the musty covers of my diaries. I haven’t read any of them, not one single page, since I was sixteen years old.

So stay with me for a moment (drum roll, please) as I take a deep breath and open a few pages at random to see what’s inside. Opening haphazardly like this, without any discrimination or any editing whatsoever, is quite risky. Some of the thoughts and observations found inside might be embarrassing at best, if not pathetic and obsessive. You, dear reader, might lose any respect you might have had for me. But hopefully there will also be some insights and stories in there to help me reconstruct that period of my life. So here it goes.

Diary #1 – random page: …Franco boasted to me how absolutely beautiful his nephew was and actually took me to the hotel where his sister and her two children were staying (theirs was one of the houses left dangerously uninhabitable after a big rain before Christmas, mud came flowing from the mountains into the houses [doors were jammed closed it was so deep]) just for me to see his nephew and to see how kind his sister was. There were all sitting around the TV on the hotel bed. His sister took my hands, and, explaining how cold I was, turned on the little stove. She offered me salami and mineral water, indeed very sweet. The little boy was sleeping, looking quite angelic. Franco was right. He walked over to the bed and kissed him. Franco later told me that he was worried for them because the father was dead. I asked how.

“Non lo so. Nessun motivo. Sai quando il Signore all’improvviso così si prende qualcuno.” [Translation from the Italian: “I don’t know. No reason. You know, when God suddenly decides to take someone, just like that.”]

Diary #1 – random page:Now we’re back in C/mare. Today I must go to pranzo [lunch] at Rita’s mother’s house. I suppose I should go but I hate eating there. They all say through i piatti [the separate courses] “Mangia! Mangia! Assaggia pure questo!” [Eat! Eat! Try this too!] I can’t take it, my stomach can’t take it and I hate ruining the joy of eating good food. They’ve all spoiled it for me. Overeating is the most disgusting feeling and unfortunately it happens all the time.

Kelly [the German shepherd] is snorting. I think she’ll die soon she’s so old and sick…

Diary #2 – random page:Gino sits at the kitchen table, full of proverbs that make me laugh. “Alle donne strane, piace il salame.” (Strange women like salami.) The smoke of his cigar clouds his face, only lined with the light of the early spring evening. He talks about balance as the way to resolve everything. Rita says he is maybe the only faithful man she knows. He has abandoned the good red wine in the lip-touched glasses; it’s spilled on the table, the bottle is still a quarter full. The light falls down on his bubbly hands, shadows his cigar. He wears a cream cap like an Englishman, a crawling blonde beard, an olive green coat. The people call him "l’americano" because he is so fair. And there he sits next to Rita and I, full of philosophies to share and proverbs. The Neapolitan dialect seems to have been made for him. “How I like this American girl!” he exclaims and kisses me. He’s full of good intentions. “If a person is really intelligent, he cannot have love for only one person. I love the whole world. I’m not saying this to say I’m intelligent, on the contrary, but a full person, made by God, is made to spread his love a bit around for everything…[…]…Un po’ per ognuno non fa male a nessuno. A bit for everyone does harm to no one...”

Diary #2 – random page:He drives the car up the winding mountain roads where the air is crisp and you can see all the stars and, as if a reflection in the water, the twinkling city lights below. They really do twinkle, like everyone says, and the stars do too and I sit on the cold seat watching them. He drives. I see his cheekbone shining with the streetlights. His whole face is shiny and feminine and he has a high-pitched voice but broad shoulder pads. He is the cousin of Frankie D. who has escaped for a moment from his sad flaming city. I am warm enough but if I move, my warmth escapes out into the wintery air which brushes our cheeks.

We climb out, me following the cousins, and stand over the cliff. There’s our city, all of that traffic, the smell of rotting fish, the people’s cologne, the crying, barking, laughing of our city is concentrated into one silent square of lights in the dark, indecipherable from all the others. Where is that line I thought there was between towns? I can make out our port. Somewhere down there are people whose cheeks I’ve kissed and now they are invisible and silent but present at the bottom of my throne.

I can see now that I’ve left out a few adjectives to describe my adolescent writing: pretentious, ungrateful, self-indulgent, wordy and…surprisingly awesome. Second book, here we come!


  1. Ok, seriously impressed with your devotion to keeping a journal at that age. I have numerous journals that I've begun...and gotten about two week's worth of entries...spread out over a year or two...before giving it up as a bad job, only to start a new one, in a new, pretty book, a couple years later...etc., etc. I did keep one pretty faithfully...about a boy I adored...only to have ripped the pages out and burned them months later! (I couldn't burn the whole book - too pretty!) I am seriously looking forward to reading this new book of yours in a couple years!

  2. I think the entries are beautiful xx

  3. Dear Gretchen, interesting to hear that you DID burn some pages! I'm sure my diaries are also full of rantings about boys and don't look forward to reading those...Thanks for the encouragement about the book, I just have to find the time!

  4. Thanks, Alana, to write it I just need to carve out some I'm waiting for Mamma Rita to visit maybe in the summer, so we can do some 'interviews' about our lives back then - can't wait!

  5. Thanks, Shaz! I was lucky I didn't randomly open onto something much more embarrassing...

  6. Umm, these are quite wonderful (and quite a contrast to my pathetic adolescent journals). You were observing and absorbing and the language *works.* A talented writer from the get-go?

  7. Oh thanks, Jennifer! I even surprised myself in those diaries. But where I was really pathetic (and still am) was every time I tried my hand at fiction - overdramatic, unrealistic and just plain silly. Won't be trying that again any time soon.