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Visit to Italy gives form to Mom's memories


Massa Marittima, Italy

"Ciao, Cecilia," shouted my mother as we looked down across the steep vineyard. "Dove stai?" "Where are you?" she shouted.

A door opened from a lone hut nearly overgrown with green vines. A humped figure dressed in black waved. Her dress was muddy, her shoes torn. At 90, this frail woman still worked among the grapes of Massa Marittima, the Tuscan hill town where my mother was born. She hobbled toward us, leaning deftly into her cane.

"Bella, cara, tesoro," she said, reaching up to caress my face. She was calling me "beautiful, dear, treasure." I bent down to kiss my great aunt. Once, more than half a century ago, she had held my mother's hand in the piazza. Now, her hand clasped mine.

In the days that would follow, many more hands would lovingly clasp mine. My mother had finally lured me to Italy to meet the relatives. At the time, I was 23 and not particularly keen about vacationing with my mother in the old country. But, she insisted on paying my way, and I was faintly curious about her place of birth.

The fifth of seven children, my mother was christened Ida Pia Eleka Arnella Elena Androvandi. As a child, I impressed friends by rattling off her name-litany as a tongue twister. But that was all I'd concede was different about my mom. I preferred her to be 100 percent American, not Italo-Americana, as she would identify herself.

I never could understand why she was so Italian -- kissing everyone and making such a big fuss about family. As for all those people back in Italy with odd names -- they were her relatives, not mine.

And her childhood had been so poor -- not enough to eat, living in two small rooms, no running water, no electricity. She only owned two dresses when my grandmother took her brood to a new life in America in 1923.

They had settled in southern Illinois, where my grandfather had been working in a coal mine for several years. In this new world, my mother, at age 9, had enough to eat but not much more. In all her girlhood, she never even had one doll, ever -- a fact she told me every time she reminisced about her childhood.

By comparison, my growing up was a carefree and secure existence with two younger sisters and a brother in a well-off Milwaukee suburb. I had a new doll every Christmas.

"Joy-a, get in the car."

After one day in Italy, Mother had taken to pronouncing my name Italian style. "We're going to drive Cecilia back to Massa Marittima and then meet your Aunt Anita."

She was in her element. For one thing, she knew the language. What's more, people in Massa Marittima treated her like visiting royalty, hugging and kissing her, calling her name as she walked the cobbled streets, bringing her gifts of welcome. She'd been back several times and had become kind of a town heroine. And because I was her daughter, I, too, was instantly beloved.

I was amazed by the beauty of Massa Marittima, a walled, medieval stone city teeming with arches, alleyways, stepped passages, red-tiled roofs, green shutters and wrought-iron balconies rimmed with flowerpots. Below, olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields reached 10 miles to the sea. On an exceptionally clear day from the terraces of homes facing the Mediterranean, I could see all the way to the resort town of Follonica 10 miles away and even beyond to the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled.

Massa, as locals call their hometown of 10,000, was immaculate, just like my mother's house in America. And its people had many features similar to my mother's -- fine bones, narrow hips, straight noses, blue eyes, smooth light-olive skin. The women, petite like my mother, were "dressed to kill," as she says -- and does. That means looking "molto bella," especially when promenading arm-in-arm in the piazza at dusk.

Massa Marittima, acclaimed for its artisans and nearby silver and copper mines, is sectioned like a three-layered cake. At the bottom is the Borgo (little village). At the top is Cittanova (new city), where my mother was born. In the middle is Cittavecchia (old city). "All eyes notice you here," Mother warned, frowning at my bermudas and tennis shoes as we strolled into the main square.

Nooks of memory

How proudly she showed me the nooks and crannies of her memories -- the big stone basins at the foot of the hill where she washed clothes as a small girl, the huge clock tower with its sweeping view of the valley, the frescoes in the Romanesque cathedral and her once favorite place of play -- the so-called "500 Steps," a steep, wide passageway leading to Cittanova.

And then, of course, there were all the "parenti" -- relatives. Each morning over cappuccino in the piazza we'd review:

"Let's see," I mused, "the old woman in the hospital with the broken hip is Maria -- another great aunt. Narciso is the man with the little farm who gave rabbits to GIs during World War II; he's your cousin and therefore my second cousin."

"No, no," she interrupted. "In Italy, you don't have second or third cousins -- just cousins."

Before long, the names of my mother's relatives no longer sounded so foreign. Mazzini. Liana, Alessandro, Sergio, Cesare, Bruno, Fulvia, Nuncia and a whole string of others were now my family, too. I liked having an Italo-American mamma. In Massa Marittima, she was bequeathing me my inheritance.

One day, my mother announced she had something special to show me -- the tiny, two-room apartment where she had lived as a child with her four sisters and two brothers. It was on the fourth floor of a run-down building at the end of Via Pogetto, an area where the poor miners lived when my grandfather was a young man.

"We're lucky," she said. "The rooms aren't occupied. They're going to be renovated." Excitedly, she opened the door and said, "This is where I took my very first breath."

I entered cautiously, not anxious to confront what I thought were bleak memories. There they were, the walls and floors of my mother's childhood, as dark and dreary as I had imagined. And here was the hearth where she'd severely burned her elbow, and the tiny back window where my grandmother sat, wet-nursing other women's babies to earn a few lire.

I couldn't wait to get out, to leave this old building that testified to my mother's dismal start.

Yet Mother lingered cheerfully, recalling games she had played with her "toys" -- pebbles from the street -- and the good minestrone her mother cooked and how her sisters and brothers giggled together on one mattress. Finally, outside in the bright, fresh air, she sighed. "It's fine to return to the past," she said, "but I live for today.

"Andiamo!" she said. "Let's go."

My mother is now seventysomething and still, like me, making almost annual pilgrimages back to Massa. She remains a happy woman, full of life and Italian embraces. In fact, in all the years I've known her, I've only seen her cry once.

It happened precisely a year ago, on Mother's Day, when I gave her a present I'd bought in Italy. She opened the box and lifted the contents tenderly, clutching it to her breast. "Bella, bella," she murmured again and again.

Finally, my mother had a doll.

IF YOU GO . . .

Massa Marittima is a three-hour drive north of Rome along the Mediterranean coast. You could also take a train from Rome to Follonica and then a local bus to Massa Marittima (about a 15-minute ride).

There are three hotels in Massa Marittima: Duca del Mare (a double bed costs about $60 per night), Girifalco (double, $60) and the newest hotel, Il Sole (double with air-conditioned rooms, about $70 a night). The town sponsors two medieval festivals each summer, a crossbow competition between Massa's three sectors. Only four other cities in Italy hold this type of competition. Dates are May 12 and Aug. 2.

For tourist information on Massa Marittima write: Luciano Insalaco, Proloco, Poggio 903387, 58024 Massa Marittima, Province Grosseto, Italy. For general information about travel to Italy, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10111; (212) 245-4822).

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