Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Two Pigeons and a Fava Bean

Lean Food with Cook Utensils, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin

My grandfather raised pigeons in his backyard. I used to think the sound of cooing was a hymn unique to his house. To me, my grandfather's garden was an infinite maze of surprise and discovery.

I know if I went back today it would seem small and tangled, but in my childhood it loomed large and full of possibility. The rows of cages on stilts with their tiny doors were the closest thing I had to a dollhouse. Yet I was afraid of the erratic movement of birds each time my grandfather lifted the latch on those doors to "let the little devils out". If he allowed me to accompany him, I trailed behind apprehensive because I didn't much like pigeons outside of their cages. Their flutter, fits and starts between my feet made me anxious and I stood fixed as a pole in the midst of their nervous merriment. But I went for the occasion that occurred most rarely.

It seemed more like a magic trick the first time my grandfather reached inside a cubicle for an egg--like the penny he found behind my ear. I can still see the smooth and speckled orb he cradled in his palm. "How?" I gasped. "Two pigeons and time," he replied. I stared openmouthed as he pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket to wrap the egg. "Take this inside." I dashed like a courier, cautiously holding the bundle in front of me, up the path, past the fountain, to the kitchen, where the woman who cooked his meals after my grandmother died, was bent over a basket of shelling beans. How did beans make more beans? How did pigeons make more pigeons? I remained puzzled over the former, but the latter was less vague and nothing short of a miracle.

I have since learned that in Italy, there is a gentler way of achieving two ends with a single effort. In Italian, a fava bean replaces the proverbial stone to kill two birds. My friend Susanna taught me this kinder expression: due piccioni con una fava. I thought of my grandfather and how in one afternoon, he taught his granddaughter about nature and nurture.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Eternally Yours

Mitchell Johnson, "Rome (Marcello)," 2015 22x26 inches, oil/linen

My last visit to Rome was in the summer of 1968. I was six years old and my shoes were too tight. My mother agreed to a pair of two-tone, suede Mary Janes which were too small, but I kept that to myself until I was whimpering through the narrow cobblestone streets, through the Vatican and the galleries, through the ruins and the basilicas. That she kept a brisk pace and crossed the streets like a Roman, didn't help. An absolute virtuoso, weaving through Fiat toy cars, staring straight ahead, like she knew where she was going, briefly consulting a map before lunging once more into traffic, all the while pulling me along as I half ran, tripped, and hobbled to keep up.

Rome in 1968 must have been splendid, a far less congested tourists' playground. If only I could remember what I saw...Bernini's fountains, the Colosseum, the Sistine chapel, but my eyes were fixed on my shoes. Oh, how pretty they were--soft pink and pistachio green, with a small suede flower stitched to the buckle. I brushed each and every smudge with my sleeve. Oh, how they hurt. Oh, if only we could rest a bit. Then she stopped. Do you see what I see? her smile said. Inside the gelateria was like stepping into a clock and stopping time, for the minutes it took me to stretch up to the glass case, to choose a flavor from the range of colors, and the moments we sat on a bench with an ice cream in our hands, were long and indulgent--an eternity to a child.

When the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Rome came up, I immediately recalled my suede shoes and the taste of my first gelato forty six years ago. My husband is a visiting artist at the American Academy, and in hindsight, I cannot believe I initially resisted the idea of joining him for part of his stay. What about our son's school, homework, basketball practice, I protested? What about my novel at the finish line? They stared at me Are you nuts? Well, yes.

Returning to Rome with my own family this winter, I watch my son, now taller than me, taking long strides across the same streets, stopping motorists with the same bravado as his grandmother, and once again I'm half jogging to keep up. At a cross light he slaps away the hand of a pick-pocketer unzipping my bag Don't touch her! he yells into the woman's face and she flees. He spends the next few hours devising schemes for catching thieves, luring them with fake money or filling a backpack with shards of glass. He's wound up. What does he think, I wonder, of walking along the Via Sacra in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, or the multilayered Basilica of San Clemente above a 1st-century Roman house, and the spooky underground passages beneath the Colosseum where men and beasts waited to be slaughtered? What about the young doctor in skinny jeans and a leather jacket who makes a house call when he's sick and examines him with such tenderness (say aaah like an Italian), or the homeless man who plays soccer with him in the park? What will he remember?

I'm seeing it all for the first time, really. Inside the Pantheon, my eyes are drawn to the dome and the opening to the sky. In the Sistine Chapel, I look to the ceiling for Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Bird watching beneath the tall umbrella pines in the Pamphili park, oh, how formal and dignified they stand, and yes, those are parrots nesting in the parasols! My gaze is unaccustomed to such splendor. It's like love and a new sky just opened above me. How can there be this feeling of newness in a place so ancient? They have all been here for an eternity, adapting again and again over centuries to their latest surroundings, to the next wave of humanity, insisting on their place. It is impossible to explain where we've been, but this time I feel connected to what we've seen. I won't wait so long to come back.

I wear more sensible shoes now, but my neck hurts. Isn't it time for an ice cream?