Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Roman Trap

In 1943, as I just had reentered Rome with my parents, the City revealed itself when I went outside the apartment the next morning. The people congregated in amorphous lines with containers to gather water from isolated water fountains darkened the damp dreariness of rainy November in Rome.
   Dark, slow-moving shapes without shadows were softly speaking or sobbing. They were carrying water and leaving. They were coming and going. The food stores were closed. There were no trees; just German cars under the command of Mr. Pellet were right in front of my house.
    My mother told me to go back to the farm to check on things. I took the "tram" at Piazza Della Stazione. It went all the way to Due Santi and Albano and Velletri. My father went with me. Grandpa Pietro had remained at the farm. He could not speak German, yet he managed with his droll sense of humor to somehow communicate with the German troops that installed themselves in the major rooms of the villa.
   Mother saw him once making these funny gestures with a German soldier as they were in the wine cellar tasting the new wine. What preceded this mute conversation she did not know. She noticed my grandfather raising his arm and pointing up with his index finger, and then sort of slashing through it with his left hand.  The soldier nodded in assent.  My grandfather again raised his finger and proceeded to imitate a fake decapitation. The soldier again laughed and assented. Then grandpa lifted both hands to the heavens, which was the vaulted high ceiling of the cellar, made two fists and shook them in rage… the solder gravely nodded.
    “What was that all about,” she asked him.  Grandpa laughed, “I asked him if it was okay to kill Mussolini, and he said, “yes.” Then I asked him if it was okay to kill Hitler and he also said, “yes.”  Then I cursed, and he nodded.” Those two men, if they have had the power, might have ended WWII!
I was mostly left in Rome in the depressed care of my grandmother Ometti, who only felt safe by walking all the way through Rome and going to St Peter’s in the Vatican. It was agreed that someone had to be found to stay with me, who was suddenly transplanted unto the asphalt jungle of a dying city. The seventeen year old daughter of the caretaker of a Hotel in Via XX Settembre, who had just came out of a convent school was eligible for the task.
    Valerina was lively. She was also very much a nun-indoctrinate and mainly had the task of daily walking with me to the zoo, where my animal friends were. It was a twenty-minute walk through Villa Borghese. The Allied Forces had not yet entered Rome. It was as usual. No bombs had fallen there. The marble statues decorating the plantings in the Prince's Borghese villa were still there. Some of their leaf-covered private parts had been knocked off. A few had lost an arm to vandals.   The privet shrubs were still there.  A few children in strollers were there as well. The sycamore walk to the zoo was the same as it had been. They entered the usual iron gates in the stuccoed imaginary walls of the confines. And they walked to the seller of peanut bags and headed for the monkey cages.  There were fewer monkeys.   Behind the alley, only one leopard was left. It kept walking back and forth, again and again.  The lion’s closure was empty, and so was the tiger's, but the rhino and the elephants were still there.
    The monkeys had a fine grasp of their food situation, and so had their keeper. They extended their little hands outside the bars of the cage, blabbering in their incomprehensible language, and what a language it was!  They had seen the peanut containing paper pouch and quickly sprung to their feet making the fascist salute and also the Nazi salute. Their faces were grinning in anticipation of treats. Treats were dropped into those furry little hands that quickly shelled the peanuts and asked for more.
  The lemmings were still there and the parrots and the reptiles in the large aquarium compound hanging around with giant turtles. All of them hardly moved. They continued walking further away towards the aviary that was a three-story structure made of steel rods and wire.  No glass. There were tall structures on which the eagles would sit, hardly moving. She huddled, waited, and she stared at them and they stared back.
   As the days went by, I felt alive only while I was with my friends in the zoo. As soon as I and Valerina left the enclosure, I entered into a strange world where people were huddled under bushes and some of them were doing what the rabbits did after I picked one male rabbit (males had bigger heads) and one female one (longer thinner heads) and put them together in a cage for a while.  The male bit the back of the female's head, holding her tight, She screamed. He climbed on top of her and she screamed some more. Then he got off.  I felt sorry for the female, but that was the way baby rabbits came about, somehow.
    I remembered for years the naked branches of the sycamore trees, the gravel road on which she traveled home, the greens in the park, and the bushes with humans under them.  I had hard tales from the peasants living on the first floor of the convent-villa. Tales about how men were all wolves, and all they wanted of women was to fuck them and leave them pregnant, alone, abandoned, and worse, DISHONORED.
    I had heard about Maria Goretti, and how she had chosen death rather then fuck with a man who had attacked her, and how this had pleased God and the Church had made her into a Saint. I would have done the same if a man attacked me. I would have chosen death and thus also have eternal life, rather than to have sex, be in mortal sin, and go to hell.
    Valerina was also fully in agreement about this. Nevertheless, there were hardly any men around who might even pose any danger. Most of them were in the war. Some of them had been sent to Russia, so had said some of the women who baked bread in the open heart of the villa-convent. During the summer before, their sons had been “lost.” Their mothers knew most of them would not come back.
     Rome was not a dangerous place because the Germans kept a tight lid on the City and General Clark had not yet busted the Volturno line after the abbey Montecassino was bombed to dust by the Allied forces making their way up the boot of Italy after they had won the battle of Gela in Sicily.
  It had been a brutal battle between the German forces headed by Kesserling and Chirieleison and the Allied Forces headed by Clark. The Germans retreated up the boot and the Allies went after them.
   At Anzio, which was only ten miles from the convent farm where I had lived out my childhood, the Allied front met with the powerful German defensive.  This watershed battle in the Southern Front became the counterpart of the Bulge Battle on the Northern front.  I remembered the flames rising from the airport, which was being bombed by allied planes. I remembered my mother asking the German commander in the big house not to place an anti-aircraft gun near the house. That it would be better in the olive grove. She could not afford to lose the three-century-old house to a bomb destined to destroy a gun.
    The German Commander had grinned; after all, he had thrown grenades to all the peach trees of the property! And what did she know of war? He had slept in trenches dug out of mud. He had killed people… who cared about peach trees! What did she know about WAR?
    He had asked her if there were any weapons in the house. Italians were forbidden to keep weapons and would be shot if found with them.  She had smiled while he sat on the hand painted bench in the green room near the entrance to the home part of the house. "Of course not," she responded. Then she asked him about his family. Yes, he had a family in Dresden.
  After he left, she shook and almost fell over.  He had set on the chest in which two rifles and two revolvers were hidden.  She would have had to shoot him, somehow, if he had opened the chest.  Another revolver was kept hidden, but it was closer.
    Mother had steel nerves during the war, but would scream in horror at the sight of a cockroach. I thought cockroaches, which were so sleek and fast, were beautiful and so were the small snails living over a mossy wall near the thatched tent in the villa's garden. At times they were attached, end-to-end like the rabbits. I tried once to take them apart, but they were well attached and I did not want to hurt them.  Sexuality in animals was "normal.” In humans, as far as I heard from the peasants, it was aggressive and had negative consequences for women. Talking with any member of the family about this was taboo. For my mother sex was “dirty.” For me, it acquired connotations of lust, sin and possible damnation. After all, God's Mother was a Virgin all along.  She could not have sinned having sex like the rabbits or the half-covered humans coddling under the bushes.
      As winter continued, so did my mother's trips to the farm. She would sleep in the cave built by the monks three hundred years before under the house; some 10 feet underground. It emerged about 25 meters feet away from the house and a bunker covered the exit.  The bunker was there so if a bomb fell on the house, the people in the cave would be able to survive.
The cave was lined with cells. Grandfather Pietro had aged his prized velltri wines there for years. The cave was damp, even though the temperature usually stayed around 45 degrees.
   Mother came down with sciatica carrying suitcases with food back from the farm to Rome.  Other foods like milk were provided by the cow that Father had “walked” to Rome on foot. It was safely kept in a Cisterciences Monastery along with grandfather Pietro's Jewish friends. I would always get the milk from the cow and the Jews survived. Vegetables also came from long streetcar trips to and from a vegetable garden belonging to grandma Zaira’s niece.
     On the flat roof of the health office in Rome was a vegetable garden tended by the Nuns of Charity, whose Mother Superior was my grandfather's sister, Zia Francesca.  There were heaps of sand in some corners and turtles inhabited them. They laid small eggs, very small eggs. I always wondered why they did not keep chickens because someone might probably want to eat them.
     Life in Rome had some rewards, but very few.
  There were no children to play with in wintertime. They were nowhere to be found. Something strange started happening during the middle of winter. The days grew shorter and there was hardly any light in the house.  It was something very strange. I would come home from the zoo, and sleep with my mother in my parents' bed. My mother would leave for the farm before I awakened and would always leave her red slippers neatly aligned on my side of the bed.  I would awaken, see the empty slippers, and know my mother had gone away under bombs falling once outside the walls of Rome.
    I knew that I might not see my mother again that night, but I also knew something far worse. I knew that if my mother had died that she would go to Hell and be forever damned.
    Why did I believe this?
 Valerina, my watchdog, had rightly told me that since my mother did not go to Church on Sundays.  She was in Mortal Sin. Therefore, if she died unconfessed, she would go to Hell. I did know from all my Catholic teachings, relatives, peasants, and priests that this was true.
      I was therefore terrified about my mother going to help, but incapable of doing anything about it.
      Worse, I came upon the thought that if God allowed something so terrible to happen to a person who worked so hard to save the farm from the bombs and carried food, partly for people in Rome to eat, this was NOT RIGHT from GOD and I did not want to have anything to do with God any longer if he was such an UNJUST GOD.
    I was seven and a half years old. I could read, but had not read Pascal nor any other philosopher or theologian.  My thoughts were my own and I dared not share them with anyone. I knew that my very thought of abjuring God would damn me.
The Roman Catholic Dogmatic Trap had closed on me. This could not even be confessed.  It was a Sin against God Himself.
     I did have an option. I could just choose to believe that I was wrong and ask God's forgiveness. I could believe, as many people did, what served them, even if it was not true.  Some people, like the peasants, believed many stupid things because they were told they were true.  Credulity of children was used by ADULTS to tell children things that were not true, to frighten them so that they would obey the Adults. I knew all about that, and refused, on principle to be gullible. This strange refusal derived from pent up anger against the Adult world and God Himself thrust me into the abyss between Shylla and Caribdis, or in other words, on the razor's edge.
   A person divided within herself is not longer whole and eventually splits as the pressure mounts.
    Day by day, after this existential realization, life became less and less meaningful. There was no more unity with God.  Now I was truly ALONE.   Daily reality, except for the zoo experiences with the animals, started drying up into a sequence of dreary daily living steps. Dreams of wanting to go up a flight of steps and being unable to lift my legs became the norm.  Even walking into the front door of the apartment building seized me with dread.  I lived a double life, one in which I behaved as a normal person keeping up appearance, and the other one which surged as I lie awake in bed at night stuffing the top sheet in my mouth and sobbing in despair facing NOTHINGNESS.
    How long did this last? I do not remember, but it seemed a long time.
Eventually, one night, my mother heard me and came into the room. After that, mother did not go to the farm one day, but walked part way to Castel Gandolfo. She did so mostly on foot after having gotten of the tram, and talked to the town doctor about what to do about me. He told her to take me back to the villa-farm-convent.
   And so it was on a sunny early spring day that we took the train until Cinecitta, where it stopped.  The bombs were still falling on the airport, not too many of them. Then we walked to "somewhere," and a German vehicle met us and drove us to the villa-farm.
    It was no longer a villa.  As the vehicle proceeded on the long way towards the house, I noticed that the pear trees flanking the drive had gone, and so were the rose bushes.
    As the vehicle parked in front of the grand old house, I noticed people going in and out of the cellar doors. As we went up the stairs and entered our home, I also noticed strangers going about. As we opened the door for what once had been my bedroom. I noticed a giant mountain of grain filling it. There was no furniture in the house. The local people were mostly on the first floor, and some Germans were on the second floor. No one paid any attention to me. I was just another person in another person's house.
    On that day my childhood ended.