Where the month of dead means pumpkins, cemeteries, and baked goods
My wife is talking about Druids.
We’re in a kitchen store in Rimini, a place where we buy stuff for our apartment–pans, drinking glasses, cutting board, a new espresso pot. The lady there also keeps us supplied in stainless steel coasters, an accessory my wife delights in buying. (I don’t like them. With the least bit of condensation, they stick to the bottom of a glass, then detach and cymbal crash on the tabletop when you take a drink.) Our cupboard back in the US is full of them. Today the store is having a sale on nonstick pans, 10 euro. We’re tempted.
“Oh yes,” my wife says. “The origins of Halloween actually can be traced back to the Druids.”
The lady at the counter shakes her head. She has never heard of the Druids, which occasions a short disquisition on Celtic religion, one of my wife’s many favorite subjects. She knows her stuff.
While she talks, I shop.
“Do you have any wine bottle stoppers?” I ask.
“Here,” the lady says, pointing to a bin in front of the cash register. “On sale for 3 euro. One that draws air from the bottle, preserving the wine. The other a simple stopper.”
“On the occasion of the Celtic new year,” my wife is saying, “which was the first of November, the dead returned and walked the earth.”
“Two simple ones, please.”
“People dressed up in scary costumes and played tricks.”
“We tried Halloween in Italy a few years ago,” the lady says.
“I see pumpkins,” I say. Albeit little ones, compared to the giants we grow in the US.
“First year it was all Halloween. Next year a little less. Next year hardly anything. I guess it’s just not part of our religion.”
“But you have the day of the dead,” my wife says. “The first of November.”
Do they ever. The dead are huge in Italy.
So important that the day of the dead has become attenuated, fortunately, becoming the month of the dead. I say fortunately because the local bakeries turn out fava dei morti, bones of the dead, which are small almond-flavored cookies laced with anice; and piada dei morti, cakes of the dead, a confection with a flour and wine must base, mixed with dried fruit, pine nuts, walnuts, and cooked almonds, all baked and then slathered with honey. The pasticerie do a big business around November 1, as do the cemeteries.
This year I am pressed into service by my wife’s old aunt, who lives up the street from us. Her Ukrainian badante (live-in helper) and I will drive up to the cemetery, buy flowers for all the family tombs, dust and wash the stones.
The aunt, 93 years old, is the last of her generation. Every visit with her is like an audience with royalty. She sits in a stuffed leather chair in her salotto, dressed in a wool skirt, shoes and stockings, blouse and wool sweater, a wool shawl draped over her shoulders. She refers to herself in the third person, speaks with precision about the lady up the street cuckolded by her husband, about the opprobrious (her word) government officials that have ruined the Republic and should be locked up, about her nephew Natalino, who weighed 6 kilo when he was born (“so big people from all over the hospital came to look at him”). Today Lena and I get exact instructions on what flowers to buy, which flowers go in front of which tomb, and how much cleaning solution to apply to gravestones.
“I think 50 euro should be enough,” Lena says, thumbing bills from an envelope.
“No,” the aunt says, “listen to Teresa. You will need at least 70 euro.”
“I don’t know,” Lena says.
“No!” she protests again. “Listen to Teresa.”
Almost every visit, I ask her about a recipe: how she cooks a rabbit, her tuna sauce, the rice salad my wife loves. Before Lena and I go, Teresa repeats a recipe for turkey breast cooked in milk.
“Three or four slices of turkey breast,” she says, “like this.” She holds up her hand to demonstrate the size. “Slice them lengthwise into strips, like this.” She holds up two fingers together to indicate the size. “Season them with a little oil, salt and pepper and marjoram. Let them rest over night in the refrigerator. If you like garlic, sauté a small clove in oil, then gently cook the turkey slices, each side until the slices are white. Next you add the milk.”
“How much?” I ask.
“Just enough,” she says. She holds up two crooked fingers. “Two times. You add milk two times. Add enough milk to cover the slices in the pan. Raise the flame and cook down the milk. When it’s cooked down, add the same amount of milk again, with just a little water to keep the milk from getting gooey. Cook the milk down again.”
“Covered or uncovered?”
“Uncovered. Teresa cooks everything uncovered.”
Cooking time, she says, is about thirty minutes. I’ll try the recipe in my new nonstick pan.
I ask if she gets turkey at the butcher up the street.
She nods. “Tell him Teresa sent you.”
Lena and I drive up to the local cemetery, through a stretch of what was once a train tunnel where locals took shelter from Allied bombing during the war. On the way we talk in Italian, with our odd accents. She’s in her 50’s, a widow ten years now, with all her family back in the Ukraine. She says she has no income, no pension, so she works here in San Marino, where there is an aging population and brisk business for badante.
“It’s a war in my country,” she says. “Very bad.”
We buy potted yellow and white chrysanthemums, cut flowers, and a small cyclamen to take home to Teresa. The cemetery is crowded. People walk purposefully to their relatives’ grave sites, draw water from the faucet into small buckets, and wipe down the stones, most of which are in above-ground crypts, with photographs of the deceased above the names and dates. Using a paintbrush designated for the job, I dust the family tombs; Lena then washes them. All around are names I have come to recognize, friends and relatives of my wife’s family. Galassi, Berti, Franciosi, Casadei, Guidi, Marcucci, Mularoni.
Below my wife’s grandparents are two tombs that haven’t been visited in a while. Lena washes the one of the right, I take the one on the left.
“Our little act of mercy today,” she says.
We walk in silence back to the car, surrounded by these deliberate acts of memory, a ritual so central to Italian life.
“Seventy euro,” she said. “Teresa was right.” Adding, “Remember the turkey. It’s very good.”
I will. There is so much to remember.