It Ain’t Me–living with the dead

Three men stand in front of a billboard in Santarcangelo di Rimini. On the board are “manifesti,” broadsheets announcing the recent leave-taking of people or the anniversaries of their deaths, often with an indication of a mass that will be said for them. For each person there’s a color photo, how they wanted to be remembered or how their family wanted them to be remembered.  

You see these boards in every town, and not just one board. Anywhere there’s a church you’ll see the boards and announcements. And in Italy, of course, there are a lot of churches. That means a lot of dead people, not in your face exactly, but not exactly off stage either. The Italians live with their dead.

A few days ago we were walking along the side of the Duomo in Rimini. I stopped to look. A half a dozen faces. How many years ago did this fine old man die? How old was this beautiful woman when she died? Here’s a nonna. I bet she was a good cook. You look and you start doing your death math. He’s gone three years; he was older than me. She lived to the age of 55. Wow, I’m way older than that now. The nonna was 80. But this guy, so well dressed, so obviously alive to the world when the photo was taken, was dead at 28. What happened?

The dead, pictured everywhere, are a grim attraction. You stop, look, and wonder. 

Each time we come to Serravalle, we take a walk up to the cemetery. We visit Tizi’s relatives. The cemetery is a busy place. Quiet, holy. (The Italian for cemetery, cimitero, is also camposanto, holy field.) On the graves, on the covers of the tombs, are photos, the same photos that appear on the manifesti; with the photo, of course, are names and dates. The dead in the Serravalle cemetery date back to the 19th century. You see the transition, from old black and white photos then to color photos now. I’ve been coming here long enough, I recognize names of family friends and see faces of people I know. Or should I say knew? We visit Tizi’s grandparents, as well as a tomb where a lot of the family bones are collected. We bring flowers. The tombs get flowers. The bones get flowers.

Lately, down by her aunt and uncle’s graves, we find Mario, a guy from our building who was always sitting on a bench out front when we pulled up in our rental car. “Ben tornati,” he would say with a smile. And give us some tidbits about the weather, or the truffles, or some local gossip. Here’s Mario, we say now, gone at 78. We add him to our list of people to visit. 

Here’s the town doctor who, when he came to our house when our then two-year-old daughter was sick, pried her mouth open with a soup spoon so he could see her throat. He’s gone. His twin sons are gone, younger than us by decades. 

On our most recent visit, I stop in front of Gianetto (short for Giovanni), a great old guy who had a tabaccheria, news, and candy store on Serravalle’s one main street. He said whenever we walked in with our little kids, “You see this?” gesturing at all the candy, “this is all yours!” He was one of my father-in-law’s best friends. They belonged to a group they called The Twelve Apostles. They went out nights together for episodes of heroic eating. One night, when Gianetto was in the hospital, they actually snuck him out of the hospital for a dinner and then took him back to the hospital after dessert and grappa.

My tradition with respect to the dead is small town Midwest. Naturally there are decades of dead in town, but there’s not the same kind of public recognition and mourning.

Once a year my brother and I drive to visit our parents and a sizable field of Bailey relatives in Breckenridge. A 45-minute drive for him, 90 minutes for me. My maternal grandparents are a three-hour drive from Detroit. I haven’t been to that cemetery since they were buried there.

Yesterday in Civita di Bagnoregio, near the piazza where we parked our car, I saw a memorial for a soldier who died in Iraq, reminding me of how common war memorials are in Italy. There’s been a lot of war over here. In any city, in any small town, it’s not unusual to see a wall in a high foot-traffic area. On the wall are names and faces of the fallen. In Frontino recently there were two plaques, World War I and World War II, with names. It’s the everyday-ness of these observances that’s striking. Your grief, your gratitude, your awareness of your own mortality is present, is called to mind. Maybe that’s why a memorial like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., hits you like a tsunami. When you travel to see it, it’s a pilgrimage. When you get there, it’s a tidal wave of grief. Here the waves lap continuously at the shores of the living.

In casual conversation I’ve learned to say, “Sono ancora qui.” You see someone you know, you stop for a chat. When asked, How are you? You answer, “Sono ancora qui.” I’m still here.

Looking at those photos on the manifesti, I think, It ain’t me babe, it ain’t me I’m looking at. Sono ancora qui.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve always wondered about visiting the graves of our/my family; early on I felt the need to be there and then it changed to “wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve visited”. I love how Italians keep it up, it seems so respectful.

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