These two American beauties and their Italian Sebastiano, a love affair of some years, fed on Tuscan grapes and golden sunlight; they formed a mutual admiration society based on a universal understanding, but they shared no common language. They got by on a lick and a promise — a promise to return to each other, year after year, even as the great world spins, even as the great scales attempt balance.
These two men who worked in the vineyards were named Pepe (short for Giuseppe) and Felice, which literally means “happy.” And O Dio, were they ever. On that morning when I found them on my walk among the rows of rich Chianti and scrumptious Chardonnay grapes, I stopped and spoke with them in my very best Italian. My accent is ottimo, if I may so myself, and my verb conjugation non è terribile. I was grateful for the chance to warm up my language skills with them. Little did I know how much I would need them later.
They taught me how to cull leaves off the vines. It’s important to open more room for the light to shine on the clusters of grapes, they explained. But will you have to finish all of these today?? I asked, my sweeping arm gesturing towards the whole hillside. No, no, they laughed in response. Piano a piano. Little by little.
We must always open more room for the light to shine.
I thanked them for what they did, because I knew that shortly I would have the chance to drink the fruits of their labor. Literally.
I returned to the group and our morning writing sessions and then, just before lunchtime, Sebastiano showed up. The smiles and hugs of their reunion were warm and palpable as sunlight in a glass of rosé. You could drink in the big love between them.
The women had been returning to these hills for sette anni before COVID shut down their travel/ writers’/yoga retreat operations. For those seven years, Sebastiano had been their host on his expansive property, but life changed and circumstances prevailed and Sebastiano was forced to sell the property where they’d grown so fond of one another. (Don’t worry for Sebastiano. The buyer was an American skin care mogul. My collagen-enhanced and peptide moisturized jaw dropped when he said her name. Her products are exclusive, and were destined to become more so with the forthcoming additions of oil from Sebastiano’s olives and antioxidants from Sebastiano’s grapes. Poets and writers cannot afford such luxurious products. Sebastiano, remember the day you came to visit your old friends at their new-found yoga/ writers’ retreat center, the one you had recommended to them, and I sat at the table with you and your lady loves and acted as your translator? Perhaps you would like to pay me a small token of your appreciation in an ounce or two of a Sunday Riley serum or cream? It only takes a tad to feel the richness of the fruits of this earth working their way from the outside in.)
Piano a piano, we are made young again. We rise from the ground like cicadas, shedding our old bodies as we dance the dance of grief, as we move the emotions that get in our way, as we stretch to greet all four directions, as we tell our stories. But we don’t forget who we used to be, or who we lost, or where we came from. We call to what we need until, in the calling, we hear the voices under the earth answer us back. Those voices do not respond to us in the all at once. They come in dreams, in snippets, in children’s bookshops and nature’s wonders and dinner table talks, and in the deepest sadnesses too. Even when prevalent circumstances, like pandemics and cancers and wars and crippling states of existential anxiety get in the way, they come to us, to lead us toward deeper understanding,
These two women, in all their habitual states of wonder and deep awe of the gut and glory that life serves up, were giddy to see their Sebastiano. He was invited to join them for lunch and I was invited to sit at their table and help them relay to each other the stories of their lives.
Somehow, after the requisite catching-up on gossip and news of everyone who’d worked at Sebastiano’s during those seven years, the subject somehow turned, as subjects do, to the boys who came back from the war. My translation skills are not that good, mind you. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but here’s what I know: Sebastiano was remembering the boys who came back from war in Vietnam. Before they flew home to their Yankee lives and their blonde-headed wives and their lawnmowers and their post-war existences, they were sent to rehabilitate their war-torn psyches in the hospitals of sunny central Italy. The Italian doctors gave them drugs but the Italian mammas and nurses and comrades-in-arms tried and tried and tried to feed them coffee, vino and grappa. No, no, no, the soldiers shook their heads. They didn’t want anything.
Sebastiano remembered Dirk and Billy and Ricky. He remembered how, when they finally found their voices and their stomachs, they asked for pizza, spaghetti and milk. Coffee, vino and grappa, pushed the Italian contingent. Pizza, spaghetti and milk, requested the boys, starved a little and weak from war, yet growing stronger, little by little. Piano a piano, an armistice was reached in this unwinnable war. The American boys got their milk. And they got their pizza and they poured milk on their spaghetti. And piano a piano, they got better. And they went home.
Sebastiano held on to his friends’ names and phone numbers and addresses. They married and remarried and moved around and moved up the ladders of success and made their way through the years. One of them, whose birthday happened to be the 11th of September, even started a company in New York City with a big staff of fourteen people and a big office in the World Trade Center, Tower Numero Two.
Piano a piano, this story takes shape. Twenty years in the making, just a few more minutes in the telling. You have a few more minutes to listen. Stay with me.
I had all the time in the world to sit with Sebastiano and translate for these two women he loved and who loved him, even as they loved each other under these Tuscan trees and skies. Watching Sebastiano tell this story was watching him age in reverse. And as I watched, and formed his Italian words into shapes the ears of these two women could make sense of, I too was taken back in time. As I relayed the story of Dirk or Billy or Ricky’s special birthday, I think everyone at the table thought the tears in my eyes were from the sparkle of my afternoon glass of Chardonnay. Piano a piano, as I recount this story, they will come to understand.
I can never tell a 9-11 story without tears.
It was 2001. Dirk or Billy or Ricky, the fateful birthday boy, had decided this one year to celebrate his successful business, the one headquartered in New York, in Chicago. And he had flown in his family and his staff of fourteen people for a big party IN CHICAGO. None of them were in the Towers that morning when they fell. They watched, with the rest of the world, on TV.
I watched with the rest of the world, on TV. I had a tiny baby and we were in a tiny children’s bookshop in northern Virginia, the only customers there that morning. The shopkeeper took us into her office in the back to watch her TV and cry together and pray for peace. I gathered my baby close. I had not yet come to understand what we had witnessed. No one had.
Piano a piano, twenty years later, we are still trying to wrap our heads around what any of it meant. What we know is only this: the war in Vietnam had not killed Sebastiano’s American friend. The attack on 9-11 did not kill Sebastiano’s friend. The attack on 9-11 killed my husband’s best friend. The husband of my best friend. He was on the second plane. We watched it crash into Tower Two. We lay witness, with the rest of the world, to the greatest devastation to rip apart our modern-day land.
It is not the job of the translator to insert her voice into the story. We interpret as best we can and find our ways around the words we have no words for. And as for poets and writers, the story tellers among us, we are no different, with one exception: we are called to give words to what the rest of the world has no words for.
Little by little, words shape our understandings and our interpretations. My best friend lost her husband twenty years ago. My husband lost his best friend. Sebastiano did not, though, lose a friend that day. That is the grace, the glorious, goddamn nature of it all. I translated his story; recounting it showed me something I had failed to understand until that morning in the vineyards, when I wrapped my hands around the leaves that blocked the sun and gently, piano a piano, pulled them away.
I don’t know Dirk or Billy or Ricky. I do know love. Crazy big love. I know it when it’s lost and when it’s redeemed, when it speaks a very different language, that is not so very different at all. I know we have to put ourselves in the path of love and we have to open up darkness and let the light shine through.
And I know loss. The world lost one of the greats when our friend died twenty years ago today. The world lost a great many, many lives that day, and we’ll never get them back. There may be no divine justice and maybe the scales don’t ever really teeter their way to equilibrium, but there will always be Dirk (or Billy or Ricky). There will always be the songs of cicadas and the deep wisdom that comes when we really listen to what it is the earth has put us here to hear. There will always be a wrench in the gut and a glory in the morning.
This morning I woke with the Italian sun in my eyes, the possibility of pasta and pizza and milk, coffee and vino and grappa too on my day’s horizon. And I woke with a prayer in my heart. First, for peace. Then for Dirk (or Billy or Ricky) and his birthday party and the lives that were saved. And for Sebastiano and for stories and for words and the way they work and for the slow, slow, little-by-little piano a piano way we live our way into understanding.