What Is Not Given
If I’d known firsthand the kitchen in Bisaccia where my grandmother learned to perform the tasks of matrimony and motherhood, I might be able to find my way to my father’s family’s heart. I have seen the quality of the light—the southern Italian sunshine, the shady clarity of mountains—but if I could have weighed the iron cauldron in my hand, smelled the hot stone of the stove burning wood, and witnessed the spare measure of salt beside the floured board, I might have something to hold my devotion. Even if the cauldron, the stone, and the salt were not my memories, they might have been given to me. They might be my talismans against disconnection.
If there had been a photograph of her, of the girl’s bright, resentful face, caught with her kerchief and apron on, raising the rolling pin from the pasta dough to say, “Hey!”, I might not feel I was stealing each time I make the gravy, which I learned from my mother, which she learned from my father’s sister, who gave us the gravy so that my mother, not Italian, could feed us pasta. “That was my mother’s gravy,” my father’s sister says sometimes, as if she would like to take it back. “I gave you that.”
If someone could have shown me my grandfather, from Andretta on the neighboring mountain, coming to court my grandmother, paying his respects to her family with a bottle of wine his own mother made, I might understand the old, solemn importance of courtship. I would tell my children the story of the wine their great-grandmother made, so that her son would be greeted with warmth and respect. I would tell them the story of their great-grandfather’s grape arbor on the mountainside facing Bisaccia. I would tell them about the wine sleeping in the cellar, listening to its family’s dreams of a farmer’s marriage to a girl who served in a Mayor’s dining room and who came with a promise of porcelain coffee cups.
If there had been a portrait of the men of Andretta and the crude weapons they bore, descending and climbing to and from the valley farms or hunching shoulders against a long road into another world’s wars, even a poor sketch, maybe I could see something in their eyes to help me understand why, in my father’s family’s guts, every loss seems to feel like a firstborn’s murder or the theft of half the village’s women and livestock; and why every win must be sealed by a grim aggression that weighs like cement, something mixed from our territorial clay and the blood of our enemies.
Molli D’Avellino is an Italian-American writer of mixed heritage. Under another name, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in |tap| litmag, Atticus Review, and Lady Blue Publishing, among others. She was a Salamander 2016 Fiction Prize finalist, a Pushcart nominee, received a Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest honorable mention, and received her MFA in 2014 from Manhattanville College.