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Returning South: Summer Days at Grandma’s

“In the villages of the south, the days of summer come one after another like many beads to be strung on a string.”

A pear tree occupies a corner of the garden: some branches full of fruit, others covered only with leaves. When the pears are ripe—or conversely, already empty because worms have eaten their insides–they drop: the grass barely moves, and the chirping of cicadas and the stillness of a season are, for an instant, shattered by a thump. 

Were it not for certain aged and somewhat discolored objects, all summers at Grandma’s house might be a repetition of a single summer in which all the shades of green and yellow of the fields in Irpinia bleed into each other and the wind turbines are stationary beyond the hills and the sea is so far away that one can only try to imagine it. 

In the villages of the south, the days of summer come one after another like many beads to be strung on a string. An ancestral slowness cloaks every step, but it is a somewhat mean stillness, the same stillness that, as a young girl, I learned to hate so well and that, now that I live in a distant and quite chaotic city, I sometimes miss everywhere. 

Nature punctuates the rhythm of days that are all identical and are reduced to lists of faded frames: the chats with the neighbors, the festivals in the alleys, the phrases in dialect, the fly swatter and mosquito spray, the bowls of tomatoes and mozzarella on the waxed tablecloth, the candy on the table, the crocheted doilies, the wooden box with needle and thread, the ice cream in the glasses, the packets of snacks, the tomato passata in late August, the TV always on, the long black lines of ants, the phrases “what a hot day it is” and “today you can’t breathe”, the curtains to be lowered in mid-afternoon, the ice cream truck playing “’O sole mio” in the streets on Thursdays and Sundays. 

The hum of the refrigerator fouls the postprandial silence, and the torpor that grips the limbs and induces sleep in this season is just as intact as when, years ago, I would come home on summer afternoons after playing ball with the neighborhood children and Grandma would doze in the armchair, waving a fan or reciting the rosary. I would ask her, “What’s for la merenda (snack)?” and she would reply, “Do you want bread with tomato?” She still asks me that today, just as she did then. Unlike back then, that bread today seems to me to be the best bread I have ever eaten, and to see her baking, blessing the bread dough, dusting the frames with old photographs, or stretching out the laundry seems to me an incalculable richness. 

Where do certain memories end up, I wonder: perhaps in a middle ground adorned with the same knick-knacks, the same tiles from Grandma’s kitchen, the yellow curtains, the sofa and the beige slipcover–a non-place I still inhabit even though I am no longer a child. My grandmother is the certainty that my childhood existed, and these long summers of caring, food, love and a certain amount of laziness remind me that every return is a reunion. Today at Grandma’s house, nostalgia is reinvented in the present, making those faults I once resented more tolerable. Everything is in its place, always still and immaculate, but the gaze with which I observe certain distortions is new. It allows me to excuse them with greater ease and to appreciate the returns home or even long for them. It is difficult to talk about the south with those who were not born there, and stereotypes would be wasted. 

Even more complicated is to forgive oneself, to know that one belongs deeply to something with which, however, one identifies only in parts, a bit like returning to lie in a painting whose landscape one knows by heart. So one invents a compromise: to go and return, here and there, and to curl up in that unnamed knot of blood and roots and guard it, shelter it.

Then, in an instant, it is September, the border of time, the edge of summer. The air grows stiffer, a sweatshirt covers the shoulders, figs fall from the tree in the garden and children scream as they leave school. The pears, however, are gone: a longing for autumn makes its way in.