The Elisabetta Story

Bocca della Verita.
Text reads:
What is truth? What is memory?

In 1951 when I was two years old, my father accepted a job with the newly formed Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which was located in Rome. (In Italian F.A.O. is pronounced “fao” rhyming with “cow”.) This was not very long after the war, and consumer goods were not readily available, so my mother packed seven trunks to get the three of us ready to go.

Two days before we sailed, a huge carton arrived in the mail from my Baba, my Jewish grandmother. Thinking of her own ocean voyage in steerage almost 40 years earlier, she had baked for days, and shipped us cooked chickens and pickled meats and pastries and preserves for the trip so we wouldn’t go hungry. She never knew that my parents had to give it all away. But I love the story, because it was her way of giving us her blessing.

Going to Italy turned out to be the best decision my parents ever made. We were very happy there. We lived in a basement apartment and I used to play with the snails in the garden, or on my beloved Mickey Mouse teeter totter. Upstairs there lived an English girl named Hazel who had the most magnificent doll house I’d ever seen.

Conditions were hard in post war Italy. The streets were always clean because of the scavengers who picked up every last cigarette butt to recycle the few remaining shreds of tobacco. Artists would often trade a painting for a meal. People talked for years about how Mussolini had made the trains run on time.

But it was still the magnificent historical city with thousands of years of history. The Roman forum was my playground, and the magnificent gallery and fountains, and exquisite architecture, a regular part of daily life. For a long time I had no babysitter and my parents took me with them everywhere.

We lived there until I was four, and I have so many rich and warm memories. There was an organ grinder who would come by with his monkey, and sometimes my father let me put money in the monkey’s cup. I would go every day with my mother to the market to buy the day’s supply of food. Italians love children and I got lots of attention. It was crowded and the rule was that if I got lost I was to go to the flower stand at the end of the road.

Later on I went to a Montessori Nursery School run by the nuns. All the little girls wore pink and white dresses and all the little boys wore blue and white dresses. My mother says that it took us forever to get home, because I insisted on reading the numbers on all the license plates we passed. (Fortunately for our schedule, cars were still in short supply). My teacher sent home a note saying I was good in “matematica”.

When I was four we moved back to Canada. It was a hard transition for me. I had been taught to curtsey, and shake hands even with other children. I didn’t understand the rules of street play. We became a suburban Canadian family with Italian paintings on the walls, a treasure chest of memories, and some unusual vocabulary. When we clinked glasses we said “Salute” instead of “cheers”, and when my father had served you enough spaghetti at dinner, you let him know with the phrase: “Basta pasta”. My father continued to travel to Rome three or four times a year all through my growing up, and we all lived there (my sister had been born in 1956) for a summer when I was 14 and when I was 19.

After my father’s death in 1989 my mother and my sister and I travelled to Rome. It was a most fitting tribute for him. I was surprised at how much I was at ease there, how much it still felt like home. This work is only a beginning of stories that are interwoven in time and space. What’s a memory? What’s a story, a photo in the family album? How do I untangle the threads? I’m not Italian, but Rome is my city, and a home to which I will return.

Text reads: Suckled by my foster mother the wolf, the milk of the Eternal City is embedded in my Canadian bones.

Heart of Rome
Romulus and Remus tryptich