Sunday, October 28, 2012
I was born in a coastal city in southern Italy. When I was a little girl my mother and I often walked by the shore, looking at the fishermen patiently unraveling their nets. The silvery fish were spread for sale on the wooden tables along the beach. My mother told me that fishermen go out on their boats at night. They row their way out to the open sea careful not to make any noise, for the fish would swim away if they heard them coming. Silently they cast their nets into the water, attracting their preys with a small light and a bunch of succulent worms. Then they sit, smoking cigarettes and eating tune, waiting.
I came to look at those men with respect, as if they were the depositary of ancient secrets. Some of them looked very old, their skin shriveled by the sun. Darkness, starry nights, deep seas and troublesome waves were their universe, night after night, year after year. When someone asked me the usual question, namely “What do you want to be when you grow up?” , I would answer:
“I want to be a fisherman.”
To me, they were the bravest people in the world.
A few decades have passed in the blink of an eye, and now I live with my second husband far away from our beloved Mediterranean Sea. Every Christmas, out of nostalgia, we build a typical Neapolitan Nativity village on the sideboard in our living-room. I remember last December. Against the night sky full of stars I had already painted high mountains dotted with small houses. Bruno was making papier-mache hills, a lake and of course the barn where, according to the tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Dipping brown paper in a bucket full of glue, I asked him:
“Did you leave enough space for the pizzeria?”
It might seem awkward to you, but the Neapolitan Nativity, which in Italy is called “Presepe”, always includes a restaurant complete with chunks of prosciutto and mozzarella hung from the ceiling. We brought our hand-made terracotta figures from our country, and besides the classic Nativity characters we have two little terracotta tables with people sitting around them, happily having dinner. Jesus, as you probably know, loved to share good meals with his disciples, so the pizzeria is not so out of place after all.
Etna, our son, was comfortably sitting in his armchair, watching us struggling with a piece of aluminum foil that was supposed to look like a stream.
“You know, “ I said, “this is the first Christmas in my life that actually has a meaning for me.”
Etna had watched us building the Nativity every Christmas for nineteen years, in good and in bad times, and we have certainly had both. When he was a child, it was his privilege to put the baby Jesus in the manger at midnight on Christmas Eve. But of course when he became a teenager the care for this detail fell back on me. We kept building the Nativity because it’s our custom; it carries memories of our hometown and of our childhood. But this time there was more in it for me, namely the consciousness that we were getting ready to celebrate the birth of the Savior, the one who died to show us the way.
Etna, on the other hand, was willing to keep the tradition going, but didn’t share my brand new view of Jesus.
“This year,” I went on, “I’m going to go to the Midnight Mass. Would you two like to come?”
“Don’t even think about it,” was Etna’s answer.
“I’ll probably pass too,” said Bruno.
at 7:56 PM