he other day, my mother-in law complained that Papà, her husband of 50 years, keeps the cash box in the bookcase behind the encyclopedia and that she can’t reach it without standing on a stool. She said, “One of these days, I’ll fall and break my neck.” My husband reminded her that Papà has been dead for ten years and she should move the cash box somewhere else. This she will not do. Never, in life, did Papà’s opinion carry the weight it does now that he’s dead.
Recently he appeared to her in a dream. He made her run faster and faster without explaining why or where. “He made me nearly pass out!” she cried. A few years ago her friend and arch-rival, the Sciura Pina, reported that he had appeared to her in a dream. This news of her husband’s betrayal soured my mother-in-law to the marrow. She will never forgive him.
Our family always visits the cemetery on November 1, the Day of the Dead. This year we went a week early to avoid backed up traffic and masses of mourners. We also wanted to make sure the ancestral tombs entrusted to our care would be presentable should other family members visit them.
Keeping up the tombs is a duty my mother-in-law takes seriously. She regularly washes the marble slabs. She dusts her husband’s photograph, pulls up nearby weeds, trims encroaching greenery, arranges chrysanthemums in their vases and waters pots of pink heather. She’s careful that no other tomb be better cared for. All the while, she scolds, “Couldn’t you do a little more, Papà? I’m full of pains. I expected more from you. I haven’t even won the parish lottery.”
Whenever someone asks me how life in Milan differs from life in Grand Rapids, I say one thing that differs is death. In Italy, no one dies. They hang around the house, peer out of church statues and paintings, reside in ancient buildings. It’s not only the saints who remain active in daily life. It’s everyone. The past continues to exist simultaneously with the present.
In Grand Rapids, when a building is half-a-century old, or even less, they tear it down. There is a residential area preserved from a hundred years ago, but little remains of the past city, and the people who lived there.
When I came to Italy, I was surprised by how superstitious people were: For example, when my ten-year-old son chose the number 17 for his basketball uniform, most parents, shocked and hostile, blamed that number for the team’s bad season. I was repelled by people’s fascination with death — skeletons displayed in church crypts; in a Sicilian monastery a withered hand exhibited like a cake under glass. Now I see that this could be a strange way of celebrating life, of keeping it alive in memory.
I began losing my memory before the age of 50. Now when I see something unusual, or interesting or lovely, I jot down a description. Otherwise, by the time I get home, it’s as though I never saw it, as though it never happened. My notebooks full of scribblings, sticky post-it notes, comments in margins, newspaper clippings — these make up the cemetery of my life. Every now and then I stroll through them and think, “Oh that’s how it was; that’s what happened.”
A present tense without memory is impoverished, diminished. Believe me, I know. Large chunks of my life have already been blotted out. They’re already dead. I treasure my great-grandmother’s memoir of life in a log cabin in the Michigan hills. It’s more real to me than much of my own life. The same is true for many novels, songs, fairy tales and Bible stories. I saw something similar when I toured Saint Ambrose church on a school trip with a Mother Superior. She greeted the statues like old friends. The personalities and doings of these saints were real to her, kept alive by their artistic representations.
I know why my mother-in-law won’t move the cash box: The memory of her husband putting it there, and of a corresponding part of herself, might just slip away.
One of my favorite places in Milan is a chapel in Piazza Santo Stefano called San Bernardino Alle Ossa. It was built in the 1600’s in memory of plague victims. Their bones, carefully and beautifully arranged, cover walls and ceiling. When American guests see this place, they say, “Weird, gross, spooky.” But, after living here for many years, I see it differently. The bones seem to speak to me.