September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Giver & Mass

By |2018-03-21T19:04:31+01:00February 16th, 2015|Area 51|
Newly elected President Sergio Mattarella, an ex-Christian Democrat, above, and former Christian Democratic President Giovanni Leone, with honor guard, in 1973, below: a sense of déjà vu.

n the late 1980s a February storm blew out two big windows in my Rome apartment. The tempest raged for days as if to punish the city for what so far had been a mild winter. Drenching rain leaked through wooden frames. Radiators faltered in suddenly chilled rooms.

My mother had died the year before and she alone had the master list of repairmen. All I could do was ask around, which led to a man called Mario who couldn’t fix windows but knew two of two Sicilian cousins who did (“Wizards!” he called them). I called the wizardly cousins and they ignored the storm to survey the damage (and me, a worried stick figure), immediately agreeing in poignant unison that I needed rescue. And they were up to it. From that day forward the cousins toiled away to restore my cocoon.

What I most liked about them — aside from the coffees we had together — were their names, Generoso Dattore and Fedele Massa, one from near Palermo, the other from a town in faraway Sicilian hills he insisted I couldn’t possibly know — all the more because class deference anointed me an American “professor,” somehow transforming Sicilian geography into an inferior subject.

Generoso and Fedele were true to their names. Generoso was generous, with his time and the modest final bill (he was the alpha cousin); Fedele was faithful to the task at hand, sanding wood indoors because the wild wind made outdoor work impossible. Here were my saviors, Generoso Dattore and Fedele Massa — Generous Giver and Faithful Mass.

Generous Giver was slim, wiry almost, and spoke patiently the virtuous of family and children, all the while grieving my mother (whom he didn’t know) and wondering why, at 30, I wasn’t married. Wives can be annoying — fastidiosi — but they’re essential, said Giver. His ironclad marital canon included amusing descriptions of family life, including beating off an evil mouse to protect his sacred beloved. Faithful Mass was far less Christian (he apologized for his profanities) but just as curious about my singleness, which he somehow connected to the blown out windows, as if a woman (not necessarily a wife) would have shielded me. He was also an ardent Communist and argued frequently with his timid brother about the corruptness within the ruling Christian Democratic Party, which he disliked and described as “federation of thieves who know how to speak patiently, to distract you,” an apt enough portrayal of a goliath-like party that would fall completely apart — undone by massive corruption scandals — just as the Soviet empire tripped up and broke.

Faithful Mass objected especially to the seemingly upstanding septuagenarians who for decades had run the party, and the country. They appeared to be civilized and polite but weren’t necessarily either, pledging allegiance to the Catholic Church while also flirting with the Italian underworld.

I was lately reminded of Faithful Mass’s vivid remonstrance when Italy’s young prime minister pushed through the election of a little-known septuagenarian and one-time Christian Democrat — and a Sicilian — as president of Italy. The president’s name is Sergio Mattarella, who while clearly learned, decent and professional is also very much in the vein of the men who once drove Faithful Mass crazy.

The Italian president matters very little in the context of the ongoing national political brawl, and both cousins would have said as much. But something about Matterella nonetheless recalls that generation of supple and chameleonic Christian Democrats who took power after World War II and didn’t let go for half-a-century. Mattarella is a throwback, albeit an upstanding one, to more guarded olden days.

That may be a good thing, since propriety can help offset rule by insults, now the norm; but it may also be the beginning of a rehash, since the Chatty Cathy prime minister has spoken of creating a “ministry for the South,” which reeks of the patronizing 1950s.

When a window blew out again several years ago, I called Generous Giver and Faithful Mass on a lark, if only to say new-century hello. But their landline number had been disconnected. Probably better that way. They’d be well into late middle age by now, not necessarily the time of life when repairing windows excites the spirit, let alone pausing to chat with clients who never married about presidents who seems to make time stand still — though neither cousin would likely have forgiven me the no-marriage misdemeanor.

My windows missed them over the years. And because more recent repairs turned out to be neither generous nor massive, all Sicilian heroics absent, the leaking has returned.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.