very home should have one, and here in Italy, just about every home does. They always have a bottomless supply of deliciously cooked food ready to serve up at the drop of a hat and sweets in their handbags to dole out to any child with a grazed knee. They wear their hair in buns and spend hours crocheting centerpieces for the dining room table. They sleep very little and make few demands. We’re talking about grannies, that essential accessory, who look after the children during the long three-month summer holidays and prepare lunch for the whole family when the mother is out at work.
But don’t be put off by the sweet exterior. The first thing you should understand about old ladies in Italy is that though they may look frail and vulnerable, they are very tough and totally unscrupulous. Which is another good reason for having one, of course. A granny always knows how to push to the front of a queue or to get a seat on a bus or a train. This is a species with very finely honed elbows, long years of practice in applying them at precisely the right angle and absolutely no qualms about jabbing them into the softest parts as needed. A super-granny would be the perfect deterrent to the pickpockets and gropers on the infamous number 64 bus between Rome’s Termini station and the Vatican.
Brought up during the tough times of World War II, Italian grannies have a mission in life to make sure that no one in their care ever goes hungry. They still remember how to root about for wild plants to serve in salads and collect wild mushrooms from the woods, and they have no silly sentimental ideas about animals.
One dear old lady who lives at the riding stables where I keep my horse is always patting my childrens’ heads and muttering endearments to them. She keeps beautiful cream-colored doves, which she feeds lovingly each day. But when the time comes, all tenderness is cast aside and she deftly twists their necks. Her fluffy grey rabbits meet an even more violent end. She bundles them into a sack and whacks them over the head with a large stone. And when one of the many cats in the yard produces a litter, the children have learned to hide them, lest Ermelinda grab them and drown them in a bucket of water.
We have another old lady who lives in the apartment below ours in Spoleto.
When we first moved here four years ago, I felt sorry for the poor woman, who is short and thin and spends much of her time alone, as her children have moved away. I took her some flowers and she brought my children some sweets. She always squeezed their cheeks as they passed her on the stairs and said “Che bei bambini!” Then one day we found an abandoned puppy, just a few days old, shivering with cold outside our front door. We took it in and kept it that night in a cardboard box lined with blankets. To be on the safe side, we rang her bell and asked if she would mind if it slept on the landing between the two apartments. She smiled sweetly and said that would be fine.
The next morning, after the puppy had spent much of the night whining, she came and rang the bell. The sweet smile had gone. “Why don’t you just take it to the vet and have it put down?” she said, as my children looked on horrified. We had to give the puppy away after that and my children never forgave the old lady. My husband can’t stand her either, as she tried to block the renovation work on our apartment building, saying it would make too much dust.
But when I saw her hobbling along the road on her way back from the supermarket the other day in temperatures of well over 30 degrees, the girl-guide side of me emerged. I stopped and asked her if she wanted a lift home. That sweet smile lit up her face again as she gratefully accepted. It didn’t last long. After just a few minutes, she told me to close the windows, as the draft was bad for her cervicale. Then she started asking me why my children had put chorn gon on the steps outside her door. Puzzled at first, I finally worked out she was talking about chewing gum and hastily assured her my children had done no such thing. The final blow came as she was getting out and I dropped off my shopping bags by the front door while I went off to park. Perhaps forgetting my nationality she shouted after me: “Don’t leave your bags there like that. Spoleto is full of foreigners these days!”