ome is not eternal. Some scenarios lose all plausibility when a younger generation of choreographers can’t imagine them, swept away by the baby-screen neon of brighter and more immediate times.
No matter how hard I strive to whisk Rome into the hackneyed eternalness of brochures, Stella and the dwarf intervene to stop me. Any connecting tissue between their “then” and this “now” has withered and died.
Stella was my mother’s seamstress. The women spoke from time to time, mostly when my mother needed to know about the state of hems and stitching. Their intimate bond dated to wartime, which my Polish refuge mother never discussed.
In June 1965, just after my American school year ended, I visited my mother in Rome, and one day we took two buses and a tram to get to Stella’s house. It was “very far away,” my mother explained, on the Via Tiburtina, in the Don Bosco neighborhood, part of a new cluster of low-income housing. Stella could not come to us because she had polio. I tagged along out of curiosity, my direct interest in dressmaking limited.
Stella, in her 60s, lived in a one-bedroom apartment above a milk store. She shared the place with her mute cousin Giusy, a 40-year-old dwarf. Giusy didn’t have a room. She slept in a cot beside Stella’s bed. Stella, in a wheelchair, worked behind a Singer sewing machine in the corner of the “living room.” Garments were heaped on Stella’s bed or arranged and packed tightly in the closet near the main door. The apartment smelled of camphor and garlic. Over the sewing machine was an image of the bleeding Jesus. On both sides of Giusy’s cot were candles for light, and a bedpan.
Stella greeted my mother warmly. She called me a bel ragazzetto and shook my hand warmly. I tried leaning down to Giusy but she instead climbed on to a stool and also shook my hand, nodding and smiling. “Thank the merciful and good God for Giusy,” said Stella, “she does everything for me.”
Nothing in my limited experience prepared me for the details of the scene.
Stella praised her new sewing machine, telling me she’d toiled for years on pedals. She offered us coffee, which my mother declined, but Giusy went to the two-burner stove under a small window, and, again standing on a footstool, began boiling milk. Outside, on a ledge, a cat peered in. Giusy stuck her arms out toward the cat, which hissed. “There is a small colony of cats in the courtyard,” said Stella. “A woman feeds them. I hate the cats but Giusy loves them.”
My mother asked about Stella’s health. A blanket covered her lower body and legs. “I have become old, signora.” That’s all she said.
On the walls were religious portraits and medallions with the image of Pope John XXIII. When I went to look at one, Giusy followed me, climbing yet another footstool to caress and pet the image of a John icon, smiling. “Giusy is a little dimwitted,” Stella told me aloud. “But she has a good heart and she takes care of me. As long as we are on this good earth we shall be together.”
We spent perhaps 30 minutes with Stella and Giusy, most of it among dresses and fabrics, my mother trying on a newly repaired dress. My Italian was limited. I mostly listened and watched. Stella offered to turn on the television to distract me, but it was mid-afternoon and the screen showed only a clock. Programming would resume at 4 p.m.
We left soon thereafter. I bent to shake Stella’s hand. Giusy stepped up to give me a half-hug, the most she could manage. I was given two dresses to carry home.
In the decades that followed, I heard little about them. My mother died, and I received a handwritten note from aged Stella. Giusy had died in the interim. Stella said she needed money, but I had none to give.
Last winter, on a cold February day, I took the wrong tram and found myself in Don Bosco, in an area that resembled the one where Stella lived. The streets were now lined with trendy clothing and electronics stores, most brimming with colorful smartphone ads. Once-ubiquitous fresh milk stores — the latteria — have largely disappeared, as has much of the non-eternal Rome world that bore and housed Stella and Giusy. And in its way that very transience gladdens memory, giving it purpose, which in part concerns fading away.