AMBROGINA CAIONE, 1898 - Lanciano, Italy

By Paola Ferrario

In 1962 my grandmother began stealing, every other day, from the cash register in my grandfather’s pharmacy. She hid the money in her bosom by day and in her prayer book by night. In 1963, she bought a washing machine outright, but when delivered, the washer never made it through the door. My grandfather stated: “I will not pay for that!” When he was told that the appliance was already paid for, he knew he had been robbed. “Take it away!” said he and slammed the door.” Uncle Riccardo offered his living room as a temporary solution. And so, in 1963, the year I was born, the washing machine sat conspicuously between the new couch and the armchairs in uncle Riccardo and aunt Renata’s living room for almost nine months.

It began in 1913, when my grandfather rode in a two-horse carriage to my grandmother’s summer mansion. He wore a medical lieutenant’s uniform. At twenty-one he was handsome and fearless. He bowed, clicking his heels twice, then kissed her hands. She spoke French to him. I wish to think that they were in love then. He came from a family of selfish scientists who once were shepherds, she belonged to the people with good blood and bad genes. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, they saw in one-another the best marriage arrangement they could find.

My grandfather was predictable, my grandmother was eccentric. He was reserved, she was theatrical. He loved chamber music, she adored Italian opera. He thought he could control her, she thought she could seduce him; as far as I can remember, my grandparents were not lovers.

Their political ideas were the same, their classes close in the social scale, but their values were opposite. In their marriage they lacked trust and intimacy, because they liked themselves a lot better than they liked each-other.

I tell my younger cousins that their great-grandfather was a chemist with strong morals and their great-grandmother was a cruel countess with a passion for food. My grandfather was beautiful but she was invincible. My grandfather saved money, my grandmother created debt that she never intended to pay. The town merchants often appeared at my grandfather’s pharmacy with overdue bills from my grandmother. He read over lists of exotic foods that should have never been purchased for a family of nine. He would pay and apologize, then go home and refuse to eat anything that my grandmother cooked. He lived on bread and eggs for days, making my grandmother furious, since she considered her cooking irresistible.

I don’t know how the washing machine got in the house at last. Maybe it was because of my birth, since a new baby in an era of non-disposable diapers might have seriously disturbed my grandfather’s need for hyper-cleanliness. In my first memories, the washing machine was used daily. Its hardest day was on Monday when the tablecloth and napkins from the Sunday lunch went through a four-hour cycle after being disfigured by the ragu con carne and red wine.

 

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