When my family moved to The Free Territory of Trieste, it was a time when people did not fly across the ocean. Flying was prohibitively expensive and rare. No one really believed that airplanes made with all that heavy metal could actually fly safely when they were full of people. It was counterintuitive. I personally still have trouble believing that those enormous things get off the ground at all. (And don’t even get me started on those helicopters from the mosquito family!) Back then, everyone had the same reservations. We sailed across the ocean to FTT on the Saturnia. I suppose that if I had thought about it, I also would have questioned how a ship made out of metal that should obviously sink, could float. I’m glad I didn’t think about that at the time, or I would have worried my way all across the ocean.
We rented the bottom floor of a fabulous villa belonging to General and Mrs. Santi. My dad was a gifted Marine Engineer. He knew everything about ships and ports. With the benefit of hindsight, it is pretty clear that my dad was a spy. Dad knew all kinds of sketchy military types and nebulous characters you couldn’t really figure out. They were in and out of the house all the time. My dad was unavailable behind The Iron Curtain most of the time. I rarely saw him during those years.
While I lived there, I went to a Convent school about a mile away from the villa. I loved it there. I believed myself to be a typical little Italian girl. My father later told me that I won all sorts of awards for being super cool and the smartest of all, (and why would he lie?) Plus the class was full of kids I could play with after school.
I’m the second girl from the Nun in this photo.
In the picture below, my dad wrote I.M. next to my head. (Irene Marie.)
A stone pedestal stood in the garden. It was the ideal launching place for me to practice my flying. I was very light and had no metal on me. It made perfect sense. I was certain that I would be able to fly if I only practiced often enough and hard enough. It was simply a matter of stick-to-itiveness. I would climb up on the pedestal and leap off flapping my arms wildly, over and over and over, every day. I was convinced that I was getting incrementally better. I had so thoroughly persuaded myself in my abilities that I convinced all my friends to come over after school for flying lessons. My flying lessons were well attended. I never even considered charging for them. I thought anyone who worked that hard to fly should just have a right to it. It was a public service.
I had my first dog there. Her name was Trixie. She wasn’t allowed in the house, but then, neither was I most of the time. My mother liked her house to herself. My brother didn’t live there during the school year, since he went to school in Switzerland. My mom cleaned all the time. Nothing was ever clean enough for her. Therefore, neither my dog nor I were welcome in the house. We made things messy. I was invited in for meals and to go to bed. This was okay with me, since I was committed to polishing my flying and I had my green wooden swing hanging from ropes on our enormous horse chestnut tree and I could read outside and I had my totally fabulous dog. Why would I want to go inside?
We sailed back home on the Andrea Doria in 1955, a year before it collided with The Stockholm, and sank off the coast of Massachusetts. (And we thought airplanes were dangerous!) My dad was somewhere secret and wasn’t with us. My mom and my brother were really seasick and stayed in the cabin a lot, so I sort of had the run of the ship. I remember having a blast playing with all the kids. Michael Douglas was one of the kids with us on the Andrea Doria. He was older than I, my brother’s age. To this day it sticks in my craw that I can’t remember which boy Michael Douglas was. You probably all think of him as an old guy, and I guess he sort of is now. To me, he’s still a great actor and a handsome man, but I’m about his age. If you saw him back in the 1970s, he was acting in a TV show with Carl Malden called: The Streets of San Francisco, and even you young people would think he was hot!
This picture was taken on the Andrea Doria. Michael Douglas is one of these little boys. If you think you know which one, I’d love to know. I’m the first kid on the right holding what looks like a stuffed Tazmanian Devil. My mom is standing behind me and my brother is the second kid on the left. It is apparent from our somber faces that the photographer did not tell us to say “cheese.”
Zara just found this photo to me. I think it’s clear now which boy is little Michael Douglas.
When we sailed home to Brooklyn, my mother would not allow me to bring my dog. In retaliation, I refused to speak anything but Italian for quite awhile. My family totally ignored my plan to get sent back to Italy. Things were weird at Public School 102, what with my pretending I could only speak Italian. The teachers just assumed I was an immigrant and expected that eventually I would learn English. After about six months I realized my tactic wasn’t working, so I reverted to English. The day I switched over, it probably surprised them. Although, I remember answering English questions on tests and school work with the correct answer in Italian. When it came my turn to read aloud, I would simply translate what I was reading into Italian. I suppose that would have given them a clue, had they any knowledge of Italian.
A few years ago, in our travels, Victor and I went to Trieste to see if any place was still standing that I might remember. My brother remembered the address of the villa. He told me it was a pipe dream to expect it to be still there. He said I was going all the way to Northeastern Italy and there was probably an apartment building or a shopping mall where the villa used to be. I guess he was trying to keep me from being disappointed.
We traveled there anyway and my unwarranted optimism paid off. The villa was still there. We rang the bell at the gate at the bottom of five flights of stairs. A woman, older than I, came out. I no longer spoke Italian, but luckily this woman spoke English. She was actually the daughter of General and Mrs. Santi and remembered me. How’s that for weird? She lived in the villa alone now. It was too immense a building to live in alone. That became obvious when we went inside.
The villa was dilapidated. The walls were crumbling and damp.
The gorgeous mosaic marble was piled high with junk.
She showed us all the rooms I had recalled. She served us wine. We walked into the yard and my flying pedestal was still there. It was just a bit crooked.
I asked General Santi’s daughter what had happened to Trixie.
She told me that Trixie became their dog after we left; that she was the best dog they ever had. For decades I had assumed that my mother had arranged to have my dog killed. After all, my Easter Chicks had gone to live at the farm at “The Old Sailors’ Home” when they grew into actual chickens. My Easter Bunny, Eliot Ness, also went to live on the same farm, when he grew up to be a full-fledged rabbit. It was years before I picked up on that scam. I was already in college before my father finally owned up to the truth. My Easter Chickens and Easter Bunny became dinner for those old sailors. My dad was feeling guilty that I still believed in the deception after all those years.
Go ahead and tell me a lie. I believe everything. Ask my kids.
After leaving my old home, we walked to the Convent School with only memory as my guide. I hadn’t remembered the name of the school. When we found it, we were startled and laughed at its prophetic name.
(Do you hear the music from “The Twilight Zone” too?)