Joseph Sabino Mistick: A spoonful of memories from Italy
When Mario and Maria Palmieri visited his family's village in Pizzoferrato, Italy, last summer, Mario entered his childhood home for the first time in decades.
In 1979, when his mama left for America, she simply locked the door and walked away, leaving everything as it was. And when she returned years later, too old to live alone, she stayed with her daughter.
Mario had been back to the village several times over the years, and sometimes he would stand outside the shuttered house, but he never went in.
“My family wasn't in the house,” Mario says.
“Everybody that I wanted to see was with me, so I never felt like it was important to go inside. But Maria said it was time.”
There were some changes, works in progress since retreating German troops blew up the village and mined the fields to slow the Americans. Then, the family abandoned the house for a cave, just hours after Mario's mama had given birth to his sister.
The walls had held up, but it took years to fix everything. Otherwise, it was just as Mario remembered it.
There were photographs on the walls, some taken in the village, others sent from America of relatives rarely or never seen.
The kitchen, where the family of seven crowded around a 3-foot-by-4-foot wooden table, was thick with dust. But those signs of daily life — bowls, an iron and a polenta pot full of utensils — were still on the table.
“I got emotional,” Mario says, “to see where we played and slept and ate. It was something.”
As they were leaving, Maria wanted a memento for Mario, and his nephew told them to take anything they wanted.
Maria went straight to that polenta pot, taking just one spoon.
That spoon would be enough.
That spoon was everything.
The handle design is faded, and one edge is worn from scraping, but it has been gripped countless times, since before Mario's grandfather. Everybody that Mario loved as a child used that spoon, even ancestors he never knew.
When earthquakes shook the village — common in those fragile hills — families stayed outside until the land settled. Then, they returned for a meal of potatoes or polenta, straight from the countryside.
When invading armies swept through, often fighting their way to bigger towns, villagers slipped out of sight, hiding in the surrounding hills. They returned home when it was safe, squeezing around small tables to eat together.
And after the last big war, when there were no jobs and no future, young boys shared a last meal with their families before heading to America.
Through all of those times, several times every day, somebody at Mario's house reached for that spoon.
Often, it was Mario.
Back home, Maria framed the spoon, next to a photo of the kitchen, and it now hangs just inside the door of Merante Gifts, her shop in Pittsburgh's Little Italy. Mario looks at it differently now, and he is glad he listened to Maria.
Italians say “ sempre la famiglia ”: “always the family.” And for Mario, who remembers the good times and tough times, that spoon is a symbol of his family's enduring love.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).