As a young, newly-married man in southern Italy, my father became a tenant farmer. He rented a large plot of land from a prominent member of a patrician family based near Florence.
With only a zappa (a wide-bladed hoe), my dad, joined by his brothers and a couple of day laborers, cleared roots, grasses, weeds, and stones from hectares and hectares of land. He turned over all that soil, planted seeds, watered the growing plants, and kept destructive pests away. My dad harvested grain, grapes, apples, plums, potatoes, and figs, to name just a few of his crops.
He would leave the house – which he had converted from a barn – shortly after the sun rose, with a lunch packed by my mother and a jug of watered-down, homemade red wine. Sunburned and glistening from perspiration, he’d return for supper as the sun descended.
My dad never made a fortune this way, but he was good at spending just what was necessary and socking away the rest. We may not have had new clothes, a car, or other amenities, but we owned chickens, a cow, and a hog or two, and we always had enough to eat.
The property owner, a colonel in the Army, came around once a year after harvest time to collect the rent, to check on his holdings, and to see if my dad was all right. Compared with other absentee landowners, the colonel was considerate and fair.
He also appreciated my father’s diligence and honesty. More than once, he urged my dad to go up to Tuscany and manage other farm properties owned by the colonel’s family. That would have meant a good income that did not depend on the vagaries of the weather, as well as an end to back-breaking labor.
My father always declined. He never wanted to leave the world he knew, no matter what opportunities came up. He loved where he was born, where he grew up, where he worked the soil. He preferred the simple life of hard work, family, and Sundays spent playing cards with his friends.
I see now how much I’m like my dad used to be. I don’t ask much of life, and, generally, I’m satisfied with what I have.
Still, if I had not pushed myself from time to time, I doubt I’d be as content as I am.
When my younger sister married and moved to the U.S., I decided to make an effort to see her as much as possible. I’d heard the stories of relatives and friends who had siblings who had moved to other countries, never to be heard of again. I could not lose my little sister like that; I had to keep the family intact.
The money scraped together from birthday, name-day, and Christmas gifts and from little odd jobs was enough for a plane ticket to the U.S. I would stay with my sister and her growing family for a few months at a time. I crossed the Atlantic numerous times in more than 20 years. In all that time, my sister was able to visit Italy only twice.
In all that time, I never imagined that one day I would make my home in the U.S. When I met this woman at a wedding to which my sister dragged me, I never imagined that she would consent to be my wife. But she did, and I did not hesitate to leave Italy behind – that surprised even me!
Still, my heart aches for Italy. I suppose this is inevitable when you move to a new country as an adult. For as good a life as I have in the U.S., I miss my homeland, with all its “quirks”, traditions, dialects, panoramas, foods, and so much more. (Strangely, John Denver’s Country Roads plays over the speakers as I relate this).
I’ve become a man with one foot in the U.S. and the other planted firmly in Italy.