Memories


At Civitella Ranieri, the castle (castello) sits at the top of a hill that looks out on all sides onto farmland and bits of deep, green forest. Unlike Tuscany, just 100 miles away, Umbria has some old, low mountains, and large stretches of forest. On the rolling, cultivated hillsides, they grow a winter wheat, which was just being harvested when I went there in May. They also grow tobacco, just like my characters (how about that?), which has to be irrigated; and olives, which don’t. Outside the castle walls are two huge ceramic pots with dwarf lemon trees. Their flowers smelled so sweet I knew why the ancients would dry them, soak them in oil, and distill them in alcohol to try to save the fragrance.

 So much from that big, shiny summer called out to be saved. I understood pesto, and jars of olive oil and herbs, and the teas from every weed in the field to color the water and tease our mouths to memories much stronger than the flavors. Around the walls and inside the common yard were equally large pots overflowing with geraniums, bright red and fuchsia. The pots were much larger than the flowers seemed to need. I couldn’t decide whether they had to be large to hold water in that dry land, or simply because the Italians love ceramics, bricks, tiles, and stone.

My apartment, Granaio, was laid out between the inner and outer walls of the castle where the grain was kept. The apartment was a few feet longer than our old house, from the front door to the back yard alley, and about as wide. The floors were laid in a wide, yellow-brown brick, and the walls were old, old whitewashed stucco. Square, smallish windows admitted a surprising variety of light throughout the day, bright parallelograms of shiny yellow in the morning and late afternoon. I followed the sun around like a cat, reading mostly, luxuriant reading of complex prose. I remember reading and re-reading J. Neville Ward’s The Use of Praying, and closing the book to let it settle. Ward’s deep compassion and bracing intellect helped me move from work-work-work in community arts toward contemplation and writing. The exhaustion ran so deep. It felt as if I were looking at an X-ray of my spirit, seeing how deep ran the nerve. That’s where the story was, way up inside, where grief had puddled and would not drain. As the psalm says: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”

The character who became King in If Sons, then Heirs walked up and down the empty space of Granaio. Luckily, the place was big enough to hold him.

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