Oh, no, it didn’t quite begin with the car accident. It started with the tree growing in the toilet.
After four glorious years of living in a beautiful apartment in the center of Milan, Italy with a 50 square meter terrace draped with grape vines, heady with the fragrance of plump gardenias and fresh herbs, JP decided that it was time to leave the city and move out to the countryside. After a long, hard day at work surrounded by people and noise, cars and city smells, he simply wanted to find himself in an Eden, a place calm, quiet and surrounded by greenery. He needed to escape the stress and the dirt and the bustle and end each day, each week in a haven in the middle of nowhere. The boys and the dog could run free, he could listen to the birds and garden to his heart’s content and I, well I would no longer have the city at my doorstep, but don’t think of me. No, please.
And so we moved into Ettore’s house. A mere twenty minutes outside of Milan, Ettore’s house was surrounded by corn fields, trees and bee hives, nestled in a small domain owned by Ettore and his two brothers, three educated, highly cultured, elderly gentlemen, a gathering of three homes a short walk to the nearest village. While Beppe and Anna owned the original old farmhouse dubbed Santa Rita for the mural painted over the front door, Ettore’s home next door had been built in the 1950’s from bits and pieces of old cruise ships he had scavenged or purchased at this auction or that; it was a rambling collection of rooms placed willy-nilly up and down so many steps and ladders, rooms meant to imitate the ships from whence their accoutrements came. Warm wood paneling hugged the space, swinging doors with brass handles and frosted glass panes on which Dames or Ladies’ Lounge or Diningroom were etched smoky white, teetering ladders climbing up to a tiny mezzanine overflowing with books, a library and a living space opening out onto the fields, doorways framed by sage and rosemary bushes made living in our new home a luxurious adventure.
The kitchen was quite the ship’s galley. The old, worn wooden table that surely had experienced an endless stream of mealtimes onboard, sailors gathered around it for a legion of meals, was the centerpiece of the space. A terra cotta bread oven claimed one corner, two walls were lined with cabinets and counters designed especially for Ettore’s wife, Anna (yes, two of the brothers married women named Anna), and her tiny 5-foot tall frame. The brick walls of the kitchen infused the space with a warm, deep red glow and a cozy country atmosphere. Ettore had replaced the stovetop and oven with new just for us, and his old dishwasher was tucked away in the farthest corner.
Over the course of the thirty years since Anna had passed away, and as Ettore aged, the second floor of the house with its bedrooms and bathrooms was used less and less, only rarely for the occasional visitor. Ettore himself had long ago moved downstairs into what must have been the maid’s room just off of the kitchen, limiting his life to the kitchen-livingroom-maid’s room. We, on the other hand, climbed the staircase, threw open bedroom windows and dusted, cleaned and flipped mattresses and settled in.
Over the course of the first six months or so, we began to notice that the upstairs bathroom tub and sink began taking longer and longer to drain. It was barely perceptible for a couple of months but then it became more obvious. When it became impossible to live with, we finally telephoned a plumber. He spent several days out in the yard at the side of the house, digging in the sun, Ettore peering over his shoulder as he surveyed the works in progress, until he, the plumber, uncovered the pipes running from the upstairs bathroom and discovered the problem.
“You have a tree growing in your plumbing! A root took hold in the bathroom’s evacuation pipe and has grown over how many years I can’t say! It fills practically the entire circumference of the pipe and reaches up to the second floor toilet.” Visions of a leafy root creeping up and out of the toilet haunted us all for a few minutes as we took in all that he was saying. The upstairs had been so little used that the tree had had free run of the place, slithering and pushing its way up towards that bathroom, and no one had noticed. Well, the plumber eventually got to work clearing and replacing the old pipes, pulling tree root out of the toilet and all was once again well and in working order.
Summer slid into winter and we no longer worried about the plumbing. Tub, sink and toilet upstairs drained and flushed perfectly and downstairs, well the kitchen sink worked the charm. We did not ever use the dishwasher – neither JP nor I had grown up in homes with a dishwasher and we had yet to rent a home with one, so hand washing dishes was simply an automatic reflex. Just the thing done. With the counters in Ettore’s kitchen low enough for tiny Anna to cook and wash, we had to stand in front of the sink with legs spread in order to bring our upper body down to a comfortable and normal level with the sink so as not to hunch over in order to do a load of dishes, leaving one or the other with a sore back. One does get used to such things.
That kitchen saw so much joyous activity, so many home-cooked meals from risottos and pastas, paella to olive all’ascolana, misto fritto, crostate di marmellata and we were so very happy in our new home.
And summer slid quietly into winter. The boys were happy at school and we had long ago been accepted into the local community even as we were ogled and no doubt whispered about as the foreigners. The boys had a wonderful and attentive new grandfather figure in Ettore and we spent happy Christmases and other holidays with Anna and Beppe and their extended family; Nonna Anna, as we fondly called her, taught me how to make the perfect risotto and a few wonderful pasta dishes; Ettore and I planted vegetables along the side of the house; JP and the boys were as free as birds out in those fields surrounding our home. We had new friends and I was actually getting used to living in the country, in the quiet and without Milan’s shops, bookstores and market at my feet. Once a week, a small group of women would meet at a local café for coffee after dropping our children off at the tiny village school and I was soon integrated into village life.
And winter was soon upon us. Winter in northern Italy is harsher and crueler than one would think. The icy chill permeates every pore, freezing damp seeping in through one’s clothing, clinging to one’s skin. The fog comes unexpectedly, rolling in fast and hard, hanging low and thick, covering the fields in a blanket of cotton puffs and shrouding the house, the village in white, in silence and mystery. No one, no matter how experienced, understands the dangers of driving through this Italian fog, as thick as pea soup, like walking through a never-ending wall of gossamer. The morning of the accident was the first time I had ever attempted to drive in the stuff. But the boys had to be taken to school, down the long, winding dirt and rock (and potholes) path that led from our little clump of houses, cut a swathe through the fields of corn and bumped and bounced along until it finally opened up onto the two lane road, joining it like the two perpendicular parts of a T, that divided our countryside from the village.
The fog was so thick that morning that even with the fog lights switched on the hood of my own car was barely visible through the windshield. Pulling out onto that road on which I needed to make a left, drive a mere few dozen feet then make a sharp right into the village, was like entering a silent, ever-moving parade, stepping into a row of ghostly dancers bobbing along midair. I could make out the headlights of the cars as they came towards me from either direction, a set of sharp points of light piercing the white a mere few feet from the corner at which I waited, the normal distance of visibility cut dangerously short. It was impossible to tell how many cars were driving along that road, coming and going from home to work or school. Whoosh whoosh lights would appear through the fog, although it was hard to judge their distance, and a car would shriek by and then another before being swallowed up again into the white silence. Or a pause… a long or a short pause it was impossible to know. What made the situation more dangerous was that Italians have their own rules and many saw no reason at all to either flip on their car’s headlights (much less their fog lights) or to adjust their speed to the weather. Whoosh whoosh and I sat there for a few minutes until, a prayer on my lips, I pressed down on the accelerator and bounced my own little red Fiat out into the flow of traffic.
I turned into the village and around the corner in front of the church and dropped the boys off at school. In all of the few minutes, barely 4 or 5, that it took me to drop them off and turn the car around and head back to the stop sign at the edge of the village, the turning point back onto that two-lane road, the fog had actually thickened. I had to cut across the single lane of traffic heading from my left to right and then slide into the traffic coming from my right, making a left onto that road. Cars flashed by and I waited. It crossed my mind, if ever so briefly, that maybe I should simply turn my car around and head back into the village, spend a few hours with my friend Marina at her home, drinking coffee and gossiping until the fog lifted. My fingers drummed on the steering wheel, my heart pounding, as I hesitated yet then as I glanced out my rearview mirror I noticed that within the few minutes that I had been waiting for a break in the traffic cars had begun to pile up behind me, waiting their turn to leave the village and head to work. The pressure to make a decision, take some kind of action, not sit planted there in that spot and block all of the traffic, pushed me to make what was simply the wrong decision.
I inched my car closer to the road and looked right, trying to judge where the next car was, how far the headlights were. I saw nothing, heard nothing. I looked left and saw a car’s fog lights, bright and clear, barreling towards me quickly, too quickly I thought, yet still at a good distance. I looked right again and saw nothing so I pressed down on the accelerator hard and in the split second it took my car to cross the first lane and before I could turn left into the farther lane, a car appeared out of the fog directly in front of mine, a car with no lights on at all, a gray ghost shimmering in the whiteness. I slammed on my breaks and turned my head left and saw that other car plummeting directly at me, felt it slam into the side of my car hard. My eyeglasses flew off as the car spun, the shock pushing my car back off the road, the sound of metal on metal reverberating in my ears.