Meglio na bona morte ca na mala vita.

Better a good death than a bad life.

Napolitano proverb


My parents’ lives began in Italy. In Southern Italy, to be precise, in the small villages that dot the area just below Naples, sight-distance from Mount Vesuvius; an Italy that is nothing like the idyllic images Americans may have of Tuscan vineyards, where romantic and robust men ride mopeds and buxom women with impossibly dark eyes hang laundry on the line, grape vines and lemon trees winding along the background as they do in fables.

This is the Italy — especially when my parents were young, in the mid-1950s — of women with whiskers protruding from their cheeks and teeth missing from their mouths, of vendettas, of grievances settled without the law, of dusty brown-and-gray fields sprouted with potato plants and hazelnut trees, of worship of patron saints because curses abounded and people were envious and not afraid to use them to usher in your demise. It was a time and place where magic and Catholicism mixed, where God was often God and the devil in one — He made you suffer and He saved you from even worse suffering — and doctors cost too much to be called upon or they took chickens as payment, but who had a chicken to spare, let alone a lira, so herbs and women with The Sight were used to cure, as were prayers and penance and sacrificial gifts like the one my mother made after her wedding day. She sent her wedding dress to a mountaintop where the church of the Madonna di Montevirgine sat and left the gown on the stairs as offering, asking in return for a blessed marriage.

My grandmother, Addolorata, my mother’s mother, married a man named Arcangelo and when he died, after cutting his leg one day in the fields and developing gangrene, she was left alone with three children, Carolina, called Lillina, Antonio, and Assunta, called Suntina. The oldest, Lillina, was a child under the age of ten when Addolorata remarried, to a man named Carmine, my grandfather.

Addolorata was playful, easygoing, liked to joke and to laugh, and my grandfather would twist this into reason to be suspicious and accuse her of giving him ’e ccorne, the horns of a cuckold. Carmine had money, even in those early days when no one had any money. He had money because he worked hard, arriving at 4 a.m. to light fire beneath great cauldrons of tar for blacktop, so it would be heated and ready when the other men who laid it on rooftops arrived. I have heard him described as a beast of a worker, a fierce mule, and in the fields, when picking potatoes, the other men would tell him to get behind them at the end of the line because Carmine worked so fast he put them to shame, and they would not have it. He worked hard and earned money and he never spent it, not on himself and not on his wife nor the children he was to foster.

My grandparents’ time together was short. Carmine beat Addolorata. He would wait for Addolorata to go to work in the fields and then in her absence he would beat my uncle Antonio, who was a child around the age of eight. He would scrunch the boy up like a sweater and lock him in the wardrobe. He would manipulate him with threats and he would smack him around. The days went on like this until a neighbor finally tipped Addolorata off to what was happening.

One morning my grandmother made like she was going to work as usual, but instead, she waited around the corner. She would lose a day’s wage, but it was worth it. Her breath turned white before her lips in the morning air. Her heart thumped against her chest as she cocked an ear to listen. A neighbor hollered at her child to drink his milk, and the goat outside the door sidestepped closer to the stone wall, away from the sound of the hollering, as if even he was tired of the woman’s demands. Addolorata heard her husband’s voice.

“Who am I?” Carmine asked Antonio.

Antonio, who was not biologically his son, answered, so as not to enrage him, “You’re my father.”

Then Carmine began to beat him. Addolorata heard the whack of the man’s palm against her son’s cheek, then his ear, then his skull; she knew the sound like others know scripture. She had heard it ringing in her own ears.

“No,” my grandfather said, “I’m not your father.”

Addolorata, having heard enough, drew closer to the house, fear turned by a mother’s adrenaline into determination.

“Who am I?” she heard Carmine ask again.

“You’re not my father,” my uncle answered, his voice like a sheet tearing.

And more smacks and slaps echoed through the corridor as my uncle wept beneath them.

“No,” Carmine said, “I am your father.”

Addolorata left my grandfather, returning to Baiano, where she lived near Arcangelo’s family. My grandfather stayed behind in Avella, a town over. Addolorata was already pregnant with their first child.

My grandmother lacked milk after this first daughter with Carmine was born. Even while estranged, even with his viciousness still stinging in her mouth, my grandmother honored custom and named the child Anna, after her husband’s mother. Or at least that’s what she thought the woman’s name was because that’s what she’d heard people call her. The baby Anna grew ill. My grandfather said there was no money for a doctor or milk. He did not want to part with what he had earned.

Week by week the child grew malnourished and frail. Her eyes glazed over like wax. The color drew back from her cheeks. But she was a strong little baby, and even though she suffered, wheezing daily in a struggle to breathe, she would not stop struggling and die. She was less than a year old when someone lifted one of Arcangelo’s old jackets and laid it over the baby so that her suffering would end. Like a wounded horse, the little girl had to be put down.

Addolorata sent Lillina, then no older than 12, with a tiny box in which she had placed the baby. She told her to take it down to the cemetery. Lillina positioned the box atop her head as you see African women do in photos where they are balancing laundry bundles, and she walked the distance from her home, round the bend, to the cemetery. She did not understand the full breadth of what she had been asked to do; she did it obediently, as she did any chore.

The family that oversaw the cemetery were relations, the father being Arcangelo’s adopted brother, but they, employed, imbued with this responsibility, heavy with gravitas, saw themselves as much better than my grandmother and her children. Their noses were tilted toward the sky. There was no one around, so Lillina, not knowing what else to do, brought the box down from her head and placed it on the ground, in front of the door that led to the main office. Then she walked away.

There was, of course, no money to bury the child. Bringing a dead baby’s corpse to the cemetery for burial in an unmarked grave was not a rare occurrence. It was practical. It was done out of necessity, and life so often demanded dark things like this that people grew hard, their hearts callused over, in the hope that in this way, they might survive. In photographs, people of this generation are rarely smiling. They look old before their time. In one of the only photographs I have of Addolorata, she looks like an 80-year-old woman, though in reality she is only in her 50s, wearing one of my then-teenage mother’s new blouses. She has the eternally aged look of those who live hard: the unsmiling faces in Depression-era photographs, the stoic glares of corseted women in Civil War daguerreotypes, as if they were born with those cavernous eyes, with the lips slanting downward at the corners like commas, with slung cheekbones, stooped shoulders, as if they had never been young a day in their lives.

Lillina was not far down the long path that led to the black iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance when a voice hollered to her.

“You leave this here like this!” yelled the woman, theoretically her aunt. She told Lillina she was an idiot and her brain must be broken. “What if an animal came and took it?”

The woman shook her head and bent and snatched the box into her hands, sucking her teeth and mumbling, wanting to know how much longer she had to suffer the ignorance of these people she lived amongst. Then the woman and the box with the baby inside of it were gone, and Lillina walked home, feeling shame. She had not considered wild animals.

Into this world and among these people my mother was born.