The temperature was barely above freezing when I took a longer than intended run today. When I got back home, there was a message on my voice mail, from my friend Cassandra in Italy. “Alfonso, where are you? I need to talk to someone who I am so close to but not related by blood.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that this would be a long talk. So I poured myself some tea and called her.
Cassandra (not real name) and I met in Italy when we were in our 20’s. Her family is in the wine business (among others) and whenever there is some little piece of information I must know (or verify) Cassandra is usually the one I call. She is a no B.S. person, very passionate and loved by her friends, whom she is fiercely loyal to. In my view, I would punctuate that with a “to a fault.” She and I never were romantic; we both saw that we were much too alike and that it would be best if we didn’t go down that road. Thankfully that short and wise moment of otherwise testosterone-laden youth has served us well. We have remained close friends for many years.
Her family has holdings in the Central part of Italy (where she lives) as well as in the South and the North along with vineyards in Europe and the New World. They have made some great wines and they have made some terrible wines. Cassandra has been involved in wine over the years. Today she is less engaged in the day-to-day business. She has resources and dreams and she intends to realize some of them. But lately she has seemed to be a little pre-occupied with her family, so it didn’t come as a big surprise that she wanted to talk to me about them, especially during a holiday when so much of what we perceive family to be is put under a big microscope to be fully revealed. I had no idea if she was going to drop a bombshell on me.
I called Cassandra; she had just woken from an afternoon nap, where she had fallen asleep by a warm fire. It was cold in her part of the world and she was curled up with a book and a fire and had promptly fallen asleep. But she awoke and wanted very much to talk to me.
“I am reviewing my family life- my parents, my sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, grandparents, children, all of them- and my relation to them now.” Her father was still very much alive. He was always traveling somewhere for the family. Her sister had married a man who was an outsider but who had done very well for himself and had taken a large part of the family business to international scale. “But Cassandra, tell me, you sounded stressed on your voice message, what is going on?”
She took what sounded like a deep breath and proceeded to tell me all.
“I don’t think my family likes me. I don’t know what I have done to them. I have been a loyal daughter, usually doing what I have been told to do. But I have this independent streak; you know it so well, Alfonso. And because of it, it seems I have never done what my family thought I should do, even when I have been successful. My brothers and sisters and I seldom talk, and when we do it seems like we are playing pretend, like we are being polite because we know we must be. But there is no depth to our talks. I feel as though they have all built a moat around their life and they control who gets in. My nephews are growing up and they seem to be so, what is the word I have heard you say in English, they think they have it coming?”
“Entitled?” I ask.
“Yes.” She continued. “They have these fancy BMVoos and Prada and Dolce & Gabbana and they have so much arrogance for anyone who is older or even thinks different. What has happened to Italy and the family?”
I didn’t know if it was a rhetorical question but I knew Cassandra would continue. I just wanted to focus her a little. “Cassandra, what is going on with your son, is he ok?”
“Alfonso, he is the dear light of my life. When my husband died (tragically, some say perhaps not so accidental) he took it so hard. He became very dark and not willing to share his feelings. But he is a grown up person. What can I do? When my father calls him and he doesn't call him back, I must listen to my father tell me that the young people of today have lost all their respect. But my father was never available, emotionally, for him or for me. And then there is the subtle way my father turns the conversation into a criticism of my parenting. And then I am caught between the two of them, grandson and grandfather, who are both so much alike, but will never look into each other’s eyes. And then it is all my fault.”
“And the wine business, Cassandra, what about it?”
“Alfonso, you know what is going on it Italy right now – you read the reports – do you remember what I told you back when the Brunello scandal was just surfacing, that this was just the edge of a very big knife that would be found sticking through the body of the Italian wine industry? And here we are now, with another large corruption looming. Not good.”
“What about your sister and her husband and the business? Are they affected?” I don’t know why I asked her, I guess I was trying to get her to talk through the whole family thing.
“They are like that little quote from Gattopardo that you love to recite, when the Jesuit tells the Prince, ‘Excellency, the efficacy of confession consists not only in telling our sins but in being sorry for them.’ They are so removed from their sins, by their wealth and their moats, that they feel no compunction to even confess. So it is a big mess. My dear sister is from the old school, she doesn’t like to make any waves and why should she? She can ski in the Alps during the winter holidays and tan all summer on the Costa Smeralda with her grandchildren, playing in the water and eating insalata di polipo with Vermentino from her little vineyard. Why should anything change in her way of doing things?”
“No, really what I see now, is that everyone in my family had gone on to live their lives as if the other members of their family should fit an image they have. And if they don’t fit in that frame, they don’t go on the wall in the gallery. They don’t stay part of their family. Young and old, the Italian family in Italy has disintegrated to a wall of Venetian plaster with pretty little pictures of people as we see them, not always as they are. And in my case, I know I do not exist in their reality. And why should I? I am single without a mate; my children are grown up and flung across the world. Our lives rarely intersect, except at a funeral or when the Cardinal summons us to a Mass or a meal. We say to each other ‘I love you,’ before we close the phone, but we don’t act like we really love each other any more.”
This was getting dark. I know the holidays are a rough time for people, I have had my share of challenges lately, but Cassandra was starting to worry me. Here was an accomplished, loving person who thought that her family neither liked her nor loved her anymore. And I really didn’t know what to tell her. I mean, what can one say, make something up from the Rod McKuen play book? None the less, I took a stab at it.
“Look Cassandra, you can only be defined by the love you give, not by the love you receive. And you are a lover of life. I know this is hard for you, you have lost a lot in your short life, but you have your health and you aren’t worried about having enough wood to make a fire to keep you warm at night. You are in a low period right now, and it seems the world might be in a low period with you. But you will not climb out of this pit with a rope thrown to bring you up. You were never this way, and you will not be this way now. You know what you must do, don’t you.” I was trying a little tough love with a huge dose of giddy-up, gal you can do it.
“Amica, I will be in Italy soon. And I must come to your region; it has been a few years since I laid some tulips on the grave of my dear wife, Liz. When I do, please lets spend a day or two together, talking this over. I want to help you as much as I can.”
Maybe that was all she really needed. Not judgment, not to ignore her completely like it seemed her whole blood-family had during this holiday. But a sincere acceptance of who she was and the promise of another day, soon, when we could talk, maybe over a same fire, for as long as she needed.
“I so would love that, Alfonso. You are a friend who knows what I have gone through. And life doesn’t just let up; it keeps throwing things at you. I know I must be strong and love even when I don’t feel it coming back to me. And I will be patient. And when you come, we will have your favorite polenta in that rustic style like we do in the hills, with the wild salad and that wonderful rough red wine with the color of the martyred saints that we first drank, so many years ago when we first met. I will wait for you until then. Ciao, mitico.”
Cassandra struck a cord - the universal desire to be loved. How extraordinary it is the person who gives and gives and asks for nothing in return. In Italy they are called Saints.