SANTINA. An essay from "The Courage of Our Confusion."

Those events are unclear; moments of light on the darkness. A sense that they are not dreams, but could be. My mother is crying; my father is asking for me. He said, "Do you like Santina?" "Of course, she's good to me." "Go tell your mother; she does not want to take her back to Tripoli." "Why not? She's so good!" "Go, tell your mother."

I entered the dark room where my mother was being comforted by my Aunt Maria. I felt funny, I was intruding upon my mother, but my father had pushed me to do so. He was paying attention to me only when he could use me. Not much, but something. At times, he made me feel important; most of the time, I was angry with him. Why did I have to be noticed by him only when he wanted me to do things for him?
My mother tried to smile at me; tears in her eyes. I approached her and touched her face, ready to cry with her. I said, "I like Santina, she's good. Please take her with us." She reacted as if my words were stinging her. Coldly, she said, "You are too young to understand. Leave!" I left confused, what had I done wrong? I must be bad to make my mother so angry. My father was waiting for me; I shrugged my shoulders and started crying. My father shook his head and left me alone.
I looked for Santina; she was standing by herself in a corner of the kitchen dressed as if she were ready to go out. I ran toward her and embraced her. She held me with her strong arms, giving me security and comfort. She dried my tears with her hands, looked at me, and kissed me on both cheeks. My oldest sister Giuliana came to us and said to Santina, "It is too late for you to leave. Father says to stay here tonight. Tomorrow he will speak with you."
We had spent two weeks in Naples with relatives and were ready to return home to Tripoli the following day. The liner was scheduled to start the voyage to Tripoli in the afternoon. I didn't know if Santina was to come with us. She was a young woman, a few years older than Giuliana, who was a mixture of governess and manager of the house. The cleaning of the house was done by Arabs who worked part-time. My mother was not happy with the local help, and she relied on Santina to organize and supervise the work in the house, including my father's office. Santina was responsible for keeping a welcoming ambience there.
In the afternoon, she would take us children out to the movies, for walks, and shopping; she was good at organizing games and preparing snacks for us. About two years before she was sent to us from Naples by Aunt Maria who knew the family because one of Santina's sisters worked for her. Santina had become part of the family and it was unthinkable to me that she should not return with us.
The car was taking us to the port. I was in the back with two cousins, one brother, and Santina. One of my uncles was driving, his wife sitting beside him. We children were having fun laughing and talking loudly. My family was traveling in several cars as many relatives wanted to accompany us. We boarded the ship; my parents standing together waving to our people at the pier. Santina was trying to keep the youngest children in check. I was playing with one of my brothers when he ran away from me; I looked down and saw Auntie Maria waving to us. I froze; uneasy feelings and hazy images emerging into my consciousness. My brother kicked me in the leg. I laughed and ran after him. The uncomfortable moment had gone.
It was early evening and I was helping my mother transfer table wine from the large 10 liter container to the one liter bottles. This was an assignment she had given to me, and I enjoyed pleasing her by quickly responding to her request. We transferred the red wine first and the white wine last. My mother had the strange notion that the red wine was heavier; therefore, it had to be put in bottles when we were not yet tired. My father wanted me to go to the drug store, three blocks away, to buy him cigarettes. He liked them to be "soft," and was convinced that the owner of that store would select soft cigarettes for him. As soon as he opened a new pack, he would gently press the cigarettes with his index finger; if they did not give, he decided they were hard and should be returned. He had educated the owner of that store to use his method to test softness, and he had been successful in having the vendor comply with his wish.
My mother called for Santina and told her to buy the cigarettes as I was busy with her. We continued our task; wine in the bottles, corks to close the bottles, and finally the bottles were placed on a shelf. We completed the red and started the white. My father entered the kitchen, "How come Santina's not yet back? She left over a half hour ago." He looked at me and said, "Go see what has happened."
My mother nodded and I had to go. I wanted to finish the wine, so I ran toward the drugstore, making sure to observe the people moving from the other direction. After two blocks, no sight of Santina. I reasoned that if she had gone to the store, she should be returning and I would see her. I rested for a couple of minutes, looking toward the store, and then ran back home. My father was waiting for us and when he saw me alone got angry, "Where is Santina?" I answered, "I looked in the store and I did not see her." I had lied, but I felt sure that Santina could not be in the store.
Now my father was furious and when, finally, Santina returned, he interrogated her. "Where have you been all this time?" "In the drugstore." "Franco did not see you there." "I was there; it was crowded and I had to wait." "Come with me." He took her to his office and kept her for a long time. She left the office in tears, she seemed destroyed. My father was out of his mind. My mother, suspicious of his reaction, took him in their room. They argued; I could hear my mother's pained voice, "You promised to end it--I cannot trust you--you are ruining your family." My father left the room yelling, "You're crazy!" and went to his office.
My mother in her room was crying; Santina in the kitchen was crying; my sisters, confused by the violence of what had happened, were crying; my two younger brothers were playing together in their room. I felt horrible; what if Santina had been right? I was the most miserable of all, I was the cause of my family's ruin. I had some awareness that my father's reaction was jealousy; perhaps he thought that Santina had met her lover. Santina, however, could be innocent; the drugstore was crowded, the owner was busy, it took time to find the soft cigarettes. It was my fault! I was bad! I hated myself. I got dizzy, I started vomiting, I fell on the floor.
When I came back to consciousness, I was in bed; everyone around me, including my father who was holding my mother. I said, "I feel bad." My mother embraced me, my father caressed me. Everyone was shouting, "We love you! We love you!" There was a sense of closeness, a sense of a loving family. The crisis was over.
It was a Saturday evening; Santina returned home from her free time. She was bandaged around her right wrist. She said that as she was walking, her swinging arm had the misfortune to land against a knife being held by a seaman. Her injury was treated at the emergency room and required a few stitches. She seemed amused by this strange event; I was puzzled by it.
When my parents returned home, they reacted strongly upon learning of her injury. They did not show compassion for her; they went into their room and I overheard them discussing Santina's recent behavior, which indicated to them that she was fooling around with young men. My mother was worried that Santina could have a bad influence on the children; my father sounded angry and agreed with her.
A few days afterward, I was talking to Santina in the kitchen before going to bed. It had become a tradition for me to spend some time in the evening with her talking about my day and helping with the drying of the dishes. She would reward me by making sugar candies which I shared with my brothers. That evening Santina looked sad, fighting back tears. I teased her about it; she responded by telling me that the day after tomorrow she would be leaving to work with a different family in the city. She said my mother had fired her and that she was given a week to find a new job. I was speechless and I felt angry at my mother. I ran into my room in tears. The following day, I spoke to my sisters who seemed happy about Santina' s departure. I felt alone in my sorrow. I sought out my mother; I wanted to know how we could do without Santina. She seemed happy and relieved; she laughed at my anxiety and promised that soon we would have another woman who would take good care of us children.
Something mysterious was going on and I did not seem to comprehend its significance. Perhaps my feelings for Santina were clouding my mind and I could not see the clarity of what was happening. I decided to play along and I said to my oldest sister, "I cannot wait to see Santina leave." Giuliana looked at me with an air of superiority and smiled with disdain and left.
Santina did not leave; for whatever reason, she stayed. What I gained from this development was exclusion from my sisters who whispered among themselves. I was no longer part of that closeness which had distinguished the four oldest children. My life was getting more complicated and I did not seem to understand the reason for it. For the moment, I decided to keep my distance from everyone; my feelings were my property, not to be shared with anyone. I was nine years old and I did not need anyone.
I slept in the same room my with my two brothers. Santina's bed was moved in our room in the corner by the door. No one asked our opinion about it. We did not know if it was good or bad. We had to accept it, although, at the beginning, we felt uncomfortable having a grownup woman with us. It did not take long for us to adjust and forget that Santina was sleeping in our room. We went to bed earlier than she and she rose earlier than we did; we did not see much of her. I had decided to go to bed with my brothers in order to avoid my intimate moments in the kitchen with her. I had the feeling that my sisters disapproved of my closeness with Santina, and by doing this I hoped to be readmitted into their confidence.
One night, the darkness of our room was attenuated by the white light of the moon. I did not know if I was awake or dreaming when I saw a person in white entering Santina's bed. I did not hear sounds. That was it, just a white blur.
The following day, I told my nocturnal experience to my sister Teresa. She listened attentively and asked if I was sure that I had seen a man get into Santina's bed. My story was getting distorted. I had seen a person, not a man. Perhaps I had been dreaming. I did not want to disappoint Teresa, and I replied that I was sure it was a man.
Later on, sister Giuliana started asking me a lot of questions. "Was the man clothed in white?" "Yes." "Was the man clothed in white like Papa?" "Oh yes." My father always wore a long white night shirt. "Could that man be Papa?" "I don't know. Why would Papa go into Santina's bed?" "Answer me, could that man be Papa?" "Perhaps," I said sheepishly. She had an intense expression on her face; "What is going on?" I asked. She nodded her head; now she was getting angry. Briskly she said, "Do not repeat this story to mama." She looked at me as if she were disappointed at my inability to understand the seriousness of what I had told her.
I felt important to have created what, it later become clear to me, was a turning point in Santina's relationship with my father. After all, I was not as stupid as I pretended to be. When I spoke with Teresa, I was not aware of the significance of my moon illuminated vision. Giuliana, with her questioning, had made it clear to me. No more secrets, I had penetrated the mystery. I was proud of myself, I felt elated.
I knew I must keep my excitement under control. I had to be careful that my father and Santina did not know I had betrayed them. I looked at Giuliana and I said, "Probably, it was a dream. There is no reason for you to believe differently." She shrugged and left. She seemed older, carrying a burden I had placed on her.
For the first few days, nothing happened. Then, my sisters started to behave nastily toward Santina. Giuliana wrote a poem which made fun of her. I resumed my evening talks with Santina. When she would ask me why my sisters were angry with her, I pretended to know nothing about it. The atmosphere at home was becoming tense, with my sisters more and more abusive of Santina. My mother spoke with them, and they told her that Santina was making them uncomfortable; she had to leave as planned. They were the force behind my mother firing Santina.
This time, it happened. Santina left and my father could do nothing about it .
It was a warm afternoon in June, exactly three weeks after Santina had left our home. My father was listening to the radio; something important was going to happen. Il Duce was scheduled to make a speech to the nation. In his speech Il Duce declared war on France and England. As soon as my father heard that war was started, he told me to go down to the salumeria and buy pasta and flour. He sent me back to buy coffee, chocolate, and sugar. Again, I was told to return and buy canned goods. I was getting tired and angry at my father's requests. He was excited and buying food seemed to calm him down. The fourth time he accompanied me to get more food.
Bringing food home became my father's obsession. He was anticipating scarcity as food supply was dependent on free movement of ships coming from Italy. He thought that war would compromise the arrival of food in Tripoli. Immediately, he was enlisted as a doctor for the army and started wearing a colonel's uniform. I was impressed by how good he looked.
A few days after the start of the war, I was not feeling well. I was feverish, and sleeping in Teresa's bed. Probably it was my father who had instigated a visit from Santina. She was upstairs on the terrace playing with my brothers, while my sisters were playing on the terrace with friends living in the same building. They all became intrigued by airplanes passing above their heads, directed to the nearby port where they started dropping bombs. When they understood that it was an air raid, they rushed downstairs. My parents joined them.
Downstairs was a safe place. At the time, bombs had limited penetrating power; usually the top floor sustained the most damage. I was alone in the house; in my sleep I heard noises which became the rumbling of race cars in my dreams. I was in the race trying to be the winner. Santina pulled me out of bed and guided me downstairs. She had been the one to notice my absence. My mother embraced me, looking at Santina with grateful eyes. This event gained Santina's return to our home. However, she was part-time and was to sleep in her own small apartment not too far away from out house

End of Part 1. To be continued in Issue 4.


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