I wish I had taken photos of Concetta but I still remember the twinkle in her eye, the way she cocked her head when recounting her stories.
In a recent visit to Gentile we shared memories of her beloved mamma, Concetta.
Here is what i wrote after her funeral years ago:
Last week, the funeral of Concetta was held in our little country church.
Inside the church, a full crowd when I arrived before the start of the funeral and many people standing outside… men mostly. Here in Italy, the women take care of the family… and often – single-handedly – even its relationship with God! At funerals in the countryside, the men will listen politely for a while, dressed in perfectly-pressed suits and ties, starched shirts, shoes carefully polished… ruddy cheeks soaped to a sheen… gnarled hands holding hat… no dirt under the nails. Their appearance gives no hint that during the morning they fed the oxen, chopped the firewood, slopped the pigs, mended the tools. But before the priest arrives at the sermon (and he’ll go on forever, our Don Renato… haranging the parishioners about the lowly attendance… not realizing that economy of word might have another effect all together!), the men will politely draw back a bit from the door so that their whispered conversations about the grape yield this year… or the going price of wheat… or the damage the wild boars are doing to their cornfields (and, per l’amor di Dio, why doesn’t the Comunità Montana extend the hunting season…?!) will not interrupt the fervor of the women… and the few men inside: Quinto, Checco, Gigi, the more fervent.
I manage to squeeze in, standing in the center aisle, Concetta’s casket between me and the altar. Short. She was tiny. Concetta would have been 91 this month. The conclusion of her life is an appropriate beginning for my reflections on our years here. Her passing parallels the passing of a way of life which has moved into oblivion. I feel immense nostalgia for it. Concetta sang – oh, how she sang! – the canta-recchia of the Umbrian rural culture that are dying out with the passage of Concetta and those few who still know all the verses of these May songs in Umbrian dialect. I remember being suddenly awakened on April 30, 1975 – our first year on the land here in Umbria – by a song brigade serenading us under our window. A group of farmers – one with an acccordian – singing with gusto the songs to welcome the arrival of May. These brigate di Maggio sang their May songs all night long (and still do in the mountain areas of Umbria – on April 30th), wandering from house-to-house in the countryside. At every house, an offer of wine, sweets, a “payment” in eggs. With the eggs sold, the maggioli (May singers) would later gather for a dinner together:
Concetta (“Concettina” – she’s that tiny) was housebound these last 4 years. I remember the last time I saw her: walking back the 6 miles from Assisi with a walking stick she made herself, her hair hidden under a scarf, which was tied back at the nape of her neck – as all the rural women here cover their hair – coat of a nondescript color, hauling a plastic bag of a few purchases from town. We stopped to offer her a ride, the children and I. She beamed – Concetta always had a mischievous twinkle about her, a glow in the eye… small nose… a little mouse. When she settled herself in the front seat, I asked her to sing… she turned to the 3 children in the back seat… and serenaded us with canta-recchia May songs all the way to her home… with a gusto that belied her size…
I told her daughter Gentile after the funeral the memory of Concetta singing May songs is one I will treasure.
During the sermon, Don Renato, too remembered her songs. He takes Communion to all his bed-ridden parishioners up here on the mountain once a month and the last time he visited Concetta, she sang the Pastorella for him, although she wasn’t able to swallow the Host… but she drank the wine. Don Renato said that he used vin santo that time, as he knew she’d like it more. And she did. He thanked her, in his sermon, for having helped him be a good priest – and told us all that during the 14 years he’d been her confesssor, he never really knew why she was confessing…
I looked around… had a strong feeling about our mountain community. Don Renato is right: he shouted during the sermon, “I am a mountain priest – a priest of the peasant farmers… but HERE is civilization! Here is dignity!” I looked at Mandina, who no longer lives on the land, but down below Assisi… but she remains Gentile’s dearest friend. Their farms were in shouting distance of each other: “OOOOOOOOOOOO Mandi!”…and back would come the response: “OOOOOOOO, Genti… che c’e’?” … with the voices rising at the end so that sound carried farther. I heard so many exchanges like these reverberate across the fields (always between the women), when I was out scything the grass for our rabbits.
And there was Peppa, who’s farm is also near Gentile’s and Chippolo’s… alone because her husband Bruno is too bent over now with arthritis to leave the house.
And Emma – her husband Ugo at home, as the farm people never leave the house, land and livestock without a watchful eye nearby.
Checco and Quinto, brothers were both there, the family church-goers (and in this case, the wives were home keeping an eye out).
Eva, recently a widow, and her daughter, Anna Rita, who served as “altar girl”, did the readings and sang on her own with another young woman, when Don Renato asked for some music. He joined in as best he could, but suffers from a weak heart – we know it from the sighs and grimaces which accompany his Masses; he winces when he genuflects. At this funeral Mass, he told us in his sermon that he was really not feeling up to it but wanted to be there for his friend Concetta (he frequently inserts these up-dates on his failing health into his sermons).
Cellophane-wrapped sprays of birds-of-paradise, lilies, glaidoli all around the casket and the altar… and after Mass, they’ll be carried out to the cemetery, on each, parchment banners bearing in fine gold ink script, the names of the senders: Pronipoti (Great-grandhildren) swept across one of the most beautfiul bouquets… that at the front of the altar.
At the end of the Mass, the final goodbye as everyone passed to caress the casket, many an old woman in kerchief stooping to kiss it… and each person touching the casket. Italians have to touch – many pilgrims touch the Tomb of St. Francis through the iron grating as they pray there at the Basilica di S. Francesco here in Assisi.
Hugging, kissing, whispered talking outside and then all into cars… and everyone accompanied the casket to the cemetery in a slow car-procession, following the hearse.
My husband Pino had been unable to attend the funeral and so he dropped in at the home of Gentile and Chippolo to say good-bye to Concetta – she had died the day before – in her home, of course – and was lovingly dressed and prepared by the women of the family… and family members and friends sat next to her all night and the next day until the funeral, called tenere la vigilia… (“keeping the vigil”). The ill, the dying, the dead are never left alone.
The night of the burial, we gathered in the kitchen of the home, just after dinner, at 8:30 pm for the first of the customary 3 nights of the rosary… and then Novena… for Concetta. The rosary is led by a friend of the family. Emma led. A fire going in the fireplace, the kitchen absolutely spotless, logicamente!… no one in work clothes, everyone in their best, an indication of their love and respect for the deceased. Many people there (even the men who had been outside of the church at the funeral) so the kitchen overflowed.
After the rosary, we stayed and talked, sharing memories of Concetta as Gentile and her husband Chippolo – with their daughters – passed glasses of their wine and a few sweets that someone had brought. At life passage moments here in the rural areas, sweets are brought. When our first son Keegan was born in 1980, farm neighbors brought me packaged cookies or bags of sugar: needed energy for the new mother – and until just a few years before, luxuries in rural homes. Most of our neighbors worked the land for landowners – as tenant farmers – which meant very limited income and eating mostly just what they grew. The sweetener they used was honey from their bees.
We all wished each other buona notte with the usual kisses on two cheeks, glad to have had the opportunity to gather together. We’d be together again for the rosary the next night.