18 November 2010

Rites of Passage and a small tribute

Food, fun and what ever else comes along, is my tagline for this blog. I generally write about food and festivals with some recipes and on occasion life as it happens in my world. This post is about what comes along and doesn't fall into the fun category, but it is certainly in the life category, or to be more accurate, death and customs surrounding how we say good bye, that I have observed since living in Italy. I have no intention to be morbid, only to share my observations on what happens here in Italy when a loved one dies and a small tribute to our zia Laura.
Zia Laura Roncaglia and Marla
 It is something we all face, and usually most of us have had first hand experience with, but coming to a different country and observing the customs here, has made me reflect on the many familiarities as well the differences. Perhaps you will find it of interest, perhaps not. If not, you will probably skip over this post and hopefully return to a day when I'm back to sharing recipes or festivals. Today is about our farewell to aunt Laura and customs surrounding funerals as I observe the differences and similarities.
All of Fabrizio's family has been more than welcoming to me and shown me every kindness that one could hope for when joining in a family, especially one that you aren't able to communicate with a common language since Italian still doesn't roll off my lips with ease.  My shortcoming and loss, but that is another story for another day, which I probably won't be sharing today.  Anyway, Aunt Laura, has always made me feel so welcome and wonderful. She saw me as the person I hope to be, always making sure to let me know that she thought I was "molta brava" and wished someone like me would come along for her son to share his life with. High praise indeed. It made me aware of my shortcomings, but filled me with a warmth that always made me feel special. Naturally, I'm not sure I deserve such high praise, but of course, it did feel good. Laura is my father in law's younger sister and the baby of the family. She was a tiny, bird like woman who weighed in around  30-35 kg (65-80 lbs), fiercely independent and tough as they come. Her husband died when they were both around 38, leaving her to fend for herself and raise their son alone. Of course, she had her family's support, and endless friends and neighbors as people enjoyed her company, but she mainly made her own way. She took in sewing at home to repair, remodel or make things for neighbors and friends far and wide. She always had lots of piles of to do and done projects scattered around her sewing machine that sat prominently in the corner  of her main living kitchen room. When ever we visited she always out the coffee on and pulled out some ort of biscuit or sweet lurking around waiting to be brought on cue. Sh make normal coffee, but she also had a coffer maker that is sometimes referred to as Napolitano coffee, which is a type of drip coffee maker, that she insisted was French style coffee. It was all new to me and I naturally found it fascinating. She usually tucked in some sort of something to take home with us, no matter how much we protested. She reminded me of one of my great grandmothers when ever we went to visit. I just had the same sort of familiar feeling even when it was usually difficult for me to follow the Piemontese dialect,  but I  got along as best as I could and felt a great affection for her.  When Pope John Paul died, Laura decided she just had to go to his funeral and unbeknownst to any of us, she hopped on a train to Rome by herself and off she went and  stayed with friends during a time when Rome hadn't seen the likes of that many people for many a year. Quite remarkable I thought.
Pinerolo Duomo

Although she grew up in our Chisone valley, she lived in the same neighborhood of Pinerolo the rest of her life, and knew just about everyone. She was very social and kept busy making her rounds of her large circle of friends or around town to do her errands. She didn't keep her seat at home hot for very long if she could help it. She lived just across form the hospital for at least the past 10 years and had gotten to know everyone over there, not just because of some of her health issues, but  because she visited  friends and family when they found themselves in the hospital or sometimes to take a meal with the friends or staff of the hospital. We discovered that when my father in law was in the hospital for  a few days, she seemed to hold court and had many friends at the hospital and knew her way around the meal plan quite well.  People liked being around her and having her around. She was just fun. So when she went over to the hospital  two days ago and told them she wasn't feeling well, they took her in and tried to keep her going but she suffered a heart attack and was unable to pull through this time. Time and various aliments had taken their toll. The doctors called us and her son, who had called also letting us know her condition was grave. She hung on though until both her son and brother were able to arrive and say good bye while she was alert. She closed her eyes and left this earth quite peacefully.  A shock, even though we did know that her health was failing, it still came as a surprise when she departed and we are left without someone that has made us smile and brought warmth and love to our lives.
I found myself reflecting on some of the customs I have observed over the time I have been living in Italy and some of the customs seem to be familiar, some not, some regional,  and even a few quite jarring, but it is a time to draw together and reminisce, reflect, share a few tales and even a few secrets, certainly tears, and go on with living.
When I lived in Tuscany, I found they followed the casket from the church to the cemetery on foot and people applauded when the casket came out of the church and the people were waiting. I found that so surprising and confusing. After seeing it on television on more occasions I came to understand it was how people showed their respect. Quite opposite from the solemn quiet procession that I am familiar with in America.  Here in our valley, most people end up in the hospital in Pinerolo which is the large town at the mouth of our valley.  Unlike funeral homes like I am familiar with  there where your loved on is on display for visitation a night or two before burial, here they have a visitation at the hospital about an hour before your loved one is taken to the church of your choice. The body is laid out in a simple and tasteful wooden box with the cover of the box standing behind with a simple cross or crucifix adornment. There is a netting covering the body and people drop by to pay their last respects. There is a modest display of flowers, for the most part, except for perhaps the floral covering of the coffin and a huge wreath that is carried at the back door of the hearst and stands at the entrance to the church once you arrive. It caught my attention that everyone virtually had the same modest wooden box, which I found the simplicity refreshing and mildly comforting.  The placement of the top on the coffin and the ensuing bolting of the screws, gave a finality to the good bye process and moved us on to the next stage where arrived at the church to various services that are either of the protestant or Catholic persuasion, that I have attended here and not so very different from what I have known.

Pinerolo Duomo interior photo by James Martin

Here, in the Catholic tradition there is the saying of the rosary the night before and in Laura's neighborhood church the priest spoke as if her knew her and spoke to us of comfort. It was almost as a sermon. My father in law said it was highly unusual for a rosary and he wasn't so sure about it, but again I found it more familiar and there fore comforting.  The duomo funeral mass the next day included communion, which I was surprised by the wine being white and no one could tell me when this had changed from the wine being red to white as a tradition. For such a large cathedral the paintings on the wall made the occasion more intimate and the burning of the frankincense, created a somber but respectful atmosphere lightened by thw priest as he spoke from the scriptures and invited us to share the hand shake and embracing of one another in our vicinity. I had never experienced that at a funeral, but it was nice to greet one another even at such a somber time. All different traditions that I imagine have evolved over time and within communities as the times have changed.
So we say good bye to Pinerolo and arrive at the crematorium. This was a new experience for me and I must say a little unsettling. According to my father in law, that although cremation is fairly new here in Italy, the funeral director was telling him that he has found that it is about 50% cremations now.
This facility is new within the last 2 years. It is a lovely setting in the country, with a room that is tastefully understated and yet majestic. The view through the  series of curving windows  on one side of the floor to ceiling arched beams emphasized the grandness of the room with an atmospheric view out of those windows. The theme was a universal theme without any reference to religion. The lone violinist played soulful classical music as we arrived and the director spoke words of farewell and comfort and then the casket slowly departed  through the wall on a automated conveyor belt. I think that was the part that kind of got me. Perhaps too because we had gone through the ritual at the church it seemed finished to me, and this ceremony was like  a grave side burial, but not really and so it somehow gave me pause. Perhaps because it is unfamiliar to me, it seemed a little cold even though everyone there was warm and respectful. I'm not sure if only a ceremony there would have the same impact for me that a church funeral  with a group of friends and family gathered would have. Perhaps it was the lack of people there as it was only our immediate family, I'm not really sure. I know that I have always thought that since we are unable to be buried in a plot of ground where you actually go ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I have stated that I have chosen cremation. This farewell to zia left me wondering about my choice on a couple of levels but that is another day  and something more to contemplate. I miss the tradition I grew up with of going to someones home after the funeral for a get together of family and out of town friends and family. I always found it odd to be sharing food and stories about the deceased and family tales that I had never heard before. But then as I grew older I realized that sometimes this is a rare gathering of all the family and it is a time to cherish in spite of the circumstances.  The challenge every day is to "seize the day",  creating lasting  memories to savor later.


Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Hello Marla so sorry to read your very sad news ,, such a lovely lady and so caring by the sounds of things. Bless her and as you say what a huge shock for you all.

I know about the rosary , and it is done at funerals here with the Catholic religion .. I have never heard of applauding but different countries have different ways and traditions. Sending you a prayer .. you will have lovely memories too.

Bella Baita View said...

Thanks Anne appreciate your kind thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I am so enjoying reading everything you post on FB and just got to your blog when the colder rains arrived here and it's inviting to travel around on the net up in my warm loft. Zia will certainly be welcome in her continuation, whatever and wherever! Hi and sympathy to you and Fabrizio from me and Mario

Bella Baita View said...

Thanks Rita. It's always nice to know that people do read and better yet that they enjoyed my insights and recipes. We miss Zia, but we carry on as well do. We enjoyed here while she was here.

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