LETTERS TO MY SON
My dearest Sean, the happy expectant father,
I am ecstatic to know that you are soon to become a father. I have waited so long to become a grandmother, having tolerated all those hours of looking at the photos friends kept thrusting on me of their grandchildren. So you know how happy I am to be finally entering the state of grandparenthood. I love hearing the monthly progress reports you give me, and all the plans made for him --because we already know it will be a “him” -- and all the necessities and accoutrements required to make the perfect setting when the little one arrives into this world. Every topic concerning this long awaited event is interesting to me – and each new subject brings back to my mind the days and months before and after your birth. I find myself amazed, sometimes dumbfounded, and often amused, at the incredible contrast between your preparation for a baby and mine.
I received the videotape of the latest ultrasound in the mail and I think it is wonderful. Although I almost had to leave the room due to a certain queasiness, I managed to watch the movie all the way through and loved every minute of it. I just couldn’t take my eyes off that tiny being continually weaving around and undulating in all that fluid. I especially loved the parts where the tape would suddenly stop and a little arrow would appear, and then the words “leg” or “kidney” or “heart” or “fingers” would come typed onto the screen. I couldn’t quite make out the “body part” that you mentioned but I will take your word for it that this sweet little creature is a boy. I did hear the heart beating away and increased the volume, as you suggested, so I could hear it even louder and stronger. It sounded like a big kettledrum pounding away in the living room. And all through, I just couldn’t stop thinking about this amazing technology that we have today. Not only that there is such a thing as an ultrasound machine but that you could instantly make a videotape from it and mail it to your mother.
I got your email about the next ultrasound which includes all the measurements of the fetus, how long he is, how big his head is, and what percentile of size and development he is in comparison with other fetuses who are five months old.
Your father and I found out what sex you were in the old-fashioned way when you poked out your head – and the rest of you—and the doctor proclaimed, “It’s a boy!” (Or rather, “e` un maschio,” since we were living in Italy.) Except that nobody who mattered heard him say it, since husbands were not allowed in delivery rooms then and I was blissfully unaware, sound asleep under general anesthesia. Whatever brilliant mind invented the ultrasound machine, he had not yet done so in 1965. Or even if he had, such an invention had definitely not found its way down to the town of Bari in the region of Puglia in southern Italy.
As you know, several years before you were born your father and I had come to live in Bari to be English teachers at the Centro Studi Americani, The American Studies Center. After we had saved a little money, we returned to New York in the hope of finding a publisher for your father’s first book. But after a couple of years of disillusionment, both with publishing and life in the US, we decided to return to Italy and the life we loved. Looking back, I’d have to say that the circumstances preceding your birth were, to say the least, somewhat unconventional. For one thing, instead of being hooked up to an ultrasound machine, I spent my fifth month of pregnancy aboard a series of ships, starting with a Dutch freighter that left Brooklyn for Naples, but never got there.
It was May of 1965 and although I was five months pregnant when I boarded the freighter, I hardly showed at the time. We had taken cargo ships across the Atlantic before (though this was your first), and we knew the journey usually took from two to two and a half weeks, depending on how many cities we stopped at along the way to load or unload cargo. On this particular trip, we were the only passengers, magnificently ensconced in a huge well-appointed stateroom and taking all our meals with the captain and the other officers. Naples was to be our first and only stop.
After about two weeks of travel, however, when we were somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, and only one day off the coast of Italy, the captain informed us that we would not be stopping there after all. He had just received a radio message telling him that there was no cargo to be picked up in Naples and we would be proceeding to Beirut instead. And so it happened that a few days later we found ourselves on the dock at Beirut, Lebanon, with all our earthly belongings -- which consisted of two large trunks and six suitcases -- wondering what to do next. When the Dutch captain suddenly noticed my protruding stomach, he was horrified, and railed at us.
“You are pregnant?” he exclaimed. “How could you not tell me? I am not permitted to take pregnant women on board.”
I had known from our previous crossings that freighters were required to carry a doctor only when there were more than twelve passengers, but somehow it never occurred to me that I might need one.
That freighter never carried passengers again, but to this day I don’t know if it’s because of the captain’s misdeed or just that insurance rates had gone so sky high that cargo ships could not afford to take passengers any more. At least the captain was kind enough to direct us to a shipping agency to find passage for Italy and agreed that his company would pay the fare. After all, it was their fault that we hadn't landed in Italy. The next available passage happened to be a German cruise ship that was headed for Piraeus, the port of Athens, after making its way through the Greek islands. It was to leave five days later. And so we ended up enjoying an interesting five days in beautiful Lebanon before it was ripped apart by civil war. My very favorite pasttime was sauntering through the casbah of Beirut, loving the mysterious atmosphere of the place and its exotic smells of spices I had never known before.
When our embarkation day arrived, the German captain told us that since we were not bona fide cruise passengers, our quarters were to be down in the hold on hammocks with the crew. In consternation, I stuck out my stomach as far as I could and pleaded poor pregnant lady in need of a real cabin. When he realized our circumstances, our new captain found us a nice first class cabin from which we toured the islands of Crete, Cyprus and Rhodes before landing in Piraeus six days later.
We sat on our trunks at the harbor all day waiting for the evening ferry which would take us across the Adriatic Sea to Brindisi. We lay on chairs on the deck all night, and in the early morning mist, we could see the port of Brindisi, a city just south of Bari. And there on the dock we could make out a small group of our Barese friends who had come to fetch us with a pickup truck. It was about an hour’s drive to Bari and to a furnished apartment our friends had found for us at Via de Romita, 2, the address which was to become your first home.
I was very lucky because Dottor Giuseppe Valle, director of the Clinica Ginecologica e Ostetrica at the Policlinico, Bari’s university hospital, had been one of my English pupils during our earlier stay in Bari. I now approached him in my new state as patient, and he was effusive in his best wishes and his willingness to be my obstetrician and to provide medical and hospital care totally for free. Such is the power and influence in Italy of a Direttore that he can make the rules, even those which are the domain of the billing department! Dr. Valle tried to be as modern as possible and made every attempt to equip his hospital with all the latest medical advances. In fact, one of the reasons he had wanted to take English lessons was to be able to read the New England Journal of Medicine, a tome he would laboriously pore over each week during our lesson, to little apparent positive effect or comprehension, I’m afraid. Dr. Valle was in his 50’s, advanced enough in years to make it hard for him to become proficient in a new language, especially when he had only one hour a week to devote to its study.
To his credit, Dr. Valle (who insisted we call him “Pino” short for Giuseppe) did everything he could to help us, both medically and financially, given the state of the Italian health system. Whatever went wrong in bringing you into the world would, I suppose, have to be blamed on the Policlinico itself, or perhaps the whole Italian health system, because I would hate to blame Dott. Valle after all he did for us.
I was interested to hear about your daylong class on La Maze, and so glad that you will be there with Hannah when she has the baby. I know you will be a great support and won’t faint on her or anything like that. I wonder if husbands were not allowed in delivery rooms for so many years was because it was thought they might be too squeamish for the whole affair. Certainly, as forward thinking as was Pino Valle back there at the Policlinico di Bari in 1965, he never permitted any men at deliveries or even in the labor rooms with their wives. And when I say he was forward-thinking, believe me, for southern Italy back then, he really was (maybe because he was originally from the northern city of Turin). He was the national head of the Italian Planned Parenthood Association – and you know what that meant: birth control! Remember, the Pope resided only a few hundred kilometers away on the other side of the Appenines and there was enormous disapproval of Dr. Valle from the clergy in all parts of Italy.
Dr. Valle had instituted natural childbirth classes for his patients and for any pregnant woman in Bari who wished to attend for the fee of 10,000 Lire (about $16). I still have (packrat that you know I am) a copy of his pamphlet “Per Una Maternita` Senza Paura” (birth without fear) which tells prospective mothers all about the course. It is called “preparazione psico-profilattica” and includes lessons in anatomy and physiology, breathing, the viewing of childbirth films, and all kinds of exercises to help the woman control her muscles and nerves. In the brutal heat of July and August (no air conditioning of any sort in any location had made its way to Puglia yet), with my legs swollen like tree trunks and my sandal size up to number 40, I made my way to the Policlinico for class. Twice a week, I sat in a large room on a mat on the floor with about ten other women, and was taught everything that was supposed to make this parto pleasant and painless.
Dr. Valle’s head nurse, called La Maestra, a stern and businesslike woman, also a Torinese, was our teacher. She could be formidable and scary, but she was always kind and friendly to me, knowing that I, as la professoressa d’inglese, was held in special esteem by Dr. Valle. It was rumored around the hospital floors that she was secretly in love with Valle and would have followed him to the ends of the earth. Certainly, the truth was that she was indispensable to him and to the running of his clinic. Each week we repeated our breathing instructions and did various kinds of abdominal exercises. On the day of the viewing of the childbirth film, a number of us felt a bit sickish and turned a little pale, but generally we held up pretty well. I was the only foreigner who had ever participated in the Policlinico’s natural childbirth classes, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, to this day, I am still the only one.
The pamphlet that La Maestra handed us starts out by telling us to forget those old ideas about childbirth having to be painful as a sort of penance for women; it seeks to dispel old wives’ tales which say the new mother will be exhausted and in a “nightmarish state.” It even quotes the Bible which apparently states that “tu partorirai con dolore.” You will give birth with pain. The paragraphs that follow seek to contradict all these horror stories by saying with these natural childbirth classes, everything will be happy, glorious, and pain free. One sentence actually says that this psycho-profilactic preparation will result in many childbirths “senza alcun dolore,” totally without pain! Therefore, I somehow believed after reading the pamphlet, that if I had natural childbirth I wouldn’t need any painkillers. But, I want you to tell Hannah right now, it is great to learn exercises, squatting, breathing, and whatever else they teach – and it will all help. But let me tell you, IT STILL HURTS, and when it does, tell her to yell for a shot of something. That’s what I did and those nuns wouldn’t pay any attention to me. So, to conclude: take all the classes, learn everything there is to learn, and then demand painkillers.
How very unfair not to tell your doting mother, soon to be doting grandmother, the name you have given to your little seven-month-old fetus. Okay, okay, I promise to stop asking and guess I’ll just have to assume it won’t be any of those that I suggested. I’ll try not to mind as long as you are telling me the truth that no other relatives, friends or grandparents-to-be are privy to this information.
So, here is this little in utero baby already with a name when you yourself remained without one for a full nine days after your birth. It wasn’t that we were neglectful or not thinking constantly about what to call you. I blame it on being in Italy and trying hard to find something that would fit both the language of our adopted country, as well as that Irish surname, O’Sullivan. You were already going to be stuck with a name that nobody could pronounce, the closest to the real thing we ever heard down there being O-soo-lee-vahn. So, naming had obviously presented a problem that was going to take a long time to solve. Our two sources were: one, a little pamphlet I had brought from New York containing pages and pages of boy and girl names, and two, all our Barese friends with their endless suggestions.
First of all, it is very important to remember that everyone in Italy must have the name of a saint somewhere among his – and her --primary names. Many of our friends had three or more names before their surname appeared, but most likely the very first one would be the saint name. I always felt under-privileged because there is no such thing as Santa Gwen, or even Santa Guendalina (there being no “w” in the Italian alphabet, my full name Gwendolyn had to be spelled with a “u”) Luckily, I had that middle name of Anne, a most important saint, the mother of Mary, after all. Still, it wasn’t easy being Gwen O’Sullivan down there in the heel of Italy in the 1960’s. The other anomaly with my name was that it didn’t end in a vowel like everybody else’s.
And so, day after day, your father and I pored over that booklet. It was full of names like Jim and John and Bob and Bill, none of which was appealing because they were too ordinary. Then there were the not-so-common ones, like Angus and Clarence and Tristan. We were searching for something in-between. We both liked Mark a lot, one reason being that if you put that together with O’Sullivan, you could also come up with Marco Sullivan, solving the vowel problem. But we continued to search. One day on the S page, we finally saw the one we wanted: Sean. Not too common, not too uncommon, soft-sounding, and certainly to be applauded by the paternal grandparents, both of whom were born in the old country (the other old country).
Sean O’Sullivan, how trippingly it falls upon the tongue, or so we thought. On the ninth day we left the Policlinico (the exorbitant length of stay is another story) and were ushered into an adjunct building where the births were registered and the birth certificates issued. You were not allowed to leave the hospital grounds without a name, sort of like now in America when you can’t leave without a car seat. There we were told we would need two witnesses who would have to sign the papers for the legalization of the registration of the birth. Well, yes, of course, we realized, having lived in Italy long enough by then to know that every aspect of one’s daily life somehow was subject to the intricacies of Italian bureaucracy Where would these witnesses come from, we asked? Oh, they can be just anybody, replied the clerk, as he gestured to a man and woman who happened to be passing by the doorway. The couple kindly obeyed the bureaucrat’s request, came inside, and signed their names to your birth certificate. We had never laid eyes on them before, and we never laid eyes on them again. And, since their signatures are illegible, we don’t even know their names. But I am quite sure they were pronounceable in Bari, which to our chagrin, we soon discovered that yours was not. And thus, from that day on, you were known as Say-ahn (in Italian you pronounce every syllable). Later zero zero sette became popular for you, the only other Sean known to this population being Sean Connery as James Bond. Or, in total desperation, you would become Giovanni or Gianni or Juanine (Barese dialect), Sean being the same as the English, John, which is the same as the Italian, Giovanni.
So, I am finally privy to the long-time secret. His name is Rory. It was wonderful to receive Hannah’s call this morning at 6:20 to tell us he had arrived and that both son and mother are doing fine. And father, too, I suspect, because from the sound of your voice, you can’t contain your joy. Neither can I. I was awake half the night waiting for the call, watching the clock change from 1:12 to 2:35 to 3:05, and on and on. Seven pounds 9 ounces sounds almost like you – 3 kilograms and 200 grams! Two weeks early, a July baby instead of an August one. Perhaps auspicious, born in Julius Caesar’s month, since you are a semi-adopted Roman. The important thing is that he is healthy and has all his organs and paraphernalia intact and located just where they are supposed to be.
But I’m sorry to hear that Hannah had to go through all those labor pains and then had to have a Caesarian after all, because Rory was sideways. I’m so glad they gave her the epidural – as I said, when it all gets too bad, forget natural and just take those painkillers! It will take her a little longer to heal, but at least she won’t have those stitches where it’s hard to sit down for awhile. She will get a little more much-needed rest by staying in the hospital a few days longer.
Rory was born in the middle of the night, and you were born in the middle of the day. I felt the first labor pains in the evening, but we didn’t drive over to the policlinico until three in the morning when I thought, from what I learned in class, the pains were the right number of minutes apart to qualify for hospital care. But when we arrived, the place was dark with not a soul around. How can a hospital be so deserted, we wondered? We wandered up and down all the corridors until finally in the semi-darkness, we found a nurse who agreed to examine me. Whereupon she said, “Oh, there will be days before this baby is born – and besides, there are no beds available anyway.” So, off we went back home, only to find the pains getting worse and much closer together. By seven am, I said I’ve got to get out of here. I couldn’t bear the thought that your father might be called upon to deliver you, and I’m sure he couldn’t bear it either.
By then, though, we found ourselves in Bari’s rush hour traffic, scarcely able to move more than a few meters at a time through the congested streets. If I had a hard time fitting into the passenger seat of the Fiat 500 in normal times, it was truly a challenge with my knees up to my chin with labor pains coming on every minute. We finally decided the only way to make headway was for me to hold a big white handkerchief out the window and let it billow in the breeze. This has always been in Italy a sign that the occupant or occupants of the car are having an emergency, a warning to other cars to get out of your way. Your father tried to rev up the motor, but an attempt at signaling an emergency doesn’t really work when the traffic is all jammed up and there’s no place for the cars to go. It doesn’t help either to be inside the tiniest car ever manufactured probably in the whole world, the cinquecento being not much more than an armchair propped up on four little wheels, called by some “a tin can on wheels.”
At last we arrived at the front door, this time finding the place bustling with activity. As soon as the nurse at the front desk saw me, she called for La Maestra who immediately hustled me off to a labor room, leaving your father to pace the halls as men do in the oldtime movies (and probably with a cigar, too). In no time a nun appeared before me, her job to remind me how to do my breathing, at which I was pretty successful for an hour or so. But then when the pain got worse and worse, and I cried for a shot, none was forthcoming. That nun just looked at me, held my hand, and sighed. To this day I can’t figure out if Catholics have something against the use of painkillers or whether, once I had signed up for natural childbirth classes, by golly, I’d better stick with the program. Anyway, as things went on and you didn’t arrive, even at those final moments of the big push, I suddenly looked up and there was Pino Valle in front of me. The last thing I saw was 20 to 12 on the clock on the wall, and I was out.
When I awoke in my special private room, the first thing I saw was your ecstatic father holding you joyfully up above his head. It seems they had to give me general anesthesia because you were sideways and had to be pulled out by forceps. So your baby and mine have that in common except for the forceps. So much for all that natural childbirth instruction. Dr. Valle insisted I stay in my room as long as I liked, his concern being that, unlike his other private patients who had full-time maids and assorted relatives and grandmothers around, I had no one. No family, no maid to wash the diapers. Oh yes, believe it or not, at the Bari hospital the patient had to supply everything for the baby, even the diapers, and the talcum or pomata in case the little one had diaper rash. There was no such thing as a paper diaper in Puglia in 1965. The mothers would send their newborns’ soiled diapers home to be washed by the maid, hung out on the line to dry, and sent back clean the next day, for as long as the hospital stay lasted. I still can’t believe I stayed in the Policlinico for nine days. It certainly was not typical for a new mother; most stayed five or so, but Pino wanted me to become much stronger before I went back home to face my maid-less and grandmother-less apartment.
I was intrigued to hear that you and Hannah took a class about care of the newborn baby a few weeks before her due date. You said you learned that there are two methods of circumcising a baby boy. Believe me, I am so glad you two are in America right now since you are planning to have your baby circumcised. In Italy baby boys were not – and are not – circumcised, unless, of course, you are Jewish. There are not a lot of Jews in Italy since just about everybody is a Roman Catholic, but there are enough and many live in the ghetto of Rome. Being modern Americans we thought we should have you circumcised and Pino Valle assured us that he had done it before and knew how to do it. I am still not sure about that. When we asked him to perform the operation, all our Barese friends were horrified that we would have you butchered in that way. Perhaps they were right. Only later when we moved to Rome and met many more American expatriates did we find out that all of them called upon a Roman rabbi to perform the operation. So it seems you have been stuck with this unique form of Barese circumcision all these years.
I think it’s great that the hospital has offered a series of instructions on how to care for a newborn and that they include changing diapers, giving the baby a bath, feeding, how to recognize when he’s sick, taking his temperature, and all those things.
I wish that my forward-thinking Dr. Valle had also instituted classes to teach us about care of the newborn, because my instruction turned out to be a baptism by fire if there ever was one. On the morning we were supposed to leave the hospital, the nurse called me into the nido, the nursery, in order to teach me how to change diapers. We had already had an inkling that you were not doing too well, because for a few days, the nurses had been trying to feed you different kinds of latte artificiale, because, unfortunately, I didn’t have enough breast milk. They told us that the problem was that none of the types of formula seemed to agree with you, and you developed a bad case of diarrhea. In fact, a nurse had asked your father to go to the pharmacy to buy a bottle of some brown liquid (the hospital didn’t supply any medicines at all) to drop into the formula to help stop the diarrhea. It hadn’t seemed to work but nobody ever told us that. And since, as I said, the hospital did not stock it, they also sent him out to buy a pomata for your behind because you had a bit of a diaper rash from the diarrhea.
Now, your father and I were just two total novices about babies and had no idea how serious that illness can be in a newborn. Unfortunately, we were not equipped with a single book on pregnancy or childbirth or any topic remotely connected with them. I had left New York to return to Bari clutching only my 35 cent paperback edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. We could not be too terribly faulted for that lack of foresight, because, believe me, back then there were not the number of books on the shelves that there are now where you can learn about every aspect of infant care that one could possibly imagine. In fact, good old Dr. Spock was probably the only one around. So, although I had noticed that you looked thinner and your face was quite pale, unlike its earlier rosy appearance, I thought the nurses would certainly inform us if there were a problem.
I had read in my Dr. Spock that a baby loses weight a day or two after birth, then takes a while to gain it back, so I thought your weight loss was normal. Also, back then a baby was not fed for the first 24 hours after birth (at least in Bari) so that he could rid his body of the meconium, that black inky stuff he had inside. You tell me that Rory began drinking milk right away, so there we are with another Bari oddity.
On the morning of my diaper instruction, what I saw while undressing you truly gave me a shock. I discovered to my horror that you had absolutely no skin on your behind, the diarrhea had caused such an extreme case of diaper rash, a condition, in fact, well beyond that term. I cried out to the nurse: “I thought we had brought you a pomade for this -- how did it get this bad?” But, signora, she said, “Qui si cura le mamme.” Only at that moment did I discover that there was no pediatrician on the staff of Dr. Valle’s wonderful hospital. The nurse was telling me that since this was an obstetrics hospital, the nurses only take care of the mothers, and if you want a doctor to examine your baby, you have to call in a pediatrician from outside. “Now you’re telling me this, after letting the baby get so sick!” I railed.
I am quite sure I never really learned to change a diaper that day, because of the panic that had set in. We hadn’t a clue about a pediatrician, so we immediately called our friends, Sergio and Nietta, who already had three children. In about an hour their pediatrician arrived, examined you and pronounced that you had serious diarrhea (as if we couldn’t see that) and said to take you home. Once home, it certainly didn’t take me long to learn about diaper changing, since I had to put a clean one on you just about every fifteen minutes. The diapers we had purchased, and the only style that existed in Bari, were long, soft, oblong cotton cloths with a wide string attached to the top of each side. You slid the cloth under the baby’s little bum, folded the other end of the rectangle up across the tummy and then tied the two strings together, sort of like tying shoe laces. Much safer than those safety pins they were using back in the States at the time, I thought, as I frantically kept reaching for clean ones. It turned out to be the scariest night of my life – you wouldn’t drink your formula, and every diaper we had bought was soiled by ten o’clock that evening, along with all the towels and sheets.
Luckily, our friend Sergio rang the doorbell around then just to check and see how we were doing. The scene he witnessed must have shocked him out of his skin – your father pacing up and down the room, me sobbing uncontrollably, you wailing your eyes out, and everywhere, all over the furniture and floor, soiled linen. He closed the door and was gone. The next thing we knew, he had returned with his pediatrician who told us to bundle you up immediately and drive to the children’s hospital. I had heard of the children’s hospital, notorious as it was for filthy conditions and really poor care. Articles in Bari’s newspaper had detailed the scandalous circumstances there, illustrated with photographs of shoeless, barely clad, little children crawling around on dirty hallway floors. Oh no, I cried. But the pediatrician said, we will try to get your baby into the preemie section because he has lost so much weight, and there the care is good.
That night still remains, after all these years, the most terrifying one of my life. When we arrived at midnight, the place of course was dark and quiet so I could not confirm if forsaken children crawled on the hallway floors. We did, however, -- your father, the pediatrician and I with you bundled up in the remaining unsoiled blanket -- walk the entire length of that infamous hall until we reached a door at the far end. The doctor knocked and it was opened by an elderly heavyset nun. She came out into the hallway while he explained our problem. A look at your tiny grey face must have been all it took to convince her to accept you in the premature nursery, because she lifted the little bundle that was you out of my arms, turned back into the nursery and closed the door. I was not allowed to go through that door. A moment later, the door opened and the nun handed me your clothes and the blanket, and closed the door once more, right in front of me. And that was it. Not only did we have to go home without you, we were not even allowed to see where you had been taken.
The next morning, as early as possible, after our sleepless night, we arrived on the doorstep of the children’s hospital. To its credit, I have to say I never saw any filthy little creatures crawling on the floor. Again we walked the length of that hall, and this time were allowed to enter. We were given masks and gowns and had to rub our feet in a little pan of disinfectant before we entered into an outer room full of mothers sitting on benches pumping their breasts, and on into the room where the bambini were kept. You were spread out as if on a cross – no, not “as if” – it really was a wooden cross, with your arms tied by their wrists to the crosspiece, and your legs tied to the bottom. You had no clothes on and were hooked up to an IV in your arm and a tube down your nose. Your umbilical cord which had refused to fall off on the normal day was still attached; your circumcision was covered with a bloody bandage (who knows whether those nuns had ever seen that before), and the inside of your mouth was white with what in America is called thrush. Two huge brown eyes the size of fifty cent pieces stared up at us from your tiny shrunken face, reminding me of those Keane paintings which were so popular back then in the States. “Don’t worry.” A pretty young nun had come up behind us. “He will be all right.” It certainly didn’t seem a remote possibility at that moment. “See if you can pump out some breast milk for us to feed him.”
Not having had any luck up until then, I didn’t feel very hopeful, but the nun gave me a plastic bottle with a pump attached anyway, and said just try again. So, I headed home in the desperate hope of producing some nourishment for you. I pumped and I pumped every day, for days on end, never able to bring forth more than a quarter of a cup. Much later, I read in some magazine that if a woman has experienced a shock or some traumatic occurrence after child birth, that could very well dry up her milk. I went back the next day with my pathetic few drops of milk in the bottle, apologizing profusely to the nun.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we have lots of other mothers whose babies are here and they are pumping out lots of extra milk. We’ll just use some of theirs.”
As I left through the outer room, I saw what she meant. There on the benches were the mothers, all, I might add, with very ample breasts, probably producing enough milk to feed all the poor babies in Bari. I gave up trying after three days, and returned milk-less to the hospital each day to watch while the nurse held a bottle to your lips and you sucked away on the milk of some totally unknown mother. The only thing that cheered me up and kept me from feeling a total failure as a provider of nourishment, was the sight of the pink color coming slowly back into your cheeks and of the scale that showed the gain of a few grams of weight each day.
After what seemed an eternity, and was actually three very long weeks, the head nun said you would soon be ready to leave the hospital. You had gained a substantial amount of weight, your circumcision was pretty well healed and the umbilical cord had finally given way. The only problem remaining was, how were you going to eat? The nun first suggested that we consider hiring a wet nurse. A wet nurse? I thought that was a concept that only existed in historical novels and only among the very wealthy whose young mothers wanted their figures to return as quickly as possible to the hourglass shape they had possessed nine months earlier. I tried to imagine the scene. Would a large substantially-bosomed woman come to live with us, since we were told the baby should eat every three hours? Or, in my mind, imagining that all wet nurses lived in the country, possibly on farms, would we have to travel out to visit her every three hours? What about during the night if you should wake up and cry for food?
Luckily, we were saved from having to face this dilemma (though to this day I wonder what in the world it would have been like to have a wet nurse for my son), because the nun told us she had at last found the latte artificiale that you would eat.
“You know, signora,” she explained, “there are many artificial, powdered cans of milk in the markets, and we have tried all of them on Sean, but he has spit them up. He has only liked to drink the mothers’ leftover milk. But, just yesterday, we tried SMA and he loved it! Of course, we should have known all along – SMA is an American brand of powdered milk, and Sean is a little americano.”
So, happily, after that endless time you spent in the hospital, we all three set out for home, armed with a whole case of SMA, a gift from the nuns.
I have looked up your baby registration on the internet and have been able to print out a bunch of pages from BabiesRUs listing all the items you and Hannah would like to have for the arrival of this baby. I am particularly intrigued by the items called Diaper Genie and Wipes Warmer. I had no idea what those were, so I called one of my neighbors whose daughter had a baby a couple of years ago. Just the use of the word genie makes me think it must be a marvelous invention, and indeed, I discovered that it is a machine that disposes of diapers in an immediate fashion and then makes them smell like fragrant flowers. And then, there’s a little heated box that dispenses moist cloths for wiping the little behind. Use as many as you need, then throw them away.
Again, do I rue the day that the inventor of the Diaper Genie and the Wipes Warmer had not found his way to southern Italy in the 1960’s. Certainly the Diaper Genie, and at least some form of wipes, warm or otherwise. Unfortunately for me, even the inventor of the disposable paper diaper had not made his way to Puglia at that time. Although I did think that the soft cotton Italian diaper with its pretty ribbons was a lovely thing to be placed next to your delicate skin, it did require continuous washing.
Another dilemma occurred when we got you home. Our apartment was in an old, unheated building just a couple of blocks off the sea, and it was very very cold and damp. Nobody we knew had a washing machine, let alone a dryer. All the clothes would be hung out to dry on lines that stretched just below the windows or criss-crossed the narrow streets. (Those are the scenes on postcards of Italian washing hanging everywhere that foreigners love to send, probably thinking the scene quaint.) Believe me, it isn’t quaint at all when it is the only means by which to dry your laundry. All of our friends were affluent enough to have maids who came in each and every day except Sunday, washed and ironed all the clothes, cleaned the house and did the cooking. And you didn’t even need to be all that affluent in those days, the going rate for maids was very low, (something like 10,000 lire a week, or about $16) but still more than we could afford. Unfortunately, by the time you came along, the Centro Studi Americani had closed and we no longer had our jobs teaching English. We barely managed to get by doing some translations for professors at l’Universita` di Bari and teaching private English lessons, so we had to be very careful with our finances.
Needless to say there was no such thing as a laundramat in Puglia, so I had to wash all your diapers by hand in the bathtub – along with, I might add, all our sheets and towels and pillowcases and underwear and shirts and everything else. After I had rinsed them and wrung them out, I would dump them into a huge basket and carry them upstairs to the terrace. You would lie in your little basket next to me while I hung up the clothes. That wasn’t so bad on a sunny day, because all the laundry smelled really good when dried in sunlight, but all during the winter on cold, rainy days, your diapers would be seen hanging from all the furniture in our apartment in an attempt to get dry. We had only one little space heater which I tried to keep as close to your crib as possible, so it wasn’t all that useful for drying clothes.
That wasn’t the only diaper dilemma which presented itself to us in Bari. After only about six months, a battle arose that manifested itself on a constant basis between me and my Barese friends regarding toilet training. As I said, my only reference for child rearing was in the form of that little dogeared version of Dr. Spock. Dr. Spock, the leading American expert at the time, the source for all baby knowledge, advocated letting the little dears do whatever has to be done in whatever time frame they want to do it.
My friend, Maria Teresa, kept boasting to me that her little Ida was already sitting on the pot at three months! Whether or not little Ida ever actually produced anything was not mentioned, but the point was to keep her there for hours anyway so that she could learn. Again, turning to my expert, I found that Dr. S. said that you should never ever hurry a kid with toilet training because there could be serious psychological consequences in the future. Don’t even think about it before two years – two and half is fine, perhaps even three! Only the dreaded thought of having to wash out those diapers by hand for three whole years tempted me to try Maria Teresa’s way, but I never did. I remained determined to stick to what I gathered was the American way of child rearing.
Other child-rearing disagreements arose every time our Barese friends came to visit. I had already seen with my own eyes the consequences of having your kid try to walk too early. The streets of Bari were filled with bow-legged children and adults. So when I saw my friends try to start propping up their kids on their legs at only about six months, I balked and just let you crawl around on that stonecold floor. Let him walk when he’s ready, said Dr. Spock, and let him walk barefoot so as to strengthen his arches. But Dr. Spock’s advice did not sit well with our friends.
As with the toilet training timetable, there was also the competition with Maria Teresa’s Ida about who would walk first. Not just Maria Teresa, but all our Barese friends would shout “Scalzo, che orrore!” when they’d enter our apartment and see you running around barefoot on those tile floors. Someone would immediately search out your little shoes and socks, pick you up on their lap and start putting them on. As soon as they left, I’d take them off, and remembering all those bow-legged Barese, would cling to Dr. Spock’s advice.
Not to mention the sleep-on-your-back, sleep-on-your-tummy controversy. Dr. S. explicitly said babies should sleep on their tummies, because on their backs they might choke on their saliva and die. If you were asleep in your crib when friends arrived, they would all --Anna, Nietta, Maria Teresa, and anybody else – immediately turn you over onto your back, saying you were going to suffocate. Again, as soon as they’d leave, I’d turn you back over.
Only in the last few years have my friends been vindicated when, in the U.S., studies have now shown that babies should be placed on their backs, because indeed they could suffocate, and lying on their tummies could be the cause of sudden infant death syndrome. I have never mentioned these studies to the Barese, though, and I don’t think I ever will. But I’m glad the study came to light in time for baby Rory to sleep on his back.
And now, not only has Dr. Spock been criticized for his tummy recommendations, he has also been found responsible for the emergence of an unruly out-of-control generation of kids due to his advocacy of extreme permissiveness. Nevertheless, in the mid-60’s in Bari, he was all I had.
By the time you had reached almost two and half years old, I noticed that pannolini di carta had finally made their way into the shops. Paper diapers, at last, but of course, they cost a fortune as did all paper products in Italy. So, every once in a while on a splurge, I would buy a box, and then would sheepishly tell the clerk they were for my son’s little sister – much too embarrassed to admit this boy was not yet toilet trained.
Safety is a very important concern when you have a little baby. And so I’m glad you decided to sell that old car you had that was constantly breaking down and buy the new Passat station wagon. Just like you and Hannah, I extremely dislike those ubiquitous SUVs that for some reason every family seems to think is a necessity. They’re not even safe, either.
The Passat is a great car (you know I love my Jetta, very solid) and you will have plenty of room in it for all the accoutrements you will need to carry around with you. I see from your BabiesRUs registration list that you will be needing two infant car seats – one for the new car and one for the Altima. I’m told that there is now a federal law that requires you to carry your newborn out of the hospital in an approved infant seat or the hospital will not discharge you. And I know that the seat must be placed in the back seat of the car and the baby must face backwards. And so, since it isn’t all that pleasant to be staring at a car seat, you will want a mirror for the baby so he can see whoever is driving and you can see him and perhaps even talk to him.
The whole fifteen years I lived in Italy, in Bari and in Rome, I never saw a baby car seat. In fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t exist in the U.S. back then either. I remember that when we took you home from the hospital, I just held you in my arms in the front seat of our Fiat 500. Now, as you remember, the Fiat 500 was the tiniest and cheapest car that existed in Italy at the time (except for those three-wheelers that shopkeepers and farmers used). All I know is that for all the years we had that car, whether I was driving or in the passenger seat, my knees felt as if they were hitting my chin. Still, your father and I drove all over Italy in that tin can, and toured Yugoslavia as well. After you were born, whenever we drove somewhere, you reposed in a straw basket on the backseat, or I held you in my arms in the front seat between knees and chin if your father was driving. When it was just you and me in the car, you’d just recline on the front seat next to me while I drove, and when you’d fall asleep, I’d have to lift your bobbing head up when it started to hit the gear shift.
That basket was actually quite useful on many occasions. When we went out to dinner at a restaurant, we laid you in it on the floor next to my chair; when we went to the movies we got an aisle seat and placed your basket in the aisle. I sometimes worry today when I think of the huge amounts of secondhand smoke you inhaled, because smoking was allowed in all theatres, and of course, everybody smoked. To this day I remember seeing every Italian movie through the haze of a thick grey cloud.
Luckily, we did not need to use our car very much in Bari. The open air produce market and all the shops I needed were within blocks of our apartment, so I could walk almost everywhere. Vito and Ami’s children were already several years old, so they gave me their crib and their perambulator. I was never happier than when I was parading around the streets of Bari pushing you in that perambulator, a beautifully polished ebony wood creation, with a hood that popped up to cover your face from the sun or rain. (It also liberated me, at last, from all those leering and prodding Barese males on the streets.)
I remember one time when I would have given anything for the safety of the infant car seat – actually, for safety for me – or for another mode of transportation altogether, preferably the train. In July of 1966 when you were ten months old, Pino Valle invited the three of us up to Marina di Campo, the town on the island of Elba where he and his family had a summer home. On the designated morning, we piled into his Alfa Romeo sportscar for the long trip. Instead of piled in, I should say folded ourselves in -- and for long trip, I should say “normally” long trip. Your father sat in front and Pino drove, while I hunched in the backseat with you in my arms.
From Bari, you have to go over the mountains all the way across the peninsula -- there was no autostrada then -- then head north on the Via Aurelia along the sea from Rome up into Tuscany. At Piombino, a town just south of Livorno, you put the car onto a ferry which takes an hour to reach Elba and the island’s principal town of Portoferraio. From there to the town of Marina di Campo and the Valle villa was another 45 minute ride. Italians drive fast on the highways, we all know that, but these weren’t even highways yet, and Pino must have been going 100 mph all the way. I clutched you frantically the whole time, intermittently poking your father on the shoulder and begging him to please tell Pino to slow down. The only good thing that came out of that terrifying experience was the awakening of our love for Elba. We spent three summers at Marina di Campo after that, though never again riding with Pino Valle.
When you and I moved to Rome when you were four, I had my motorino, and that became our favorite way to get around the city. Those awful Roman traffic jams never bothered us, as we weaved our way around the traffic, you sitting on the ledge over the back tire behind me, your arms wound tightly around my waist. When I think about all the regulations in this country today about helmets and everything else, I wonder if I ever put us in danger. But it never seemed so at the time because the streets of Rome were filled with two-wheeled vehicles, and Roman drivers were skilled at driving carefully alongside bicycles, Vespas, motorini, and all manner of odd-wheeled vehicles. Besides, the cars were small so that my head stuck way above them in the traffic, and so did yours, as motorists waved happily at your beautiful blond foreign head.
Looking again at your baby registration list, I see something called a Pack and Play that sounds intriguing. It looks as if it could be very handy, opening up into two levels for use as a bed or a playpen, and then folding up and fitting into its own sort of duffle bag for travel purposes. And it is all cushiony and soft around the edges so the baby can’t hurt himself. I’ll send one for Rory so he’ll have a place to sleep when you come up to visit us.
In Bari we had an old-fashioned square metal playpen with mesh sides which the Italians called “Il Box,” also donated by Vito and Ami.. Before you learned to stand up, your little nose would poke its way out between the holes in an attempt to see what was going on around you. We had three rather cavernous, and always cold, rooms in our second floor flat at via de Romita, 2. There was the bedroom and two other rooms, one of which we called a soggiorno, or little living room, and then the one on the corner from whose window you could see the Adriatic Sea and feel all the dampness it brought. We called it the study where we had shelves lined with books, a desk and some chairs where your father would write or do translations at night and I would give English lessons to students of all ages during the day and often into the early evening. If you took a book off a shelf in the wintertime, you could almost wring it out and watch the droplets fall to the floor, such was the high humidity content of that room. Thank goodness summer would bring us a respite from this wet, shivery place and when the sun streamed in, which it did just about every day from April to October, the walls and our bones began to warm up. It was then that the advantage to those stucco-walled, tile-floored rooms was felt, because the extreme southern Italian heat penetrated just enough to keep us warm but never hot even in the scorching days of July and August.
Regardless of the weather, students came for their lessons in all seasons. And since I needed to keep an eye on you, I would set you in the playpen among some stuffed animals and a few toys inherited from our friends and watch you from my desk while giving the lesson across the room. When you weren’t poking your nose out of sides of the “box,” you’d be desperately trying to pull yourself up to a standing position so as to get a better view of the activities at my desk. Since everybody in Italy loves little children and no one can resist patting their heads or pinching their cheeks, nobody ever objected to your nearby presence. In fact you would be requisitely coo-ed and aah-ed over at each student’s arrival and departure, and sometimes even in between. In the winter months I’d have to dress you in a heavy snowsuit to keep you warm, and you were always quiet and very good, peering out at teacher and student through the netting. Who knows? Perhaps you were taking in every word and that’s how you learned English so well.
Thanks so much for putting me on Facebook. It’s a good thing you signed me up for it, because I would never have known how to do it myself. And I probably wouldn’t be getting any photos of Rory, otherwise, since nobody in your generation seems to know how to mail a letter. So at least I have instant access to everything that’s going on with my grandson.
Luckily, because of your instruction, I know how to find Facebook, click on your name and obtain all the information that’s going around the world to all your friends. Unfortunately, I still can’t figure out what The Wall is, or anything else for that matter, so I am hesitant to respond to you or anybody on Facebook. That’s why you’ll hear from me only on your email address, because even for an old dope, that isn’t hard to figure out.
I miss phone calls, but I do understand it’s hard to talk on the phone with the baby fussing. That was the only good thing I can say about not getting a telephone for our apartment in Bari for 18 months.
Upon opening the front door of our apartment, you’d find yourself in a hallway going left and right. To the left was the bedroom and bathroom, and to the right was the soggiorno and infamous damp study. The only room you could actually see when you entered was the little kitchen directly in front of you. It was there that I stayed as much as possible during those cold winter months, furiously keeping the gas going under pots of broth and pasta sauces to keep us warm. From the kitchen a tiny balcony looked out onto via de Romita, and it was from there that I communicated with neighbors, friends and various shopkeepers. You know from later years in Italy that everyone is always shouting out windows and balconies to other people. But for me, it was one of the very few methods of communication that I had for 18 months.
When we moved in, we had duly filled out the forms with the telephone company to request a telephone. When no response came, we wrote again, and again and again. When we told our Barese friends about our problem, they’d say, oh, you’ll get a telephone soon, it will just take a couple of months. At that point we’d been living in the south of Italy long enough to know that pretty much everything took, at the very least, a couple of months to happen. Meanwhile, I had been doing a good deal of my shopping at Salumeria Salusti, just down the street from us. It was our local grocery store and they had a telephone. It was the kind of phone that you put in a gettone (a token) in order to make your calls. And so, whenever I went to shop, I’d arm myself with a bunch of gettoni and call whomever I needed to call that day. Unfortunately, using this system, there was no way for anybody to call us. Enzo, the kindly shop owner, understood and appreciated our dilemma, and one day said to me, Signora, I want you to know that you can tell your friends to use my phone to call you, and then I will let you know when somebody is on the phone. Especially, he said, your doctor must know how to reach you.
And so, from that day on for exactly 18 months, whenever a call came for us, I’d hear Enzo shouting at me from the street below:
“L’America, al telefono!” Gwen was too difficult a name for many a Barese to pronounce (again, no vowel on the end), as was O’Sullivan, so he called me “America.”
At the sound of his voice, I would hastily put you in your crib, pull up the sides, and run down those long flights of stairs and down the street to answer the phone. That’s another reason I stayed in the kitchen so much, to be able to hear Enzo whenever he called to me.
A problem remained: we could not make or receive any long distance or overseas calls at Enzo’s, and just about then your father’s very first book was about to be published. We actually had an agent by then and also an editor, both of whom were in New York City. Since every office in every building in that city no doubt had a telephone, (which was probably installed within minutes), it was hard for our American friends to understand why we were unable to phone them from our home.
Instead, the method for making overseas calls – and not just for us, but for everybody in Bari -- was Italcable. Every Italian city had an Italcable office, usually in the center of town. Bari’s was on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main streets. It consisted of a small room lined with phone booths over which presided an operator who sat at a desk just at the door when you walked in. You would tell her the number you wanted to call in America, and she would pick up her phone and attempt to make an appointment for your call. Keeping in mind the six hour difference in time between us and New York, I would generally end up at all weird hours at Italcable. Once the operator put in your request, you would take a seat and wait – and wait and wait and wait. At last, if you were lucky that day, a phone would ring in one of the booths, and the operator would point you to the call awaiting you.
Invariably when you’d go into the booth to get the call, you’d pick up the receiver and get a busy signal. Open the door of the booth, call to the clerk and tell her e` occupato at which she would just shrug her shoulders and tell you to try again later. So you’d have to choose whether to hang around the Italcable office for a couple more hours, or just give up and go home.
Once in a while, I might get the operator’s nod and actually talk to the person I was calling, only to be suddenly cut off in mid conversation: Scusi, says the signora, e` caduta la linea. Yes, of course, “the line fell” and I’d give up and go home once again.
In November of 1966 when you were only 14 months old, your father’s first book came out and he went to the States at the urging of his agent to do some publicity. You and I were left all alone to fight for our telephone, so one day I said we are going to SIP , Societa` Italiana ... and I can’t remember what the P stands for. (I go onto Google and ask for Italian telecommunications and what do I find? The most advanced systems you can imagine and absolutely no reference to anything like a SIP. All of which reminds me that when I visited Italy again some years ago, every Italian was talking on a cellphone, long before anyone used one here. How ironic that any aspect of the Italian telephone system should have been so far ahead of the American one). Not so in 1966 when I got so fed up I decided to visit the direttore of SIP, pronounced SEEP, of course. At first some impudent impiegato told me to please have patience, signora, in a most arrogant way, and that settled it for me. I stomped up to the 4th floor with you in my arms and barged right in. A child, especially a beautiful blond one not seen ever before in Bari, will always soften the heart of even the most bureaucratic of officials. And so it did that day. You ran around with your blond curls flinging behind you, and the director became sweet as pie. Of course, signora, we will get you a telephone right away; he even gave me a number! How could I forget 332109. And even the date and exact time someone would come to install it!
You and I never moved from our apartment that day. The day and time came and went. Another trip to Enzo and a frantic call to the direttore of SIP. Oh, yes, signora, what was your name again? And how do you spell it? O soo lee vahn?
TO BE CONTINUED