Left of the Dial, A Memoir Excerpt

  • From time to time, I'd like to post scenes from my memoir, Left of the Dial. The book will be published in 2009, either with a traditional publisher, or self-published. The section below hints that mental health is a worldwide priority.

     

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    Italy, spring 2002. The tour bus rolled down a road through olive trees with silvered leaves. My mother sat next to me wearing a pink, crinkled cotton outfit, and the huge quartz rock on her ring finger that she bought at an open-air market on the island of Capri. She told me, "I enjoy you much more now than I ever have."

     

    Aunt Rose was on the other side of the aisle, talking with Frankie: a Jersey guy who wore shirts with three buttons undone and gold chains, just like the character in the song "Seaside Tony" by Seven Minds.

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    I was out of the hospital ten years, and worked as a public service librarian in Brooklyn, where I moved to be closer to the City I love. Romeo, the unlikely tour guide, disclosed: "There are not many homeless in Italy, but a lot of those who are, have mental illnesses. A cousin of mine is ‘protected' by the family. After military service, my cousin came back changed. He has no girlfriend and likes agriculture, so he works the land and is quite content. No TV, no girlfriends. The family protects him. They do not talk about him, they keep him protected."

     

    A free woman, I wondered about the cousin. I've joined the Italian American Writers Association, and their motto is, "Only silence is shame." Slowly, slowly-I've come to toss around in my head the idea of writing about my recovery. I'd picked up the poetry calendar in the kiosk of Coliseum Books and found out about IAWA's poetry readings on the second Saturday of each month at the Cornelia Street Café, in the West Village.

     

    Hastily I scrawled down memories and fragments and began reading them at the open mic. The first time I attended, I was so anxious I fled as soon as the event was over. A guy told me, "I liked what you read," and I said, "Thank you," and dove out the door. On the newsletter left on the tables in the cabaret room, I read with interest about a memoir-writing workshop at the Calandra Institute, and pocketed the information, not sure I'd join.

     

    We were headed toward the Tuscan hills, where we would dine in a converted farmhouse that was now a restaurant. Always the mountains. The brown rouge like suede skin the color of my Rouge Suede lipstick, the smear of the earth and the sex and the ultimate expression of a land and its lovers. I was newly in love with Italy, the country of my ancestors, those dark people I used to be embarrassed to look like.

     

    On this trip, I saw I've inherited their elegant spirit: their passion for life, and their compassion. I turned a leaf, and was humble before my task: I believed God had a plan for my life, and it was to publish my memoir, even if right at that moment the words were a tentative scrawl, barely spoken on my lips.

     

    The bus pulled up to the dirt road and the driver parked. We milled about waiting for our cue to enter. Frankie said, "You look hot. Aren't you hot? I know you look like a fashion plate, but aren't you hot?" It was April, and beautiful Mediterranean weather. I was dressed in my black knit skirt and jacket, with my striped brown-and-black scarf slung around my neck. I had on my silver XOXO earrings, too.

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    "Europeans do not wear sneakers," Frankie had related earlier, "so before I came here I bought two pairs of good shoes." I looked down at my polished black leather loafers, grateful to blend in.

     

    We feasted on three kinds of pasta: ravioli with spinach and asiago, farfalle in dilled herb sauce, and cavatelli in plum tomato sauce. For the entrée, we could choose chicken, sausage, or beef. A jovial singer (was he born on a Thursday?) roamed the tables strumming his guitar and singing Italian songs. I wondered about these lyrics: "Lazy Mary, get off the sheets, we need them for the table." Who was Lazy Mary? Aunt Rose tossed him 10,000 lire. After dinner, there was dancing. Mom got up and danced with Frankie. I sat at our table watching everyone and soaking up the vibe. We drank true Chianti in stemless wine glasses that were continually re-filled and effortlessly drained.

     

    The farmhouse, high up in the hills, had a world's eye view. At 10 p.m. the lights along the Montecatini Alta effluoresced like a necklace of stars on earth. I was satiated with happiness. Far away from the past, on the brink of the future, I knew what I must do: join the memoir workshop. There were too many forgotten cousins.

Published On: January 23, 2008