Strega Nona is an alter-ego of mine. She was a “strega”, an herbalist and a witch. A crone, nestled in rich old Italian locale and culture, using her wisdom to help others through magic (which is my biggest aspiration right now). Being that Tomie dePaolo’s original story was published in 1975, it is possible that I read it or heard it as a child. This I do not remember. I do remember that Susanna was no longer here when my son and I began to read all the Strega Nona story books we could acquire, every night, over and over. There was the story of Strega Nona taking a vacation, which plays in my mind during the summer. Strega Nona, alone, enjoying her beach house, collecting and steaming fresh mussels. Another describes an inexhaustible harvest which Strega Nona and Big Anthony, another amazing character, shared with their community. Our favorite by far was Strega Nona’s Gift, her holiday extravaganza of magical foods and gatherings. I believe we read it every night for months, a book which can almost be eaten.
Some things I have collected from the Strega Nona stories which I particularly love:
- Gardens should be planted by moonlight, and carefully organized in rows (if I ever own a property with soil I should know this).
- Strega Nona accepts as her assistant Strega a girl named Bambolina, thus rescuing Bambolina from a life of running a bakery single-handedly for an ungrateful, selfish father who tried to hang out in cafes all day. No dice for him.
- Strega Nona takes a vacation after being told to do so by her grandmother and mentor, who has died and come to her in dreams. And it was a good idea.
- Salt water taffy. Pretty much tastes like candy, but delicious because it comes as a gift from someone visiting the sea.
- Not only can Strega Nona feed her whole town on holidays, she can provide everyone with delicious dreams of colossal food which keep them sated for hours after waking up.
- Carrots for her rabbit, corn cakes for her dove, turnips stuffed with greens and beans for her goat. This is to make them speak well of her on the Eve of the Epiphany, the one night they can speak, but anyway, yum!
On my still intact shelves of children’s books (I have attempted to give them away, but am not ready to complete that task) is Tomie dePaolo’s retelling of an old Italian folk tale called The Clown of God, which revolves around, of all things, a golden ball. It tells of a poor boy who becomes a master juggler. In his act, he gradually adds colored balls and culminates with a golden ball representing “the Sun in the Heavens”. The juggler’s life brings him back to poverty and depletion, ultimately making his last act a miracle involving a statue of the Christ child. This book still waits on the shelf for me. I do not completely grasp the connection of this story to the story of Susanna and me, and our Golden Ball, but I know there is one, just as I know there is a sun in the heavens.
This post brought me through Strega Nona and the Golden Ball because of another of Tomie dePaolo’s books called The Art Lesson. This one is autobiographical, the story of young Tommy’s compulsion to draw and reach the age of the mythical art class in his school. Adult Tomie draws the art teacher, Mrs. Bower, with upswept hair, dangling earrings and a smock-like dress, carting supplies to art class and presenting her subject matter, obviously having been to art school herself. She is pretty much me, perhaps a bit younger, even with the same shoes.
The Art Lesson brings me to what I wanted to reference and what I wanted to say. Before young Tommy has finally become old enough to be in Mrs. Bower’s class, he has suffered some feeble attempts by his teachers to pull off a proper art lesson. They have some issues with the materials, such as flaky powder paints. One teacher, with blue-washed hair, has instructed the children to not wear down the points on the designated “school crayons”. How do you function this way, with no signs of use? What is this strange vestige of perfection, the school crayons which retain their points forever? We all had teachers who said such things.
Preservation of anything is futile. We all wear out and break. I know this every day and I live and breathe and function, while my heart remains broken. Perhaps there was an innocence destroyed when I lost my daughter, but if we live long enough we all get there. There is still the same range of emotions, things to love in this world abound, but it is not forever. You must find a way to make peace with that. Avoiding the reality of death by focusing on achievements and perfection. Futile. Trying to feel only the emotions you want to feel, futile.
A picture of Susanna sits on that bookshelf, with the children’s books I cannot yet part with, beside my bed. This picture was a Christmas gift from two friends. One put it into a beautiful frame studded with gems. The other snapped the background photo, Susanna’s name drawn in the sand, by me, to be gently washed away. We were both on the beach when I wrote it, and she saved the moment, then pasted in a photo of my baby’s beautiful face. Two nights ago, that picture fell to the floor as my significant other was coming to bed. It was undamaged, and it was not explainable in any natural way. I wonder if Susanna, or someone, has encouraged me to shape this blog. I do not pretend to understand any happenings on the other side, I can speculate but I will know more when my time comes. I just know there is another side. More to life than life. And there is magic for those who see it.