[From Inventing Myself: A Memoir, Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez (draft)]
Christmas Eve, 1959
My breath hung like a puff of steam, the droplets just beginning to tickle my nose. I leaned back in the metal café chair and followed my breath up toward the foggy ceiling that looked like a big glass spider web. I shivered despite the Christmas-festooned Galleria shop windows, glittering with red and gold cellophane and silver-and-blue foiled chocolates.
On Christmas Eve fifty-eight years ago next week, I was sitting in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy, trying to piece together what had happened to the life I’d known, and wondering how I would navigate this new world.
Dad’s two-year adventure with the United States Information Agency in Caracas, Venezuela had evolved into four years. Caracas was the only home my sister and I knew: I’d been a baby when we’d left Minnesota in 1955 and Susie was a real Caraquena, having been born in Venezuela. Washington inquired into Dad’s preference for his second post, assuming, of course, that they wished to continue. He and Mom agreed they’d found a career niche — returning to his General Mills’s PR job wasn’t nearly as interesting as continuing to do work they both found meaningful — so he tossed out Italy: his appetite for Europe had been whetted by a motorcycle trip shortly after the war, and he’d been working on his Italian with owner of the corner barbershop by the Embassy. Dad wrote: “No one ever expected these expressed preferences to bring results, but in this case, it clicked: Personnel sent word that our next assignment would be as Assistant Branch Public Affairs Office in Milan.”
The September transfer came with the required five days of briefings in Washington and the statutory Home Leave. We traveled by boat from the tropics to the bracing fall of New England and then by car to real winter in Minnesota, where we celebrated my fifth birthday and our first American Thanksgiving at with Mom and Dad’s families. Susie and I had never seen snow: we made our first snow angels in our grandparent’s backyard in Winona and loaded up on sweaters and winter coats before taking our first jet airplane flight to Italy.
After nearly three months of being on the road, it was good to be in one spot, even though Milan was nothing like our real home in Venezuela. The December days were short, damp and cold, and the austere business-like city had little of Caracas’ color. There was no mosaic art to break up the grey city corridors, no flamboyan or bougainvillea or palm trees, no fruity perfume in the air.
And there was no Josefina, our beloved maid, who had created a domestic refuge for my sister and me. We played in Spanish, switching to English when Mom or Dad entered into our world.
“Finish your milk, girls.”
My mother held a finger up and looked over Susie’s shoulder toward the waiter’s black jacket as he disappeared through the café doors. Her long red nails clicked against the tabletop as she picked her up her coffee cup and sipped from where her lipstick had left its kiss. Her skin looked as white as the cold air.
The collar of her new dark coat tugged at the wisps of brown hair that had broken free of the French twist.
“All set, Jane?” she said, smiling over her cup at me.
“Why didn’t Fina come with us?” I said.
“Oh, wouldn’t that have been nice,” she said, stealing a glance at my sister. Susie was working on her elephant ear and calmly looking off toward the rest of the arcade. “But she had to stay with her life in Venezuela.” She raised a finger as the waiter whizzed by.
I nodded. Being the oldest meant doing what grownups expected from me. While he was revving up to the new job, finding us an apartment, and testing his Italian, Dad expected us to make this new place home. And Mom counted on me to be her pal; this was all new to her too.
I reached the parfait spoon down the tall glass to scoop up a few unmelted grains of sugar where they stood in the cooling milk. They crunched between my teeth like guava paste. I nibbled at the sticky golden flakes of the elephant ear that clung to my fingers.
The waiter scurried over.
“Si, signora,” he said, pulling a pad of paper from behind his waistband.
I knew what that meant. Some of Italian was almost like Spanish. He said something else and laid a slip of paper on the marble tabletop before whirring away again. My mother smiled at us as she placed big silver coins on the paper.
“Due cento, girls. Doesn’t that sound like Spanish? Remember? Dos cientos. Due cento. They mean the same thing: two hundred. Two hundred lire.”
“Due cento,” I repeated, enjoying the new sounds. I only wished I knew more of them. I didn’t like not understanding Italian.
“Susie, remember when I taught you Feliz Cumpleanos?”
I swung my foot into hers.
I hit her a little harder.
“Ow,” she said, swinging her gaze and her heel at me. The wrought iron table lurched to one side.
“That’s enough, girls,” Mom said. “Here, Susie, let’s wrap up your elephant ear for tomorrow. Button up those coats. Time to get back to the pensione for Christmas Eve.”
I tugged at the collar of my new blue coat, my fingers slipping off the velveteen buttons as I pushed them into the tight holes. Susie had her new coat on, too; they were both hand-me-downs from Betsy and Annie Marsden in St. Paul. My arms felt tight and itchy where the yellow Winona Knitting Mill sweater had bunched up in my sleeves.
Mom reached under the table, retrieving the straps of her purse from around her feet. Only tourists hung their purses on the backs of their chairs. She tucked the pastry into her purse, took Susie in her left hand and me in the other, and steered us into the crowd heading through the Galleria toward the Piazza. Her heels clicked sharply on the cloudy glass tiled floor.
As we emerged to the Piazza del Duomo, we passed a Gypsy sitting on the pavement, her dirty skirts splayed out. A dull-eyed child, maybe Susie’s age, sat listlessly on the woman’s lap, and the mother’s filthy outstretched hand was accompanied by a pitiful voice saying something about the “povero bambino.” Mom said they drugged their children. She looked straight ahead. I tugged on her arm.
“Can’t we give her money?”
“No,” she said, but she slowed down and stepped us out of the crowd. The beggar’s voice grew louder. “But how about food? Susie, shall we give your elephant ear to the baby?”
My mother reached into her purse for the napkin-full of leftover pastry. Susie frowned.
“And you will be doing a very nice thing by giving it to this little girl who doesn’t have anything else on Christmas.”
My mother handed the package to me.
I placed it in the Gypsy’s hand. “Buon Natale.”
The woman snatched it out of my hand with a sneer.
“Did I say that wrong?”
“You said it just right. And it was the right thing to do.”
“Like when you took the beggar to a café for breakfast in New York before you met Daddy?”
My mother laughed.
“When of course he really wanted some wine. And wasn’t he surprised?”
My mother walked us onto the dark Piazza del Duomo. La Scala opera house was at the far end of the wide town square. The Duomo sat heavily at our end, its lit spires sculpted yellow and grey against the evening sky. Couples had gathered here and there on the steps. I twisted to walk backwards so I could keep my eye on them.
“Jane.” My mother gave me a little tug.
The constant flock of pigeons rose like rippling smoke as people walked through. I stamped at bird, watching it lift off its corn kernels just a bit before settling back down. We passed the red kiosk as we left the Piazza. I wondered if Santa would give me a lira so I could buy some corn. Even pigeons need to eat on Christmas.