(Lemons and Apricots)
Reader Road Map: 1982-1996 various journeys. Current Events: Space Shuttle Challenger explodes; Chernobyl melts down. News Topics: racial and nuclear power plant protests.
At Naropa, Allen Ginsberg had passed me his handwritten Rome journals to type, inserting the idea of Rome the Eternal City into my absorbent consciousness.
Ginsberg was a dynamo of action; he midwifed simultaneous and ongoing projects with the help of fellow writers and artists, world leaders, and assistants. Ginsberg documented every detail of his life in graphic minutiae. He required assistants to help with archiving and typing and he asked the participation of trusted JKS students.
After a kitchen supper with Ginsberg and Orlovsky at a linoleum table in their sunny Mapleton Avenue rental house, I ran into Allen on a street corner in Boulder near Naropa. I thought the meeting accidental, but he said he’d been searching for me.
Traffic buzzed at a crossroads. I stood holding the hem of my 1910 walking gown. Ginsberg clutched notebooks.
“Hi, Allen!” I yelled above the traffic.
“Alison, will you type my Rome journals?”
I took his notebooks, opening the pages of looping, cursive, handwritten scrawl. Not wanting to disappoint him, I accepted the notebooks but never typed them. I was too busy having fun and writing my own poems. I didn’t type the journals.
A few weeks elapsed before Ginsberg asked me for his Rome notebooks. He seemed disappointed, but cheerfully said, “I will get someone.” I was too young and high-spirited for a secretarial apprenticeship.
Instead of my typing for him, Ginsberg wrote something for me. A loopy-scripted letter of recommendation into the poetics degree program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. (I had one copy and Naropa kept a copy on file with the registrar. I carefully stewarded my letter from Allen Ginsberg, which Dora later stole.)
On my birthday at Naropa, Jake Seuss and Suzy Banay took me for a farewell horse and carriage ride through the Boulder streets. They escorted me to the Denver airport and I boarded a plane for the East Coast.
A couple of weeks passed and Jake Seuss telephoned me to return. I did. The memory of him beneath my bedroom window on Tenth Street shouting, “Juliet” fresh in my mind. I skipped like a roe deer back unto his side.
But when I reached Boulder, Jake Seuss was gone without a trace. I waited briefly and then departed without entering Naropa’s degree program. I was headed for Rome via North Carolina.
Before leaving Dixie for Europe, I changed my surname from Burns to Winfield and took a standardized test of high school equivalency, the GED. I did not prepare, just sailed into a testing room wearing a Victorian gown. My test results were the highest on NC state record, they said.
I planned an old-fashioned voyage to Europe. I crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Polish freighter MS Sikorski. It seemed like I was sailing behind the Iron Curtain and in a way, I was. Poland was not Soviet territory, but Poland in the early 1980’s was under martial law. The Polish government was an authoritarian communist regime and the MS Sikorski belonged to Poland; its final destination, Gdansk.
I hired a travel agent to find a ship to Morocco, but the first ship offering a berth for a lady was the Polish freighter bound for Gdansk by way of Wilmington, North Carolina and Halifax, Nova Scotia. I boarded at Port of Wilmington.
Ginsberg, Kerouac and other literary greats had written about their adventures in Tangier. I romantically thought Morocco would be a fine place to go, a journey styled after Brideshead Revisited. (Sebastian Flyte, in the novel by Waugh, had holed up in an opium and syphilis haze somewhere in Morocco. I’d read all this avidly.)
A dressmaker in my grandfather’s tiny town sewed for me a trunk full of dresses using vintage patterns. I selected premium fabrics. An ivory stripe in raw silk, a pale pink cotton, a midnight blue satin, and a Confederate-grey silk. For my petticoat, I chose a heavy cotton blend in dark green. I bought antique buttons of jet (black) glass. I wanted everything pleated by hand, hundreds and hundreds of tiny stiches. No zippers.
My trunk held two books: John Keats’ Isabella and the Pot of Pinks and Mungo Park’s Travels in Africa (Both volumes were original prints from the 1800’s. Gorgeous and small). The trunk was black and lined in black and white paper, stamped with vintage advertisements and Gibson Girls.
The Keats book was bound in emerald calf, illustrated with engravings, the images tucked behind leaves of rice paper: Isabella and the Pot of Basil is a narrative poem based on Boccaccio’s Decameron where a young girl loves a day laborer named Lorenzo. Isabella’s jealous brothers butcher Lorenzo in a wood and bury his head separately from his body. In a dream, Lorenzo appears to Isabella, revealing the location of his grave. She unearths Lorenzo’s severed head and secrets it deeply in the soil of a pot of basil. Isabella ceases all activities to tend, night and day, her cherished pot of basil.
Mungo Park was a Scotsman who attended the University of Edinburgh. On the 22nd of May (the day before my birthday) two hundred years ago, he’d sailed into the heart of Africa on a ship trading in elephant tusks and beeswax. He was the first explorer to document the Niger River. Park described the peoples and local foodstuffs, their languages and tribal traditions, “Distress and famine pressed hard upon me.” His journey lasted two years and seven months. At one point, he mentioned cloth-making and a dye of fresh indigo leaves: “Very beautiful, with a fine purple gloss, and equal in my opinion to the best Indian or European blue.” Natives sewed cloth into garments with needles of their own making.
Like Ginsberg, Park kept detailed journals.
During Park’s second African voyage, his ship was attacked at Timbuktu. A blaze of spears, bows, arrows, rocks and river rapids quenched the adventure. Park’s earlier journals were already published, but the explorer’s final notebooks went overboard at his death.
I treasured Mungo Park’s advice about how to travel and give gifts along the way, meeting, and greeting new people. I used his book as a guide for my own solitary journeys into the unknown.
I had seven hundred dollars in United States currency when I boarded the Polish freighter. Nothing more and nobody supporting me, but I felt I owned the Universe.
When the MS Sikorski threw out a gangplank at Wilmington, North Carolina, it was midnight in frigid January; I stood in darkness. The travel agency had taken my money and alerted the ship of a final female passenger. The crew handed me onto the deck, helping me with my trunk. Nobody spoke English. I held out my slim ticket folder stamped “Lady’s Berth.”
The freighter carried five older passengers (I was the sixth): a retired female professor of music, a married Swedish couple who were sculptors, and an American couple named Prosser and Baba. The couples seemed to me to be in their late twenties or early thirties.
I shared a cabin with the elderly professor and during the day, she sat on her bunk reading sheets of music. Our cabin had one porthole where I could see water and sky. We had a private bathroom with a shower and two little sink basins, mirrors and a toilet. The ship’s pale grey corridors made me think of a submarine’s interior.
I was not seasick, but we lacked bountiful fresh drinking water. Passengers dined with officers and the Captain’s table was next to mine. I watched the officers at table drink vast amounts of beer and vodka. Passengers were served strong tea. My kidneys struggled to sort out the dense tea and I wouldn’t touch the alcohol.
I told the Captain I was thirsty. He ordered I be served the liquid from the tinned fruits we ate at table, the syrups, which meant nobody else got any sugary juice. Nursed along with syrups, my thirst was assuaged. It was something of a sensation that I drank up everyone else’s ration of syrup, but they still got their portions of pears and peaches.
The worst meal was tripe. It tasted like vomit and intestines so I ate dry toast like Bette Davis, a film star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. In old age, she was said to consume only dry toast and black coffee, with lots of cigarettes to tide her over.
I dressed formally throughout the two-week voyage. I weighed ninety-eight pounds. My corset (purchased in Boulder, Colorado when I attended Naropa) had been tailored small enough to fit. It was a seashell lace net with hooks up the back and boned at the sides. I had twenty boxes of Schiaparelli stockings in my trunk. (I’d bought out an old-timey store’s stock of them in my grandfather’s town.) It took me an hour to braid my hair in elaborate nineteenth century hairstyles, but the activity passed the time.
We had daily lifeboat drills. I didn’t like the lifejackets. I thought they were unattractive. Usually, the Captain let me have my way, but not in the instance of safety drills. He insisted I wear the jacket. He was a fatherly, gentlemanly captain. I think he was Russian.
The ship’s First Officer (Borek) was Polish. Borek instructed me so that I could converse politely in both Russian and Polish. I still remember the phrases.
While the music professor read in her berth and the couples stayed to themselves, seasick, I enjoyed bracing sea air on deck.
We sailed up the coast from North Carolina. Reaching Halifax, I jumped off to marvel at the rugged terrain, cliffs and brightly painted townhouses. The ship anchored for one night in the Halifax harbor. The Captain and First Officer Borek showed me the night sky, describing constellations. The water was shimmery. Hushed. Reflected lights on black water flickered like precious gems.
In the morning, we struck out for mid-ocean. It was up to the Captain to chart the course to Poland.
“The Captain ask you come navigation room,” First Officer Borek said. Borek was worried. He said the Captain didn’t know where I should disembark. They feared for my safety. They called me “The Lady in Pink.” Borek said they couldn’t take me with them to Gdansk because it would be dangerous for an American. I explained I was on my way to meet the Pope and explore the Catholic faith.
I’d met Buddhist monks in Boulder with the Beats and I wondered what Catholic nuns were like, what being a nun entailed. (I was born a Southern Baptist Protestant. I’d never been to a Catholic Mass.) I was on an idealistic mission to find Dad, God the Father. I was looking for wisdom. There’d been so much ignorance in Dixieland.
The Captain invited me to sit in his seat to watch navigation proceedings as he guided us through a storm. He brought out a bar of exquisite chocolate. I watched the instruments, my pink gown draped over the Captain’s chair like a pool of petals. Borek explained in limited English, “Not be frightened.” I bit into the chocolate as we entered a storm with high swells, but the ship was well-balanced. I watched walls of water go by, the navigation room windows giving a clear view.
The ship’s officers threw a vodka party that night and invited me. Borek forbade me to attend. He said officers were in near-mutiny over me already and they’d be drinking heavily. I had no idea I caused trouble, but Borek said I was the sole topic of ship conversation.
At midnight, while the crew drank vodka, I ran to the prow of the ship and leaned over, watching the racing ocean. Stars overhead. At the tip of the deck, my arms in the wind like a living figurehead of a Spanish galleon. The ship cut through the ocean. Way out in front, it felt like sailing on a sailboat. Me and stars, my skirts billowing. Behind me, stood gigantic containers of freight. Borek found me and rushed me to my cabin, said I might fall overboard and die. All the other officers were in various states of inebriation and the passengers sound asleep.
The next morning, when the other passengers disembarked at Le Havre, France, I made an instant decision. I wrote a note to Borek to say goodbye and walked off the ship with the music professor. It was raining. I’d read in the Three Musketeers about the port of Le Havre. I was happy to set foot on legendary ground. I boarded a train to Paris and watched vistas of sunflower field race by my window seat.
In those days, you could buy a youth pass and travel Europe for next to nothing. For the trip to Paris from the coast of France, I booked a wagon-lit sleeper car with two bunks. Sharing with me was a young woman newly married. Her face was burned, eyelids, lips and nose disfigured, her fingers fused. A speedboat accident, she said. Her name was Martine.
Martine invited me to visit her in Paris, giving me an address and phone number. There were no cell phones or emails back then. It was easy to lose contact with people, but I wrote Martine’s information in the pages of my journal.
Wearing pink shoes that hurt my feet, the first place I went in Paris was the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I admired the doves, pigeons everywhere, hundreds of them, and I’d not before seen even one. I wandered the Latin Quarter by the Sorbonne, choosing a hotel with a front door painted Winesap apple red.
In a shop window, I admired a pair of ivory earrings that were like globes cut in half, the size of my thumbnail. Clip, not pierced. Thinking of my grandfather’s piano, I purchased the earrings and a bouquet of cut peonies. I was not impressed with Paris because a constant rain soaked my gown and ruined my shoes, but I thought the earrings would be nice with my great grandmother’s cameo brooch encrusted with pearls and black onyx. And the peonies were lovely.
In the morning, I opened my bedroom door to find a pot of complimentary hot chocolate and a soft roll set out by the hotel’s room service. I decided to visit Martine.
Martine’s husband Jean-Pierre worked for the United Nations. He was very French. A Parisian. I stayed for dinner, Jean-Pierre instructing me in the art of making a Béchamel sauce: “This is a skill you can use for the rest of your life, Alison.” He was right. I never forgot how to prepare Béchamel. Butter, flour, heated milk, salt and pepper.
The following night, Martine and I went out to a restaurant where I drank three glasses of Port. I slept at her house until three the next afternoon.
“I’m living on Paris time!” I wrote in a page of my journal. Decadently.
Martine helped me to select a ticket for Rome. I’d take the Express train. She drove me to the Gare de Lyon train station. Martine made sure I had her Paris phone number, in case of an emergency. My juvenile fearlessness worried adults and everywhere I went, people expressed concerned I traveled alone.
A brochure from the travel agent in North Carolina listed a Roman pensione (Bed and Breakfast) at Piazza Navona. I arrived at Rome’s Stazione Termini carrying my trunk of gowns, lined in Victorian-print paper. I didn’t know a word of Italian. A taxi driver sped me to Piazza Navona; I’d changed some dollars for Italian lire at the station. Lire were wide bills of huge numeration. Ten thousand lire was about seven American dollars.
Dame di Betania (Ladies of Bethany), a religious order specializing in pilgrim services, operated the pensione. They were Anglicans (Church of England), though, not Catholics. I reserved a chamber, no bath, and made myself at home. They had books in a parlor. Sofas and a lamp. I was relieved to see a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite novels.
When hungry, I put on a Civil War mourning scarf of transparent silk, trimmed with black ribbon. I walked into the piazza, and, on a corner, saw a shop selling mouth-watering Italian groceries. I had eaten nothing since Paris.
Inside the tiny market was a shopkeeper. I looked around and chose a banana and a tin of wild mackerel. I nearly passed out with excitement because the shop sold wines. I bought a whole bottle. The shopkeeper fished out olives from a barrel and folded them into a cone of wax paper. I bought a roll, too. Bread in Rome was freshly baked. This was my first meal in Rome and it remains one of the best feasts I’ve ever devoured. I was so hungry and this simple fare was delicious. Back at my lodgings, I ate and drank lusciously, reading Rebecca. I stayed a week, talking to other travelers, walking through Rome, and wondering what to do, my funds going to zero.
I purchased an English newspaper that ran ads for employment and a copy of the International Herald Tribune. Spying an ad for an English-speaking governess, I remembered Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The advertised position was for the instruction of a nine-year-old prince at a castle situated outside Rome.
“Pronto,” a princess answered my telephone call. She said her name was Donatella.
Donatella spoke English and wanted her son to practice the English language. We arranged an interview. Donatella’s chauffeur arrived the next morning. It wasn’t a long drive.
The car pulled up at a seventeenth-century castle with a tiny door of massive thickness. To enter, I stooped low. Heavy velvet drapery hung inside the doorway to keep out cold air. In front of me was a long hall. The chauffeur guided me into a cavernous room on the left where burned a fire. This was the castle’s dining room. Further along was a sitting room with a space heater where Donatella waited to interview me.
Donatella was slender, fashionably dressed and blonde.
She told me her first husband, a heavy smoker, had burned to death in a couch fire. Then she wed the prince and had a son. Her little boy greeted me with a bow and a smile. Donatella hired me on the spot and I moved to the castle, bringing my trunk of gowns.
The family spoke elementary English. The child helped me learn to count in Italian. We’d stand at the front of the castle throwing a ball back and forth, counting: “Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci.” One through ten.
Soon, I could count to one hundred, laughing and playing.
I wished to learn to fence. Donatella hired an instructor for me by the name of Stefano. I had only one lesson. Stefano refused to teach me because he said he couldn’t see my legs in the gowns I wore. I refused to take them off or to wear trousers.
For dinners at the castle, I wore an 1800s lace bodice and a broad waist sash with a clasp of porcelain rose, nearly as large as my palm. I wore Mamie’s cameo and the ivory earrings from Paris. The cameo was set in a band of antebellum gold. I gave it as a gift to the prince’s twenty-something daughter.
Rudolfo, the family’s butler and chauffeur, was from the Philippines. Lillia, his wife, worked as their housekeeper. Alessandro was an elderly cook, surviving from the castle’s distant past of a full staff.
At dinner, Donatella said, “You will catch pneumonia!” There was no central heating. The bedrooms all had fireplaces. The dining table was long; I had to shout to the princess. She was at one end and the prince at the other. I sat on his right next to their son.
Rudolfo stood at my left shoulder, poised, wearing white gloves. I hesitated. I was a picky eater. Booming out the menu, the prince bellowed a roasted meat’s identity and I took some to silence him. The child sat next to me, pulling out the insides of a Roman rosetta bread, which was better than pastry. He drank water mixed with white wine.
I drank as much wine as I could without the prince noticing. He teased me about drinking his fine cognac upstairs in a luxurious salon. I liked to sit there in the afternoons to write in my journal. The salon walls were frescoed in soft hen-chick yellows, salmon pinks, cocoa browns and morning glory blues.
Outside, bloodhounds guarded the castle door. A male, Borga, and his harem.
Years later, when my godmother abbess died, the prince bought my airplane ticket from Manhattan back to Rome. I wept at the Abbess’ grave. I was too young to know when you cherish someone, you need to say it, live it, and never let go. I adored my godmother Abbess. I did tell her, but I wish I’d told her more. Regrets are bittersweet. But employed as a governess at the castle, I had not yet met my future godmother abbess.
I did not remain beyond two months at my post.
“Se fosse io.” The princess said my trying to be a governess was the same as if she were to try to be a governess. I wasn’t cut out for service.
She said she’d help me to locate a monastery where I could go to seek out more information about Catholicism in my quest to be a nun. The prince had been excommunicated and the family did not attend Mass, but Donatella was tender towards the Church.
Donatella arranged to send her son to a boarding school in Switzerland. She and the prince wanted to travel. They liked to vacation in the Seychelles.
Lillia said I should return to America. “Who will iron your dresses?” she wanted to know.
The prince drove me back to Rome, but first we lunched. “Un fiore così!” (A flower such as this!) he said, taking my hand, flinging it back in my lap. He meant I was wasting my youth by going to a convent. He ought to know, he said. His ancestor had once been pope.
At an outdoor café, I ordered a bowl of fresh cherries but wouldn’t eat them. A waiter served them, ripe and still on the stem.
I did not want to spit cherry pits out in front of the Prince. He cut them open for me, one by one. After the cherries, we drove to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. I’d chosen a mission for the homeless, full of Ethiopian famine refugees, arranging a fortnight to work alongside the religious sisters. I was going to have my first experience with the Catholic Church.
Mother Teresa was in India (I found out decades later that she regularly toured with one of the Catholic Church’s most prolific pedophiles, a high-ranking Jesuit). Her mission in Rome was housed in an old chicken coop attached to an ancient monastery belonging to Benedictine monks, next door to the Stazione Termini (train station) where I’d arrived from Paris. Unknown to me, these same Benedictine monks constituted the male order of my future godmother’s community of nuns.
The Ethiopian diaspora was at its height and the streets of Rome were full of people who had fled Ethiopia’s famine crisis. In the coming year, international musicians engaged in their own efforts to help famine victims by holding Live Aid (I’d be in an English cloister by then). My own effort was much smaller than the Live Aid concert. I cleaned the floors of Mother Teresa’s women’s ward.
I did the chores assigned to me wearing a Victorian gown. I was there for a fourteen-day experience. My dress quickly became soiled. I’d gone from a castle to a refugee shelter. I cleaned feces from the floors. There were bathrooms, but some women preferred the hallway.
When I swept outdoors, I saw used syringes discarded on the ground and wondered where they all came from. I was unaware of AIDS, but in the United States, AIDS was wreaking unchecked havoc in San Francisco. Unknown to me, HIV can be passed via used drug syringes. It wasn’t my job to pick up litter so I never touched any syringes. The train station environs was a mecca for addicts, but I didn’t know.
All went well until the first Mass when the religious sisters realized I was not a Catholic. Mother Teresa’s sisters said it was not possible to do an experience at their mission as a non-Catholic, but since I was there, they made an exception.
At night, the sisters and I slept in a common room with white sheets and bare floors. We ate what remained after serving the homeless, usually withered apples (discards from the marketplaces of Rome) cans of tuna, and a coffee or tea made with collected used grounds from local bars. After strenuous chores, each meal tasted good. I remember relishing the sweet apples.
The sisters and I were each given a metal pail the size of a gallon paint bucket. There was a cold-water tap in the henhouse. We could wash our bodies and our clothes in cold water using our buckets once per week. Mother Teresa reasoned that her nuns should not have more than the poorest of the poor whom we served.
I befriended an Ethiopian refugee named Melena who spoke English. She sat in the sunshine on a couch and seemed melancholic. Melena was pregnant and leaving soon for Mother Teresa’s house for unwed mothers.
I worked all day with the Sisters of Charity. It was fun hanging bedsheets on a roof to dry. Our hearts were as fresh as the laundry. After completing my two-week experience, I left the Mission looking like an urchin straight out of Dickens. My dress was filthy. I returned to Dame di Betania at Piazza Navona to bathe, clean my clothes, drink wine, and choose a next step.
This time, I decided to seek out the National American Catholic Church of Rome: Chiesa Santa Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian on the Quirinal Hill. Santa Susanna basilica stood on a site used for early Christian worship in 280 AD.
At Santa Susanna, I met up with Lady Jeanne (Jeannie) Campbell. Jeannie and I became friends instantly. We share a Clan Campbell background. And Jeannie liked artists.
Jeannie, like most Scots who came of age in the 1940’s, drank heavily. We went everywhere together in Old Rome, drinking champagne and attending garden parties. There were tiny kiosks in the streets of Rome where a passerby could step aside and drink a glass of wine. We did this often.
I met Contessa Maria Stella Sera at a Ryder-Cheshire charity tea. She attended with Barbara Firestone, wife of O.J. Firestone, a Canadian art collector. I was with Jeannie and her travel companion, American gossip columnist Joe X. Dever.
Contessa Sera told me she was a widow and her mother-in-law had just died. She invited me to visit and I said I would.
That afternoon at Ryder-Cheshire, I met the elderly monk don Anselmo. He was a member of the Benedictine order that hosted Mother Teresa’s shelter by the train station. Don Anselmo spoke excellent English, “I know the best place for you to go to experience monastic life. You can go tomorrow.” He sent me to an abbess, my future godmother.
I went from dawdling around old Rome, attending parties, to deep inside a real-life cloister on the Aventine Hill, near the Colosseum.
It was June 19th, the Feast of St. Romualdo. The monastery indicated by don Anselmo was named after Saint Anthony Abbot, an ascetic who lived in the Egyptian desert in 300 AD. Saint Anthony was one of the Desert Fathers, men who lived alone in the middle of a desert, naked, or clothed only in coarse, simple raiment. They lived lives of prayer and fasting. Pilgrims brought them bread twice a year and they ate date palms. That was about it. They wrote in Coptic language and had many wise sayings. I loved reading about the Desert Fathers in a book called Lives of the Desert Fathers. I had a natural sympathy for aesthetic deprivation and any sort of moral fortitude.
The abbess greeted me wearing a white habit. She smiled. I wore a blue satin gown and silk lace gloves.
Visitors for the Feast filed through the monastery’s gate in procession.
The Feast Day included Mass followed by refreshments in lengthy ceremony akin to the windbag discourses of Trungpa Rinpoche at JKS.
I told the abbess, “Don Anselmo, io qui!” in broken Italian: “Lord Anselmo says I am to come here,” and she nodded.
Local custom gave priests the aristocratic courtesy title “don,” which means “lord.” It’s used with the first name, not a surname. The US Mafia got it wrong in The Godfather: “Don Corleone.” They ought to have said, “Don Vito,” but the Mafiosi did as they pleased, on and off screen, and in Rome.
Circo Massimo (ancient ruins where once were held chariot races and gladiatorial combats) was tucked downhill from the monastery, below rose gardens and orange trees. Stazione Termini was to the right of Circo Massimo. Both places were drug dens. All this became the view from my bedroom window at the monastery. Deep velvet blue sky, dotted with stars and the black shapes of hilltop Jerusalem pine trees, my night-time panorama. It is an especially magical thing that the heart of Rome remains ancient in its skyline with no tall buildings or modern encroachments.
Everything I needed to know about love and kindness, even more than what the Beats taught me, I learned from the abbess. A letter from her, written some years after I’d left Rome:
Carissima Alessandrina, (Dearest Alison)
Ti mando la partecipazione della morte di Sr. Nazzarena. Affidati a Lei, come ad una sua sorellina, ti sara vicina! (I send you the participation of the death of the monastery’s resident recluse Sister Nazarene. Trust in her like a sister and she will be near.)
Hai ricevuto la mia lettera? (Did you receive my letter?)
Ti auguro buona quaresima e buona Pasqua. Prega e ama il Signore con tutto il cuore. (I wish you a Happy Lent and Happy Easter. Pray and love the Lord Jesus with all your heart.)
Godi pure la vita nelle gioie che ci sono nella via del bene e non lasciarti allettare dalle false apparenze che luccicano, come falsi gioielli. (Relish purely life by loving the joy of living a good life doing right and be not seduced by false appearances that only pretend to shine but are illusions like false jewels.)
Ti ricordo nella preghiera e ti abbraccio, credimi aff. ma in Xto, Ildegarde la madrina tua. (I remember you in prayer and put my arms around you. Believe me your loving, affectionate godmother, Hildegarde.)
I’ve kept her letters. When we met at the Feast of S. Romualdo, I did not know I’d eventually enter the Catholic Church at her monastery, taking First Communion followed by a private Confirmation at Chiesa Santa Susanna with a bishop destined to be Cardinal. The abbess was not only a godmother to me but the best, most loving mother a girl could hope to have.
In 2010, Sam Jake Seuss asked me to write down my memoirs after we were engaged and he did so primarily because he wanted to hear about my experiences inside a cloister. “That alone is worth the price of admission,” exclaimed Jake Seuss, talking about my memoir as he cut centers from his piece of French toast at a pretty Manhattan restaurant. “Windowpanes,” he said. I’ve tried to make this part of my book a vivid glimpse inside the cloister. A window thrown open.
I passed three days at a guesthouse before the abbess invited me inside cloistered community. Once inside, I never wanted to leave. I forgot all about the Jack Kerouac School, Dixieland, princes and castles, everything and everybody, even Jake Seuss. I felt I was in Dad’s house. I got it into my head to become a nun and I wasn’t even Catholic. The abbess volunteered to teach me herself and recruited an English-speaking priest from a nearby seminary to come and instruct me once a week.
I loved singing Vespers. I sat beside the abbess, holding gingerly a red book of psalms. This is how I learned to speak Italian. I sang as I read. I heard the abbess pronouncing the Italian syllables. I understood the words’ contextual meaning because my grandmother Mamie had given me a King James Version Bible written in Elizabethan English; I’d first read psalms in the vein of Shakespeare, all “thees” and “thous.” I’d read the Bible cover to cover alongside my red dachshund Weedhopper in my grandfather’s parlour.
The word for bedroom in Italian is camera, but monastic bedrooms are referred to as cells, celle. My cell had a small porcelain sink, single bed, feather mattress and pillow with ironed, white linens changed frequently, at the same time the nuns washed their guest house laundry. The monastery had an outdoor washing shed with an industrial-sized ironing machine.
On Thursdays, the nuns and I stood at the ironing machine threading massive roller bars with linens and nun habits, which were white and all alike. Every nun sewed a number into her individual garments for identification. My godmother’s number was 8, in red embroidery. We spent hours at the chore. The ironing smelled clean, and outside the washing shed were fragrant fruit trees. Lemon, apple, apricot, plum and persimmon.
Sister Cristina, Sister Margherita, and Sister Placida crafted soap out of lard at the door of the shed. Cristina sifted trash from the guest house to salvage anything useable, for the sake of monastic economy.
Cristina heated milk before dawn from a cow in a tiny barn after Margherita did the milking. Cristina mixed hot milk with roasted chicory and espresso to make a breakfast coffee drink.
Margherita made cheese. Big cheeses hung from a cellar ceiling in dropped nets down the length of a corridor that led to a darkened, spidery cave. Sometimes, when chores were completed, I sat in the cave to write in my journal while the nuns had their siesta. I had no interest in sleep. I adventured deeply into the cellar, exploring in the darkness. I found casks as big as my body filled with vinegar. Cristina brewed vinegar using a mass of cellulose and bacteria called a ‘mother.’ The cellar cave was vast, but included slits of thick, narrow windows so that a person could faintly see the interior. And there were lights that could be switched on by pulling hanging chains.
The days flew by. The abbess instructed me with the help of a priest in the Catholic faith. It was a full year before I had my First Communion. The abbess became my godmother (madrina). She obtained special dispensation to take me as her goddaughter because nuns were not allowed the worldly attachment of parenting.
One day, I was supposed to be in bed during siesta. Get this. All of the nuns slumbered. It was a mid-summer most Shakespearean. Violets covered the ground. Wild, English violets. I was wearing a day-gown of blue cotton, made from the nuns’ apron cloth. Long and sweeping. Heavily ruffled. Low at the throat, to the scandal of the entire community. Sewn by the hand of Madrina to my specifications. On my feet were leather ballet slippers. The kitchen rooms were as big as a modern house. Huge. Many-roomed. Windows everywhere. Dried chamomile flowers from the garden sat ready in a jar for tea. Jams. Rhubarb. I liked to make hot wine tea and eat fresh bread with rhubarb jam.
I thought I was alone. That’s right. Dishes all washed. Late-ish afternoon before Vespers. I had the whole place to myself. I was completely in charge. I’d sung out loud every Italian psalm I knew by heart. The kitchen windows thrown wide, Rome was my oyster. I was princess of all. I set out a bounty of blood oranges and sliced them into halves. I was in the act of eating them and juice ran down my face.
Madrina entered the kitchen.
She wasn’t asleep! My godmother spoke not one word, surveying me thoughtfully. She picked up a halved blood orange, held it to her lips, drank the nectar, and exited the kitchen with a chuckle.
In summers, the abbess sent me to various monasteries to help various communities because I was young and they were old. My favourite monastic summer was at Ravenna, a town of Byzantine mosaics. Madrina sent me on an incredible adventure with Sister Maura, who knew how to drive a car. We were supposed to stay one week. I stayed all summer.
Abbess Vittoria in Ravenna was ninety years old. She beamed happiness when Maura and I appeared on her monastery’s doorstep. Maura was a fully professed nun (under perpetual vows) and perhaps in her early 50s. Plump.
I liked Maura. I nicknamed her Maurissima. We arrived to refurbish the Ravenna monastery. I saw artwork on the walls and asked the origin. Abbess Vittoria told me the art was a thousand years old.
Maura wore her white Roman habit and I wore a white dress with a blue medieval-styled apron Madrina had sewn. Mother Vittoria’s nuns wore black habits like the majority of Benedictine orders.
Immediately upon arrival, Maura and I sat down for lunch in the refectory. We sat together. The road trip from Rome was hours long and we were ravenous and thirsty. The refectory ceiling was painted in a fresco depicting Emperor Napoleon.
An aged nun painstakingly retrieved dishes, one by one, from a rarely used cupboard. We were the only guests in recent memory. As the nun precariously teetered the length of the dining refectory, Maura and I waited.
The nun clutched each dish with arthritic hands. Nerve-wracking to watch. At any second, a dish might crash to the floor. Eventually, a plate and soup basin lay before me. The drawer of the long table crumbled to dust when I tried to pull it open, spilling ancient wood onto my apron. I had wanted to peer inside since the dish service took so long.
I signaled Maura. What to do?
She replaced the outer front of the drawer back into the table’s aperture. A face of the drawer was all that remained. The rest was powder and splinters in my lap.
The soup was coming! Slowly, from across the refectory, in silence (meals were taken in silence). Oh, no. The soup approached, but I saw something in my bowl. Movement, a climbing, slipping, and sliding back down. I nudged Maura.
Piping hot minestrone with fava beans bearing down upon us, Maura yanked my bowl away, swapping it with hers as broth covered the insect. She would fish the spider out later. Or eat it as a sacrificial act of charity.
Once we settled in, Maura and I did heavy cleaning, before I was tasked with bringing meals to elderly women, who boarded with the nuns in a guest house. I brought food on a tray to someone bedridden and spoke with her in Italian about her children and grandchildren. It was a sweet assignment. I was learning the moral wholesomeness of service.
In the afternoons, when the nuns napped, I ran through the garden like a Kentucky Derby Run for the Roses, expending my young energy while the elderly slumbered.
It was a garden of fable. A painted door, opening outward into the garden from the refectory resembled a storybook door. The lower half closed with the top part open made a frame. I could lean on my elbows and look outward. I thought of Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel.
Mother Vittoria had taken to calling me Biancaneve (Snow White). I had long dark hair, the white dress and blue apron. The garden contained apricot and lemon trees and grapevines. I closed my eyes walking into the grapes as they hung over-ripe and sugary in globes of translucent yellow, covered by bees and wasps. The fruit was at the level of my mouth. I let the grapes smack into my lips and tasted them, without using my hands. Nobody tended the wild, overgrown garden, the nuns too old for horticulture.
I found a dead bird floating in a rain barrel and alerted a nun. She extracted the dead body and grilled it for our dinner. I didn’t eat the dish. It probably contained maggots, I thought. But in monasteries, nothing was wasted, for thrift’s sake.
Sister Assunta (assunta means assumed into Heaven) was the eldest nun. Born in 1898, she was once a school teacher. I asked Mother Vittoria if I could have a calligraphy lesson with Assunta.
My bedroom perched above the chapel. From an inner window, I viewed an altar and flowers I arranged from the garden. I washed my hair in a sink in my bedroom, the stronger sisters ferried pots of warmed water from the kitchen to pour over my head at the top of the monastery. There was no hot water up that high.
I left my room one afternoon before Vespers for Assunta’s room and a calligraphy lesson. I waited while Assunta slowly opened an ink bottle and dipped a pen nib inside. Nothing happened. I examined the bottle interior. The ink was dried, dried some twenty years past. There could be no calligraphy lesson. Assunta smiled graciously. I was pleased. The thrill of almost having had a master class with such a venerable teacher was good enough.
The next afternoon, I heard incessant mewing from below my bedroom window. I thought I was dreaming, but the cries grew louder. The rooms were stately structures of dense plaster and giant windows fit for a medieval fortress. The setting lent itself to muse and fancy. Unable to resist the luring mews, I descended into a patch of wildest garden and discovered a pail of water secured by a paint-peeling, rusty-nailed, wooden plank. Clinging within, struggled a half-immersed starveling at the bucket’s rim. I tipped the pail over and ran to tell the abbess, Mother Vittoria. Trauma petrified the kitten. It remained frozen, shrieking in woe when I returned with the abbess. One of the sisters had thought to drown the kitten as a means of population control, Mother Vittoria explained, promising nobody would do so in future.
Another day, all of us seated at table in the refectory, we heard the furious clang of a ringing bell. A cry for help!
The door to the garden was half-opened in sweet, summer evening. I jumped up, electrified.
From atop a wide stair of graduated marble, carved for knights on horseback, a nun stood shouting, “Assunta in terra! Assunta in terra!” (Assunta is fallen!)
Without permission to leave the table, I jetted up a multitude of steps like an eagle soaring Heaven into the bedroom of Assunta to see her sprawled in a nightgown, her frail body crumpled to the floor. I scooped her up in my arms and placed her gently onto a narrow bed. Other sisters began entering the room. Mother Vittoria stood astonished at my vigour. The sisters gathered at the doorway to witness my miracle of strength. I wasn’t really strong, just healthy. Assunta was as light as a paper pamphlet.
Assunta survived and all was well, but my love for these old, holy sisters was deep. When Madrina called and said it was time to come home, I sent Maura back to Rome without me, refusing to vacate Ravenna. Madrina telephoned again. Madrina called a third time. She said I must continue my lessons in theology and a priest from the seminary of St. Anselmo on the Aventine was coming to St. Antonio Abate to give me lessons. I returned to Rome, petulantly.
I never saw the Ravenna nuns again, but a piece of my heart went with them to their graves. Their monastery closed when the nuns all died off, but I can see dear Mima now, a fairytale-like sister, leaning at the refectory half-door with a beatific smile. I can’t remember her religious name. I’d once asked what her name was as a young girl, and she answered softly, ever so sweetly, “Mima.”
Of everywhere I ever lived, including beloved Columbia campus and the Jack Kerouac School, the monastery at Ravenna was the place closest to my heart. Those nuns were the most angelic humans I ever knew. I heard that Abbess Vittoria never stopped awaiting my return, asking for me until the day she died.
Back in Rome, I sometimes went around with Contessa Maria Stella Sera, whom I’d first met with Jeannie Campbell at a Ryder-Cheshire tea party.
“Call me Mummy,” she said; she was childless. We attended lavish art openings, concerts, and dinner parties together. And one afternoon, she took me with her to a private gathering at the Vatican. These weren’t the humble monks and nuns I had come to know, but the elite hierarchy controlling the whole of the Catholic Church.
“Mummy, who is that man?” Not knowing at the time, I pointed to Paul Casimir Marcinkus.
Years later at Columbia University, I read that Sua Eccellenza (His Excellency) Marcinkus was Pro-President of Vatican City State, third in power after Pope John Paul II and the Secretary of State: from 1971 until 1989, Marcinkus was president of the Institute for Religious Works, a.k.a. the Vatican Bank. The history of Marcinkus and Vatican Bank: In 1982, a man named Calvi, a business associate and friend of Marcinkus, was found swinging, hanged to death beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London, his clothing stuffed full of building bricks. Blackfriars were clerical members of the masonic lodge Propaganda Due (P2). In 1979 found dead was journalist Mino Pecorelli, who had investigated Marcinkus’ ties to organized crime. In 1973, a United States federal prosecutor, head of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the United States Department of Justice questioned Marcinkus in his office at the Vatican. American political leadership concluded the case against Marcinkus must be terminated. The case was this: 14.5 million US dollars’ worth of counterfeit bonds delivered to the Vatican as per a requested 950 million, apparently documented on Vatican letterhead. Marcinkus was implicated in charges of mysterious murder, Mafia involvement, and in 1982, the name Marcinkus was on newspaper and magazine fronts as a person responsible for Italian banking scandals. On the heels of all this uproar, came the garden party Mummy and I attended. (In 1987, Italian constitutional court later ruled that Marcinkus, as a Vatican employee, was immune from prosecution.)
I met Marcinkus, not having heard of Vatican criminals, unless of course, I reflected on historical personalities like the Borgia. All I saw that day at the garden party with Contessa Sera were men in scarlet robes who smiled, and spoke in closed ranks, greeting one another with staid formality.
Marcinkus was unable to exit the sanctuary of Vatican City State because Roman police had issued a warrant for his arrest. The Vatican was safe haven for Marcinkus. Decades later, when pedophile clergy electrified international news media, the Vatican ushered them to the Vatican City State.
Most present at the Vatican’s outdoor social attended by Marcinkus were members of the Roman Curia. But there were a few aristocrats. Mummy’s dead husband Count Sergio del Sera had been a diplomat and known these men well. It was for his sake that Mummy and I had been invited.
Marcinkus was a heavy smoker, handsome with a commanding personal aura. We acknowledged one another with polite smiles. The guests were few. We stood awkwardly on a grassy incline. The day was overcast.
Marcinkus, like me, was American. His hometown diocese was Chicago, the city of America’s biggest mobsters, murderers and bank robbers: John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Al Capone.
Marcinkus was born in 1922 Illinois, in a Chicago suburb and ordained into the priesthood in 1947, hot on the heels of a still vibrant mobster culture.
Prohibition era gangsters were largely dead by the mid 1930’s. Al Capone had led Chicago’s vice network. Capone was legendary in Chicago. Many people considered Depression era criminals folk heroes. Capone was arrested by FBI G-Men and Eliot Ness in 1931. Loyalty, betrayal, secrecy, and lucrative intrigues characterized the Mob. This was the atmosphere in which Marcinkus grew up as a kid.
“You can’t run the Church on Hail Mary’s,” was a well-known quote by Marcinkus. He had thwarted an assassination attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II in 1982 and there was no way Marcinkus would lose the Vatican’s protection, no matter what he did. Some people described Marcinkus as rough, because he spoke like he was from the streets of Chicago. Other people felt strongly that Marcinkus was a decent man. In general, he was respected.
I liked him instantly.
Mummy wore a decorated hat and a knee-length sheath. I wore a pink tea gown. Archbishops and cardinals stood in beautiful robes of scarlet and black. Everyone was charming, engaged in guarded conversation. Mummy gave her hand to Marcinkus and made a stylized bow to him. In Europe, females traditionally curtsey in front of men/women of higher rank. And the Roman Curia had aristocratic aspirations. (I also met the future New York Cardinal Dolan in Rome with Mummy. He wanted her to give a large financial donation to his seminary.)
In Rome, I lived with my second godmother, Lady Jeanne (Jeannie) Campbell, with Contessa Sera, and at Madrina’s monastery on the Aventine Hill overlooking the Colosseum.
Highlights of my time spent in Rome included the larger than life figure of Jeannie. At my Confirmation, I had two godmothers and no godfather. The old prince from my governess-ship was to be my godfather but bowed out at the last minute. Excommunication, the reason. He went to another country big-game hunting instead.
My godmothers were two completely different personalities. I was happy with both. The abbess loved me like a daughter, while Jeannie looked upon me as a social friend. We dined frequently on the Via Veneto. I walked to the Protestant Cemetery where John Keats is buried and draped my arms over the angel of his marble tombstone.
When Jeannie asked me to attend classes with her at the Pontifical University in Rome, known as the Angelicum, I said, “Yes.” It was where Pope John Paul II had studied as a young priest.
Male seminarians comprised the Angelicum’s student body, yet it was possible for female religious and secular people to enroll. The classes were taught in Italian, Latin and Greek. And exams were oral, not written. One could take them in Italian, Latin, or Greek. Jeannie and I registered for a philosophy course. Jeannie paid the tuition.
I liked to wear dresses Madrina sewed from lime-green calico, the nuns’ apron cloth. I still had the pink shoes I brought across the Atlantic from America. Jeannie wore caftan dresses; she was large and full bodied. The professors at the Angelicum were Dominican priests in long white robes. During lectures, Jeannie and I sat in the back rows. At class breaks, I frequented a fountain containing live goldfish. I loved to gaze at the fish and imagine Rome in the days of Julius Caesar.
Jeannie made friends with a group of seminarians, young men studying for the priesthood. I thought they seemed most un-priestly, but said nothing. The classroom had raked seating; the lecturer stood in a low pit at the front of the class. Lectures were dynamic, but there was lots of whispering in the back rows. Behind me sat a student from Canada, named Dominick.
One day, Dominick asked Jeannie for a ride to the outskirts of Rome and Jeannie invited me to come, saying, “We can stop for lunch by the sea, Alison.” Jeannie owned a car. I wasn’t sure of our destination.
At a table facing the water outside of Rome, perhaps near Pompey, we enjoyed a leisurely meal of fish and wine, ending like meals do in Italy, with a salad. A grand day, really, until Dominick said he was pressed for time and had somewhere to be. Jeannie drove us further away from Rome, mysteriously venturing out over a weed-filled lot and into a swampy-looking space scarred by tire tracks. There wasn’t even paved road. Dominick gave directions.
“Is it okay for us to leave you here?” Distressed at the surroundings, I confronted Dominick. He didn’t answer, but Jeannie did. “It’s alright, Dominick has something he wants to do.” She pulled the car up alongside a shuttered warehouse. I thought it a horrible place. What would anyone want to do out in the middle of nowhere? And Jeannie said we were leaving Dominick, not waiting for him. He jumped out without a word and ran inside the creepy building.
While driving back to Rome, Jeannie explained to me how Dominick came from a sheep-farming family and was very innocent when he arrived at a seminary in Rome. “Dominick was quickly corrupted,” she said, shocking me. I thought of the mud I’d seen surrounding the warehouse. I sat stunned when Jeannie said Dominick was filming pornography. I made no reply. The whole afternoon’s weirdness was beyond anything I could imagine. The next time I saw Dominick (a dinner at Jeannie’s apartment in the center of Rome), his formerly black hair was dyed white-blond. He said he’d dyed his whole body blond.
Then, in Rome, something worse happened. A total gross out. Ooh that rhymes with pooh.
Traditionally, the Pope said an annual Mass at Santa Sabina. It was Ash Wednesday, 1987. I was at the Church of Santa Sabina, the oldest extant basilica in Rome, situated across the street from Madrina’s monastery. Madrina had given me the sole ticket in her possession to attend the solemn papal Mass at Santa Sabina. All the nuns had wanted to go, but they were proud that one of us could represent their community at the Mass. Madrina wanted me to have a special, sacred experience since I was newly admitted to the faith.
I put on my finest dress, a long, creamy-tinted damask gown embroidered with roses, handmade by Roman dressmakers. I looked fairer than Snow White, but I was about to wish I were more dead than Sleeping Beauty.
A crowd filled the tiny basilica, built in 400 AD to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Sabina for her profession of Christ in 125 AD under the rule of Hadrian, Emperor of the Roman Empire.
After the Mass, someone placed a baby in my arms because I was closest to Pope John Paul II. The parents wanted a papal blessing and could not reach the Pope themselves. It was sudden. I could not move. Flesh to flesh, arms against arms, bodies crushing bodies, we were all of us pinned together in a throng of expectation as Pope John Paul II approached in ceremonial exit.
A grimacing hostility distorted the face of Pope John Paul II. He stood in front of me, inches away, glaring. Something seemed really wrong. Unexpected. This was the Pope. He was supposed to be saintly, fatherly and you know—good. The infant weighed heavily in my arms. A nefarious associate of John Paul II shoved his hand between my legs from directly behind me. He was dressed in a dark clerical suit, but not a part of the Pope’s entourage. The leering expression across his ugly, grey features was like a horror movie villain come to life as I turned my head to see the author of assault; yet, nobody could see what he was doing, since our lower bodies were hidden by the crowd. The attack was instantaneous and insistent while the Pope glared. Recognizing the man behind me, John Paul II stood frozen, initially afraid, and then like he would explode with enmity, directing his rage straight at me. I appealed for help, but instead, the Pope strode away without blessing the child, to everyone’s astonishment. I was flabbergasted. The parents took the baby away and I rammed my elbow like a rapier into the creep at my back. I would not know the meaning of all this until I attended Columbia University. In 2001, I was an undergraduate when the Boston Globe let rip in headline news that hordes of pedophile priests were being protected by Rome. But on that Ash Wednesday, a ruined day, I only understood that something was very wrong at the Vatican.
Jake Seuss’ mouth dropped open when I recounted the event to him in 2010. He said, “This will make everyone’s head explode, what you witnessed.”
When I got back to Madrina, the nuns wanted to know how I liked my time with the Pope at Solemn Mass. I was in tears and could not tell. What could I have said? That John Paul II’s was really a sex ogre papacy and the whole world would one day read all about it in the Boston Globe?
I took a jet out of Rome and arrived in New York City. I flew First Class. The meal service was great and the flight stewardess served champagne, giving me an extra bottle as I stepped off the plane.
My entire life, I would rise up repeatedly after extended forays into poverty, and sashay into riches, only to again discard wealth for what it really is, the illusion of happiness. Sense of self buoyed me and my willingness to serve others—instead of to be served—kept me blithesome.