Winter along the Abruzzi Coast of Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea is generally mild. I spent part of a winter there, and early spring, on a farm. Known for its shepherds and tranquil pastoral life, the Abruzzi ascends in hills from the sea to the Mountain of Flowers. It is home to a proud people claiming descent from refugees who fled the barbarians' Sack of Rome in 479 A.D. Indeed, some of their houses were so old that stairs of solid stone were worn low in the middle after half a millennium's worth of children's pitter-patter and the heavier tread of the grown. The outdoor ovens, lined with bricks and used for baking bread, suggested those of ancient Pompeii, but here they were still in use from day to day.
The woman of the house in which I lived with my brace of dachshunds was renowned as the finest chef for miles around. Workers anxious for the pleasures of her table stood in line at harvest time hoping she might hire them as field hands.
Her cooking was a miracle by modern standards because it was accomplished without electricity, running water, ice box, or even a stove! Water she carried from the well in a copper jug balanced on top of her head. Lighting came from the sky in daytime or from candles and a kerosene lamp at night. The homemade pasta and dumplings, the cornmeal polenta, the rosemary-stuffed chicken, the lamb chops scalloped in fresh eggs, the steaks sprinkled with vinegar and olive oil, the sauces worthy of Alfredo's in Rome, all came from the hearth.
On the New Year's Eve I was there, a crowd of neighbors and townsfolk trooped in with accordion, fiddle and drums. Oh, how we danced on the marble floor of the large second-storey kitchen--men with men, and women with women, of course, for social customs had changed little since Roman days. Such intimate mingling of the sexes save in marriage was a sin! Even the cattle, the chickens, and the pigs, in spotlessly maintained residence on the ground floor below, joined in the music and song with lowing, clucks and squeals, as did my dogs with appropriate howls.
When church bells chimed in the New Year at midnight from timeless villages that crowned the highest hills, we rushed to the windows to cheer and saw the settlements shining like clusters of stars against the blackened sky. Afterward, everyone went home happy, and I went to bed. Not, however, the lady of the house. Tireless wonder that she was, she spent the rest of the night preparing a magnificent buffet for all who might stop by on New Year's Day.
When I arose at six, I saw her enter her bedroom and close the door, obviously to snatch a few winks. I stepped back quickly into my room knowing that were she to see me, she would offer breakfast and forego her nap. I opted to prepare my own breakfast. In the kitchen a few minutes later, I chose bacon and eggs. As I had seen her do, I sliced thick rashers of bacon, strung them on an iron rod and hung them over the hot coals. I set a skillet in the embers to fry the eggs, and a pot to boil up the coffee. Novice that I was, I'd hung the bacon too close to the heat, where it caught fire. In snatching it away, I wound up spattering hot grease on my sweater.
My baby-blue, cashmere-soft, Orlon cardigan from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York! I thought I would cry. There wasn't another like it for five thousand miles! This was back in the Fifties when synthetic fibers were almost exclusively an American thing.
I had picked up more European girls with clothes like my clear plastic raincoat than I ever could with a line. My sweater was Number One. "It isn't cashmere, or even wool?" they would say. "Oh, let me feel it! Oh, it's so soft! Oh, you Americans are wonderful!" That sweater was darn near worth my life!
Somewhere I had got the idea that cold water wouldn't set the stain. I had observed the woman of the house wash clothing in the wide stream nearby. On the occasion of my being called to Rome to join a team of journalists assigned to interview Pope Jon XXIII, she had even washed my hand-tailored silk suit in it, an act which nearly gave me a heart attack when I saw it hang dripping on the line. Later, she had presented it to me looking better than it had when new, pressed with a flatiron heated in the ashes of the hearth!
Yes, perhaps my beloved sweater could be saved.
Dogs at heel, away I marched with a box of cold-water Tide under my arm. It was still dark outside, but I easily found the way. Upon reaching the low river bank, I sank to my knees and formed a wash basin in the water with a semicircle of stones. Into it I sprinkled the Tide and whipped up some suds with my hands, which promptly turned a darker blue than the sweater from the cold, before tossing in the sweater itself. I rubbed it and scrubbed it and even slapped it against the rocks as I had seen the village ladies do although I had never asked them why. And then, it happened. I lifted two stones from opposing sides to let the current sweep out the suds, which it did, but it took my sweater with it! So there I knelt in semi-darkness with two stones hoisted in my hands while my Saks-Fifth-Avenue merchandise swooped toward the Adriatic Sea!
Never had I felt so stupid. A desperate man, I plunged in behind it and promptly floundered in the icy water. I waded out as fast as I dove in. Shivering and wet, I brightened when I saw it catch on an overhanging branch.
I breathed a prayer with a glance at the lightening sky and flew along the shore, reaching out to grab the sweater just as that renegade current snatched it away again. At that, pagan spirits beset me. I raced alongside waving my arms, shouting curses at the river gods in Italian, for maximum effect.
What a sight I must have made to the two shepherd boys I nearly trampled when I dashed round the next bend. Recovering himself, one of the boys addressed me.
"The signore is American?" I nodded, wild-eyed, and babbled my tale as best I could:
"Washing my sweater in the river! Then--oh, Madonna--gone, swept away!"
I had struck a chord. Those dear, compassionate lads tore off like the bats of Carlsbad Caverns, in search of my sweater, I was sure, leaving their flock in disarray. Exhausted, I waited for an hour, sitting on a rock, shouting now and then at my dogs to stop worrying the truant sheep. At last, come sun up, beaten and forlorn, I trudged back to the house where I no sooner entered the door behind the dogs than the lady appeared, alert after an hour or two of rest and ready to face the day.
"A morning constitutional, I suppose?" she remarked. Too embarrassed to tell her the truth, I nodded disconsolately and plodded up to my room, where I closed the door.
People started arriving in early afternoon, many of them talking about the incessant clamor of church bells that morning from the Communist-run village by the sea. The clanging was considered unusual even for a holiday, but with the "commies," one could never be sure. My area, although then strongly Christian Democrat, had once been Communist, too, but had voted them out unanimously when the commissars began giving everybody orders on how to live and what to do.
The New Year's buffet proved to be a gastronomic success. In the midst of a toast proposed by our village mayor to the hostess-cum-chef, a din of knocking resounded from the great oaken door below. Excusing herself from His Honor, the woman of the house scurried down, but returned shortly to call me aside.
"Something crazy is going on," she said. "There is a delegation from the Communist town to see you!"
"You! You're the only American around here. It's something about your wife. I didn't know you had one!"
"We're divorced. She's in New York."
"Then why are they so upset? They insist on talking to you about her! They say two shepherd boys claim you spoke of her at the river this morning."
The jig was up. I had to tell her about my stupid loss of the cardigan.
She looked perplexed. "What ARE you talking about? You just said you don't HAVE a wife!"
"Not 'wife,' SWEATER! My blue one you think is so pretty, the Orlon sweater from New York that you have trouble believing isn't really wool!"
A light went on in her eyes. Her hand darted to her mouth to suppress a giggle.
"Madonna, now I understand! Oh, your Italian is so funny! We speak of a sweater that buttons down the front as a jacket, or maglia, a MAH-lyee-uh. You're saying moglia, MOH-lyee-uh!" She couldn't resist the giggle any longer. It burst forth as a guffaw when she announced that I had actually told the shepherd boys I was washing my WIFE in the river, not my sweater, and the poor dear got swept away. "No wonder they got excited," she roared. "Two little country boys like that have probably never seen a naked woman outside the girlie magazines from Rome! No wonder they took off down the mountain!"
Sobered by the recollection of the dignified and slightly menacing group of Communists assembled in the yard below, she cleared her throat and reset her amused expression to glum. "Well, we'd better face the music," she said. "Let me do the talking. Your Italian has caused enough trouble for one day."
When we appeared in the yard, they all removed their hats. A spokesman stepped forward. "We would like to offer our deepest sympathy on the loss of your beloved wife, signore. By now, I fear her body has drifted out to sea. Rest assured we did all that we could. We rang the church bells for an hour to alert everyone in town.There wasn't a man, woman, or child who didn't help in the search."
We thanked him profoundly, saying we had heard the commotion and would now take comfort from knowing for whom the bells tolled.
He continued: "Perhaps these Christian Democrats can supply you with a priest. We don't support such leeches anymore." He turned to snap his fingers at a minion who came forward with a small basket from which he lifted a garment dripping wet.
"This maglia (cardigan) is all we could find, signore," he went on. "See? The label says: Saks Fifth Avenue, New York. Surely, it must have belonged to your moglia (wife). No one else in these parts would have such a thing. We thought you would want it back in memory of her."
Replacing their hats and bowing respectfully, they quietly went away, leaving us leaning on one another for support. Teary-eyed, our faces were scarlet from suppressed emotion, but not from any the Communist delegation supposed.
A short time later, the guests from the buffet found us in a state of collapse, laughing hysterically at the foot of the stairs. When we told them why, they joined in the merriment. The consensus was that, yes, the Communists had been most helpful and very kind, but considering the evils they had perpetrated around the countryside, a little egg on their faces couldn't hurt!
We all wished one another Happy New Year and went upstairs to finish our feast. I noticed as I hung my damp sweater near the warmth of the fire that there was no trace of the stain which had started the cardigan's odyssey from the Mountain of Flowers to the Adriatic Sea.