Instructions for life
Close and distant relations in the story of a writer
We had several aunts, each of whom were foreign to Naples. The Sardinian came from a small island off the coast there, the Emilian from a lively city, the Friulian from the region’s foggy countryside. With these three aunts we laughed a lot; the one from Emilia told jokes, the Sardinian brought sweets and was always cheerful, while the Friulian was the quiet one, who cooked excellent potato gnocchi.
One of them had to work, in a small municipal office. She was the only one among her sisters-in-law, while another was prevented from teaching piano because wives were not permitted to work; the third one, once the land was taken away, had only the balconies left, so she shone with her infallible green fingers.
These aunts made up for the silence and the seriousness of the house with the voices of their regions, which had embarked on the ship of a continuous storm, between wars, mourning, migration and the landing to a peace that they had never been taken seriously. There were orphans among them, others had lost siblings, or were constantly on the phone with distant sisters, who had married elsewhere.
On the subject of death, they all died, one committed suicide, another for a liver disease, the third one happily absent in lost memory.
Nevertheless, they were the real aunts, the ones you asked for advice, the ones who had not realised their dreams, and did not want their nieces to do the same with theirs’. Some had had children, others not.
Then there were the aunts and uncles you saw at birthday parties but who were strangers and always would be.
There were times when one wished to be an orphan, the guest of one’s favorite aunts, as in some of Dickens’ novels or in Carl Barks’ duck houses. Weren’t these aunts a bit like Clarabelle Cow or Daisy Duck?
For the nieces who had been born in a time of peace and who, it was hoped, would be the first to live and die, a hundred years from now, outside of any war, the aunts were eternal young ladies. It did not matter that they had grown a little plump, or even though they smelled of perfumes and coty, as in the song recited by Vittorio De Sica, with there fat fingers for cooking and making delicacies.
They were the aunts of hope, which life, regularly, disappoints.
Today’s nieces and nephews are instead, as if in a twisted equivalence, distracted aunts, their heads in their cell phones, who are unhappy with love - this has not changed - and who take in lost children, daughters of parents who are constantly absent in families where the grandparents’ pensions maintain the economy.
Today, the friends of the family become aunts and uncles, those people who have no real kinship but have acquired the royalties, the video game points, in whose houses the children can sleep or with whom the children can go out for a walk. To these uncles, as to others in different centuries, it is up to them to replace fathers who have fleed, who have gone into hiding upon being told of a pregnancy, even before being parents.
Young uncles will have to make choices when they are still trying to understand their own, eternal Peter Pans in a society of joblessness and fragile bonds.
If I think of the aunts of the past, I realize that we nieces and nephews had only old relatives, even when they were not that old; aged by experience or fatigue. Soon after, young aunts and uncles arrived, forever competing with the grandchildren, in a dance of not quite grown-ups, who never mature.
Of the cousins of yesteryear we can say, however, that they were herds that clashed with other herds, or flocks of cousins, in border meadows. We saw these unknown children in neutral territories, at the homes of grandmothers who acted as collectors of repressed screams, quelled fights, or denied outdoor games.
These unsuccessful doubles, who were similar in appearance, but different in unbearable details, always reflected our worst faults. In fact, we were happy not to meet them so as to avoid an unwelcome mirror, they were distant, scattered, waves on other oceans.
On the other hand, there were, and still are, homes where cousins had to replace brothers. Bundled together, all of whom were allies, a foreshadowing of school friendships. The older cousins act like young, open, modern mothers.
In the south of Italy, then, cousins are an exterminated population, homonymous or nameless, and consequently so are uncles and aunts.
In a short story by Fausta Cialente entitled Marianna, an anonymous mob of cousins camped out in a large multi-family home gathers against the newest arrival, who is an orphaned cousin. The stranger, the enemy, is fought, also because she is guilty of having discovered their favorite aunt’s escape, of having forced her to stay at home to die.
Like adults, cousins realize that they have made a mistake, that they have excluded the weakest, who can never forgive them. To aunts, uncles, and cousins, the task of instructing in life, in short, often to instruct on the rough sailing that parents and grandparents keep silent.
The non-obvious face of things, the close look of the beautiful as well as the ugly, the shoreline and not the postcard: you are aunts and uncles in the most unexpected of ways and remotely, even the worst is cousin to us.
by Antonella Cilento