Yesterday Today Tomorrow

The prayers in my grandmother’s dialect

 Le preghiere in dialetto di mia nonna  DCM-005
04 May 2024

It would have been difficult not to have a religious upbringing, growing up with my grandmother. I haven’t written Catholic, nor Christian: religious is the term she would have used and I also like it very much, it doesn’t exclude, it doesn’t barricade. It delimits without repelling. I had a religious upbringing: this is a phrase that reflects me, even in the story of how I slipped away from that upbringing and of how it still speaks of me when I encounter it in other forms and within other mirrors. I believe it all started with the lizards and with the cats. Yes, they are the origin.

Fables of cruel children who tormented them were whispered in the courtyard in front of grandma’s house, and in response, my friends and I decided to create an animal rights club. “Animal rights” was an exotic word, I was the one who brought it up, it was the kind of word that sticks with you after reading a column in Topolino [Mickey Mouse], one of those where you understand the meaning without asking adults, without peeking in a dictionary, and it was perfect for us, kids convinced that animals had a soul. My grandmother hated both cats and lizards, the former ruined her plants, which she cared so much about, and for the latter, she felt that mix of indifference and disgust that ladies of another generation had inherited without ever questioning, but she had no doubts in joining forces with us. When I came home, dirty with scraped knees, scratched legs, ribs not too intact from many falls off the bike, because I had tumbled into puddles, because I had gotten lost in the garage where the adults didn’t want us to play - then, at dinner, in front of the TV always showing teen shows that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch, my grandmother would shift the focus and ask: “What did you do today?”.

I used to make membership cards for the environmentalist club, coloring them with a blue marker and a bit of yellow, writing the names of my friends, mine, and never mentioning that they were for cats and lizards, and for those imaginary enemies, the cruel children who didn’t believe that animals had souls. My grandmother would set “the dish” on the table, a sort of broth in which carrots, potatoes, and onions in large pieces shared the broth with wild vegetable leaves and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. There was no meat in that dish, and it felt like eating the garden to me. It tasted good.

There were different kinds of people I kept my distance from: those who scolded dogs too harshly, those who preached that loving animals meant being sick because they preferred them to people, those who, if you pointed out a lizard, looked at the wall and didn’t understand what you were talking about. My grandmother didn’t belong to any of them.

The membership cards for the animal rights club were six. Once finished, I knelt with grandma for evening prayers; my favorites were the ones in dialect, “se è pi mali nesci bene” everything done for evil can be turned into good: enormous, smiling lizards emerged from stone quarries, while delightful, fluffy cats stretched out in the sun. They were dreams, visions, nothing more than flashes: a manifestation of goodness and beauty. A religious manifestation. Years later, when the animal rights club had long been disbanded and we were all already in university, a former girl from grandma’s courtyard, my contemporary, suddenly died. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, but the affection from those long afternoons remained and multiplied in the distance. The pain of her mother, her grandmother, her sister froze into my bones, something I couldn’t express, a blow that life had dealt us without warning, only to pollute the purity of those memories. We had traveled a part of the road together, and what united us was the will to defend life from cruel or indifferent attacks - her absence opened nightmares, fears, and chasms, and a new anger towards what I felt was unjust. But in another past, she and I had been religious in a world of impossible creatures and dialect rituals, where the countryside, our grandmothers, and everything around us had spoken to us, and it had seemed natural to merge the worlds we knew and exchange them for one alone.

Writer, author of numerous novels, she has also written several books for children and young adults, and has won the Strega Ragazze e Ragazzi Award and the Andersen Award. Her latest novel is “Scintilla” [Sparkle] illustrated by Mariachiara Di Giorgio (publ. Mondadori).