“Hey, Leopolda!” an elderly woman was yelling. Grandmother stopped when she heard her name being called, and she turned in the direction of the sound. Suddenly, her hard features softened, and she smiled. She actually smiled.
I realized that this could only mean one thing: we had been spotted by the heretofore mythical Mrs. Torelli. So much for my theory that she didn’t exist! However, I still held out hope that I could prove Grandma had never understood a single word Mrs. Torelli had exchanged with her.
Surprised by this new development, José and I hurried over to Grandmother, and she grabbed our hands.
The woman who had called out to us had placed the single, paper shopping bag she had been carrying, on the sidewalk, and she was gesturing wildly at us with her arms. Over the roar of the traffic and the din of the market crowd, I thought I heard her shouting what sounded like “Aspetta! Aspetta!”
Then, she proceeded to cross the street, without a thought to the oncoming traffic. Somehow, she made it across safe and sound. To this day, I’ve never been able to figure out whether the feat was accomplished due to long practice in the streets of Rome or some other Italian city, or by sheer luck. However, something told me that this was not the first, or only, time that she had done this.
As she made her way across the thoroughfare, I noticed the quick, nervous steps she took, and the strange gestures she made at the pesky vehicles trying not to hit her. I couldn’t hear the actual words, but I saw her mouth off words at the inconsiderate drivers leaning on their horns or sticking their heads out their windows to offer her polite, gentle words of warning. Had there been less noise, I would probably have heard what she, and the irate drivers, were yelling at each other. The apparently colorful expressions would surely have expanded my Italian vocabulary considerably.
When Mrs. Torelli safely reached our side of the street, she hugged my grandmother, and she air-kissed her once on each cheek, while talking profusely. After the first kiss, my grandmother tried to break away from the embrace, but a second later, the women were holding hands like two schoolgirls.
Mrs. Torelli was a petite woman with short hair that had once been red but was now graying. She wore no makeup because she really didn’t need to; the pale complexion of her face, dotted with freckles, was highlighted by two permanent red blotches, one on each cheek, resembling rouge.
She wore dark sensible pumps on her feet, and on her legs, thick tan support hose. I honestly don’t remember what kind of dress she wore because I kept looking at the light spring coat that she was wearing.
What drew my attention wasn’t so much the fact that she was wearing a coat in the summer. I knew that many ladies her age (she must have been close to 80) suffered from abnormal cold in all temperatures. It was the color of her coat that surprised me. Although the rest of her attire was fairly sensible and conservative, her orange-red coat seemed completely out of place. I suppose that Mrs. Torelli had a fashion statement to make, and absolutely no one was going to prevent her from doing so.
Her blazing red coat contrasted sharply with the way my grandmother was dressed. She always wore seemingly-expensive white blouses with fancy embroidery on them, buttoned all the way up to her chin. The plainness of those blouses was offset by a gold medallion of Saint Christopher hanging from a gold chain from her neck.
She always wore skirts; tidy, plain-colored, and neatly pressed skirts, that ran the gamut from dark gray to medium-dark gray. Like Mrs. Torelli, she too wore black pumps and support hose, though hers was gray. As for the light coat that she wore, that, too, was… you guessed it: gray! Her sensible matronly handbag, however, was black.
Unlike her friend, though, my grandmother wore makeup. She used a base of some kind on her face, and applied the faintest touch of rouge to each of her cheeks. Imported, Spanish scented talc was her deodorant, and she liked to wear a Spanish cologne that smelled of fresh-mown hay.
Grandmother wore her hair, mostly gray, but streaked with the original jet-black, combed straight back, but held together —sensibly— at the nape by a rubber band. Beyond that, her hair cascaded freely over her shoulders.
As for their manners, they could not be more different from each other. Mrs. Torelli was hyperactive, moving around in a circumscribed space around my grandmother, pointing, touching her arms or her shoulders to make a point, and once, even jabbing her lightly in the chest. She talked incessantly, raising and lowering her voice, acting out actions and imitating other people’s voices, and occasionally, looking around surreptitiously when she was about to talk about a neighbor.
My grandmother’s demeanor was staid, measured, and even aristocratic. Her deep, hoarse voice rarely rose, but it did lower an octave or two when she thought the subject merited seriousness.
By this time, my little brother José was growing restless, and he twisted his hand in Grandmother’s to show his discomfort.
As I observed the two women side by side, a funny image came to mind. I was reminded of the illustrations in a children’s version of Don Quijote that I had read. The active, chatty, and petite Mrs. Torelli reminded me of Sancho Panza, though she certainly lacked his scruffy beard and his pot belly. As for Grandmother… there was no mistaking who she represented. Willowy tall and thin, somber of voice, measured in her movements, severe in her dress, and aristocratic in her manners, all she needed was a horse named Rocinante and a lance in order to strike fear into the hearts of even the most ferocious windmills.
Seeing that my brother and I were growing restless, and no doubt wishing to converse with her friend in peace, she introduced us to Mrs. Torelli so as to get the matter out of the way.
“Mis nietos,” she said in Spanish, looking down at us. Then, she mustered up what little English she knew and translated: “My grandchildren.”
Mrs. Torelli looked at us, patted our heads, smiled and said:
“Ah! I belli ragazzi!” Then, she forgot all about us and went back to talking to my grandmother.
José had, by then, grown even more restless and annoying. He doubled his efforts at trying to wrest his hand from Grandmother’s, and he began repeating, in a whining voice, “Grandma! Grandma!,” in Spanish.
Grandmother let go of our hands, and she said to both of us:
“You boys go look at that toy-store window. And don’t move from there!”
Saved from the long, and to use his favorite word, “boring,” conversation that would surely ensue, my brother rushed off to the window of a store behind us with a big sign that read ”Giocattoli-Toys.” I hadn’t even noticed the store until then, but I sneaked a peek and saw the single model airplane, the single tricycle, the toy soldiers scattered all over the floor of the display window, and the gun-and-holster sets. From the dust covering everything, and from the fact that not a single toy was a recent model, I gathered that not many people frequented the shop, and that its owner was probably thankful for that.
I backed up a step or two, as if heading for the shop window, but I remained within hearing distance from the two women. The whole purpose of my coming on this shopping trip had been to hear their conversation.
My grandmother and her friend must have thought that they were finally rid of us, and they spoke freely, Mrs. Torelli almost exclusively in Italian, and my grandmother mostly in Spanish.
“Cara amica Leopolda. Come vai?” Mrs. Torelli inquired.
Grandmother responded at once, in Spanish, of course. She relied on the fact that many Italian and Spanish words are cognates, or similar.
“Bien, María. ¿Y tú?”
“Così, così, ” Mrs. Torelli replied, raising her eyebrows and turning down the corners of her lips, as if to say “I don’t know,” then twisting her right hand palm-up, palm-down several times as if she were flipping pancakes.
Grandmother correctly understood the gesture to mean “so-so.” Then she, in turn, asked her friend in Spanish:
“¿Vienes del mercado? ¡Parece que no compraste mucho!”
Mrs. Torelli appeared to understand that her friend had said “Are you coming from the market? It doesn’t look like you bought much!” Undoubtedly, she was aided by Grandmother’s quick glance down at the single, solitary shopping bag on the sidewalk, next to her.
In a flurry of movement, Grandmother’s friend repeated “Aspetta! Aspetta!” as she bent down, reached into her shopping bag and withdrew an orange. She handed the fruit to Grandma, who inspected it.
“¡Se ve rica!,” grandma exclaimed. Then, trying to make it easier for her friend to understand, she searched her memory and came up with an approximate English translation of what she had just said:
“Very pretty!” It sounded like “Berry pre-tea!”
When my grandmother tried to hand back the orange, Mrs. Torelli waved her off and reached into her shopping bag once more. Now, she withdrew two more oranges, which she handed to my perplexed grandmother. Mrs. Torelli explained:
“Tre belle arànce. Una per te, ed una per ognuno déi ragazzi.”
I had, by then, drifted even closer to the two women, taking up the position that I had previously occupied. Mrs. Torelli had no problem in reaching over and patting my head once again. Then, she herself praised the oranges.
“Sono buone,” she said, feigning to kiss the bunched up fingers of her right hand. Then, in a gesture of linguistic reciprocity, she thought for a minute and came up with what must have been the sum total of her Spanish. With a twinkle in her eyes, she exclaimed:
“‘Muy bueno,’ come si dice nello spagnolo.” She laughed.
Grandmother certainly understood the two words in Spanish that Mrs. Torelli had uttered, and from the number of oranges, she was able to piece together the message. Consequently, she protested vigorously.
“No, amiga; no. Gracias, pero yo voy para el mercado y puedo comprar.”
Without further ado, Grandma put the oranges back in Mrs. Torelli’s shopping bag. When she stood up again, she noticed the perplexed look on her friend’s face. She touched her forearm lightly and tried to explain, in English.
“I buy. In mercado.” She couldn’t come up with the English word for “market,” and so, she made do with its Spanish equivalent.
Up ahead of us, at that moment, an angry butcher stormed out of his shop and began yelling “Marcello!,” at the top of his voice, first in one direction of the street, and then in the other.
Marcello, the delivery boy the butcher was calling, was across the street, still wearing his blood-stained apron and placidly chatting with a pretty girl.
The traffic between them hid the boy from his angry boss, who spat on the sidewalk and muttered something before going back into his shop. All I was able to hear was “Figlio della grandissima...!,” before the roar of a truck drowned out all the other sounds on the street.
When the vehicle had passed, I again turned my attention to Grandmother and her friend. I noticed that Mrs. Torelli had grown sad.
She let out a sigh.
“Ah, Leopolda… il mio marito Giulio amava le arance.” Her voice cracked when she pronounced the verb form “amava.” Obviously, powerful emotions were stirring deep inside of her.
Grandmother nodded. Maria Torelli continued talking.
“Ogni volta che andava al mercato, ne comprebbe alcune.”
Grandma continued nodding, and then she smiled.
At that moment, I was totally convinced that my grandmother had not understood a single word her friend had said. With my budding Italian, I had gathered that Mrs. Torelli had said: “My husband Giulio loved oranges.” “Loved,” she had said, in the past tense. Then, still referring to oranges, she had explained that every time he went to the market, he used to buy some. Again, both verbs referred to the past.
I had been busy that summer studying English grammar, and I remembered that “used to” was called “the imperfect,” that it was a past tense, and that it implied that something was no longer done.
I was puzzled by what I had just heard, and I tried to reason it out. It was possible that Giulio no longer went to the market because, perhaps, he was ill or he had difficulty walking. “Used to” would be correct in that situation. I further reasoned that if he could no longer go to the market, then he could no longer buy anything there. That, too, justified the use of “used to.” But something didn’t click. I asked myself just how likely it was that Giulio had stopped liking oranges? Mrs. Torelli had definitely implied that. There were only two possible explanations: Either I had not fully understood Mrs. Torelli’s Italian, or….
[From THE OTHER ISLAND, By: Jaime Martínez-Tolentino]