Why I Am a Liberal
A Ghost From the Past
Who was she?
I remember she was radiant like the Madonna yet as terrible as Joan of Arc girded for war. She comes to me like a timid ghost or a benevolent face at the top of dark stairs, asking me… where were you when I needed you in my greatest hour of need?
San Vito, Italy, 1971
Innocence is stubborn, like old blood stains on white linen. Sometimes what we construe as the necessary innocence of childhood is nothing more than callousness, the equally intractable superficiality of living in the moment. And this tale begins innocently enough.
My family and I lived in a tenement building on the very edge of San Vito in southern Italy. Our landlord Mr. Berelli rented almost exclusively to off base military families such as ours but he had one stipulation: There must be at least one Italian tenant in the building.
In our case, the native family was a young couple who had just had a daughter. The husband was a lawyer, we learned, and he was young and handsome, his wife equally young and beautiful. As was fitting, the daughter was also perfect. The only memory I have of this lawyer was one day they were standing on their little balcony showing off the baby, the husband resplendent in his business suit, she in her dress. Those of us on the ground level looked up in adoration like medieval peasants admiring our betters and unquestioningly accepting that immutable fact of nature: That they were better than us, the wealthy were. Beauty and success just naturally gravitated to them like animals to St. Francis of Assisi.
Then one day soon thereafter the black-bordered notices were plastered all over the building. Those of us who knew Italian realized the lawyer husband had suddenly passed away. I never found out if it was a heart attack, a car accident or whatever reason for his shocking abduction from the land of the living. And of course none of us dared speculate it was suicide. After all, he had everything going for him. It was a terrible shock, yes, because such things were not supposed to happen to those favored by fortune.
But this Italian answer to Richard Cory was dead and there nothing that could be done about that. After a respectful time, the black-bordered notices eventually came down and we resumed our lives without ever realizing we were privileged to do so. Life went on in its old dog trot pace.
One day we were kicking a ball around on the dirt road on front of our building. I was with perhaps two other boys my age and one of us kicked the ball high, so high we watched it endlessly arc until it landed on the widow’s little balcony. Hearing it rattle around, she came out, picked it up and gazed down at us.
We looked up as we had that wonderful day when they brought their flawless baby girl home only not with wonderment but expectation, as if we were still those peasants but seeking alms. In other words, we understandably wanted our ball back and assumed she would throw it down and that would be the end of that.
But that’s not what she did.
Instead, she motioned for us to come up as gently as a Madonna to her supplicants. We no doubt looked at each other with a bit of frustration and irritation at having our game first interrupted then delayed. But out of basic politeness, we did as we were asked.
We trudged upstairs and knocked on her door. She immediately answered and invited us in. Her floor plan was the same as ours only reversed as she lived on the front side of the building while we lived on the rear. Her living room, I remember, was neat and well-appointed and she had just enough seating accommodations for all of us. She sat before me and to my right and after smiling at us for a bit, she eventually picked up a small candy tray from the table and offered us a piece. We complied again, not wanting to be rude. Being typical kids, of course we wanted the candy but we wanted our ball back even more and I kept looking at it as it lay beside her chair.
I can’t speak for the other boys but I recall being dimly aware that there was someone else who was supposed to be in this house that wasn’t. But it was a dim recollection, although I’m sure no more than mere months had passed since her husband’s untimely death. But my main consideration was getting back that ball, one that was shared, I’m sure, by the other boys present.
We sat there looking at each other awkwardly, none of us Americans speaking a word of Italian between us and her not knowing a word of English. I don’t remember one word being exchanged and we just continued sucking on our candy and wondering when we’d finally get back our ball. The balloon of silence eventually expanded until it nuzzled against the walls.
I can’t recall what she even looked like. The only impression remaining to me four and a half decades later is that of a young woman who was sweetly sad like a ghost haunting a familiar dwelling yet was not, for unknowable reasons, allowed to move on. The baby girl was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was down for a nap or with a relative.
Eventually, after several minutes of this awkward parlor dumb show, she gave us our ball and, with some relief, we went back outside to continue playing.
About a quarter of a century later when I was in my mid-late 30’s, I began to think about that young widow. Although she hadn’t made a significant impact on my callow, callous life at the time, I still retained the memory of that encounter, however much the edges of that memory had been encroached upon and obscured by the haze of time. And it suddenly occurred to me why she’d invited us up.
Any normal adult reading this would have long ago divined her motive for calling us up. Anyone but a sociopath, knowing the context of her situation, would know that. It was the reason that had eluded us kids as successfully as a startled rabbit from an inept hunter.
She was simply lonely. Her days were filled with the emptiness and the oceans of space that opened up within that small two bedroom apartment in her husband’s wake. After all the mourners had expressed their condolences and the leftover food from the funeral reception had been packed up, she was left alone. And even our poor company was better than the oppressive misery that marked every waking hour of her every day.
And I don’t recall her having many if any visitors or any of the American families having her over for dinner. We were properly shocked at the news of her husband’s death then simply went on with our lives. And that’s what one does, get on with their lives but it never occurred to a single one of us to open a bit of those lives of ours to occasionally let her in despite the language barrier.
And as I began to delve into the significance of that encounter that I’m sure has been forgotten by the two other boys with me, I began to hate myself. I began to feel guilty because it had never dawned on me why we were up there in the first place, that perhaps I should’ve turnedback to her at the door and given her a silent hug to convey that I was not insensible to her loss. That someone remembered and understood. And cared.
Yet I did not do that. I had other priorities. And as young and pretty as she was, sitting there in that parlor was an unnerving experience and for the first time in 25 years I at last understood why.
I finally got it and placed that long-neglected but hardly forgotten rock in that bag of guilt I sling over my back, that grisly parody of Santa’s sack that gets heavier and heavier with the weight of all the things I did that I shouldn’t have and, as in this case, all the things I didn’t do that I should have. It gets heavier with each passing year and no number of random acts of kindness can alleviate its burden.
I am not a good man. I am an average man who today tries to do good deeds. Never mistake a good man for one who is merely in a permanent state of atonement. And no matter how much good I may achieve in this world before moving on to the next, it will never relieve me by so much as an ounce of the guilt for not showing that poor young widow some baseline of compassion, even just a pinprick of light into that backdrop of absolute devastation that transcends all languages, cultures, nationalities, religions and creeds.
I did nothing to help mitigate her crushing and baffling sense of how life could be so kind yet so cruel from one minute to the next, as human nature often is. Growing up, I always thought I was special in some way but this experience taught me I was not special at all. I was just a typical, self-absorbed kid as all 12 year-olds are expected to be. In at least one respect, children and sociopaths are indistinguishable and the one trait uniting them is that one outgrows the other.
But kids can surprise and even shame us with their humanity. And I did nothing with the gifts given to me.
And, to this day, I cannot even tell you who she was. I never even invested a single moment of time or iota of effort to learn her name.