Elegy for the Living

The inspiration behind the novel, A Kiss from Maddalena

This essay originally appeared in The Algonkian magazine

When I was writing my novel, I often had long phone conversations with my parents, who are both Italian immigrants. Once I asked them to say the first words that came to mind when they thought of their village in the 1940s.

"The most miserable time of my life," said my father. "And that should be the title."

My mother sighed. "Essagerato," she said—exaggerator. "Everything was simple then, not like now. You were happy. I saw you."

"I don't remember happiness," he said dramatically. "I remember bombs, cold, no food at all."

The next night, they switched sides. My mother remembered only misery and my father reminded her of the beauty of snow falling on the chestnut trees. The conversation triggered the telling of a story, this one of a woman they called L'Abbondonata, the abandoned one, who went crazy waiting for her husband to return from America.

"Tell me about her," I asked, pen in hand.

I honestly don't remember a time when I found their stories boring. I was not a cool or rebellious kid: my parents were my best (and, sometimes, only) friends, and I loved to hear them talk about the village. They'd had one bike shared among ten kids; they'd used fireplace ashes to wash their laundry; the girls would act out plays in the woods and the boys would pelt them with olives. When I procrastinated, my father would say, "Chi ha tempo non aspetta tempo—he who has time shouldn't wait for time," and it annoyed me. But it stuck.

When I was in elementary school, both my parents worked full-time—my father on the line at the Sunbeam Bakery, my mother as a seamstress—and in the afternoons I was put into the care of a teenager down the street, a Filipino girl with a passion for break dancing, cigarettes, and boys with motorcycles. She'd talk on the phone while I watched anxiously at the window for our family car, panicked that something terrible had happened to my mother and father. The panic would crescendo as six o'clock neared and I imagined my life without my best friends.

I'm convinced now that the writing of this novel began there, in the window of that baby-sitter's house. Not the physical act of putting words to paper, of course, but the loneliness and longing necessary to do so, to fight time by preserving it in narrative, to record the voices and stories of loved ones in order to keep them close.

Luckily, my parents always made it home, never knowing I feared otherwise. We'd eat dinner together: homemade pasta with sauce prepared the previous Sunday; greens my mother had picked from the field behind our house; fillets of beef pan-fried in olive oil; rice cooked with hard-boiled eggs, butter and cheese. It was delicious, but not fancy—a peasant's meal, actually, because that was what they knew. Food was their only connection to home.

Food and stories.

As a kid, I worried about them. they were much older than my classmates' parents and often seemed helpless, childlike, in the face of language and cultural barriers. I protected them, became their translator and guide. And sometime around the sixth grade, as part of an English assignment, I wrote a short story set during World War II about a group of girls who had to share a bicycle.

I've revisited that story again and again over the past twenty years, refining and expanding it, and now it has become, miraculously, A Kiss from Maddalena. And yet the novel is not historical fact or a literal retelling of my parents' marriage. It is inspired by our lifelong conversations and by the passion and contradictions inherent in the tales of village life. For my parents, I wanted to make their shared past not only present but immortal. For my readers, I hoped to transport them to another time and place. Who better to guide them than the voices of two young lovers?

Christopher Castellani, 2003