She was short and plump and rather plain, and because we were young and unknowing, we always made fun of her.
Of course, I was the worst offender. I had mastered to the last detail the way she walked, the way she talked, each facial expression and gesture of the hand. I could mimic almost to perfection her heavy accent and the distinctive manner she had of using her words in the wrong sequence.
I said almost, because Mrs. Rivasi had no equal at fracturing French grammar, and although she had left Italy two decades earlier, her sentences still retained that certain lilt and inflection of her native tongue.
We saw her only during the summer months when we spent our annual vacation at Aunt Angeline’s house in a village that had the improbable name of La Batie-Rolland. The village was so small and so unimportant that even the trains had lost all interest in it, yet to us children it had all the sounds, smells, and colors of happiness. Summers in La Batie were always grand too, because my aunt spoiled us dreadfully, and being “city folks,” we were invariably the center of attention.
In addition, Aunt Angeline was the village eccentric. As a young woman she had had the audacity to travel to faraway places like India and China, and that labeled her an oddity of rare importance. Her house was small and lovely and filled with mementos of her many travels. Seen through a child’s eyes, every step brought a new adventure, a new discovery.
Aunt Angeline’s only companions were seven disdainful cats and a few rabbits. The cats were for loving, the rabbits for cooking.
Little Mrs. Rivasi lived practically next door to my aunt, in a one-room house by the road. That one room had to serve many purposes: kitchen, parlor, sleeping quarters, and in the right-hand corner, a shelter for the goat. A real live one! Not a silky, sweet little pet, mind you. A full-grown, sneezing, twitching, coughing goat!
That homely beast was the cause of many an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Rivasi. The dispute would start as soon as he returned home from work and would continue until bedtime. We could distinctly hear every word that crossed between them each evening as we dined on the terrace to savor the indescribable beauty and fragrance of those summer nights. Their broken French would inevitably send us into paroxysms of laughter, which we tried to suppress with our napkins against our mouths.
That particular summer, we went to La Batie by force and not by choice. That year I had reached the characteristic snobbism known only to a sixteen-year-old. I believed I had become too sophisticated for the village, and I had told myself that I would never go back and waste my precious time there. But war and the heavy bombing of Marseilles brought a drastic change in all my plans.
Our first month in La Batie went by uneventfully, but the action picked up momentum when the Allies moved southward. In their retreat the Germans demolished railroad tracks and bridges, and all communication with Marseilles came to an end. It became impossible for my father to contact us and to provide us with the sugar, rice, oil, and soap that were our only means of trading with the farmers. Until then, the farmers had been most willing to do business with us, but when our supplies ran out, so did their eagerness. It seemed that suddenly the whole village was struck by a strange malady: plants stopped growing, hens gave up laying, and rabbits did not multiply. The villagers’ faces became as closed and uninviting as their homes.
This went on for a few weeks until the day we heard that Mr. Martin had harvested peas the afternoon before, and we hurried to his farm hoping to buy a few pounds. Mr. Martin, like the rest of the farmers, was not interested in money; he was only concerned with trading. Our timing must have been poor, for when we reached his farm it was obvious that he was anxious to take his midday nap, and he refused flatly to sell us any peas. So my shy mother gathered enough courage to ask his permission to go to the harvested field and pick up anything that we could find there.
It was siesta time on what must have been the hottest day of the year. Only foolhardy city folks would venture out at that hour. The air hung heavy around us, and I remember noticing that no insects were to be seen. The soil had cracked under the intense heat, and deep furrows had formed. In that oppressive atmosphere, we knelt down and started to gather the shriveled peas one by one, one by one. Soon our movements slowed down, until fatigue became so extreme that we were forced to lie on our stomachs and crawl from row to row.
It’s hard to describe the profound sadness that took hold of me as I watched my little sister and my mother lying on the parched ground. Even to this day I cannot recall that moment without a twinge of helplessness. The seriousness in my sister’s face was unnatural for someone so young, but I sensed she knew that this was something we had to do. All the time we gathered the peas, we worked in complete silence—not one sigh, not one complaint. We were bound by a mute and all-knowing understanding.
For the first time I realized how thin and drawn my mother looked, and my heart ached when I remembered how she had pretended not to be hungry at mealtime, in order to leave more for us children. I was filled with remorse for having been so blind and so selfish.
As I lay there with my chin in the dirt, my eyes smarting from the glare of the sun and perspiration tracing lines in my dirty face, I thought of Mr. Martin submitting us to this wretched and humiliating experience, and for once in my life I despised someone with all my heart.
We finally headed for home, gray with dust from foot to eyelashes, with about five pounds of peas painfully gathered, painfully earned. On the way, we had to pass Mrs. Rivasi’s home, and I recall my mother saying that she hoped Mrs. Rivasi would be napping, for we looked so frightful. But she saw us and came running to the door, exclaiming, “You poor people! What has happened to you?” That was the first gesture of sympathy in a long and lonely month, and the kindness in her voice must have triggered a deep buried emotion, for, to my chagrin, my mother burst into tears and Mrs. Rivasi led her gently but firmly into the one-room house.
With motions astonishingly swift for someone so round, she set food before us: goat cheese, freshly baked bread, and water from the well, and I know for a certainty that food will never, never taste that good again. Mama cried and so did Mrs. Rivasi when she heard of our misfortunes, and then that generous woman gave us all she had. I remember her look of disbelief when we offered to pay for the provisions, and we had to accept her gift in order not to offend her.
I could not say how long we stayed there. All I know is that I did not want to leave or even move. The room around us spoke of neatness and freshness. I had been so prompt to see her failings, why hadn’t I noticed how well scrubbed her house was and how engaging her person? Mrs. Rivasi and Mama were now sitting by the only window in the room, talking in low tones. My little sister had left the table to study the goat intently, and I was grateful to be alone with my thoughts. There was much to think about, many prejudices to clear away. I had learned so many things in a few hours, or was it a lifetime?
Maturity had come to me with the painful realization that one’s countrymen are not all necessarily noble and brave, and that virtue does not belong only to one class of people or to one nationality. It had been brought forcefully to my mind that lack of education does not necessarily mean lack of understanding or richness of heart. I had reached a certain degree of acceptance, and in the process I had lost some dreams of youth, but now the pain had become more tolerable.
The coolness of the room, the tangy smell of the brown apples on the table, and the murmur of the women’s voices all added to my well-being. Even the timid cough of the goat made a pleasing sound.
Darkness entered the room slowly, softly. Beyond the open window the sky had lost its brilliance, and I knew I had to hold onto that moment while it lasted, to hold onto the magic of the last summer of my youth.