Fa una bella figura // The Retroactive Immigrant (And the Time He Journeyed Home
La mattina // Funeral for a Friend
Marco left at 6 AM on what would have been the morning of her 93rd birthday, the sun still no more than a breath of tempered gold against the east. He paused for a moment on the porch and gazed out over the countryside—past the cluster of buildings that made up the edge of the town to where the dawn crept through a tree line thick with Italian stone pines. In the yard behind his cousins’ apartments, a sparrow broke into song.
She had left this place at the age of six; he had arrived two days before. She had departed for the coast, where she had boarded a ship that would spend ten days crossing the ocean. He had braved eight hours of a transatlantic flight, attempting nothing more strenuous than some fractured, fitful sleep. On the second day she’d seen Gibraltar and had mentioned it with awe in her voice in their final conversation, three weeks before the hospice had replaced that voice with the subtle hiss of oxygen and the steady drip of morphine. She’d asked if he would see it, when he went there.
But they’d flown by it in the night, and he’d sat on the aisle.
Marco had decided, when faced with his undergraduate language requirement, that Italian was the rightful choice. Spanish had not been kind to him those early high school mornings, and French had always seemed too haute to merit a prolonged look. She had been the last to speak it, the last to survive assimilation, the only one to dodge aside before the great American melting pot had melted it away.
For those two years he had slowly won it back: word-by-word reclaimed the language of his family, la lingua della sua diaspora. But now wandering her dawn lit streets, the breeze cool against his tired face, he realized that he still didn’t know the word for home.
Yes, casa may mean house, he thought, and casa mia means my home, but in translation something crucial had been lost. This town was not his casa—it was something else, something ethereal trapped in the rising sun and the wiry, curling trees.
He stopped then that morning by a weathered pharmacy—built from bricks older than his old American home—and stood on cobblestones laid before his own language had been born. In the piazza to his right, a fountain gurgled its early song. Soon the daybreak bells of San Nicola would begin their call to arms, but for now, the town was quiet.
That morning—stamattina—life had not yet come.
The first church broke through the morning mist like a limestone monument rising from the open sea, dwarfing the low-slung apartments and storefronts that lined the sides of its piazza east of town. Marco waited a moment before entering, the dark wooden doors towering ten feet above his head, their long shadows chilly against his skin. The bells’ cacophony had faded for a moment, their erratic, everchanging rhythms melting into the silent, winding streets.
She’d had a ritual of sorts, every time they’d parted ways. Marco had never thought much of it then; her “be good,” repeated once or twice, followed by a kiss on the cheek and a quick “I will,” had just seemed like the kind of thing all grandmothers should do. But he’d mentioned it on the long ride in from Fiumicino, and it had made Matteo smile.
“Stai imparando italiano?” his cousin had asked, and Marco had nodded in the rearview mirror. “Quindi, dovresti conoscere l’espressione: lei ti voleva fare una bella figura.”
As he stepped into the church, he could almost hear her say it. “Fa una bella figura.” Cut a good figure. Make a good impression.
“It’s like how you say… untranslatable,” Matteo had said, his self-conscious English sounding almost flawless. His long, dark hair had fallen across his face—her cousin’s face, two generations removed, still with hints of her around his eyes. “But, ‘be good’ is as close as she could get.”
Those words phased back through Marco’s mind as he stepped between the doors of San Nicola, its interior almost brighter and whiter than its brilliant stone façade. The vaulted ceiling soared far above his head, adorned with figures in devout and supine poses, its hills and valleys inset with tiny bronze-rimmed windows that had long been supplanted by bright electric lights.
He checked his watch: 6:49. Eleven minutes to Mass, but he only needed five.
Marco slipped past the few people already kneeling in their pews or thumbing through their weathered missalettes, tiptoeing until he’d made it to the row of candles off to the side of the altar. He glanced at the portrait in the alcove behind that empty bronze frame, meeting San Nicola’s dark, unmoving eyes, and then pulled a twenty-cent coin from his pocket. The clink it made when it hit the bottom of the box seemed to reverberate for far too long around the vast, abyssal space.
He slid one of the thin white candles into its holder, the first of the day, looking strangely lonely on the empty rack. The flame leapt from his lighter, sputtering for a moment before the wick caught and a wave of sudden heat splashed against his face. For a moment he watched it climb toward the ceiling, a thin ribbon of smoke curling from its gossamer peak, then he turned and stole away—emerging back into the sunlight just as the bells began to ring.
Il pomeriggio // Immigrants Abroad
“Sei americano?” the waitress asked, the wind on the café terrace playing a scherzo on her curly, flyaway hair. The surrounding seats were empty; Marco had ordered his lunch early, and the locals had yet to arrive.
“Sì,” he replied, shielding his eyes against the late morning sun. “Ma mia nonna era da qui.”
“Ah sì! Chi è?”
“Era la cugina di Matteo Carati,” he paused. “Ma è partita molti anni fa.”
“Sì, per America.”
“Ah, bene.” She smiled, and tucked a strand of hair behind her glasses. “Un cappuccino e un panino caldo, con salami, olive, e mozzarella, sì? Saranno due minuti.”
She walked away, whistling an old Italian tune into the breeze, and Marco looked back over the weathered balustrade. From that point on the northern summit he could see the streets and buildings as they sloped down the hillside like a slanted, worn schematic—all standing straight and dignified when he’d passed through, now angled downward toward the risen sun. Three churches served that little town in the mountains east of Rome—one for morning, one for noon, and one for night—and he’d already visited the now shuttered white colossus slumbering by the eastmost square.
His watch read 11:36. Next Mass began at 1.
She had said the air was cleaner here, up in the foothills of the Apennines, and that the stone pines would provide all the shade he’d ever need. He wondered if any had survived since those forgotten days—the ones she’d lain under as a kid, contemplating the clouds, lost in the wonder of tomorrow.
“Mi scusi,” he asked the waitress when she returned with his food. “Quanti anni hanno gli alberi qui?”
“Gli alberi?” She shrugged, and glanced out over the trees. “Non lo so. Alcuni sono vecchi, alcuni giovani. Possono vivere per cent’anni, se abbiano gran fortuna.”
A century. He smiled.
After all this time, maybe a few remained.
He arrived at San Cristoforo to find its doors still locked, their dark and shadowed wood sectioned off by shuttered iron gates. No fountain garnished its piazza all alone at the southern end of town, nor did any nearby buildings squeeze against its walls. Its solitary neighbor was the wild, windswept graveyard that cloaked the land beyond.
There had been a running joke among his high school friends—that a child could be born in the hospital next door, grow up in a house right down the street, and be buried in the cemetery just across the road from their massive K–12. That a kid could live their entire life within a four-block patch of suburban Philadelphia, be born and live and die on a slice of earth a fraction of a mile wide. He wondered if they did that here—if she would have done that here, had her father not called his family to America at the most imperfect time.
Her biography had for so long been a mystery, its only noted entry that ten-day trek from Gibraltar to Ellis Island in 1929. In second grade he’d learned about the Great Depression, about Hoovertowns and dandelion salads, and one time he had asked her what it was like to eat flowers from the front yard.
“We didn’t have a yard,” she’d replied, and told him about those tiny rooms in the middle of the city, about how she’d had to go to work when her parents needed money. He only realized much later that the way the years lined up had her sewing dresses at the end of eighth grade, out of school before she’d turned fifteen. Every once in a while, he’d tried to imagine that life, what he would have done had his classrooms been replaced by the buzz of hard machines, and every time he knew he would have gone insane.
The gates had long been open by the time he stood again, almost surprised that he’d taken a seat by the edge of the graveyard fence. As he stretched and headed for the church, he glanced back at the sky-high fronds and mossy stones brightened by the sun, so weathered that the names had worn away. There was another word for graveyard in Italian—camposanto, the holy field—its sound long and solemn and melancholy sweet, and in that moment one of the most beautiful he’d ever heard.
The aisles of San Cristoforo were dark and thin and gloomy, the only light the weakened rays that crept in through the many repetitions of Gesù’s stained-glass face. Marco slipped by along the side, avoiding their unbroken gaze, wincing every time his sneakers squeaked against the polished floor.
She hadn’t taken much along from Italia when she’d left, and of that little had survived. The one time that he’d asked, she’d pointed to the crucifix above her bedroom door, a relic of old and beaten wood, with faint lines redwhere the blood had once been drawn.
“Just that,” she’d said, a faint smile on her face. “It’s not the shiniest, but it’s my favorite of the bunch.”
He hadn’t thought it strange then, to have a favorite of the many many crosses scattered around her house. For her, it never was. And for him, it hadn’t always been—he’d served three years then worked three years in his parish sacristy, crossing himself and genuflecting every time he’d stepped across the altar. But lately, he’d started to wonder what those years had done to him—what all those mornings of heavenly reproach had effected deep down inside his mind.
He knelt before the candles, these electric with a line of little silver switches that flicked from off to on, and closed his eyes before they could be drawn to the painting on the wall behind. But even behind his eyelids he could feel the crucifixion scene playing out before him, the head of Jesus drooped, his body slumped and failing. Disquiet filled his chest, and without looking up, he fished another twenty coin from his pocket and dropped it in the box.
“That was for her,” he said, and the candle clicked to life. He looked over at the wrinkled priest shuffling around the altar, setting up for the coming afternoon mass. “Not for you.”
Then, as people trickled in, he turned, and stood, and left.
La sera // There and Back Again
Marco stopped that evening in a piazza west of town, a few streets away from the bridge to San Giuseppe. Around his feet the shadows of the stone pines lay splashed across the ground like the artwork of nine-year-old newly introduced to the Photoshop distortion tool, and a flock of dark-feathered swallows sang and cartwheeled above his head. He closed his eyes, shutting out the sinking sun that reddened the western plains, and listened.
When she’d arrived in Philadelphia, had the birds still sounded the same? At that first dawn in that foreign land, surrounded by strange sights and indecipherable conversations playing out in a language not her own, had she listened to the birdsong for that little sound of home?
She’d mentioned her departure sparingly throughout the years—instead spinning tales of growing up, of Roosevelt and Eisenhower, Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation. Marco never knew how those first few days had felt, cramped inside a tenement, that sooty ashy smell tainting the thick city air. They’d come with nothing, hoping for renewal, for a tabula rasa and the mythic superpowers of the American Dream, never expecting to return. It had taken eighty years and two full generations for someone to journey back.
And in the end, he wasn’t here to stay; he was here to say goodbye.
He checked his watch: 7:28. Two minutes until the doors would open, an hour until the sun would fully set. Mass began at 9.
Marco had already said goodbye, back there at the hospice by her unconscious form, the hiss of wheezing plastic nearly drowning out his murmured words. He’d spent minutes trying to figure out those final words, to decide on the last thing he’d ever say to her, but nothing seemed to work. It couldn’t be final. It couldn’t be “good-bye.”
“Arrivederci,” he’d murmured, and slipped ghostly out the door.
Until we see each other again.
A few streets over, the bells began to ring. He rose, stretched, and headed for the bridge.
The island on the Lago Vittorio was thick with pines, their trunks twisting and bare, their canopy a massive interwoven green bled through with yellow twilight rays. Around them wound the trail to San Giuseppe, paved with cobblestones so old their grooves had given way to moss and dandelions. Marco stopped and leaned against a tree, the bells quieting for a moment, the scent of leaves and lake water hanging heavy on the air.
She had mentioned this place—the old, secluded church west of town, built on an island in the middle of the lake—a few times in the past few years. It had been a pleasant memory, one of the few that stuck as her voice had darkened and the rest had clouded away. Marco had listened with a tinge of dread, because he knew that one day he would feel that too—that loss as all the edges began to crumble and all the colors bleached to white.
Two years ago, he’d had his first episode, in those dark cold days of early spring two months before the start of summer. Depression wasn’t the same for both of them—hers had been long-simmering, glimpsed throughout the decades but never truly seen until those final years. His had been sharp, quick, a dull knife gouging out that place inside his chest where all the feeling went, replacing it with the buzz of hornets and the nausea of anxious dreams. But still, even when the soreness at last began to fade, he’d known it would be back—every spring, like clockwork, gutting him again.
Now though, it was summer, and only one of them was left, and there ten yards from his destination he had to stop and take the chance to breathe. He’d known the end was coming—no one watching her the past few years could have seen anything else written in the stars—but there had been a day or two that March when he’d wondered which of them would vanish first.
Now, on that pilgrimage of candles in the churches of her town, he had the sneaking suspicion that—somewhere in the depths of his mind—he was doing this for himself as well. Just in case one year, despite everything he had, he didn’t make it. Those flames were brief, winking out in hours as the candles melted down, but so was life.
La vita quotidiana—his professor had liked that phrase: daily life, cycles and repetition and every one the same as the ones that came before. But as he started off again, the island air filling his still-breathing lungs, he disagreed.
In truth—davvero—nothing is ever quite the same.
Rose-colored stone adorned the walls of San Giuseppe, its column lines and ceiling arches glowing that soft red in the evening light. Windows of pinkish, fuscia glass graced the high walls, their fading sunlight suffused throughout the church, tinging every surface with that almost-purple glow.
Matteo met Marco by the door, his arm outstretched, a sad smile on his face. Together the two distant cousins walked the length of the aisle, past the alcoves with their paintings and mosaics, to the row of candles that stood beside the altar.
The flame rose up, reaching for the sky, then settled as the wax began to melt. They walked, wordless, to a pew by the back. Matteo genuflected; Marco shuffled in.
“È…” Marco started, then trailed off. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do this in Italian.”
“That’s fine.” Matteo nodded, his accent light, the little breaks and pauses barely even there. “I understand.”
“It’s hard,” Marco continued. “It was like, she’s been there the entire time, you know? She stayed with us every Christmas. She drove me to kindergarten every Wednesday. She was there when I was born. And now…”
“And now, you remember her,” Matteo said.
“Yeah. I know. But sometimes… sometimes it felt like we were almost the same person, to me, just born seventy years apart,” Marco paused. “In two completely different worlds.”
“Is that why you came to visit us? After all this time?”
“No, I mean, I don’t think—” Marco stopped and sighed. “I want to understand her more, I guess. I want to understand where she came from. Why she was the way she was.”
“She was la tua famiglia,” Matteo said. “You already do.”
They were silent for a moment.
“That flame is beautiful,” Matteo smiled.
“You think so?”
“Sì. Tu hai fatto una bella figura.”
Marco looked toward the ceiling, where the rose light fell from heaven, and closed his eyes. Everything was still, and, from back outside the door, he thought he heard a robin start to sing.
Chris Lombardo is a third-generation Italian-American and recent graduate of Cornell University, where he majored in English and Physics and minored in Italian Studies. His grandparents immigrated from Italy to the US around the start of the 20th century and settled in a then-heavily Italian district of Southwest Philadelphia. He grew up in the nearby suburb of Upper Darby—a bastion of cultural diversity that pushed him to always think more deeply about his heritage.