August is the time of year when residents of Napoli, driven by the intense heat, head south out of the city and down the coast toward Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi where the mountains of Parco Regionale dei Moni Lattari stretch up and away from the sea. We are not residents; we are on vacation visiting Dad’s boyhood home, so on a steamy sunny day in August 1972, my family behaves like other Neapolitans on holiday and leaves the sweltering city for the cool of the Amalfi Drive and a visit to distant relatives who live in a rural area outside of Amalfi proper.
The miniature Euro car Dad drives contains our small hard-sided American Tourister suitcases. Mimi and I have rolled, folded and tucked our sturdy shorts, homemade blouses, plain underwear, thin cotton nightgowns with matching robes, and the white lacy ankle socks my younger sister and I wear with our sandals—sneakers were only for gym class in those days—into a single suitcase with snapping dividers. On top of my side, I place a blue windbreaker, the one with the white zipper and string ties for the hood that can roll down and tuck into its own zippered compartment at the neck, with two side pockets, roomy and comfortable, but lightweight like a second skin. I usually keep my windbreaker tied around my waist, ready at a moment’s notice for a bit of covering to ward off a light breeze or a little rain. I like the feeling of being prepared, of not being caught unaware, of being able to cover up if I feel exposed. The white crocheted sweater with the scalloped edges that Mimi always carries with her like a security blanket snuggles in between the clothes on Mimi’s side of the suitcase. Raised as New Englanders, we are ready for anything, even a cold snap, although that’s not likely.
I don’t remember if Dad uses a map, or just how he knows where to go, but the drive is stunning, steep, and scary. The wind whips our hair through the open windows offering a tiny trace of coolness. We marvel at the aquamarine water sparkling like jewels far below, flirting with us on the switchbacks as we travel through the steep mountain range. With every hairpin turn, I can’t see the road out the window, only a yawning crevasse, and a feeling of dread floods my soul. “Dad don’t drive us off the mountain,” I’m sure I warned in a loud, screechy voice more than once.
When Dad parks the car at a simple farmhouse, a plump woman dressed head-to-toe in a heavy black dress waddles toward us, hunched to one side as she balances a galvanized bucket filled with milk she has just retrieved from the cows. Two small children clinging to her legs weigh her down and slow her pace. “Ciao,” I say with the obligatory kisses, wondering at the strange clothes in this heat, but I don’t overthink it because I’m more interested in the fresh milk and the fact that I’m suddenly thirsty.
My father’s cousin smiles broadly and asks, “Vuoi del latte?” I take this as my cue to peek directly into the bucket, which I’ve probably already been eyeing since she asked me if I want some of the milk. I think it’s a little strange to drink fresh warm milk directly from the cow on such a hot day but maybe that’s what they do here in Italia, here in Amalfi. I know the pale yellowish color liquid is the rich cream and the whiter milk sits underneath it because I ride the bus with children who milk cows every morning before school and our class field trips to their farms have taught me about the milking process. I should probably be more eager to greet my cousins, but I’m captivated by the pastoral landscape with its background playlist of clucking chickens, cooing doves and mooing cows, and the smell of the sweet cream emanating from the milk pail.
“Sì, voglio del latte.” And, standing in the dirt yard, I tentatively sip then gulp the creamy milk mixture, swallowing the smooth earthy liquid like a baby with a bottle at feeding time, my eyes growing wide in amazement at how this lukewarm milk slakes my thirst and tastes of soft farmer’s or cottage cheese, almost like I should be chewing it before swallowing this liquid-satisfaction in a glass.
Mimi and I dance around the yard, delighted with Mom’s suggestion that we go exploring with her while my father gets reacquainted with his cousins. Dad carries our suitcases into the house where Mimi and I remove our windbreaker and sweater, just in case.
There is both a familiarity and a foreignness about the area we are visiting outside Amalfi. It’s very hot and not buggy with no-seeums and gnats like we have at home. I’m more comfortable here in the country which reminds me a little of Norman Rockwell-esque New England with its bucolic farms, their red barns and silver silos bordered by stone walls. I enjoy the fresh mountain air free of the exhaust from the dozens of Vespas that zoom around Napoli and the cars that spew their fumes in the larger cities at home before emissions testing was a thing. The place is familiar in the way the wilderness resonates with the child steeped in a rural lifestyle, but it’s foreign in the Old-World drama played out in a melodic language that doesn’t have the modern vibe of the backwoods and farms of home: I don’t see farming machinery or the fast-paced energy of industry here. Stones make houses, not wandering walls. They perch on the edges of mountain ridges whose flora cling to a temperate climate, while my own home hides in the shadows the tall evergreens of a ski resort. And then there is the clear turquoise sea, the color which no lake we swim in or pond we skate on comes close to matching.
In my neighborhood, everyone has a garden, so I recognize tomatoes, string beans, peppers, and eggplant growing in the Italian landscape, although just barely. The plants droop in the heat, their leaves covered in grime, rays of filtered sunlight visible in the dust. I now realize I wouldn’t have known an olive tree from a fig tree, but I was farmer enough at 10 years old to know that plants need water.
As we walk, Mom snaps a few photos with the brand new Yashica that’s been attached to her neck ever since she and Dad bargained for it on the black market in some sketchy part of Napoli. Stingy with the 35mm film, which must be sent away to be developed with no way of knowing if the pictures would be blurry or overexposed until they showed up in the mail, she captures a burro, a bundle of twiggy sticks taller than the animal piled high on its back, picking its way down the rocky mountain path as it toils past us, a boney driver prodding the beast slowly onward with a skinny stick. She takes pictures of the villages tucked into the folds of the steep mountains. She zooms in on houses hugging the cliffs hanging over the blue waters beneath. We plod along the dusty path until we spy a tunnel up ahead. While Mom memorializes it on film, Mimi and I race toward it, enchanted by the charm of a hand-hewn tunnel in the middle of seemingly nowhere. It might be cool inside.
It’s a good thing we are running because the storm comes without warning. Rain drops the size of nocciole, pelt our parched skin and collect on the narrow path carrying pebbles and detritus that swirl past us in the rising water. Within minutes, the storm has created a swiftly moving river which rises almost to my knees. Now Mom is also dashing toward the tunnel seeking shelter from the storm. We climb up on boulders trying to keep our feet dry. With practiced movements, I untie my windbreaker and pull it tight around me, trying to protect myself from the instant storm. Mimi has already placed her sweater over her head and shoulders. Mom shields her camera from the rain, unable to capture the surprise on our faces at the flash flood. We are a tad wet when we reach the shelter of the tunnel, but not soaked to the skin. It is cool and refreshing, and very exciting for two young girls caught in a downpour in a foreign country with their mother.
Had there been clouds of warning hiding behind the mountains? Just like it came, the storm vanishes. We watch the river rage past until it is only a trickle, then nothing. Did we imagine it? The burning sun dries up the rainwater and there is a freshness as if the world around us has just been baptized, the dust and dirt washed away to reveal a landscape transformed. It’s cooler now, and we are perkier, happier, our steps lighter, having weathered a storm that came upon us without warning and lived to tell of our adventure. On our hike back, the vegetable plants stand tall at attention like they are saluting our mutual survival, their leaves gleaming in the clean sunlight. By the time we reach the farmhouse, our clothes are dry.
I outgrew my blue windbreaker. I can’t articulate exactly why I liked this article of clothing during my pre-teen years. Perhaps I was preparing for the future, for a time when I would want to be protected, when I wouldn’t want to be caught off-guard from the vagaries of life, although the jacket offered no cover from life’s real, hard storms. Over the years, I replaced the windbreaker with other items—a hat to tamp down my frizzy hair and the torments of other teens who thought I looked like an Italian Gypsy, blousy tops to hide a growing bosom that boys stared at, and long skirts to obscure scarred knees and dark hairy legs that embarrassed me among my more svelte classmates. Perhaps they served their purpose of allowing me to hide behind something through the torrential downpour of teenage teasing, giving me the sense of security that I was less exposed to the storms that came without warning through each stage of life’s development.
Naomi Migliacci was born in Providence, Rhode Island to Ettore Migliacci from Napoli, Italia who still claimed Italian citizenship. At college in the US, Ettore met his wife from Massachusetts. The family moved to Northwestern Connecticut where they raised five children. School and work as an educational consultant have taken Naomi to live in urban areas including London, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, but where the countryside meets the ocean is home. She now resides on the Connecticut shoreline with two dogs and a cat.