Saturday Evening Mass at Chiesa di San Francesco, Pietrasanta, Italy
Small, wrinkled, white-haired, wearing an orange shift with an embroidered collar, orange sandals to match, gold rings on fingers, gold bracelets on her wrists, a very old woman walks slowly, gracefully, into the church, her shoulders stooped just ever-so-slightly. She pauses in the center aisle near the two back pews, looks slowly to the pew on her left, to the pew on her right, where I sit with both my traveling companion for the past week and an older Italian woman to my right.
Though she reflects no accusation, no judgment, no insult, I know that we are in this old woman’s pew. “Scoot over,” I whisper to my friend, gesturing to the old woman in orange. We both scoot over, my friend now much closer to the older woman at the other end of our pew, and the little old lady takes her place next to me, on the aisle. As she seats herself, she smiles and keeps up a soft, running conversation to me in Italian. Her voice is soothing, conversational, almost intimate; her smile warm and gracious; her eyes a pale blue with flecks of light. I cannot understand a word she is saying, but I understand her tone and feel cherished, welcomed. I smile back and lean closer to her, say “Le no capisco” (I don’t understand.) “Sono Americana Catholic.” She smiles back at me, says “Ah, le capsico.” I have explained everything to her in that one phrase – why I don’t look like I fit it, why she has never seen me at mass before, why I am sitting in what is her normal place.
During mass, she speaks the responses clearly and loudly, as if she wants me to hear her and repeat, which I do. She often looks over to me and smiles approvingly when I have echoed her Italian words accurately. I like this guide to the Mass I have stumbled across. I wish she was my grandmother, my nonna, as I never really had one and have always wished for one – one like her, like this old woman in orange. I tell myself that for just now, for this mass, she is my nonna – I am at mass with my own nonna. I smile and wish I could clasp her hand in mine, but this I fear would be too much of a privilege, one I am not worthy of. It is enough to sit next to this lovely old woman, pretend she belongs to me. If I lay too much claim, my nonna will disappear, and I want to stay next to her as long as I can with this pleasant fiction.
Before communion, before the priest consecrates the bread and wine, we reach that moment of the Mass when parishioners recognize each other, extend their well wishes to those about them. We turn to those beside, in front, and behind us, extend a hand and say “peace be with you.” I recognize the moment; a familiar one, from my memory of old, and from the service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral I attended in New York shortly before I left for Italia. Now my nonna turns to me, offers her hand, says peace (pace) to me in Italian. Her hand, like her tone, is warm as the terra cotta and ocher colored buildings burnished by the Tuscan sun. I take her hand in mine, her delicate skin so finely etched with lines and soft liver spots, skin stretched carefully across the fine bones of tiny hand and small fingers. “Peace be with you,” I say and add the “nonna” in my mind only - not daring to utter it aloud - though I am sure she would take the word graciously, a sign of respect, of longing. But again, fear of breaking the spell holds me back.
Now I turn and reach across my friend to clasp the hand of the woman sitting on her right. “Peace be with you,” this Italian woman and I say to each other in unison, she in Italian, I in English. I take my friend’s hand. “Peace,” she says to me and I to her. We are all smiling, my friend, the other woman, my nonna, and me.
Behind us, half a dozen teenaged boys have been standing throughout the service, their occasional giggles and whispers sometimes floating over the tops of our heads, sometimes drifting into our ears, and now my nonna turns to them, brings them into her circle. She extends her hand to each of them; each one of them takes that hand, beams and echoes her blessing back to her. Pace. Peace.
She asks me if I will take communion, gestures with her hands to the altar and the others lining up for communion. I shake my head no and tell her, “no confessiori.” I vaguely recall that in the U.S. at least, you no longer must have confession with a priest before receiving communion. But even when I was still a practicing Catholic, I couldn’t accept that modernization. I don’t know what the practice is here in Italia, and I am sure that I am not using the right word, only this poor American’s attempt at Italianizing English, but my nonna understands. She smiles and says something to me - I can’t quite catch it all. I hear again “le capisco,” then “manga,” and “pizza.” Her tone is both wise and mischievous and her blue eyes twinkle within their deep-set recesses. She winks at me. I am convinced that she has said to me in a conspiratory tone: “I understand, I’d rather eat pizza too.”
After mass, I walk out the broad church doors behind her, onto the tiled portico with the frescoed ceiling, then circle in front of her to say “Buona sera, Signora, ariverderci.” She once again offers that beatific smile, waves her hand in goodbye. “Ariverderci,” she says in return.
Walking back home, along the narrow streets of Pietrasanta, I feel an utter sense of satisfaction, as though everything has fallen into place, as though I am once again a small child, intuitively confident that I am totally and completely loved. Confession or not, I had no need to receive communion at the altar from the hands of the priest; communion came to me in the form of an old and gracious nonna who sat beside me on that worn wooden pew in the Chiesa di San Francesco.
(Note: I wish I could post pictures, but my Internet connection is rather weak.)