Sam and Sera
I remember the day well; the day I met them. It was a beautiful afternoon in May when the air had just lost its last taste of crispness and had its first breath of sweetness; balancing on the cusp of summer.
I rode on the passenger seat of a pale yellow Mercedes Benz; a convertible no less, and was feeling rather “Gatsby”ish in the serene opulence of the experience. The wind and the motion of the car gently blew the hair from my face; it was blond, cut bluntly shoulder length and I recall feeling very pretty dressed in a pink Izod polo shirt with its collar flipped and pink pin striped walking shorts. It was the 1980’s, fashion being what it was, I was donning my topsider dock shoes and plastic hairband to complete the look.
The street was lined with oak trees claiming age over a century, elegant ranch style homes were set back from the pavement separated by deep manicured lawns. The freshness of newly budded trees and the clipped grass wafted through my senses only enhancing my well-being. It really couldn’t get any better than this.
I was momentarily bewildered when the driver made a smooth right turn and the car headed down a long asphalt drive. “Where are we going?” I asked warily.
“To meet my mother,” he answered, “you’ll love my mother. Everyone loves my mother. She’s an angel.”
As the car pulled around the back of the house I suddenly felt transported into a world entirely different from my own. The drive had opened into a wide apron edged in a glorious variety of impatiens ranging from pale pink to bright fuchsia planted so closely they spilled enthusiastically over the beds. To the back of the deep yard and positioned to one side stood a darkly stained wooden shed, I would later learn was referred to as the cabana, shaded by more oak trees. In fact, the entire property was enclosed by the oaks that favored the neighborhood but the sun splashed a path right through the middle of the yard and the cement walk and patio along the side closest to the house also basked in the sunlight. The patio boasted two giant hydrangea bushes still not sure what color they would choose to be, two umbrella tables, circa 1960 and more flower pots and baskets than I managed to count in one glance. What had appeared to be a one story brick ranch from the front was actually two stories of white wood siding in the rear.
As I climbed out of the car I thought this was just about the most beautiful yard I’d ever seen- such a far cry from the postage stamp of my childhood or the ever neglected suburban grassland of my adolescence. Once again my imagination took flight and I was Grace Kelly in “It Takes A Thief” doing my best to climb out of the car with elegance.
Sitting at the farthest of the tables were two dark haired women appearing to be almost identical from a distance. Upon approaching I began to notice subtle differences. Although both petite, one had a more solid frame, her features stronger set with a straight aquiline nose and sharp eyes that sparkled with amusement. Her companion was delicate more like a sparrow to the other woman’s hawk.
Neither woman rose when we were introduced but smiled warmly and invited us to sit. Sera, I was told, was the “beloved mother” while Mila, her sister, and was there for a visit. There were four sisters in all – Sera, the eldest, Clorinda; the second; Mila and her twin, Mina were the babies.
The women, I speculated, were in their mid-fifties; the math was easy. They both wore shorts and plain cotton tee shirts, obviously having just finished gardening. Though only spring their olive skin already held kisses from the sun; aging nicely like most with Mediterranean blood. Despite the yard work they both held glasses of ice tea with manicured hands and wore crowns of thick dark hair that looked coiffed without effort. From the very start of it everything felt so easy. We sat down and the conversation flowed smoothly touching on various topics- where did I live, where did I work, how did we meet? They shared pride in their individual offspring, we gabbed about celebrities, and fashion. Mila was more direct than her sister and had a voice like the bell in a church tower, she smiled generously and often while Sera was more hot chocolate on a winter’s afternoon; calm, reassuring, and gracious.
It was the arrival of Sam that changed my position from an equal participant in the conversation to an active audience. We all look up at the call “Hon...” and I turn to see a man in his early sixties traipsing across the blacktop in our direction. He wasn’t a tall man, perhaps 5’7, with a barrel chest, strong arms, and muscular legs. His torso had thickened with age and his grey hair was thinning but he carried himself proudly like a man of twenty five.
Wine on the patio eventually turned into dinner in the dining room. I could describe the room to you but it is such a secondary backdrop to the colorful people and stories it hardly seems mentioning. I barely noticed.
Sam was a life force that filled the entire room. His stories were, at times humorous, and at others, serious but consistently interesting and he had more of them than I thought we had time. He spoke of his ancestral home on the island of Elba, his aristocratic parents, the loss of his brothers, and his time as a soldier in WWII.
He had my full attention and the women only served to add even more vibrancy to his already colorful monologs.
He was an entertainer, there was no doubt, and used to being the centerpiece of conversion and without effort I did not disappoint. He had my full attention and the women only served to add even more vibrancy to his already colorful monologs. They did, however, contribute a bit of their history, growing up on the lower west side of Cleveland, banning together as they ran home after school to avoid being stung by the rocks thrown at them; a product of the cultural bigotry of the early nineteenth century. Sam and Sera had childhoods in direct juxtaposition of each other; one of privilege, the other a small step above poverty. I wondered how they found each other and came to be married. Sam was proud of the fact he had no accent although coming to this country in young adulthood. In fact, he did have a pretty strong accent to my ear, a fabulous command of the English language; but an accent nonetheless. I, wanting a return invitation to this wonderful arena, kept that opinion to myself. He also spoke with his hands as if they were tied to his speech, his blue eyes twinkled and I felt the need to be on my toes, ready for the next tidbit he’d be gleefully tossing my way.
I finally asked the question which would be the feature story of the evening. “How did you meet?” ....
All three started to answer at once but again Sam won the floor. He began with his time WWII as a tank driver for the Italians in the African Campaign. He had been captured by the Americans, a story I would hear in more detail later, and was sent to Camp Atterbury in Indiana as a prisoner of war and then later transferred to Camp Perry in Ohio.
Mila jumps in and says, “So my father...”
“Mila!” says Sera, in a tone only an older sister can use, “let me tell, it’s my story after all.” A pout crosses her pretty face.
“Okay” she agrees with a laugh.
“So, many people don’t know this...” she begins, seemingly happy to have the stage. “During WWII there were lots of P.O.W. camps in the United States. And since the Italians weren’t hated like the Germans they were given special privileges, every Sunday the camp allowed the Italians to have visitors. My father would still get letters from Italy and his friend asked him if he would go visit some of the boys in the camp in Toledo, you know they were probably homesick.
My father agreed and tells the four of us girls we’re going the following Sunday. I flat out refuse, I’m an American and what do I want to waste my time on those foreign boys. And my father gave in and let me stay home while the rest of the family went on their way. When the girls got home they talked of nothing else but the cute boys they met at the camp... I still wasn’t interested” Mila couldn’t help herself at this point, “Those boys were so dreamy”. She fanned her face with her hands as if to faint. “We all told her what a wonderful time we had but she didn’t want any part of it. We went back three more times before my father finally put his foot down and told Sera she had to go.”
“I wasn’t given choice,” said Sera, once again taking over the story, “I had to go but I wasn’t going to like it. I left my hair in rollers and took a stack of movie magazines and was determined not to leave the car.”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“As we went through the front gates I saw lots and lots of handsome young men. They were all smiling and cheering. They were so happy to have visitors.”
“What did you do?”
“I yanked those curlers out of my hair as fast as I could and threw on some lipstick. There was a picnic planned and that’s where I met Sam. We talked all afternoon and danced through the night. I thought he was so handsome and it was all so romantic.”
“I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.” Sam added. He had clear sky blue eyes that looked at his wife with such love and admiration it made my heart tear.
“We saw each other four more weekends and fell in love.”
“For me- it was love at first sight.” He said; his voice was gentle.
“Then what happened?” I wasn’t sure why she would mention only four more times.
“The war ended and I was sent back to Italy.” He answered as matter of fact. “I wrote to her every week.” My head was swerving like a tennis ball between the two.
“We wrote to each other for a year and then he asked me to come to Italy and marry him.” She picked up the thread seamlessly, “I was only seventeen and needed my parents’ permission. My mother was against it from the beginning but I was pretty sure I could wear my father down.”
“She was always daddy’s girl.” Mila added without rancor, “we all were but Sera had a special way with him.”
“It took me awhile but my father eventually gave in and I traveled by steam liner across the ocean to marry him.
“It must have been so romantic...and the wedding?” I cooed.
“The trip was miserable; I was seasick.” Sera answered flatly.
“The wedding was beautiful as much as it could be. I was marrying the Contessa’s only remaining son, they were royalty before the war, and the entire village was invited. They warmly welcomed me but I was exotic to them with my red polished fingernails and make up. As an American girl I was a fascination. As I walked to the church the path was bordered on both sides by well-wishers carrying gorgeous bouquets of flowers; there were flowers everywhere, the sun was shining and the weather was perfect, but...my sisters weren’t there and parents weren’t there. The war had really just ended and the town was still in tatters, even living in a castle- there was still no electricity and everything felt so old world for a modern girl from Cleveland, Ohio.”
“How did you end back here in the states?”
“You aren’t going to believe this...I hated having servants. If Sam would drop his cigarette ashes on the floor there was someone to immediately sweep it up. I wanted to iron my new husband’s shirt, not some girl I didn’t really know. I wanted to take care of him.”
Mila hooked a thumb at her sister, “Can you beat that? I coulda gone for that.” She laughed again.
I sit patiently waiting for Sera to continue because honestly I didn’t know what to say, I wouldn’t have turned that situation down either. I mean, what was she thinking? “I missed my sisters. I hated Italy and after ten months we came home.”
At that point I did take a glance at my surroundings. It was a beautifully appointed upper middle class house with all the trimmings but a castle it was not.
Turning to Sam and attempting to not sound as incredulous as I felt I asked, “You gave up everything in that life to come here?”
His blue eyes softened again and he said, “I love her. There was really no choice. I love her.” He gestured with his hands and adds casually , “It was all mine eventually anyway. What’s the difference? She wanted to come home so I brought her home.”
They smiled across the table and spoke in a wordless language made for two and I felt like a privileged witness to a true love story.
Thirty years have passed since that special evening; two more generations have laughed and loved here. As I close the back door for a final time I look out at the once beautiful yard. The rows of flowers are gone, the trees are bare, the patio is void of furniture and the cabana shuttered and locked. I feel a heaviness of heart and grieve the time gone. Were the memories lost beneath the carpet of dead fallen leaves? No. I think to myself, I will carry them in my heart along with the gratitude in being able to know and love the teenage girl and her Italian soldier.