Grazie, Villa Lante, Grazie, Bagnaia!
Esther Kane Meyers
I drove straight from the Rome airport to Bagnaia and the Villa Lante. I had not called ahead, but was confident that the grand Renaissance-era Villa would greet me warmly. I passed through her towering iron gates and immediately found Rosella, the art curator.
The Villa, my villa, had an art curator? I couldn’t believe it.
From my purse, I pulled out the poem I had written.
“You see, Rosella, right after the war, I was a refugee here. I have come to say ‘thank you’.”
But Rosella was already unlocking the door to the inner rooms. She led me in and wanted to know,
“Do you remember this fresco and how about that statue over there?”
What could I say to her? “I’m not sure, I don’t know, I was just a baby, too young to remember?”
A voice inside my head screamed, Rosella, this was our “Gan Eden”, our Garden of Eden. This place saved our lives!
As we returned to the courtyard, I repeated, “I brought a poem I wrote to say thank you to…. “
She interrupted, “This fountain, does it look familiar to you, Esther?”
“No. But my mother loved a certain joke fountain. Do you know where it is, Rosella?“
She looked puzzled at first and then called the gardener. He led us through a maze of manicured hedges to a walkway and then he ducked behind some bushes to turn on a hidden spigot. Suddenly, six narrowly arched jets showered us as we stood there in the midday sun.
“Rosella, this is it! My mother would say, ‘Imagine, a fountain squirting water just to make people laugh!’”
The timeless spigot rains her spray
With playful reassurance.
Revived, refreshed, we set the course
To fight for our endurance.
I continued, “Rosella, my parents were sole survivors of large families in Poland and then made it across the Alps to freedom. My twin and I were born in Florence and then, our family was brought to this ‘Garden of Eden’ turned Displaced Persons’ Camp.” My next words rolled over my tongue like sweet nectar, “I was a baby in Bagnaia, bambina a Bagnaia.” We both laughed.
In the Renaissance, this Villa was known as a class act; a lush and abundant playground for Popes and Kings. Mussolini cavorted here with his favorite mistress. Nazis headquartered here and, after the war, her whimsical statues and playful fountains hosted young Jewish refugee families like my own.
The Villa’s ancient statues
Preside like lost relations
To populate our lives for now
And calm the isolation.
By the time our family got here, the Villa’s cupboards were bare and her columns, crumbling. Mother tore apart her dresses to make diapers for us. With little food and no milk, only those who could nurse kept their babies alive.
But, ah, the gardens were indeed a “Gan Eden”! I wandered into a shady alcove where I encountered a lovely female form in stone. She was pocked and weathered, but water still gushed from her nipples down to a vessel below. This carved lady may well have buoyed Mother’s spirits, her own breasts flowing with the milk that she so desperately needed to sustain us.
A maiden fills the basin
As a mother soaks her feet.
One of stone, the other human,
Yet, their friendship is complete.
Up, up, up eroding stone terraces I climbed, up to the rose garden with its commanding view of the town. The breezes I felt and the gurgles I heard from nearby fountains might have calmed us so that Mother could get some rest too.
In the fragrance of her roses
Two sleepy babies lie,
Attired in the swaddles
Of their mothers’ poignant sigh.
Overlooking the village, I proclaimed, “Ladies of Bagnaia, I thank you. You cared for us when Mother became too weak. She came to trust you, to let you take over for a while so that she could rest. You played with us; you knit tiny sweaters and booties for us. You gave Mother the courage to believe again that, ‘Iz nokh do guteh menchen in di velt’, there are still good people in the world!”
The townsfolk of Bagnaia
Show the refugees they care.
They have so little for themselves
But even that, they share.
I finally did read my poem, my offering of thanks, to Rosella, ending with the words,
Villa Lante’s sheltering splendor
Joins with mother’s nurturing might
To bring the blessings of Bagnaia
To win survival’s fight!
We wept in each other’s arms and Rosella promised to translate my poem and add it to Bagnaia’s archives.
My parting word to her was one that Mother must have said many times during our stay here.
It may well have been my first spoken word.
About the Author: Esther Kane Meyers, born to two holocaust survivors living in a DP camp in Italy at the close of the war, is soon to publish the first volume of her memoir.
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