Zia Suzy's Fine Wine

Isabel Bearman Bucher

© Copyright 2012 by Isabel Bearman Bucher 

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

 It was the fine Tuscan spring of 1963. Walking up the mountain road to her home, I saw a tiny woman with chicklet teeth that blazed out of a network of wrinkles. She was completely clothed in black, wild with waving, and the startling blue eyes that jumped out at me were just like my Nonno Enrico’s, her brother. She was calling to the neighbors who were all hanging out of their windows and waving like crazy. 

 “It’s Maria’s daughter come to see me! It’s Angela and Enrico’s granddaughter! It’s Isabel!”  

 I’d heard stories about her my entire life.  Then,  a young teacher with the Army Dependent Schools, stationed in Germany,  I’d caught a plane to Florence, gotten a taxi driver to bump up the hills to Montecchio, a jewel of a little village with a front row balcony seat overlooking the fabled city. Il Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore’s ancient spires glittered in the valley distance;  grape vines in neat verdant rows marched up every hillside. Neighbors exited their cream and yellow stuccoed homes and strode out to the street from under arbors heavy with vines planted  generations past. Warm and welcoming, the tight knot of Italians surrounded me smiling, touching me, hugging, some kissing. With a quick gesture, Zia Suzy twined her arm in mine and ushered me into her spacious kitchen where an enormous black aga was heating a kettle for tea. I sat at a wooden table scrubbed for a hundred years, while she, and my Zio Gussie fussed. Speaking very little Italian, we managed. They began opening drawers and removing envelopes full of pictures. Marching across her mantel, I saw my young mother smiling up from the black and whites, my uncle, my grandparents, and even me as a baby. That night I slept in a gigantic feather bed warmed briefly by a cradle from which hung an iron pot filled with the aga’s ashes. 

When Nonna and Nonna had immigrated to America for the better life, Suzy, Gussie and their two tiny daughters had come a year later.  Suzy had worked in a Connecticut shirt factory and Gussie found employment with a family friend who owned a little gas station down the road. They helped in the planting of more vino vines around our property. They returned to Italy just a year later, where to them, the better life was waiting. With their American savings, and the sale of their home in the far north of Italy, they moved to the more temperate clime of Tuscany. Proactive and take-charge Suzy built her own arbors from sturdy logs, began her own vines, dug her own wine cellar and moved forward towards her own personal destiny that would twine life, vines and bravery into a story that still lives in Italian history,  and our minds. 

At sixteen, Mamma was sent to school  a few miles down the road from Suzy.  During her year there, my maternal grandmother's aristocratic family betrothed her to a count 40 years her senior. When Mamma ran away from the deal, Suzy, that mountain woman from my sturdy paternal side,  with no pedigree save hard work and a clearly fine, inventive intelligence, smuggled her down to Genoa, and put her on a boat,  two weeks before the marriage was to take place.  On the day of her wedding, Mamma, suitcase in hand,  knocked on her own Connecticut door.  My Grandmother fainted on the spot; her dreams of a rich daughter in shreds around her prostrate body. 

The Second World War came. Zio Gussie was drafted and Suzy was left alone with two teenage daughters. When the German bombing raids became so bad that villages were being leveled, she moved to caves that surrounded Florence and lived there for two years hunting for game, foraging for berries, making her wine and growing little garden vegetables from the seeds that she could garner from her churned-up house garden. Many caches were buried in the dark of the nights. When the raids ceased, she’d sneak like a fox back to her home, unearth stores, money,  clothing or other essentials. By then, the town was in ruins, but her arbor and home, while they were  riddled with bullet holes, had escaped total collapse. 

At some point, America joined the fray and began strafing missions in hot pursuit of the Germans. On two separate occasions, and perhaps more we never heard about, she and her daughters rescued American flyers by pulling them from their downed planes. She brought them to the caves, hid them, nursed them back to health, spoke to them in the little English she’d gotten in her year in Connecticut and, in complete dark, guided them by feel of the trail onto mountain trails that eventually led to the Swiss border and  American strongholds. 

 Once, knowing that a German patrol was approaching,  she hid a recovered,  well-fed fly-boy and her two daughters in the top of her sturdy grape arbor, amongst the lush vines.   Nesting robins, it was told,  had an issue with the intrusion and almost blew the crucial ruse squawking  from a nearby tree.   While she  flashed those chicklet teeth at the Germans, she offered them every bit of her wine and carried on in a hospitable, nonchalant way.  She waved them off into the sunset, and snickered as she watched them weave unsteadily on their motorbikes equipped with sidecars. 

Enter 1963.  My week with Zia  was rich and full. We took the bus to Florence, and she showed me the city through the eyes of a passionate lover of art, architecture and food. We ate at little cafes, drank endless cups of espresso, and consumed more red wine than I thought was possible. At one point, a bit ubriaco,  I broke into song, and the entire place became silent,  listening. When I was done singing "O Solo Mio" - one of the many songs my family broke into after Sunday supper, in my youth and immaturity, I’d always treated it as a joke - The whole place rose, clapped, cried, BRAVA’D, hugging me,  and Zia.

The evening before I left, Zia Suzy and I sat on the old stone wall she’s built from the rubble of the war. She hiked her black skirts up around her knees, exposing sturdy lace-up leather mountaineering boots, whose toothy soles were caked with mud. From her wine cellar, a tiny hobbit hole cut into the side of the just greening Tuscan hills, she withdrew a hand blown green bottle.

“I make and save this for your Mamma,” she began, palming an ancient corkscrew. “But, she never come back, and here you are. So, we drink this together.  We celebrate la famiglia.  You are a beautiful, beautiful Italian girl. My girl. A singer. A teacher. You make the family proud.” 

How long the bottle had waited, I never knew. I just knew that after it had bubbled joyfully over the sides, and Zia Suzy had clapped and cheered its enthusiasm on, she poured the crystal golden liquid into two cut glass goblets. Her blue eyes locked mine, then the glasses broke  into a thousand points of light when she swept them over her life, her town, her view, her sky and me. Together we toasted Florence, the sunset, la famiglia, life, and me. Never before, nor since, and never in this lifetime again,  will I ever taste a wine so ... everything. 

When I think of perfection - the perfection of one perfect, timeless moment; the perfection of a taste, of a little enduring, stunning Italian woman; the perfection of anything I’ve ever experienced in the long years since that afternoon, I realize,  that in life, there is one bright light which keeps shining, growing brighter with the years.  When I think that one can only experience perfection once, and when I slip into bemoaning the supposed fact that there will never be another time, and I grieve - I exclaim, "Wait a minute, here. Time out!" I ponder that a bright light comes from that moment in time, and enters me. From that gift, going forward, every part of living is measured, is filled by that light.   It remains,  in dazzling bits and glimmers, like Zia Suzy’s eyes, her fine wine, her crystal glasses, forever lighting the dark spaces of a human heart, rescuing lost hope; summoning me off my knees, giving strength to begin, yet again. One more time.

 So it has been for over fifty years, and so it will always be.  Perfection never dies.

 Brava mia benedetta Zia.  Tu sei la mia luce.

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