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"A LIFE IN A BOX"


As she hobbled uncomfortably towards her room at the nursing home to await a visit from her beloved granddaughter and the new boyfriend, she wiped her forehead with the back of a sleeve to remove evidence of the effort of traversing the building and let out an involuntary sigh, so quiet it was little more than a breath.

After almost nine decades it had come to this: a world which, after each successive minor stroke, was being progressively reduced in physical space and intellectual reach, so that these days she spent most of her time in this small space and in her own thoughts. It would not be too long before this box of a room would be exchanged for a smaller, more permanent place of containment.

She hesitated for a moment at the door: a frail figure in loose, ill-fitting clothing emanating a somewhat musty smell but a sereneness that the staff at least found comforting. Then she closed her door and gazed around slowly as if to check that nothing in her tiny universe had been disturbed during her short absence. The furnishings were minimal: a low bed, a small wardrobe, a dressing table and a sink. The only picture on the plain walls was a reproduction of the painting of “Christ of Saint John of the Cross” by Salvador Dali and the only photographs a small selection of shots of her children and grandchildren under the glass top of the dressing table.

She paused in front of the mirror over the sink and peered at an image she no longer recognised and did not want to acknowledge. The short, fine, white hair, the haggard grey-green eyes, the liver spots on the cheeks, the loose skin on the neck, the white scar on her throat - this was not how she remembered herself and thought of herself. She moved over to the window and looked out on a small and essentially inaccessible world that was beyond both her reach and her understanding. She was located in this most institutionalised of spaces when all her life she had been such a free spirit, unconstrained by expectations or conventions.

A top section of the window was open to let in the fresh air and she could smell the sea but her hearing was too weak now for her to pick up the sounds of the seagulls. As she turned from the window and edged over to the bed to rest a little before the visit, the sunlight reflected from the silver box on the dressing table, creating a momentary flash of the rainbow's colours, and, as on endless occasions in her long life, she bathed it with a gaze of love, longing and nostalgia.

It was only small: 80 mm by 55 mm. It was elegantly designed with a bevelled top but otherwise remarkably plain. At first, one would think it had no distinctive feature at all but, on the underneath, it carried an inscription in Hebrew.

**********

Anna Maria Romano could hardly have had a more characteristic Italian name, but her experience of the Second World War was far from typical. A lot of this had to do with where she lived. As a major port, Naples was of significant strategic value and consequently it was the most bombed city in Italy. In 1943 alone, it was hit by almost two hundred raids. Once the Allies had taken the city, it was awash with American and British military personnel, presenting new opportunities for an aspiring young woman.

Anna was 17 when the war started and, in the next few years, she was bombed by the Germans, the Americans and the British. Like all Neapolitans, it was the British she hated most of all. The Royal Air Force went to exceptional lengths to avoid civilian causalities but, as a result, their raids lasted much longer than others and the constant droning of the bombers as they circled overhead was terrifying for the populance below. Just drop your bombs now, anywhere, and go home, she had pleaded silently and hopelessly. Besides the little matter of the war, she had other challenges to face as a resident of Naples. In 1942 & 1943, the city suffered a typhus epidemic and she was fortunate to escape the disease. Then, in 1944, Vesuvius erupted and nobody avoided the consequences as volcanic dust covered the city and plasma explosions illuminated the night sky.

Anna lived with her mother and sisters - her father was dead and her brothers in the army - at the top of an old, tall building housing some 20 flats constructed around a courtyard. The steps were killers if she had heavy shopping and she would call up from the courtyard for a rope to be lowered so that the food could be hauled up separately. One of the benefits of the war was that purchasing options became increasingly limited and the need for a rope became markedly less acute.

Before the war, there had been two Jewish families in the block. Like most Jews in Italy, they suffered no particular hostility. Indeed in 1910 the country had in prime minister Luigi Luzzatti one of the world's first Jewish heads of government. Mussolini's Fascist government passed anti-Semitic laws in 1938 but, even when war came, the Italians refused to deport Jews to the Nazi death camps. Increasingly though, the war was going badly for the Italians and in early 1943 there were rumours that the country might switch sides which would inevitably mean that the Germans would intervene with no compunction about deportation of the Jews. In such a fearful state, one night the two families disappeared.

Shortly afterwards, a heavy bombing raid did serious damage to Anna's building and several flats on one corner were completely destroyed and the occupants blown apart - except one. It transpired that a girl in her late teens from one of the Jewish families had not left with the others because she was suffering from typhus and another occupant of the building - an elderly widow living alone in a ground-floor flat - had agreed to give her shelter until her recovery or death and had hidden the girl in the basement.

As the emergency services searched the rubble, they were amazed to find the girl, unconscious but still alive, in the remains of the basement but horrified to observe the tell-tale rash on her skin that proclaimed she was still infected with the typhus. Anna had been observing all this from her balcony and, as soon as she understood the fraught situation, she rushed down the four flights of stairs, picked up the girl in her arms, and laboured increasingly slowly all the way back up to her flat. It was not just the weight of the girl that was a problem, but the leather satchel the youngster had over her shoulder contained something hard that bit into Anna's hip.

Over the next two weeks, Anna was at the girl's bedside day and night, nursing her back to health with support from her mother and sisters. The girl's name was Emilia and she had no idea where the rest of her family now was. In the weeks that followed, the bombing raids continued and, when one appeared particularly close, Anna and Emilia sheltered in a small, unlit cupboard under the stairs while the rest of her family took refuge under the heavy dining table. It was a long raid - the British again - and Anna and Emilia hugged each other for comfort in the dark.

As the whistle of the bombs appeared to have halted, Anna asked her new friend: “Emilia, what will you do when you leave us?”
The young girl did not hesitate: “You have been so kind to me but I want to get away as soon as I can. I need to leave Naples. I want to leave Italy. Europe is no longer safe for Jews. I want to get to Palestine. I think my family will eventually find their way there too. One day we will be together again and I will never forget that you made it possible for me.” At the thought of her family, she swallowed a near-silent sob and then asked: “And what about you, Anna? What do you want to do when this war is over?”

Nobody had put this to Anna before but she constantly posed the question to herself and always had the same answer: “I've never left Italy. It's strange but all these bombers from different air forces has opened up my mind to the fact that there's a huge world out there. I want to see some of it. And I've seen so many people killed and injured. I want to find a way of helping people.”

The second half of 1943 saw violent swings in the conduct of the war in Italy. Mussolini was overthrown, the Germans took over control of the northern half of the country, and deportation of Jews commenced. Then the Allies launched Operation Avalanche and the main invasion force landed at Salerno, just south of Naples, and were quickly in the city. As soon as she could, Emilia talked her way on to a merchant vessel which would be making for North Africa.

As Emilia and Anna parted, the Jewish girl declared: “I can never thank you enough for what you've done for me and we will probably never meet again. So I can only give you the one thing of value I still have. It is this box which was given to me by my father for my bat mitzvah. It is so little but I hope that you like it.” In spite of Anna's protestations that Emilia should keep the silver box, her Jewish friend was adamant that she accept it.

Emilia was right: they never saw each other again and indeed Anna never heard any more about her friend. The Italian would not have been surprised to hear that Emilia managed to make her way to Palestine, but she would have been terribly distressed to discover that the Jewish girl became a militant Zionist, joined the Irgun, and was involved in an operation which killed two British soldiers, before herself being blown apart when one of the group's bombs exploded prematurely.

As for Anna, her life was changed for ever by the arrival of so many American and British servicemen in Naples. She found work at the British Officers' Club and, being bright, soon picked up English. She was fresh-faced with long, fair hair and she had an engaging personality, so she was propositioned by a host of eager young men far from home.

Eventually she agreed to walk with an army officer who was both particularly insistent and possessed of a lively sense of humour. As the nuns at her convent school had warned would be the case, one thing led to another, and they became lovers. When in 1946 he received orders to relocate to Udine in the far north of the country, it was a case of never seeing one another again or of getting married and she chose the latter option.

The marriage seemed fated from the start. On the overnight train north, their luggage was stolen. All Anna had left were the clothes she was wearing and, in one of her coat pockets, the empty silver box that she had decided to carry on her for luck. When their journey was over, she placed the train ticket inside the box as the first of the valued items that she would save there over the next six decades.

**********

Post-war Britain was a shock for Anna. She adjusted to the rationing and austerity but never became used to the cold and dampness and suffered some discrimination as a foreigner with olive skin and an accent. Once discharged from the army, her husband became general manager of a fabrication plant in Yorkshire while she trained to be become a nurse in Leeds. Both quickly discovered that they had little in common and, after three years of marriage, they divorced amicably.

At the age of 30, Anna remarried, this time to a doctor called Michael whom she met at work when they literally ran into each other in a corridor during a pressured Saturday night shift. Her second wedding was a rather grander affair than the brief event in Naples and one of the Italian touches she brought to it was the provision of the coloured sugared almonds traditional at Italian family celebrations. For the first time in six years, she added something to her silver box: a blue-coloured almond from her wedding day.

Over the following years, although she continued to pursue her chosen career of nursing, she had three children: a son, a daughter, and then a second son. On each occasion that the baby had its hair cut for the first time, she saved a few strands of hair, tied them with a piece of coloured cotton - red, white and green respectively from the colours of the Italian flag – and added them to the little box.

Anna excelled as a nurse and her compassionate and caring nature made her popular with patients and staff alike, leading to her receiving a 'nurse of the year' award in 1962. She rarely wore the gold badge; instead it was stored with quiet pride in her little trove.

She had told Emilia that she wanted to see some of the world and whatever many locals thought Britain was not the world so, as soon as they could afford it, she encouraged Mike to take them on foreign holidays, first in other parts of Europe and later rather further afield. A particularly memorable holiday was when all the three children were of primary school age and they to the west of the United States. All the kids were immensely excited by Disneyland in Los Angeles but for her the highlight of the trip was a visit to the Grand Canyon. She was in awe of its age and size and colour and took a little piece of crimson rock for her box of memories.

As the children became older and more independent, she committed herself further to her chosen career and wrote a well-received guide to general nursing. The launch event turned into a page of the book come to dramatic life as she nervously gobbled some peanuts and one stuck in her throat and refused all efforts to shift it. She had to be rushed to A&E at her own work place and have an emergency tracheotomy – an incident which for many weeks was the talk of the staff and the excuse for much ribaldry at her expense. The offending nut just had to be subject to a lifetime of imprisonment and she had just the place of detention.

It was as well that Anna and Mike had a strong and rewarding marriage because inevitably all the children went to university, pursued careers and made their own families. Their daughter was still in Britain, but down south in London where she had a girl and then a boy who gave their grandparents immense joy whenever the families got together.

Both sons, however, emigrated – one to the USA and the other to Australia. Having sons living in such far flung parts was a perfect excuse – not that they needed one – for more long-haul trips and it was on the last occasion that they were in Australia that she made her daily walk to the shore and found the most beautiful little shell that appeared to be different colours depending on the angle that one viewed it. Of course, it went in the box.

Mike bought Anna an expensive pair of elegant platinum earrings for their 25th wedding anniversary. She used to wear them often but, for years now, she had worn no jewellery except her engagement and wedding rings and so the earrings too rested in her silver box. Mike retired at 60 and died a mere two years later as a result of acute myeloid leukaemia. Before he was buried, Anna removed his wedding ring and lodged it with her collection of treasures.

It took several years before Anna's daughter could persuade her to move south to be nearer her, but she was adamant that she was not going to relocate from the city of Leeds to the even bigger city of London. At heart she was still a Neapolitan and wanted to spend her final days near the sea, so she compromised with her daughter and moved to Brighton. There was no volcano or bay or mafia but there was a beach, a pier and the occasional Hell's Angel.

**********

Anna's granddaughter Sophie and her boyfriend Jonathan drove up to the nursing home in Brighton and parked the car. The previous evening they had had dinner with Sophie's mother and, since Jonathan was Jewish, the story had been told of Anna and Emilia and the silver box. Jonathan had recently returned from an intensive Hebrew course on a kibbutz in Israel and showed some of his photographs.

Sophie tapped politely on Anna's door and, when there was no answer, quietly entered the room with Jonathan close behind her. They found Anna sleeping on the bed holding her silver box in her right hand. At least they had thought she was sleeping - but then they could hear no breathing, feared the worst, and called a member of staff. It was soon confirmed that the home's only Italian resident was dead.

As the staff member left the room to do what needed to be done, Sophie gently prised Anna's cold, stiff fingers from the silver box, explaining caringly: “I'll look after this for you now, Nonna.” She opened the top and respectfully ruffled the contents: the locks of hair, the earrings, the wedding ring, the badge, the almond, the shiny shell, the bit of rock, the train ticket - and the photograph. It was a somewhat tattered, black and white passport-sized photo of a good-looking young man, possibly foreign, but nobody in the family ever discovered his identity.

Sophie replaced the lid and holding it firmly turned the box over and found an unfamiliar script. “Jonathan,” she called. “This is the box that Emilia gave Nonna in Naples. This must be Hebrew. Can you read it?”
The young man studied the inscription and then announced: “It says 'Hachaim hem kmo kufsa - t'malei otam heitev'. ”
“But what does that mean?”
“As best as I can do, it states: 'Life is like a box. Fill it well.' ”


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 2 October 2009

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