Alessandra is the voice of female resolve and urges Juliana to follow her artistic gifts despite the demands of having to raising a daughter, Louisa.
“Juliana, you must go find your legacy–you will feel at home. Ah, you go and will not return. Italia, tis an artist’s heaven—a lougo of tragic beauty, mi montagna of my youth.”
Artista by the Sea is a full circle narrative driven by hilarious and endearing friends and family in Juliana’s life. Subtle threads of gender themes depict the societal biases women continue to face both in their personal and artistic lives.
The story also reveals the universal desire to know our past. To know what familial traits and events provoked our choices? For Juliana, a trip to Italy, to her grandmother’s village, unlocks the beloved answers she had been seeking.
This contemporary love story, Artista by the Sea, will capture the heart of any reader who has dared to follow their callings despite the naysayers and hurdles along the way.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou
It is said that an unsettled spirit lingers long after the body has disintegrated. There are times of my life I placated to others that haunt me now. Wasted segments of time I hope to reclaim, avenge the conclusion, step into the light. Too many years drifting in memories of what happened and why. People stolen from me by a regime I had nothing to do with. Painting was my only politics, my way of saluting back to the world and revealing my thoughts. Perhaps I will loiter long enough to see the truth march down the aisle holding for all to see, those hidden works that I sacrificed for my freedom.
The irony is that I was not free at all. Longing and want for a piece of myself that was swapped for a boat ride to America; traded, as though they were simple coins. That dark night we clung husband and wife, to the baby each wondering if this would be the last we would see of one another. We prayed the sun would forget to rise and cried silent tears cursing the confusion the irrational.
Why had Italia turned against us? Why had Germany gone mad destroying our humble lives? We wanted nothing more than to be artists with a small plot of land to garden and to love reckless and un-abandoned. To continue cooking with fresh herbs and fish the sea that had never denied us. We lived in a paradise that was no longer docile but rather a lair to escape.
Why love did you stay only to be caught and locked in a camp? Die in a camp while your work, my work; our work was left to strangers. Left to those who, I assume, protected the paintings kept them in darkness until it was safe to come out. Did that day ever happen? Was the door opened by brilliant beams of light cascading into the shed or the basement or wherever the paintings were; alone in their secrecy?
I’ve have not lived to see this but I know the story well and I want it told. I want every detail revealed and remembered and sown back together. I want them all to know the great love and passion you and I had for one another and for the art. For the art, the artists and the lovers—what was it they called you and I?
Alessandra Bongioni. Beautiful Woman Beautiful Life. Born November 21 1917 Died April 26 2004
Leaning against the pewter headstone, I heard my grandmother’s words, “Juliana, you must go find your legacy—you will feel at home.” I pledged to her over and over that I would visit Italy, explore my heritage—and paint the villages and the sea that she spoke of with a breeze like tenderness. But I was no closer to being able to do this than the year before or the year before that. My relationship with Nona tunneled back to a place rooted inside tales of Italy that swarmed my imagination. Nona and I interpreted the world through composition and hue. I couldn’t believe she was dead and with her my unanswered questions. I thought somehow she would be eternal and time would carry both of us back to her beloved Italy. We would peruse the cobblestoned streets and her stories would arc back to us.
“Ah, you go and will not return. Italia, tis an artist’s heaven—a lougo of tragic beauty, mi montagna of my youth.” She would say shaking her head back and forth the lines around her eyes soft. I knew in those moments she had sojourned back to her village tasting “the sweet Mediterranean air.”
The noon sun untangled itself from the morning miasma blazing in the cloudless sky. I slid my hair back and yanked the bill down. Although I had the olive complexion of my grandmother, I worried that the California sun would give me cancer or irreversible wrinkles. People told me I looked just like my Nona and I relished the compliment but scarcely believed it. To me, she was exotic; the dark skin, the red wavy locks swept in a loose French twist. I felt more unkempt than exotic. And although I had the color and curl of Nona’s hair—my strands flew in random directions with no semblance of her silent sophistication.
Blooms of wisteria and lavender scented the air; the verdure of spring was rampant. Sitting opposite of my Nona’s grave were two disheveled tombstones laced in green weeds top heavy leaning towards knobby oak trees on the knoll in front of them. They reminded me of old women with thunderous breasts stooped in a forward tilt. I thought about the painting I finished months before. A face of a young Italian woman with angular cheekbones wearing a peasant top waving a tambourine. Nona loved and admired it. Like my grandmother, I could visualize faces and weave a story as if painting a past.
My grandmother was what Italian’s refer to as a grave-walker, wandering cemeteries peering at headstones creating vignettes of those buried in the soil. We walked this very graveyard many times.
“I‘m doing a service, Juliana,” she would whisper as if corpses were listening. “If no one comes to visit– the spirit cries, forlona…they feel their life is not remembered.” This was Nona’s final resting, an old coastal cemetery packed with men who fished for sardines and women who canned them. They were the bustle and breath of the infamous Cannery row now replaced by tourists shopping for trinkets; seashells, tee-shirts sipping warm clam chowder. Alessandra adored this graveyard and had picked and paid for her plot years ago.
“It tis close to the sea,” she swooned. “Lucca will find me here, I know.”
Before her passing, my grandmother bequeathed me a ruby necklace given to her by her first husband, Lucca Bongioni, when they were secretly married in Italy. I yearned to know this man whom she spoke of with the reverence of a lost lover. He seemed a mystery to me, a made up myth of a man that grew larger in my re-creation of him. She kept the necklace snug in its green velvet jewelry box, afraid to wear it; afraid she‘d lose it or afraid to belittle the circumstances in which it was bestowed.
“I want you to have this Juliana. And don’t be silly coo coo like me. Put it on your neck and parade around like a queen. With those a green eyes and that red hair, the people will step aside with their chins clanging on their chests! What a beauty, they will sing.”
I would wear the necklace at my wedding which was happening today in the early evening. I was exhausted. In the past week I slept only four to five hours a night at best. Not enough for my body’s seven to eight requirements. I contemplated my own death and wondered if people would line the sidewalks to say good-bye to me, as they did Nona? Or would my death drift like shriveled dandelion fuzz? At thirty-eight I was irritated with life. I was tired of slaving at as a nurse while my art marooned itself waiting for my return. I was too afraid to move on either in failure or success so I continued in this annoying limbo.
A few months before Nona’s death, I had a very informal showing at a café. One of the local reviewers penned my oils “Fresh, earthy, visceral” he wrote that he was “dumbfounded at why Juliana was in hiding and when was she going to debut?”
But my daughter, Louisa, was in college and there was no one else to dump the bills on, especially now, after Nate split despite we were engaged. I felt life blowing by, time sneering in my face. I needed to shed any trace of hesitance or as Nona would say, “Paint like a reckless lover.”
I thought back to the irony of coordinating my grandmother’s funeral while cinching details of my wedding. My mother, my two aunts, and I chose readings and songs for the funeral. We went through Alessandra’s artwork deciding which to display at the viewing. We decided what flowers to have at the wedding and which for the funeral– indelible moments of surreal-ness. One ceremony to celebrate, another to commemorate.
The sun’s glare snapped my thoughts back to the moment. Glancing at my cell phone I realized soon I would be reciting marriage vows at Carmel beach in front of a conglomeration of family and friends. I referred to Carmel beach as “Alessandra’s beach” for she would sit for hours in her tattered fold out chair, marveling at the azure water and white sand. “It tis the color of Italia’s sea,” she would sigh. This was the reason I choose to marry there.
I kissed the top of the headstone and hurried back to my car. My cell phone, which now burrowed into a dark corner of my purse, began ringing. I fumbled to answer it knowing it was most likely Sam calling frantic.
“Hello.” It was indeed Sam, his voice like an out of tune guitar, waivered.
“Juliana, where the hell are you?” He demanded.
“At the cemetery, I’m on my way home—relax.”
“For god’s sakes, we still must finish preparing food. Louisa is here and worried sick where you are?” Sam said. His tongue clacking an Arabic accent that thickened when he was upset. I knew Louisa was not worried in the least and I hated how Sam morphed everything into a Greek tragedy.
“Let me talk to her Sam.” I smirked, knowing he knew he’d been caught.
“Just come home, please Jules, you know I worry.”
“Sam, put Lou on the phone, thanks.”
“Sure, sure, sure.”
“Hey mom, don’t worry.”
“I am not– just annoyed.” I said. Louisa chuckled.
“So there’s a ton of food here.”
“It’s not all Middle Eastern is it?” Sam had assured me there would be a hodgepodge of ethnic cuisine at the reception.
“No.” She laughed again. My daughter and I had a non-vindictive sarcasm that found humor in human absurdity. What people concerned themselves with and why. Sam was a professional worrier which much to his horror Lou and I found comical.
“Good. I’ll be home in twenty minutes, help Sam out. Run around and act busy– sigh and wince that will settle him down. He’s such a freak sometimes.”
“I know. But he’s a sweet freak.”
“Hurry.” Shouted Sam as I said good-by and folded the phone.
As I turned out of the cemetery towards the Post Naval Graduate School in Monterey, I wondered if Sam’s anxiousness was cultural, genetic, or just simply self-imposed. Probably a little of each I decided. We lived on sixth-street by Delmonte Avenue approximately a mile and a half from Cannery Row and two miles from the popular Lover’s Point. The area is mantled with writers that steered the course of literature; Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Miller, Dorothy Parker. They say it is the “positive ions” of the salt water and the sounds of sea life that invigorates the creative instincts. Our house on Sixth Street was equally centered to Carmel; a pinnacle for painters who strode the white sands sweeping oils over canvases during the early part of the twentieth century. The Central Coast with its audacious history for the arts, felt like an innate fit from the moment I laid eyes on it. Alessandra had felt the same.
I had specific reasons for saying yes to Sam’s marriage proposal. Sam, real name, Husam (means sword in Arabic) Kardol, was a Catholic Israeli from the town of Dalyat at the base of Mt. Carmel. One serious reason II agreed to marry Sam was because he was a wonderful friend who was about to be booted back to Israel. Times were turbulent and had grown violent for non-Jewish citizens. If we married he could remain secure and in a few years, hopefully, things would settle down and we would divorce.
The second, less serious, reason was to thwart my father’s constant harrying. George McKenna was obsessed over my singleness. “I’m worried for your future, honey. You need a good man. Who will love you when you’re old? You should have more children.” My father was relentless in goading my matrimonial-less life. With each passing birthday his level of obsession grew as if my destiny as a single woman was that of a scullery maid. He failed to acknowledge that I had raised an amazing daughter, worked hard as a nurse, and god forbid was a decent artist.
My father’s ideal candidate would have been a practicing Irish Catholic. His hypocrisy was top notch, an iconic remnant of his sturdy Irish heritage; the man went to mass once every five years. When Sam volunteered for the post, my father, with mingled satisfaction and disapproval, conceded that at least Sam had a sound religious background. I realized at thirty-eight it was ridiculous to care what my father thought–but it was something I had little control over. This “caring” would erupt like a burst water main catapulting me back to age five. I decided, rather than call the plumber I’d plug it up myself–make it stop spewing at least temporarily. Sam was the plug. At least for a few years I would have some reprieve from fatherly judgment.
My mother, upon hearing of my engagement asked;
“Is he a good man?”
I shook my head yes and she slapped her palms together, “Okay then.” I knew she had secretly wanted me to marry an Italian to balance out the family scales. A wealthy dark-haired, olive complexioned godlike man with a Roman nose would have done nicely. A man who had a houses on the Amalfi Coast as well as two others sprinkled throughout the states. This would have better set my mother’s fears to rest for according to her calculations, this would be my only hope to afford being a full time artist.
My mother had a mercurial opinion of wealth. She condemned anyone with an inheritance but touted the benefits of money when it came to my love life. There were times she daydreamed about having hoards of money to traipse through Europe with. Other times she ranted about how greedy Americans were with their insatiable appetite “for things.” When she was caught bragging to whomever about my brothers and sister’s economic successes she would emphasize, “Their pockets are lined from the blood of hard work.”
My two brothers could care a sneeze over what men were in or out of my life and how much money I did or did not make. My sister, Jillian, on the other hand was chronically interested in marshaling my finances and regarded me as pitiful, irresponsible. My lack of being motivated purely, for the sake of money dumbfounded her. “I just don’t get you Juliana,” was her favorite refrain.
I pulled into the lumpy concrete driveway and took a deep breath preparing for a showdown of pouts that would rival a silent film star. As I swung the front door open, I saw Sam slinging plates of food around the dining room table mumbling Arabic to the walls. Pungent garlic smells wafted through the kitchen fusing with the fresh aromas of mint, basil, and onion. I took a deep whiff inhaling the herbs like they were some sort of relaxant.
“Juliana,” Sam bellowed as if I was standing in a crowded baseball stadium. His penchant for yelling was one of his less endearing qualities but none the less harmless.
“For god sakes Sam, I’m not deaf.” I said. “And why are you putting food out now anyway? We have six hours before the reception.”
“Six hours tsk, tsk, tsk, that is all?” Sam said looking beguiled that I didn’t share his passion for turmoil. “Jules, oh my godt, wait till you see all the foodt people have brought. Baklava, hummus, Fadi’s home-made grape leaves, lamb gyros…”
“I thought we weren’t just serving Middle Eastern? My family is Irish Italian. Remember? My father only eats meat and potatoes.” I could feel the nerves in my neck begin to pinch like little crab claws.
Sam smiled. His thick lips parting a velvet curtains showing off the large glimmering teeth that resembled piano keys. A clump of black hair escaped the heavy layer of sticky gel and trailed down his right cheek as he continued darting from counter to refrigerator and back to the counter. He reminded me of a toy soldier wound too tight. Sam was just shy of six feet with broad shoulders and fleshy biceps. He fostered a single track of dark hair from his lower lip that split through the tiny indent in the center of his chin.
“Yes, yes yes my love. We have plain American food too. Don‘t be a grump. Angelina brought us her homemade raviolis so there, we have Italia as well.” He bustled about as if in seconds the guests would trample down the front door waving forks in the air demanding to eat. I found it fascinating that Sam had an enormous array of cooking friends. I often wondered if he based his friendships on a person’s culinary skills. He obviously didn’t base his choice of a wife on hers. I was deplorable in the kitchen—clueless and uninterested.
“I’m not being a grump. Did Agnes come by? Where’s Lou?” I fired off the questions not waiting for individual answers. I had hoped the three of us Agnes, my friend since the second grade, my daughter, and me could squeeze in a walk before the mayhem began. I felt a strong need for a female chat without any males sleuthing through my thoughts or giving unwanted advice. I had grown tired of potbellied middle-aged men encroaching on my decisions. Not that Sam was middle-aged or potbellied but like men before him, professors, bosses, uncles, hell even janitors, he too was compelled to cast advice in the hallways of my life where I clearly had a “do not enter ” sign.
Copyright© Karen Devaney. All rights reserved.