A Special Friend

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Photo credits Rita Siligato
Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Rita Siligato

Being the youngest of four sisters – Nella, Ondina and Marina – Redenta was forever the baby.

The eldest – Nella – was five years older than the youngest sister. The year after the birth of Marina, there had been a stillborn boy. Regularly spaced, all the girls had their birthday in April. 

Ondina wore Nella’s dresses when the first sister outgrew them. Then came the year of Marina to wear the same threadbare dress; one year after that, Redenta was sure to inherit the invariable discolored patchy dress. 

She did not mind. She hated only the castoff boots.

At that time, girls had sturdy boots at the ankle, black or brown, with laces and eyelets. After four years, the leather was cracked and dirty – “They are clean! Redenta, they are only scuffed!” – and the heels were worn-out in an irregular way.

She detested to look almost lame wearing the boots. She could not walk properly.

When Nella was seventeen, on Saturdays and Sundays she went dancing with Ondina in a nearby ballroom. It was not a real ballroom, better to say it was a kind of social club for boys and girls to meet and dance. In the ’50 in Trieste you could dance with a beautiful English or American soldier – they were usually not allowed to go to dance rooms, but sometimes the usher turned a blind eye on them, after a packet of cigarette or a chocolate bar.

Marina and Redenta – the baby – stayed at home waiting for the sisters to come back and tell about the dance.

“Have you meet Johnny again?”

“No, he was not there tonight.”

“And Harry?”

Oh, Harry. He was plump, he had bad teeth, but he learned how to use Triestino dialect in a jiffy. Nella married him on her eighteenth birthday and went to live in Liverpool with him. 

Unfortunately, Harry had to leave for Korea, to fight for a distant war she did not understand, leaving the young bride with his mother for two interminable years.

“And Johnny?”

Johnny was Ondina’s beau. He was tall, clean, he had beautiful fair hair and he did not smoke. He believed that Ondina was too young to kiss him, let alone to get married.

Marina and Redenta lived for the stories the elder sisters told them. The fights outside the ballroom – “You are stealing our girlfriends! Go back home, yankees!” – and the music, the music, the strange jazzy tunes, the colored boys dancing so well!

“Have you seen Sammy again?”

Sammy was the young colored soldier their mother found once sitting at their table, in the tiny kitchen, when she came home for lunch. He was tall and strong, with a shiny brown skin and a million dollar smile.

He was eating a plate of gnocchi, telling the woman: “Thank you mama, I needed a proper supper, thank you mama!”

“Poor boy, I left the door open for a second and here he is! Do you want a glass of water, boy? Acqua?”

The boy smiled, looking at the old woman – she was only thirty-seven, but she looked more than fifty then, a sparrow of a woman – and at the four girls standing by the door and looking at him, stunned.

“Acqua, mama, yes, please.”

He was ready to learn. After half an hour, he was chatting with the five women and using the few words of Triestino dialect he understood.

“Grazie, mama!”

The mother smiled and tried to make him understand he was welcome. She talked to him in Triestino.

“Ghe somiglio forsi a tua mama?”

She turned to the girls: “Maybe I look like his mother!”

Sammy figured out what she was trying to ask him: “No, mama. My mama is…” and he spread his arms to represent a large, thick body, bigger than his own.

“He misses his mother! Poor boy? Come te se ciami? Nome? Name?”

“Sammy.”

And Sammy became their friend. Their mother’s special friend. He came at odd hours to fix the always leaking sink, to patch a crumbling wall. He asked for a coffee – “Cicoria?” 

“Chicory! Yes, please, a cuppa!” – and he went away smiling, big and brown. They never knew his surname. He always remained Sammy for them.

They missed him, when he left, without saying goodbye. The mother never forgot his broad white smile.

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Rita Siligato
Contributing Author. "I was born in Trieste on November 30, St. Andrew's Day. I teach creative writing at the School of Music in Trieste. The class is called “Le Bustine di Minerva” (you find it on Facebook). Being a professional editor, I usually work “on the other side of the mirror”; I enjoy writing and reading. I love gardening and cats. Cats and gardening. I love them both, one at the time. Cats can break a gardener’s heart. While working on my PC I always listen to Radio3 or BBC3. My favorite musicians are Frank Zappa and Bach, not necessarily in that order. There is no room enough to tell you about my favorite writers."

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