Between Two Lifetimes by Ann Marie Bezayiff by Ann Marie Bezayiff - Read Online

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Summary

BETWEEN TWO LIFETIMES is an historical romantic story that takes place between 1937 and 1939 in an Italian immigrant community in central California. Italian immigrants, Giuseppe and Francesca Corgi face the challenges of raising their first-generation American children. Three sisters, coming of age as the Depression eases, and before the advent of World War II, seek love and romance in a confusing, ambiguous time. Tessa, Josie and Gina each have their own ideas of dating, love, sex and courtship but must balance the "new, modern" American way with the expectations of their Catholic, immigrant parents. Each struggles to find love but not without crashing into boundaries of culture and religion.
Published: Torrid Books on
ISBN: 9781681461328
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Between Two Lifetimes - Ann Marie Bezayiff

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Grace

Chapter 1

Francesca, the eldest of four girls, was born in a small village in the Canavese region of Italy, near the Lanzo River. She had two older brothers; Natale was the firstborn male child in the family and Giancarlo was the second.

The family lived in an ancient three-story, rectangular structure. The building had been erected centuries ago during the time of the House of Savoy. Thick tree trunks from the open woodlands, stones from nearby mountains, and layers of thick brick created the solid foundation and walls. Layers of plaster, recreated from an eternal recipe, covered the structure, but in sections, the thick plaster had peeled off, revealing the building’s inner skeleton.

Her father, Natale Casapietro, inherited the rights to rent the building after the death of his father and in agreement with the landowner’s conditions. The house came with four acres of poor soil, which was located outside the village. His crops of wheat and grains barely covered the rent, but he grew a large, productive garden in the open courtyard within the walls of their home. He mulched the soil with bags of decayed leaves, collected from the trees growing along the edge of the creek. He added vegetable cuttings from the kitchen, chicken manure from the henhouse and mixed in earthworms from the creek beds. His skill and knowledge of the land allowed him to produce a garden of tomatoes, garlic, onions, fava beans, potatoes, corn, peas, zucchini and herbs. Even now the memory of the Rosemary bushes and the rows of basil, oregano and mint reminded Francesca of her youthful home. The aromas of basil and garlic on her cutting board were a constant reminder of those days. They were the sweet smells of life, of food, of home.

The main level of the property housed the livestock. In the winter the barn substituted for sleeping rooms. Though snow was rare during the winter months, the winter air was cold, dry and penetrating. There was never enough wood to keep a fire going and a villager could be sent to prison or killed for stealing firewood from the Lord’s manor. Even the branches on the ground were forbidden.

So the children made straw beds on the dirt floor and slept beside the animals. The warmth from the animals’ bodies kept the children from freezing. The sweet smell of fresh hay mixed with the odors of dung, and human and animal scents, evoked strong reminders of cold, alpine nights and bodies sleeping among the animals for warmth. Even now, Francesca knew the smell of dung and straw in her hair. It was a good smell.

From sunup to sundown, Francesca worked alongside her family watching over the crops and animals in this remote area of Piedmont. Still, there was never enough food to last through the cold winters. In the fall huge canvas bags, filled to the brim with chestnuts, emptied long before spring. In the better years, they had sacks of corn meal to make polenta and maybe fresh meat from a wild boar. If they were lucky, a confused and misguided animal might wander into the village, providing fresh meat for the villagers. During the harsher years, the landowner might give permission for the villagers to scour his forest for wild root vegetables, overlooked mushrooms, and half-starved animals—but that was rare. It was a struggle to feed the family, but the cow, goats and pigs needed food too. They needed to survive in order to produce animals in the spring.

Finally, in the spring, the dandelions, cardoon and the weeds of the fields saved them. The sows began producing piglets and fresh milk was available once the cow gave birth. The skinny calf had to share its milk with the household.

Life was a struggle, always a struggle.

There was no future for her. She knew this was the truth of her life. She attended school for a few years but had to quit to help at home. At least she could read, write and work numbers in her head. She was determined to leave the farm. The farm would go to her brother and if she stayed, she would become a burden to her brother’s family or a servant worker in the fields. Life in a convent or marriage were her only two choices. She chose marriage and prayed every day for a husband. It didn’t matter if he came from a poor family; her family’s status was barely above that of a servant class anyway. She did pray he’d be kind and young, like herself and not a widower, years older than herself.

Older widowers married younger women all the time. Such marriages usually benefited the girl’s family because these men had resources that could raise a family’s status or insure a supply of food for the entire family. However, being condemned to caring for old men with old bodies, was not her idea of romance and love.

Francesca’s idea of love and romance came from the youthful spring of idealism and happy endings. It certainly didn’t include a priest, or an almost priest, at least not at first, but Providence works its own schemes.

She was fifteen when Paolo Marcelo saw her outside the village. He noticed her sitting upon an ancient Etruscan stone on the edge of the forest, half-watching the grazing cow, its calf and a group of spring lambs. The clouds played a chasing game over her head, first blocking the sun’s intensity and then releasing it. She was terrorizing an ant colony with a bony tree branch, twisting and turning in the hill of the nest.

Hello, a voice said.

Francesca jumped up, startled, looked around, but didn’t see anyone. Hello? The stick tightened in her grasp.

I hope I’m not having one of those Mary, the mother of God, visions. Those poor girls end up in a convent the rest of their lives.

She turned around and a handsomely built, young man appeared out of the forest. He was muscular and lanky, without being skinny.

Now that is a vision!

Instantly, Francesca recognized his wealth. His wore a shirt woven from silk and his jacket of felted wool fit faultlessly around his torso. His pants were tailored and fit his body perfectly. He held a wool cap in his hands. His boots were exquisitely handcrafted leather while she wore no shoes at all. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury of wearing shoes, especially during the summer.

Immediately, she bowed her head and curtsied which was expected of someone born into a lower class status.

His voice was deep but soft. No need for that, he said. Please sit down. I didn’t mean to startle you.

She looked at him, puzzled.

French? He’s speaking French.

She answered him in the local dialect.

Can you speak Piedmontese, my dialect? She pronounced the French words carefully and slowly. I can speak a little French, but my skills are limited.

He repeated in perfect Piedmontese, I said there is no need for bowing. Please sit down. I didn’t mean to startle you.

Sir, even though I was sitting on this rock, I was watching the animals. I don’t let them wander into the forest, ever, but I’ll move them farther down the hill, if it pleases you.

He laughed. The animals are fine. Don’t worry. I’m not here to tell you to chase after them. He looked at her and then asked, What is your name?

Her eyes narrowed and she cautiously tilted her head before answering.

Francesca.

A pause.

Aren’t you going to ask my name?

Yes, if you wish. Sir, what is your name?

Marcelo, Paolo Marcelo.

Are you from the master’s country house? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.

Visiting, yes, for now. I’m related through my mother’s line. I had to take a walk and get some fresh air. Such a beautiful day and no need to waste it on privilege disguised as laziness.

She looked up at him, searching his face as to the mystery of his words. His smile was wonderful and ignited a sensation of heat throughout her body. Her face turned bright red and she turned her face down, towards the stone.

I was sitting on this ancient Etruscan stone, watching the animals, Sir.

He laughed. Etruscan? What do you know about Etruscans?

Stubbornly, she explained, From stories; my bisnonna, my great-grandmother, she told us the ancient stories. Our people are descendants from the old ones, those who escaped the massacres and lived in the caves over there. She pointed towards the soft rows of Alpine Hills. Several outcroppings of stones were within walking distance. Sometimes, the caves give up shards of pottery or bits of broken jewelry or a coin. But not very often. One has to know where to look.

Well, Francesca, my apologies. You obviously know more about the Etruscans than I thought. He teased her with a smile. May I sit with you upon your family’s ancient Etruscan stone and contemplate the destiny of these ants with you? Her face reddened. She put the stick down and the ants swarmed.

Yes, Sir, of course. The stone is long and wide, enough for a family to sit upon. It must have been part of an outside wall, I think.

He walked over to the stone and polished it with the palm of his hand. I think you’re right. It’s oddly large. Please, he said and motioned for her to sit. She did. He sat a full body length away from her, clasped his hands together, leaned his back against the rock behind his head, and breathed in the fresh air. She stared at him, wondering.

This is divine, he said. A beautiful girl, a grassy hill and an ancient stone. He said the words in French.

You understood every word I said, didn’t you?

She only smiled and watched him close his eyes.

Silently they sat, not uttering a word. She didn’t know what to expect or what to do. Slowly she relaxed—the calm and peace between them was enough. She wondered.

Perhaps he’s an Etruscan prince of old who has come to rescue me from my fate and take me to his manor as his wife.

The horn sounded. Its call woke them from a sweet serenity and back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked at her fully. The intensity of his gaze shook her very being. The horn sounded again.

She jumped up. It’s a signal to the herders, she explained. It’s time to herd the animals and return to them to the village. Good-bye, she said, and raced down the hill, skillfully herding the animals towards home. She looked back once. He was watching her. That would be enough of the fairy tale to last a lifetime.

Chapter 2

The aging Father Donatello introduced Father Marcelo to the congregation the following Sunday. He will be assisting me with parish work until his ordination which is scheduled during the Christmas Advent season…at the Vatican. He turned, smiled at Paolo and bowed his head. It is a great honor to be ordained by the Pope.

Those sitting in the front pews smiled with politeness but in reality, Father Donatello knew his parishioners would rather remain anonymous than be in the Vatican’s eye. It would only mean more church taxes and another mouth to feed. It was bad enough when the bishop made his yearly visit to collect the church’s assessment. Now they’d be expected to support the new priest, too.

Paolo Marcelo squirmed. He felt the cynicism and disparagement from the congregation. The white-collar tightened around his neck and the cassock felt like a heavy weight over his body. He saw Francesca near the back of the church. Their gazes met and locked for a second. Her face revealed surprise and turned red from embarrassment. His face flushed in response.

The congregation apparently sensed the young priest was nervous and uneasy and softened their distaste towards the intruder. What could they do, anyway? Perhaps his prayers for the village would reach the throne of God.

After Mass, the young priest greeted the congregation, flowing out the church. His arm ached from shaking so many hands.

Will you be staying with Father in the rectory? An elderly woman asked.

Occasionally, when necessary, but most nights I’ll be staying at the manor. My mother’s family made arrangements.

Where are your people?

Florence, Signora…

Signora Gaetana Trappa, and you must come for a meal. I will prepare the mid-day meal for you. She held both his hands in her worn, wrinkled ones. Yes, you must promise.

Yes, of course.

She released his hands. Such a handsome face, he heard her whisper to another woman waiting off to the side.

He smiled and then turned to Francesca’s family, next in line. Her father introduced himself and then said, Father Marcelo, my family. Signore Casapietro listed off the names of his children, but Paolo heard only Francesca’s name.

* * * *

Francesca didn’t dare look up and kept her head bowed.

Ah, I’ve met Francesca. So this is your family? he turned to face her.

She stared at him in disbelief. Yes, Father. Surprised and obviously shocked, her parent’s gaze shifted towards her. Papa’s unforgiving, piercing eyes bore down into her skin. Her face felt heated and her body quivered.

Wide-eyed and amazed, but undoubtedly curious too, her siblings stood at attention waiting for the ax to fall.

Father Donatello straightened his posture.

Francesca, mortified, sensed her father’s ire and knew she’d be punished. She knew better than to talk to a stranger, especially when watching the herd.

I was exploring my family’s hunting grounds and decided to search the forest on my own. I found a hiking trail, which led me to the open field and your daughter, who was diligently watching over her flock in the commoner’s field. He looked around. I recognized many of the young people in the parish, who were also shepherding their flocks that day.

He’s good with words, she thought.

Francesca was good enough to tell me about your Etruscan heritage. I’m a student of Italian history and am fascinated by the Etruscan civilization. Such a mystery.

Yes, it’s quite a tale.

And the caves?

Ah, the caves. Yes, they are on the landowner’s property and one needs permission to hike on those hills. Once they belonged to the village but a long-ago king claimed the hills as his private property.

If I get permission, would you allow your children to guide me?

Why, yes, of course.

Francesca recognized her father’s suspicious expression, but then she saw a ripple of pride spreading across his face. Assisting such a prestigious man would bring honor to her family’s name. She saw his face soften.

My children know most of the trails through these mountains. You won’t get lost.

Good, then. I’ll speak with my uncle.

Father Donatello cleared his throat. He scanned the line of impatient parishioners waiting their turn to meet the new priest. It was only proper they wait, but they were fidgety, edgy, needing to get home for the noon-day meal.

Chapter 3

A week later, Paolo Marcelo was strolling through the village plaza on his way to a noon-day meal. A young girl, struggling in the middle of the village square over the well, caught his notice. Floundering with twisted ropes, her attempt at bringing up the bucket of water proved frustrating. Three empty earthen-ware jugs sitting at her feet also needed filling.

Let me help.

The young girl stepped back, amazed that someone would offer to help. Then she recognized the new priest.

You’re the new priest?

Yes. He released the rope from the handle of the bucket and poured the water into one of the jugs. He retied the rope around the handle and let the bucket down again.

Signora Casapietro joined the two. She was carrying an oversized basket covered with a thin cotton towel. Grazie, Father.

Before she could object, he said, I need some exercise to strengthen these sagging muscles.

Her face reddened at the reference to his anatomy. He laughed.

Each household needs water and the only way is to lift and pour. Lots of exercise.

A young girl joined them. She reminded him of Francesca. His face turned red and he spilled the water. He had to return the bucket to the well and start all over again.

We are on our way to the field for our mid-day meal.

I’d join you if I could. Priests didn’t join the family for a meal in the fields. That is, if I’m invited.

In response to their surprised facial expressions, he added, I’m on the way to join Father Donatello. Signora Gaetana Trappa invited us for lunch and to share the local gossip.

Maybe another time?

Yes, another time, of course.

I don’t eat very much, he laughed. It’s my chance to get away from the rectory and spend time in the open air.

She smiled, but looked worried. He thought perhaps the family was waiting.

Could you speak to Signore Casapietro for me? My uncle has given me permission to explore the caves. With his permission, I’d like Francesca and the other children to accompany me. I’ll have the rectory housemaid pack food and water for us.

She bowed. I will speak with him, but it would be better if you asked him directly.

Yes, of course, it is the proper way. He realized that he was keeping them from the workers. I’ll speak to your husband this evening, after vespers.

Chapter 4

The Mass ended and Marcelo hurriedly changed from his priestly robes into hiking attire. The Casapietro girls waited under the shade of an old, twisted olive tree while the boys admired Marcelo’s fine wagon, hitched to a pair of well-groomed horses. Natale shared a lively conversation with the driver, a man from the village, who worked at the manor.

Giancarlo, admiring the horses, slid his hands gently over the thick hairs and fine muscles of one of the animals. Vincenzo stood near his brother, listening to a lecture on this particular breed of horse. Francesca and the girls stood stoical, but their excitement was like the snap of static electricity before a storm.

By the time Paolo joined them, the church members had disappeared into their homes and Father Donatello had retired to the rectory for lunch. Their parents had left too. The middle-aged couple couldn’t believe their good fortune; to have an entire afternoon without children was a gift of indulgence.

Make sure you start home when the horn sounds. Natale and Giancarlo, you are responsible for the safety of the younger ones, especially your sisters.

Natale and Giancarlo understood their duty to the family’s honor. Hopefully Paolo’s intentions were innocent, but he was still a member of the royal class. The brothers knew the stories. There were so many sad and shameful outcomes for commoners whenever the upper classes blatantly disregarded religious and moral codes. The lower strata of society had no rights when it came to the law of the land, nor could they protect their women.

The brothers, suspicious, remained apprehensive and cautious. Permission to explore the caves was unimaginable and to do so with a member of the royal family, beyond belief. As a member of the Seigneurial system, Paolo’s actions confused the brothers. Did the priest have an ulterior motive? How would this day unfold?

Natale saw Paolo first. He appeared from the side of the church, smiling and with eyes sparkling. Finally able to discard the priestly robes, he had changed into an outdoor outfit fitting of a hound’s hunt. He greeted the siblings with an excitement that matched their own anticipation.

Signorinas, he greeted, motioning to seats in the back. Without hesitation, the girls climbed up and over the edges of the finely sanded and painted wagon ignoring the rope ladder and wooden steps. He chuckled at their indifference to proper etiquette and found their actions amusing, but refreshing too. The women he knew would never think of hiking up their skirts and lifting themselves over the edge of a cart and never without a man’s hand for assistance.

They probably wouldn’t have the strength.

He smiled as the girls oohed and awed over the cushioned benches. They were no doubt unlike anything they had ever seen or felt. The thick pads were upholstered in a heavily warped, creamy beige colored material and edged with bright, red woven tassels. The girls ran their hands repeatedly over the nap of the cloth, shaping circles and linear designs on the surface.

Paolo turned to the driver of the cart. Take the horse and follow us. I promised Father we’d have a free horse. In case of an emergency. He climbed up and joined the two brothers on the driver’s seat. Paolo handed Giancarlo the reins. Would you like to drive? Immediately, he sat upright with pride. Yes, of course. Guiding such a pair of fine horses as these was a challenge and honor.

Once outside the village, a second cart was waiting. When the driver recognized the priest and the royal cart, he pulled in behind it and followed. Paolo waved at him in acknowledgement.

* * * *

He continued watching the girls with his peripheral vision. It was an amusing site. They were exploring baskets filled with bread, jams and cheeses and one with flasks of wine. Francesca sat with her back to Paolo.

Unexpectedly Paolo felt her nearness and the sensation spread through his body like a flash of sunlight. Such an awareness unnerved him. He turned and realized her proximity. Flushed, he turned his attention to Natale. Tell me about the caves.

Over there, Giancarlo pointed into the distance towards an outcropping of disheveled rocks. The rutted site was lightly covered with an odd arrangement of grass and wildflowers.

We should stop over there, Natale suggested. It has the looks of a buried entrance.

I agree. Pull the horses close to that copse of trees. He waved at the wagon close behind.

Following the lead of the first wagon, the second cart pulled in behind and the driver steadied his horses. Paolo spoke to the driver. Picket the horses over there. They can graze while we explore, but keep your eye on them.

He turned to the others, eager to begin the exploration, but when he looked at their faces, he realized they were hungry. He guessed correctly that they hadn’t eaten since the previous evening. Everyone was required to fast before receiving communion, and they had all received communion that morning. He said something to the servants in the second wagon. Immediately, a young girl jumped out of the back and with the help of the driver, began setting a table in the middle of the hillside. The Casapietro children recognized Lina, a young woman from the village and she recognized them.

* * * *

Her face exposed her disgust. Why is he making us serve the Casapietros? she whispered to the driver.

Even though she was from a servant class, this family of farmers and field hands were beneath her family’s position in the village. She hadn’t realized she’d be preparing a picnic for them or she would have sent someone else. Did you know about this?

He whispered back, No, but it doesn’t matter. Not to me. I’m paid to carry out instructions.

Then she recognized Natale. He wasn’t bad looking. Maybe this would be a good afternoon after all. In spite of his low status, he would inherit the rights to the family property someday.

She reluctantly prepared the table but kept her eye on Natale. She flirted at him with her eyes and he returned her looks with interest. He helped with the collapsible table and watched as she snapped a white tablecloth expertly into place over its smooth surface. He helped retrieve the baskets of food and flasks of water from the cart and she organized an exacting pattern of food presentation with the plates and eating utensils.

Natale, thank you, she said through her smiles and while batting her eyes in his face.

Natale seemed impressed with her and her knowledge of proper etiquette.

A picnic worthy of a king unfolded before their eyes. Paolo Marcelo added his smiling approval and asked her and the driver to join them.

Please, all of you. Eat. I’m eager to start exploring but you must eat first, fill your stomachs and quench your thirst. Your dining chairs are the ancient rocks. Girls, Francesca, please go first.

Her sisters went first. Francesca followed behind. She filled her plate with delicious tidbits and treats, mindful not to fill her plate completely. But she wanted to taste everything. Even the bread was different. The texture was soft and the color white and it melted over the tongue. It was nothing like their usual dark heavy bread, dotted with miniscule stones that promised cracked teeth.

* * * *

Paolo followed her in line and filled his plate to the brim. He didn’t realize how hungry he was. She turned and smiled at him. Grazie.

To thank me properly, you must find an Etruscan stone large enough for both of us. A stone where I may eat my meal properly.

She spotted one down the trail about twenty steps away but in full sight of everyone. The challenge wasn’t lost on Giancarlo.

Here’s one. She led him down the stony path. The others scattered over the area in small groups. The servants waited behind the food-laden tables and under the shade of the trees, until a signal from Paolo released them from their duties. They eagerly filled their plates and found a flat opening near the wagons where they sat and ate.

* * * *

Natale found a stone near the couple, remembering his father’s warning to protect his sisters’ reputations. But he was too busy enjoying the food to bother with them or their conversation. Lina eventually joined Natale and he forgot his sister altogether.

Soon enough the group was exploring the hillsides. Natale, though distracted, kept Francesca in his vision, until he stumbled upon an unusual mound. He tripped over an odd collection of protruding rocks, covered with years of overgrown flora. Upon further inspection, the suspect rocks proved to be some type of entrance. He dug away at the thin earth skin until he found what he knew to be an entrance, but it was blocked by a huge, fallen stone. Over here. I found something. Giancarlo, come here. Help me with this stone.

Giancarlo and Paolo joined him. They dug around the stone with thick branches, a wooden spade and their hands until it loosened. Then the three pulled it back. Sure enough it was the entrance to a forgotten tunnel. The three stood amazed. Who would go in? Collapsing dirt walls, complicated tunnel passages and precarious stones hiding underground channels of alpine streams were real dangers. Anyone entering the cave could be buried alive, drowned or lost in the confusion of endless tunnels. It had happened before.

Let me go first, Natale said. I’ll see if it’s safe. In spite of the perils, being first inside a virgin cave was an incredible experience. No one argued with him, until he started to enter the cave.

No, Natale, Francesca reasoned. If something happened to you, Papa would be uncontrollable. Let me go first. I know the tricks of these caves too. Francesca paused. The loss of a girl is not as terrible as the loss of a first son.

* * * *

With a nod from her brother, Francesca stooped over and crawled into the entrance.

Be careful, Paolo cautioned. She turned and smiled at him before entering the cave. A whistle of wind met her and tempered the chilling stillness. She stepped forward, step by step, each time testing the ground underneath her feet. She clung tenaciously to the dirt-packed wall of the tunnel, etching a fingernail pattern into its sides. The dampness and dust, clouded her vision and she wiped away dirty sweat from her face.

Those standing outside the cave heard scratching sounds and her fist breaking apart clods of chunked earth. More silence. Finally, her dirt-streaked face peeked out of the hole. I think it’s safe enough. First, you crawl through an old entrance but it turns into a tunnel, a tunnel tall enough to stand. The walls are made of stone. I was able to chip away the dust and dirt to the rocks. The floor is hard. I think it’s stone too. There’s light from a distant tunnel entrance, on the other side, somewhere.

* * * *

Her appearance reminded Paolo of a pixie. Her wavy hair was bejeweled with bits of dried grass, beads of stone and curly mosses. Her face, white, and flawless, was smudged with droplets of powdered dirt. Her smile was fanciful and full of life, teasing him with her vitality. His life seemed empty in comparison. He wanted more of her, to understand her and