Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Memento mori

Zio Giovanni Raviele passed away yesterday at 8:30 am. He was 88 years old. Zio means uncle in Italian and, though he wasn't our uncle, he was still Zio Giovanni. When a man reaches a certain age, he automatically becomes zio for the younger generations. It is a term of respect and affection, both of which were well deserved by Zio Giovanni.
When I got to know this man last year, he had already suffered several strokes and was pretty frail. It was hard to have conversations with him, given that Italian isn't my native language and his difficulty with speaking. It didn't matter. His daughter Virginia would walk him down the hill to the bar and he would sit at a table, smiling at the commotion and expressing himself as best he could. He would sip a cappuccino or espresso, glance at the newspaper and just enjoy being in the company of his friends and family. We would make small talk...he was happy to exchange a few words with the Americans, but mostly he just smiled a warm and tender smile.
Word spread fast of Zio Giovanni's passing. By noon, the "manifesti" announcing his death and the details of his funeral were posted. People started arriving at his house to pay their respects by early afternoon. His body stayed in the house where he had spent his entire life, until this morning when the undertakers came to carry his coffin to the church.
A small band proceeded the hearse and the funeral procession to the church. While they didn't play New Orleans style jazz, they also didn't play a funeral dirge. It was pleasant music to accompany his loved ones to say their final good byes. Everyone entered the was filled to overflowing. A mass was said, hymns were sung, and people lined up to express their condolences to his son and daughter. A eulogy was offered by a long-time family friend...something that doesn't usually happen at Italian funerals. He spoke of the simple kindnesses that Zio Giovanni offered, of his gentle spirit and loving heart. He spoke of hours spent together in front of the fireplace, warmed by his stories and memories of past times. All of us who loved Zio Giovanni were moved by this tribute, and there were few dry eyes to be seen.
We gathered outside in the shade of the trees that line the piazza in front of the Church of San Nicola and waited for the coffin to be brought out. Two trumpeters played taps, in honor of Giovanni's service during WWII. Then his coffin was put into the hearse and they headed slowly down the hill to the cemetery. We all waited silently for a few moments, then gradually the crowd dispersed and people headed off to their own daily activities.
I didn't know Zio Giovanni as well as those who have spent their lives here in this small town, but I did know that he was an icon here and a bastion of support for his loved ones. He will be missed. Rest in peace, Zio Giovanni.

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