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Luciana Opassi-Bohne
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I am writing in a little rural town in Western Pennsylvania where I teach in the English department of the local university. I am the widow of an American college professor and the mother of an American-born daughter who speaks and writes to me in English. My cats have English names. I know the plants and flowers in my garden mostly by their English names. Except for the name of rosemary, which I still think of as rosmarin. The magical herb whose scent and flavor release the memory of my grandmother's fragrant kitchen in Cerreto Istriano. When I smell rosmarin, my identity as Lucy Bohne, American coIlege professor, wife and mother of Americans, dissolves into that other self, unknown to my present world, that returns to me in snapshots of the past: a girl in pigtails and zavate feeding the chickens in the courtyard; sitting on the steps, eating kifeli at Easter in a pink velvet dress made by the sarta and embroidered by my mother; gobbling down gnocchi di susini under the chestnut trees until I burst; singing "la [mula] de Parenzo" with my zio Martin who lets me drink a few drops of the new Malvasia wine each October; going on the Corpus Christi procession in June dressed in a white dress made from parachute silk; going to mass on Sunday to the little church on top of the hill, my shoes sinking into soft, warm mud; smelling the erba spagna when it's freshly cut and feeling as happy as a rabbi for a cow munching grass; sitting on my great-grandmother's bony knees, who's dressed all in black and has a fazzoleto on her head; building a bonfire for the feast of San Giovanni and jumping over the flames. And yes, I remember the day in May of 1948, when I clambered on a train which took me away from all this bliss, from the beloved sights, sounds, and tastes of my little world. Like for so many of us, Istrians, the esodo came, first to Italy and then, to America. The scent of rosmarin always ends up delivering this first, this unforgettable, this crushing memory of the loss of my childhood. Then I shake myself loose of the memories and reflect: This is who I am now. It's not so bad: a job, an education, good friends, a house, a garden in a world that knows nothing of our tragic past - a safe world where I need not remember what I have lost.

But I do. Remember.

Do you know the question I dread to hear the most? "Where do you come from?" I say I am Italian, Slav, Venetian, European, Austrian - anything that comes to my mind, vaguely, imprecisely true. And each time they ask, I feel dumb, helpless, robbed, voiceless, small and lost. In exile. And nobody, least of all me, knows the name of the country I was born into. Because it hasn't got a name: it has only a history and feeling in the shape of a tear. At the core of this American woman, which is me, is a little pool of tears for the poor dusty village left behind, for the wisteria tree on the porch and the poppies in the fields, for the songs of our people and the sounds of our dialect, for the clouds and the rain, for the goats and the swallows, and for the church bells and the cemeteries - for the faces of our living and the souls of our dead. "Where do you come from?" they ask. And I think, "I come from a country called rosmarin. It means remembrance."

Luciana Opassi-Bohne

Reprinted from:

  • 10th Anniversary Journal, Histria Association for Women, Astoria, New York, 1999.

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Created: Sunday, November 10, 2002; Last updated: Tuesday, October 02, 2007
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