I crossed with Grandma and the White-handed Viscount
GRANDMA, Mama, and I left for New York in 1960, on board the Conte Biancamano, the huge passenger-cruiser that transported immigrants all the way from sunny Italy to the Land of Opportunity. From where we stood, we watched the frightened, black-clad families cluster together for a last embrace, while beyond came the low, hooting sound of cargoes and ships arriving and departing from the bustling port of Naples.
It was a pretty tearful occasion: Grandma wept because constant trips brought back to mind her endless wanderings as a wartime refugee, Mama wept because of a Romantic Choice she was about to undertake, and I, well, if Grandma and Mama cried, that was a pretty good reason to shed a tear myself!
It was my fifth ``crossing,'' an accomplishment for a six-year-old traveler, yet this particular journey appeared much more impressive than the rest. There were the luxuriously perfumed salons of the boat, the dimly lit corridors along which efficient waiters shuffled silently, the lovingly cherished chapel looking out to the sea; and the fantastic first-class nursery playroom in which as the only child around I was left free to conquer and subdue.
Often, a tempest would arise, forcing the passengers to stumble along the deck, sea breeze swishing off their hats and scarfs; great waves thundered repeatedly on the boat's sides, but the Conte Biancamano (White-handed Viscount) was so stately it barely acknowledged such temperament and persevered undaunted. Adventures like ``Moby Dick'' and ``Treasure Island'' seemed no longer ``wishful thinking,'' but, alas, neither whales nor seagulls distracted Grandma from what she considered, ``Alertness to Imperative Seaship Duties.''
The Duties comprised:
A. Rising at half-past 7 and being given a vigorous cold rub and scrub; that is, Grandma herself giving me the scrubbing and rubbing.
B. Eating breakfast with elbows close to ribs, without gobbling or, worse, shedding crumbs. ``You are not a washing machine!'' Grandma pointed out, meaning that I was to keep my mouth shut while chewing the tasteless Quaker Oats that swam unhappily in my bowl.
C. Reciting to exhaustion the odious French tongue twisters, ^etre and avoir and . . . .
D. The endless rehearsals of how-to-curtsey-as-all-nice-young-ladies-learn-to-do! This particular duty necessitated special training, and for this purpose Grandma performed a little sketch of what she imagined a fine work of Art: She rose from her seat and invitingly held out her hand toward an invisible guest, then she pulled her right leg fearlessly somewhere behind her and primly, with pursed lips, went down on her left knee, smiled as if to Florence Nightingale, and then, with incredible agility, resumed her former position: upright!
``There,'' she sighed with satisfaction, ``that is just the way I curtseyed when introduced to Empress Marie!'' Who, thought I, was Empress Marie? as I imagined Grandma long, long ago curtseying solemnly to royalty.
But a transatlantic liner was no place for a child to sit musing, and from 10 to 12 I had a two-hour span in which to play. I remember the vast dining room, the sparkling plates and silver, the gigantic lobsters asleep on artistic cushions of greenery, Mama laughing contagiously all dressed in red velvet, the mustached tzigane fiddlers zigzagging gleefully in our ears, the pompous officers' table with Comandante Urciuoli bowing respectfully right and left.
What was more fun than racing across the deck playing Peter Pan? What could be more enjoyable than the private cinema-parlor that projected such overpowering colossals as ``Ben Hur'' or ``Samson and Delilah''? What greater thrill for granddaughter to finally abolish Duty Number B and gape open-mouthed at the roaring lions parading on the screen before her?
At night as I cuddled in bed, Grandma picked out her favorite storybooks and read me to sleep; outside the small round porthole, the Conte Biancamano was nearing America.