7. Potato Patch

AT THE AGE OF 23 in the autumn of 1909, Serafino stood atop a hill overlooking one of the wheat fields that constituted the core existence of Farindola. His fingers stroked his handlebar moustache, thick as a carpet and full as a new brush. Many girls were working in the field on that warm morning, but he always sought out one in particular.

He spotted her in a potato patch adjacent to the wheat field. As she bent to her task of scooping away the dirt and uprooting the hearty spuds, her body swayed with a methodical cadence, each motion deliberate and yet done with familiar ease. Every so often, she stood and wiped her forehead with the hem of her apron. Sometimes, she lifted her long, dark hair and dabbed the sides of her neck free of the sweat of her laboring. When she did that, the sight nearly took his breath away.

“Still got your eye on Maria, eh?”

Serafino turned toward the voice and smiled at his buddies, who looked at him with knowing grins. Dirt smudged their faces. The men smelled of sun, soil, and sweat. They leaned on their hoes for a pause from the weariness of tending to their chores.

“She’s the prettiest girl on the hill,” Serafino replied, turning back to gaze upon Maria as she left a shallow trench in the dirt where a row of potatoes had once been. When she finished with one row, she stood and walked back to check over her work before starting the next. “Lean, tall body with a long, beautiful neck.”

Maria gathered her harvest and strode through the fields with a 25-pound sack of potatoes on her head, balancing the sack atop a towel rolled into the shape of a doughnut.

“Look at her!” one of the men gaped in awe. “She walks tall and proud.”

“Like a judge!” another man added. “Potatoes or no potatoes.”

Serafino nodded in agreement.

“Maria comes from a great family,” a fourth man warned Serafino with a wave of the index finger. “She’ll never marry a cross-eyed smart mouth like you!”

All the guys laughed.

Even Serafino chuckled at the jibe. They’d been calling him names like that for as long as he could remember. This time, though, he raised his lazy eyebrow to the challenge: “We’ll see about that!”

The men groaned in amusement and went back to their chores, leaving their feisty friend alone with his hoe.

Serafino Di Gregorio wasn’t sure if he was worthy of the 16-year-old girl named Maria Baccanale. After all, the Di Gregorios were mere “newcomers” to Farindola, having arrived just a few generations before and living at the edge of the village near a vineyard. The Baccanales, in contrast, were known to be “truly” from Farindola. They had purportedly settled into the mountain hideaway during the Middle Ages. Despite their festive last name, which translates to mean a “celebration,” the Baccanales were famous for their work in having built the town, just as Maria herself had spent months hoisting heavy stones and pushing them into place to build a footbridge over a creek that coursed through the town. Befitting their status, the Baccanales lived in a home on a grassy plateau high up among the wheat fields, looking east toward the azure Adriatic. Higher still, the Baccanale men herded sheep and goats in the surrounding hills and valleys, sustaining themselves for days at a time with their bread, wine, and cheese.

Serafino could think of only one way that a guy like him might impress a girl like Maria and maybe gain her affection. He couldn’t tell if his method had been working, but he was determined to keep trying.

Maria returned to the potato patch to unearth a few more rows. As the late morning sun beat down, her body began to ache from the strain. She imagined how refreshing it would be to dangle her feet from the footbridge and to soak them in the cool mountain water of the creek. But she chided herself for such idle thoughts. “There’s work to be done,” she told herself. “And it isn’t about to start doing it itself.”

When she straightened up to stretch her back, she heard a deep male voice coming from about 50 yards behind her. The other girls working near her glanced at one another and started to giggle. Maria rolled her eyes and huffed in irritation as the voice began to sing an old Neapolitan folk song in her honor. She didn’t need to turn around to see who it was. It was Serafino once again, crooning to her once more:

Ah, Marie! Ah, Marie!
Oh, what slumber I’m losing for thee!
Could I but rest
For a moment asleep on thy breast.

She tried to ignore him, but the other girls kept pointing at Serafino and laughing. A stern glance from Maria sent them mutely back to work. She then bent down and plowed the ground, monitoring the girls out of the corner of her eye. When they were safely away and distracted, she stole a glimpse of the man brazenly serenading her.

He stood on an old tree stump at the edge of the field, singing without a whit of inhibition. His moustache topped an easy smile. His arms filled the sleeves of his shirt.

She enjoyed the attention but was not about to admit her enjoyment to Serafino or anybody else. She pretended to pay him no mind as she resumed her rhythmic task.

He continued singing in her direction, exposing his private passion in public and announcing to all the world his shameless devotion. Now and then, she turned her neck and looked up at him, bemused. Once, she inadvertently flashed a slight smile.

His heart fluttered. He caught his breath and skipped directly to the third verse, singing louder than ever:

Ah! Now the window’s op’ning!
Love shall no longer linger.
See with a rosy finger
Maria is beck’ning me!

The other girls stopped working completely and laughed louder than ever.

Maria stood up and put her hands on her hips, once again silencing the girls with a look.

The only voice that anyone could then hear was that of the emboldened Serafino.