Luciano Casini’s aunt Lia and me. Elba 2005
Letter to Sally April 3, 2003.
Last night was the festa for Luciano’s restaurant as you know. 30 years! It was one of those parties where you don’t know but one or two people apart from the host. I started to wonder why I came. That odd moment of getting all dressed up and standing around with your plate in your hand, trying to find a corner to put one’s glass down.
I felt rather like a bird with my plumes spread, somehow there for the looking but not for the talking. Then I heard the name ‘Lia’. I saw on old woman sitting in the back with longish gray hair
and sun glasses on, surrounded by people. I realized that this was Luciano’s beloved aunt that I had heard so much about but had never met. She is almost 80 now; an alumni of Columbia University when Eisenhower was the president (of the school). She studied philosophy and taught in Rome for many years. She is the real story.
She quotes Dante, the Greeks, Shakespeare, sings Frank Sinatra, and can drink almost anyone under the table. She see’s your very soul. The drink might as well have been coffee this night, as her performance grew more intense and passionate without a waver. She was the most awake of all of us in every sense and was still going strong until 3 am. Dagmar, Luciano’s x wife and I took her home. We arrived and she said..”Peggy, Peggy, questo e il mio castello! Guarda come bello!” This is my castle, see how beautiful it is! Like my aunt Sarah, she lives alone without a car deep in the countryside in a glorified hut. Books were stacked unevenly on all tables. There was not much light in the house. She is legally blind but her memory is stellar.
When I first came to Elba and met Luciano, I knew then why Fabio was Fabio (Picchi~ of Cibreo fame in Florence) and why he had sent me there. He was heavily influenced by Luciano as he spent every summer in Elba and learned Luciano’s gregarious, fearless, rustic ways of cooking. He took it and refined it. His habit of wearing red pants and orange shirts came from Luciano. He borrowed his fascination, as Luciano’s ‘devil may care’ attitude, also suited his.
Now upon meeting Lia, I understood where Luciano’s gioia di vivere’ came from. His first trip with Lia to the movies when he was 10 years old, changed his life. She transported him away from the provinciality of Capoliveri in his mind and from there, she became his mentor. Luciano went on to live and work abroad, learn a few different languages and even became an actor in films. The restaurant, a stage for all of his talents.
The story does not end there. Lia had a mind of her own. Islands make strong women, especially if they are educated. Her sister’s family moved to Australia with young children. When the nephew’s returned grown and gorgeous, she fell in love with one of them, 8 years her junior.
It was shocking for everyone including them. They asked to be married by permission from the Pope and he granted it. Yet, they never married. He died early in an accident.
Lia remained unmarried, but not unhappy. She would raise her fists and quote Dante with bravado! She loved the world and it’s mystery.
These women keep showing up..whether in Alabama, West Virginia, or here in Capoliveri. Their stories need to be told.
I’m off to the beach. Soon it will be a conversation ‘voce a voce’. We’ll be discussing how sweet the tomatoes taste this time of year..and how gentle the breeze feels today.
Peggy li. ( she called me Peggy li as a form of endearment all night, not knowing my name was Peggy Leigh.)
ps. she can’t wait to meet you. New York never leaves a young woman’s soul.
Lia died some years later. She had magic in her bones. She could quote the greats with great command, never missing a line. Sally came to Elba for a big birthday from New York. She brought Lia the New York Times. For a few years after that, she couldn’t stop talking about the kindness of Sally li. Lia will be sorely missed. Her legend, a strong, shooting star.