Shortly after the end of World War II, one of my grandfather's brothers sent a letter to him describing impoverished conditions in Southern Italy and asking if my grandfather would send a decent pair of shoes for his daughter Rosaria. My grandfather had left the port of Naples on a New York-bound steamer decades earlier, in 1905, and as far as his relatives knew, he had been living the American dream ever since. In truth, he too was struggling to get by, but his pride would not allow him to admit this to the family he had left behind. Instead, he asked his eldest son (my father) to respond.
My father good-naturedly took on the task. He wrote a letter in Italian, explaining that shoe sizes in the United States were different, and that someone should draw an outline of Rosaria's foot on paper and send it back to him. When he knew what American size to buy for her, he would happily do so. Simple. He did not treat it like a big favor. Soon he would be shipping her a brand new pair of shoes.
I know this because Rosaria (who is now in her 80s) kept the letter and showed it to me many years later when I first came to visit, a trip that neither my grandfather or my father was ever able to make. Speaking in Italian with someone translating, Rosaria told the story and placed the long-cherished letter in my hands. There in blue ink was my own dear father's familiar penmanship, and it felt as if he were in the room with us, a full-circle kind of moment, with tears and hugs.
Fast forward another thirty years, and I was again in Italy. This time my young cousin Luca appeared to have been assigned the job of showing me around, a duty which he dispatched with humor and patience. One morning he took me along as he made his rounds of various properties he manages in Scafati, and then we stopped at a little sandal and shoemaker shop called Mastrogio, where his friend is a master craftsman. The concept was to choose a style, customize with whatever ornaments appealed to you, and have it specifically fit and made for your foot. The shelves were stocked with soft colorful moccasins and samples of sandals suitable for goddesses. Behind the counter were supplies and equipment, and on the wall a clock and crucifix. It was the setting in which a true artisan worked, and it smelled of good leather.
Luca and I manage to communicate pretty well with the help of a translator app, our own sincere efforts to talk in one another's language, and at times a congruity of interest and ideas that makes me wonder if there might be something genetic going on here. (Our grandfathers were brothers.) Luca is always in motion, always seems to have something going on, someplace to be, an idea up his sleeve. But now he had a surprise for me. "We want to give you a pair of sandals," he said. "Choose the ones you like. See if there's a pair that fits."
This of course was too generous. Even so, I might have considered it and graciously accepted but for the fact that I have the world's ugliest feet, with bunions and bumps and broken-nailed toes splayed out like a fan. I do not wear sandals at all, let alone sandals for goddesses who possess lovely feet that can step out nearly naked.
"Perhaps a pair of moccasins then," said Luca's gentle friend. I picked up a bright blue one, felt its softness, tried to imagine myself wearing it, even dared to remove my own shoe and attempted to slip my wicked stepsister foot into it. This one was too far too small, and another far too big, and the gift in general seemed too extravagant anyway.
There was a bit of discussion in Italian. "He can do this for you," Luca said. "We draw an outline of your foot on a piece of paper, leave with him, and he make a shoe fit just for you. Your perfect size."
But there wasn't time, which didn't matter, because wasn't this moment gift enough? It was a full-circle kind of thing.