My Great Aunt Gabriella




By Francesco Bianchini




After getting married, my parents left Rome and went to stay in Umbria with their grandmother who was the same for both of them, my folks being first cousins. Papa was about to graduate with a degree in agricultural economics, and as he was the ‘man of the house,’ he would inherit all the family land and buildings. My great-grandmother died shortly afterward, and it was my parent’s turn to take care of all the elderly people who were stuffed into our family home – without there being too much fuss about their degree of kinship. 

I was aware of my aunt Gabriella leaning over my cradle like a benevolent fairy. She was almost eighty years old when I was born and was the virgin sister-in-law of yet another great-aunt. Gabriella had studied painting and music, and she tried to pass on her gifts to me as a dowry. At the table, she would cringe to see me chastised or forced to finish some dish that I didn’t like. Conscious of her subordinate role, however, she never dared to intervene. Rather, she’d tear breadcrumbs with her fingers and make little balls that she would take to her room to shape into flower petals. She kept these on her dresser, bunches of flowers crafted from bread crumbs, attached to stems of wire, that when they were dry, she painted, using the same muted palette reminiscent of the roadside shrines of yesteryear. 

Gabriella Leris (1882-1976)

If there were guests for lunch, aunt Gabriella would do something that always left me stunned: put in her false teeth. With them, she became a different person; her face changed and those teeth made her look like the grill of a car, and her voice was different too. I preferred my aunt without those teeth; the one I was used to, who would read to me with a voice as liquid as a stream. Gabriella’s pockets were always full of candies that I helped myself to on occasion without her noticing. I cannot think of her without associating that inexhaustible supply, in their ruby red and gold wrappings, baptized Roxana – the name of the love of Cyrano de Bergerac. Jamming them onto the vault of my palate, I lapped the caramel-coating with my tongue to release their milk, white chocolate, and hazelnut filling, without rushing, and without untimely breaking. A few girls my age had shown me how to lick the wrappers and press them onto the skin on my arm or hand, to produce tattoos, or – if I had even wanted to – redden my nails like older girls.

Aunt Gabriella as I remember her – dentures in, there were guests

On her father’s side, a senator of the kingdom of Italy, Gabriella was entitled to a hefty pension that she kept in a bulging envelope of navy blue leather and that she lavished mostly on works of charity. To fight the forces of evil and the enemies of the faith, there could be no half measures: money and armies of warriors were needed. With this idea in mind, my aunt ordered dozens of white tunics made, scalloped at their hems, and with large red crosses sewn on the chest. She gifted them to our parish so that on feast days, the boys and girls could wear them in the processions, and feel like crusaders. My brothers and I found where the tunics were stored and were excited to employ them in our feudal skirmishes, especially since, because of the different colors used on their hems, we could distinguish between Guelphs and Ghibellines. 

The parish church of Collevalenza, the hub of my Aunt’s universe

Aunt Gabriella related terrifying stories of beautiful souls who, in an effort to keep on the straight and narrow, engaged in struggles with the devil that left marks on their bodies. Impressed by her tales, one time when she was standing in front of her dresser – always crowded with holy icons – reciting prayers and barely moving her lips, I sprayed alcohol around her feet and lit an infernal circle of pink flames that she – pious saint – did not even notice. 

Me, angel wings and costume by Aunt Gabriella

It was evident that Gabriella had steadfastly avoided temptations, or had never met any on her way. In spite of her sophisticated education, there were many fields left uncultivated. If there were any adult men in the house, Gabriella lived in anxiety lest fertile seeds slip into the water pipes and end up who knows where perhaps in her bidet. That was, she thought, how some unfortunate women had become pregnant without even realizing it. For this reason, young people had to be distracted and kept wholesomely occupied in every possible way. Later in life, when she was no longer directly teaching catechism, showing educational films, or organizing healthful outings – because she’d formed efficient networks of recruits – she’d simply make an appearance from time to time to make sure her work was safe and – grand dame that she was – never showed up empty-handed. She would arrive with Baci Perugina – the forerunner of Hershey kisses – in the sumptuous box inspired by the painting of two lovers by Francesco Hayez. I don’t think there is a finer trademark in the world than the young couple in evening dress against a starry night sky. But since sweets were the way for aunt Gabriella to entice everyone’s taste buds, divert minds from other thoughts, she’d never fail to conceal the embracing pair with a brown paper carefully glued on top.

Too scandalous for Gabriella, Perugina’s ‘Kisses’!