Openwork

A Novel

Cover art: “Backyard: Chicago (wire)” by Ann Worthing

 

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“This wonderful book is like a painting in three panels. Bernardi extends her range in Openwork, and in shimmering and imagistic prose, writes with a fresh urgency.  She is a remarkably gifted writer.”
— Jay Parini

“An epic tale of love, loss, and longing.  A family, riven by poverty and calamity, yet united by a craving for justice.  Bernardi’s powerful emigration tale illuminates the Italian American soul.”
— Louise DeSalvo

“Adria Bernardi tells a story she was born to tell.  Beautifully conceived and imagined, full of lived-in life, this book seems not so much written as unearthed.”  
— Janet Peery

"Openwork is glorious! The fine poetic intelligence that guides it, the humor, the sadness, and Bernardi's overarching knowledge of so many times and places and peoples. A remarkable book, a beautiful book."
— Jane Hamilton

 

In hauntingly chiseled prose, Adria Bernardi enters the minds and uses the voices of her protagonists to create a finely stitched fabric depicting the intertwined lives of three generations of closely related Italian families.  At the novel’s beginning, Imola Bartolai’s limpid, yet troubled voice speaks from a mountain village in northern Italy where she lives a hard life close to the land with her wandering husband and three children.  It is followed by that of her favorite brother, Egidio, who has come to America seeking a better life, and who ends up working in the coal mines of Dawson, New Mexico.  Egidio’s quiet voice is silenced by a terrible accident, but the voice of his childhood friend, Antenore Gimmori, who accompanied him to this country, passionately urges their fellow workers to join the struggle for labor rights.  Working as a stone mason, Gimorri has raised three sons in the Chicago area, and it is his granddaughter Adele, fully assimilated into American life, who closes the circle, traveling to Italy in search of her family’s roots.  In the novel’s final section, her voice joins Imola’s as the two women, separated in time by a hundred years, find that there are many threads that bind them.

 

from Openwork

Imola
          She sits up, holds the holy medals flat against her breast so they do not tinkle. The metal is warm against her skin. She drags a leg over the edge of the bed and presses a foot against the cold stone floor. Puts the other foot down flat. Her ankles are thin again. It was the sight of her ankle, he said. She pats the floor with a foot, searching for a house-shoe. How does it go? Éd nott’ son voda. By day I’m full, at night I’m emptied. Whoever guesses the riddle is a professor indeed.
          Shoes.
          And she slips her foot inside.
          At the foot of the bed is the cradle, her own boy, black curls under the bonnet. The later he sleeps the better. The other baby arrives at seven. She is carrying a baby down out of the mountains. She will hand the baby to a stranger, who will take him from her arms.
          Is his mother saying her good-byes now? Imola Bartolai Martinelli will take a neighbor’s baby down to the sea.

          In the kitchen, she opens the shutters in the dark. The flying birds are not awake yet. Not the chickens either. The suitcase stands upright beside the door. The buckle isn’t catching right, so she’s tied a rope around it. She’s packed everything she thinks she’ll need. Clothing and diapers. Towels. Blankets. Food. She bathed the girls last night. All she needs to do this morning is feed herself, the girls, her baby. Then dress herself, the baby. Achille can take care of himself. Her sister-in-law is coming to get Lidia and Licia so they won’t be alone.
She’ll spend the night at an inn. It could be decent, it could be filthy, like the one over in Gazza. She’ll take a carriage as far as Lucca, and then from there, a train to Viareggio. A nun will meet her at the station. The journey will take three days—a day and a half to get there. She’ll get home just in time for the animal market down in the big field. She has never traveled as far as the sea. She has never been out of the mountains. She has never stayed at an inn. Giovanna has made this journey: there’s nothing to worry about, she says, once you know how to do it. In late summer, there will be another baby to carry down to Florence.
          Her breasts are sore this morning. As long as she’s nursing, she cannot get pregnant. The baby has a tooth beginning.
And last night, Achille still arguing with her: Where are you taking my son? Leave him here. Leave him with my sister. Lucrezia can keep him. For three days, he can drink goat’s milk.
          No. She will not leave her baby with anyone. He’s coming with her. She’s not leaving him for three days. A baby needs his mother’s milk to make him strong. Stomach disease comes in the summer. Even if the mother is on a journey, a baby is better off with his mother. Besides, she’s going to get help from Desolina. The girl, Desolina, is going as far as Lucca. The girl will be another pair of hands, poor thing, Achille’s poor first cousin’s daughter. Desolina has never cared for a baby, let alone two, screaming in a closed-up carriage.
          Out the window, it’s getting lighter. She’ll have an egg to strengthen her nerves. Whip it up in a glass. Drink it down.

          Achille says her hands are rough and pushes them away. She will not cry. Because if she starts, she cannot stop. With every baby this has happened. The midwife says it passes. The other times, if she kept busy every second and did not rest, she could shake herself out of it. This? This is different. Achille named the three infants who died. Ulisse. Cesare. Attilio. Imola named this boy who survived, Egidio, after her brother. Achille named the girls. Licia and Lidia. He wanted to give the children strong names to be out in the world with. Licia and Lidia are the names of faraway places. Her own name, Imola, is the name of a city; stress falls on the first syllable, like Genoa.
          Imola will wait to make tea this morning until the girls wake up. Licia will come beside her as she sits at the table working. Licia will lean against her. Then she’ll take the warm cup from her mother’s hand and press it against her own cheek.
          There’s just enough light now to work; the window faces east. Imola drags over a chair. She pulls a bundle from the top of the pile in the window’s deep recess. She’s fallen behind. She unfolds a sheet on her lap; it’s spilling onto the floor. For this trousseau, it’s variations on the cobbler stitch. One stitch over four threads. Pull. Leave two. She’s working the edge of a sheet. One stitch over four threads. Pull. Leave four. The pattern makes small windowpanes. The young bride is impatient, the mother’s even worse. Hand towels. Bath towels. Pillowcases. She’s teaching her girls and they’re coming along, but they’re in such a hurry. Look at my chain stitch! Look at the herringbone! Is it good enough yet? They want to rush and learn the next one, then sew a sample into a little cloth book, just so they can say it’s done and move along onto the next one. Is it good enough to sew to the page yet? I’ll tell you when it’s good enough. They want to have a thick sample book, just like hers, pages with every kind of stitch, feather stitch, vapor stitch, fish-bone. She can teach any kind of needlework, but what she’s most proud of, what she’s vain about, is her pulled-thread needlework. Her grandmother, Emilia, taught her tricks no one else up here knows. In this kind of work, you don’t cut the ground cloth to make the holes. You pull its threads together. And depending on the stitch and the tension of the pull, you make a pattern with holes.

 
 
 

 

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