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  • Writer's picturePaula Wesselmann

Love and Valentine's Day

I don't know if being born on Valentine's Day or my Aquarian spirit made me a romantic, but I love romance. As I look back over the years, I remember with fond memories February 14, 1970. I was sitting with a Pan Am first officer, John Lombardi, in a coffee shop referred to in Italy as a bar, a place of food and drinks. We ordered a caffè con panne, an American cappuccino, and a biscotti, a long-crisp, twice-baked Italian cookie. Rome was in the high 50's, cold yet sunny, and our table was by a window where I could observe this special day of love. The Italians are so free in their expression of it, and you can feel their joy of life in the air they breathe. I found myself watching the faces of the people around me, and I tried to imagine how they would spend Valentine’s Day and with whom. I could feel expectation in the air, anticipation, and longing – the kind that has a romantic image attached to it, one so ideal that the slightest disappointment could tarnish the moment. After my second biscotti, I had learned that John had distant relatives living in northern Italy. He enjoyed soccer, his mother's cooking, was not a good listener, but loved to be heard. I liked his sharp mind and encouraged him to tell me about Roman times during the dark origins of Valentine's Day. “I don’t want to dampen your romantic illusions,” John teased, but he did, and now I was intrigued. John's playful smile widened. "Have you ever heard of the feast of Lupercalia?" I shook my head no, but the name struck a bell. "It took place during pre-Roman times, between February 13th to the 15th." John placed his elbows on the table and leaned forward. He was attractive, with dark wavy hair and brown eyes, too intense for my liking. “Historians say that these romantic Romans were drunk and naked as women lined up anxious for a husband. After the men made their offering of a sacrificed goat and dog, they chose a woman and claimed their prize by whipping her with their hide." John almost laughed as I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "The festival was a time for priests, called Luperci, to avert evil spirits, purify the city, and release health and fertility to the Roman people. Not everyone chose the barbaric courting; others tried a matchmaking lottery. A young man would draw a woman's name from a jar, and the couple would stay together until the festival ended. If they liked each other, the match could become permanent." "So those women had a choice." "I'm not sure." Laughter streamed in through the door, and I was relieved to see Marilyn and Heather, two stewardesses from our overnight flight in Rome. They had shopping bags filled with purses and shoes, made of the finest leather and craftsmanship. As they sat down and ordered expresso and cannoli, my thoughts drifted to my grandfather, Giuseppe (Joseph) Ferrara, who gave up his aristocratic heritage for the love of a peasant girl. Her beauty was legendary, and one day on horseback, he discovered her in a field, working under the hot sun as rays of light fell on her golden hair. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in Bom Pietro, Petralia Soprana, Sicily. Giuseppe fell instantly in love with her. Even though my grandmother, Giuseppina (Josephine) La Placa Genduso, came from a poor village, she too had royal blood. The bloodline was Swiss, and it came from her grandmother’s side. Young and beautiful Giuseppina fell in love with Giuseppe. He was handsome, wealthy, and ambitious. When Giuseppe brought Giuseppina home to meet his family, they refused the marriage and threatened to disinherit him. Giuseppe owned a fierce stubbornness, and upon his marriage, he was cut-off from all family ties. Giuseppe left his bride in Sicily and sailed for America, arriving through the New Orleans customs. There he would get a job and a place to stay before sending for Giuseppina. America was his hope for a new life, but it didn't take long before he was waylaid on the docks by two sailors and beaten badly. One day, in the French Quarter by Jackson Square, a high-strung black stallion broke free from its master. As a young man in Italy, Giuseppe had attended the Royal Military Academy and trained the famous Lipizzaner horses. He captured the spirited animal outside the St. Louis Cathedral and fearlessly calmed it down. His luck changed. The owner of the stallion, a wealthy New Orleans gentleman, offered Giuseppe a job. He would care for his stable of thoroughbred horses. Meanwhile, it was time for Giuseppina to take the ship to America. Dressed like a lady, a handsome and kind captain, fell in love with her during their days of travel. On my mother's side, love, family, and control guided her life. My father was German and French with an outrageous sense of humor that could turn a difficult moment into laughter. As a child, when I would hear stories of the heart or of arranged marriages, where social status was more important than happiness, I would rebel inside and remind myself that no one would ever tell me who to love - that choice would have to be mine. And as destiny would have it, I would face that issue in my life, pressure from family to be the obedient daughter when it came to marriage. After I graduated from the University of Arizona, Pan Am gave me an independent life. The experiences I had throughout the world helped me to make good choices for a woman. The sky has no boundaries, and as a Pan Am stewardess, I lived a privileged life. I safely experienced first-hand what I needed to learn for my personal growth. After all, Pan Am said, "When you graduate, you will become a citizen of the world.” That day in Rome, I decided that instead of depending on someone else for love, I would learn to love myself, and when I married, I would be a partner and not a burden in the gift of love.

©2020 by Pa

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