Count Giulio Vincenzo Zannini was conspicuously beautiful – when he entered a room, you could feel the air skip a beat. Almond-brown skin and features so fine they could have been carved by Michelangelo. He was born in Rome on July 13, 1900, but Mom always said he was better suited to the Renaissance.
I first met Uncle when I was four years old and he was already in his sixties. He and Mom’s older sister, Aunt Zosia, lived in a penthouse apartment near the catacombs of Sant’Agnese in Rome, one of those grand high-ceilinged affairs that make you feel like you are about three feet tall, as I probably was at the time. Even in the sizzling heat of summer, the marble floors were always cool and slick on your bare feet, and I stayed close to them, cowed by the enormity of the world around me.
Uncle, too, was petite – five-foot-three in his gleaming Florentine shoes. Gentle, sweet, and impeccably dressed, he was almost as tall as my aunt, but he was so much more delicate, it seemed they had their genders mixed up. My mother used to joke that Uncle was the only true lady in our family. He spent an hour each day on his toilette, meticulously trimming his jet-black mustache, and combing his smooth dark hair straight back over his head. His hands were the smallest and softest of anyone I knew – a doll’s hands, which he gently cupped over my head as if I were a pet bunny. Back then, my Italian was limited to thank you and good night, so Uncle and I spoke in gestures
From my view on the floor, I watched him slip through the apartment like an elegant cat, quiet and graceful, never drawing attention to himself. It was my aunt who commanded the household; in her no-nonsense slacks that my mother had sewn for her, she was brash, outspoken, filled with energy. She ignored Uncle or dismissed him with a wave of her hand. Unfazed, he would draw closer with an adoring smile, place his soft doll’s hand on her cheek, and coo, “Miretta,” his pet name for her. “Achh!” she would fume, and march off.
For a man with no money, Uncle had a wealth of titles. In addition to his doctorate in business, he was an attorney specializing in appellate advocacy, ancient seals, and heraldry. And then there were all his titles of nobility; he belonged to half a dozen chivalrous orders, including the Order of Malta – his favorite, because of the magnificent white cape and uniform that he wore with a flourish, his chest bristling with honorific medals. On his head, a frothy white-feathered chapeau added a good six inches to his height. Mom showed me the photo of him posing in this outfit on the terrazza. His family had lost all their money and land centuries earlier, Mom said, but the title of nobility still held sway. Whenever she spoke of him, her face lit up like a schoolgirl’s; her eyes shimmered and she seemed transported directly into a fairy tale.
Uncle had been wearing that cape and uniform in 1936 when my aunt first showed up at his government office on via Venti Settembre. Director of the Ministry of Arts and Sciences, he was in charge of granting work permits; my aunt, a foreign student newly matriculated from graduate school in Pisa, sought permission to work as a chemist in Italy. She’d never met a Count before. And Uncle, at thirty-six, had never seen anything like this fiery red-haired foreigner with a plus-size personality. He granted her work permit and asked her on a date.
I have a sheaf of Uncle’s office stationery. His legal letterhead lists his abbreviated title of Grand Official Professor Doctor, etc. etc. etc. (Avv. Gr. Uff. Prof., Dottore Commercialista, Patrocinante in Cassazione) but in person, he seemed innocent of power. As I would later learn, he was a genius at finessing miracles from the thick walls of Italian bureaucracy. He had quietly saved the lives of dozens of Jews during the war, including my mother and aunt, several of their friends, and strangers whom he’d never even known. Uncle accomplished these feats of heroism with the gentlest of words and sweetest of smiles. He had connections in the Vatican, the government, the courts, and the military. In exchange for favors, he offered legal research that would reward others with titles of nobility unearthed from past centuries.
In fact, years after the war, Uncle researched my father’s genealogy after my parents emigrated to the States and wanted to change their name from “Fichman” to something less… well… less ethnic. Uncle wrote a summary of his findings and offered a few possible names. My father, who had spent six years imprisoned in Siberian labor camps, told me he chose “Fremont” because it had the word “free” in it. My mother liked it for its whiff of French Huguenot ancestry.
Uncle’s family was famous for its longevity. His parents lived well into their nineties, as did his siblings. At the rate Uncle was going, we had no doubt he would easily live into the next century, possibly even the one after that. He took extremely good care of himself, did not go out in the rain, took a full-fledged siesta every afternoon, and was never sick a day in his life. He carefully measured and swallowed one tablespoon of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes straight from the box every night before bedtime in further assurance of perpetual health.
He was also a great believer in the occult, having discovered during the war that he had the Gift. In late August 1939, Aunt Zosia had traveled back to Poland to visit her family. The war suddenly broke out, and she and Uncle were separated by the frontline for the next two years. Desperate to find out whether she was all right, he finally consulted a palm reader, who assured him my aunt was safe. The palm reader then asked Uncle why he had bothered coming to her, since he, himself, had the Gift. She advised him to apply himself and develop his talent, and so for the next forty years, he threw himself into the study of Nostradamus, Neoplatonism, philosophy, astrology, and the paranormal. He meditated, opened his mind, and tuned himself like a finely calibrated instrument.
When I was nine, Uncle showed me how to use a pendulum. As usual with Uncle, I communicated mostly with smiles and gestures, since he didn’t speak English and I hadn’t yet learned Italian. Uncle was fluent in French, however, so in a pinch, I could resort to my schoolgirl French. Uncle’s voice was soft and mellifluous, and most of the time I simply fell under the spell of his voice, with only a vague sense of the meaning of his words.
We sat at the small table in the den between my aunt’s and my uncle’s bedrooms. Two palatial windows splashed gold sunlight onto a wall of books. Outside, a jigsaw puzzle of Roman rooftops faded into the distance. Uncle placed several pendulums on the table, and I picked my favorite – shiny and red, the shape of a hot pepper. You held the string between thumb and forefinger, and dangled it over whatever object you were trying to fathom. You had to hold it perfectly still. Then you waited. Eventually the pendulum would begin to make the faintest movement, apparently of its own accord. Uncle said it was reacting to the energy of the object over which it was hanging. If the pendulum moved clockwise, it was good; counterclockwise meant bad, or maybe it was the other way around. Uncle had me place the palm of my hand down on the table. He held the pendulum first over my left hand and then over my right. In both instances the pendulum swung in the good direction.
“You’re making it go that way,” I said in my crappy French. I knew there was no way I could be considered “good.” My devotion to my friends, Mom always told me, was proof of my fundamental disloyalty to my family. I felt the pendulum should have picked up on this character flaw. Uncle looked crestfallen.
He went back to his bedroom and emerged with a bigger pendulum, a large black cone that dangled from an elaborate metal contraption attached to a tripod. He set it up on the table and had me place my hand under the tripod.
I remained skeptical, but couldn’t bear to disappoint Uncle. I pretended to believe, and beamed under the glow of his smile.
Throughout my childhood, we would visit my aunt and uncle in Rome every few years, and Aunt Zosia would sometimes come to stay with us for a few months in Schenectady. The one time Uncle accompanied her, he nearly froze to death because the summers were so cold in upstate New York. After that, he summered in Rome, except for the month of August, when he vacationed in Montecatini, a Tuscan spa town a few hours from Rome. He stayed at a small pensione, drank the medicinal mineral water as prescribed by the spa physicians, and strolled luxuriously through the streets, striking up conversations with whomever he met.
Summer, 1973: Uncle invited me, then a teenager, to visit him in Montecatini on my way back to Rome after hiking and youth hosteling through the Alps. In my giant boots, salt-stained t-shirt, and Levi’s cut-offs, I stepped off the train at the station, lugging my bulging knapsack over one shoulder. Uncle stood primly on the platform in a pale yellow linen suit and pink floral cravat with a matching handkerchief peeking out from his breast pocket. His face burst into a smile when he saw me. I leaned over for him to kiss me on either cheek – his lips soft as rose petals, moustache smooth as a paintbrush. He proudly paraded me through the streets, arms linked, seemingly unaware that he was escorting a lumbering goon who towered over him. He stopped to introduce me to everyone we met. The whole town seemed to love Uncle; they emerged from shops and side streets, all eager to be introduced to his giant niece from America. I stood still as livestock and smiled stupidly, unable to understand much of what was being said beyond the fact that Uncle was thrilled to have me with him, and that the people in town were thrilled to have Uncle with them.
One day in February 1988, when Uncle was eighty-eight, he rose early, dressed in his three-piece wool suit as usual, donned overcoat and hat, and went across the street in Rome for the paper as he did every morning. It would be months before my family in the States learned that while walking back with Il Messaggero folded under his arm and a fresh carton of milk in hand; he was struck by a hit-and-run driver who sped off. Uncle was rushed to the hospital, where he lay unconscious for several weeks. He’d suffered no broken bones, no internal bleeding. His heart was strong; his lungs, liver, kidneys, all top-rate. The doctors were impressed. He could continue to live in a coma for years, they said.
My aunt could not bring herself to let my mother know. Ever since Mom had left Rome for America with my father in 1950, the two sisters had devoted themselves to sparing each other bad news, to writing each other cheerful versions of their lives every day on pale blue aerogrammes. Zosia’s letters continued to arrive with news of her bridge games, the local politics, the books she was reading. Two months later, she finally mentioned Uncle’s accident. Mom got on the next flight to Rome, leaving my father instructions on how to heat up frozen dinners for himself. I could not imagine a world without Uncle. At thirty-one, I was working as a lawyer in Boston – a career choice that had made Uncle extremely proud, confirming our common bond. I took the subway to work each day and waited to hear how he was doing.
No change, my mother reported. Days turned to weeks. Uncle could last like this for years, Mom said. She would stay in Rome through the spring and help her sister go through Uncle’s monstrous stacks of documents in his office. Years later I would learn that in addition to his legal files, Uncle had saved thousands of documents and photographs of my mother’s and aunt’s family who were killed in the Holocaust. My mother and aunt would throw everything out, so that nothing remained of their past. My aunt, usually so strong and fearless, was a complete wreck.
I was having my own problems that spring. I was dating a married mother of three, and thought somehow, I could pull that off. For Mother’s Day (which my girlfriend would spend with her husband and kids), I planned a full-day bike ride for myself to take my mind off things. The night before, I mapped out a ninety-mile route from Boston to Cape Ann and back. I laid out my bike gear, filled my water bottles, set my alarm for five a.m. and went to bed.
The phone woke me in the middle of the night. It was in the hall, hooked up to a cassette tape answering machine. I looked at the clock on my nightstand: four a.m. Pale light from the streetlamp on the corner leaked across my room. I knew immediately that my mother was calling to tell me that Uncle had died. As the phone rang, I tried to force myself to get up and answer it, but I froze. The answering machine clicked on – first my outgoing message, followed by the beep. I heard Mom’s voice. I could tell she had been crying. Get up! I told myself. Mom sounded exhausted and I couldn’t make out all her words – something about Uncle dying, and the arrangements they were making. Just pick up the phone! I threw off the covers, but still couldn’t bring myself to speak to my mother – what would I say? How would I comfort her? Burning with shame, I curled into a tighter ball. I’ll wait till my alarm goes off in an hour, I thought. Then I’ll call Mom, and pretend I just got her message. I heard my mother hang up, the final click of the answering machine. I tried to go back to sleep, but I twisted and turned until five, when I finally shut off the alarm and rose.
I went to the phone in the hall and picked up the receiver to call Rome. I noticed there was no blinking light on the answering machine; when I pushed the playback button there was no message. That was strange. I dialed my aunt’s number in Rome, but it was Mother’s Day and all international lines were busy. I tried several times: hopeless. Rome was six hours ahead of Boston, already late morning in Italy, and everyone on the planet was calling their Mama to wish them Happy Mother’s Day. Now I felt even worse for not having picked up the phone when Mom called earlier. And I was annoyed that my machine hadn’t recorded her message – I wanted to listen to it again; I hadn’t caught all the words.
But there was nothing I could do, so I got dressed and wheeled my bike down the long hallway and out into the dark. I pushed off and threaded my way through the empty city streets to the coast, into the rising sun and up along the North Shore. As I rode, I thought of Uncle, the slight stoop in his shoulders in his later years, when he’d step into the kitchen at noon each day and cook himself a pot of spaghetti. When I was little, we’d gone to the beach outside Rome – Uncle in his pastel slacks and bright-colored shirt, paisley ascot tucked neatly at the neck, sunglasses and hat at a jaunty angle. He had dozens of friends, and he used to sit with them on beach chairs and talk for hours under broad umbrellas.
Pedaling through Lynn and Marblehead, I thought back to the winter of 1977, when at nineteen, I’d spent three months living with Uncle and Zosia in Rome, studying Italian, crashing Art History classes at the University, and rowing on the Tiber through the gloomy gray afternoons. Evenings, Zosia, Uncle, and I would eat supper at the small table in the den where years earlier, he had demonstrated his pendulums to me. After I’d cleared the table and done the dishes, the three of us – me squished between Uncle and Zosia – would sit thigh-to-thigh on the little couch and watch the news on TV. “Mannaggia,” Uncle would mutter, annoyed by the latest scandals. Uncle loved Italy but he was dismayed to have lived through thirty-five different governments in the forty years since the war had ended.
I was making good time now and reached Singing Beach by late morning. Uncle would have liked it here, though he would have needed a snowsuit to stay warm. And the breeze would have blown his hair, which would have upset him. That winter I’d lived with him and Zosia, Uncle always insisted on escorting me through Rome, curling his small hand through the nook at my elbow, proceeding slowly up the street while explaining the importance of walking for one’s health. He would take a deep breath and instruct me on the proper way to breathe – consciously, whole-heartedly, embracing the air around me.
As I rode, I could almost feel the softness of his hands on mine as I gripped the handlebars. At noon I sacked out in a park in Rockport and guzzled a few bottles of lemonade. I pedaled north to Halibut Point, and finally looped back to Boston. I got home at six, and as I wheeled my bike into the living room, two messages blinked on the answering machine. I played them back. The first was my father, who had called at eight that morning to tell me that Uncle had died. And a few hours after that, he called again, asking Where are you, Helen? Did you get my message? Uncle died. None of this surprised me. What surprised me was that my mother’s earlier message was still missing; it had simply disappeared from the machine, as if it had never existed.
I called my mother first. It was midnight in Rome, but she answered on the second ring.
“Mom,” I said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t pick up the phone when you called. How are you doing?”
“We’re all right,” she said. “Zosia is having a hard time. I’m worried about her.” She paused. “But I didn’t call you, darling. I phoned Dad this morning.”
“But you called me last night – I got your message.”
“What message? I never called you.”
I told her about my phone ringing at four in the morning, how ashamed I’d been for not picking up. And that I still couldn’t find her message on the machine.
“That would have been around the time that Uncle died,” she said. “It was ten o’clock here. But I waited a few hours before calling Dad, and I asked him to call you. Maybe you dreamt it?”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t a dream. I was wide awake. It was real.”
My mother was quiet a moment. “Things like that would happen in the war,” she said, a note of awe in her voice. “Sometimes when Zosia and I were separated, you know, that sort of thing would happen.”
After we hung up I called my father. He confirmed that Mom had called him at seven in the morning to report Uncle’s death. He had waited till eight to call me.
I’d spent a glorious day with him. Uncle had found a way to break his news to me by using my mother’s voice, but his words were beyond the imprint of a tape recorder. He’d used the telephone wires to swing a pendulum gently towards me in such a way that I neither doubted nor questioned the truth of his message. He was simply letting me know that he was gone, and that he would always be with me, a gentle breeze, a skipped beat in the air.