The Cemetery Custodian by Susan Mellsopp
The nun had appeared silently to unlock the huge, heavy medieval gates, with a long bronze key which hung with others on a leather chain around her neck. About 70, tiny and rotund, her simple blue cotton shift was complemented by a homely white cloth which covered her grey hair.
I had been sitting for ages under a scrawny olive tree in the searing Firenze sun. Scared, I had negotiated two pedestrian crossings dodging noisy Vespas ridden by men in stylish suits with briefcases and laptops strapped on behind. I was amazed at the way they darted in and out like dragonflies on the huge busy roundabout. Smelly buses to exotic destinations ground their way around the outer lanes as cars revved impatiently waiting for the lights to change.
I had come to Piazza Donatello to visit the Isle of the Dead, also known as the English Cemetery. This place, which was to become the highlight of my Italian sojourn, seemed an unusual centrepiece for a modern roundabout. My reading the previous night told me that when Rachmaninov visited the cemetery he was so moved he composed a piece of music dedicated to it.
As I walked through the gate house the nun introduced herself as Julia and asked “what do you particularly want to see?” Her cultured and scholarly English accent surprised me, I wondered what she was doing working as a cemetery custodian. “I want to see the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but I also wish to explore the whole cemetery” I added hastily. Leading me up the sloping gravel path Julia explained I was too late for the display of irises and other spring flowers she and her helpers tended. Pointing to a large cream grave she said “this is where Elizabeth lies, I will leave you to explore.”
Looking back the way I had come I noticed the tiny nun bent over weeding some pots of basil, thyme and marjoram near the rear of the gatehouse. Slowly she moved into the dusty shade to avoid the searing and oppressive afternoon heat. The traffic noise was incessant, as horns blared and fumes filled the air, I wondered how she managed to stay so peaceful in the constant noise.
I stared again at Elizabeth’s grave, the resting place of someone who could perhaps have lain in Westminster Abbey among other famous poets and writers. The previous day I had been shown the house she lived in near the old city gates. Lost and unable to find the bus stop in the narrow streets, I was helped by an Australian woman teaching English in the city. She told me how important it was to visit the Isle of the Dead and explained it was cared for by an elderly nun and Romanian refugees.
Owned by the Swiss, the cemetery was closed in 1877 when the medieval walls were torn down. Tall ancient Tuscan cypresses at the summit of the hill had been cut down to offer a view of ancient Fiesole in the distance. English Yews and a Cedar of Lebanon remained from earlier centuries. Tombstones are inscribed with many scripts; Russian, English, German, Gaelic, even Romanasch. Americans, Canadians, an Australian from Tasmania, the Countess of Strathmore, an Italian count and his English wife, and a black Nubian slave named Nadezda are buried here. This is a cemetery full of love stories.
Moss covered graves, as yet unrestored, made it difficult to read the inscriptions, although I found Walter Landor’s resting place. Hearing some sobbing I noticed an elderly woman dressed all in black, her arms wrapped around a recently installed tiny gravestone. Her grief was overwhelming and embarrassed I looked away, I had understood the cemetery was closed for burials.
Silently, the nun appeared beside me and tucking a wisp of hair into her head covering enquired if I was alright and was there anything else she could do for me. Earlier she had expressed concern for my safety on the uneven gravelled surfaces due to my white cane. Replying I was fine I lingered in the unrepaired section until the cloying heat drove me to the shade of the gatehouse.
Leaning against the wall I peered through dusty windows and gasped in pleasure when I noticed the room was full of books. “Did I like books” queried Julia who again had appeared silently beside me. Explaining that I adored books and was working as a researcher and archivist she unlocked the door with another of her ancient keys. “What is this place” I enquired. “It’s my library, the Mediatheca Fioretta Mazzei, I was a Professor at Princeton, I am a medieval history specialist.” There were papers everywhere; books askew and piled up in no apparent order, dust was reflected in streams of sunlight, narrow stairs wound upwards to a second level of shelves. Scholarly books and papers covered every available space. I ran my fingers across the huge smooth wooden table and pondered who else may have sat here. “You are from New Zealand, I have interviewed Sir Peter Buck here” said Julia, this stunning me into respectful silence. “He was also very interested in my library. Many of these books were my father’s, he was a Browning specialist.”
We sat and talked; about her library, her career, how she taught the Romanian refugees to read, her ongoing research and the papers she presented at international conferences. Julia explained she had decided to retire early, take orders and become the custodian of the cemetery.
No other tourists had visited that day and sadly it was time to lock the gates. Handing me a slip of paper with her email address on it Julia locked the green wooden library doors and escorted me back across the road to the bus stop. With a hug and cheerful wave I watched as she returned to her sanctuary.
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