A Baccalaureate For Signorina Zeetti


In March,1955 I arrived in Italy to study Italian at the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia. Signor Neri, the genial factotum of the Stranieri, suggested I stay at the pensione run by the Signorina Amelia Zeetti at 3 Via Bruschi. He phoned ahead, learned there was room, and he sent me on my way. Shortly, I was ringing the bell by the massive front door, and almost immediately I saw the Signorina’s smiling face appear at a window on the fourth floor. She greeted me warmly and she reeled down a small basket containing the key to the front door. The basket served also to collect her mail, no small matter because she was born with a defective hip and she limped badly. Still, she climbed those steps every morning to do her food shopping because she had no refrigerator. In winter she carried up firewood from the cellar and in summer, during the weeks of drought in August, she carried water from the nearby public fountain.

Signorina Zeetti was forty-four years old, with rosy cheeks and sparkling grey eyes below her ample Umbrian forehead. The apartment was dark and cold, full of old, scarred furniture, difficult to clean but always spotless. Her fingers were red and swollen. There was no hot water in the apartment, only that which she heated on the two burner propane stove. In cold weather there was hot water from the small tank built into the old cast-iron, wood burning stove in the kitchen. This stove supplied the only heat in this five bedroom apartment. It was barely enough to heat the kitchen. At night the Signorina gave us hot water bottles to take to bed. There was only one toilet in the apartment, the kind in which one’s deposit is tumbled off its little dry ledge by a brief, violent flush of water. We had chamber pots in our bedrooms but I never used mine, not out of repugnance, but to spare the Signorina of my share of the indignity of that daily chore. In the night I preferred to leave my warm bed to grope my way to the toilet whose subsequent flush probably wakened everybody in the building.

The other students in the pensione were Mario Gentili from Foligno, Giorgio Basso from Imola, Gianni Zanakis from Greece and Jorge Flores from Nicaragua. The Signorina did not accept female students because she said they were like sweet honey that attracted nothing but trouble. The other students in the pensione attended the regular Italian university: Mario was pre-med, the others were in the veterinary school. I was at the Stranieri for my pleasure. Studying a foreign language in the country where it is spoken is blissful.

In the evening after dinner, we would sit around the kitchen table under a bare, weak light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The table was next to the cast iron stove for warmth. Sometimes, as she ironed our shirts with the heavy iron heated on the stove-top, the Signorina would join our lively discussions. She also helped the other students study, reading aloud questions from their textbooks. After having helped so many students over the years, she knew the subject matter by heart. I suggested that she take the university exams and earn a baccalaureate. She laughed.

I learned many things in her house. Early on, I had said smugly that I was the first American student she ever had. She reminded me that Jorge from Nicaragua was also an American. I learned frugality in her house. Years later, I used to prowl about my house turning out lights in unoccupied rooms. Each time I pressed the light switch, I thought of Perugia and the thought gave me pleasure.

This was the Signorina’s life for thirty years. Two hundred thirty-nine students passed through her doors: she did more public good than ten senators. Eventually, maintaining the cavernous old apartment was too much for her. She moved to a small centrally-heated apartment with room for two students. Now she accepted only middle-aged women, usually school teachers on sabbatical. In 1980, twenty-five years after my stay, she made an exception to her policy. She took in my teenage daughter. She watched over her like a hawk, sensible of her responsibility toward me, still on guard against the old nemesis, original sin.

In 1982 the Signorina was able to retire to a small, ground floor apartment with a garden. During World War II she had grown tomatoes on the small roof-top terrace at 3 Via Bruschi. I loved that little terrace withs its views over Perugia’s serried terracotta roof tops, the countryside falling away beyond the city limits. Across the wide valley, Assisi was a pale, pink rosette on the mountainside. Overhead exultant swallows. The Signorina had twelve happy years in her garden apartment but then she fell and broke her hip. After hospital she entered a residence for the aged, L’Istituto Donini, where she would spend the rest of her life. She was eighty-two years old.

Margie and I returned to Perugia to visit her. The Donini Institute was frugal but humane. The Signorina spent part of the day in a wheelchair and part sitting up in bed. “Look,” she cried out, “at the birds at the window.” She pointed to the window which faced an interior courtyard across the hall. There were no birds but the Signorina was so animated by the vision that I said yes, I see them. “Good,” she said triumphantly. “The nurses say there are no birds.” We spoke of old times, of her former students who still wrote and those who visited. She shared her eight-bed ward with pathetic specters, some bedridden. Some roamed the hallways. One of them entered and spoke nonsense to us until an aide came to gently lead her away. The nurses and the aides knew the Signorina’s worth very well. Whenever they came in with food or medicine or just to say hello, they greeted her with the same, “Ciao, tesoro.”

On our last day we put on our best faces. We bantered gaily and we promised to keep in touch. As we spoke she toyed with the edge of her bed sheet. When she saw my eyes drawn to her fingers, swollen, red and twisted by arthritis. she slipped them under the covers. At dusk we stood up to leave her. I kissed her forehead and I moved quickly toward the doorway. I turned for a last look. Her eyes glistened in the semi-darkness. I hoped she was thinking of her students and that the thought gave her pleasure.