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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

This Italian farmer brings perspective to the news cycle


CONCA DEI MARINI, ITALY - JULY 25: Azur water from the Tyrrhenian Sea beckons on July 25, 2011 at Conca dei Marini, Italy. The Amalfi coastline is among Italy's most popular tourist destinations. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images / Sean Gallup

CAMPANIA, Italy - Mario is 87 years old. I don’t know his last name, but he’s somehow related to my wife. Everyone in this region of southern Italy is related to my wife — to her mother at least.

Mario wears a black fedora. It’s small for his head and stained at the brim from years of adjusting. He wears it tilted over a pair of gentle brown eyes, almost to the bridge of his nose. The eyes are moist, clouded with age and possibly cataracts, but his mustache is still thick and black.

A half dozen medicines are spread across Mario’s dining table. Doctors tell him they’ll extend his life a while longer. But only a while.

That’s okay with him. Mario lost his beloved Angelina, his wife of 66 years, in January. He cries most days now, alone on this small farm where he’s lived his whole life. There’s nothing left for him now he says without trace of complaint. It’s merely a statement. It’s just the way it is.

There’s a television in Mario’s front room, an old Sony trinitron with dust on its screen. It looks like it hasn’t been used in years. There’s no radio in sight; certainly no internet. Mario has no idea what’s going on in the United States right now, and wouldn’t much care if he did. He’s beyond the small stuff now. The world will figure itself out, like it always has.

On a wall in the unlit room are yellowed photographs from a life already lived. Mario stands out in each of them, always with a hat and mustache; always an accordion in hand. There he is posing with friends in 1946 — a year after the Nazis were run out of Italy and 61 Italian governments ago.

Yes, the world will figure things out.

Outside is a slightly overgrown paradise. The figs are a bit high in the trees, but nothing a cane can’t remedy. They are purple and sticky. Ridiculously delicious.

Grapes hang in thick bunches by the side of the house, still green but turning purple soon as well. There’s been no rain all summer so the peaches are smaller than usual, but the nectarines are fat. Their juice runs down our chins in rivers.

Mario pulls two handfuls of fig leaves from a tree so my daughters can feed the rabbits. Half are caged and half eagerly approach the unexpected afternoon snack.

We feel silly asking Mario why only half the herd is allowed to eat. It seems unfair. The delight at the question in his eyes tells us what we should have known: the females have to be sequestered, of course, lest rabbits overrun the farm. Everyone knows about rabbits — no?

It’s not all upside for the boy rabbits. Only they will be eaten. Our job is to help fatten them. Here’s another branch.

When Mario was 72, a wolf started coming around and feasting on his chickens. The beast ate two one night and left a third unfinished when Mario shouted him away. Mario knew he’d be back the next evening to finish the meal. He’d be ready.

But Mario must have told one neighbor too many. Before night fully fell again, the Carabinieri — the state police — were at his door with a warrant. Mario was arrested for possession of a pistol and jailed for 18 days.

He laughed as he told the story, his eyes moist and shiny again. More small stuff. More water under the bridge.

As we rose to go he took my 10-year-old daughter’s face in his hands. They were as brown and weathered from decades farming the rich Campania soil as her cheeks were pink and soft with the bloom of youth.

“It’s all about love,” he said in Italian as he held her. “It’s all that matters; love is the only thing.”

The way he said it made me believe it.

Ciao, Mario.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.