Selling Horse Meat

"When I was in jail," Marilee said, as though it were no big deal, "I learned to wash my clothes and our dishes using chips of soap, wiping them with a sanitary pad, our very best dish-washing tool. It's hard to take care of yourself and keep clean. You can't just get new underwear, or even wash what you have whenever you like.” She added. ‘We each had assigned chores. Mine was the food cart twice a day.”

One day, Nancy and Kate were sent to solitary confinement because they had a screaming physical fight over a Ramen Noodles package. “We weren't allowed choices over anything, so food became important enough to risk discipline," Marilee said. Her eyes tracked mine for visible signs of a reaction.

"You what?" I said, "You fought over Ramen noodles and baloney sandwiches?"

"No, just Ramen Noodles. There were rewards of baloney sandwiches that the guards gave out, but we didn't fight over them. The smart women gave them away to others, for favors or trades. I exchanged mine for other goods, like a nine-inch piece of tape that I used to attach the tampon container bits to my pencil stub, to make it longer. I learned how to scavenge what was available and make it work. I learned from the women who had been there many times before; they knew all sorts of ways to do things without any resources.

"I did learn to make a cake from salvaged breakfast egg bits, a carton of milk ..."

I listened in horrified fascination. My friend spent two months in jail for her DUI of a few years ago, after finally exhausting multiple legal options. While her stay was not, quite, the rollicking dancing scene from Chicago, the musical, her experience seemed to me to be both the worst of times, as well as the best of times. She was scared. She was depressed. She was sent to isolation for three days, which was the county jail's medical treatment for getting an attack of pancreatitis, a terribly painful condition that usually merits a hospital stay. On the outside, that is. At that same exact time, she discovered a new self. She may have reached deep within herself, found some grit and accomplished some growing up. Not so bad, as results go, and she has stories to tell. She may even go back if she needs more fables to grow upon. She believes that she will use her tale as reinforcement, a reminder to keep from drinking recklessly. As her friend, I hope that she is right about that being successful motivation.

Stories, we all have em. Some are really personal incidents of others or ourselves, some are tales, tall and short, others are just damned lies told well. "We are all actors on a stage," I think it was Shakespeare who observed.

"Let me tell you a story about the night that we..."

"Did you hear the story about....". There are multiple stories that one tells to friends; fairy tales, haunted houses, vampires and ghosts, romantic bodice rippers and mystery or detective stories, fables of suffering love or devastating loss, lessons to be learned, or lived through. I love most of them. I adore some of them, even the ones that began with Once upon a time.

In Spanish, they must have the same intention, since they begin with Hace muchos anos... Italians say there was a time with C'era una volta. The story always begins some time ago, about two years, or two hundred, in fact. Anthropomorphic, talking animals are common.

The tale always serves some purpose or makes a point, however instructive or far-fetched. I have collected a few of those international fairy tale books, choosing to buy those whose artwork I admire; the stories usually remind me how universal our tales are, how all cultures pass along their beliefs, guiding us unconsciously from within, engraving images on the hearts for later unconscious recall.

Often, a story of greed or foolish choices, or intemperate anger carries a cautionary tale. I like it best with a happy-ending, although my husband is quite the opposite. He gleefully awaits the hanging ending; the failed "fix" the broad open-hanging completion or sly double cross. Finding the happy ever after is just not his style, although it is often what I would seek. I like to sleep after a satisfactory conclusion, not after chaos or worry.

Historically, fables have been useful broadly as a societal metric, used to create negative as well as positive results. Could Germans have given over their individual moral authority during WW2 to allow the killing of others on a gruesome wholesale level without the story of Aryan racial supremacy being taught and reinforced over time, I wonder? How much does our familiar Yankee sensibility or even superiority create our responses to larger global and international need? Buried in my national identity are Johnny Appleseed and Paul Revere, those intrepid white male adventurers.

I had to look deeper for American female heroes, but one was Golda Meier, an American who presided over the affairs of the new state of Israel from her living room, pouring coffee, and managing the conflicting demands of her nation. Margaret Stanton, or Rosa Parks- courage under fire, my own mother, whose story is not told here. The list is long.

I find that I have an image of myself, as both American and Italian, as a member of my family, as a member of my church, my heritage, and my history. I usually act within those images, even without thinking of hidden meanings. Often without analysis, I dip from the soup that is my inheritance, seeking sustenance.

We repeat our tales in our homes, too. In this family, we ... (fill in the statement,) then watch it become true. Repeated often enough, these become a thread of a cultural story, or even a belief of "How we are this, or maybe, that," in our group. How to define an ‘us,’ differentiate from ‘them.’ Build an identity. I hold in my head and in some subterranean conscious cave, the stories told to us from long ago, as well as the modern made up fables that I believe to be true, wearing those tales on my body like a second skin.

My mother told me often, "You come from a family to be proud of, do not let it down or shame your family name." I wondered why she was telling me those tales. Later, I was amazed to find that my foolish young self never really listened. Much later I began to question what she knew about this, and what did she mean by that?

Years later, some of the truths behind the fables returned with evidence. When I went to Italy, I was shown a 18th-century manuscript in a library telling of the remarkably pious and noble Lavezzi brothers who were known for their integrity, and for their skills in diplomacy. They had signed a peace document between the kingdoms of Genoa and Florence, and I puffed up with pride. It felt as though I could take on some genetic gold, a metric of character just by being descended from such sterling folks, from such a proud family.

I suppose that I didn't want to find the derelict or the reason why we lost our noble name. I cherry-picked my history just a bit, discarding the bits I didn't want to know, and clutched the good pieces as evidence of something grand.

One that hasn't been discarded, but isn't really advertised either, is the story of a distantly related person, nicknamed "Scrambled Eggs" in Italian (strapazzate) because he was unacceptably messy in his attire, flecked with food debris worn unconcernedly on his clothes. A resident in the town where the family had lived, told me this. For her, this story was nearly current news, although it happened two generations ago. Strapazzate came from a family that had owned the butcher shop, and which was suspected of selling horse meat. The tale was passed down for 70 years to others in the town, as a warning perhaps, to others to have concerns about the meat they would order from the Macelleria, the local butcher shop. In towns like that, a reputation is important.

I can hear it now, in whispers.

"Be careful, once we had a butcher in town who sold all of the families Horse Meat. Can you imagine that! One can't be too careful. The family was ruined when people heard this; people refused to serve with them at church, engagements were annulled, and finally the family moved away to a strange village where no one knew them. So," she raised an admonitory eyebrow at me," be careful where you shop, and only do business with people you know and trust."

I guess you would want to watch the coming and going of old horses in town too.

“We get together,” says my friend Sherry, to repeat our myths, so that we all can remember the same story. This myth is repeated over and over through the years, although repetition makes no greater claim on veracity than would simple truth.

Does a story even need to be true to be real, or is truth embedded within the legend? Do we change our belief, if it is founded upon a lie? Do we investigate the story or do we change the old story and invent new tales?

Today, I seek out such tales, trying to find them, and pick at them, pulling out small tidbits from under the rocks of historic recall. Part of my understanding of me is a patch-worked me that has been composed out of the past, and yet affects my future as well. But, what do I think tales are - veracity? Instruction? Caution? Prophesy? Entertainment? Delusion?

Each of my siblings and I shared the same house, the same parents, the same school, churches and roughly the same era. We even shared the same animals; Mert the prodigious mother of cats, Henrietta the chicken that we ate one summer Sunday afternoon for dinner and the pet skunk Clorophylis, who would walk with us on a leash to the store. We lived across the hall from one another, and we ate the same food, fought over the same television, attended the same schools, disliked the same neighbors.

Our memories of home and life during those years are so different as to merit a week on a therapist couch.

A telling example. One of us found his own skills for leadership in the gang fights and violence that he experienced in the street, although the others have never even seen two people hit each other in anger. One of us found that home was a place of great love, with tremendous support and harmony; another missed that part and focused on the mother who freely used belts, hairbrushes, and various weapons when angry beyond control. The home, in this case, was verbally cruel and often rigid. The other found his comfort in escape, trading in skilled intellectual weaponry as the smallest person. His confrontations required artistry. He learned his skills well and honed them later into remarkable and successful negotiations. Same parents, same address, school and even teachers. A friend says to me that no two children are even raised in the same family.

Today I find myself wondering what stories my children and friends have concocted, and wishing that they would check them out with me so that we could agree on content if not commentary. I have discovered that they too have some memories that I do not share, some interpretations that I would disavow. I would like script approval, of course, as I would like to look good in the finale.

Yet the dates and details all remain steady, factual and usually in accord. Interpretations, well- they depend on perception or point of view, don't they?

Repeating my question: Is history all factual or all history fictional? One answer: probably. Just wait until the next epoch for a revision if you don't like the one presently in vogue. All writers, actors and directors age.