When a “cute” friar gets to be forty or so he loses a lot of his cuteness and just becomes insignificant


To Alice “Sally” from Bertha – November 18, 1937

[Note: Bertha is 46 and back in Fiesole, Italy.]

My dear Sally,

I wrote you a very glum and silly letter yesterday because I felt awfully depressed and miserable physically and otherwise, a miserably cold, rainy day, and today is another but I seem to be getting the better of the depression and have hit on a very simple remedy for cold feet – an Italian metal hot water bottle wrapped in a newspaper under my desk. If that doesn’t work a cure, I’ll have to resort to the steamer rug, but am keeping that in reserved on the bed. The weather and things are “not as good” but after all, I have quite a lot of fun and it’s more amusing to write about the good times.

One Sunday not long ago, I put my cares aside after lunch and went to Feisole. It was a glorious day and I should not have been temped to venture on the buses on a Sunday, but it just seemed too good to miss, so I pinned a modest bunch of violets upon myself and set off. Naturally the tram was crowded and how you have to change in the outskirts of Florence and take a bus from there on, with the usual result that _____ when a container that is not big enough is emptied into one that is considerably smaller. I was hanging on a stop next to some American woman and I couldn’t resist remarking that the Italians were finding out what we have all over the world “that a change from a tram to a bus was a change for the worse and not for the better.” Discussion followed. Questions, etcetera, and eventually that they were from California, and from that eventually that I was from Spokane and an artist, and then they were surprised and wondered if by change I was the artist of whom they had heard of from Mrs. Ben Kizer and I was. [Note: Ben Kizer was a prominent Spokane attorney.] So that was a little amusing.

I got up to Fiesole, peeped in the cathedral and saw no signs of life so went up to San Franceses where I hadn’t been since I came back. Speedily decided that I was a poor artist when painted there before, and went into the courtyard.

Fiesole Cathedral
Fiesole Cathedral

Fra Clementino is still buzzing around, when a “cute” friar gets to be forty or so he loses a lot of his cuteness and just becomes insignificant. I’ve known Fra Clamentino [Note: “Fra” is used as a title for an Italian monk or friar.] a long time, a little, and despised him for quite a long time, too. I loathe professional religious poseurs, if I don’t have reason to think there is anything sincere back of it all. Well, I have my reasons for detesting that little friar but he seems to be putting aside the frivolities of his youth and is prim as the cat that has eaten the canary. So I was amused. On the way down hill I took note that a gift shop has replaced a peasants’ house where I once went to see a sick woman, miserably dark and damp and cold it was then. And then I met a procession coming up the hill. Lots of choir boys and after than the bishop (new one) with Don Luigi in attendance. I hadn’t seen Don Luigi in a long time so we exchanged glances and I trailed along back up the hill to see what was doing.

There was a funcione for the bestowal of medals in the deserving of the Society of the Misericordia, a hard-faced looking lot, but useful no doubt. Much ceremony, the bishop in his chair, Monsignor Bandini with two other priests celebrating the benediction, anther priest preaching an extraordinary long sermon, which I was able to understand perfectly. Don Luigi making a little speak to the Misericordia and then reading the names and handing the medals to the bishop, who seated on his throne, opposite where I was standing, presented the medals and recipients who knelt on the steps before him. I had a fine place to see being beside a filler just opposite of me and two steps down.

The vestments were very nice, white and gold, and the bishop in his purple (which is crimson) and Don Luigi and the other canons in their purples lined white fur winter capes, with eighteen inches of real lace on his cotta. D.L. is still quite imposing, a little leaner, but very tall and dignified looking. After most of the ceremony was over, he walked majestically across the platform and passed down through the crowd beside me without a glance.

Presently returned and as he passed, put into my hands a paper bag! I was dumbfounded but managed to gather that I was to take it. So I did. “Chec’é?” asked the woman next to me. “Non so,” said I. All around me, people were craning their necks. I took a peek, and then I was just busting to laugh. Inside was a loaf of peasant bread. Well, I inferred that I was invited to tea and that having acquired this awkward possession Don Luigi had availed himself of me as a carrier.

So after the funcione, I bore it down the hill (it proved to be “blessed bread,” and had tea. A silly little incident but every now and then there comes some _____ little experience that ____ the monotony and makes me feel that I do really see a little more and know a little more of the people than the casual foreign dwellers here.

Am rejoicing over my first successful efforts at putting the difficult and characteristic little “me”s and “si”s into my Italian conversation. My verbs are shaky still, but I can manage an occasional subjective and conditional. The other day, I was in a tea shop having a cup of coffee. The same shop where early in the summer I saw a beautiful white kitten playing with a little dog. Now the kitty is larger but is allowed and came into the shop very little because it is deaf and will run out and its mistress says is would displease her to see it under an automobile. Nobody being in the shop I was talking with the Signora. She asked me if I was an American, because Americans “speak with the throat more often than the English,” and from one thing to another I began to talk about cats and the merits, etcetera, of long-haired ones. Hers is a cross. I spoke of its “capelli,” and then she laughed and said that that was the first mistake I had made, that one must say “pilli” a “pellichia” of animals. So I gathered that I had been speaking pretty well. I also had tea and lunch several times lately entirely in Italian, not a word of English spoken, whether they could or not. And of course, I’ve fought all my battles with my dressmaker in Italian, and really speak it most of the time now, even with people who speak English.

I haven’t seen Picci in so long but he was dropping into the habit of speaking Italian to me, too. Signor Nisocchi (Dr. Nisocchi, I must practice that) alone continues to speak English most of the time, although he can speak Italian very well.

I hope your church affairs will adjust themselves. A married clergy is always subject to certain disadvantages. All wives do not have a “call.”

You spoke of being sorry for Dr. Bram and since then, I have had the news of Ethel’s death. I am extremely sorry, but like yourself, I felt that she was worried and that the condition of her health (although I had no idea of this) had her such as to _____ the happiness of their marriage to some extent. Since it seems to have been cancer and she suffered so much, it is better for both that it is ended. I feel very sorry for all concerned, very, but these last months must have been terrible. Now Ethel is at rest and I hope the good Dr. Charles will be able to recover, for prolonged suffering in a member of ones family is really worse than the final separation, in some ways, when there isn’t anything that can be done to help much. He certainly has had hard luck in his marriages, less than eight years and he is a widower again. Too bad. I’m glad you were able to help a little at the office. I think a great deal more highly of him than I did eight or nine years ago, not that I didn’t like him, but I admire him more as I’ve come to know him, and passed a lot of hours in his chair, sad fact, those teeth! I had a card on my desk ready to address to Ethel when the news came. Now I’d better remember to send Isabel’s.

What a terrible change in our circle in these last years! Still Charles is perhaps more fortunate; I am sick every time I think of the Hughes. That gets me. He always saw such a lot of them. More than any other one family really. I like Ethel a lot, and always wanted to know her better, but her health is my health and the depression and all the rest of it kept that from becoming a real intimacy, but it wasn’t so with the Hughes.

But there, I’m getting _____ again. It’s the weather and the news, and the church won’t give me absolution for getting a divorce without all sorts of mess, and I won’t take it any further here, so I’m an unforgiven sinner, with permission to take the sacraments, but I have some conscientious scruples there myself, because I’m an unrepentant sinner. I think I was right to get a divorce, and I think I’ll stick to it. I think if Christ were here in these modern times, he wouldn’t think I was always in the right but I think he would think I was more sinned against than Frank and that it was a marriage that should be dissolved. Hell, it makes me a little unhappy because I think being at peace with the church is helpful in one’s life. But “Surnia!” as the Italians say “Su-corraggio!” [Note: “Cheer up!”] I am allowed to receive the sacraments at least for the present and with the broad philosophy which is my inside religion. I’ll take the good and forget the rest. One needs to. The strength and the weakness of the Catholic church is its elasticity. I wish it would elasticate a little more for me right now, but why worry? They can’t make me live with Frank, and I won’t, so that is that. Besides while the priest says it is my duty to live with my husband, the American laws and American society would be scandalized if I did without remarriage, and with all its faults my country really comes before my religion, and I might say that the best patriotism as taught at West Point, “Duty, Honor, Country,” was my first religion.

I have the photograph of you and Mamma and cats on my desk. I love their gracious tails. They are so expressive. Hope you read “Old Pybus” by Harwick Deeping? He is good. Have just read it in Italian. Also two or three of Sabatine’s tales. He is really one of the best of the later followers of Dumas. We get him here in translations from the English, and in that way he is becoming known in his native country. “Rafael Sabatini,” “Romanzo – Traduzione dall’ ingless di Francesco Marsicano.” Have read at least twenty novels in Italian in the last six months. It is splendid for enlarging one vocabulary and also for studying the construction of the ordinary give and take of conversation. In modern novels they say much what we say and one sees it written. It is also a good substitute for Berlitz. E.g. A man sits under a gong of “ottone,” what in the deuce, might be copper, bronze, brass, he keeps on sitting under it. After a while some one polishes a tray of “ottone,” probably metal, certainly metal, probabilities leaning towards brass. I walk along the sheet to see a lot of curtain rods in a window, marked “ottone”. So now I know ottone most thoroughly. Also when I wanted to speak of an automobile accident, I found flashing through my mind the improbably expression “investimento automobilistica.” And it was right (see “Old Pybus”) although I think it refers more exactly to a collision rather than a mere “disgrazia.” For me, it is as amusing as a crossword puzzle. Too amusing for I would gladly waste too much time reading. Perhaps it would be better if I would exert myself more in writing fluent and coherent letters. The need to write is so urgent with me. I find it all the time, but am too indolent in the hours when I do not work. Tonight I shall have to read French or English, or Henry James, he give me a pain in the neck, to become _____ American once more. Why a grown man should __ __ bothered to write such twaddle, and then people should have taken him seriously. I can’t. First I get annoyed, and then bored, and stop reading. You should read “Old Pyhus.” You might like it.

With love to all,


P.S. After which I buckled down and began to write. Results to follow!

What Anne needs above all from whoever is with her is companionship
"Madonna of the Magnificat"

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Bertha Ballou

Bertha Ballou (1891-1978) was an American artist. She studied in New York, Boston and Italy and settled in Spokane, WA. She is the daughter of C.C. Ballou.