It was Christmas Eve 1963, one month after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. My dad (Richard Salvatierra, a Tucson native who later became foreign affairs columnist for the Tucson Citizen) had recently been assigned by the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Rome and was eager to have the family move on from the tragedy. To help the family adjust, Dad had gone to great lengths to get “special guest” tickets for the family to attend Pope Paul VI’s first Christmas Eve service at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Mom (Clara), Dad, my three sisters and I had spent our first month in Rome settling into a temporary apartment in the relatively upscale neighborhood of Monte Mario on one of the city’s vaunted seven hills. It was one of eight apartments in a new building, all with balconies that overlooked the eternal city. In Italy, all such apartment buildings came with a portiere, a sort of in-house watchman, janitor and keeper of the keys. Antonio, as we knew him, lived in the basement with his wife, two small children and a failing mother-in-law.
Dad’s plan for that special day was in motion: We would drive to St. Peter’s, see the pope (along with 15,000 other visitors) and return to our apartment to celebrate Christmas Eve with our traditional Mexican dinner of tacos, frijoles and arroz. No turkey or ham.
Mom, an excellent cook, usually had a pot of beans — freshly cooked Mexican pinto beans, not canned — at the ready. They had to be cooked from scratch; they took several hours to boil with a ham hock, garlic and onions. They needed to be watched constantly to ensure the water did not boil out. That Christmas Eve her plan was to start the beans in the morning and finish cooking them before we left to see the pope.
Dad spent the morning hurrying everyone. “We don’t want to be late for the pope!” Everyone had to look good for this special occasion — shined shoes, clean shirts and dresses, and neat hair. We all piled into the car and got to our assigned parking space at the Vatican in plenty of time. We were escorted to our assignedseats, and, with about 45 minutes to spare, we waited for the pope to enter. Dad was in heaven. It really was going to be a special day.
Then Mom said, “Father.” (She always called Dad “Father” when something was up.) “Father, did you remember to turn off the beans?” Oh, my God! We all looked at Dad. Then we looked at Mom. The look of panic on both of them was clear. “No, I thought you turned them off.” “No, I assumed you did.” The image of a boiling pot of pinto beans in our new apartment was vivid to us all.
Ten minutes before the pope was to make his grand entrance, Dad rushed from his seat, worked his way through the thousands of awaiting spectators, ran to the car and made a dash for the apartment, 10 miles away. Of course, the streets were jammed with families making their way to Christmas Eve masses all over the city.
It took Dad 45 minutes to get home. Not surprisingly, he arrived to see smoke — burned-bean smoke — coming from under the front door of the apartment. Unfortunately, he also found that in his hastehe had forgotten to get the apartment keys from Mom. What to do? Of course, check with the portiere and get a key. But the portiere was out with his family at — where else? — Christmas Eve Mass. Nobody was around except the mother-in-law, who didn’t speak a word of English. By this time Dad was coming unglued.
He finally communicated with the mother-in-law that he needed a key to the apartment because “I fagioli stanno bruciando. (The beans are burning!)”
She went into the portiere’s office and 10 minutes later came out with two large key rings but, of course, none of the keys was numbered. Ten more minutes. After trying half the keys, he found the right one and got into the apartment.
The beans, of course, were ruined. The pot was black. We don’t know exactly what Dad did for the next half-hour but it could not have been fun. (I am not sure the smell ever came out of the drapes.) When cleanup was sort of finished, he got back into the car and returned to the Vatican, the streets filled with traffic of people leaving. The pope’s Mass was over at 1 p.m. but it was 3 p.m. before we found each other among the hordes of visitors.
The drive home was completely silent. No one dared to speak. No one said anything about the beauty and pageantry of the service. No one said anything about the pope or the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica. No one asked about the beans. We simply were afraid to say anything.
When we arrived home, we all gasped at the sight and smell of the apartment. While Mom began to clean and try to salvage dinner, no one made eye contact with Dad. We all tried to keep a safe distance.
Fortunately, Mom had saved a couple of cans of beans just in case. It wasn’t until halfway through dinner when my little sister, Elena, declared, “these are the best beans I have ever had.” The ice was broken and we all could begin to enjoy our first Christmas in Rome.