Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arrivederci, Marcello

On December 19, 1996, Italian film star Marcello Mastroianni died in Paris of pancratic cancer at age 72.  That was 15 years ago.
This article was written then.
I was lucky enough to have met him several times because our children attended the same Montessori school.  Nothing but blind luck, to which I'm eternally grateful for allowing me to see what a warm, simple man he was, a delight to be around.

This is how we parents knew him
Paris is an international city. It tosses together people from many different countries and professions who wouldn't normally meet. Especially if you are half of an international couple and have children with dual citizenship, in which case you seek out an international school, preferably bilingual. That in turn brings an even tighter circle of cosmopolitan opportunities to move outside of what would be your normal circle of acquaintances.
     I was lucky enough to find a bilingual school for my children. And along with the education they got, and a fluency in both French and English that has opened doors to them, I had the great honor of meeting many wonderful parents. One of them was Marcello Mastroianni.
     I saw him many times picking up his daughter, or perched on the uncomfortable chairs designed for the Seven Dwarfs that we always had to sit on at Parents' Nights. Mastroianni always sat there graciously, just another father concerned about what his daughter was experiencing all day and how well she was doing. He listened attentively, asked very few questions, and slipped out unobtrusively when the socializing began. He didn't have to come. The school would have given him a private meeting any time. But he did come. Just another parent.
     I was alone with him only three times in those nine or so years, but each indelible moment in his company was illuminated by his gentle, ironic humor and contagious smile.
     The first time was during an Observation Morning. The principle was to sneak up the back steps and hide in the kitchen. The hatch for passing food into the classroom had been raised about six inches and a few potted plants strategically placed in front of the opening. The lights were left off so that we could see the children, but they couldn't see us (although I suspect some of them caught on). Only one set of parents was allowed to sign up for a given date. Being a one-parent family by that point, I climbed the stairs alone and picked my way among the carving tables and suspended cooking pots to take up my post. A stool had been thoughtfully left for me, so I sat down and started spying through the hatch, between the potted plants, fully expecting to have the whole place to myself for the hour. Suddenly behind me I heard a resounding whisper, hushed but unmistakable. Marcello. He must have been passing through town and so had been slated in with me. For one hour I sat there staring through the crack in the hatch, cheek to cheek with one of the handsomest men in the world. At first it was hard to keep my mind on why I was there, but he soon made me feel at ease. We whispered back and forth, marveling at our respective children, and cross-marveling at the other's. Several times I offered him my stool, but he refused graciously. At the end of the hour, we picked our way back through the pots and pans and down the narrow steps. He offered to drive me to my next appointment. And here I make a confession. Although I have never in my life been what could be called a groupie, I took him up on his invitation. The chauffeur opened the door, I made up a destination across town in the general direction he was going, and off we drove. He was a natural conversationalist, fluent in both French and English in addition to his native Italian. That morning he had eyes only for his daughter. I can still hear that lovely accent: "You understand. I am an old man. My life is finished. Ma... here is this beautiful child who looks at me and says "Papa!". Two tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. And he wasn't acting. We got to my "destination", he helped me out of the car, said he hoped we'd meet again, smiled and drove off, waving out the back window. I hailed a taxi to drive me back to the school to pick up my car. He never found out it had been parked right outside all along.
     The second time was not designed to raise his opinion of my taste in attire. I was at home, cleaning the house, in the usual attire for that job: old jeans and a sweatshirt, hair tied back any old way. The bell rang downstairs. As my daughter was being brought home after school with Mastroianni's daughter, who was invited to play (or maybe it was to stay overnight, I don't remember), I pushed the buzzer and opened the door for them. Expecting them to arrive with the au pair girl, I left our front door open and went back to scrubbing the toilet bowl. Not very poetic, but there you are. I heard the two girls chattering back and forth as they climbed the stairs, then suddenly... that same unmistakable voice. Marcello. He popped his head around the corner, and there I stood, toiletbrush in hand, looking like something the cat dragged in. He smiled at me as if this were exactly what he expected, but I hope it wasn't, then came in to kiss his daughter good bye. I invited him to stay for coffee, but he declined politely and again disappeared with a smile and a wave.
     The last time we met I was betrayed by the natural pandemonium that reigned in our home, as in many single-parent working-mother homes, aided by my wreck of a car, whose front windows never rolled down again after a particularly nasty ice storm that froze them permanently closed. One day I went to school to pick up the kids (my son was part of the act by that time). It was hot and the rear windows, the only functioning ones, were rolled down. There were still crumbs from the breakfast croissants all over the back seat. No sooner did I get inside the school but I heard... Marcello. It was his daughter's birthday and he wanted to take her for a movie and a pizza. Not deterred by the toiletbrush incident, he smiled and asked whether my two children could please come along. I said yes and offered to drive them to the theater, as it was almost curtain time. Then I remembered the broken windows and crumbs! Too late!  As we walked to my wreck, all three children dashed ahead and proceeded to leap in through the open back window. We got in and I sheepishly drove off, complete with broken windows and crumbs. Ever the gentleman, he didn't blink. It could have been a Rolls. My son upheld our family's reputation as eccentrics by pinching all the waiters in the pizzeria on the bum. In his defense, I might point out that he was only four. Instead of throwing them out, all the waiters laughed. What else could they do?  He was with Mastroianni. And Marcello was laughing louder than anyone.
     Marcello Mastroianni was undeniably a great actor. But he was also a warm man, a natural gentleman, and a loving father. A very private person, and one who deserves a private tribute. For me, he will always be that father sitting uncomfortably on the child-size chair at the parents' meeting, a smile on his face and a friendly word for all us fellow parents.
     So thank you, Marcello, for all the joy you brought to my family. You will be missed.

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