I’m looking at my mother and touching her hand, but she doesn’t look back at me. She stays still, folded on herself, her back bent forward, looking down; then she shuts her eyes as hard as she can. She is trying to keep out the sounds and the images that seem to attack her from the outside. The world around her is frightening. Elvira tells me that my mother no longer wants to leave the house. The familiar and comforting meaning of things seems lost to her. Sometimes the world falls on her as a wall of noise, loud and unpleasant. All she can do is shutting it off.
I’m sitting with my mother in her kitchen in Rome, at the white folding table she bought many years ago (in the world of my parents, I notice, things last much longer; they are so much more permanent than mine). I’ve always liked this tiled room, all white and aqua and filled with light (the Roman light: open, merciless, and with a weightless quality I’ve not found anywhere else.)
She is wearing a white nightgown, a long burgundy robe, and a shawl of the same color. “She is always cold,” tells me Elvira. She also tells me that my mother doesn’t want to take baths. She used to take her clothes off, before they changed her medications.
I know she still recognizes me: she lets me sit close to her and talk to her. Occasionally, she does look in my eyes. Then she says: “Andiamo,” let’s go. I take her hand, which is cold, and we start walking in a circle through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the hallway that goes by her bathroom and her bedroom, then the kitchen again. We go around and around at a slow, careful pace that reminds me of walking meditation. It is walking meditation: I try to be present. I try to feel her. What is left of her, I notice myself thinking.
My mother and I were never close. The first of my many ill-fated love relationships, the timing wasn’t right and we never clicked with each other. I was born 10 months to the day after my mother and my father were married. My mother took the pain to explain, several times, that since the first night they slept together, she realized that marrying my father had been a mistake. If it weren’t for me, she told me, she would have left him then.
“Blame the child” is a traditional game in my family. My grandmother blamed my mother for the death of her husband, my mother’s father, who was killed in Albania in 1939 when my mom was five. “If I didn’t have you,” my grandmother used to say, “I would have gone to Albania with Giovanni, and he would still be alive; or we would both be dead,” which evidently my grandmother thought a better and more heroic fate than finding herself alone with a five-year-old in a country ravaged by war, bomb raids, scarce food, and uncertainty.
(My mother’s karmic seed of suffering: that she might be the reason why the person she had loved more than anybody in her life was killed. I know she fought this thought with all the fury of her rational self. I also know that deep inside, the seed of unbearable doubt grew in her soul, a weed that could not be eradicated).
I was a colicky child, I’m told. I just screamed and screamed, desperately, for hours at hand. Colicky babies cry with a high-pitch sound that pierces the parents’ ears and souls. They create consternation and mayhem in the healthiest of families. It must have been almost unbearable for my mother, who already felt the most inadequate and unskilled of mothers.
After reading in the newspaper of a man who threw his baby out of a window because of her crying, my father decided he needed to do something. He put me in a dark room, locked the door, hid the key from my mother, and waited. I cried and cried and cried. I cried for hours, perhaps days. Then I stopped. And, the legend goes, that was the end of it.
(As merciless as it seems, my father’s desperate attempt at stopping my crying was more insightful than I ever gave him credit for. Colicky babies, experts say, are oversensitive and get in cycles of over-stimulation that cannot be broken from the outside. The only way to calm them is to teach them to sooth and pacify themselves. And yes, they are at high risk for physical abuse.)
Stopping my crying didn’t stop my mother’s depression. One of my oldest memories is of myself standing in the middle of my mother’s bedroom. I’m a few feet from the bed where my mother lies, her back at me. The room smells of dust and stale air. All I can see is the back of my mother’s beige sweater and her dark hair on the pillow. I can still feel the sense of paralysis in my body. I’m stuck there, unable to get closer and unable to leave. I’m bored, sad, angry, and tired; but I can also feel the slightest sense of hope that she would turn and smile or tell me she loves me and she wants me to come close and hug her.
(My karmic seeds of suffering: that I am unwanted or unwelcomed; that I might possess an intrinsic unlikable, faulty quality that causes others to push me away. That both staying in an unsatisfying relationship and leaving it are impossible alternatives.)
Another memory, many years later. My sister, my mother and I are lying on the big bed in the same bedroom, on a sunny Sunday morning. My mother is telling us about her memory of another sunny morning, forty-five years earlier.
It’s a warm and breezy spring day. The windows are open and the curtains move gently in the wind. Her parents bedroom is filled with sun, two suitcases open on the bed. My grandmother sings while she picks a dress, a pair of shoes, a bathing suit for the trip. It’s the first vacation in a long time, just the three of them. My mother runs in and out the room screaming with joy and excitement.
It’s the first time my mother describes this memory to us. She is telling us about the last moment of pure happiness in her life; she can still see it as vividly as when it happened. Then she tells us what happened next.
The door bell rang. My grandmother opened the door. A soldier stood outside with a note. My grandfather took the note and started reading. Suddenly the scene changes to a slow-motion black and white. We regret to inform you … There would be no vacation. My grandfather Giovanni would have to repack his suitcase for a very different trip.
Italy had just invaded Albania. It was Friday, April 7, 1939, a month before my mother’s fifth birthday. My grandfather left the following day for Albania. It was the last time my mother and my grandmother saw him alive. He died few days later, the first Italian casualty of the war in Albania. The Second World War was about to start.
This, I realize, was the turning point. The exact moment when everything crashed and crumbled and life was never the same. The earthquake whose reverberating aftershock shaped the lives of at least three generation of women in my family and can still be felt to this day.
(My mother’s karmic seed of suffering: dreaming happy moments is at the root of disruption; anything you want really hard will be taken away from you in the cruelest of ways.)
“Do want to walk some more or do you want to stop? Are you tired?” I ask my mother.
“Andiamo,” she says without looking at me.
Another tour of the apartment. The kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the hallway, the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the hallway, the kitchen… Slowly walking our karmic circles over and over again. I’m holding her hand, still cold but trusting, as I steer her away from furnitures and walls.
I look at my mother and I realize that all the memories she didn’t tell me about, all the memories I didn’t listen to are gone forever. All is left is this moment, in which she and I walk in circles, hand in hand, in a medium size apartment in Rome, the capital of a country with a painful past. In a few days, I will be thousands of miles away from this moment and this place. Right now, I’m here.
[New York, January 2008 - Photos by SMD]