Authors: Massimo Gramellini
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To my mother, Giuseppina Pastore
Far more important than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.
On New Year's eve, like every year, I called on my godmother to take her to see Mom.
My godmother is a piece of antique furniture in a very good state of conservation. She lives on her own in a house filled with sunlight, where she spends her time reading detective novels and chatting to the framed photographs of her husband. Occasionally she changes shelf and talks to the photograph of Mom, mostly about me.
I imagine she omits the more unwelcome news. Such as the fact I've had two wivesâthough not, it's true, at the same time. And that I never did become a lawyer.
While I was helping her into her coat, she brought up the subject of the novel I had given her for Christmas.
“I finished it last night.”
“Did you enjoy it? It's not a detective novel.”
“Of course I did: you wrote it.”
“And the passages about Mom?”
“That's the part I wanted to talk to you about.”
“It's the only part which is autobiographical. I put a bit of the story of my own life into those pages.”
“Are you sure it's your story?”
“And why wouldn't it be?”
“It wasn't exactly like thatÂ .Â .Â . I want to give you something, dear.”
I watched her fumble with dwarf-sized keys at the drawers of the bureau. Her lovely, gnarled old hands drew out a brown envelope. She handed it to me with a quivering voice: “After forty years, it's time that someone told you the truth.”
Forty years earlier, on New Year's Eve, I woke up so early I thought I was still dreaming. I remember the scent of my mother in my room and her dressing gown at the foot of the bed. What was it doing there?
And then the snow on the window sill, the lights all on throughout the house, a sound of feet dragging along and that howl, like some wounded animal:
I pushed my slippers onto the wrong feet, but there was no time to correct the mistake. The door was already creaking open as I pushed it with my hands, until I saw him in the middle of the hallway, next to the Christmas treeâDaddy.
The great oak tree I looked up to as a child, bent
double like a willow by some invisible force, with a pair of strangers holding him up under the arms.
He was wearing the purple dressing gown my mother had given himâthe one held together with a curtain cord instead of a belt. He jerked about, kicking and twisting.
As soon as he saw I was there, I heard him murmur: “He's my sonÂ .Â .Â . Please, take him over to the neighbors'.”
His head fell backwards and bumped against the Christmas tree. An angel with glass wings lost its balance and toppled to the floor.
The two strangers didn't speak, but they were kind, and they left me with Tiglio and Palmira, an elderly married couple who lived in the flat on the opposite side of the landing.
Tiglio faced life armed in the striped pajamas he always wore and comforted by a stubborn deafness. He communicated only in writing, but that morning he refused to reply to the questions I scrawled in block letters in the margins of the newspaper
Thieves must have got in during the nightÂ .Â .Â . perhaps they were the two men who'd been holding him by the arms?
Palmira came in with the shopping.
“Your daddy had a bit of a headache. He's all right now. Those two men were the doctors who came to see him.”
“Why didn't they have white coats on?”
“They only put them on when they're in the hospital.”
“Why were there two of them?”
“The emergency doctors always go around in pairs.”
“I seeâso if one of them feels ill the other one can look after him. Where's Mommy?”
“Daddy's gone out with her. They had something to do.”
“When is she coming back?”
“She'll be back soon, you'll see. Do you want a cup of hot chocolate?”
In the absence of my mother, I made do with the chocolate.
A few hours later Giorgio and Ginetta, my parents' best friends, came to take charge of me.
I'm not sure I ever thought of them as two separate people. My parents had met at their wedding, a circumstance which never failed to set my little head whirring.
“Mommy, if Giorgio and Ginetta had forgotten to take you to their wedding, would you still be my mommy or someone else who was there?”
Even though it was patched and torn like a workman's overalls, my tongue was never still.
“It's a miracle with a tongue in that condition your son can speak,” the pediatrician had told my mother.
“It would be a miracle if I could get him to be quiet every now and then, Doctor,” my mother had replied. “He talks nonstopÂ .Â .Â . he'll end up becoming a lawyer.”
I didn't agree. I wanted to stop talking and start writing instead. Whenever I felt some adult had been unfair towards me, I would shake a pen in their face: “When I'm grown up, I'll write it all down in a book called
Me as a Child
The title could be improved, but the book itself would be explosive.
The truth was I would have preferred to be a painter. By the age of six I had already painted my last masterpiece:
Mommy Eating a Bunch of Grapes
. The bunch was twice the size of my mother, the grapes looked like the baubles on a Christmas tree, and my mother's face resembled a grape.
She had put it up in the kitchen and would proudly point it out to visiting relatives. Seeing the puzzled looks on their faces, life dealt me its first blow: I was never going to succeed as a painter. I would have to try to draw the world inside me in words.
Back in Giorgio and Ginetta's home, the saddest New Year's Eve dinner ever took place. Despite my efforts to enliven the conversation, their thirteen-year-old son and myself were hurried off to our bunk beds at nine o'clock, after a bowl of pasta and a veal cutlet, both cooked in butter.
There was no way of getting a slice of panettone or a decent explanation out of them. Mommy and Daddy had something to doâperhaps the same thing they'd had to do in the morning or perhaps something else, but equally mysterious. And we boys had to head for the Land of Nod as fast as our legs would carry us.
I remember the regular breathing of my cellmate in the bunk above me. And the fireworks at midnight, which stained the dark of the room through the only partly lowered blinds.
Buried beneath the blankets, my eyes wide open and
my head in a whirl like some top which couldn't stop spinning, I kept asking myself what I could possibly have done during the Christmas holidays to deserve a punishment like this.
I'd told two fibs, answered my mother back once and given Riccardo, the boy from the second floor who was a Juventus supporter, a kick in the backside. None of them seemed to me like capital offensesâespecially the last.
On New Year's Day, Giorgio and Ginetta told me that when she'd returned from doing her errands my mother had had to go to hospital for a few tests. The last few months had been full of things she'd had to do and tests she'd had to take. Tests in hospital that is: if she'd come to school with me, I could have shown her how to copy the answers.
I imagined her tackling one of the problems our teacher had set us for the holidays. A little boy walks three kilometers and every two hectometers he drops two balls: how many balls will he drop after 1,900 meters?
I hated that wordâhectometersâjust as I hated that stupid little boy who kept dropping balls all over the place and yet went on walking as if nothing had happened.
In the afternoon my father reappeared to take me to
the hospital to see my mother. He'd gone back to being an oak tree.
“Let's buy her some flowers first,” I suggested.
“No. Let's first go and see Baloo. He needs to tell you something important.”
I dug my heels in. Baloo was the priest who ran the local Cubs, which I'd been going to for some months. I didn't mind saying hello to him, but he should wait his turn, instead of cutting in front of my mother.
Giorgio and Ginetta intervened and proposed an honorable compromise: we would still visit the hospital after we'd called on Baloo, but we would go and buy the flowers first.
I turned up at the church hall used by the Scouts holding an entire garden's worth of red roses in my arms.
Baloo had the same physical clumsiness and goodness of heart as his namesake in the
. He took us into the Cubs' meeting room and straightaway cracked a joke about football. Even though he'd been born in Buenos Aires and lived in Turin like us, he was a fan of Cagliari and their star player Gigi Riva.
He wanted to show me some Panini cards of footballers, but Dad stopped him.
“Show him another time, Baloo.”
He gave a sigh and asked me to look up at the ceiling: a heaven of blue chalk drawings which I had helped to color in. Baloo plonked his huge hand down on my shoulder while pointing at the ceiling with the other.
“You know your mommy is your guardian angel, don't you? For a long time she's wanted to fly up there so she can look after you betterâand yesterday the Lord called her to join himÂ .Â .Â .”
An icy spoon turned in my stomach and hollowed it out. I spun round to my father, looking for some hint of a denial, but all I saw was his red eyes and pale lips.
“Let's go and pray,” said Baloo.
“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord. Let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen.”
Baloo's warm voice echoed through the nave of the empty church.
On my knees in the front pew, clasping the mass of red roses tightly to my chest, I moved my lips in time to his,
but the words welling up from my heart were different. “Lord, give Mommy a short rest. Wake her up, make her some coffee and then send her back to me immediatelyÂ .Â .Â . She's my mommy, so either bring her back here or take me up there. Please hurry up and choose. I'll close my eyes, and when I open them promise me you'll have made up your mind, all right? Amen.”
My mother was laid out in the sitting room on view to the curious glances of the grieving neighbors.
I refused to go and look at her. I was sure she would come back. It's not in my nature to accept defeat. In the films I like best, the hero loses everything, but then, stepping away from the brink of the abyss, he begins his comeback.