Now I Get It

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When she reminisced about her own mother who was no more, the grandmother of whom I have the vaguest perception – short, blue-white hair twisted in a bun, the keys of the refrigerator secured in her hand, slightly intimidating – beating herself up for not having been the daughter she deserved. My mother, not the perfect daughter? Are we kidding? Couldn’t imagine it then, in my childish innocence.

But now I get it, mamma.

The distance she had stretched between her hometown, Modena, in Northern Italy, her family, and the southern town where she had decided to live with her new husband, about six hundred kilometers away. It seemed like a life sentence, though a few hours of train could easily erase the loneliness.

Don’t do that, she admonished me, her gaze lovingly intense, don’t leave your mother because the wound never heals.

But I did.

Must we not, imperfect beings that we are, experience our own failures before we understand that we shouldn’t have?

The distance I unrolled between us exceeded all expectations, it extended across the turbulent waters of the Atlantic, it spoke another language, it created an alien existence that never thoroughly melded with the original one.

Leaving her to start anew, my eyes full of stars, my heart pulsing young dreams of love everlasting.

And I saw her, in my hazy imagination laced with angst, carrying the basket of wet laundry out to the balcony, going through my bedroom, like she always did, to hang shirts, towels, sheets and socks on the lines, the breeze gentle in the spring, the sun warm enough to dry those dancing clothes and infuse them with the scent of the wondrous turquoise sky of Naples.

I saw her walking briskly to the colorful and chaotic market street, pulling the wheeled shopping cart, eyeing the fruit stands, stopping at the bakery for some warm tender panini to take home to us, little children, anxious for her return. A lifetime ago, when happiness was a soft roll spread with Nutella. And hand-knitted bed socks – red, pink, light blue – which she created in the darkened dining room, while watching old American movies on the black and white TV, probably lost in her own tortuous thoughts. But they kept us warm in those frigid winter night, under three or four blankets, sleepy and safe.

I had two suitcases open on my bed. My armoire’s doors wide open, and all my life to pack up. Leaving her, eager for my American adventure. She puttered in and out of my room, bringing me items I might need, her unrestrained tears raining on my books, my records. I was impatient – Come, now, take control of yourself, mamma, America is not that far, hop on a plane, no big deal, it’s not the end of the world…-

But it was. Yes, for her, it was. The agony of the ones left behind.

Oh yes, now I get it.

Beautiful, movie-star blonde, witty, endlessly generous, dedicated teacher, avid and intellectual traveler, forever a dreamer though fiercely pragmatic, tender and crazy, my mother was in my life for way too little time (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, of course), but not one day exists that I don’t see her, talk to her, reach for her.

Cherish your mothers, my friends.

Happy Mother’s Day! Buona Festa della Mamma!

 

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