FEATURED NONFICTION: The Official Story

The young girl crouches, listening to the men decide her fate. She is as still as a woodland creature, hidden among the goats in the barn that is attached to her whitewashed stone house on the outskirts of Sulmona, at the foot of the fearsome Apennines. The oil lamp in the primitive kitchen gives a falsely cheery glow, one that belies the grimness of the talk within. Her father offers two pigs and five hectares of land. The hunchback laughs and shakes his head. He knows that he is the solitary bidder for this skinny girl. Il Duce has promised a bounty on sons; this rag looks unlikely to be the mother of future soldiers. Even in the gloom, the girl can see the hunchback’s blackened teeth, his twisted back. He is old, older than her father. His sour smell rises above the pungent odor of the goats who mutter and shift beside her, their devil eyes like his, the gobbo, the hunchback who will take her to his bed.

She hates her father. He is cruel, his green eyes glinting with spite. Her mother sleeps in the girl’s narrow bed with her at night. Sometimes her father comes home drunk, his short, thick body knocking into things, and then he grows into a towering colossus, a monster inflated by the rough talk at the café in the piazza. He strikes her mother, calls her puttana, tries to pull her from the young girl’s bed. He is a man who deserves respect, the head of the house. Her father is a fascist; he lives by Mussolini’s words: Believe! Obey! Fight! But his wife fights him; she spits in his face. The young girl knows what to do: she runs to find her mother’s father, her nonno, who will come with the gun, the gun that kills the wolves that come down from the mountains at night to cull the herd of sheep. Her father is a wolf; he has no pity. He devours his prey. She and her mother are prey.

And now the girl will be separated from her mother and go to live with the gobbo in his filthy lair, like a princess sacrificed to a dark god. But the very next day her mother appears, glowing like the befana at Epiphany and gives the girl a precious gift: her freedom. The mother tells the girl she will send her to L’America, where she will marry when and if she pleases, for love; she will not be a token for pigs or hectares of land. The girl herself will choose. She will live with the mother’s sister in the absurd-sounding state of Massachusetts where she will have a future and be safe in a place where the coming of war does not thud with the dull certainty of a hoe cracking the starved earth. She will know kindness, she will be granted mercy. She will be happy.

On the boat crossing, she worries her meager treasures like rosary beads: the stark photograph of her unhappy mother, the picture frame made of sugared almonds, the dried flower, a secret token from the boy she wanted but could not have. She is dressed in many layers of clothes to save space in her bundle and to give the illusion of robust good health to the officials who guard the gates to L’America. She allows herself to dream, to hope for happiness.

The girl suffers a purgatory of years in the new world. The aunt puts her to work in the garment district of Boston mere days after her arrival. She sews all day long with people who can’t pronounce her name. She receives a new name, an American name that slightly resembles her own and makes her feel like a changeling. She gets lost in the maze of Boston and stands crying in the dirty streets.  Her aunt’s adopted son resents her, the interloper. She is sent to live with strangers. Six months after she arrives in this cacophonous, unfriendly place she receives word that her mother is dead. Her father remarries less than a year later, a disgrace. Now even her yearnings for the lonely farmhouse are tempered with the understanding that return is impossible. There is no home, just a space on a strange family’s sofa where she hears them whispering about her at night.

Then, a glimmer of light. Her aunt opens a store in an Italian neighborhood outside of Boston. The girl works at the store and makes a friend, a teenage girl who speaks her language. She is invited to the teenager’s house, a wonderland of laughter and savory food. She is enfolded, entranced by this new family. There is a handsome older brother, a young widower whose generous nature is glazed over with sorrow. The girl sees only his smile, his thick, wavy hair, his elegant clothes. Within two weeks, there is a pact. They marry, because the young widower needs to settle down and the girl is young and innocent and from the old country. Love comes later, overcoming gratitude, and the girl is at last happy.

This was my mother. That was my father. This is the official story.

And like all immigrant stories, it’s not the whole story, and it’s only partly true.

 

 

Aunt Ellie, my father’s younger sister, was the storyteller in our family. Ellie had exciting tales about the dating buffet that was Boston during World War II, the handsome men in various uniforms that took her to dances and movies, the time she made a date with two guys for the same night and sent my safely married mother to suss out which one was cuter. She sat at our kitchen table with the red enamel top and silver sides, a conjurer wreathed in smoke, filling ashtrays, telling her tales. Ellie talked about the tough times, too, ironing clothes for rich people during the Depression. She was only twelve years old, but what she earned helped pay the electric bill. She spoke of the pride she felt walking the two miles to Watertown Square from the family home in Newton, the ironing money clutched in her hand, knowing she was helping to keep the house from foreclosure by the always-looming bank. There were glamorous pictures of Ellie as a young woman, long-legged and red-lipped, in a fur coat, auburn Rita Hayworth hair spilling over her shoulders. An oval-framed picture showed a younger Ellie on the day of her Holy Communion, a miniature bride in a long white dress and veil. A formal family picture portrayed her at four, innocent in a smocked dress, leaning shyly against her proud mother.

There were no pictures of my mother as a teenager or as a child.

My mother doled out information about her past in grudging non sequiturs that made no sense in the worldview of my American childhood. Ellie’s stories made me love her. My mother’s stories left me puzzled and sometimes afraid. Her one-liners were like ominous messages discovered on an ancient tablet from a lost civilization. The truncated anecdotes were nonsensical and scary and even funny in a macabre kind of way. Once I pointed to a faint scar over her left eyebrow and she told me that a donkey had kicked her in the head when she was around my age (ten at the time). I didn’t know any other kids whose mothers had been kicked in the head by a donkey. Nor did any of my friends have a mother who had marched for Il Duce. In my early twenties, I took her to see “A Special Day,” a Sophia Loren/Marcello Mastroianni film about fascist Italy. My mother shouted in delighted recognition upon seeing the kids dressed in their Balilla uniforms—“That was me! I march’ for Il Duce!” My mother the fascist, I thought, with a kind of sour wonder, as I shushed her, looking around the darkened theatre, afraid someone had heard. My mother had no entertaining stories about dating different guys like Aunt Ellie, only dark tales about arranged marriages and a fleeting reference to the unhappy one between her own mother and father. Neither did she have any wedding pictures.

I was obsessed with wedding portraits when I was a kid. In the early sixties, it was my destiny, my certain future, the glowing endgame scenario, to be a bride. My father talked about “walking me down the aisle” someday. My childhood friends played bride and planned their elaborate weddings. I was a flower girl at cousins’ weddings, strewing blossoms down the aisle, my future path to glory. I received bride dolls for Christmas, stiff blinking manikins swathed in lace that were meant more as symbolic totems to be venerated than actual playthings. Both sets of aunts and uncles had elegant black and white wedding photographs, the aunts in satin dresses with trains that swirled around their feet like quicksilver. My Aunt Ellie’s sister-in-law Camille, who lived downstairs, had a thick cream-colored leather album of black and white photographs documenting the connubial rites from the first ceremonial laying on of the lacy white veil in her bedroom to the hammy end photo of the bride and groom waving goodbye in the decorated getaway car. I had memorized the details of every picture and handled the album like a sacred text. Whenever I slept over, I headed straight for that book, perched in a place of honor atop a white doily, while my aunt and her sister-in-law had their morning coffee break and daily rehash of yesterday’s soaps.

The nuns at Our Lady Help of Christians, where I went to school, taught us that marriage was a sacrament. A marriage was only valid if sanctioned by a priest who performed the rite in a church. Where was the picture of my mother and father happily exiting the church under a hail of rice with the priest blessing them at the door? Where was the staged portrait of my mother, her bashful eyes cast down, clad in the creamy satin gown, the veil dripping with hand-tatted lace, the white signifying her virginal, untouched state? This lack of documentation troubled me most of all because it involved God. I had a horrible feeling that the missing photograph was a sin of omission that meant my parents were not in God’s good graces, and that by some awful blood contagion, I wasn’t, either. Our family was possibly cursed, with hell yawning before us. I might even be a bastard or a sort of unofficial non-person. Where was the proof my mother and father were married in the eyes of the church? Could God even see us?

I asked my mother these questions over and over, with the inhuman persistence of an interrogator at a black ops site. Her replies were usually distracted half-truths that were ludicrously inadequate excuses to a Nancy Drew buff like myself. For instance, she tried to pass off a posed photograph of herself in what was obviously a bridesmaid’s dress as her wedding portrait. How could she think that I, a junior matrimonial connoisseur, could be fooled by such a blatant untruth? Really? Where was her veil? It couldn’t possibly have been that voile bonnet that tied under her chin. Even in black and white you could tell the non-wedding veil was pastel-colored. Unheard of! Sometimes the relentless inquiries would trigger my mother’s vesuvian temper and I would crouch under the eruption of her anger with my questions unanswered, afraid to move, frozen like those filled-in statues at Pompeii, ineffectively dodging the fiery ash that doomed them forever.

My mother could be chatty on topics unrelated to weddings, but her ramblings were bizarre and somehow irritating tales that were as zany as Saturday morning cartoons. When I was around twelve she looked up from my latest report card and told me in a bemused voice that she was always the first one to raise her hand in school and volunteer to go down to the river and wash the teacher’s clothes. Once I got over picturing myself scrubbing Sister Eudes’ mysterious underwear in the scummy waters of the Charles River at the end of my street, I took this information as a passive/aggressive slur on my smarty-pants straight A grades, since I didn’t have the first clue how to operate our washing machine, a skill my mother would have admired much more than my straight A’s. One day I asked about my grandmothers, both dead before I was born. She shocked me by saying:

“My mother didn’t love my father. She was going to run away with someone else.” Before I could digest this drama, she topped herself by telling me she was born in this country, in Watertown, just a few miles from where we lived now. She said that her mother and father had come here to make a new life. But her father had discovered my grandmother’s affair and “ripped up the passports” in my mother’s words. The unhappy couple, along with my newborn mother, returned home to Abruzzi, where my mother grew up with no memory of the United States or knowledge that she was an American citizen.

While my head still swam with the news that my mother was actually American, she launched into a story about my other grandmother, a story that was really about my mother herself. She told me about the day she brought coffee up to her mother-in-law’s bedroom, where she lay, invalided by heart disease. My mother, newly wedded to my father, served coffee and sweets to all her mother-in-law’s friends, but after they left, my grandmother told my mother, “You should’ve put poison in their coffee. They all talked bad about you.” I was confused. “But why?” I asked my mother. “Why? Why would they say mean things about you?” She shrugged. End of story. Was it because she didn’t have a wedding picture? I remained adrift in a sea of family half-truths, confused and resentful at the cruel irony that my American-born mother didn’t seem in the least American. There was nothing open or guileless or hopeful or optimistic about her. Ma was as murky and baleful as a sibyl at Cumae. Nothing about my family made sense.

When I became a teen-ager, the entire Mystery of the Missing Wedding Picture became as insignificant to me as the Nancy Drew books gathering dust in my bookcase.  I no longer cared about my mother’s past, and I didn’t worry about whether or not my parents had been married in the Catholic Church. “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” I chanted with other feminists as we marched through Boston defying the patriarchy. I renounced the church and the directives of the old men in dresses giving orders from Rome. I would never get married, I decided. I would never dress up like a bride doll and walk down the aisle of some church to be “given away” by my father. He couldn’t give me away, anyway, because he was dead, at fifty, and my young mother, now widowed with three children and no way to make a living, had to apply survival skills dormant for the seventeen years she was married to my father. We declared a mother/daughter truce and sheathed our rapiers, too busy now to indulge in the luxury of squabbling, exchanging the daily verbal death of a thousand cuts for the grim but necessary pursuit of food and shelter.

When I became an adult the struggles eased and my mother made me laugh more often than she made me angry. My mother’s worried overprotection during my coddled childhood had only served to distance us. I could never picture her hardscrabble beginnings and she resented the self-absorbed child she had helped to create. She kept her secrets, as befitted someone raised in the inaccessible, shrouded mountains; I overshared, like all the American children of my pig-in-the-python generation. My own mellowing came right on schedule after I became a mother, too, and had been married happily for a number of years. As it turned out, I didn’t have a formal wedding portrait, either, just a snapshot of me in a vintage wedding dress that was a $75 find from a jumped-up antique shop on 43rd Street in Manhattan. The irony of the non-wedding dress worn by a former wedding-obsessive was not lost on me. Sic transit gloria mundi.

 

Years later, I sat across from Aunt Ellie at her laminated faux maple table smoking a Benson & Hedges bummed from her ever-present open pack. In her late seventies, Ellie was still a vibrant storyteller, the go-to person for unraveling the twisted skeins of bloodlines to figure who was related to whom, the rememberer of quirks that made long-dead relatives come to life. That day she was recapping all the celebrity scandals from the supermarket tabloids piled up on the nearby shelf under her kitchen television, since her own hell-raising days were behind her. She moved on to family news and then, with the mischievous look of a naughty child setting off a firecracker, she blew up the world as I knew it.

“You know,” she said, exhaling her dragon smoke, “when your mother married my brother, your uncle Joe looked at her passport and the name on it wasn’t her maiden name.”

It took a full ten seconds to close my mouth and I only did so after Ellie prompted me.

“You’re catchin’ flies.”

“Wait,” I said. “Wait,” stalling for time. “Ma married the…the hunchback?”

But instead of my mother and the hunchback, I thought of the brown metal heart-shaped box, the one I found while snooping through my parents’ bureau one day when they were out, the day I discovered the proof I was adopted. I was twelve and believed that I had been somehow switched at birth. If my parents weren’t officially married, it made a skewed sense that I didn’t belong to them either, that they had gotten me from somewhere unofficial, somewhere not approved by the Catholic Church.

The world had tilted that day when I opened the box and released the sad exhalations of lost love. I found the top of a wedding cake with a tiny bride and groom standing under a dented wire arch with yellowed muslin flowers. There was a delicate white gold ring I tried on my own finger. The ring looked a travesty on my grubby, nail-bitten hand. There was no inscription. Finally, there was a picture of my father with another woman, a beautiful young girl with dark hair who wasn’t my mother. Well, now I had proof.  Of what, I wasn’t sure, but it was proof that my mother and father had secrets, grown-up secrets that meant that the everyday world of our family wasn’t what it seemed to be. And proof that I was adopted and my mother wasn’t my real mother and this dark-haired slender ghost-woman was my real mother. I hoped it was true. She looked American. Really American, unlike my fake American mother, who had a U.S. birth certificate somewhere but was in reality a farm girl from the Italian Apennines who couldn’t speak English without mangling it. This woman was probably like Aunt Ellie, normal, I thought, staring at the curling photograph. I was sure she went to high school in this country and never flapped her teacher’s undies on river rocks to get out of social studies.

It was Ellie who had explained the mystery on one of my overnight visits.  Josephine was daddy’s first wife, who had died young, twenty-three years old, of a bad heart. The drama kept intensifying as Ellie went on with her story. Josephine was pregnant when she died in my father’s arms. She was laid out in our parlor in her white wedding dress, right under the porch windows where the nubbly beige sofa was situated today. I had a morbid, guilty thrill picturing young, tragic Josephine lying like Snow White in her casket, veiled in white lace, a replica of her wedding bouquet clasped in her folded icy fingers.  Josephine’s ghost would haunt the living room forevermore and my late-night movie viewing would always be fueled by an extra frisson of fear no matter what the movie was about. Ellie continued her story, telling me that my father, broken-hearted at Josephine’s death, took off on an extended cross-country trip with his buddies. Ellie’s mother, my grandmother, cried and prayed until the day he stepped over the threshold of our house. But he returned home with his heart still in tatters and went wild, dating all kinds of women, frightening my grandmother. Until Ellie brought my mother home and my father agreed to settle down with a nice young girl from the old country, the official story I had always been told. The Josephine is my real mother fantasy was proof only of my own ability to draw insanely illogical conclusions based on thin air, an excitable nature and a preteen disposition toward tragedy. If you held up a picture of my actual mother and one of me, you would see our twin widow’s peaks, our identical noses, our matching sad meatball eyes. My mother was my real mother, Ellie assured me. She opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out the scrap paper she used for grocery lists, then she clarified with a math proficiency honed by countless games of gin rummy the impossibility of Josephine being the American mother of my cherished longings. Even I could see the dates didn’t work.

I reached for another one of Ellie’s cigarettes.

“Did she? Marry the hunchback?” I asked. Ellie didn’t know. “All I know is, that wasn’t her maiden name on the passport, that’s what Uncle Joe told me,” she said.

“And you can’t say anything to your mother, either, or you’ll get Uncle Joe in trouble,” she continued, taking another deep drag of her cigarette, inhaling and squinting through the smoke halo framing her like a demented saint. All of the long-dormant questions about the secrets my mother harbored came springing back to life.

“Are you telling me you knew my mother all these years, you two are like sisters, and you never once asked her about this,” I said, my voice time travelling all the way back into a preadolescent squeak of outrage.

Ellie folded her arms, sat back and looked at me like I was indeed a dopey twelve year old. She clucked her irritation.

“Course I asked her.” In her thick Boston accent “course” sounded like “caws.” “Your mother got all huffy and yelled at me. She said, ‘Your brother and I told each other everything, and if you have any questions, ask him’.”

I knew better than to ask if Ellie ever went to her brother with that question. We were bonded in our reverence for my father. Daddy was thirteen years older than Ellie and more her father than her brother. Even years after his premature death, Ellie couldn’t speak of his loss without tears. He was one of those sun kings, around whom people orbited, and we were his closest and most devout satellites, constantly craving his warmth and attention, fearing his displeasure. I wouldn’t have risked asking him, either.

“Don’t say nothing to your mother,” Ellie said again. “I don’t want to listen to her. I’ll never hear the end of it.” I promised Ellie I wouldn’t tell my mother about Uncle Joe finding the passport so many years ago. But I didn’t promise her I wouldn’t resurrect my long-dormant Nancy Drew detective skills and find out about the passport in question in some other way.

The idea came to me after my mother talked about having a psychic over to read the cards for her and her friends. My mother, who scoffed at the rituals of the Catholic Church (She was an ally when I abandoned it, but not for the same reasons), was a firm believer in all manner of supernatural rituals. She was cynical to the core about human nature, and professed no belief in the afterlife at all, since my father had only appeared in a dream once to complain about the state of the yard that had been his pride and joy in life and was now becoming derelict, according to his dream self. My mother thought priests were slackers and nuns were deluded prisses who preferred marriage to a ghost to a real man, and accepted none of their doctrines or catechisms. However, if a psychic told her a revelation divined from the cards, she automatically suspended all disbelief, like those instant converts thudding to the floor in dead faints on religious revival shows.

Nancy Drew solved mysteries in her polite WASPy way without ever breaking rules; I needed to break all the rules of filial obligation and invoke my homey, Machiavelli, to get to the bottom of my mother’s possible marriage to the hunchback.

I did it over coffee one morning when she was spending the weekend with us. My mother was now in her late seventies, still feisty, and mordantly funny.

“Hey, Ma, guess what? I went to a psychic, and she said something about you!”

“Oh, yeah?” My mother leaned in, hooked. “She tell you I’m gonna die?”

My mother made jokes about dying all the time to stick it to death and show it she was not afraid.

“No, she said something weird I didn’t understand. Something about you being, uh, in love with or engaged or something to someone in the old country?”

There were no wiseass comebacks. Instead, the color drained from my mother’s face so dramatically I felt alarmed and a little guilty. Now looking like Dracula’s host, she stammered a garbled reply and looked away. I changed the subject, worried I had gone too far.

But just a few weeks later, my mother made a dramatic pronouncement at my kitchen table.

“Ho-kay, I tell you my story,” she blurted, as if I had just tased her. Figuratively, I guess I had been poking her, hoping the truth would tumble out at last. I wondered at this moment whether I wanted to hear it.

“My mother sold me.”

My mother, with possible genetic ties to Duse guiding her delivery, paused and checked to see that my jaw was effectively unhinged. (It was.) And then she told me her story.

The real one, at last, not the official account.

It was a version I should’ve been able to figure out for myself. My mother said more than once that she was born in this country, even though she still struggled with the language and had no memory of her time here as a baby. It was logical that she should use her American passport to barter her way back to this country. How else would she be able to go against her father’s iron decree and get to America? Her mother didn’t have any money of her own. But my mother, born here, had an American passport, i.e., a golden ticket out of an enslaved marriage and a narrow escape from the coming Nazi occupation of her hometown. Then where did she get the money? That had to come from the man her mother found who wanted to emigrate to America. The stranger my mother married in Naples before boarding the ship.

My skinny, eighteen year-old mother married a total stranger and shared a cabin with him for the two weeks it took to cross the ocean to an unknown destination, where she was met by a stern aunt she barely remembered, and then divorced this same stranger just a month later, never to see him again. I pictured the close quarters of the cabin, how jumpy and watchful I would be in her situation, and I thought of the sparrow that flew into my kitchen from the open slider, how the frenzy for escape emanating from its tiny body took up the entire room. “Weren’t you afraid?” I asked my mother. “What if he raped you? You were married, after all,” I said. “No,” my mother assured me. “He was a gentleman,” she said firmly, looking me in the eye.

My sardonic mother, whose wounded eyes put the lie to all her tough talk, felt shame all of her life for being put between the rock of her intractable father and the hard place the church assigned her after she balked at a forced marriage and blew town. Along with defiance and relief at her narrow escape, she felt vergonia, the burning, irrational humiliation that poor people feel about their hard lives and hard choices. This auto da fe, the ceremony of judgment when her mother-in-law’s friends talked about her, when the priests barred her from the rites of a sanctioned marriage, was the price she paid for her new life.

And what could she do when her daughter and chief inquisitor asked her to prove the validity of her current marriage, the real one, again and again by the silly measure of a white dress?

My mother did what she could. She told me a fairy tale, the official story, the version all immigrants tell when they reinvent themselves, and hoped for the best.

 

2 Responses to “FEATURED NONFICTION: The Official Story”

  1. Emalene Renna

    Loved the read. Need more time to read slower. My beloved grandmother a Leone, Immaculata Leone, a strong courageous woman suffered abuse from her husband. Her story different but such a strong thread. I’ve been writing her story, loved yours. The strength of these women unbelievable
    Emalene Fargnoli Renna, my actual first name is Immaculata

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