Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Weight of Memory

I am suffocating under a heavy blanket; my breathing labored.

I am eleven, home on holiday from boarding school. Mother is running the Singer and talking with Etta, a neighbor.

“No, she is still a child, thank God.” Mother turns to  look at me.

“Ma, Dolo`ra, she must know.” Etta’s insisting, cajoling an agreement.

“No! She is still innocent.” I feel scratched by strange feelings.

Mother is soft and round.

A few months before, at the Convent,  stomach aches doubled me over. I missed classes. Girls whispered, pulled me in a corner to confront me:

“Oh, you are getting IT.”

“What? What happens?”

“The curse! All girls are cursed at your age.”

“Am I going to die?”

“You will not die now, maybe later. Women die in childbirth.  Did  anyone die in your family?”

“Yes, Aunt Graziella.”

"I't the same curse.”

Mother and Etta talk softly, in hushed tones.  She sends me to fetch some wood to keep the fire going.

The cellar is cold and lonely.

As I walk back up the stairs, the same sharp pain in my lower abdomen causes me to yell out in pain. I notice my legs are bleeding.

“Go clean up, quickly.” Mother says with apprehension, meeting me at the landing.

“Mom, it’s nothing.” I say, though I notice that she looks worried.

“Now your troubles begin.” She continues, with a long face.

“Mom, there is nothing wrong; I’m just fine.”

“From now on, every month.”

“Well, I can stop it. See? " I say as I grab a towel and wipe my legs, looking for scratches. "I am all right. It's just got a scratch, that's all.”

“I‘ve dreaded this.” She says, with utter sadness.

“I‘m fine.”

Mother hands me some strips of fabric and tells me how to wear these, listing my other responsibilites; no more running, no more riding with skirts flying all over, and no more hanging around cousins. “Everyone will know now, these things cannot be kept secret.”
“What is going to happen?”
"You are no longer a child." She says.

Dad returns home from visiting Uncle Rodolfo, complains about the food he was fed by uncle’s new wife from Greece. Mother meets him with a sour face and an announcement, “Ninetta has just become a woman.”
Her head down, she hardly looks at him.
Dad moves to his seat by the fireplace and fusses with the wood.

Mother’ words like hot embers spatter shame all over the room.

Dad retreats into a place I am not invited.

The house is darker and colder now: a curse that starts with stomach pains when you are perfectly healthy, something that shames girls, something that panics mothers and silences  fathers.

The stain wipes all I had ever been.

My brother Tonino arrives from his job in Milano to spend Christmas vacation with us, bringing gifts and laughter, showing off the latest dance steps. Life is normal again.

On the seventh day after Christmas, on the feast of the Epiphany, I go to bed promptly at 7:00, anxious and excited. Minutes later, I hear Tonino speaking to my parents.
“So, what is Ninetta getting this year? What about a new record for her collection?”

He remembers how much I like the music he brought home. In previous years, my parents would bundle up and leave for a visit to a relative, they would say to us. They would send us to bed, and my brother and I would then guess what presents we would get. The shopping was always done at the last minute. All the stores stayed open late for the occasion.

Tonino is insistent, “I was still getting presents at her age. Eleven is not that old. She still believes!”

Yes, I wanted to shout, Yes, I still believe. Please, I still believe!

I hear them argue for a long while.  I fall asleep sobbing.

The next morning, around the fireplace, the customary place for presents, a pink armoire stands tall and imposing. I rush to it, fuss  with its moveable parts, with the doll inside, the clothes.

Back at the convent, the girls offer their sympathies. “Ninetta, you can forget all the freedom you used to have. My family practically locked me in my room when it happened. I was not allowed to go anywhere without an adult escort. This school is the only place my parents trust.”

“What can I do to stop this?”

“You cannot undo what happens to you.”

I had fallen from grace.

In June, at the end of school, I return home to find Mother  bedridden and unable to stay on her feet. The house has changed. There is a new baby, always wet, always crying.

When Mother is able to walk, she takes me to visit Grandma Maria Rosaria.

Mother, unceremoniously, tells her that I had become a woman. Grandma pulls out a special chain with a locket and hands it to me:  “This locket was given to me by my grandmother. It contains the hair of her father and mother. I added the hair of your father. You will have your ancestors next to your heart as you grow and start your own life.”

“Thanks, Grandma!" I said, impressed with such a present.

“Do not disappoint me.” She says dourly.

On the way home, mother explaines that the time has arrived for me to live with Grandma.

“When I am older, right?”

“When she decides.”

“I am going back to the convent, right?”

“Your father and I will have to discuss this. You are our only girl; she should not have asked for you. She could ask for help, but not for you. You are my only girl."  Mother sobs quietly.

What curse! A grandmother that had too many grandchildren and did not know one from the other! Whenever we arrived at her door, she scrambled around hiding stuff, afraid the children would ask for things. We never did. My brother Tonino, once, seeing her half embarrassed by all the commotion of hiding stuff, told her outright:

“Grandma, you don’t need to worry about us. Our parents have fed us before we left the house. We do not want to inconvenience anybody.”

I had been sold for a locket.

I woke up with heart palpitations:  my limbs heavy, a locket chocking my neck..


Cloudia said...

So powerful!

Thank you for trusting us with your dear story...

Aloha from Hawaii my Friend!

Comfort Spiral

She Writes said...

FABULOUS story telling! Loved it. could read a book on this character.

Eva Gallant said...

Rosaria, you write so beautifully, so compellingly. And your memory is amazing. I could not remember when I "became a woman."

Ribbon said...

Beautifully written and very sad too.

Strange how in Italian families there was shame surrounding becoming a woman. I say Italian families as I only know this scenario in Italian families and I guess that that doesn't mean it isn't a part of other cultures too, but none that I know well.

love to you

Delwyn said...

Hi Rosaria

I enjoyed your storytelling...I made a big fuss of my girls when they first menstruated, calling it a time to celebrate...a life passage...I didn't want to perpetuate that concept of the 'curse' or of an illness...but I can imagine in the time of your story a nubile young woman meant that the family would become more protective...and restrictive...

happy days

Snowbrush said...

Gee, it must have been enough to make you wish you had been born a boy! I am so sorry for all that burden being laid on you.

PurestGreen said...

Oh this made me feel so angry and sad all at once. I can't believe you were made to feel ashamed like that - like it was something you did.

Thank you for sharing.

Shadow said...

wow, strong story!

Elisabeth said...

This is a powerful telling of that awful and strange story that happens to girls,and beautifully told. I would like to read more of this story. It is so evocative. The dialogue says so much.

Brian Miller said... that closing scene...

the walking man said...

Grief at aging should not be held so early.

Anonymous said...

What wonderful writing! Such a difficult time .... I am already anticipating how I will help my own daughter transition into womanhood happily and without fear.

Thank you :o)

potsoc said...

When my son became a man we celebrated and he was happy about it. When our twin daughters became women, within hours from one another, we also celebrated and they got mad at us for doing so.

Lyn said...

Simply riveting ... you pulled me in and I almost forgot to exhale. Love this intimate, moving piece. Thanks for sharing.

becky at abbeystyle said...

How generous you are in sharing this intimate piece of yourself and doing it with so much grace.

I was completely informed by my mother in a kind and realistic manner but she couldn't have prepared me for the grief I felt for the loss of my child self.

Susan said...

Precious story and you tell it extremely well!

Janna Qualman said...

Oh my goodness. I saw another use the word powerful, and that fits best.

This was just incredible. Sucked me right in, held me through the end.

Wander to the Wayside said...

There's such a 'heavy', dark feel to this piece, Rosaria! I'll assume that you've since recovered from your shame!

ellen abbott said...

wow, rosaria. What a terrible way to have made the transition. No one made any kind of fuss over me, not a good one or a bad one. My mother could not have been less interested. When I saw in the bathroom that I had started I ran to my mother to tell her, kind of scared and shaky. She shrugged me off telling me to get my older sister to show me what to do. I wanted to make a celebration for my own daughter but she was not interested, told me no in no uncertain terms.

Fire Byrd said...

What a fantastic post. Very moving and of it's time. Thank goodness the world has moved on somewhat.

Marguerite said...

Very compelling story and told so beautifully. So sorry that you had to experience shame for such a natural, life event. My mother was quite kind and supportive, at this time in my life, as I was, with my daughter.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful and powerful story, Rosaria. What a gift you have. Not so much an Italian story, I think most mothers hearts sink a little when their daughters mature.

Terra said...

How traumatic to go through this. Your words are very powerful, and thank you for sharing your story here.

Phoenix said...

This is incredible...what a heart-wrenching story that is sadly, too common.

Thank you for sharing your powerful words and voice.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Insightful post and wonderful writing!

velva said...

I am so glad that you took the time to share this story with us-A very powerfu story. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Oh my! I almost thought it was a real memory. How disturbing but well told.

Ocean Girl said...

I feel and am with the 11 year old.

Woman in a Window said...

Oh my god, Rosaria, I am at the place where your father retreats into a place where you're not invited and I am filled with such sadness. I'm crying Rosaria, for all of us, it seems. Holy, holy, this was not the way for you...

Woman in a Window said...

God, Rosaria, this didn't get any better for you/for me. I'm sobbing. My god woman. What you have lived. How are such a whole and healthy heart full woman? You rose up with strength instead of being broken. Oh, Rosaria, I feel such softness for you~

(This is a gorgeous piece of writing.)


Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

It is interesting that you & I are the same age, but with significant cultural differences. It is very eye-opening to read about your childhood. Your children & grandchildren & great-grandchildren will appreciate all you are recording for them.
I was almost 16 before I received the curse and by then had an idea of what it all was. My mother told me nothing, absolutely nothing. In that way we are similar.

Deb said...

Powerful writing ~ and I didn't want it to end. Tell us more...please. A while back I wrote about my experience with becoming a woman ~ I had no idea what was happening to me wither. Love your writing style ~ I willbe back for more !

♥ Braja said...


Diana said...

Wow...I'm nearly speechless, and the power of your writing is so strong. Thank you.

lakeviewer said...

Hi Folks,
Thank you for reading this long post/memoir piece. It never made it into my memoir; but you can see how these events are remembered, like nightmares, collapsing time and space, connecting with everything that feels oppressive.

All over the world women are still fighting for basic dignity; each of us can add our own story to clear the cobwebs of ignorance.

I'm an educator, not a novelist.

I work with what I know and what is available to me. I appreciate your kind words and your generous praise.

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

Wow. Just wow.

Terri Tiffany said...

WOW!! What an awesome story!

I feel scratched by strange feelings.

I loved this line along with a ton more! Very vivid with detail!

ds said...

Beautiful and so poignant. Thank you for sharing.

SE'LAH... said...

this is great writing...I'm hooked.
next chapter, please?

one love.

Carolyn Lackey said...

Loved this!!!

Lydia said...

Amazing story. Your entry into "womanhood" was different than mine, in that my mother treated it as something very special (she loved sex and I think was celebrating what was ahead for me). But we shared the pain. I had cramps, debilitating ones, every month for all the years. What misery.
When I hit menopause it was my turn to celebrate!

(am new follower living in Silverton, OR)