Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Weight of Memory
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.
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..