The mother was small and thin, with shoulders, which were a bit bent. She always wore a blue smock and a pink wool blouse. She had short curly hair, which she always smoothed with oil in order to keep it from puffing out. Each day she plucked her eyebrows and drew two wavy black lines like two little fishes squiggling up to her temples. She powdered her face with yellow face powder. She was very young. They did not know how old she was, but she appeared much younger than the mothers of their schoolmates, The children were always surprised to see how fat and old the mothers of their companions at school were. She smoked a lot, and her fingers were stained yellow from the smoke. She also smoked in bed in the evening before going to sleep. They all three slept together in the large double bed, with the yellow coverlet. The mother stayed on the side by the door, and the little bedside table had a lampshade covered with a pink rag because she read and smoked at night, and sometimes returned home very late, and the children would wake up and ask her where she had been, but she almost always answered “ At the cinema” or else “With a girl friend”, but they did not know this friend because no friend ever visited their home to find her. She told them that they had to turn the other way while she undressed. They heard the quick rustle of her clothes and the shadows danced on the wall as she climbed into bed next to them, her thin body cold in the silk nightgown. They left some space between her and themselves because she always complained that they kicked her in their sleep. Sometimes she would turn down the light and lie down and smoke silently in the dark.
The mother was not important. The ones who were important were the grandmother, the grandfather, and their Aunt Clementina who lived in the country.
Also important was the servant Diomira and Giovanni the doorman who had TB, and who made chairs with seats of straw. All these people were very important; they were very important to the two children because they were strong people they could trust, people who could permit and forbid, very competent in all they undertook, and always full of wisdom and force; people who could defend them from storms and thieves.
But when they were alone at home with their mother, the children were just as afraid as if they had been by themselves. As much as she tried to permit or prohibit, she could not permit or prohibit anything. At best she complained in a tired voice that they should not make so much noise because she had a headache, and when they asked her permission to do something, she always responded by telling them to ask their grandmother. Or else she first said “yes” and then “no” which left them in complete confusion. When they went out alone with their mother they felt uncertain and insecure because she always lost her way in the street, and had to ask the policeman for directions, and thus she had a manner always timid and foolish of going into the markets and asking about the things to buy, and she always forgot something – her gloves or her purse, and had to return to search for them, and the boys were ashamed of this.
The mother left her drawers in complete disorder, and left her things scattered about, and when she arranged the room in the morning, Diomira grumbled about her. She summoned the grandmother to see, and together they would pick up the socks and clothes and sweep the ashes, which were scattered everywhere. The mother went out to do the shopping in the morning. She banged the string bag on the marble table in the kitchen, and flung herself on her bicycle, and ran off to the office where she was a clerk. Diomira looked at everything that was in the bag, and touched the oranges one by one and grumbled and called the grandmother to see how bad the meat was. The mother came back home around two when they all had already eaten, and ate in a hurry with the newspaper leaned against her glass and rushed off again to the office on her bicycle and returned home for a little bit at dinner, but almost always she rushed away again. The boys did their homework in the bedroom. There was a large portrait of their father at the head of the bed, with a square black beard and a bald head and wearing glasses with tortoise shell frames, and also another on the table with the younger child with his arms wrapped around his neck. The father had died when they were very small, and they did not remember anything about him. The older boy remembered a little better the shade of a distant afternoon in the country, at the house of their Aunt Clementina, when he pushed him around the meadow in a little green cart.
He had found some pieces of this carriage, the handle and the wheels, in the attic of his Aunt Clementina. It was a beautiful little cart when it was new, and he was happy to have it. The father pushed him in it, running with his beard swaying in the breeze. They did not know much about this father, but thought that he must have been one of those strong people, with the power to permit and forbid. When the grandfather or Diomira became angry at the mother, the grandmother, said they must have pity on her because she was very unfortunate, and if Eugenio the father of the children had been around she might have been completely another woman, but instead, she had had this misfortune to lose her husband whilst she was still such a young girl. There was also for a while their paternal grandmother, whom they never saw because she lived in France, but she wrote and sent little gifts at Christmas, but in the end she died, because she was very old.
At snack time they ate chestnuts, or bread with olive oil. When they had done their homework they could go down to play in the little square by the ruins of the public baths which had been blown up in the bombing. In the little square there were many pigeons, and they brought some bread or made Diomira give them a little box of leftover rice. There they met all the children of the neighbourhood, their schoolmates and the others who came back from the Sunday recreation center, and they played ball with don Vigliani who drew his black soutane over his knees and kicked the ball. Also in the square they sometimes played at cops and robbers. Their grandmother from time to time leaned over the balcony and called out to them to not hurt themselves. It was lovely to see in the dark piazza the lighted windows of the house there on the third floor, and know that they could return there to warm themselves by the heater and be safe from the night.
The grandmother sat in the kitchen with Diomira and darned the sheets. The grandfather stayed in the dining room and smoked his pipe, with a beret on his head. The old lady was very fat, dressed all in black, and she wore on her chest a large medallion with a portrait of uncle Oreste who died in the war. She was very good at cooking pizzas and other things. The grandmother sometimes took them on her knees, which were also pretty big. She was fat, and had a large chest, which was altogether soft. They could see beneath the neckline of her black dress a large white wool sweater with a border she had decorated herself. She took them on her knees, and spoke to them in her dialect, words which were tender and a little piteous. Then she drew out of the coil of her hair a metal hairpin, and cleaned their ears, and they ran screaming fleeing to escape and the grandfather would come to the doorway with his pipe.
The grandfather used to be a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Lyceum. Now he was retired, and had written a Greek grammar, and every so often, many of his old students would come in search of him. Then Diomira had to make coffee; there were found in the john pages of notebooks with versions of Latin and Greek, and his corrections in red and blue. The grandfather had a white beard a little like a goat’s, and they durst not make a noise because his nerves were frayed from many years of teaching in school. He was always a little startled at the increasing prices, and the grandmother always had to argue with him a little in the morning. Because he was always a little shocked at how much money she wanted. He said that perhaps Diomira was pilfering the sugar, and hid the coffee, and Diomira would hear it and run to him crying out that the coffee was used on the students who always dropped by, but these were minor incidents, that quieted down immediately, and the children were not scared of them. They were frightened when there was a fight between the mother and the grandfather.
When it happened sometimes that the mother returned very late at night, he always came out of his room with his overcoat over his pyjamas and sandals on his feet, and shouted at the mother. He cried, “ I know where you have been, I know where you have been. I know what you are.” And she said “ I don’t care: there, you have woken up the children”. He said, “ Is this how you care for your children? Don’t talk because I know what you are. You are a bitch, and you run around at night with other bitches who are crazy like you.” Then the grandmother would come out, and Diomira in her nightdress, and they would push the grandfather in his room and make him hush, and the mother would rush into the room and sob beneath the sheets, and her loud sobs would ring in the dark room. The children thought that the grandfather was certainly correct. They thought that it was wrong of the mother to go to the cinema and to her friend’s house at night. They felt very unhappy, and scared and unhappy, and they curled up close in the warm bed, soft and deep. The older child clenched himself on his side of the bed to not be touching his mother’s body. It seemed perhaps that that there was something shameful in his mothers crying into the wet pillow. A boy is ashamed of his mother when she cries. They never spoke among themselves of these fights between the mother and grandfather. They carefully avoided speaking of them. But they wanted to embrace each other tightly during the night, when the mother cried. They were a little ashamed of themselves in the morning, because they embraced each other so tightly, to be safe, and it was about this that they were ashamed to speak. However, they soon forgot to stay unhappy, the day would begin and they would go to school, and along the way they would find their friends and play for some moments outside the school gates.
The mother rose in the greyness of the morning. With her chemise rolled down to her waist, she soaped herself – her neck and arms, standing bent over the wash basin, They tried not to look at her while she did this, but they noticed in the mirror her skinny tanned shoulders and her small naked breasts. Her dark nipples hardened and stood out in the cold, She raised her arms and powdered the thick curly hair of her armpits.
When she was completely dressed she began plucking her eyebrows and defined them precisely, leaning close to the mirror and compressing her lips. She then smeared her face with cream, and firmly shook the bright pink swans feather powder puff and powdered herself. Then her face turned completely yellow.
Sometimes she was pretty happy in the morning, and she would like to talk with the children. She would question them about school, and their companions, and chat about the time when she was in school herself, when she had a teacher who was called Miss. Dirce who was an old spinster who tried to act like a young girl.
Then she would fling on her overcoat and seize the mesh shopping bag, and bend down to kiss the boys, and she would dash away with her scarf sometimes wrapped around her head and her face perfumed and completely covered with the yellow powder.
The children thought it strange that they were born to her. They felt it would have been much less strange if they had been born to their grandmother or to Diomira, with their large warm bodies, which could shield them from fear and protect them from storms and robbers. It was very strange to think of their mother this way, that she could have contained them at one time in her small belly, when they found out that children were in the stomachs of their mothers before they were born. They felt amazement, and were slightly ashamed that at one time this belly had contained them. And also that she had given them milk from her breasts, and this seemed even more unreal. But then, she no longer had any babies to nurse and rock, and every morning after the shopping, they would see her leave to go away on her bicycle, released and free, with a physical happiness… She certainly did not belong to them, nor could they count on her. They could not ask her anything. It was clear that their companions could ask their mothers about a world of things. They would run to their mothers after school and ask them a world of things. They would have their noses wiped, and their overcoats buttoned, and they would show them their homework and their little magazines. These mothers were pretty old, with their hair, and their collars of velvet or fur, and almost every day they came to talk with the teachers. They were people like their grandmother or Diomira, with the large mild bodies of imperious people who did not make mistakes: People who did not lose things, or leave their drawers in disorder, and who did not return late at night. But then their mother left to go away free after the shopping, and figured out the change incorrectly if she was taken advantage of by the butcher, and many times she would bring the wrong change. She went away, and it wasn’t possible to reach her where she went. In fact, they very much admired where she went, when she was there in that office where they did not talk about shopping, and where she typed on a machine and wrote letters in French and English, and maybe she was pretty smart.
One day they went for a walk with don Vigliani and the other kids from the recreation, and on their way back, they saw the mother in a café at the outskirts of the city. She was seated in the café, and they saw her in the window, and a man was seated with her. The mother had laid her tartan scarf and old alligator purse they knew so well on the table.
The man had on a large light coloured overcoat, and a brown moustache, and was laughing and talking with her. The mother was relaxed and happy, as they had never seen her at home. She looked at the man, as they held hands, and she did not see the children. The children continued walking beside don Vigliani, who told them they should hurry up to catch the tram,. When they were in the tram, the smaller of the children came close to his brother and said, “Did you see Mama”? and his brother said “No I did not see her”. The younger one laughed softly and said, “Yes you saw her. She was our mother, and there was a gentleman with her. The older child turned around. He was a big boy, almost thirteen years of age. The younger boy irritated him, and he pitied him, and it troubled him that he did not understand why it was that he felt pity, and he himself did not want to think about what he had seen. He wanted to make it seem that he had not seen anything.
They did not say anything to the grandmother. The next morning, while the mother was getting dressed, the little one said “ Yesterday when we were taking a walk with don Vigliani we saw you and the man who was with you. The mother turned around as she was leaving. Her face became ugly. The thin, fish-like black lines on her forehead twisted and came together. She said: “ It wasn’t me. Think about it: You know that I have to stay in the office until the end of the evening. You can see that you are mistaken. The older boy then spoke in a voice that was tired and calm – “ No it wasn’t you – it was someone resembling you”. And both children then understood that this memory had to be made to disappear. They both inhaled deeply and blew it away.
But one time the man with the light overcoat came to the house. He was not wearing the coat because it was summer. He had blue eyes, and wore a suit of light material. He asked permission to remove his jacket, and they prepared to have lunch. The grandfather and grandmother had gone to Milano to meet some relatives, and Diomira had returned to her village. Therefore they were alone with the mother. Then the man came. There was a pretty good lunch. The mother had bought almost all of it from the rosticceria. There was chicken and fried potatoes. The mother had prepared pasta and tomato sauce and it was good. Only the sauce was a little burned. There was also wine. The mother was nervous and gay. She wanted to say many things at once. She wanted to speak to the children and to the man, and she wanted him to speak with them. The man was called Max, and he lived in Africa. He had lots of photographs of Africa, which he showed them. There was a photograph of his monkey. The children asked him a lot about the monkey. He was so smart, and he acted funny and cute. But he had left it behind in Africa because it was sick and he was afraid it would die on the steamer. The children made friends with this Max. He promised he would take them to the cinema sometime. They showed him their books, of which they did not have many. He asked if they had read Saturnino Farandola and they said no they had not, and he said that he would make them a gift of them, and also of ‘Robinson of the prairies’ because it was very beautiful. After lunch the mother said they should go to the recreation center to play, though they would have wanted to stay a bit longer with Max. They protested a bit, but the mother and also Max said they should go. When they returned home in the evening Max was no longer there. The mother hurriedly prepared dinner, coffee with milk and potato salad: they were happy and wanted to talk more about Africa and about the monkey. They were extraordinarily happy, though they did not understand exactly why, and also the mother appeared happy, and recounted that she had once seen an organ grinder’s monkey dancing. She told them to go lie down and she said she was leaving for a little while, and that they should not be afraid because there was no reason to be. She bent down and kissed them and told them that it was not necessary to tell the grandfather and grandmother about Max, because they would not be pleased that she had invited people to the house.
Therefore they remained alone with their mother for some days. Because their mother did not want to cook they ate prosciutto and jam and coffee with milk, and some fried food from the rosticceria. Then they washed their plates together. But when the grandfather and grandmother returned, they felt their spirits lift, There was a new tablecloth on the table at lunch, and glasses, and everything was as they wished. The grandmother was seated once more on the armchair, and they were dandled on her lap, close to her mild body and the scent of her body. The grandmother could not escape and go away. She was too old and fat to escape and go away.
The children did not say anything to the grandmother about Max. They waited for the books by Saturnino Farrandola and waited for Max to take them to the cinema, and to show them other photographs of the monkey. Once or twice they asked the mother when they would go to the cinema with Mr Max. But the mother responded harshly that Mr Max had now left. The younger boy asked if perhaps he had left for Africa. The mother made no reply, but he thought that for sure he had returned to Africa to rejoin his monkey. He imagined that one day or another he would come and take him to school with a black servant with a monkey on his shoulder. They began school again, and Aunt Clementina came to stay with them awhile. She had brought a sack of pears, which she baked in the oven with sweet red wine and sugar. The mother was in a very bad mood, and fought continually with the grandfather. She came home very late, and stayed awake smoking. She grew even thinner and didn’t eat anything. Her face seemed even smaller and more yellow, and now she also put black on her lashes. She spat into a small box, and drew the lines with what she had spat. She put on a great deal of powder, so that the grandmother raised her handkerchief to wipe it away, but she averted her face. She almost never spoke, and when she spoke she appeared to be very tired, and her voice came weakly.
One day she came home around six one afternoon. She entered the bedroom very late, and shut herself in the bedroom, turning the key. The smaller boy went to knock on the door because he needed a notebook. The mother replied in an angry voice that she wished to sleep, and that they should leave her there in peace. The little one asked timidly if he could have his notebook. Then when she came to open the door he saw that her face was swollen and wet. The boy understood that she had been crying, and he went back to the grandmother and said the mother was crying, and the grandmother and Aunt Clementina spoke softly for a long time about the mother, but one could not understand what they said.
One night the mother did not come back home. The grandfather went many times in his sandals, and in his pyjamas and housecoat to look, as did the grandmother, and the children slept badly. They listened to the grandmother and grandfather walking through the house and opening and closing the window. The children were very afraid. In the morning they telephoned the police headquarters. They had found the mother dead in a hotel. She had taken poison, and had left a letter addressed to the grandfather and Aunt Clementina. The grandmother cried aloud. The children were sent to the old lady who lived on the floor below them who continually repeated how heartless it was to leave these two creatures in this way. They brought the mother back to the house. The children went to see her laid out on the bed. Diomira had dressed her in shiny shoes and the suit of red silk in which she was married. She was small – a little dead doll.
It seemed strange to see flowers and candles in the familiar room. Diomira and Aunt Clementina and the grandmother were on their knees praying. They made it known that she had taken poison by mistake, otherwise the priest would not come to give the blessing if he knew she had taken it on purpose. Diomira told the children that they should kiss her. They were terribly ashamed. And the kissed her one after the other on her cold cheek. After the funeral it was very hard walking through the city, and they felt very tired. Also present were don Vigliani and many children from the school and recreation center. The weather turned cold. A strong wind sprang up at the cemetery. When they returned home the grandmother commenced to weep and moan at the bicycle in the corridor, and they all seemed to see her when she rushed away, with her free body and her scarf fluttering in the wind. Don Vigliani said she was now in paradise, but he did not know what she had done on purpose – or if he did he pretended that he knew nothing. But the children did not know for certain if indeed there was a paradise, because the grandfather said there was not and the grandmother said there was, and the mother had once said that there was no paradise, with little angels and beautiful music, and that once you die you go to a place where there is no good and no bad, and where you desire nothing, and because you desire nothing there is great peace.
The children went to spend some time in the country with Aunt Clementina. Everyone was very kind to them. They kissed them and caressed them, and they felt very shy. The never spoke about the mother among themselves, and neither of Mr. Max. In the attic at Aunt Clementina’s they found a book by Saturnino Farrandola, and the read it and found it very beautiful. But the older boy thought many times about the mother, as he had seen her that day in the cafe with Max when they held hands and her face was relaxed and happy.
He thought then that the mother had taken the poison because of Max and perhaps because he was returning to Africa forever. The children played with Aunt Clementina’s dog, a beautiful dog called Bubi, and they learned to climb trees, which at first they were not able to do. They also went to bathe in the river, and it was lovely to come back in the evening and do crosswords together with Aunt Clementina. The children were very happy to be with Aunt Clementina. Then they were happy when they returned home to the grandmother. The grandmother sat in the armchair and dandled them on her knee, and cleaned their ears with her hairpin. On Sunday they went to the cemetery, and Diomira came too. They bought flowers, and on their return they stopped at the bar and had a hot punch. When they were in the cemetery in front of the tomb, the grandmother prayed and cried, and it was very difficult to think that the grave and the cross and the cemetery was a place which when they entered it was where they were with their mother, who argued with the butcher and rushed away on her bicycle, and smoked and lost her way in the street, and sobbed at night. The bed was now very big for them and they each had a pillow. They did not think often of the mother, because it made them feel hurt, and a little shy. They tried one time to remember how she used to be, each one in his own way, and they both laboriously tried together more and more to recreate the short curly hair and the little black lines on the forehead, and the lips. This they remembered well: that she put on a lot of yellow powder. Little by little she became a little yellow spot, and it was impossible to recall the cheek, and the face. They came to think that they did not love her very much, because neither had she loved them very much, because if she had she would not have taken the poison. This they had heard from Diomira and the doorkeeper and the lady on the floor below them, and from several other people. The years went by and the children grew up and many more things happened and this face that they did not love very much disappeared forever.
Translation Dia Tsung.
There is a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, (December 3, 1855 – April 6, 1912), called The Two Children’ about two little brothers whose pleasant play ends unexpectedly in fisticuffs.
When they are disciplined and sent to bed by their mother, their mutual fear of the shadowy darkness that surrounds them prompts each to seek the comfort and security of his brother.
When the mother enters the room with lamp in hand in order to tuck them in, she sees the little boys, their quarrel now forgotten, sleeping peacefully side by side.
This is Pascoli’s warning to men that they must set aside their quarrels, and instead turn to each other for support, because unless they do so death with its ‘lamp’ will come upon them unexpectedly, to find each individual ending his life in loneliness and alienation.
For her part Natalia Ginsburg uses the same props – two little boys, their mother, the darkness of a bedroom, a lamp, and the shadow of death to tell a rather more nuanced and complex story. Hers is not a cautionary tale: It is much more ambiguous, and one might say even stark – because she casts an unwavering and unsentimental light on the subjects of childhood, human nature and human relationships which other writers (such as Pascoli) seek to simplify and even neaten-up, in order to derive from them a lesson, a moral or a shred of comfort. In ‘La Madre’, all of these easy reassurances are denied to us by the unflinching honesty of this wonderful writer.
Ginsburg in her own words….
“When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.”
“As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.”
The illustrations in this post are all by Amadeo Modigliani, one of Europe’s greatest modern painters, and like Natalia Ginsburg an Italian Jew.