Published on January 31st, 2017 | by Camilla Trinchieri2
SHE BREASTFED ME AS MACHINE GUNS FIRED: Camilla Trinchieri Visits Her Mother
The front hall of the Italian nursing home near Lake Como was crowded with hungry men and women waiting to hear the sound of the lunch gong. I stayed by the door and craned my neck to find my mother. Although she was a small woman, I easily spotted her thick crop of hair that had only recently turned a deep pewter gray. Cane in hand, she was standing by the sweeping staircase at one end of the hallway with an expectant look on her face. I assumed she was waiting for me. Ever since I moved to the States sixteen years earlier I was able to visit her only once a year.
Usually my sister came with me, which made the visit easier to bear. Somehow the presence of two of her children kept my mother’s monologues on a fairly sane path—the byzantine ways of Italian politics, how every morning she walked the garden to bask in the view of the Alps, how the kitchen staff was upset with her because she snitched everyone’s bread sticks to feed her beloved sparrows. During lunch she might start to tell us again how there was a club of men who met once a week to eat 13 year-old virgins, but we’d quickly protest that it wasn’t a good lunch time story and she would stop. The World War II stories might follow. She had lived the war in Prague and Italy, an American woman in enemy territory, by then unhappily married to our father, an Italian diplomat. She liked to remind me that the day I was born the Germans razed the town of Lidice and killed all its male inhabitants in retaliation for the assassination of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Butcher of Bohemia. She claimed she had first breast-fed me to the sound of machine gunfire outside the hospital windows as the Nazis ambushed his killers hiding in a church. The dates don’t match, but she thrived on these dramatic stories. They gave her resonance. Two months after my birth she was admitted to her first mental clinic. After the war she went home to the States with her four children, but after a year my American grandparents sent her two youngest—my sister, ten and me, seven—back to my father for what my mother thought would only be a summertime visit. We never went back to her. I grew up with a framed picture of my mother on my bedside table, but no contact until my father was posted to the States. I was twelve when I saw her again.
In the nursing home hallway I was alone this time, and I kissed both my mother’s cheeks as I always did, then quickly stepped back, mindful of her dislike of physical affection. Her large, sagging eyes gently questioned me and I realized the staff had not told her I was coming. “You look well,” I said in English. I don’t remember what she answered except that it was in Italian. I thought nothing of it. Sometimes it took her a few minutes to switch languages.
When my father died, my mother went back to Italy, a country where she had been happy and healthy, where the two children that had been taken away from her resided. Selfishly, I did little to welcome her. She was my mother in name only, I told myself. A picture on my bedside table, nothing more. I had accepted her absence in my life, had even boasted that with no mother to control me my life was easier than other kids’. Her sudden presence in my life required me to deal with a concept I had folded and neatly tucked away into a remote pocket of myself, as if it were a handkerchief I wasn’t going to need. My mother was made of flesh and blood. She was crazy. She’d gotten sick two months after my birth. Maybe her craziness was my fault. I responded by being ashamed of her, by being dutiful, but without warmth. It took writing her story to understand that I did love her, a love that I had held back for so long it had become a tight barbed ball in the pit of my stomach. Now I was afraid of being rebuffed. I wanted her to make the first move. I had reached for her hand once, after telling her my marriage was over. She shook it away and told me she had been pregnant with me when her own marriage fell apart. “It’s your destiny,” she said.
On this visit, lunchtime was still half an hour away and we went to sit in one of the many musty parlor rooms of the nursing home. The room had a large television set dominating one corner and pretty watercolors of Lake Como on the walls. Despite our being alone, my mother continued chatting in Italian about the latest political scandal, the sparrows who always flocked to her as soon as she stepped into the garden, the boring food the nursing home provided. I kept answering in English. It had always been our language together, what united her children to her. Italian belonged to the man who had hurt her, to our dead father. I wondered why she was refusing English until my mother leaned toward me with a piercing look. “You remind me of one of my daughters,” she said in Italian.
This was a first and for a moment I felt denied, but then I told myself: after all she is 96 years old and she hasn’t seen me in eleven months. “I am your daughter. Camilla.”
She instantly acknowledged who I was by plunging into one of her wartime stories. How the Nazis dragged her away while she was breastfeeding me. How they beat her with chains, pulled out her nails, how Goebbels left her for dead on a table in Hitler’s country retreat. The insulin and electroshock treatments she had been given for many years had in her mind turned into Nazi torture. I had heard these stories before but without the fierceness she displayed now. Her face shuddered with rage and her voice got louder and louder. The anger at what she had suffered, at how her life had turned out kept spilling out of her. It seemed a bottomless pit.
I tried to calm her, tried to change the subject. Her anger intensified. I stood up and threatened to leave if she didn’t stop. It was a ploy my sister used when our mother went off on one of her unbearable tangents. It had always worked. She stopped. I sat. She started again. Three times I tried. Three times she started again. And then, it hit me. She didn’t dwell on the war with my sister. I was the one who took her back to that bad place. My birth coincided with all that went wrong with her life-her marriage and her mental illness. My presence evoked her suffering.
The only way I knew to help her was to stand up, kiss the top of her head and say goodbye. Just outside the door, out of sight, I stopped. I don’t know if I was hoping she’d call me back or whether I wanted confirmation that she was happier without me. I heard a click and then a voice announce the one o’clock news.
I walked away from her silence feeling sad, but lighter. She could not help herself. And it was not my fault. It was just the way it was. A war story.
On the way out I snitched a few bread sticks from the lunch room and, in the garden, fed the birds.
Camilla Trinchieri based her novel Seeking Alice on the experiences of her mother – it’s available now.