A migration story
by Rosanna Albertini
In your old age you used your wooden prosthetic hand as an advantage against the many obstacles a working woman encounters, starting with the train’s schedule. You were always late. One morning, after grabbing the handle while the wheels were already turning on the rails, the door slammed on your hand. Four fingers were blocked outside. The station master dropped his hat, and almost fainted for he couldn’t understand: you were smiling through the window, over the locked door. “Didn’t you see they are wood?” you screamed after him. The wooden hand had several clones in the dresser’s drawers. If we found one of them in the kitchen and you were not at home, the main concern of everyone was, “Again, grandmother forgot the hand!”
As if it wasn’t enough, for two years at the hospital you became an experimental human field for doctors. They dug two channels through your right arm: one underneath the wrist, the other before the elbow, trying to figure out how to connect an artificial limb to the tendons. Having maimed soldiers in mind, – it was one of World War I years, 1916 or 1917- they used you as a guinea pig and irretrievably broke your tendons. A seventeen year old girl could only be sacrificed to the young men’s future. You spent two years educating your left hand to writing and sewing, probably growing beautiful in your acceptance of a physical imperfection that did not prevent you from being admired. Soldiers used to throw secret messages on folded pieces of paper through the hospital’s windows. After leaving the hospital, your left hand got used to serving dinners. Your parents had invested in a restaurant with the money paid by the factory for your accident. Such a dreadful sequence of facts seem to have only strengthened your tenacity: this was always, for you, the best of all possible worlds. As a matter of fact, at the restaurant you met grandfather. His love messages were hidden underneath the emptied, dirty plates.
What I see looking at me right now from teeth to toes, is both your lives, mother and grandmother. I read vestiges in irrelevant gestures; I am the only person in the world who can give them a meaning. Since I have only one body, to make your magnificent ghosts compatible in the only space I have is not a matter of choice. I rarely allow my feelings to be transparent, or I strike the comic note. After all, the marks of yours I recognize in my own person are free from both your wills and my own. I walk on grandmother’s straight legs, and often I hold my right wrist, using my left hand like an open fan that completely covers the right hand mysteriously shrunk in a fist. It was grandmother’s most frequent gesture. Does it make sense? It did to her, to me it’s almost embarrassing, a religious gesture out of church. I’m covering a stump although my right hand hasn’t lost four fingers all of a sudden, as happened to her, when the four fingers of the right hand were cut off by a sharp mechanism of a thread producing machine, the common thread for sewing. Was the nocturnal factory life during World War I as bloody as the battlefields? Did I intensify such a mimic gesture after I moved to the U.S? Perhaps I am binding our lives with double thread, grandmother, bringing you back through me into this country that you met first when you were sixteen. It was in 1914. While sleeping on the bridge of a transatlantic steamer, or learning English thanks to a waiter —you were sent by your family to join an uncle who had a drugstore in Pittsburgh— you certainly could not anticipate the stories to come, very much like Candide: back to Italy after a year with chilblains at your feet because you had spent the Pittsburgh’s winter wearing rubber boots; sent to Switzerland as a baby sitter to make money, this time you only had to cross a lake; brought back to your village at the beginning of World War I by your parents who, ignorant of neutral politics, wanted to have their child at hand. They surely lost the grab. Of you right hand, only the thumb remained.
A strong, rough awareness of my body, without shame or fear, grew in me since I was a child thanks to grandmother’s frankness and unusual metaphors. Bathing outside, in a wooden bucket full of water warmed up by the sun, was a sort of pagan ceremony on which she often put the ornament of unforgettable sermons such as, “remember, take a lot of care of your vagina, keep her always clean because it is your second face.” By the same natural franchise I worked on her skin often damaged by a common sickness that eats the tissues and produces large itching crusts. Never revolted, like the girl of a fairy tale who cleans up louses from an old woman hair and receives a generous reward, I cleaned the wounds, spread pomades, noticing every time as a miracle the simple fact that her skin, though injured, was the softest, clearest, good smelling skin I had ever touched, a rose petal. To be allowed to touch her was my reward, and perhaps my talisman against the senseless order into which my life was coerced. My will to love was reinforced by each visit, bringing flowers to my goddess, rushing as fast as possible up to the fourth floor —there was no elevator— through the smell of bleach on the gray marble steps cleaned early in the morning by the lady concierge, opening the door with impatience and finally, being at home. Who cares that we did not have a kitchen, only a three flame burner underneath a beige and brown curtain next to the front door and the bathroom for washing dishes and clothes. We had a big room and a wide terrace with flowers at the top of a modest building that survived the war. Via Cantoni, 10. It seemed a palace to me because of the constant care, the pride of people who lived there keeping it shining, no dust in the corners.
The Sundays were filled with movies, or little trips out of town with grandmother and a boyfriend of hers who was an artists specializing in chapels and monuments in the cemeteries just like Lucio Fontana, —Fontana’s father had a company of funerary production — usually ending in some tabaccheria to check the football game’s results. Totocalcio was the oracle for poor people, a chance of unexpected little money. Then we were running home to look at our receipt. When we won, not very often, grandma was not telling me so the following week we could have a surprise feast instead of our daily eggs and polenta. After dinner, and sometimes in the morning, coffee at the twin apartment on the same floor, the home of a skinny lady smoking so much that her fingers were browned by nicotine. At her kitchen table we did not need TV, almost nobody owned one at the time. It was enough to make the point about famous homicides, love stories among celebrities, other love stories among close family members, political scandals, whispering if a niece of the skinny lady had worked as a prostitute in a house when the houses were still legal before the “Merlin Law.” The two old ladies were dogged readers of newspapers and passionate storytellers. But a moral had to appear from some detail. Yes, the niece was a prostitute, she had a girl, “and you know, the girl wears glasses.” Punishment was as natural as inevitable. The final litany included a formal “thank you, Enrico.” We used to look toward the bedroom, sending our thought to the defunct husband looking back at us from a framed picture on the dresser. There was a red carnation in a vase in front of the picture, just one, to testify his wife’s gratitude. She changed the flower every month, the very day she received the money from his pension funds. Not a bit of nostalgia among us, and we laughed at our cynical detachment. He had been a socialist.
Money of course was the main subject of complaint. Sometimes, daydreaming about my future, grandmother and her friends could see nothing but a job as a secretary at the top of their wishes. They were fairly perplexed, mumbling with discomfort, as they realized my Latin and ancient Greek were not likely to become profitable in a commercial world. But their talking did not make me worried, any future was inconceivable. Besides, I was too busy discovering other people’s stories coming to me from the books. Yet I was far from suspecting that Helen’s role in the Troy war could have been compared to my mother’s disruptive function in our family war. After years of serious preparation for sure, the war exploded as soon as grandfather died, bringing grievance and stinginess into my goddess’ life. “Mother, don’t be angry at me. Sure, I was on grandmother’s side. More than once I felt hatred wrapped in silence flowing between the two of you. And I was myself in a muddle for my attachment to her was unassailable. The only version I have did not come from you.”