My husband’s mother, Natalina (her obligatory name, as she came into this world on Christmas day, Natale) was an exemplary migghieruh verrnallese*. She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress, as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life in a rural economy. Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town and deceased relatives at the cimitero; hers was a simple but full existence. I fondly remember her daily phone calls, asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree, offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings for my husband: her only son. I was always happy to oblige. She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone. Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war. It was the greatest distance she ever traveled away from her home. Our swallow-like habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.
Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories. These were always delivered in hushed tones, at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested that facts be modified. I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version, embellished by additions from the grapevine.
She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins. Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation. The babies arrived suddenly and were a surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards. The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way, or bring herself to care for him. She nursed and coddled one twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other. It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby. While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.) I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived. I suspect that some remnant of an idea from ancient times, the possibility of exposing an unwanted infant to the elements, might still have lurked in her mind. She would never be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide, but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.
One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight. The baby had been discovered in its dark recess by the other occupants, mice. They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it. I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal, and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise. I know that both babies grew up and are still living. Perhaps not surprisingly, the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda, while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy. I have a special hope that the second man has been successful and happy.
I cannot imagine living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars. The members of the family in which these events occurred have all suffered, more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated. Another account from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax. It bears observing that the clinical definition of postpartum depression may be relatively new, but the concept is as old as the hills.
I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time. It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost. Natalina lives on for me in hers.
“Castello di Oriolo” mixed media on board, 2010
* dialect: ”Bernaldan wife,” (Italian: moglie Bernaldese)