Unhappy Genes

Her high-cheekboned beauty does not immunize her from feeling just as transparent as any other mate in the line. A quarter past seven and there she stands silent and haughty in this Kyiv summer afternoon light, waiting for her marshrutka. Poor people stand unnoticed on the curbs of the world, she has learnt that long ago as a five-year old would-be violinist clutching Baba’s warm hand in freezing winter afternoons, the small instrument case a carapace for her tiny shoulders.

Her frowned grey eyes sparkle into the melting sun as the yellow minibus pulls up. She gets on board, earphones on – old style ones, nothing like the wireless kind she cannot afford -, Johan Sebastian Bach keeping her company. The eight hrivnas in her hand are gently handed over to the driver who briskly fits them into his rectangular hand-made wooden box. She carefully fits her violin case into the tiny space between her seat and the bus side window. The driver steers into the traffic flow and there the usual parade comes up.

Along the avenue sidewalks Aroma Kava points pop up with their reassuring white, red & blue logo, passersby come and go in their working day pace, an overconfident Favorit billboard takes perfect care of a new building site, a stout babushka presides over her tiny flower kiosk armed with her short broom, untamed kids skim back and forth below a soviet-time tank monument embellished with withered patriotic wreaths. As always what she is more drawn to are the zupinka teeming with single men and women of different ages waiting for their yellow minibus at the end of yet another ordinary day. Bach knows better and the Goldberg Variations give these people a purpose, turn them into her heroes.

True, poor people wait a lot and equal to a silent invisible army to those who ride their fast cars across town, but a superior mathematical order oversees and regulates everybody’s lives, none excluded, each destiny enacted according to a pattern, only with shared sun coming from above and an individual light springing from somewhere inside. That light she totally lacks and it’s not her fault. She has always wondered why she cannot smile. In fact, she is definitely too young to have gone through any of the hardships her parents, grandparents and ancestors had, yet her mind seems to keep record of all the bad her folk have been exposed to in the course of time. All forms of annihilation inflicted on the skin of her nation – pogroms, the Kulaki repression, the scourge of the Holodomor, Baba Yar genocide, any other past soviet mischief – you name them – must have locked down the genes of smiling deep inside the Ukrainian blood. 

“Mom, what’s the matter here in Ukraine, why nobody ever smiles or talk cheerfully on the street?” was my son’s first question when we landed in Kyiv. 

Back to Irina. She has just lifted up her chin to stare at the brand new roof up of a glass-paneled skyscraper being raised on the opposite side of the avenue. She bets they will name it after yet another big American city, people here need very little to dream about America. Up there wind is making clouds almost as restless as her mind. Traffic jam in the rush hour, still plenty of time to indulge in her usual labyrinth of thoughts.

Unaccompanied Cello suite n.1 in G Major. Tomorrow she will be twenty. Will he be wishing her something like “buon compleanno, amore“? Alas, the coronavirus pandemic has cut any hope for her to meet him up again in the flesh any time soon. Will he remember their unspoken mutual bond? What do six months ago equal to in the mind of a young Italian artist? All the couples she has known have never seemed to survive to long distance relationships. In the course of time all of them have split up. What if Giovanni were different?

She is fighting to dispel anxiety and procrastinates the time for feeling hopeless. The thing is she is still too naive to just feel confident and rely only her physical beauty. She actually does not want to: she feels different from all the others, but how different? All she does know right now is how badly she is missing everything in him: his warm eyes, his stern voice asking delicate questions about her childhood, his elegant hands. Will he ever again be coming to welcome her at any train station in the world, will their violins ever play again in the same quintet?

She tilts down her head to check out her phone, the screen has just lightened up. One unread message from an Italian number. An urgent question is surfacing now: which – today – is the exact number of times she has been taking this marshrutka since her very first one with Baba Virochka? Bach suggests that she finds out that number out and in search for the answer she cast a glance to the outside landscape now locked into darkness. The sun has totally decamped, silhouettes of dozing passengers survive onto the marshrutka side windows. Her mirrored image looks different: haughty, on the point of turning and reflecting back the smile that has just flourished on her petal lips.

Pelle d’asino

L’ombelico ormai non esiste più, la pelle del pancione è tesa al massimo. Lì sotto c’è lui che sta costruendo sè stesso, accumulando grammi di identità e nuotando le acque dense di una piscina primordiale. Gambine che scalciano o puntano senza complimenti contro parenti già troppo tolleranti. Ed è tutto vero: nulla delle immaginarie sbirciate di profilo davanti allo specchio con la pancia all’infuori per vedere come appari quando sei incinta; ora lo sei davvero e lui sta crescendo di te e presto da te uscirà per iniziare la sua corsa. Le ore più belle del giorno sono quelle trascorse a leggere , la mano spalmata sulla pancia per non perdere il contatto – starà sognando, starà giocando, terrà il pollice in bocca, riderà? Nel ripiano superiore dell’armadio c’è una grossa scatola di cartone blu dove campeggia la scritta bianca GAP. Dentro, avvolti in fogli di velina bianca, hai messo i primi costumi di scena con cui presentarlo al mondo – tutine a righe verdi, braghette di cotone blu, un cappellino bianco di lino.

Diciotto anni fa ho rischiato di perderti per sempre. Colpa di un istinto materno difettoso o di una lenta reazione al cambiamento. Quante manovre sbagliate ho accumulato prima di capire che concepire un figlio non equivale a ospitare qualcuno in un recesso del proprio corpo mentre fuori indossi il costume di sempre. No, la geografia del corpo cambia e i confini si espandono: la vecchia pelle non basta più a coprirlo tutto e in alcuni punti l’anima rimane nuda. Tu, cocciuto sin da subito, me lo hai fatto capire nel modo più spietato. 

Ho perso sangue come un animale ferito. Era la prima gravidanza e non sapevo che questo succede quando c’è una minaccia d’aborto; ho lasciato passare parecchi minuti prima di riconoscere che avevo bisogno d’aiuto. Presto è subentrato il senso di responsabilità che subito ha istruito il processo alle azioni sbagliate, trovandomi colpevole di molti reati. Avevo continuato a lavorare, prendere treni, aerei e un auto fino nel Nord della Germania. Il colpo di grazia però te l’avevo dato a Natale in montagna, quando non ho saputo dire di no a quella lunga camminata nella neve fresca alta fino alle ginocchia. Conficcavo un piede dopo l’altro nella coltre immacolata bevendo quell’aria profumata anche per te, convinta di fartene il primo grande dono di tanti altri a venire. E che a scricchiolare fossero soltanto i passi e non anche qualcosa nei caldi tessuti del ventre, il laboratorio dove il tuo essere era in costruzione.

“Ora devi stare ferma”: al telefono il tono perentorio del ginecologo ha trafitto la mia coscienza, “rimani in riposo assoluto e prendi queste pasticche ogni giorno.” Per due mesi sono rimasta acquattata a letto.

Quando ti abbiamo visto nell’ecografia, come eri già potente nella tua minuscola fragilità, al centro di una scena da cinema muto: un cuoricino pulsante in bianco e nero e in assenza di audio. Il tempo anestetizza i ricordi e per ritrovare il papà e me, giovane coppia, devo scavare più sotto: eccoci là, spettatori paralizzati di fronte al mistero di una vita che sta lottando per divenire.

Subito dopo la nascita ti hanno avvolto in una copertina termica e ti hanno sistemato su di un fasciatoio arancione. Non ricordo alcun suono né il tuo primo vagito, soltanto il modo prodigioso e malinconico in cui hai cominciato a occupare il tuo spazio nel mondo. E, il giorno successivo, il nostro primo appuntamento. 

Nell’istante in cui l’infermiera ti ha estratto dal carrello pullulante di neonati disperati, il tuo pianto è giunto dritto a me, ben staccato da tutti gli altri: la tua voce, per sempre. Con cauta incredulità ho incominciato ad attaccarti al seno e a passarti il mio pochissimo latte. Bambina che gioca alla mamma, ti ho posto al centro del letto per osservarti: dormivi placido, avvolto nella tua tutina di ciniglia azzurra. “Ora chiudo gli occhi, li riapro e avrai già diciott’anni. Come sarai? Ho fretta di conoscerti.”

La risposta ora è qui: tu e io parliamo, sei un adolescente e quando i tuoi occhi si accendono in un sorriso, è  l’ennesimo segno di vittoria. Come allora però ti vedo in bilico. Crescendo sei divenuto uno splendido asino. A scuola vai senza curarti di studiare e non ti lasci convincere dalle parole dei professori. Ti tieni a distanza da qualsiasi libro che mi ostini a proporti. Sei convinto di sapere già tutto oppure che nulla valga la pena scoprire. Ora sei tu il cantiere di te stesso, questo hai cominciato a sospettare e anche a temere. Fabbricare sogni è il mestiere di un adolescente: vuoi diventare un campione di basket ma è soltanto un sogno e tu lo sai. Chissà quali pensieri ti attraversano mentre digiti fulmineo i tasti dello smartphone, quali paure, e come non vederti ancora come quel pesciolino palpitante sospeso tra la vita e il buio anecogeno. Hai un fisico armonioso e un profilo da filosofo, sebbene forse non sai nemmeno chi fossero questi filosofi dell’antica Grecia. A volte i tuoi pensieri mi colpiscono come i calci di un asino, dolorosi ma vitali: è la tua energia interiore che cerca una via, una vocazione. O un sorriso di incoraggiamento che non so donarti.

Un mattino hai cambiato pelle e tutto è stato diverso. Hai scritto una lettera al preside e a noi genitori. Ci hai fatto sentire piccoli, meschini. Con lucidità e passione hai dato forma a pensieri covati nei giorni, negli anni. Nel modo più deciso ci hai comunicato le tue intenzioni: rinunciare al basket perché capisci di non avere sufficiente talento e impegnarti nello studio. Aggiungi anche riflessioni che farebbero la gioia di un educatore appassionato. Un giorno poi quella pelle è caduta e un’altra si è formata, poi un’altra ancora. Ti vedo correre ed è bello vederti cercare il tuo cammino. Intanto la pelle che mi ricopre non basta, qualcosa rimane sempre esposto. 

Inconspicuous Mother

I can see her slim figure tilting on a spade in the early morning sun digging in the orchard. Her high-pitched “Buongiorno!” together with her encouraging smile as she watches me reaching her, definitely wakes me up. We are deep in summertime of my eighteen. She has always loved gardening but to grow her own vegetables has been a recent conquest, the glowing result of settling down after years of a gypsy life: finally able to stamp feet on her own ground, a call of her peasant DNA, maybe.

Seasons have been piling up till the five of us sons and daughters have grown adults. Then one day she realised something new. Her bones had grown too stiff to take personal care of her tender crops. She put on her reading glasses and looked up for Gino’s number. Soon that little old peasant, a peer of my dad’s from elementary school days, started to become a regular amid our tomato, cucumber and green bean plant rows.

It was in preparation of glorious Summer that she would be keeping on investing her money and all of her time. In fact, not only would the garden and the big house draw her energies, but also special care would be paid on her outer and inner selves. Reading, regular walking, visiting church next door, everything would contribute to make her fit for our arrival. In that season her offsprings and nephews would show up, with the declared intention to spend at least part of their holidays “back home”; the nest and its guardian would be indeed ready to receive them all.

The long convent table under the lodge is the altar for family rites. Along with always al dente succulent pasta, colourful appetising dishes prepared with her zucchini, tomatoes, aubergines and green beans are being served there. They are passed back and forth along the table, from hands to hands, smile to smile, most of the time.

Like any Italian mother she has articulated her own food language and by that family code she has always been able to reach those she loves. Her husband, our father, would benefit much from all that too. He would sit at the head of the table facing the church (our right-hand side neighbour), bestowing his mockingly serious bliss on the food we were on the point of sharing. That too was part of our family rites which she accepted and even longed for.

She also well tolerated his very personal gardening style. First thing, she could never tell when he would be available for help, then he would unpredictably choose his tasks, like, he would climb up the poplar tree with the excuse to prune some of its stupid branches, sometimes indulging in some clownish scene, like his screaming aloud voglio una donna! (I want a woman), just like lo Zio Teo, the crazy character in Fellini’s Amarcord. He would do it to draw the attention of our left-hand side neighbour’s bimbo wife, mainly, though, for the sheer fun of us all.

My mum would look on from a distance with her mild smile, possibly reminding herself that that was one of the reasons why she had chosen to marry him instead of the other and indeed he was an unconventional, lively, free spirit. That probably explains also why – among all other things – he loved fire and the brave act of taming it, making him a tribal priest of kind. He would dutifully assemble dry leaves, pick up any piece of paper or wooden material around, to pile all up in a corner of her orchard, to be finally and unexpectedly ignited on a whim. In fact, she did not like that at all, actually she hated it. Sharp on time, with a dramatic intonation in her voice, she would warn everybody around to shut down all windows and doors, to keep that hellish smell away from inside her house.

For thirteen years now she has been leaving alone in her three- storey house, finally able to decide when to keep doors and windows wide open at zero risk of smoke smell getting inside, windows that my still childish imagination resembles to human eyes open onto outer worlds. It was an Easter Eve. My father was supposed to bring back home ravioli for our Easter supper. Before that, he had many plans for the day, first of all an exciting transfer. Something went wrong, though, and the left wing of the ultralight plane which he had just bought somewhere North and was taking home on its inauguration flight, cracked down leaving him no escape; the sea below swallowed it along with him.

The accident made her angry rather than sorrowful. His sudden disappearance triggered in her a deep sense of frustration, as if victim of a major form of betrayal. How many years had she been patiently expecting that he, just turned elderly enough the week before, realised the moment had come for him to stop flying and start a new more mindful phase? She had always been confident that they had still time ahead to share, despite different personalities. She strongly felt she deserved it and now it was his fault that everything wound up this way.

Since then, every following summer she has been keeping her usual seat on the right corner of the long table under the lodge, while her husband’s head seat has stayed vacant, strictly if informally assigned to one of us five in turn, never ever conceded to any of our annexed partners, if not under very very special circumstances.

Indeed, something in the alchemy of her dinners had changed for good. Her cooking turned more lukewarm, less piquant and spicy. We still enjoy her flavoured pasta and rich vegetable dishes – whatever their origin -, but everything just tastes different now.

When a new summer ends, all of us visitors leave. From inside her fortress home she looks up in all possible directions, with the five of us living in scattered parallel worlds. Apparently that does not affect her much. Despite she is shortsighted and wears thick lenses all the time, she succeeds in reaching out on us wherever we are. Technology is her strategic ally: her social media accounts keep her busy and watchful.

At times she surprises us sending pictures she has just taken on her morning walk along the seaside. She never takes selfies, though. She is rather a natural reporter of minimal events, which may materialise in a seagull hovering on a sunny solitary beach, the vivid meeting up of skyline and sea along the horizon, located somewhere beyond the very point where he entered the waters, or the glimmering floating ashore of a wooden piece after undergoing artistic sea change.

She harkens sea changes also inside herself, continuously recalculating her priorities. That is what she must have done when she elaborated a new plan: enough with her orchard and home-grown veggies and ahead with a space where her youngest one could put foundations for his new family house.

Teo is the youngest of all and the only one still living in town. Their umbilical cord was formally cut forty years ago, when she was already forty-one and mother of four pre-adolescents. It was a late unplanned pregnancy, complicated with the risk of exposition to chicken pox viruses in the air of a Christmas family reunion.

Back then, prenatal diagnosis offered quite limited options and she just chose not to hear all those who wisely advised her not to venture on a too risky pregnancy, those including her partner. Defiantly and just like a patient peasant, she chose to nurture her inner soil till harvest time. I remember we spent a whole month or so separated from her within our small flat in Milano; we would communicate via a board placed the buffer zone of our long corridor. Soon her belly started to blossom. We were all thrilled.

Yet, going back to those strange days I cannot detect any sense of trauma, rather excitement and even bliss. We were elementary school kids and to catch our attention she would sketch funny drawings assigning us tasks and telling us how she/they two were doing. With hindsight, I have no idea whether such logistic measures actually prevented hideous chicken pox viruses from hitting our yet in-progress brother. I do know for sure that she taught us what resilience means: no matter what, never give up and never feel alone nor let down. Even better if you keep smiling.

Her approach proved successful: her harvest was stunning. Few months later, in a late-July full-moon night, our brother “Gift from God” made his epiphany. A new family chapter was to begin. I walked to the hospital to see him for the first time. I squeezed my nose onto the nursery glass panel to scan all the cots in search of his name, till I spotted MATTEO: there he was, so gorgeously regal, amid all other newborns. A six-grader, I kept on contemplating my brand-new brother with mixed feelings: what was looming ahead for me? Would it be just like playing dolls or, rather, a new threat and source of family extra tasks? Either ways, I suddenly realised I had become a grown-up.

“Look at this wonderful baby here! Can you believe that his mum is the very one that married the aviator?! He is such a handsome man but she is so inconspicuous!” Three women were commenting my brother’s genes just beside me.

An the trick was made: my wonder mum turned into an inconspicuous middle-aged woman. For the first time I could see her under external eyes. True, you could not define her as a stunning beauty, still she has always looked pleasant, as charming as any smiling woman wearing glasses and not pretending to stay blonde while her hair has gradually whitened… I also observe that she has always had nice-shaped legs, if not vertiginously long to make a major impact.

Admittedly, to sync the three women’s vision of her with my own magnificent one, took me a while, finally proving a punch in my stomach. Truth is that I was not vaccinated yet against local gossiping, or rather, the real world. We had never really settled down for long enough to go local. We used to live in a realm of our own, with parents its absolute monarchs. Every three years or so we would relocate somewhere else, according to my dad’s new assignments as an Air Force officer. Till that day of recognition, the quiet sea-town and its simple people had only represented a background if friendly scene in our holiday seasons. Now we were there to stay, at least for a while longer.

When the women’s comments were reported home, it actually took us very short to digest them into a family joke as the myth of the inconspicuous mother. So it was that to celebrate our new family member and dispel any past misgiving, my dad sparkled a major bonfire. Many neighbours complained that night, not she who was still in hospital breastfeeding the newcomer.