Sunday, January 13, 2013

Their mother was small and thin with slightly hunched shoulders; she always wore a blue skirt and a red woollen blouse. Her curly hair was short and dark and she would grease it with oil to try to make it lie flat; every day she plucked her eyebrows, turning them into two little dark fish darting towards her temples, and put yellow powder on her face. She was very young. They didn't know how old she was but she looked much younger than the mothers of their school friends; the boys always stared in amazement when they saw their friends' mothers, who were all so fat and old. She smoked a lot and her fingers were stained by smoke; in the evening she even smoked in bed before going to sleep. The three of them all slept together in the large double bed with the yellow quilt, their mother on the side nearest the door; on the bedside table there was a lamp with the shade wrapped up in a red rag because she liked to read and smoke in the evening. Sometimes she came home very late, and the boys would wake up and ask her where she had been: she usually answered, 'to the cinema' or 'at a girlfriend's house' - they did not know who this friend could be as no friend had ever come to the house to see their mother. She would tell them to turn their backs while she got undressed, and they would hear the quick rustle of her clothes, see the shadows dancing on the walls, and then she would slip into the bed next to them, a thin body in a cold silk blouse. They kept their distance because she always complained that they would crowd her and kick her during the night: sometimes she would turn the light off to make them go to sleep while she smoked in the dark.
   Their mother was not an important person. The important people were their grandmother, their grandfather, and Aunt Clementina, who lived in the country and came to visit every now and then, bringing chestnuts and maize flour; Diomira the maid was important, and so was the frail porter Giovanni, who made cane chairs. They were all very important to the two boys because they were strong people who could be trusted, who knew the difference between right and wrong, who were very good at everything they did, and were always full of common sense and strength; they were the sort of people who could protect you from storms and thieves. When the boys were left alone in the the house with their mother they felt scared just as if they were all alone; how could they know the difference between right and wrong when their mother never said what was right and wrong? At the most she would complain in a weary voice, 'Stop making so much noise, I've got a headache.' If they asked whether they were allowed to do something, she would say at once, 'ask your Grandma,' or she would first say 'yes,' then 'no' and it ended up being a muddle. When they went out alone with their mother they felt uncertain and uneasy because she always got lost and had to ask a policeman for directions, and she had such a timid and silly manner when she was in shops asking for things to buy. She would always leave something behind in the shop - her gloves, her bag, or her scarf - and they would have to go back to retrieve them and the boys would feel ashamed.
   The clothes she kept in her drawers were all of a muddle, and she left everything strewn around, and Diomira would grumble about her when she tidied the room in the morning. She would even call their grandmother to come and see, and together they would collect up the stockings and clothes and throw away the cigarette ash that was scattered all over the place. In the morning, their mother would go shopping: when she returned home she would bang the shopping bag on the marble table in the kitchen, get on her bicycle, and rush off to the office where she worked. Diomira would look at the contents of the shopping bag, feel the meat and every orange one by one, grumble, and call their grandmother to see how awful the meat was. Their mother would return home at two o'clock when everyone had already eaten and would eat in a rush with a newspaper propped against her glass and then slip away again on her bicycle to work; they saw her again for a moment at dinner, but after eating she would almost always slip away somewhere else.

- Natalia Ginzburg
The Mother

Friday, January 11, 2013

    I could never really understand what we were doing there, or in any place like it. I knew one was supposed to go away from the city in the summer. I knew people went to "resorts". People fixed themselves in resorts. There were Edgartown families. Northeast families. Certainly Homestead families. My father and mother seemed rather to move through these places like √©migr√© royalty, the innkeepers (and guests) vaguely conscious that somebody unusual was among them but not quite sure what currency they would be paid in, or when; my mother and father diffident, remote, not so much bored as disconnected, and with small gift for camouflage. I can remember us gliding into that wretched Homestead dining room each evening - it was one of those American resorts where the dining room was only open between some ridiculous hours like 5:30 and 7:30. My father dressed in dark evening suit, well dressed, too well dressed, a boutonniere, a cane. My mother really very handsome. Hair up high. Jewels. My sister and I trailing along, each conscious of the Detroit and Memphis eyes on all of us. And then would come the dinner scene: my father disdaining the relish tray. Each evening my father would disdain the relish tray, would look at it in fact, held in the hands of some hopeful moon-faced Virginia girl, some girl whom I would have paid money to like me - would look at it as if it were some joke being played on him, which in some ways of course it was, a joke to which he had been an accomplice (which must have made it worse). My mother (very regal, but trying to be creative): What are those little things in red? The waitress (not very bright, but trying to please; never run into this kind of rum crowd before): They're candied crab apples, ma'am. They come from right around Covington. A lot of the guests . . . My father (as if waking up): Candied crab apples? For dinner? I should certainly hope not! My mother: You've never tried one, Dikran. My father: I don't intend to. (Smiling sweetly, like a cougar, at the poor girl) Can you bring us an Old-Fashioned and a whisky right away? The waitress: Oh, I'm sorry sir. I'm only in charge of the relish tray. My father: Etc., etc. He and my mother would complain their way through dinner.

- Michael J. Arlen
Exiles

Thursday, January 10, 2013

   The next weeks rushed by at a hectic pace. In the day Maskelyne worked on the preparations for the transit expeditions and during the cold nights he observed the skies from Greenwich, no doubt sporting his brand-new 'observing suit' - a quilted outfit including a waistcoat, as well as trousers with all-in-one-feet and an enormous padded bottom made of thick flannel and fine gold-, red- and cream-striped silk which reputedly Maskelyne's brother-in-law Robert Clive had sent from India. Described by a fellow scientist as a 'small invisible man', the chubby Maskelyne must have lost all remnants of authority when he waddled towards his observation room squeezed into the golden emsemble - the armour of an astronomer.


- Andrea Wulf
Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens