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

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