“When looking at my son, I feel only a bit ambivalent. I know that I have missed the opportunity to raise him – and he is an interesting personality indeed, a handsome successful young man. At the same time, I’m strongly aware that I couldn’t have handled that responsibility, the daily commitment of bringing up a child and then, oh Jesus, a teenager. It was not for me, no way.
Turning back the hands of time, I remember that I suffered with nausea, dizziness and headache back then. And that little creature crying in the cradle, for whom I didn’t have a thing, wanted attention and care, tirelessly, in the morning and in the evening, and especially during the night. Yes, he was able to drive me crazy, so little and already a stranger, a disquieting being, who was always unsatisfied as if he was always needing something. What, for heaven’s sake?
The manual that Vittorio, my husband, had given me, oh, that stupid book made of yellow and heavy pages, didn’t explain anything clearly. It was useless, frustrating. If the baby cries was one of the chapters. But what if the child is forever shouting and protesting in a very annoying way?
Vittorio was busy, as usual, because he certainly wasn’t rich and had to work. He… No, I don’t want to be unfair, but some social differences, which you understand too late in life, are decisive. My father was a magistrate, a judge of the Supreme Court, and my mother was noble. Yes, her grandmother was a ‘Donna’ of noble birth, and belonged to an aristocratic branch lost in the mists of antiquity and linked, I don’t know how, with Charles V. So my mother was not used to work, of course – as was I. She had two maids and one housekeeper, Caterina, who was my nurse too, to run a little palace downtown, in Genoa, and a family with only one child.
However, I couldn’t bring Caterina with me, when I got married, because my mother and my father, in the meantime, had become disabled and infirm, and she was in charge of their health. The little army of nurses needed to assist them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, drained all our liquidity. This shortage was the main reason for my marriage, I have to confess, because I wasn’t in love with Vittorio, for sure, or anyone else.
Vittorio was a lawyer, a good lawyer they said, but I cannot judge. What I know is that at the beginning we had only one maid, Antonia, six days a week. So Sunday was a real mess: I hated Sundays and the vacuum of those public holidays, with Vittorio wandering around… Yes, I abhorred his speeches and complaints – his presence. And his mania for manuals, as if each problem had to be faced and solved using the right list of instructions. He had bought in Rome a red book called A Perfect Matrimonial Life, and had asked me to read it, and especially to look at the drawings since they explained everything about sex – so he told me. What impudence! I put the book on the upper end of the bookshelf: I knew that a matrimonial life is perfect without sex and those stupid contortions. I could stand sex only to have a child, I thought, even though I was wrong. What is a child about, in the end? How many friends did I know, so proud to have produced their own babies? Oh, can you imagine, my own baby! Pushing their carriages as if they were the first and only parents in the world. They, too, following instructions, consulting friends and doctors, paying huge bills and discussing everything endlessly. And then, after just a few years, showing desperate glances, as if they were animals boxed in. The trap worked, one day. And men have the strange impulse to flee, putting the past, and children too, behind them.
Or other acquaintances, usually feminists, who refused to have a baby because of cultural reasons, or for economic or social reasons too. I love sleeping, and being alone; I love my weekends of reading; I love my freedom! And then, after the umpteenth existential crisis, wearing a blank look, the result of dozens of tablets of antidepressants.
Anyway, Vittorio was a good man. In the end, he was able to live in his room, have lunch and dinner in his parents’ house, and breakfast was only a black coffee at the bar. He was a lawyer, as I said, but in the latter years he devoted himself mainly to a hothouse where he cultivated carnations, somewhere on a hill overlooking Genoa. He took the bus in the morning to go there. All day. Moreover, he had the decent idea of dying alone in the bathroom, when I was at my cousin’s, Lia’s. A sudden, violent and polite stroke. I didn’t have to clean up either, since he lay on the bathroom floor, straight and already dressed, poor Vittorio. The only disturbing thing was the smell, like pee, but I couldn’t expect… No, I cannot complain.
My son, yes. He went with Vittorio to his grandparents, when he was almost two, walking the five hundred metres that separated our two houses. Vittorio took a suitcase that I had to pack: hours and hours of nervousness because, you know, these little kids have a mountain of stuff, it is incredible. His grandparents kept him very naturally, I have to say, as a grandchild and not as a son. You can assume that they adopted him, but this is only partially true. My son sometimes came to visit me, looking around but without asking for anything. I stayed with him in the living room and I felt obliged to prepare a hot chocolate and open a box of biscuits for him – in fact, I always had to remember to provide the biscuits, and that made me proud as a mother.
Vittorio’s parents were of humble origins, yes. However, they raised my son with care, for twenty years. Their house was not ideal, you know, with narrow stairs and small rooms. And it was cold, yes, since they had only one fireplace and one kitchen range. Genoa is a very unpleasant place during the winter because of the wind. And sometimes I felt upset with them: perhaps my son’s accommodation should have been more dignified, more comfortable. People talk, and I was not happy that my son should be associated with such a modest family. But I had to stand it… And their maid, Nunzia, was so affectionate and present that my son grew up without problems. That was the most important thing for me: without problems.
Vittorio’s pension has never been generous, so soon I had to renounce the help of a maid and use only my bedroom and the kitchen of my house. It is ok; I don’t need anything more. I spend my time out of home, at my first cousins’, Lia or Ignazia, talking about everything and nothing, as I prefer.
My son, yes, yes. He is a handsome young man, as I said. I’m glad that he is now at the university, doing well. His graduation is forecasted for June. His grandfather passed away two years ago, and Nunzia still takes care of his grandmother, who is nearly ninety-eight, I don’t know. Life just slipped away, but what should I have done? I remember my pregnancy as if I were possessed by a stranger; and the delivery of my son as a long nightmare. Then, Vittorio was crying for joy, and his parents too. I didn’t understand. What is a child about, to ruin me physically and emotionally?
He is good and smart, popular in the University of Genoa because of his academic and sporting results, and with his cultural circles of friends. And sometimes I read about him in the local newspaper, Il Secolo XIX, because he is involved more and more in politics. I feel a bout of calm satisfaction, as if a plan had come together.
‘But how did you come to abandon your son for twenty years?’ Ignazia would ask. She is cut with the same cloth as her mother, who escaped to marry a mean employee. But she is good, generous and genuinely curious. ‘Why did you pack his suitcase and say goodbye to him, a two-year-old baby?’
How did it happen? Simply, I didn’t do anything. I had been living day by day; this is a trick that my mother taught me. And the thought that my son would have been safe with his grandparents was a distant consciousness, an acquired right as my nobility, not a strong or pressing feeling. Many families send their kids to boarding school. I have no merit or guilt.
One day, returning from his lessons, he wanted to sleep here. ‘I cannot find the sheets, who knows where they are, and prepare your bed,’ I said, confused by his request.
‘It doesn’t matter, I’m going to sleep on the sofa then.’ And really he slept there, in the living room, covered by his coat. It was such a weird situation that in the morning we were both embarrassed. ‘I have only tea,’ I told him, being lost for words.
‘It doesn’t matter, I’ll have my breakfast at the university.’
And he left.
I cannot define his expression, which I didn’t understand.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, my son.”