by Linda Falcone
I have two mothers who happily reside in the same body. Not that my mother could be guest star of a freak show featuring the likes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or that schizophrenia is a prominent part of her gene pool. This dual disposition is purely cultural and stems from the time she spends straddling the line between her native and adoptive homes. At twenty she left Italy for the United States, and for forty years since she has returned each year in the name of both pleasure and duty.
While on the other side of the Atlantic, my mother is a live-and-let-live, practical-minded person who harbors no fondness for the harness of social convention. But usher the woman into an airplane flying toward the Boot and she’ll automatically strap herself into all sorts of convictions that make you wonder if ‘Italy’ and ‘idiosyncrasy’ have more than just ‘i’, ‘a’ and ‘y’ in common.
Just as soon as the plane lands, casalinga concerns conjure themselves up and rise like the moon in her now-hawk eyes. Shutters must be opened and shut in accordance with the weather forecast. Raw eggs pose no real threat of salmonella. A drawer full of ironed tablecloths is a must: someone may drop by in need of sudden dinner. Wouldn’t Nonna’s dowry linens look great hanging over those naked panes? A room is doubtlessly unlivable without drapes.
This is the same woman, mind you, who saw no fault in my living for three years in a college flat whose only furnishings were an overstuffed orange armchair and a frameless poster of Van Gough’s Sunflowers. ‘That was California and the lifestyle’s different,’ she tells me in her defense-not that she needs defending. I couldn’t agree more.
And besides, sliding back into old molds is virtually unavoidable when you wander back and forth between two countries. Show me a homeward-bound person who does not quickly revert to the habits of the native land and I’ll show you a grown-up who can keep from turning back into a child after more than two nights in his parents house. Cultural reversion is as inevitable as camouflage; no chameleon can keep from matching its colors with those of its home stone, and people come equipped with the same sort of gift.
There are, of course, characteristics that are common to both versions of my mother, as character, not culture, sometimes has the upper hand. Both sides of her have inexhaustible energy that can barely wait for 6am to rise and shine. Both can easily pluck the unvoiced fears out of my heart, like a girl picking dandelions out in left field. And no matter which continent she strides through, the woman is completely at peace with her conscience and knows no reserve when it comes to the advancement of her children, which ultimately brought about this week’s fatto bello.
Last Saturday afternoon, during a post-New Year’s traipse through town, my mother and I walked into a central bookstore. She was looking for a tome on the salt trade that had developed among the Italian city-states in the medieval times. That someone actually recommended such a book is almost as unfathomable as the fact that mom was going to buy-and very likely read-the thing once she found it; but that, I suppose, is rather beside the point.
The point is that while waiting for her to make her inquiry, I took a spot near the front counter and started browsing through one of those warm-fuzzy photography books where candid shots of penguins and porcupines are paired with profound quotes on the meaning of life. And that’s when my mother’s supposed book search took an awful turn for the worse: rather than requesting a volume on the medieval salt trade, she marched up to the clerk and said, ‘Excuse me, my daughter has written a book, I was wondering if you’d be interested in carrying it.’
Interested in carrying it? I gawked. How about interested in burying it-and me-under an avalanche of the porcupine books? And how very much like a porcupine I suddenly looked with my hair standing on end and my eyes beadily staring out of their disbelieving sockets. The clerk-who knew that there was nowhere to hide-immediately clued into my distress, giving a furtive, but apologetic glance in my direction. My closest living relative was doing mamma-PR without my permission, and the uncommon graciousness of his response showed that he was really quite used to it. After all, there is no mother alive in this country who has not at one time told some fellow behind a counter that the best he could do for himself would be to hire her daughter or son for a three-month trial run. Italian mothers can’t seem to help themselves-they photocopy their children’s resumes out of filial affection and distribute them with martial efficiency. Objectively speaking, their unsolicited sense of feverish obligation could easily plead insanity in all small claims courts throughout the English-speaking world.
Temporary insanity, incidentally, was exactly what my mother pleaded once we were safely out of the shop and she returned to her senses-and the American side of herself-who knows that starting any sentence with My daughter gives birth to trouble with a capital T.
‘WHAT IN THE WORLD WERE YOU THINKING?’ I raged.
‘Well, I looked at the clerk and somehow knew that he would be willing to answer my question,’ she defended. ‘I felt a connection with him.’
‘You felt a connection?’
‘Yes. It’s all about connections.’
‘Dio mio.’ The same woman who had just strung me up in the ancient ropes of mommy-ism was suddenly talking like a Californian cosmonaut from the New Age.
But then my mother, who can get herself out of trouble as masterfully as she can get into it, started to giggle uncontrollably, with that contagious brand of laugher that makes you want to host a floating tea-party just below the ceiling. Needless to say, our shared fit of giggles changed my mind-weather considerably. The bookshop embarrassment became soaked with pelting humor which rained out all my intentions to be angry. Then, the sun suddenly came out, and I understood: both of my mothers are truly one of a kind.
And perhaps, she is right after all; it really is all about perceiving connections. I’ve been thinking about it. Though that warm, wise animal book on the meaning of life made no mention of them, it’s certain that connections are key-especially when grappling with the quirks of international living. Nothing else so successfully absorbs the ‘shock’ in culture shock or so effectively softens the swing between the Pendulum Kingdoms-better known to modern folk as the lands of perennial Back and Forth.