You don’t know a thing about me, but then again, as my daughter, you know a lot. The smell of your skin, the warmth of your breath, your twitchy nerves; I gave them all to you. So I’m going to talk to you as if you’d looked into my heart.
I could describe you down to the last detail. Actually, some mornings, when the snow is high and the house is wrapped in a silence that takes your breath away, new details come to mind. A few weeks ago I remembered a little mole you had on your shoulder. You’d always point it out whenever I bathed you in the tub; you were obsessed with it. Or that curl behind your ear, the only one in that honey-colored hair of yours.
I’m wary of taking out the few photos I’ve kept. Tears come more easily as you age, and I hate crying. I hate it because it’s idiotic, and because it’s no consolation. All it does is exhaust me, and then I don’t want to eat anything or put on my nightshirt before getting into bed. But you have to look after yourself, clench your fists even when the skin on them is covered in spots. Try to let things go. That’s what your father taught me.
All these years, I’ve imagined myself a good mother. Reliable, lively, friendly…adjectives that don’t really fit me. In the village, they still call me Teacher, but they greet me from a distance. They know I’m not that sociable. Sometimes I remember a game I used to play with the children in year one: “Draw the animal that looks most like you.” These days I’d draw a tortoise with its head in its shell.
I like to imagine that I wasn’t one of those meddling mothers. I would never ask you, as my mother always did, who this or that person was, if you had time for him or wanted to go out with him. But maybe it’s just another one of those stories I tell myself, and if I had you with me, I’d bombard you with questions, looking at you from the corner of my eye every time you were evasive. As the years go by, you feel less superior to your parents. If I make comparisons now, I come out worse overall. Your grandmother was harsh and difficult. She knew what she thought about everything, had no trouble telling black from white and no problem being blunt. I, on the other hand, got lost in all the shades of gray. According to her, my studies were to blame. She thought anyone who was educated was unnecessarily difficult. An idler, a know-it-all, a hair-splitter. But I believed that the greatest knowledge lay in words, especially for a woman. Facts, stories, fantasies…what mattered was being hungry for them and keeping them close for times when life got complicated or bleak. I believed that words could save me.
I’ve never cared much for men. The idea that they were connected with love seemed ridiculous to me. As far as I was concerned, they were too clumsy, hairy or boorish, sometimes all three at once. Around here, everyone had a bit of land and a few animals, and that’s the smell they carried around with them – of sweat and stables. If I had to imagine making love, I preferred to think about a woman. Better the sharp cheekbones of a girl than a man’s prickly skin. But best of all was to stay single, accountable to no one. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded becoming a nun. I was more excited about the idea of removing myself from the world than having a family. But it’s always been difficult to think about God. Whenever I thought about him I got confused.
Erich was the only one I ever looked at. I’d see him go by at dawn, his hat pulled over his forehead, his cigarette already hanging from the side of his mouth at that hour. Each time, I wanted to go to the window to say hello, but if I’d opened it Ma would have been cold and she’d surely have shouted at me to close it immediately.
“Trina, are you crazy?” she’d have shrieked.
Ma was always yelling. And in any case, even if I’d opened the window, what would I have said to him? At seventeen, I was so awkward that at best I’d have stammered. So I just stayed there, watching him walk toward the woods, while Grau, his spotted dog, drove the flock on. When he was with the cows, Erich dragged himself around so slowly that he hardly seemed to move at all. So I’d bend my head over my books, sure that I’d see him in the same place. When I raised it he looked tiny at the end of the road, under larches that are no longer there. That spring, I found myself thinking of Erich more and more often, my books open and a pencil in my mouth. When Ma wasn’t bustling about two feet away, I’d ask Pa if the farmer’s life was one for dreamers. After hoeing the garden, you can go to the fields with your animals, sit down on a rock and stay there in peace and quiet, watching a river that has been flowing peacefully for who knows how many centuries, and a cold and infinite sky…
“Farmers can do all that, can’t they, Pa?”
Pa chuckled, his pipe between his teeth. “Go and ask the boy you watch from your window every morning if his is the work of a dreamer…”
The first time I talked to him he was in the farmyard. Pa worked as a carpenter in Resia, but even our home seemed like his workshop. People were always coming and going, asking him to repair something. When the visitors left, Ma grumbled that we never had any peace. And he, unable to put up with the least criticism, would tell her there was nothing to grumble about, since a craftsman is working even when he’s offering someone a drink or stopping for a chat; that’s how he builds his clientele. To cut the discussion short, she’d tweak his nose, that spongy nose of his.
“It’s grown bigger,” she’d say. “So has your arse!”
Ma would lose her temper. “Look who I married, a real lowlife!” and she’d toss the tea towel at him. Pa would smirk and throw his pencil at her. Another rag from her, another pencil from him. Throwing things was their way of loving each other.
That afternoon, Erich and Pa stood smoking, their eyes wide as they watched the clouds falling over the Ortler Alps. Pa told him to wait for a moment while he went to fetch a glass of grappa. Erich wasn’t much of a talker; he’d lift his chin with a faint smile and a confidence that made me feel small.
“What are you going to do after you finish school? Teach?” he asked me.
“Maybe, yes. Or I might go somewhere far away,” I answered, trying to sound like an adult.
As soon as I said that his face darkened. He pulled so hard on his cigarette the ash nearly burned his fingers.
“I never want to leave Curon,” he said, gesturing toward the valley.
I looked at him like a child who’s run out of words, and Erich caressed my cheek as he left.
“Tell your father I’ll have a grappa with him some other day.”
I nodded, unsure what else to say. I sat there, my elbows on the table, watching him go. Every now and again I’d glance over at the door, afraid that Ma would suddenly appear. Sometimes love makes you feel like a thief.
In the spring of ’23 I was studying for my high school diploma. Mussolini had waited until the moment I was taking my diploma to shake up the schools. The year before, the fascists had marched on Bolzano, subjecting the city to a violent occupation. They burned the public buildings, beat people, drove the burgomaster out by force. And as usual, the carabinieri stood there watching. If they hadn’t folded their arms, just like the king had the year before, fascism would never have survived. Even today, I find it unsettling to walk through Bolzano. Everything seems hostile to me. There are so many signs of the twenty-year fascist regime, and seeing them again makes me think of Erich. How angry he’d be!
Until that time, life had kept pace with the rhythm of the seasons, especially in these border valleys. Like an echo that fades away, history seemed never to have reached them. Our language was German, our religion Christianity, our work was in fields and cowsheds. Nothing more was needed to understand this mountain people, to whom you also belong, if for no other reason than that you were born here.
Mussolini renamed streets, streams, mountains…those assassins even molested the dead, changing inscriptions on tombstones. They Italianized our names, replaced shop signs. We were forbidden to wear our traditional clothes. Overnight, we ended up with teachers from the Veneto, Lombardy and Sicily. They didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. Here in the South Tyrol, Italian was an exotic language, something you heard on the gramophone or when a salesman from Vallarsa came up the Trentino on his way to do business in Austria.
Your rather unusual name immediately imprinted itself on people’s minds, but for those who couldn’t remember it you were always Erich and Trina’s daughter. They said we were two peas in a pod.
“If she gets lost, someone will take her home!” the baker muttered, and he’d greet you by pulling faces with his toothless mouth. Remember? Whenever you smelled bread in the street, you’d drag me by the hand to buy you some. There was nothing you liked better than warm bread. I knew everyone who lived in Curon, but I had only two friends, Maja and Barbara. They don’t live here anymore. They left years ago and I don’t even know if they’re still alive. We were such close friends that we went to the same school. We couldn’t go to the teachers’ training school because it was too far away, but it was a great adventure going to Bolzano to take the annual exams. We roamed the city excitedly, finally seeing the world beyond the mountain and the pastures: apartment buildings, shops, busy streets.
Maja and I had a real vocation to teach and we couldn’t wait to get inside a classroom. Barbara would have preferred to be a seamstress. She enrolled with us because “that way,” she said, “we can spend more time together.” Back then, she was my shadow. We spent our time accompanying one another home. At the farmyard gate, one of us would say to the other, “Look, it’s still light, I’ll go home with you.”
We took long walks, skirting the river or the edge of the wood, and during those walks, I remember Barbara was always saying, “If only I had your personality…”
“But why? What am I like?”
“Well, you’re clear-headed and you know where you’re going, whereas I get confused about everything and I’m always looking for someone to hold my hand.”
“I don’t feel being like me is so great.”
“You only say that because you’re so hard to please.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I’d give my personality any day to be pretty like you.”
She’d smile then, and if there wasn’t anyone around, or if the sky was getting dark, she’d kiss me and say sweet things that I no longer remember.
With the Duce’s arrival, we realized that we were in danger of not finding jobs since we weren’t Italian. So all three of us settled down to study Italian in the hope that they’d hire us anyway.
That spring, we spent our afternoons by the lake with grammar books. We’d see each other after lunch, and one of us would arrive with some fruit in a napkin, another with her mouth full.
“No German for now!” I’d say, to call them to order.
Maja would protest, slapping a notebook full of her doodling. “I wanted to become a teacher, but not in someone else’s language!”
“What about me? I wanted to be a dress designer!” Barbara said.
“Look, it’s hardly on doctor’s orders that you’re studying to become a teacher,” Maja retorted.
“My, my, listen to this witch…What do you mean, it’s not doctor’s orders?” Barbara protested, putting her red hair, which was always getting in her way, into a ponytail. Then she’d start telling us again that we had to go off and live together, and not get married.
“Listen: if we get married we’ll turn into slaves!”
When I got back home I’d go to bed immediately. I was always hungry for solitude. I’d crawl into bed and stay in the damp and dark of my room, thinking. I knew that whether I liked it or not, I was growing up and it troubled me. I don’t know if you have ever been afraid like this, or whether you’re more like your father, who saw life like a river. Me? Whenever I got close to any sort of change or goal, whether my diploma or marriage, I promptly felt like running away and throwing it all up in the air. Why do we have to keep moving forward in life? Even when you were born, I thought, “Why can’t I keep her inside me a little longer?”
That May, Maja, Barbara and I saw each other during the week, too, not just every once in a while, or at Mass on Sundays. We practiced that strange language, hoping that the fascists would appreciate our application and our diplomas. But since deep down we didn’t believe it ourselves, rather than studying grammar we often sat in a circle and listened to Italian songs on Barbara’s records.
A kiss you’ll get
If you come back
But there’ll be no more
If you leave for war
A week before our written exams Pa gave me permission to sleep over at Barbara’s. It took some doing, but in the end I managed it.
“Very well, child. You can go to your friend’s but you’ll have to bring me a perfect report card.”
“And what do you consider a perfect report card?” I asked, kissing him on the cheek.
“Well, one with an average of ten!” he said, hands spread. And Ma, who was sitting beside him darning socks, nodded. Ma took advantage of every spare minute to darn socks, since “if your feet are cold, you’re cold all over,” she’d say.
As it happens, I didn’t get top marks. It was Maja who paid for drinks and made the tart, as we’d agreed when school started. In Barbara’s view, Maja had only got a ten because her professor was a lech who was always ogling her breasts. “I got a seven because of these two crab apples,” she protested, thrusting her breasts forward and weighing them in her hands.
“You got a seven because you’re a dunce,” Maja retorted. Barbara quickly grabbed her and they rolled over the grass. Squinting in the sun, I laughed as I watched them.