A story from Natalina

My husband’s mother,  Natalina  (her obligatory name,  as she came into this world on Christmas day,  Natale)   was an exemplary  migghieruh verrnallese*.    She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress,  as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life  in a rural economy.  Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town  and  deceased relatives at the cimitero;  hers was a simple but full existence.   I fondly remember her daily phone calls,  asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree,  offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings  for my husband:    her only son.   I was always happy to oblige.   She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone.    Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war.    It was the greatest  distance she ever traveled away from her home.   Our swallow-like  habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.

Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories.    These were always delivered in hushed tones,  at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested  that facts be modified.   I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version,  embellished by additions from the grapevine.

She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins.   Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation.   The babies arrived suddenly and were a  surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards.   The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way,   or bring herself to care for him.    She nursed and coddled one  twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other.  It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby.   While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard  so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and  my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.)   I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived.   I suspect that some remnant of an idea  from ancient times, the possibility  of exposing an unwanted  infant to the elements,  might still have lurked in her mind.   She would never  be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide,   but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.

One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight.  The baby had been discovered  in its dark  recess by the  other occupants, mice.  They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it.   I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal,  and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise.   I know that both babies grew up and are still living.    Perhaps not surprisingly,  the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda,  while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy.   I have a special hope that the second  man has been  successful and happy.

I cannot imagine  living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars.   The  members of the family in which these events occurred  have all suffered,  more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated.   Another account  from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax.     It bears observing that the clinical definition  of postpartum depression may be relatively new,  but the concept is as old as the hills.

I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time.  It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost.   Natalina lives on for me in hers.

“Castello di Oriolo”  mixed media on board, 2010

*  dialect:  “Bernaldan wife,”   (Italian:  moglie Bernaldese)

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8 thoughts on “A story from Natalina

  1. A chilling story, so well told! In a village nearby mine in Sicily there is a street that ends in a sheer cliff. This was the street down which mothers walked to toss away their babies when they were very ill, or deformed, or unwanted for some other reason. I need to research this story more, but my understanding is that the cliff was used this way in the Greek era and continued into the Middle Ages. (It’s pretty horrifying to look over that cliff, needless to say.)

    A GORGEOUS painting!!! And what a sky…

  2. Your art work is breathtaking! So beautiful and picturesque. I love, love it! Alas, to be bestowed such talent! 🙂 Natalina sounds very much like la mia nonna. Every day there was a story–about neighbors, friends, family, or animals. I’m glad none of her stories were as scary as the poor neglected twin for I fear I would have been haunted forever. I can only imagine the psychological scars for both twins. After all, how do you live with the guilt knowing you’re the twin who was favored? Outstanding post!

  3. What did your mother-in-law say about helping in feeding your sons? Why did she say, “two” of her offerings — to be sure you were aware you were recognized as a part of her family?

    1. I guess “two” is kind of like saying “a couple of” meaning a small quantity. I think maybe she worried that my cooking was inferior to what her son was used to, and she might have been right, in a relative way! After all, he was being subjected to casseroles (any self-respecting Italian would say Yech! to a stewy mixture of meat, veggies and overcooked starches…)I did manage to make a convert of him to Tex-Mex, but anything Asian is just not acceptable. Try feeding fried okra to an Italian! And over the years I have learned to cook most things he grew up with. I think she would approve, now.

      1. OK, thank you for the kitchen remedy… I will never again prepare “a stewy mixture of meat, veggies and overcooked starches.” That is so funny!

    1. She would ask, “vuoi due ciccorie?” She did some babysitting for Stefano which involved her feeding him. His favorites were frozen fish sticks and broth with tiny pasta, so she fed him a lot of that. I can’t remember her implying in any way that he was malnourished at my house! Unfortunately she was declining by the time she might have baby-sat Roberto. She was a lot more concerned that her son got proper treatment, I believe, but she was nothing if not tactful.

  4. Christmas stories are lovely, especially with the snow falling on the header for your blog!

    Please hide the chilling part of this story so that neither my good twin nor evil twin* ever see it!

    * having twins has been a blessing for my motherly role and they trade off being the evil and the good twin!

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