My memories of Mamma are vague recollections of various moments in time; images appear in my mind, clear as photographs, at odd moments. Perhaps a certain smell, or some food, will evoke a long-forgotten memory as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. Mamma loved to sing along with the radio, especially while she was cooking. Even now, when I hear an old love song, a picture of Mamma standing at the kitchen table flashes before me, her hands busily chopping vegetables as a pan of pasta boils on the stove behind her.
Papà, or Papi as Giusy and I used to call him, worked hard. He had usually left the house by the time we got up in the mornings, and was always too tired to give us much attention when he came home in the evening. He was never openly affectionate but often gave us small animals he had carved out of wood as presents, or would ruffle our hair as he walked past us.
While Papi was the breadwinner, Mamma was the homemaker and proudly carried out her daily chores. She had never gone to school, never learnt to read and write, and often told me to make the most of my education so that I could do whatever I wanted with my future. But Mamma was happy with her life; as she always said, what more could she want than her two beautiful children and her immaculate home?
The first few months after Giusy was born, Mamma had been too tired to do anything with me. The baby screamed for its food, screamed because it had a dirty nappy, screamed because it wanted to sleep. I had tried screaming too one day, just to get a bit of attention. I got it all right; I was packed off to Nonna Vittoria’s for the day, an experience I never wanted to repeat again. After that, Mamma always tried to make time for me. When Giusy was little, she would settle her down for her afternoon nap, then take me in her arms and we would sit on the sofa making up stories together. Or she would leave her with sour-faced old Nonna Vittoria for a couple of hours and we would go for a walk. These were my favourite times; we would go across the fields to an orange orchard and walk among the trees until we came to a marble bench set beneath the oldest orange tree I had ever seen.
I remember we went there one warm day in May, the year after our heroic snake adventure, and sat beneath the orange tree, its gnarled branches spread out over our heads and blossom drifting lazily to the ground around us as we chatted.
“I have a secret for you, Maria,” she said, her eyes glittering with excitement. “Do you promise not to tell anyone, not even Giusy or Papà?”
“Of course, Mamma,” I replied. “You know you can trust me. I never told anyone about the biscuits, did I?” A few weeks earlier she had had a sudden urge to make biscuits. She’d made mountains of them, baking all afternoon, sweat pouring down her face as she pulled batch after batch out of the oven. There had been so many that she had told me to give them to my friends, but with strict instructions not to say that I was getting rid of the surplus.
She laughed and leant over, kissing me on the forehead, her eyes glistening. “What would I do without you?” she murmured.
“Well, Mamma, what’s this secret?” I demanded, bursting with self-importance. I loved knowing something that no-one else did, it gave me such a sense of power.
“It’s a really big secret, you mustn’t tell anyone,” she said, smiling widely.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish