Barbara's blog: Choices and Sacrifices
The first thing I noticed, when I walked back into mum’s apartment in Savona, after she passed away last November, was the familiar smell of a home I had not been in for a while. I closed my eyes for what was only a moment and a rush of memories cut through me so fiercely they almost winded me.
Images and distant sounds mingled together into a fast reel of scenes from my childhood, dad’s illness, my teenage years, the fights and shouting, the morning I left Italy, everything I owned stuffed into a suitcase… I snapped my eyes open. Enough reminiscing: let’s get to work.
We started to carefully remove items from cupboards and wardrobes, room by room, stacking them on the floor to be triaged. We marvelled at how everything was neatly organised: so much care, so many beautiful objects, some I had never seen, or maybe I had not looked hard enough. Like most teenagers at the time, I was self-centred and completely oblivious to mum’s struggles. She had a full-time job, a house, a daughter and, since dad died, no support from anybody. She was an introvert, fiercely controlling and laser-focused on ensuring I studied and married well. She expected very little from life and made choices and sacrifices. I saw her as strict, harsh, and unreasonable. Our views were polar opposite and the friction sparked as we clashed.
As we opened boxes and unearthed objects, little by little, glimpses of mum’s personality came through, piecing together a woman that was not as severe as I remembered her. Mum’s bedroom was the treasure chest. I was never allowed in there as a child, as my natural curiosity meant I would end up rifling through drawers and wearing her hats, purses and high heels. But when we were emptying the apartment, I felt like I had a warrant that allowed me to look in all the nooks and crannies. Inside a jewellery box, immaculately kept, I found a choker: it was black velvet and secured by a diamante and pearl brooch. I remember hearing the story of how dad had gifted it to mum by leaving it under her pillow and how she wore it when they went dancing.
In her wardrobe, there were silk scarves and leather belts, and a handbag she told me she had bought in Manhattan at three in morning, when she had finished her shift on the cruising ship where she was working. The bag was made of real crocodile skin and had a heavy brass chain: inside, a notebook contained mum’s work rota and the phone numbers of what were maybe friends and colleagues. The date was 1955: mum was 21 years old. She had joined the cruising company because she wanted more than what life could offer to a girl from a poor working-class family. Her dad gave her six months, and she lasted six years, to prove him wrong, I expect. But she learnt three languages while working, and saved enough money to buy her parents a house, waltzing into a well-paid job in the local maritime agency after her stint at sea was complete. Choices and sacrifices.
Another box contained a bundle of letters, written in almost transparent paper. These were the letters that my grandad had written to my nan, his wife, while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. We all gasped at the magnitude of that find, particularly as some sections of the writing had been censored, presumably where grandad had perhaps described the reality of what being a war prisoner actually meant a little too literally. But the writing tenderly assured my nan that all was well, over and over, love overflowing from those pages. Choices and sacrifices.
What choices and sacrifices have I made? I chose to leave home and emigrate to a foreign country, to be free of mum’s oppressive grip, and find my path, being drawn more to art, music and literature than the sensible professions mum wanted me to select. In the process, I sacrificed my relationship with mum who was deeply affected by my decision. We were from different places and times, wrenched apart as much by the huge forty-year age gap as the rapidly evolving social stage that relaxed some of constraints mum was used to. She struggled to manage a daughter that was dressing and behaving so differently from whom she wanted her to be.
In the end, we only skimmed the surface, despite donating, disposing and recycling many things. I have not yet returned to finish the job as I am trying to process the feelings unearthed by getting a glimpse of mum’s private self. So proud and resilient, yet so lonely. I was washed over by such sadness for the missed opportunities, but I am grateful that my generation is able to speak more honestly about struggles and be more candidly vulnerable. I think, we are all better for it.
Barbara works for the aviation regulator and lives a stone’s throw from the South Downs with her 17 year old creative daughter, 15 year old ingenious son and supportive husband.