“Oh Lord, where did I go wrong?” I say.
“You’re stealing my line,” Mom says, smiling.
“You never lose count.”
At eighty, my mother works magic with a crochet hook. Her rows of stitches are more regular than the universal time signal. We’re sitting in her living room, making striped blankets for my two nieces. Six-year-old Adelina wants “a zebra blanket” and 16-year-old Francesca has chosen a subtle palette of brown and two shades of green.
“Why is yours so smooth?” I say, trying to remove the bumpiness of my crocheted rows.
“You must keep constant tension,” Mom says, pulling more yarn to demonstrate.
Then she puts her work aside; she needs to readjust the elastic bandages on her arms. Ever since her mastectomy, when the surgeon removed several lymph nodes, fluid accumulates in pockets inside her, giving her body the lumpiness that her handiwork never had. I put aside the zebra blanket and gently massage her upper arms to give relief.
Afterward, we return to crocheting. We rearrange ourselves, Mom on the sofa, I on the armchair, with our projects keeping us warm. Spread out on my mother’s knees, the undulating stripes remind me of a hilly field long ago.
Roy and I drove through the back roads of Piedmont, arguing over directions from a torn paper map. (This was back in the days before rental car GPS.) The roads were narrow and bumpy and occasionally blocked by tractors pulling wide rigs. At last we pulled into a gas station where I had to use my rusty Italian. Quale direzione a Milano?
In the kitchen of Mom’s house, my sister Beatrice rustles and bangs about. I hear the beep of the oven timer.
“Can you find what you need?” Mom calls.
“Mom’s got me tied in knots,” I say.
“Look at you,” Beatrice says as she enters the living room. “Cozy as bugs under your rugs.”
“That’s better than what you said last time,” Mom says. “Something about pigs in blankets.”
“Where’s Ady?” I say. I’d like her to see this half-size blanket. For all I know, she’s changed her mind.
Bea runs a finger along my newest row. “Soccer.”
“Don’t look too close,” I say. “Mom helped unravel the part where I –”
“Ady won’t notice,” Bea interjects.
“Maybe not now,” Mom says sternly. “But when she gets older, she’ll develop an eye.”
In Mom’s world, to “develop an eye” means more than developing a sense of style – it is also learning to distinguish good quality.
Mom ran a seamstress shop all the years Bea and I were growing up in Toronto. Silks and satins, marabou feathers, rhinestone and pearl buttons: we were surrounded by finery. Yet we dressed in plain school uniforms and Mom dressed in faded black. However, our dolls dressed fancy, because I took bits of fabric from the scrap pile, and she helped us create doll-wear using needle and thread.
Mom’s shop specialized in bridesmaids’ gowns. Her customers dressed high-class, but they should never forget Mom called the shots. If a bridesmaid wanted a tornado of tulle, Mom tactfully guided her to elegant alternatives. Mom also knew what was allowable in 1970s Toronto.
Lucrezia de Menezes failed to see this. For her daughter’s wedding, she ordered risqué off-the-shoulder bridesmaids dresses for seven (seven!) attendants. Bea and I listened in from the corner where we quietly played.
“This style won’t be allowed in St. Cecilia’s,” Mom said. “Father Donato has strict ideas about modesty.”
Lucrezia looked Mom straight in the eye. “I’m paying for the dress, not the opinion.” It was the way she said it, with icy hauteur. Bea’s eyes widened. I shook my head, shushing her.
Mom fell silent. Her normally pale face reddened around the nostrils. “A reminder, Madame,” she said with extreme calm. “I charge by the hour, including alterations.”
I pick up my crochet hook. “Whatever happened to old Lulu?” I ask. It’s a family story often retold.
“Madame de Menezes,” Mom said, chuckling as she emphasizes the words. “What a snob.”
“Hoity-toity.” I unwind more yarn.
Mom laughs under her breath, like she’s savouring the punchline. “Her daughter was left standing at the altar.”
“Maybe the groom found out what the mother-in-law was like,” I say as I test the yarn for constant tension.
“She eventually got married, though.”
“Three times over, I heard.”
“Moral of the story,” Mom says, “is ‘keep those shoulders covered.’”
“No,” I say, “it’s ‘listen to your seamstress.’”
During that trip to northern Italy, Roy and I quarreled constantly. Originally, it was an idyllic getaway to look up my roots. To pay for it, he planned to write several travel pieces. I was revising my dissertation. But one thing after another went wrong. Our luggage went to Malaysia and I developed blisters.
By the time we reached Milan, Roy and I were barely on speaking terms. Money was the root of all arguments. I’m a Scrooge who prefers to pay with cash, even for meals. “Calm down,” Roy said, every time he paid with plastic, “I can expense it.” But I knew otherwise; he is disorganized; some receipts go AWOL, and some claims are disallowed.
He accused me of souring his creative juices. I realized, much later, that I had never seen, up close, the spousal give-and-take in a two-parent family. I never learned to quarrel productively, only to push someone away.
Having lost her beloved husband Gianni to a senseless accident, Mom became afraid of loving too deeply. She even kept Bea and me at arm’s length, it seemed. We were ragazze dolci (sweet girls) but never mie care figlie (my dear daughters).
Mom slowly gets ready for dinner while Bea and I set the table. “She never wants to go out anymore,” Bea whispers.
“With this ice, who can blame her?” I say. “I’ll drive her to Yorkdale mall tomorrow. She’ll love window shopping there.”
“She never buys a thing.”
“Habits of a lifetime,” I say.
“She’ll say there’s no reason to go.”
“Ah, but Francesca’s prom,” I say. “Sure, it’s a year away, but you know she likes to get ideas.”
Bea smiles. “A possibility.”
Mom comes to the table. “A cinched waist… velvet with satin lapels,” she mutters. She has a glassy look to her eyes. I guess she took her pain meds while Bea and I were conspiring.
“What, that bridal show rerun?” Bea says.
“No, no. What Adelina will wear when she accepts her Oscar,” Mom says while Bea and I exchange worried looks.
“Her Oscar!” Bea says. “For what?”
Mom doesn’t reply. We start to eat and she picks at her food. She retains an unshakeable dignity, even when hallucinating.
In Milan, Roy and I toured Porta Venezia, one of the historical gates, photographing details of the twin neoclassical cubes (article for architectural magazine). Roy dragged me around Castello Sforzesco, constantly taking notes (article for a history magazine). I remember climbing high up on the Torre del Filarete, wishing a stiff breeze would spirit him away.
From the tower, we could see the quadrilatero della moda, where the real action was happening: Fashion Week (he had promised five articles to various magazines). We sampled boutiques along the Via Gesù, ringing up one purchase after another. Roy was “doing research” he told me as he bought exquisite cashmere socks. I sulked. I did not want to “sour his creative juices” but at least I held my tongue.
At Malpensa Airport, we picked up Mom. She had been so excited when we’d invited her to “do” Fashion Week together with us, and her enthusiasm buoyed my spirits. Roy had his articles; Mom had her curiosity; and then, boof, I came down with stomach trouble. I was confined to a hotel room.
With a press card, Roy could get into some A-list events – although sometimes he was turned away. “Your T-shirt and windbreaker, perhaps?” Mom said. She pointed out a proper jacket for sale in a store window. He bought it (on credit) and convinced her to accompany him to the next show. Again I held my tongue.
Later, Roy told me about their big adventure. Say what you will about Mom’s basic black: she does have a unique look. The gatekeepers apparently thought she was some powerful foreign style maven with her note-taking assistant, Roy.
All gatekeepers except one, that is. The man curled his lip and said, “Who told the cleaning lady to start now?”
My mother drew herself up to her full five feet two inches. Hand on hip, she regarded him sternly. “A reminder, Signor. I come from Toronto and we form our own opinions on Italian fashion.”
They were permitted to enter.
After dinner, Bea clears the table. “Tell me more about this gown Ady will wear to the Oscars.”
“Don’t make fun at my expense,” Mom says. “It felt as real as this hand before me.” She stretches out her arm and blinks.
“But you know it’s not true.”
“Obvious,” Mom says, flexing her fingers.
“You don’t look convinced.”
“I am talking sense into myself. It takes time,” Mom says. “Ady will get an award, maybe an Oscar, but she will not wear a gown.”
“It will be a tuxedo,” I say. “Like Ellen.”
“My favourite tomboy,” Mom says, to Bea’s astonishment. “A woman must learn her own style. Besides, Ady will get the soccer MVP trophy before the Oscar. I will get time to prepare.”
Mom had a bad spell after her lymphadenectomy. She came down with an infection while in her weakened-immunity state. There was one day when it seemed touch and go. Bea, her husband, and the girls joined me and Roy at Mom’s bedside. Every breath was a laboured rasp, a weak note played by an amateur. How I wished I could do the breathing for her. Ady did not understand the vigil and wandered, whining, in and out of the hospital room, a normal six-year-old.
Suddenly a voice whispered, “child.”
We all started from our half-drowsing positions.
“What is it, Nonna?” Ady put a tentative hand on Mom’s face, which seemed to quiver back to life.
Later, Mom claimed it was sheer annoyance with Ady’s wailing that pulled her back into the land of the living. “Attitude,” Mom says. “I did not like her attitude.”
Mom dealing with the snooty Lucrezia; Mom telling off the bouncer in Milan; Mom compelled to set her grandchild straight.
The next day we take up our crochet hooks again. After an hour, Mom impatiently pushes the blanket from her knees. “Ah! Playing with string. My eyes – ”
“The blanket looks big enough,” I say. “You could end it.”
“You’re too slow with the zebra. I want to give the girls the blankets at the same time.” Grimacing, she kneads her armpit.
“I can’t keep up to you,” I say.
“Attitude,” she says, warningly.
As I look at the undulating brown and green stripes, I’m reminded of a field of vines, the gently rolling small hills. I pull out my phone and look up the website of a certain Piemonte vineyard we visited. “Mom, you and the blanket – it’s like a tilled field,” I say. I hold out the phone, but she brushes it away.
“I can’t see those tiny pictures anymore.” She laughs at my bafflement. “Oh, I don’t need good eyes to crochet. It’s all by feel, you know.”
I switch to camera function on my phone. I want to immortalize Nonna with her handiwork spread out on her knees. Creation of the world by the goddess, one row at a time.
V.J. Hamilton calls Toronto home but, as an aspiring violinist, her heart belongs to Cremona, Italy. Her work has been published in The Antigonish Review, The MacGuffin, and Penmen Review, among others. She won the EVENT Speculative Fiction contest. Writing fiction keeps her sane. Sort of.