So that thing about Italian mothers and guilt is true. If you understand anything about Catholicism, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you are made to believe that your every move, your every word, is being recorded by an unseen power that will determine your fate, guilt is your mother’s milk and the bread on your plate. When you are asked to probe your every living breath for any trace of wrongdoing, you learn to lead with guilt and, inevitably, you start to serve it to others too. Our mothers don’t know to be any other way.
As a child, my every infraction was met with a “Baby Jesus cries when you lie” or threats that heaven is not open to little girls who don’t make their beds. But the inevitability of death paled in comparison to the hell of being constantly nagged. For those of us who bucked religion (I suspected, even as a child, that Jesus had more important things to do, like the starving children in Africa, hello?), the whip of guilt still stung, subtly steering us towards a way of being that we could not avoid, no matter how much we wished differently. Our little bodies could not withstand the weight of the collective generations that came before us, of the many kilometres that separated us from the land that moulded the sound of our Rs.
Because although grounded in religion, Italian guilt is only sharpened through the immigrant experience, which mixes in feelings of fear, isolation, disappointment and abandonment. In leaving behind families to start their own lives in another country, some of our mothers knew they may never see their parents or siblings again. There is the guilt of having abandoned people who loved and raised them, but also, interestingly, the feeling of having been abandoned by their family who chose to stay in Italy. For those lucky enough to afford travel, every visit turns into tearful nostalgia and every departure a re-enactment of abandonment. Every moment spent apart fraught with guilt and longing, every moment spent together electrified by the sadness of imminent departure.
No wonder we eat so much. Carbs to dull the awareness of the immense gap between where we started and where we are.
No wonder, also, that my mother clung so hard to me. She idolized her own mother and missed her terribly — still does — but the firmer her grip became, the harder I pulled away from her — still do. “You can’t go to that sleepover. What happens if there’s a fire and mommy isn’t there to save you?” “Why do you have to move so far away from me? If something happens, I’m not close by, I can’t help you.” Her own guilt at not always being able to protect me, mixed with the disappointment that I should want to spend any time away from her, folded in with judgment that I should dare tempt fate and finished with fear that I am so indifferent to the fate of my body, my soul. Even today, my mother’s dearest wish is to have her entire family in one house — my brother and his children on the first floor, she and my father on the second floor and me on the third. During a visit to the cemetery to see my grandparents, her eyes got misty at the thought of buying a mausoleum where “my whole family can be together forever”. Catholicism taught her that our souls are liberated from our bodies upon death, but her desire for physical proximity has always been stronger than faith. Her need to not lose her family greater than the question of whether we are all good enough for heaven in the first place.
For me, through some mechanism that I cannot identify or understand the source of, curiosity was stronger than the spectre of death and hell. As if I inherited the desire to pick up and go exploring, but not the inherent guilt or abandonment that came bundled with it. As if, as a child, I had separated the strands of a rope and discarded the ones too worn to withstand another knot. I spent my pre-school years with my mother and only my mother, going with her when she cleaned houses or rambling around our home making up songs. I hounded her relentlessly about when I could go to school. “Soon, soon,” she would reply. “But you don’t like being with mommy every day?” When I finally started kindergarten, I was puzzled as to why the other children were crying for their mothers. I barely noticed mine leaving, her own eyes wet that I wasn’t making a similar display.
My parents did not have the luxury of curiosity. So while they worked hard and saved harder, I grew up longing for the other worlds glimpsed in books and imagining storylines that transformed the mundane streets and faces around me. While my mother raised us, longing for her family back in Italy, nostalgic for the universe of her childhood, I questioned the fuss over Eve and the apple and learned how to read while I walked, side-stepping parking meters, bus benches and shopping carts as my eyes continued to track black lines on white.
I, too, longed for other places, long before I knew the names of those places.