My Mother’s Secret Travel Diaries

Elatia Harris

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Long before my time, my mother was a young artist traveling in Italy, where every year for more than a decade she contrived to spend a cheap but luxurious low season. The dollar was not then merely strong, like a sick man set on a good day, but truly mighty, Americans the affable blundering giants familiar to readers of Henry James.  And the Italians were deep and small.  I know all this as if from personal memory, for my mother told it to me not piecemeal but like a favorite bedtime story, over and over again.  And if she had not done, then I would know it anyway from her travel diaries, which are mine.

When I found them they were knotted shut, bound with ribbons.  School-girl composition books, cardboard-sided, with taped spines — the kind you still see at the stationer’s, only now they’re even flimsier.  To these, my mother attached long silk ribbons, fiendishly knotted so that I had finally to clip them.  I wasn’t impatient — it was just that the knots failed to loosen even with skillful teasing, as if my mother herself wanted never again to page through these books without a sense of trespass.  Keeping me out wouldn’t have been an issue; writers for whom that’s an issue burn their diaries, they don’t tie them up.  I was under no pressure of curiosity, either, to learn more than I already knew of my young mother’s Italian journeys, for I have stumbled through my own life trailing her immense youth, my awareness of it perfect.  It was the knots that got me.

When I thought I’d heard it all — the long Roman winters warm enough at high noon for an hour of reading on the roof garden, the windy trips to the cemetery island in Venice, where an anguished pilgrim left on Diaghilev’s grave a black ballet slipper threaded with carnations, the white peacocks of the Villa Borromeo, white but iridescent too, the spectral feathers with their blank eyes iridescing whitely. Yes, my mother could taunt you with wants. The best defense was simply to appropriate her memories, every single luscious one. Just to take it all in through your very pores.  So it is with her diaries. My mother and I have the same name, a family name going far back and never borne by more than two women at a time, sometimes only by one.  Her handwriting too has come to me entire — I could have formed with the same pen-strokes those loops and hooks, that pitching fractal sea that reaches into my mind.

Viacondottitiny_2 Hats, for instance.  I came to Rome ecstatically prepared by my mother’s Italian winters, when, in the chic quarters of town where she could always wangle a toehold, to be hatless was to be gauche.  No sooner had I heard my first church bells ring than, hat-wise, I knew what to do.  I simply found in the Via Condotti a couture model that was just right, then made a dog-leg to a less splendid street nearby, where within a few days a copy could be had for not much from a tiny shop without a name.  Just a door, a counter, and a display window full of undecided felt.  If you wanted not to skimp on hats, however, you went to Baronceli in Venice.  There they would fashion for you the perfect hat, and you’d walk out looking as much like Audrey Hepburn as your genetic endowment and ability to self-starve permitted. Whether this remains a hot tip, so that a girl indulging herself to look that retro could still use it, I cannot say — but it was once bedrock. 

Longhi_6 The diaries are scattered with appreciative self-portraits, hatted just so.  Occasionally, in Venice, my mother drew herself masked — masked in her own diaries.  Although I do not believe she went out on the town in maschera, even at Carnival time. She would have told me — if for no other reason to let me suppose she sinned more impressively than she can have done.  Sinned the way a young masked woman does, in a city where the unreality of self once obliged residents to go out masking six months of the year, sporting in the brim of a hat multiple masks in case more than one false self at a time was needed. Of course I still have my mother’s hats. I understand her balking, however, at the purchase of a Venetian mask — a good one being custom-made to fit your face so well that no method of attachment is necessary.  You could jiggle plenty and it wouldn’t fall off.  Whoever you are, you cannot but be glad that your mother never had a mask like that.

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Before starting a new diary, to stiffen and decorate the inside covers and create end-papers my mother would collage train tickets, hotel stationery, soap wrappers, cafe napkins, bottled water labels, concert programs, even the tiny paper parasols from tropical drinks.  I must say she filched soap and stationery from awfully good hotels to make this attractive effect. And she was crafty at peeling thin strips of posters off outdoor walls — about a lecture on nose jobs given years earlier by a Milanese professor, about the sold out engagement of an exotic dancer, Sissy Chinchilla, in a strip club in Bari, about the canceled appearance at the Verona amphitheater of The Virgin Prunes, a rock band whose fame must even then have been hazy.

That such as Sissy Chinchilla had made a splash in Bari mattered to my mother. She would say that if you took in a new city without paying heed to those hoary masonry walls where everyone with anything to tell the world pasted a notice, using such stubborn glue that the rain of years was not enough to wash it away, so that ultimately whatever was there became informational lichen, then you might as well not have stepped down from the train that brought you.  Leaving aside whether the salient point of a thing eluded her — and believe me, it often did — my mother held ephemera in a tight grasp.  Literally, for I can see now her gloved hands — gloves from Sermoneta by the Spanish Steps, such supple skins they used — stripping from communal walls those intensely meaningless paper shards that rustle and shift in their delicate moorings when you smack her diaries wide open. Dark now with time, for her they were the sparkle on the water. 

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Little in my mother’s diaries struck me harder than the rather deep relationships she entered into with animals.  Take her affecting sketches of Fafner, a brindled dachshund of Catania.  She measured him at 4.5 feet long, from the nose to the tip of his tail, and made notes on other minutiae pertaining to this Fafner — his “balls like wild plums” for instance.  There was the Neapolitan mastiff, Boss, a Cerberus of a dog who kept his owner well guarded in her little shop in the Via Borgognona.  Boss, with his gunmetal coat and golden eyes roaming horribly over any threat.  And what of the mongrel she followed all one long afternoon on Capri?  It’s not a thing you think to do with a Capri afternoon, to follow a dog.  The creature kept glancing back over its shoulder at her, whether beckoning her on or glaring at her to make her go away, my mother never knew. 

Velia What kind of woman carries on so, about lower mammals she has known in foreign parts?  Such tales excite no one to envy, and my mother when she chose could make a listener glitter with it.  Take the day in Tarquinia that she and a few others were let into the frescoed tomb of the ravishing Velia, a noble Etruscan maiden with a pouty sneer.  What had got Velia in a state of perpetual affront down there?  Her own death, most likely.  And it was wet enough in her tomb to grow mushrooms.  After a frigid half hour with a guard shining a flashlight on every painted square inch of the two thousand-five hundred year-old chamber, my mother and the others climbed the numerous and slippery steps leading back above ground — to the sun, the grass in the wind, the satiny red poppies dotting the long field that overlay the necropolis. Cued by nothing they could name, the women in the little group ran as one to tear poppies from the earth and weave them into their hair.  Judging from my mother’s diaries, however, it took no more than a black and white rabbit in the petting zoo of the Public Gardens in Taormina to outweigh, page for page, the psychic density of that maidenly tomb.

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Were the animals stand-ins?  That is, was it a kind of maternal behavior — observing closely the tender Sicilian rabbit, feeding it daily with pale lettuces and corn?  I think the rabbit was no placeholder, for Italy was and is full of the most cherubic bambini, the sight of an unencumbered girl stopping a pram to pet and coo a common one.  Why, the sheer Eros of Italian motherhood famously lulls you to fecundity, yet my mother held back and held back and held back — slender, hatted, attentive to rabbits, dogs and mute stones.  And of all the beings — cat ladies, Jesuits, Mexican Holy Year penitents with running mascara, aged countesses, smoldering waiters – that appeared in her decade’s worth of diaries, there is not a single drawing of a single child.

Englishcemetery Rather, she made sketches of children’s graves — the life-sized marble effigy of a chubby-ankled Victorian pre-schooler in the English cemetery in Florence, for instance, and the nearly featureless grave of Alberto who died aged 9 in Venice, every other detail of his headstone, even the tiny photo under glass, having weathered too poorly to be discerned. That marble toddler in Florence — I never visited the exact grave — wore a cunningly chiseled velvet frock that made you want to touch the nap. She planted her feet wide on her tomb slab and raised her arms so high in a “Not me!” appeal to Fate that her petticoats showed. Tell me, what grieving couple of the Brownings’ circle could have possibly taken comfort in that?  Surely it was not quite as my mother saw it, and the actual marble baby balances sweetly between two worlds, her hands held out in welcome. But then, I know at this distance certain things that my young mother couldn’t have then known as she furiously drew and made notes – how the grave of a child must not look, for one thing.

Remember that my mother was a painter who made whatever she saw her own, often without regard to how it really appeared.  Really appeared to whom? — I can hear her ask, and yes, she would have said whom.  Her grammar was both leisurely and perfect — oh, that was a mask.  Like the mask of generalized leisure the diaries wear, for she had by the standards of today almost endless time in Italy – time that keeps on expanding, a wavy transparent upload allowing me to know more than I can, like the android in Bladerunner who didn’t know she could play the piano until she sat down at one and played it.  So it is that I know my mother’s idea of herself as a young artist abroad, and where she thought she fitted in.  She was rather unconcerned to fit into the 20th century schema, figuring that was bound to happen whether one wished or unwished it.  It is as plain from her diaries as from her paintings that she was after something altogether different – not timeless, just different.  Be who you are, she would say, it’s the Socratic lesson. Yes, follow that star – as I have done.  Long before she knew me I sensed my own coming on, permeable as Orion as I then was, and I stepped down from her sky, not to be stopped.

Goethe288x224 One winter, she took a room with a roof garden – you could get them cheap, the Italians think their winters are cold — not far from Goethe’s house on the Corso, where, in his 30’s he had lived for two years, registering himself in the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo as “Filippo Muller” – a slightly younger man.  After visiting the Sistine Chapel, Goethe most famously roamed the Campagna – his friend and Corso housemate, the German painter Tischbein, immortalized him there in a broad-brimmed hat and a garment that is partly toga and partly duster.  My young mother set out to roam the Campagna, too, wearing I believe a voluminous beret with a feather. How things had changed in the 200 years since Goethe! The grotto of the nymph, Egeria, its mouth splashed with lime and flanked with heaping garbage trucks, the temple of Deus Rediculus now the mainstay of a trailer park where wood fires burned.  One could still hear the cowbells and smell the clover that would have penetrated the sensorium of Goethe, however. And there were my mother’s usual strays – underfed dogs, out for themselves on this comfortless Fellinian terrain, cats stretching in the faint sun.

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Would it have made a painting? The colossal disregard for their cultural patrimony and their environment shown by the Italians – the empty Fanta cans silting up the tombs at Cerveteri, the plastic bags of picnic litter tied insouciantly to low branches beside the storied Lake of Nemi – my mother described it all without any wish to paint it. Only to know it as she painted what she painted, and to make sure Antiquity never took on the aspect of a polished white thing in a well swept museum.

But what, if not sketching for her paintings, was my mother doing with these months-long chunks of her youth? She had a career, and she had to mind it — although one is tempted by the diaries to imagine she merely went forth to take Italy in, including all the pricey lunches that she left frank, unashamed records of, so that I am staggered at the things she could afford to eat, spending what she believed was very little. My mother would hurriedly jot down notes on an early morning visit to the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone, say, and then add a line about dashing over to the Galleria Doria-Pamphili because she’d heard the private apartments might be open from 11 till noon – she was all for private apartments – where she caught sight of a reliquary full of  “festooned saint bits,” the saint herself in a vitrine, “child-sized with thin sox. ”  But it was the day’s luncheon that was detailed utterly without haste.  On the day of the saint bits, for instance, she lunched at the Costa Balena, a favorite trat near the Porta Pia, tucking into Jewish-style artichokes, followed by trenette al’ pesto and grilled rospo with lemon and herbs. The rolls were crusty, the Frascati just the right temperature not to mention an arresting straw color unusual for Frascati, and as a digestivo there was a big mason jar full of almond-scented ratafia ladeled out by the owner to every thirsty comer.

Pick almost any day anywhere in Italy, and you read of something similar laid before my mother, whether she lunched alone or in company. She would paste the restaurant receipt into her record of the day, occasionally surrounding it with exclamation points, wings, shafts of light penetrating cloud cover, volcanoes erupting or some other private though easily decoded symbol denoting whether the lunch had been so-so — or epiphanial.

Lunch

Lunchmilan

I submit there is something not quite right about a girl barely out of her teens caring so what she eats, knowing not just bad from good but which foods are a full expression of terroir and which are but vitiated things, knowing when a whole civilization speaks to you through your sense of taste and when it is mute and you are …only eating.

And when did she work, for Heaven’s sake? Do you spend the morning running around Italy, then lunch like she did, and still get any work done?  I’m afraid so.  Anyone who doubts my mother was working has only to take a look at her paintings, of which I am the chief guardian. They are all around me now, even on the floor turned to face the wall – just so that I can turn them to the room again when I freshen things up.  I am like Boss, the golden-eyed mastiff, alert to any threat to my stock and its provider.  So it is surely not for nothing, all the work she did.

For a long time my young mother and I only brushed as in a crowded passage, though when at last we met we tangled into a knot.  Until then, however, I would see her standing at the far end of San Marco, against the blazing facade — gloved, hatted just so, too slender to be feasting like I know she did.  And she would fling her crusts to the hideously thronging pigeons that never alarmed her no matter how fast they came or how greedy, because animals and their demands were easy, and she was without them violently discontent, knowing perfectly that no tomb was worth a rabbit yet spending her youth at graveyards and at laden tables. And because I know what she knew at any given moment, I see that she had no awareness of me then in the shadowy portico, moving in and out of view like a masker awaiting an assignation. It would be long years before I overtook her, and there was much observing left for her to do.

Whenever she departed a town – Taormina, for instance, to which she always returned — my mother would leave it as if for the last time, with a rhapsodic backward-glancing drawing of a thing seen from the moving train.  I too am fond of looking backwards — I prefer to sit facing that way when my train pulls out.  So I know the long vistas of departure, and that wide nexus of gravel and track where trains appear almost to collide before one switches off at a saving angle and the other hurtles on. But there is a dark mountain I have not seen, leaving Taormina station, that I know my mother saw.  Not just drew, but saw. A dark mountain cleft on one side, with paths converging on a villa halfway up — and in the villa, truth to tell, I do not quite believe. Yet behind shut lids I see that mountain as if from a searing retinal imprint when racketing towards the Straits of Messina and the mainland beyond, I widened my eyes, knowing I was leaving for the very last time.

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