Translated from the Itaian by Brenda Porster
I know how profound is the folding of a napkin
by a woman whose hair will go white
Today my daughter turns eighty. She’s in a rather bad shape for her age, so it will be a quiet celebration. Her decline came on by degrees, methodically. Just like her father’s. She definitely takes after her father. I’m not from a long-lived stock, but I look better. It’s clear that all my little things are doing well, and there are no problems brooding on the horizon. There’s still time, for me. There’s still time.
When he was fifty, my daughter’s father, my first husband, found a lover twenty years younger than he was. Now she’s dead, too, God bless her. Ten years younger than I am and she did me the favor of taking him off my hands. Dead and buried, both of them. And many of the friends we had in common. And my second husband, too. We had no children, there aren’t many left to mourn him. No one, in fact, there’s no one except me. I still grieve for him and who knows how long I will. Longer than my daughter for sure; whose time is coming, I can feel it. Today may be the day she blows out the candles with her last living breath. Poor thing. There ought to be a system of self-extinction to make it easier for the decrepit. A gadget for old-age homes or something of the sort. It would go over well. The illusion of the wind of youth, with full lungs. A good idea, compassionate, maybe even lucrative. To patent, in order to assure myself a future without any worries.
At forty, my daughter was still a real beauty. They took us for sisters – same hair, waistline, legs. We laughed alike. She was the same as she’d been twenty years before, more or less. Like me. Her birthday was perfect. I was there with my second husband, and she with her one and only husband and the two children. They’re grown now and living abroad; they have their own families and detest their mother. They almost never come to see her, nor me, since I live next door to her. They’ve taken everything from their father – looks, temperament, the money they live on, property. And they don’t need us. My daughter’s husband, an American with no imagination, was a good husband all things considered, wisely absent. He left us very much in peace. And we were hardly aware of his death, except for the children’s sudden departure.
For my daughter’s fortieth birthday we were all together at the seaside. The children, with varying degrees of sunburn on the freckled skin they’d inherited from their father, helped us to clear the table. Then we all went out to the veranda, to kid around until late. A bleary-eyed cat ran between our feet. It’d shown up that morning in the garden. A born little bastard the children had caught, deloused, and dressed up to give to their mom that evening. Black, on that black summer night, under a dopey moon, when all of us still knew how to celebrate a birthday in our own way. When my daughter ran to the phone the children were already in bed. Her current lover was telling her that he couldn’t resist, he had to hear her voice, to be with her on her birthday. Celebrate her, in his own way, too. My daughter spoke softly into a receiver faithfully attached to the wall, staring at her bare feet and moving her big toe up and down, her passionate breath on her pretty lips. Her motionless skirt, her blouse, her long hair pulled back into a granitic chignon. Now we were all really there: the children happily sleeping, my husband and I finishing off our wine, while the American looking out over the terrace balustrade, the back of his neck attentive and resigned, confirmed the urgency of leaving. His wife was so young, from the veranda, happy. With that other man. The kitten was perfectly black.
Fifty is an important milestone for a woman. The body has been following reasons of its own for some time, but suddenly they make themselves clear, they come out of hiding. Stretched out in the sun, my daughter’s body revealed the strategies of attack and defense that were evident now. She’d brought her drink to the lawn and now she was gazing at the sky behind dark glasses. We’d organized a big party that evening, strictly for good luck. And she wanted to get a total suntan for a daringly low-necked dress. The cat was asleep at her side, its little black head resting on her faded pubic hair. Under the cat’s whiskery fluff, her belly looked smooth. In reality, since the birth of her second child she’d been covered with wrinkles, a tight mass of small creases that for years had enjoyed good tone but now were giving in to the weight of thickened skin. She’d always had small breasts, my daughter, but now there were only two fat purplish nipples arrogantly proffering themselves on her sternum. The skin of her shoulders, legs, hands, and feet was still fresh, and the deepening suntan gradually lent it a velvety appearance. She looked at the sky behind those dark glasses and the cat moved its head onto the flaccid flesh below the hip, what the French call “saddle bags”.
When had it started? When did my little girl start growing old? From the beginning, obviously, like everyone else, but today there was no question about it. And me? When did I stop growing old? More complicated. If it had been from the start, I’d still be lying purplish in my mother’s bed, with the umbilical cord just cut. When? When she was a little girl, my daughter would make herself up to look like me, she played at being me. And now she makes herself up to look like me again, to be me. She goes forward and back, forward and back. I’ve never worn make-up. But when did it start, and end? One day, she must have been eight or nine years old, we stood ourselves in front of the mirror, both of us, naked as cuttlefish. Everything was still regular, back then. My first husband arrived behind us and burst out laughing to see the reflection of his two women. Still in the right order. And then? Her school friends said we looked like two sisters. Some even fell in love with me. But I was still her mother, then, young-looking but still her mother. And after? Twenty years, thirty years, forty years. A lovely girl, then woman, she was, growing into maturity. Harmoniously. And me? Where was my peak of ripeness, my old age? My second husband was a genuinely lucky man. He didn’t need to look for a younger woman, he didn’t. Sometimes I wonder if he was in time to realize it. And the others?
My daughter stretched, delicately moved the cat aside and sat up on the lawn. She pushed her glasses up on her forehead and turned towards me, smiling. Two heavy creases around her mouth, other cheerier ones at the side of her eyes. Large and still clear. All her teeth in order, as American orthodontics required. Maybe that’s what had attracted her husband, shining family tiles, the good kitchen smells of grandma’s pies, back in Colorado. She smiles at me with that nervous sweetness of hers. She’s happy with herself, with the evening’s party, with the children wallowing in the neighbor’s pool with their girlfriends. She gives me a fond smile, though she hasn’t really seen me for years now. Only once, maybe, we were sitting side by side, perhaps even in two different towns. And I’ve stayed like that, over time. And I watch her grow old. It’s no less painful. There’s no justice in this, and it hurts. My daughter has always loved her own time and she adapts to it gracefully. At a certain point it will be my turn, perhaps all at once. Immortality has never been a reasonable aspiration, and the loneliness that goes with it would be insupportable. Live to lose. No, thank you.
Maybe it was because of the broken leg, but she didn’t really want to celebrate her sixtieth. And by then the American had left, with the children. A lot of friends, my daughter had tons of them, padded out with an occasional lover, but they weren’t a good enough reason for making merry. And in any case, a sixtieth in a cozy out-of-the-way seafood restaurant, bringing the birthday candles with you, is an achievement. My daughter went in before me to ask for our table. She always wants to do everything herself, even then, crutches and all. Her altruistic overdoing was the cause of the broken leg. At the hospital they’d asked me if I wanted to sign for my mother’s hospitalization; in that restaurant they were asking if her daughter preferred to eat inside or on the veranda. Her daughter. I lost my mother at an early age and was hugely relieved. She was ugly and authoritarian, and she left my sweet handsome father all for me. I’d said this often to my two husbands, I love repeating myself when it’s something I care about. And they got jealous, both of them, the last time for that sixtieth. And so my daughter and I wound up going by ourselves. My father. I loved him too much, and maybe he’s the reason I can’t grow old. Because time doesn’t pass, it’s always the same, even if he’s been gone for years. The same feelings. The same feeling. We always miss the same appointment, even if at different times. My grandson said that a while back, in a burst of know-it-all adolescence cum philosophical pretentions. It comes back to mind every once in a while, mainly when I’m having a pedicure. Those are moments I try to avoid – pedicures, manicures, waxings, hairdressers…because thoughts crowd in, they take advantage of the right moment to insinuate themselves. It’s unpleasant, but luckily, I don’t need much maintenance. Contrary to my daughter, who does everything by herself to save money. She’s not afraid of thoughts, she’s not, or anyway she glosses over them, but she hasn’t dyed her hair in years.
A little white head and a large brown one, we ate our cake like that. Mother and daughter, backwards. And my birthdays? Who can remember them by now? It’s been years since I’ve celebrated them, since my father passed away, in fact. I’ve managed to forget when I was born. The year but also the month, the day. And the place. And in the end, everyone else has forgotten, too.
Two men were staring at us conspiringly from a nearby table, but we got up right away. We had no time to lose. I, for one, had to get back home to my second husband. He was much younger than me, but very old and couldn’t be on his own too long – memory, urination, ambulation. All problematic, with the required pills. And then I had to apologize for not bringing him with me, him and his jealousy. At home we were at peace, the two of us, I miss it now so much. So there it was, we’d accomplished it that time, too.
The day began in the worst possible of ways. I told her I’d never resorted to plastic surgery. I swore up and down. But to no avail. Yes, your mother-in-law should. But it doesn’t matter to her, it never has. She was never aware of her beauty and now she ignores her old age. She never had much time for worrying about her looks, and neither did I. We were two working women, both of us, each in her own field. And with a family. And an unpredictable sentimental life. She didn’t believe me, that idiot granddaughter of mine. And how could plastic surgery give me all this, life? I’m incredibly alive, my dear, too alive, so much so that I’m afraid it will never end. My great-granddaughter was playing on the kitchen floor near the table.
Sunday got off to a really bad start, with that embarrassing question at breakfast. First, I’d taken a long look at myself in the mirror before going down, hoping to find some sign that revealed my age. Then my daughter came in. Her robe left her bony shoulders and paper-skinned arms half exposed. Beneath the silk her thin body still held its original shape, but it had gone flaccid, with frequent explosions beneath the surface. She was holding a cup in her spotted, flaky right hand with the nails bitten back out of a habit she’d never lost. Her granddaughter climbed into her arms, munching on a biscuit. She kissed her, happy birthday grandma. Happy birthday, everybody. And to me, when were you born, grandma? You should call me great, I answered without answering, you already have a grandma. I kissed my daughter on her head, through her sparse hair, and went to get dressed. What is in store for me? Is there anyone else in the world in my condition? In the corridor I passed in front of the mirror again. And then again in my bedroom, brushing my hair and without a nightgown. Firm breasts, butt, legs. The same skin, intact everywhere. And my daughter aging down below, with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Seventy. I’d passed that some time ago, and yet there I was, in that house by the sea, the same as ever. My walk, my energetic gestures. My laugh, my gaze. Yes, life. What’s the use of all this life? I walked around the room looking for signs of this evening’s surprise party, organized by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And the granddad cat, black as the other one. He was asleep curled up on my daughter’s bed, his nose diving into the ingrained smell of the years. My first husband had it, and the second, after a certain due date they all have it in common. On the chair the clothes she would wear. What I would put on if I had something to hide. Or if I wanted a disguise. In the guest bathroom there were packages and bouquets in water. Outdoors the summer that always surrounded our parties. At least there’d been two cats, over time, even if they seemed the same and it was easy to get them mixed up. Two, one after the other, a chronologically disciplined queue. I have to do everything myself.
Today my daughter is eighty years old. A quick party, just the time to blow out the candles. We’d helped her, in the lack of the hoped-for technological progress, and there weren’t too many complications. One deep breath and then via! all together. Kisses and general applause for her expressionless stare. She went to bed, perhaps definitively. She’s finally resting. Lucky her.