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The Story of the Returned Doll

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I.

 

My mother had called me fairly late and I answered in a disgruntled tone - I was feverishly working to meet a deadline, the remains of dinner still sitting by my elbow.

“Hello, Mama.”

“Imma. Am I interrupting?” 

“I’m busy, but go ahead. How are you?”

My mother sighed, as I continued typing. Then she said:

“I’m going to die soon.”

I finally stopped in the middle of a sentence. “What?”

“I have stage IV lung cancer. I stopped chemotherapy today.”

My mother’s dreadful bluntness sank in. I raised the volume on my phone as she continued, “I don’t expect you or your sisters here in Turin, but -”

“Wait, you stopped chemotherapy? Why?”

“I’m too far gone,” she said calmly. She dived into a rational argument that her doctor had presented to her: her type of cancer had a high mortality rate, with one in three dying within a year of being diagnosed with stage IV, surgery offered the best chance of defeating the malignant tumor, but hers hadn’t been effective, she had multiple biopsies -

“Stop, Mama. Of course I’ll come and care for you.”

She fell silent. There was a muffled scratching noise on the line. Then I realized she was crying.

My mother never cried out of sadness, only out of anger. She would spill with fury, the tears leaking from her eyes, particularly when she shouted about my father. It was disorienting to hear her crying out of any other emotion.

“Of course I’ll come,” I repeated.

She cleared her throat. It seemed like she was going to say something, so I waited. After what felt like a minute of silence, I said that I would fly to Turin the very next day.

My mother replied, “I want to die in Naples. You need to take me there.”

 

II.

 

I suppose I’m writing this all down because there are things I don’t understand. My mother was a mysterious person, although people say she exposed everything in her writing. I’m not so sure about that. I have to say, however, that I’ve only read two or three of her books; one of them was assigned in school. I always felt that Mama was disappointed that her children weren’t very interested in her work. But it’s not true - we were instead too intimidated by the thought of learning too much about her.

I’ve always circled carefully around her. She could get easily irritated when I had a question or spilled something on myself - she wanted to retreat into her writing. Her books were her children, perhaps they had more right to be her children.

Before she died, she asked me to do two things: to become her literary executor - she had just published a best-selling series that would soon require new editions - and to contact an old friend of hers, a writer of Neapolitan history books.

Mama had been writing these four books very quickly and obsessively, to the point that she didn’t have time to pick up the phone, or if she did, she would speak in an even more preoccupied tone than usual. 

“Why me? You know I’ve barely read any of your books. Dede’s more familiar, she teaches literature.”

My mother sighed. “Dede is an academic. You’re a writer. You’ll understand better, you know what it’s like to tell a story.”

“I’m a financial journalist, Mama.”

“I’ve read your articles,” she said. “The financial crisis, the youth unemployment crisis. These are stories, you tell them well. You know exactly what it’s like to fight and to please an editor, to get to the heart of a story.”

I blinked. My mother, always so critical, praising my work?

“You write about the real world,” she continued. “Dede writes about other books.” I noticed her fingers were trembling as she balled a tissue, her eyes rimmed with eyeliner that failed to hide the redness. “You will defend my story if it needs it. These books are important to me - they’re the closest to my heart, out of everything I’ve written.”

I hadn’t known why she was so consumed with this particular project. Now I did.

She knew she was out of time.

“Yes, Mama,” I said cautiously. “I’ll do it.”

She nodded, looked away, barely tolerating the amount of weakness she had just exposed. Her sudden fragility, paired with the loss of her shining hair, frightened me.

“Now,” she said, still looking towards the window, her favorite view of the river Po in the distance. “I want you to find an old friend for me.”

She handed me a thick paperback book with a picture of the harbor in Naples on its cover, Mount Vesuvius looming in the background. The title was Life and Death in Naples.

“She is the author of this book.” My mother, with a steady finger, pointed unnecessarily at the author’s name. “I want you to write to her and ask her to come see me one last time. I haven’t spoken to her in years.”

I agreed. But just as I passed on a message to the author, a Signora Claudia Raffaelli, through her publishing house, Mama went to the hospital one more time, her pain overwhelming her in waves. She never came back out. She passed away before my sisters could fly in from America.

 

III.

 

My mother was at the center of her story and she knew it. She had many friends, and I received many letters of condolence, including one from a man in prison, who had been a childhood friend. Her funeral was well-attended. Scores of them - writers, professors, art gallery owners - came, from all over: Turin, Milan, Pisa, Paris, New York, and of course, Naples, where she grew up, where I grew up.

I never appreciated how different her Neapolitan friends from childhood were different from the friends, lovers, and colleagues she acquired in her adult life.  You could pick them apart in the crowd, wearing shabby clothes and shifting in their chairs awkwardly, like unwanted cousins at a wedding. There was Aunt Carmela, a jolly, pockmarked elderly woman whom I remembered from my youth. She hugged me, her scratchy cardigan itchy on my skin. I’m sorry to hear about your father as well - dementia, what a pity, and he had been such a brilliant student in school, so I hear, I didn’t go to high school, you know. There was Uncle Enzo, a man who was practically my father for a few years, dressed in threadbare slacks, the stress of his retirement visible on his face.

We hugged, we chatted. Poor Lenu, she lived a good long life, it’s sad she had to go, but we all have to go, don’t we.  

Finally, he said: Has Lina shown up?

I hadn’t thought about Aunt Lila in years. I shook my head.

The weariness deepened in his eyes. I always thought she would come back when she was ready, he said.

I, not knowing what to say, wished him a safe journey back to Milan, as my sister Elsa swooped in. She ranted, she raged - she was furious she hadn’t been told about Mama’s health. Why didn’t she have the right to know that Mama was on the brink of death? How much did I know, was Mama going to leave her out of the inheritance - 

I don’t know, Elsa, excuse me, I need to talk to all of the guests, I said - and I dodged away as Pietro grabbed her, the tears shining on her face. As if I had been intended to do it, I walked towards a stooped woman who stood apart from the others.

“Hello… are you Signora Raffaelli?” I guessed. People were leaving and I had accounted for nearly everyone else in the crowd. I hoped it was finally her, the mysterious author who was my mother’s friend.

She looked up from her still gaze at my mother’s grave site, startled. Despite her stylish dark glasses and cashmere grey shawl that covered her head like a soft storm cloud, I recognized her immediately:

“Aunt Lila?”

The old woman flinched. She did not reply, merely stared at me for a fraction of a second before hesitantly returning her gaze to my mother. She showed no sign of recognition, even though at one point she was as close as a mother to me. 

“Mama - I know Mama wanted to talk to you again. I’m glad you’re here.” 

She nodded silently. A wisp of wavy grey hair poked out from underneath her shawl. She seemed to have been depleted of the energy she once had, energy that - like my mother’s - had been simultaneously fascinating to watch and frightening to beholden. I suddenly appreciated why they had been best friends.

“She wanted to give you this.” I pulled a small paper bag out of my purse and handed it to her. 

She took it with a begrudging air and unwrapped it - it was a crumpled little doll, missing all of the features that defined its face. The cloth clothing was dusty, worn.

Aunt Lila opened her mouth, as if about to gasp. Then, controlling her surprise, she turned to me and finally spoke: “Where is the other one?”

I waved my hand towards my mother’s grave. “She’s buried with her,” I said quietly.

Behind the sunglasses, I could see Aunt Lila’s eyes widen. “Tina,” she muttered, to herself. She shook her head, as if judging my mother for her final decision.

“She’s right,” she murmured.

Then she turned on her heel and walked away without another word, clutching the ancient doll.

Tina, she had said. I wondered why she said that then, what had reminded her of the daughter she had lost thirty years ago?

 

IV.

 

My mother’s death was difficult, but it did not hit me as hard as I thought it would. She had accepted it, planned it so. When I look back now, I appreciate her strength and fortitude in a way I never did when she was alive.

But perhaps that’s the grief talking, making me take a rational perspective. I cried and cried after the funeral. The week in between her death and her funeral was packed with practical activities: deciding the funeral date, sending invitations, and so on. After it was all over, the finality of my mother’s disappearance from my life felt real.

No longer would she call me to make strained chitchat, about Dede and Elsa’s children, making unwanted comments about my latest boyfriend, about the decline of restaurant culture of Turin, and so on. And I couldn’t call her. I couldn’t even try to get the wisdom that all parents are supposed to bestow on their children, after rejecting it for so many years. When I struggled to incorporate a particular quote into an article, when I threw a shirt onto the floor in frustration after shrinking it in the washing machine - that’s when I missed her and finally wanted her advice.

But she is no longer here.

Being back in Naples and seeing Aunt Lila again made Tina resurface in my mind. Tina, my brilliant playmate and friend, Lila’s daughter who had once been mistaken for my mother’s own daughter. She disappeared when we were almost four. We never found out what had happened to her. I don’t remember her, what she looked like.

I think about how her vanishing must have broken Lila from the inside, it’s so unnatural for a mother to lose her child. It’s a guilty relief to me, to think that what I’m going through - a child losing her mother - that’s the natural order. It’s normal, banal grief, in comparison to Lila’s torment.

I’m still learning about my mother everyday. Every parent is a mystery to her child. When I have the time, I’ll read my mother’s books and perhaps see her as a different person:

Elena Greco, acclaimed author.

Not just my mother.