Thursday, December 02, 2010
Medea with a touch of schadenfreude
To look at her, you wouldn't think my mother-in-law capable of murdering her children. Or poisoning her husband. Or lopping the head off the neighbors' dog with a scythe.
She's a diminutive, demure, hunch-backed, dwarfen old woman who has never worn a pair of trousers in her life. She sports sensible woolen skirts and thick, putty-colored hosiery--and, when around the house, always a long, chintz smock to keep her clothes in respectable condition. When she toddles through the neighborhood in her men's black clodhoppers, head bowed, a benign expression on her face, her hands--with shopping totes dangling from one arm like ganglia--are clasped together tentatively, as if in prayer.
But this is a woman who feeds on the cronaca nera--the sensational journalistic recountings of murder, mayhem and misfortune--like a leech on Jabba the Hutt. For years I have watched her riveted to every grisly news story of infants and fetuses abandoned in dumpsters, toddlers left alone to fall off balconies, and of mothers strangling, stabbing or drowning their own offspring. (Surprisingly, there are thousands of these stories in Italy--clearly, the land where la Mamma reigns supreme has its dark side). The frisson of excitement she experiences over such horrible events is as obvious as the potato-shaped nose on her face. She discusses them endlessly--never failing to interject a devout "O, Signore pietà!" (Lord have mercy!)--and describes all the gruesome details with novelistic brushstrokes worthy of Stephen King. Though my testimony wouldn't hold up in a court of law, I'd swear that at some point her grim narrative begins to sound like wishful thinking.
She's also partial to stories of dogs sinking their teeth into innocent passersby or chewing the arms off babies. She has always harbored the conviction that canines represent malign, satanic forces, and as such should be shunned--like Protestants or feminists--and preferably exterminated from the face of the earth. Even beribboned toy poodles and quivering, hairless chihuahuas send her into paroxysms of fear. When the neighbors' sweet, playful, little black terrier comes prancing and sniffing around, she flees into her house and locks the door as if he were Cerberus incarnate, bent on taking a bite out of her precious pious rump and propelling her into the dank chambers of Hell.
Understand, dear Readers, that my mother-in-law is the most repressed, self-effacing soul there is--she has swallowed her own desires and opinions so long they've metastasized. The notion of free will is as alien to her as, well, wearing pants or ordering in Chinese food. Fanatically serving others in the hope of some Eternal Reward, forever thirsting after a sip from the elusive cup of Life, she's a cross between a heavenly handmaiden with stars in her eyes and a wretched Miss Havisham in a rotting wedding dress.
She didn't choose her life--it was doled out to her like a losing poker hand. And though she endeavors to be a good Catholic, and perform her duties like the good little Christian soldier she is, resentment seeps from her like steam from the lid of a pot kept on a slow, steady boil. She has made innumerable sacrifices for her children and husband--even neighbors and fellow parishoners know her to be easy prey when it comes to their voracious needs. She has told me of the great difficulty she endured in giving birth to four children in under four years, while working part-time as cooks' help and taking care of impossibly demanding invalid relatives, with no help from her paleolithic husband whose only concern was that his meals be on time. Her teeth fell out, her hair thinned, she suffered fainting spells. The midwife told her to stop having children--or get measured for a casket. Her loathing of her husband (the man largely responsible for her servitude) is undisguised, yet she slavishly dispatches her Christian wifely duties--all but one, mind you--as if frantically trying to garner celestial brownie points.
But as the Bard says, "fair is foul, and foul is fair": a while back the doctor told her to slip some liquid valium into her husbands' minestra to calm him down and render him more manageable or some such nonsense, and my mother-in-law asked, "What happens if I give him too much?" with an unmistakable gleam in her eye. Whenever family squabbles arise, she makes sure to fan the flames by playing the "he said, she said" game, pitting one sibling against another with Machiavellian precision, while wringing her hands in feigned concern. If you dare cross her, she lowers her eyes innocently in seeming deference to your opinions--then mounts a campaign of passive-aggressiveness the likes of which would have made even Alexander the Great drop arms and surrender his troops.
And so it happens that Our Lady of Infinite Sacrifice (or Lady Macbeth--take your pick) relishes being the bearer of ill-tidings. You name it, everyone's ailments--including degrees of fever, cataracts, gout, kidney stones, depression, dyspepsia, etc.--along with their financial setbacks, unwanted pregnancies, and myriad other human dramas, is the stuff of conversation. She lays in wait for us to come home from work and accosts us in the courtyard with the latest tales of woe regarding neighbors or family-members. And while it is true that Italians love to discuss illness as much as the English like to talk of the weather, her capacity for ill-omen is unparalleled.
I tell you all this, dear Readers, because this past Sunday morning as soon as we opened our shutters (thus signifying that we were awake, up, and about) she appeared at our door, like a raven, her hands clamped together in what was either meekness or glee, with an air of wistful sadness, and informed us that our 94 year-old neighbor, Ottavino, had died during the night. She proceeded to recount verbatim his wife Lisetta's mournful ululations, and speculated about whether or not she'd now be put into a casa di cura by her daughter, or given over to the care of one those immigrant slave-girls called badanti. She lingered at our doorstep, eyes downcast, shoulders shrugged at the inevitability of death, nursing homes, and thankless children--savoring her words and the moment.
The ancient Greeks coined the term catharsis--meaning (theatrically speaking) that in order to fully experience their tragedies on the stage, one necessarily entered into the unfolding drama, as it were, and emerged emotionally cleansed. Perhaps my mother-in-law--through her obsession with the calamities and misfortunes of others--is merely purging herself of her own latent fears and frustrations. Perhaps her behavior is harmless enough--however morbid--and I'm a wicked, wicked woman to suspect her of ulterior sentiments.
But be assured of one thing, dear Readers--I watch my back around that little gray-haired, chintz-covered goblin. Because how she really feels about having a wilful, outspoken, independent-minded American daughter-in-law is anybody's guess.
My best regards,
(*photo credit: above, Maria Callas as Medea in the film by Pier Paolo Pasolini)