1968: Chaos and Turmoil, in the Streets, in Our Bedroom by Amalia Pistilli Conrad

Sveglia! Sveglia! Svegliati, Amaliuccia, svegliati, figlia mia! Dobbiamo andare, dobbiamo andare a denunciare tuo padre che mi sta avvelenando, mi vuole far morire, e la sua schifosa famiglia e’ in combutta!”

(“Wake up! Wake up, little Amalia! Wake up, my daughter! We must go, we must go and turn your father in, he’s poisoning me and his stinky family is in cahoots!”)

 

The Mother pulls the covers off her nine-year-old daughter’s small body, warm with the scent of sleep and dreams. The bedroom they share—the parents’ bedroom from which the Mother has exiled her husband and where the matrimonial bed is now shared with the Daughter—is darkened. Only a little bedside lamp cuts the night up into a cone of light so yellow and solid it resembles a slice of ricotta cheesecake, floating next to the Daughter’s curly sleepyhead.

The Daughter moves her hand weakly to shush her mother off, to grab at the slice of light pie and let darkness swallow it up, to motion this bad dream away and slip back into the peaceful dream she has just walked out of, which is now vanishing faster and faster with each second of the light staying on, each second of her mother’s voice lulling her back into wakefulness.

“Svegliati, dài, svegliati, dobbiamo andare! Tieni, eccoti i vestiti, vestiti, alzati, vestiti, fai presto prima che quel farabutto si sveglia e ci fa del male!

(“Wake up, come on, wake up, we must go! Here, take your clothes, get dressed, get up, get dressed, quick before that son of a bitch wakes up and hurts us!”)

 

The Mother is standing by the bed already dressed, looking lovely in fact, as if she were going not to an appointment with doom but to a date with a lover. She is wearing a two-piece of light-knitted wool in a deep shade of crimson red, with darker embroidery around the wrists and neck. She is a beautiful woman of 43, her luscious curves just beginning to metamorphose into a plumpness that will, in time, slip seamlessly into obesity. Her hair went prematurely grey when she was in her thirties, but at this particular point of the sliding curve that is her life, the curve-of-no-return that is her madness, she is still capable and willing to take care of herself in the way women are supposed to. The hairdresser’s shade of mahogany chestnut matches her light green eyes beautifully—occhi di gatta (she-cat eyes) as she herself always likes to call them.

Those light green cat eyes are narrowed now with angry concern, the burning anxiety of folly, the feverish urgency of invention that builds elaborate castles of sand, houses of cards and labyrinthine games in her mind.

Tieni i vestiti, dài, vestiti,” the Mother pushes onto her daughter’s bed a confused bundle of fabrics that looks like they, too, have just been rudely summoned back from the land of dreams.

The Daughter’s sleep is gone, sucked up into the slice of light by the bed; the Daughter’s dream is gone, vanished back into her curly sleepyhead like a genie whooshing back into the magic lamp.

Reluctantly, slowly, she pushes herself up on her elbows, sits up in the bed, still half under the covers, still hoping that this is not, after all, her reality but only another part of the dream, one of those inconvenient parts where the Subconscious tricks you into doing things you would never choose to do in real life—although she is only nine years old and does not yet know about the workings of the Subconscious and the Unconscious, does not yet know about the works of Freud and Jung, does not yet know about the twisted meanders of the human mind and, most of all, she does not yet know that her mother is crazy as a bat—loopy, nuts, bonkers, stark raving mad, a fruitcake—but she still believes every paranoia, every scheme, every daydream, every idea, every imagination, every supposition, every invention her mother comes up with; she has absolute, blind, complete, religious faith in everything her mother tells her.

 

And tonight—in the middle of this otherwise peaceful and balmy October night, in Naples where the temperatures can still reach into the high twenties—tonight her mother’s dream is poison.

 

Tonight, tonight; in the middle of this otherwise peaceful and balmy October night in Naples where a few more weekends at the beach can be had, le ottobrate, as people call them here; “Indian Summers”, she will later learn they are called in the rainy and green land of Albion where sixteen years from now she will elope to find refuge from this madness, this poison, this call of the wild in the middle of the night; to escape from being woken up in the middle of the night, any night chilly or balmy, by a hand shaking her body out of bed, by a scream of the telephone shaking her mind out of sleep; the call of the Wild Mother in the middle of the night like the howling of a werewolf at the immense silver roundness of the moon. Tonight, this night—in the middle of this balmy October night—anno domini millenovecentosessanto, or infamous 1968, when the whole world is in chaos and turmoil, when all over Italy and France students and workers are demonstrating in the streets, are setting up barricades, occupying factories and universities, plastering their walls with political slogans; in this year of unrest when young Italian revolutionaries are chanting “L’ immaginazione al potere“, the evil power of the Mother’s deranged imagination is pulling the daughter out of a warm bed, out of an envelope of cushy dreams and heavy, long, slightly labored breathing.

 

There must be some irony here.

 

Chaos and turmoil in the whole world.

Chaos and turmoil in our bedroom,

in our middle-class respectable household.

And, in the space of only nine months,

these births and baptisms of fire:

 

in Prague,

the Red Spring was in full swing

until the Russian tanks marched in.

Anti-Vietnam protesters and Black activists

were invading

American TV screens.

 

The flame of Dr. King

had been snuffed away.

 

In Italia,

poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini,

incidentally gay,

denounced the Valle Giulia students

throwing stones at the police

as figli di papà borghesi,

“bourgeois daddy’s boys and girls”,

saying he would side with the police

this time, with

the peasant boys

who enrolled in the forces

because, what other choices

did they have?

 

Their fathers emasculated

by a poverty

that denies

any authority.

 

Their mothers bent

under the burden

of misery.

 

L’ immaginazione al potere!

 

Those daddy’s boys and girls are chanting in the occupied lecture halls of Rome and Milan.

And my Mother letting her evil imagination rule our life, pushing her to run to the police station in the middle of this 1968 night to denounce my father, a confirmed fascist, for his alleged slow poisoning of her food.

But she was never so precise, and, of course I, as a child, never thought to ask but just swallowed her tale of how she must have swallowed my father’s poison.

 

How was he poisoning her?

Where did he get the poison?

What kind of poison was it?

When did she first notice she was being poisoned?

What symptoms did she experience?

Had she seen a doctor to confirm that she was being poisoned?

Who else might know of this poisoning?

Was anybody else aiding my father to poison her?

 

I imagine these, and more, are the questions the police must have asked her. And I am still, thirty years later, stupefied by the patriarchal, patronizing carelessness of those presumably bored, probably tired men at our local police precinct. They must have deemed her innocuously loopy, perhaps amusingly batty; they deemed her case so irrelevant that they did not even bother to file a report let alone investigate the possibility of a real poisoning taking place in our household.

No, they must have smiled knowingly to each other, probably murmured under their complicit male breath something like “Peccato che e’ proprio pazza perche’ non c’e’ male, eh, come femmina!” (“Pity she’s a nutter ’cause she’s quite a looker!”) Perhaps they openly made fun of my mother’s increasing agitation and, in the end, after giving her an unconvincing reassurance that they would “look into it,” sent us both back home.

 

The Mother and the Daughter who could not turn the Father in are turned out into the street, out into the oval square where the police precinct is nestled next to the Stadio Collana—a small athletic stadium. The streetlights are slowly dying off, their dim fluorescence buzzing low above the Mother and Daughter’s silhouettes, two creatures of the night conjured up by a storyteller bent on unhappy endings, a storyteller sold on hanging tales.

The Mother’s occhi di gatta are narrowed with rage, her light green irises darkened by the tempestuous clouds of insanity.

 

“Lo vedi, te lo avevo detto che non mi credevano perche’ sono anche loro in combutta con tuo padre, la sua famiglia si e’ comprata pure la polizia, e io come devo fare, a chi mi devo rivolgere?”

(“See, I told you they would not believe me because they’re also in cahoots with your father; his family has bought off the police. What am I gonna do? Who am I gonna talk to?”)

Delirium boils in her blood, “psicosi maniaco-depressiva con tendenze paranoico-schizofreniche” will be the psychiatrist’s diagnosis when she is finally branded as mad cattle four years later.

 

Whatever that means.

 

In this balmy October night in 1968 Naples—while the militant daddy’s children of Europe and America are piling up debris to build street barricades, are concocting Molotov cocktails, are occupying their universities and hoping for a better, different future that will not materialize yet in the ensuing excitingly turbulent decade leading up to the emptiness of all-out materialist consumerism—the Mother is oblivious to history-in-the-making, oblivious to the history unfolding around and behind her, oblivious to histories before and after her, oblivious to the history of her Greek “new city” that is already nearly two-thousand-five-hundred-and-sixty-eight-years-old.

The only history the Mother knows and comprehends is the history unraveling inside her head: stories of darkness and confusion, stories of red flashes like blood oozing out of fresh wounds, stories of loss and despair, stories of death in the family, stories of forbidden hands on forbidden flesh, histories of possible abuse and perhaps incest—histories of horror and stories of sorrow the Daughter can, still today, only make blind suppositions about.

 

And we all know how suppositions are like darts shot at a target in darkness; sometimes they hit the bullseye just by chance, sometimes they ricochet off the rubber tablet and fall to the ground with a soft thud.

 

The sound of soil filling up a freshly dug grave.

 

The sound of memory.

 

Wake up, wake up.

It’s time.

 

Time to tell the story that has no beginning and no end.

The story of one night that unravels endlessly like Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

 

Svegliati, svegliati.

E’ ora.

 

E’ ora di raccontare la storia senza inizio e senza fine.

La storia di una notte che si dipana infinita come il filo di Arianna nel labirinto del Minotauro.

 

What will we find at the end?

 

The night,

the light,

or just

another

story?…………………………………………………

amaila conradAmalia Pistilli Conrad hails from Naples, Italy, and currently lives in Portland, Ore., She has also lived in London; Munich; Philadelphia, Pa.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Vancouver, BC, Canada. She holds a certificate in creative writing from The Writer’s Studio (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada); has published a short story in an anthology of women’s writing and an essay in a book on Native American photography. She has also been a theatre actress and performance artist in Italy; a freelance jazz photographer in England; a film-maker and academic in the United States.”1968: Chaos and Turmoil, In the Streets, In Our Bedroom” is an excerpt from her memoir in progress, Stella Maris—a hybrid text of lyrical prose, poetry, and social commentary; it weaves the story of her late mother’s mental illness into the larger fabric of Italian history and culture. Amalia writes a blog on memory, memoir and culture: http://memoryandmirrors.blogspot.com
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  • Tiffany

    Powerful story with a lot of really clear visuals.

  • Love your storytelling style. Impressive indeed. The madness, the trusting child and what appears to be an absent father (having been banished). What a ride and you share it with us so well. Congratulations!! Jonina Kirton TWS 2007 

  • That was such a well written, complex story.  I love how you told the story in third person and then switched over to first.  I love the history as well to provide a blanket of time.  Masterful.  Applause!

    • Amalia Conrad

      Thank you! I have been reading your blog. Do check mine out too. We writers must support each other!