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VIVI'S FLORENTINE SCARF
Vivi put me up to buying the scarf at a marketplace in Florence. She was much older than me, nearly double my age, and my hesitation angered her. The scarf was bright, more of a sarong than a scarf.
"But what will I use it for?"
"Use? Why anything – to wrap yourself in, when you step out of the bath, for your man."
There was no man in my life. Single, I towelled down after a bath. I had learned from other students that Vivi was married to a rich German engineer, had four adult sons. She was travelling alone that summer, as were we all – studying Quattrocento art in Italy.
Vivi, dying of cancer, although undiagnosed, took the scarf from the market vendor and threw it about herself. The Florentine sun caught the gold threads between colours and the scarf transformed her.
"If you don't, I will."
Professor Lucke's first lecture (the only one in a classroom. All the rest were to be in churches, monasteries, graveyard chapels): "Why Tuscany? Why murals? Italy is the cradle of western civiliza-tion and Tuscany participates in this fruitful exer-cise. It is the nature of mural painting that promises to remain faithful to the original location of the image by the nature of the word 'mural' – wall. Wall painting needs a technique. Fresco. 'Fresh' – a technique where paint is applied to wet plaster. The pig-ment undergoes, by fact of wetness, a process of intense binding. The result is a painting of remark-able solidity, with the capacity to face the attacks of time. The mural, like love, is not transferable. It keeps us, holds us, wants our response. This art, it speaks to me. I cannot hear it. I just see the lips move. It is as if, through the ages, the sound gets lost. I try to find the bridge from here to there. I don't understand, because the language has been lost, like faith itself."
Professor Lucke tries to find a way back, to find it for himself. Every time he speaks to us, it is as if he is in intimate dialogue with himself.
Why Tuscany? Why murals? Does this answer for any one of us, his followers, why we are here? Why I am in Italy, the summer before I start my legal career? I do not know what this thing is, my life. I do not know what purpose it has, what to make of it. To stay sane, study birds, study rocks, study anything. So I travel about Italy, carried by my own firm, slender limbs, studying the Allegory of Obedience, Giotto, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolommeo, the upper and lower churches of Assisi, with the same searching intensity as I have studied law.
"Painting catches a moment. Prose flows like time. At a certain moment, Christ says, 'There is a Judas among us. There is one who will betray me.' Is this the moment the artist will choose, or the one when Christ first breaks bread, transforming it with meaning? What moment do you choose?"
"The thirties are the most awful time for a single woman," said Eva, the retired nurse. Eva had watched me talking to Branko, after class – Branko, who in Rome had told me about his anonymous encounters with men under bridges at night. "Life offers us nothing but a series of opportunities to feel ashamed." Branko would not put his arm around me at the Baths of Caracalla, when an open-air performance of Tosca turned cold. Shamelessly, I had asked him to hold me. On the bus back to Rome, I had told him how, at thirty-two, I still sometimes went home to my parents for a hug. He said, "You know, sometimes you make me feel very sad. I could give you a hug, but it wouldn't be honest."
As we walked down the stairs from class together, Branko told me about the man he had just met, about the dinner that continued with breakfast. Now the man was helping him find an apartment in Siena. Generous in his happiness, Branko gifted me with a consoling little hug. I wanted to smack him.
"In the thirties, a woman goes through an almost unbearable physical suffering, if she has no mate. It is the first time you realize you may never find one, and may never have a child. By forty, you have usually reconciled yourself to that thought. You don't suffer over it as much."
Eva had retired that year from nursing. She and I shared a bathroom at the conservatori femminili in Siena. There was a man Eva had loved in her late thirties, and who had wanted to marry her. He was ten years her junior. Whatever the reason, Eva made a decision against the man.
"Did you ever regret it?"
"No. It was not the man I regretted. I met him years later, and knew I had not made a mistake. It was the child." She said this matter-of-factly, as was her way, so that I almost missed it.
"You had a child?"
"No. The child I never had."
Professor Lucke compares two paintings of the same subject – a Guido da Siena and a Duccio Madonna with child. In the first, both mother and child are preciously dressed, faces composed of geo-metrical forms. The child is less of a child than the visualization of an idea, our Saviour, who is our Saviour the moment he is born. In the Duccio, the child is a baby. Again mother holds the child in her left arm. But the baby has grasped a little bit of her cloak. Such a human gesture! You see the childlike playfulness of the gesture of her right hand – the way the mother holds those little feet. She holds a child's feet in her hands at the same moment she holds the feet of the crucified Christ. "Look at us and behold; we are human, he is human. You can come to me, because I am a mother. This is my little child. I know about you, because I have gone through that."
The night before this lecture, I have a dream. I am in labour, the birth pains pulling me to earth like the force of gravity. It is not the pain of a menstrual period. It is as if someone has reached up inside me, taken hold of my womb, and is tearing me out – a cutting, annihilating pain. I wake on the single bed in my cell-like room, knowing my pregnant sister back in Canada must be in labour. I wake relieved that it is her and not me. For I am terrified of her pain. I do not want this cup for myself. Nor do I want to pass through life alone. Coming back to the residence with Eva, I find the telegram and know, without opening it, my sister's child has come.
"Look and behold, we were human. He was human. You can come to me, because I am a mother and this is my little child. I know about you, because I have gone through that."
And I thought what he meant was the pain of childbirth. Never for a moment conceiving far worse. No, because in this painting, at this moment, mother holds the child's feet in her hands. "Ah," said my son's eventual father, watching me play with the little feet of my only son, "You kiss those feet now. Don't you know those are the feet that will take him away from you?"
She holds the child's feet in her hands, at the same moment as she holds the feet of the crucified Christ.
Vivi might be sixty-five, or fifty. She has been a model, has sold real estate, even taught – this in addition to having mothered four sons. Her pregnancies were terrible, with an overactive thyroid not diagnosed until she was in her late forties. She is Estonian – a tall, skinny blond woman, who does her makeup well, who dresses elegantly in melon-coloured silk dresses she made on her own – always womanly, with an innate artistry.
We met returning to the conservatori femminili late one afternoon. Recognizing each other from class, we went to Nannini's for tea. She seemed lonely, though in my ignorance I could not imagine how someone could be lonely in a life of such density. She said she had a decision to make about that night. Her taxi driver had asked her for a date. She was nervous about agreeing because her Italian was insufficient to lay the ground rules for the evening; on the other hand, she wanted to break out of the circle of females at our residence. I told her I wished for male company, too. I told her about Branko, and how it was frustrating to be frequently with a male who elicited female response, but had no male response. She said she really wished she could meet someone gay, that she loved gay men, they were so intuitive.
The next day in Florence, Vivi saw me with Branko and ran after us. She announced that she wanted to have a really good meal with people who looked as if they weren't afraid to spend some money. At lunch, we had two bottles of wine, were all a little drunk. Vivi talked and talked. At one point, she pretended to a weakness she did not have, and placed her hand on Branko's arm, as if for support. Branko preened at her touch.
"I do not believe you. You are a very strong woman," I said.
"You know that? I do not like the idea of being known."
On the bus that evening, we sat separate – Branko way in the back, Vivi behind me. At one point, I turned around to hear something Vivi was trying to tell me, and Branko caught my eye, behind Vivi's back, indicating with his hands the quacking gesture for talk, talk, talk. That he should thrive throughout lunch on her attention, only to mock her now, diminished him in my eyes, at the same time as he made me his accomplice. I decided to distance myself from them both.
The next day, Vivi wanted to return to the same restaurant. I said I did not like to repeat experiences, so Branko and Vivi dined that day alone. On the bus back to Siena, Branko surprised me, by taking the seat at my side. He told me Vivi had had a terrible earache; they had tried to phone some international alert for which her husband had bought insurance, and failing any contact, he had suggested Vivi sit down and relax and eat something first, and when she swallowed her soup, the thing blocking her inner ear seemed to burst, the pain dissolved, after which she felt fine. I thought Vivi's illness a ploy and was amazed that Branko had believed it.
Professor Lucke: "Monterchi. A graveyard chapel. Circa 1445. Piero della Francesca. Here we have a tent motif, the tent flaps parted by angels in a ceremonial way, so that we see the Madonna del Parto. This is not a common topic in Christian iconogra-phy – the pregnant Mary. You see the swelling of her body, hidden beneath a blue gown. Her feet are clearly visible. She turns slightly away from us. Her left hand on her haunch. Her right hand lies over a slit in her gown, a very soft, cautious touch; at the same time a gesture, which seems to point. This is a woman, in every sense of the word, expecting. Inside surface – padding – inside of a fur coat. Outside a mantle. Promise of birth. Christ on the cross, promise of resurrection. Location, above the altar in a chapel of a graveyard. The meaning of the Eucharist. She is the chalice that carries the Lord. Like the tent that shelters her, her gown shelters her body, her body shelters Him. Pomegranate. Eucharistic symbol. Round and opened like her gown." Professor Lucke is excited as he points, dancing in his running shoes, his eyes on fire with the symbols on the wall. His loose cotton shirt bil-lows as sweat blossoms under each arm, with its pungent male odour, prompting Eva to comment, "He wants a woman," not in the carnal sense, but in the sense of a man wanting a woman to administer to the details, such as laundering his shirts.
I usually spent my weekends in Siena with Eva, lounging beside the Giardina pool. With Eva, there were no expectations, not even the necessity of conversation. We would sit side by side on our lawn chairs, observing the bathers from other countries from overtop our respective books, in parallel pursuit. Eva studied the course books in preparation for our final exam, while I read Boccaccio. Thus, in silent companionship, our eyes filled with the same images: there was this Swedish girl in a white bathing suit, translucent when wet, exposing her small breasts with their tight nipples, perched with a single bronzed foot coyly fishing the pool. Her young muscular mate swam up to her, lifted the foot from the water, and astonishingly, sucked her toe.
"Isn't she gorgeous?" was Eva's only comment. Eva was of an age – beyond surprise, beyond longing – accepting of seemingly everything. That day, and although Eva and I usually practiced our student economies, we ate at the Giardina restaurant. Without changing out of my black bathing suit, I wrapped Vivi's scarf about my waist, and waited in queenly composure for the barbequed rack of lamb to be brought to our table, treating Eva to wine. When supper was ended, I could not leave the bones on my plate. Wrapping them carefully in a napkin, I deposited them into my beach bag. Eva said nothing. Later, we laughed like complicit schoolgirls over the contemptuous silence of our Sienese waiter, removing my boneless plate. In the privacy of my cell-like room back at the conservatori, I gnawed upon my bones.
While I usually spent my weekends with Eva, one weekend I went to meet Vivi in Bologna. Our purpose was shopping. Vivi was taking me in hand. If I were to become a lawyer, I must dress the part. In Bologna, I would find Armani suits, and Bruno Magli shoes. Vivi knew just the stores, and the hotel across from the train station where we would each take a room.
I arrived before Vivi. Though discussed weeks before, we had not confirmed with each other before the designated weekend, and I was uncertain if she would, in fact, keep to the arrangement. Was it for this reason, or some other, that I made all my purchases without her? In the shoe store where I selected my shoes and bag, I told the saleswoman I would be practicing law on my return to Canada. "In these," she told me, "the Judges will not be able to resist your persuasions." For the black Armani suit, with buttons up the left leg of the skirt, I would find a tailored white and black shirt. I made my choices in an orgy of spending, all in one morning. Surrounded by a sea of tissue paper on the floor of my hotel room, I surveyed the purchases for which Vivi's approval had not been sought, and a wave of nausea overcame me. Was it the extravagance of what I had just done, or fear of my own choices?
At dinner, I told Vivi I had been about to leave Bologna. She burst into tears. Tonight was her birthday. I could not possibly know ... What it was to have been abandoned by an alcoholic mother, a father unable to care for her, given into foster care. She had grown up thinking of the children who came and went as her brothers or sisters, never to see them again, never knowing when they would disappear. The father had thought he could get her back, had apparently tried – a fact not known to Vivi until the year after his death, when she had traced her birthparents and learned for the first time that she had been wanted by at least one of her lifegivers, that her father had tried. He had thought the Judgement temporary, not appreciating how in legal terms temporary can become final. There was one birthday; a man arrived at the door. She had been sent to her room, but not before she saw the shadow of the doll in his hands. They were delicate hands, with long fingers – the hands of a pianist. The doll had a porcelain head, later broken by one of Vivi's foster brothers. Now Vivi had a vast collection of dolls at her home in Canada, the home built for her by her German husband. She had four sons of her own. No, I could not imagine her sense of abandonment in Bologna.
"Duccio: We look into an interior, into something that could be part of a larger structure. Time here is convincing. People are joined together, having a meal – drinking, eating, talking, but lively. There is one in the centre. Again we have the motif of the one who leans against him. For sure, these people spoke Italian. We seem to hear them. Notice how much Duccio operates with hands, in contrast to Giotto, who seems even to hide hands. When shown at all, Giotto's hands are at rest. In Duccio, in proper perspective, the lines should converge on Christ. That would recede him. The way it is here, in the Duccio, the convergence point is outside the back wall. What principles did these people operate with? There is a construction, a syntax, an order that brings the disparate parts into a whole. Are these splinters of perspective renderings of observation, or constructions unidentified with external sight? We can't see this painting from Renaissance eyes. This is a way of seeing the world unknowable to modern eyes."
In Assisi, we dine together – Branko, Vivi, Professor Lucke and I – a rare night together, never to be repeated. Eva is bedridden, having eaten some tainted food. She takes her incontinence as a sign of demise, apologizes when I surprise her returning with some tea, to find her weeping alone in the dark. I had thought Eva beyond grieving, not understanding that one can always grieve one's own life. Eva, then, had been afraid. Alone in the darkness of our cave-like room in Assisi, Eva had been afraid.
That day, in Assisi, we learned from Professor Lucke of the Franciscans. "In the Franciscan spirit, there is the discovery of the individual, who has the capacity to judge, who in a sense needs to be converted." Like Professor Lucke, whose deepest need is to be converted – to believe, who arrives daily, a starved man at a banquet he cannot eat. It is easy for those who do, impossible for those who cannot. Faith cannot be willed. Like love. Neither for him, nor for me. "God is perfect. Man is imperfect. Whatever is imperfect, cannot be God. But Christ was born man. Yet he was a spiritual being, was not man. This must have been a deadly challenge to the Church, this Christian paradox. It meant in his very core God was man, born man, became man, lived like man, died like man."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stations of the Heart"
Copyright © 2012 Darlene Madott.
Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Vivi's Florentine Scarf,
Afternoon in a Garden of the Palazzo Barberini,
Waiting (An Almost Love Story),
Getting Off So Lightly,
Zachary and the Shaman,
Powerful Novena of Childlike Confidence,
Going Where, Exactly, With This Motion?,
Cycling in Sardegna,