Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
My mom is a terrible storyteller. She is a great conversationalist, a wonderful, sympathetic listener and quite articulate in two languages and her native Calabrese dialect; yet she is absolutely unable to narrate an event, personal or not, with any degree of conviction. She states the facts, but in an offhanded fashion. One such example: “Oh Yes, Cousin Rocky is OK. The transplant went well.” “Transplant? What? What happened to Rocky?,” I stuttered. “Oh Well, Greg gave him the kidney, and he’s fine now. Thank God.” “Uh, Ma, could you please be a little less specific?,” I deadpanned, knowing full well I’d get a pretty short explanation of what I later found out to be the near death of my cousin followed by a emergency transplant of the kidney of his brother, Greg”. That sort of thing. Yet, as banal as my mother may seem, I found out last week that she’s been hiding something BIG from us. And now suddenly, a whole lot of the stuff we grew up with make a lot more sense.
My mom and dad are getting older, so when they sold their house and bought a small condo about a mile from me and my husband, we were quite relieved that I could keep a closer eye on them. It wasn’t easy for mother to make the move as she stated, “I just got the house as secure as possible, and now we’re leaving.” She was insistent, adamant, even, that the condo they bought must be in a large development, on the ground floor with as many people around as possible. My father knew after fifty years of marriage to not even attempt to budge her from this decision. He also knew that there’d be webcams, burglar alarms, and double and triple locks on every door.
It was cute at first when we moved from a crowded Brooklyn tenement to the house in Cortlandt and my mom absolutely freaked out about the backyard being, “Too damn dark”. My dad had to install motion detector lighting (then very new and very costly) and lights in the driveway on a timer, lights on the sides of the house and she insisted that the attic (which she would not enter or even allow us to explore) have its own timer lighting from dusk till dawn. Still my dad adores my mom and he did it all, in resignation. That’s love… Anyhow…..so back to the attic.
It was bolted shut. Always was. We kids went absolutely nuts about that. There was a whole other floor up there that we could not access. My father went up there, twice, three times a year to change the lighting, but the door was shut behind him and locked from inside. Once he was done, the door was re- locked and the padlock replaced. He’d do this when weren’t around, but I recall being home one time and hearing footsteps above my room. I raced to the top of the stairs and pounded on the door asking to be let in, but he’d start cursing in Italian about “Una donna di quarant’anni che ha paura del buio!”, “A forty year old woman afraid of the dark”. I did get in the attic that time for about a hot second and there was absolutely nothing up there, no Christmas decorations, no boxes nor old furniture…just plain white walls and those light fixtures. The windows had locks and nails driven into the sashes so they couldn’t be opened from within or without. It was pretty odd; our little neighborhood never saw break-ins and why bother double locking a third floor window that offered no access in or out of it? Another of my mother’s quirks.
Sometimes I’d hear my mom talking to my old aunt in Bari in the very difficult dialect that she would not teach us children and I could make out words here and there about something that had happened when they were both young. Even when our aunt, Zia Maria, came to visit a few times, she would speak standard italian to us and only shared the dialect with my mom. I wish I could have understood more of their conversations, but Baresem is different enough that you sometimes you could get the gist of the conversation, and sometimes not. It was the gaps that I filled in that scared me more. What ‘thing’ came into their room? Was it a person? Did someone molest them? I could never understand. Any questions went unanswered. Even my dad was close-mouthed about it.
Living in the suburbs was great, especially in the summers. We’d be out all day, swimming in Mohegan Lake, going to the Mall, hanging in any one of our friends’ basements and generally waiting for something interesting to happen. There was some blackout once and the Carvel near the Mall was giving out all the ice cream free before it melted. Random happy childhood memories; that was big for us.
It was also one of the nights that we saw a frightened childlike side of our mother. She kept asking the neighbors if anyone had a spare generator (they didn’t) and we certainly did not. My dad was on business, and although the phones were working (think pre-cellular days!) he told my mom that he’d have to stay a couple more days as the airports were closed due to the power outages. My mom was a bit shaken, and even though she put up a brave front, we knew that the darkness was not her friend. It was hot that night, swelteringly so, and we made our way up from the lake with our flashlights back to our darkened homes.
Mom was on the porch, smoking cigarette after cigarette and told us that we would all be sleeping in the living room that night. She made my brother and I pull the long sofa across the front door and despite the heat, every window was closed and locked . Another quirk I suppose. Around 3 Am or so, there must have been some lightning or some car noise outside and my mom woke up screaming in a mix of Barese and Italian. Next thing you know we are all in the car, in the driveway with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting. It was a lot more comfortable than the living room, but morning could not come soon enough. We knew enough not question Mom. Though sweet and lovable there were things you didn’t talk about with her. Not regular parent stuff like sex; my parents are pretty liberal and didn’t even bat an eye when I came out as gay and were relieved when I married my Italian (Thank GOD!) husband. But silly things. We didn’t talk about my mom’s fear of the dark. Or all the locks, or all the lights, or the fact that we didn’t go on vacations to the country, but stayed home and drove to the city for an afternoon or two…or how we couldn’t join Boy Scouts or sleep away camp, or stay over anyone’s house or any one of a number of things that were annoying to a kid.
So here I am now, clearing out the last few boxes from the house; my parents closed on the condo, and were already in it, but they had left a few small boxes behind which i volunteered to get. “Take the keys, too, Alex, “, my Dad said. “Which Keys, Dad? I’ve got the front and garage door.” “No. The attic. I almost forgot, unlock it and leave the keys in the lock.” I could barely contain my surprise, “Sicuro…non te ne preoccupare, Papa’”, slipping into italian, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll bring the boxes back here tomorrow.”
I had intended to go to the house later that day, but I got my brother on the phone and told him that I had gotten “The Keys”. I didn’t have to specify which keys. He knew. He actually called in sick to work and met me over at our old childhood home. We bounded up the attic stairs, and could barely fit the keys into the lock. We were finally getting in there, even if it was just for a final goodbye to a space that we had barely seen.
There was a box in the center of the room, which was strange because that room was normally barren. “What the hell, bro? What is in that old dusty box?” It was marked in childish handwriting, which I honestly didn’t recognize.”Open it up, Alex” The tape had long ceased to adhere to the carton so I was able to open the package quite easily. It was a sheaf of drawing paper. There were what appeared to be children’s drawings of my mom’s and Zia Maria’s….and then something bizarre. Lightbulb shaped black figures with enormous cat like eyes drawn standing near my mom and Aunt, near what looked like to be a child’s drawing of a bedroom. Maybe a bedroom in Bari?
An attic bedroom?
And then writing beneath it, “Quella notte che ci hanno preso”, “That night they took us.”
And it all made sense.