by

July 22, 2007

Our maid told me that at midnight the devil climbed up that mountain and rode in the saddle above the city until dawn.


This photograph was taken in the winter of 1960 or 1961 in Sardinia, Italy, where we were stationed at the NATO Air Force base. I’m the little girl in a yellow sweater. Behind me, in bare feet, is my sister, Kate, who was seventeen or eighteen. She had so many fervent Italian suitors that my parents tried everything to keep her from getting pregnant. They enrolled in correspondence courses, but she soon tired of being cooped up in my father’s office and often escaped and went out on her own, walking the streets or lying on the beach in her scandalous bathing suit. So my parents employed Gina for extra hours to chaperone Kate. They lectured Kate about virtue, modesty and morals, and when that failed, Dad gave her some loud cuffs across the face. When all of those attempts failed, they arranged birth control. But their efforts were in vain. The baby sleeping quietly in her belly in this picture is Kate’s daughter.

During that same turbulent time, my father was demoted from his position as school principal because back in Canada, another teacher accused him of using the school projector to show his own 16mm films at home. “Battle axe,” he’d whisper in private, “frigid old witch” (she was unmarried). My parents had long, hushed conversations about people getting fired; I thought this meant they would be burned alive.

But while Dad was still principal, we didn’t live on the NATO base: we had our own apartment in the city of Caligari, on the seventh floor of #3 Via Tiziano. In the background is a mountain called the Devil’s Saddle, another source of fear for me. Our maid, Gina (at left in the picture), told me that at midnight the devil climbed up that mountain and rode in the saddle above the city until dawn.

Gina looks much older than I remember her. To me she was young, vibrant and energetic, always singing and busying around the apartment smelling of bleach. But Gina was a fallen woman. She had had an affair with a black American soldier at the base and given birth to a little boy. At the end of the soldier’s tour in Italy, he went home and left her holding the baby. Sardinia was an almost medieval culture in the 1960s—no woman other than a maid on a shopping trip could walk alone on the street without her chastity being questioned. To have a baby out of wedlock with a man so obviously not Sardinian, sentenced Gina to eternal ineligibility for marriage. She supported herself, her son, Claudio, and her elderly mother in the Castello, the old part of the city, in a tiny hovel on a dark cobblestone street barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Because she did not make enough money as a maid, she worked as a prostitute in the evenings, after looking after us all day.

One morning she fainted to the kitchen floor with blood pouring down her legs. An illegal abortion had gone wrong, and fortunately only my sister and I were at home. She phoned one of her many boyfriends and they scuttled Gina off to a hospital run by nuns. Gina returned to work a few days later, a little paler and silent. We never told our parents the truth.

In the picture, Gina is wearing a gold cross, which she later gave me. I loved that cross more than anything in the world. My sister borrowed it to go to a party one evening and came home without it. She would not express regret or explain how she had lost it. Perhaps it was torn from her neck in a moment of passion by one of her frenzied lovers.

And the patio—how I loved that patio! The lantanas are not blooming in this picture, but they were usually covered with flowers from early spring to late fall. They gave off a spicy fragrance when I crushed their leaves, and their tiny flower clusters could mysteriously change colour from one day to the next. The plant pushing up behind Kate is a lemon tree that the neighbours grew in a gigantic pot. Much to my parents’ dismay, I would climb that tree and steal lemons from it. One New Year’s Eve, I was just climbing down with a fresh lemon when the neighbours came out to drop plates onto the street, which is what Sardinians did to celebrate the New Year. In my haste to get back, I almost slipped off the railing, but Gina rushed out at that moment and grabbed my arm, cussing and scolding me in Italian. As well as teaching me all the common Italian expletives, she saved my life that night.

In the photo I struggle to get out of Kate’s grasp and she seems complacent, though neither of us looks at the camera. Only Gina smiles and, head cocked, regards the lens with that wiry, offhand smile worn by those destined for tragedy.

by

July 22, 2007