We were the only family who ate corn on the cob and celebrated Christmas on the 25th instead of the 24th. We didn’t know the simple explanation to these peculiarities: our mother was American. One day, long before she came to Switzerland, she had taken a machete and cut her life in two. Did she demarcate this gash over one day? A month ? A year ? My father, who met her when she was 20, knew little more than we did. She had already changed her name, did not see any of her family nor any childhood friend. She did not write to them, did not speak to them, did not discuss. Thus we knew her, born at twenty, all questions about her past taboo. This code of silence existed before I, the youngest of the family, started asking questions. Even friends of my parents seemed to be aware of the taboo and respected it.
“She must come from Britain because she speaks English and often travels alone to London. “ we whispered during one of our secret conferences. She sent us beautiful postcards from the British Museum, with sweet words that failed to touch us as her absence seemed further proof of her aloofness.
“She must have lived near the sea, as she talked about picnics at the beach. “ Reported my sister. “She mentioned a nanny. “I added. “ She didn’t. “ “ Yes, she did. “ I imagined a large Victorian house, a bit run down, near windswept dunes covered with brambles. And behind the shutters of the villa, the great secret, the deep mystery that was hidden from our sight. If she made any allusion to the past, we would freeze and pretend casualness, in the hope that, oblivious to our presence, she would inadvertently slip into confidences.
The day of the revelation, seated at regular intervals around the living room, hearts pounding, we waited. Now I wasn’t so sure I wanted to know, it was scary. She started speaking. A childhood can not be restored in one or two hours. This narrative of her past would normally have been built over time by what our childhood terribly missed: by hearing touching and humorous anecdotes, stories from the grandmother we never met, looking at family photographs together, visiting relatives. We asked a few questions, as if stroking cautiously an unpredictable cat. She answered, describing the harrowing events that led her to cut all ties with her family in a manner as devoid of emotion as a notary reading one more will.
The burden of suffering which my mother had shed became mine. I filled not just with my mother’s pain, but her mother’s as well, and that of all her little brothers and sisters’, rippling down the generations. The only way to drain the overflowing vault was through the valve of my imagination.
I began to make up the missing episodes in my mother’s life, and in her mother’s. Then I went back to my great-grandmother, the famous Lietta, who seemed the source of all our calamities. This emotional monster, what could she have gone through in her childhood? I had no reason to stop, and beyond this cruel grandmother, I went to listen to the story of each woman who miraculously gave birth to a girl who then in turn became a mother, a long meandering thread over the centuries, saved against all odds from being cut down by nature and men. I followed it back to the time when a handful of thinkers on their peninsula decided the important facts to remember would not be desires, births, jealousy, vanity, rape. Instead they came up with a discipline that would only record political events, thus excluding women’s memory: History was born.