Vanessa Nicolson

Mother’s Desk

I’m sitting at my mother’s desk, overlooking the gardens of the Archaeological Museum. The ochre walls of the Museum to my right slice the view of the cathedral, so only a quarter of the famous terracotta dome is visible. Beyond, over the tiles of Florentine rooftops, are other landmarks: the Palazzo Vecchio, the Forte del Belvedere further in the distance. All set against a bright blue summer sky.

Luisa’s chair is uncomfortable. Slightly too low, or perhaps it is the desk that is too high. This puzzles me, because she was much shorter than I am, so how did she comfortably reach the table? But then I remember, of course she didn’t write on this, it served as somewhere to arrange her papers. At right angles, on a metal structure that looks like it was designed in 1960, is her Olivetti typewriter, its metal hood in place to keep it dust free, the spare spools, the packets of standard stationary and the thinner tracing paper made for the carbon copies are stacked on a wooden ledge that juts out to the side.

I can see my Italian mother sitting in profile at that typewriter, throughout the 1960s, the 1970s, right through to five years ago. She never trusted electric typewriters, let alone computers. Nothing could replace her trusted Olivetti. Most days she would take up her place in front of it, load the paper, poise her fingers over the keys.

Like a ghost, she reappears, her hair arranged into a carefully constructed bun, a style she never changed. Back straight, legs together, elbows bent to form perfect right-angles. As a young child I was forever positioning my ear to the door to listen, to check the clacking of the typewriter, because I was not allowed to disturb her if the sound was too intense. As I got older, I was less careful. Luisa would turn distractedly when I came in to ask or tell her something, looking irritated by the interruption. And as soon as that door was closed again, the sound resumed, clack clack clack, as her fingers danced across the keyboard like a pianist at a piano.

Instead of musical notes, words were being created and formed into articles, lectures, books. From these she developed a distinguished career as a renowned and respected art historian. But sometimes the words turned into long, furious letters about real and imagined slights, and often they were sent to me. Every annoyance, from the trivial to the serious was recorded and carbon copy filed. Writing letters was her form of communication, and she didn’t hold back. I’ve thrown away some of the worst (although somewhere in her apartment there will be those carbon copies), but I remember the gist of them all, how could I forget. Fury seeped into those pages: I had ‘ruined’ her relationship with her conventional cousins by deciding to have children before marriage – ‘how will I be able to tell them?’ – or she was ‘King Lear’ because I wanted to sell the house she and I co-owned in order to buy a place with my partner. Ungrateful, spoilt, selfish, a terrible daughter… the accusations flew, and I had to remind myself that it would eventually blow over. It wasn’t just with me. She argued and fell out with colleagues, friends, even with my friends. A disagreement over whether to store butter inside or outside the fridge, or how to make coffee, or whether Princess Diana was a good or bad person could lead to the recipient of her views reeling from her uncompromising position on anything, anyone and everything.

But there was also a kind, funny, interesting and interested person in there. She was curious, adventurous, fearless, sparkling at times. Her vulnerability revealed itself at surprising moments. When she wanted to check a purchase on the Harrods account she had opened in the mid-1950s on advice from British in-laws, she asked me to telephone on her behalf as ‘they will treat me badly when they hear my Italian accent’. And recently I was told by a woman in her condominium that she was found leaning against the wall of the communal staircase, weeping over the injustice of her granddaughter dying aged nineteen, ‘when I, an old woman, am still alive’. Yet she had not come to her granddaughter’s funeral, because ‘she didn’t do funerals’, and refused ever to speak about the loss.

She loved telling stories about her life, and they are vivid in my memory because she told them so many times, until they became almost like fables. Towards the end of her long life the stories became confused, and repeated too often, so they lost some of their impact. But it’s thanks to her storytelling that I feel that she will never truly be gone, for these narratives – and the telling of them – are weaved so tightly into my memories of her.

The most vivid anecdotes were about her childhood between the wars, of growing up with her extended family in the hills of Fiesole, just outside Florence. She would tell of the German governesses who made the children walk the same walk every day, until Luisa pleaded, ‘could we do it the other way round?’ Her favourite fraulein, this time an Austrian, was found crying inconsolably over a letter from the mother of her fiancee who had remained in Austria. ‘Give up the thought of ever marrying him,’ the mother had written, ‘for he has removed the photograph of you by his bedside table and replaced it with one of Hitler.’

Recently, she lay like a withered bird, in a care home around the corner. She was one hundred years old in December, and proud of this fact because as a young girl she had been known as the ‘fragile Luisa’. She had suffered terrible hunger during the war, and under German occupation, constant fear. One of her stories involved a jealous rival reporting her for ‘anti-fascist behaviour’. Fascism cast its shadow over everything.

In my mother’s household there was a rule that during meals no conversation could touch on anything political, in case it was overheard and reported. Her father was already being watched as he had refused to take the tessera di Fascia, the membership required by Mussolini. There were young men dressed in full Fascist uniform who would monitor how students behaved, checking that their behaviour was patriotic. At one point Luisa was summoned and accused of not being a good Fascist, and told that permission to go on studying at the university would be withdrawn. They told her they had information that she had not been to a particular meeting or march, that she had shared anti-Fascist ideas, and so on. ‘I was so careful, why did this happen?’ Luisa would ask me rhetorically. ‘Because this silly girl was jealous over an admirer of mine, and had given my name in to the authorities. Nothing came of it in the end.’

Some of her stories were tinged with longing and regret. There was the one about the only ball at which she had ever danced – to celebrate the end of the war. An unknown Polish man approached her as the music began. ‘And I told him I could not dance, that I was here for the food, not the dancing. But he said, “You are slim and light, just leave it to me.” And I have never forgotten that waltz, the way he led me across the ballroom floor. Gliding rather than dancing. I didn’t have to do anything.’ As the memory unfolded, her face would take on a faraway look. ‘It was the most wonderful experience in my life,’ she would say, in a quiet, conspiratorial voice.

She had a ‘thing’ about men in uniform (as long as they weren’t Fascists). Apart from the Polish dancer, there was the Sicilian medical student Pippo, brother to her cousin’s fiancee, who turned up at the engagement party not only in uniform but bearing an enormous box of chocolates for the family. ‘When I opened the door,’ she would say wistfully, ‘he told me they were all for me, because I was beautiful.’ Pippo and Luisa became engaged, and wrote to each other for much of the war, but then she broke it off, partly because he had told her she could study and publish all she liked but she must never earn any money from this as people would think he – the husband, the man – was not able to support her. Here, with pursued lips, she would shake her head. ‘And alas, he was not in control of his desires…’

Luisa didn’t have it easy with the men in her life. She had wanted to become an artist, but this was vetoed. She would mimic her irascible father. ‘A daughter of mine becoming a painter? Out of the question. That would mean drawing the nude!’ And so she had gone to university and studied ancient Greek and the History of Art instead.

I dreaded the stories turning to my father, another art historian whom she met while working as assistant to the scholar Bernard Berenson. There was so much shame and resentment, and the truth – that he was gay and had for four years pleaded for a divorce – was never spoken. Only anger was released, anger and pain, and I didn’t want to hear it said that he had been a ‘bad husband’, ‘a bad father,’ and ‘that it was ‘extraordinary that you were born at all’. When she started on that path I closed off. It was difficult to interrupt, because there was always a beginning, middle and an end to the narrative. It was no use saying, ‘oh yes, you’ve told me.’ She would tell it anyway, even if I didn’t want to hear, and it could take the course of a whole meal to conclude.

On her birthday in December last year, the Uffizi Gallery in her home town of Florence put out a tweet. ‘Our dearest birthday wishes to the art historian Luisa Vertova on reaching 100 years!’ For me, it was a bitter-sweet moment. My mother was in care, had no idea what a tweet was, and was missing me by her side to explain – and tell her how proud I was. On such a significant day, Covid had wrenched us apart.

But I eventually got to Florence, six months later. The first meeting was terrible because I was not allowed to hold her as she wailed, ‘Let me die, why will you not let me die? Take me with you, take me to London…’ She could not hear my responses, however loudly I shouted across the table. I took a notebook out of my bag and wrote in huge letters, ‘I love you!’ But her wailing increased, until two nurses came to wheel her away.

Rapidly, she declined, refusing food and water, as if on a concentrated effort to end her life herself. And then she stopped speaking. The woman who for years lectured on art history, who could recount a story or anecdote in four languages, could only make incomprehensible sounds. The Catholic care home seemed to believe in ‘suffering’ because they refused to give her anything to help her leave this world more comfortably. Initially I was not allowed to touch her, but two days ago I was allowed to hold her hand. She looked at me very intensely and smiled. And then, yesterday, I was told she had died.

It was expected, of course. But once I came back from the care home, clutching her bag stuffed with letters and photographs, I felt like the abandoned ten-year-old child left behind at boarding school. I thought of that winter of 1966, when a devastating Flood in Florence meant all communication was severed. It was only when the city got back on its feet, helped by an army of volunteers named the Mud Angels, that my mother’s letters resumed and life felt normal again.

Now I am thinking about our last meeting. When I was about to leave her for the last time and gently tried to pull my hand away, she brought it back and placed it on her chest. I like to imagine she was telling me to hold on to the stories we shared, to let her go physically, but never forget. I made her a silent promise that I never would.

Angels of Mud – A Novel by Vanessa Nicolson is published by Harbour Books.

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