DROWNING SQUIRRELS BY MARINA DELVECCHIO
My story begins with my mother, the one who pushed me out of her womb, her wild screams of protestation introducing her to me for the first time. I slipped out of the dark cavern of her body – in which she would have preferred I had stayed – and she cradled my bloody frame in the crook of her arms as she was expected to do, naming me Marina, of the water. And aptly so, because I think I have spent most of my life wishing I could crawl back into the only warm and sacred part of her I had ever known, refusing to be pushed out of my secure cocoon and greet the affected woman that would define motherhood for me.
Her name was Athanasia, the immortal one, and she was born along the sandy shores of Kalithea, Greece, in 1941. The youngest of three children, she spent her days following her mother around the small village of her birthright. She watched her mother bake bread, fry meat and potatoes in an oily pan, and wipe the sweat and soil of her work from her bushy brow.
At the tender age of four, she was seated on a rickety chair in the kitchen beside her sister, Assimina, and across from her brother, Dimitri, while their father, at the head of the table, guzzled his beer and slurred his epithets for the day. Athanasia heard the sweet murmurings of her mother’s gentle voice as she instructed her three children to eat their meal. They looked down and forced the food into their mouths. Chewing the tender flesh seemed almost impossible. None looked up when her soothing voice was replaced by the sound of his fist against her alabaster cheeks, silencing her. My mother sat mute as her father smacked and kicked his wife, clearing the table of its contents with the same fists that painted the smooth white skin of her face with shades of black and blue and crimson blood.
Having married my grandmother only for the dowry that came attached to her like a dog tag, my grandfather spent most of his time at the local bars, drinking away the money he had been paid to marry her. Their three children did nothing to endear him. He surveyed them as he did their mother: they were burdens, slaves, faceless mouths to feed, undeserving of the sweat and brawn of his daily work in construction. He swatted them away as he did the flies that buzzed in his ears and landed on his meals during the sweltering afternoons spent beneath the blistering Greek sun.
Athanasia’s tragedy became worse when he was involved in a bar brawl, killing a man in a state of unrestrained wrath. Condemned to live the rest of his life behind iron-cast bars, his absence derailed the family that his brutal selfishness left behind. Overwhelmed by years of abuse, worries over money, debts, and the welfare of her children, my grandmother became ill. Bed-ridden, it was left to her three children to support her and themselves.
My mother’s older brother, Dimitri, took over the husbandry duties his father tossed aside with disregard. Still in his teens, he dropped out of school and began to work in construction, a profession that would eventually grant him more success than he could have ever imagined. His job was to bring home the money so that they could eat, keep the house, and survive a life without the man that had forsaken those he should have loved. Gone all day, it became the responsibility of the second child, my mother’s older sister, Assimina, to take care of the wifely duties. She kept the house in order, cooked the meals, and took care of the needs of their ailing mother. In charge of her little sister, she sent my mother to work around the town in which they lived.
Only four, it became Athanasia’s duty to seek work from their neighbors, specifically the more wealthy ones. She collected dirty clothing from each home, took them to the town’s river to wash them, and then returned them for measly drachmas. Her money went to her sister, who then sent her to the store to buy essentials for their daily meals. Upon occasion, my little mother would come across a group of children her age, playing along the dirt-filled streets. Often she would continue to walk past them, casting their free-spirited, cheerful faces a look of utter despair and envy. Sometimes she would toss her bundles upon the ground and play with them, knowing full well that she would have to face her sister’s stern rebukes upon returning home without money or food. On those days, her sister would yell at her, chastise her, and strike her with the frustration of a child’s overwhelming appropriation of adult burdens and parental absences.
After their mother’s death, the children became the responsibility of their four maternal aunts. Between the four of them, not one could agree as to what was to become of her sister’s children. The over-worked and over-burdened sisters agreed that the children were old enough to take care of themselves and would have to live the rest of their lives motherless. The siblings sat motionless as they were told that they would be separated and put to work until they were old enough to fend for themselves at the age of eighteen. They were each assigned to a different home, a stranger’s home, in which they would work for room and board and food.
My mother was sent to the first of many homes in which the wealthy owners ordered her around, beat her if she didn’t work fast enough or good enough, reviled her for her lack of kin, her homelessness, and her destitution. She slept in web-covered attics with other poor child-servants, doing the bidding of the haves, the fortunate and privileged, without consideration, love, toys, play, or hope for any of these things.
As was the case for many young girls in the business of indentured service to the wealthy, my little mother was raped again and again by different men that took advantage of her innocence, her powerless situation, her not-yet-discovered voice with which to wrestle against the unjust and cruel. They controlled her and overpowered her. They mutilated her body with their selfish desires and oppressive wants, and cast her out of their homes when their wives became aware and hateful. In the next home, waif-like Athanasia found similar abuses and she adjusted herself in order to survive.
The next time a man accosted her, she didn’t fight him. She closed her eyes and left the physical place of her body, finding a niche of solitary sublimation in the depths of her mind. She left the wrinkled or manicured hands and fingers that prodded her un-blossomed breasts, her hips, her thighs. She fled from the sharp and invasive pain that coursed through her body as her innocence was robbed by those with selfish power and cold regard. She made herself blind and erased the faces that loomed over her, their features distorting between pleasure and pain as they exploded inside her. She made herself deaf so as not to hear their voices, their grunts, the whistles and hisses that escaped their cigar-caked mouths, fanning the smell of their rancor against her blank and side-turned face.
She obliterated from her thoughts the ugly faces and the unbearable pain that tore her tender flesh, escaping into a small little part of herself that promised to rescue her from the debauchery of her existence; that little part deep inside her that no one could touch, scathe, maim, or take for himself. It was hers. During those moments, she learned to live inside herself, and eventually she found other voices there: voices of children laughing as they ran across sunny fields covered with daisies and incorruptibility. The more the reality she faced daily offered her no consolation or love, the more she escaped into the peaceful world of her youthful creation, detaching herself completely from that which she detested and that which detested her.
Those outside her reverie watched the little girl as she ran about doing her errands with a dreamy look in her big brown eyes, smiling, whispering to herself, to the voices that made her laugh aloud. A little dark-haired angel, she skipped along the dusty roads humming lullabies whose sweet melodies devoured the chaos, the aching sadness that threatened to drown her in hopelessness.
The dreamy creature acquired the skill in destroying the power of her abusers by turning them off as easily as she taught me to numb my pain. How does a child possibly endure such a life as she had without learning to unfasten herself, consciously or subconsciously, from the pain and loss that accosted her? It cannot be possible. Not for her. Not for the mother I had known as a child and not the stranger-woman that I met when I turned thirty. During both instances she was visibly affected, wavering adeptly between the real and the extraordinary, her expressions as unhinged and erratic as her speech.
Eventually, she became well-educated in the power of her sex. When men climbed on top of her, she took it as instruction on how to wield them, satisfy them, and deceive them for loose change as well as the satiation of her own needs essential to survival. When she was slapped, beaten and kicked, she smiled crookedly before pouncing upon her aggressor – as she had when she attacked my father – with the kind of vengeance that didn’t cease until it had drawn blood, broken limbs, torn flesh in patches, and left behind marks that promised a repeat performance if challenged again. She appropriated the power of those stronger and smarter around her, above her, and used them as they used her.
She was a fierce, prevailing tornado of flesh, instinct, and unfettered rage.
This was the mother I had known during the formative years of my childhood when mothers teach their daughters what it means to be a woman.
I came to know my mother from the shrill of her piercing screams and the sound of her fists pounding against my father’s face with the wanton zeal of an Amazon warrior in battle.
My father’s feeble body sagged to the floor after my mother’s thick and brutal hands smashed his head against the edge of our stainless steel kitchen sink. She laughed at the ease with which his will bent to hers. His body swayed and fell and surrendered to her as if she had been Alecto the implacable, one of the Greek mythological Furies that sought vengeance upon mortals for the crimes they had committed. My father’s only crime against her was being weak and unlike the men that had battered and berated her.
A soft and pliant man, my father’s passive nature made her feel and taste the power that had evaded her when she had been abused. Perhaps she saw in his face the faces of all the men that had deprived her of her rights to her own body and innocence. Perhaps every time she struck him, his blood spilling forth from the cuts her rings left behind, she was really punishing the countless men that had struck and weakened her. Or maybe she just hated my father because he was decent and good and loving: qualities she had never possessed and qualities that had never been possessed by those who overpowered and demeaned her.
Maybe she understood what she was doing – understood the numerous reasons for her erratic and abusive behavior towards my father and her children. Maybe it was just a childish reaction to being imprisoned by a marriage and a family that expected her to assume the role of normalcy when she had been anything but. After all, she had lived a life that had been deviant and depraved without a trace of what it means to be ordinary, or lead an ordinary life.
Perhaps when she looked at her husband and children, she only saw the hands that had never caressed her childish face, wiped her tears, or made her feel loved and protected. Adult hands had never shown her such tenderness. Her own hands did not know how to express nurturance toward the five whiny toddlers that pulled at the hem of her skirts longing for parental affection, a loving caress, a kind word. As she had been given nothing, she had nothing to give to her own children except life. She could give no more.
Or maybe she was as mad as everyone in my family claims, and these are the reasons for my own inadequacies as a mother to my six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. Maybe her rage snuck up on her as she was doing the dishes or mopping the floor, as mine does when I feel burdened by my own domestication. This hate could have curled up and hidden somewhere inside her for years, for memories, and then when she least expected it, when one of her children recaptured an incident she had buried, it slithered up along her rigid spine and whimpered itself out of her mouth, unfurling a garbled, high-pitched wail of impotence and rage. Impotence and rage that were only muted and transformed into power when she pounded on those that were weaker than her – like her children – like her husband.
She loathed my father from the first moment she struck him and he stumbled and fell, cowering beneath her without a hint of retaliation. She spit at him as men had once spit at her, and she reviled him for his pathetically meek and mild obedience, as she had once lain in obedience beneath the men that had violated her.
Whatever it was that compelled my mother to treat my father with such unjust violence and disregard, this image of our parents in battle – her physical prowess and his whimpering submission – became the first portrait of what my siblings and I would come to know as marriage.
Love had not brought them together; necessity had.
When my mother turned twenty-five, her brother, Dimitri, had found a girl to wed. The head of his family, my uncle knew that he could not marry the woman he loved without first ensuring the stability and security of his two sisters. To keep them together, even after he had them wed, my uncle designed and built for them a home along a quiet and narrow street in a middle-class neighborhood in Athens.
A conjoined house split down the middle, my aunt Mina chose the left side apartment, and my mother took the right. Each apartment was a single floor home and an inverted reflection of the other; a carbon copy adobe that was entered from opposite sides. My aunt’s side entrance led her to a mahogany door that opened into a spacious living room on the right and a small kitchen on the left. My mother’s door led her to the living room on the left and the kitchen on the right. To the back of each kitchen was a small door that led to the toilet, sink and bath. Both rooms were tiny and crowded. A few inches away another door folded to the side. When opened, it escorted the sisters into the bedrooms they were to share with their husbands. There were no other rooms in the house, and their children, when they had them, slept on a pull out couch in the living room.
While the interior was split in half and closed off by a thin layer of sheet rock, affording each woman the privacy she would need with her family, the exterior was an open haven where the two families joined each other for gossip and drink. Both living rooms opened to the same front courtyard that they shared through twin glass doors covered by white lace curtains. Each door showed the way to a veranda that was shaded by fig trees and a collection of potted flowers. A round table with four chairs were situated in the middle of the patio, and the sisters often sat there in the mornings, sipping their coffee and staring down the narrow suburban streets that were crowded with little European cars and motorcycles parked on the sidewalks so as to make room for traveling vehicles to pass through. In addition, the sisters also shared a small garden in the back of their home, in which they planted tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and dill.
As soon as the house was completed, my uncle had to find each sister a husband that would accept both the girl and the house as dowry. There was no problem finding a good mate for Assimina, the oldest sibling. She had acquired the same tolerant and gentle nature that possessed her brother’s disposition.
Finding a husband for my mother, however, was a more difficult feat to accomplish. Suitors came into the home to meet her as a potential wife and to negotiate a dowry. They brought their mothers, fathers, and siblings with them, and they all left shaking their heads with relief that they had uncovered the truth before accepting the proposal: she was mad.
My father was the only one that did not walk away from the marriage. Accompanied by his younger sister, Marina, my father missed all the signs, or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just disregarded them because he was already in his forties and this was his last chance for a family. My aunt Marina whispered in his ear to run, to withdraw his consent to marry the imbalanced and distorted young woman that stood before them without noticing them, a snarling smirk outlining the full frame of her painted lips, her dark brown hair forming a messy and unkempt halo around her sun-bathed, ovular face. But he didn’t listen.
My mother wasn’t pretty. Life had scathed her irreparably, leaving his marks upon her as a reminder that she belonged to him. She was present, the small frame of her stout body sitting languidly in her upright chair, but her thoughts went in and out of the conversation that was taking place before her: a conversation about dowries and houses, and the rest of her life. Out of nowhere she would laugh and mumble incoherently to the crowd of persons that tossed discomfited looks in her direction. They continued the business arrangements concerning her domestic bondage nonetheless, without her input.
They married in a small church in Athens. It was a quiet and simple wedding, and the following year, my mother gave birth to my oldest sister, Maria. A year later brought them Nicholas, the year after that, Stavros, and a year and a half later, me. Four years later, after four consecutive miscarriages, my little sister, Eleni, or Baby, was born. As she was the last of the Koutrogianni children to spring from the womb of our reckless mother, Eleni was born during the absolute chaos that befell our family and broke us apart. We called her Baby until she was six years old, until the nuns at the orphanage refused to take her unless she was baptized. But that is how I knew her when we were little: she was Baby.
I believe that my uncle thought marriage would tame my mother – give her something of her own to care for and nurture – something that perhaps could not be taken away from her by anyone. Unfortunately, marriage awarded her with her own little private battleground from whence wars were waged arbitrarily. My mother’s hatred was boundless and indiscriminate, and when she looked at my father from the distance of her delusions, she saw his weaknesses, his frailty.
A sanitation worker, my father, John, did not make a lot of money. But he did his best to provide for us. He returned home from work each day to be accosted and mocked by my mother and to watch in quiet horror as she neglected and abused us. My siblings and I went unbathed, uncombed, unloved. When he wasn’t there to care for us, we weren’t even being fed. Our mother had been finished with us as soon as she had spit us out of her body, our absence reminding her of the abysmal hole that consumed her existence. As infants, we had been left to cry, wriggling in our soiled sheets and clothes, and when we were older, she forced us to take care of our own basic needs the way she had taken care of hers from the age of four.
By the time she had become our mother, she had nothing to give to anyone, least of all five tiny creatures that wept and whined for food, solace, and attention. When it came to us, she loved having us inside her. She carried us in her warm womb, placed her hand gently upon the rounded belly caressing the idea of us in circles, and strolled up and down the streets with a placid smile upon her lips, showing off the power she had to create life. But that was the only time she loved us, as much as she could love another. It was the only time each of her children had known maternal protection, warmth and tenderness. Sacred and necessary, these were provided by her body, not by her nature.
As soon as we rushed out of her dark belly to meet our nurturer, she held us in her arms with ambivalence, not sure what to make of us. And afterward, when she was home alone with us, we reminded her that she existed only to provide for us. We cried and screamed for breasts to nourish us, for hands to touch us, for songs to be sung to us, for cradled arms, interlocked, to rock us to and fro until we slipped back into the warmth of our slumber. As we slept, she looked at us intently, recognizing in a moment of utter panic that her babies did not come to her ready to fulfill her needs and desires. Her babies, all babies, needed, wanted, and demanded what everyone else in her life had needed, wanted: her. Children don’t care if their mother has nothing to give, or if life has worn her out. They don’t care if no one has ever given her what she needed as an infant or a child. How could they?
All that we knew as her children, all that we understood, was that she was our mother, and we needed her to survive. But she was struck in the face with the recurring pattern of being servile to others, of the demands for normalcy that came with motherhood, and she loathed her domestication with the same fervor she loathed us.
Copyright© 2010 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.