Cambridge, Massachusetts–January, 1956
Our house is creaking, settling in for the night. David is in the den typing up a paper he’s been working on for at least six months. I sit in the armchair in my study, feet propped up on the windowsill, needing to pee, too tired to get up, too busy caressing my belly, bidding the life growing inside me goodnight. Twelve weeks old. The size of my palm Dr. Page says.
With the baby, Mama has come back into my head. I need her, want her here to guide me. David is loving, attentive. He is willing to shop, cook, wash the dishes, sweep the floors. He’ll do anything to keep me happy and rested and I love him all the more for it, but I ache to say, “Mama. I’m expecting a baby,” and pour my happiness over her, to keep her warm, to shine her face with pride. My baby, her grandchild.
I am filled with questions. Did she dream that her baby would be born with a hole in its heart for lack of love? That the weight of her body, tossing in sleep, would suffocate it? When does the fear go away? With its first kick? When it meets the world and screams?
I picture scenarios in which I ask her to place her hand on my belly and tell me the sex of the baby. She was always good at guessing. A girl, she says and we start spouting possible names. I paint her laughing with joy, hugging me, telling me not to fear, all will be well.
The old Mama dream has come back.
We’re rolling down the mountain surrounded by snow and rock. A black bed of pine trees waits below. Above us the barbed wire of the Italian-Swiss frontier plays its thousand bells, announcing Christmas, warning the German guards. I hold my baby sister against my chest and feel Mama’s hips embracing mine, her arms locked round my waist, her chin hooking my shoulder. A human avalanche, we roll to what we perceive as safety.
Romantic. False. Wishful thinking.
Since that night on Mount Bisbino, twelve years ago, Mama has drifted in and out of my landscape. Sometimes I’ve felt her presence like the phantom limb of an amputee, and in my dreams I asked her countless questions, both serious and silly. Should I cut my hair? Is it okay for my boyfriend to touch my breasts? If I get married, will my love, his love last? For how long? Why aren’t you here to help me? What happened to you?
Other times I reduced her to a pinpoint in my heart, pretending that not having a mother was just fine, nothing to go on about. I had Papa to take care of me. I wasn’t an orphan like so many other kids after the war.
Papa always maintained Mama was killed the night of Christmas Eve, 1943, trying to escape Nazi infested Italy with two of her children. Me and Claire. I believed the story in my teenage years when I was too absorbed in the now of my life to question it. But even then, when someone would ask about my mother, I could hear doubt unfurling as I answered. “She was killed in the war.” As an adult, I cannot help but think her death is the easy, neat explanation, the one that leaves everyone guiltless. Everyone except me, that is.
Maybe Papa knew the alternate ending to Mama’s story. Before he died, I plied him with questions, but his answer never changed. “Alice is dead. Please, Susie, let your mother rest in peace.” I’m left swaying on uncertain ground.
Is her death a lie or did she decide her life would be better without us and walk away? What will I tell my baby about the grandmother she will never have? I want my child to grow up without doubts. I need to search for the different truth that I believe is there. I need to free myself of the guilt I feel. Let go of the past. I have only six months before the baby leaves the cradle of my belly. She will need all of me then. I promise her that. I was a bad daughter. I will be a good mother. I promise.
I have no proof Mama is still alive, but I was there that night on Mount Bisbino. If the Germans had killed Mama, I would have heard the shots. No one fired a single shot.
Prague, The German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia–October 21, 1941
I’m horribly late, but here I am applying another layer of lipstick. Fuchsia. My mouth looks like a wound. “Obergruppenführer,” I mouth at my reflection in the gilt framed mirror Marco bought me as a welcome-to-Prague gift. “Obergruppenführer.” This time out loud. It sounds funny, silly even. It means superior group leader. The new governor of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, is an Obergruppenführer and there isn’t anything funny or silly about him. Giorgio Scarditti, the Italian Consul, is honoring him tonight with a reception downstairs. As the wife of the Vice Consul, I’m expected to show up and be gracious. What I feel is anything but gracious.
I smile at Susie’s reflection in the mirror. Looking at her makes me feel better. She has her father’s looks. Sharp cheekbones on a narrow face, thick, long black hair I braid every morning, and wide dark eyes that never seem to get enough of the world. “Germans do that, string a bunch of words together,” I say. Susie is sitting on the bed, playing with the buttons of the gown I should already be wearing. Her hands are probably dirty with the chocolate Marco gave her before going downstairs. Tonight I don’t care. “They’re doing it with countries too. Stringing them into one.”
Susie giggles. “Donaudampschiffahrtgesellschaft. That means Danube Steamship Company.” She’s only eleven and learned to speak fluent German after only a few months. Andy too. It’s easy for the children. Seventeen months have gone by and I still barely understand it. I refused German lessons. At thirty-two I’m too old, the language is too difficult. After years of living in Rome I manage in Italian, although I can’t get rid of what Marco teasingly calls my “chewing gum” accent.
A Handel Adagio drifts in from Andy’s bedroom. Handel is my favorite and with eyes closed, I tilt my head forward and wait for the soothing notes to wash over me, but the clock on the bedside table clicks the passing seconds too loudly. It’s no use. I have to move, get dressed, face the evening.
“Help me with the buttons, please, Susie.” She slips off the bed and holds up the gown. I step into it and suck in my stomach as Susie reaches my waist. I’ve gained weight since the last time I wore this gown, a smoky blue satin I bought at Bonwit’s in New York before sailing to Europe.
“The eyelets are tight,” Susie complains.
“Why can’t we see Heydrich too?” Andy, my sweet talented boy, is standing in the doorway, a shock of hair covering one eye as always. He too has his father’s lean dark looks except for his eyes, hazel and deep set like mine.
“He’s just a man like any other,” I say. Why does power excite? Marco came home early from the office today, his face flushed and taut, his eyes brimming with anticipation. It turned my stomach. “There’s nothing to see, Andy.”
“He’s the snake and the devil,” Susie says and flops back on the bed. “You’re done, Mama.”
“Thank you, sweetie.” I slip one of my evening gloves on, tug it up my arm. The snake and the devil is what Jitka, our Czech housekeeper, calls Heydrich.
“I think it’s unfair.” Andy’s voice cracks. “I told everyone at school I was going to meet him. What am I going to say now?”
Susie starts jumping up and down on the bed. “Lie.”
“No lies. Susie, please stop jumping.” I offer Susie my gloved arm and the sapphire bracelet Marco gave me as a wedding present. “Help again.” As Susie bends over to close the catch on the bracelet, I kiss the top of her head. Her hair smells of the lemon juice I rinse her hair with to make it shine. I must remember to ask Jitka not to say anything more about Heydrich in front of the children. Jitka, who told me that horrible story. I had heard rumors about Heydrich. That he had been behind the burning of the Reichstag, that Hitler had picked him to govern the German protectorate for his ability to destroy any resistance. That in the few months since he’d come to Prague, he had ordered the torture and killing of many men. They were only rumors until last week when I found Jitka sobbing in the kitchen. She kept repeating the same Czech words, getting louder and louder, trying to make me understand. I poured her a glass of brandy and ran downstairs to get one of the Consulate secretaries to translate.
The day before, an old man, a widower, who lived on the floor above Jitka, sang the Czech anthem from his window as Heydrich’s open car passed in front of their building. That morning she found his broken body propped against the doorway.
My heart froze. I had to pour myself some brandy too. Thank God the children were in school. I told Marco when he came home for lunch, told him that I wouldn’t, couldn’t go to the reception. I asked him to stay home with me, to find some excuse not to participate in honoring a murderer. He said that was impossible. There were going to be many other receptions; he couldn’t always come up with an excuse. Doing his job did not mean he was endorsing Heydrich’s methods. Ugliness was part of war and there was nothing we, as individuals, could do to put an end to it. Resigning from his job wouldn’t save a single person. In fact, his job was keeping the family safe. We had children to think about. The war would be over soon.
I can hear him now.
“We’re stuck in a bad situation and all we can do is make the best of it. I need you to be on my side. We both agreed a diplomatic career was a good idea.”
That’s true. With the Depression reaching Europe, his career as a civil engineer had petered to nothing. Marco is good-looking, charming, persuasive, with a knack for listening intently to the most boring guest, and an ability to quickly assess a situation. The perfect diplomat, I thought naively, when a life lived in different countries seemed exciting, when I still judged Mussolini just a pompous windbag, when I still believed diplomacy had some relevance in world affairs. That the Italian State wasn’t likely to go bankrupt was an added incentive.
Andy is still leaning in the doorway, looking forlorn. “The adagio was beautifully played,” I tell him. “You’ve made enormous progress.” If I stay I could read a bedtime story with Susie, listen to more Handel.
Marco expects me to meet this Nazi murderer, shake hands with him, smile even. If I don’t go downstairs, I’ll get a week’s worth of simmering anger from him, another stifling round of lectures on the duties of a diplomat’s wife from Giorgio’s wife Lilli, and probably a scolding behind closed doors from the Consul General himself. Staying upstairs will not change the course of the war or save anyone’s life.
I push myself to the door. “I’m proud of you, Andy. You’ll have to play it for Papa.” Andy moves aside to let me pass–at thirteen he’s at the do-not-touch stage–but I manage to sneak in a quick kiss on his chin. Both my children are tall, something that fills me with a pride I’m slightly ashamed of. I blame it on my own height, five foot two. “Tell your friends the truth,” I tell Andy. “Your father wouldn’t let you.” The one thing we had agreed on–keep the children away from Heydrich and his cronies.
“I made tons of mistakes in the Adagio,” Andy says.
I smile. My son was never any good at accepting compliments. I blow both my children akiss. “Good night, sweeties. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
Heydrich and his party are in the front hall when I walk in, only a few feet away, saying goodbye to Giorgio and Lilli. The huge Bohemian glass chandelier Lilli is so proud of dribbles light on his head. May it fall on him, I think and then the snake and the devil looks at me. I stop, one arm half-sheathed, the glove hanging limply from my hand. I find myself unable to take a step in any direction. Waiters hold up open overcoats. He is tall, thin, with a never-ending forehead, jutting ears, a prominent nose. Small eyes that suck me in. I could scream at them and there would be no echo. The sound would simply be snatched from me, swallowed.
Heydrich plunges his arms in the armholes of his coat.
For a moment the man is defenseless, but I do nothing. Can do nothing.
Then Marco is at my elbow, pushing me forward. “This is my wife, Alinka.” Alinka, the name everyone has adopted for me here, making me sound Slavic. Alice is so American. I don’t mind. I somehow feel safer, less like a woman straight out of a Henry James story.
Heydrich nods and I curtsy like a silly school girl.
When Heydrich leaves I sense an audible release of tension. Louder voices, laughter, the clinking of glasses. Marco kisses my forehead. “Good for you. The curtsy was a charming touch.” I feel only shame.
My head fills with all the foolish actions, the insidious compromises I’ve made to please, to be deserving, to keep love. I tell myself I’m being a good mother, keeping my children happy, safe. That gives me a warm little glow for about ten seconds. What choices do I have? When Mussolini entered Hitler’s war last year I begged Marco to take us back to the States. He refused, convinced no American company would hire an Italian. If the children and I went back without him for the duration of the war–no one knew, knows how long that might be–I was afraid it would end our marriage. Marco kept repeating that he needed my trust, my support, my presence to give him ballast. For better or for worse I had vowed.
I love him, the children love him. We are a happy family. We are safe. All I have to do is pretend the war doesn’t concern me. Keep my opinions to myself. Be Alinka, not Alice. Fold my conscience, and tuck it out of sight like the lace handkerchief I keep in my purse in case of a sudden gust of tears. Be like Lilli, wrapped in the importance of her husband’s career, facing each day with a smile permanently etched on her powdered face.
I’ll try. For Andy and Susie. For Marco who still makes my heart dance. I take a glass of champagne from the tray a waiter offers, walk over to Lilli and say, “The flower arrrangements are gorgeous.” At least that’s true.
Cambridge, Massachusetts–January, 1956
It’s a cold night and the squirrels have gotten into the attic again. They’re having a grand old time–playing soccer with pebbles from the sound of it. David is oblivious, his steady breath adding a comforting warmth to my neck.
Half an hour goes by. An hour. I’m still wide awake. The squirrels have quit their game. The only sound is David’s breathing and an intermittent gurgle in my stomach, another call for food, or hormones doing battle.
It’s always been hard for me to go to sleep. Dropping into a void where I have no control. As a child I’d made a pact with Mama. On the nights she went out, I promised I’d go to bed without a fuss, but when she came back, she had to stop in my room, and if I was awake, tell me everything.
The night of Heydrich’s reception I was waiting for her. I remember her looking more beautiful than ever. The gray blue of her long dress had turned her eyes the same color. She had pinned back her red, curly hair, but strands now straggled down, framing her soft round face. Pearls dangled from her ears. Her neck was bare.
“Don’t you sometimes wish you were back home?” Mama asked me.
Home where? Newport Beach, where we lived for three years, while Papa commuted back and forth to the Italian consulate in Los Angeles? Rome where I was born and lived the first seven years of my life? Rome was ages ago. Newport Beach I missed vaguely. My letters to my best friend Judy never got a reply. I stopped writing. My American friends were becoming goodbye poems in my friendship book. The maple syrup and peanut butter my mother kept sending for never arrived either. Europe was at war. We couldn’t go back.
“Home is here,” I said. Where the family was together again, all of us in a fat circle in which I could roll to my heart’s content. Papa came to Prague before us, while Andy and I finished the year in the red school house on the beach. For those six months I thought I’d lost him forever.
I asked her, “What did you do to the snake and the devil?”
“I put pepper in his champagne and a toad in his sock.”
When she bent over to kiss me goodnight, I saw that her eyes, those eyes that seemed to look at you from somewhere deep inside her, shimmered. She’d been crying, but I said nothing, afraid that it was Papa who had made her cry.
Why would I think Papa had made her cry? Had he made her cry before? Papa had a temper; he used to yell if he couldn’t find the shirt he wanted to wear, or Mama wasn’t ready on time, or Andy didn’t study. His outbursts were part of the background noise of our lives. We didn’t mind them very much, which probably made him angrier, but his anger petered out quickly, a flare quickly doused by Mama’s calm response. I don’t think he ever made her cry. Not then.
Camilla Trinchieri worked for many years dubbing films in Rome. She emigrated to this country in 1980 and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Under the pseudonym Camilla Crespi, she has published seven mysteriesnovels in “The Trouble With” mystery series. The Breakfast Club Murder was published in 2014. As Camilla Trinchieri she has published The Price of Silence (Soho Press, 2007) and Seeking Alice (SUNY Press, 2016, a fictionalized account of her mother’s life in Europe during WWII, which won an Italian American Studies Association award . Both have been translated and published in Italy.