…..I was your little skylark, your doll (Nora, A Doll’s House)
Sorting through boxes of my mother’s effects some months after her death, I stumbled upon two Carnevale masks. She must have acquired them after I’d stopped skating and left home. One was a full-faced black mask with gold filigree feathers and a tassel, the second, a gold half-mask with an open lace fan tacked to the edge of the eye socket. They were a handsome pair, yet as I ran my fingers over the slick gesso, I got that acidy feeling that usually sent me scurrying for some Tums. No apparent rhyme or reason to my reaction—we’d never been to the festival nor had Mother ever talked about it. But then, in Boston, she never spoke of anything Italian. Instead of going after the antacid, I brought the pair to my desk and opened up the computer.
The full-faced mask appeared to be a Volto, the half-mask, a Columbina. A bit of history: during the pre-Lent holiday, and later for extended periods, Carnevale masks had provided a means of equalizing citizens, regardless of their birth status. The custom would have appealed to Mother, had she been aware of it, as she’d worn a mask her entire life, I’d recently discovered, playing along for decades with her own mother’s recasting of her Neapolitan father as a noble Frenchman. The two must have considered such an invention a necessity in the Boston of the 1930s, The Late George Apley’s Boston, where, without a Mayflower pedigree, one was relegated to the sidelines. But a French background might have been considered exotic. As so few French emigrated, there was no prejudice against them. The language of culture, French was taught in the best of schools. And Mother’s story must have duped my half Anglo, half Irish father who, eager to belong to Brahmin clubs, had espoused their values. Italians, for instance, were either illiterate peasants or Mafioso.
But then why Venetian masks, why not French Mardi Gras masks? The most obvious explanation: Mother was more drawn to things Italian and, with my father now dead, she could have them in the house. A painter and art historian, she’d once shepherded me through the Louvre, but had spent far more time in Florentine churches, pointing out the chiaroscuro in the paintings of Caravaggio and drawings of da Vinci, the sunlight caught on the domes of Brunelleschi and Bernini. As I took in these lessons, it never dawned on me that this was our heritage.
Growing up, I’d welcomed the French connection and Mother had encouraged my learning the language, art, and cuisine. The whole French scene intrigued me, from nineteenth century romantics to toile wallpaper to the way Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy gave the White House a facelift. Having a mother with the maiden name of Poté partially made up for being saddled with an Irish surname. With a sense of anger and shame, I recalled the day a high school classmate, referring to the Irish, had said, “The maids and policemen of Boston. We don’t speak to them.”
Still there were aspects of the French story that never quite jibed. Even children of immigrants whose parents insist English be spoken in the home, know something of everyday expressions in their parents’ native tongue. Mother knew none. Although she could make a fine coq au vin, when I was sick, she always came up with pastina in brodo followed by meatballs with fresh parsley and garlic.
But I didn’t discover her charade until the day her sister died, when my cousin, looking for our aunt’s will, stumbled across our grandfather’s passport. The shock on opening it and reading his name: Gaetano, not Guy, as Mother had always insisted, using Guy de Maupassant as an example. Birthplace: Naples, not Paris. The faux-bronze Bourbon stallion on the Louis XV table had done a little dance.
Although I couldn’t understand why my ninety-two year old mother was continuing to deny her heritage—my father was over thirty years in the grave and times had changed, Italians no longer pegged as “garlic eaters”—I didn’t confront her while she was grieving for her sister. Part of me wondered if the French mask had become her reality.
Not completely, I would discover, because a few days after her sister’s memorial, a time of family reunification, she’d come close to removing it, posing a single question on the phone: “It was a good time for you, wasn’t it, meeting Betty, Danielle and Mary Anne?” referring to the obviously Italian family she’d kept at bay my entire life.
Here was the opportune moment to ask, “Isn’t it time to take the mask off?”
Yet her rhetorical question seemed to be saying, “Now that you know the truth, there’s no reason to talk about it.”
And sensing the fatigue in her voice, I simply answered, “Yes, it was.”
In the following weeks before her sudden death, I’d imagined confronting Mother about the concocted story, but had never fully visualized the scene beyond a vague image of her turning away when asked “why,” of not answering directly, of my quickly dropping the subject. Such a discussion would have entailed owning up to my father’s prejudices, the price both of us had paid for her marriage and life in the Back Bay. Neither of us was quite up to it.
I fingered the eye socket of the half-mask, still puzzled by my visceral reaction. What she was thinking of when she acquired the Carnevale masks? I suspected they were more than simply admired Italian art.
The next morning found me again at the computer, scrolling through a collection of Columbinas until I came to a feather-bordered one. It was at once novel and familiar. I stared at it for a few moments before being transported back to our sewing room where Stravinsky’s dissonant twelve-tone music was playing on the Victrola. Nine-year-old me was tipping from one foot to the other, trying to dodge the seamstress’s pins, while Mother, who had been studying a Léon Bakst print of the Firebird ballerina while sketching my Ice Chips show costume, scolded me for not standing still.
“The sleeves are too tight.”
“You’ll get used to them.”
“The Black Swan didn’t have this many feathers.”
Mother had wanted to take in the Firebird ballet, but since it wasn’t playing this season, we’d seen Swan Lake instead, “You’re going to be more glamorous than the Black Swan.”
I pulled at the headdress strap that chafed under my chin and tugged at the scratchy, feather-bordered mask that made me feel like I was in a tunnel, “It’s hard enough to see straight ahead in the spotlight, but now I can’t see sideways either.”
I picked up her gold Columbina and pressed it to my face, its lace fan completely obliterating my peripheral vision.
I awoke to my childhood piecemeal over time, only beginning to think of it in Ibsian terms when I took my own daughters to see “A Doll’s House.” As I’d watched Nora playing the role of the little skylark, bits and pieces of other Ice Chips shows came flooding back.
There was the international show where I’d played Eddie Fisher’s Lady of Spain. For the preceding two months Mother had immersed herself in Spanish culture, locating castanets, insisting I also learn to use a cape. When I balked at the idea of doing a double Salchow with those things in my hands, she eventually compromised on an open-laced fan, similar to the one attached to the gold Columbina, suggesting I could use it as a mask, throwing it to the audience before the first double jump. Delighted with her plan, she started designing my costume, a red silk bodice affair with three tiers of ruffles for the skirt, a false bolero top with tiny circular mirrors hanging from strings of beads, all the while studying pictures of Flamenco dancers, black-eyed beauties in full-length flouncy skirts, hair pulled back severely to accentuate high, proud foreheads. What I needed to complete the image, she decided, was a better-defined widow’s peak. She’d made an appointment.
In a back street salon the next afternoon she showed the stylist my non-descript hairline, indicating what she wanted done; “Close your eyes. It just stings for a minute,” the lady said, seating me next to a machine with a long wire attached to a needle. When the first hair didn’t respond, she bumped the dial from five to eight and a half, buzzing away the remaining fuzz over the next half hour, as I clenched the arms of the chair.
“I don’t want to do that again,” I told Mother, walking back to the car.
“Sometimes you have to suffer to be beautiful.”
But no amount of pleading could make her cancel the next appointments. She was so happy with the results that she continued the sessions long after the show was over.
Pouring over the pictures of exotic Columbinas, I came to see Ice Chips as Mother’s Carnevale. They were her chance to escape the staid navy blues and browns of Boston. Once she had a coveted pair of red shoes, but my father had taken them away; “Only a hussy wears red shoes.”
On occasion she’d ask my father, “What would you like me to wear tonight?”
“Something conservative,” he’d say; “Do you own such a thing?”
In addition to being an antidote to Puritan drabness, Carnivale provided the drama of incognito that Mother apparently thrived on. Despite her lack of French blood, she’d lived in a Stendhalian world that “looked on life as a masked ball.” Even implied incognito, such as my doing a competitive program, albeit in plain dress, to Katchachurian’s Masquerade Ball, thrilled her. But nothing made her happier than watching me skate in one of her guises. It was as if, for one season of the year, we wore the same mask.
While the show theme might suggest a given costume, for her it was never a constraint. Prior to the Firebird, she’d turned seven-year-old me into a sylph, even though the story line was Broadway. When she came up with Les Sylphides, I’d argued that everyone else was doing a show tune like Gypsy.
“Les Sylphides is a better fit for a Boston lady than Everything’s Coming Up Roses. You wouldn’t want the audience to be thinking about Ethel Merman.”
Why it wasn’t a good idea to remind people of Ethel Merman I wasn’t sure. Maybe she didn’t measure up to my father’s image of a Boston lady. Then again, my biggest problem wasn’t my music. It was Mother’s proposed costume, a satin-bodice tutu with spaghetti straps and tulle armbands. When I protested I would freeze, she assured me I would be in the spotlight. Was the spot supposed to keep you warm?
The regular lights stayed on for the Broadway kids, but I had a solo spot in the darkened rink that left me disoriented at the end of a spin. In the dress rehearsal, after the flying camel, I’d started off towards the wrong end of the arena. And jumping into the spot was like swimming in a grey particle cloud that smelled of wet wool gloves.
“I don’t want to do an Axel,” I told Mother the afternoon before opening night. The Axel was at the beginning of the program before my eyes had a chance to get used to the blinding light.
“If you don’t do your Axel, there’ll be consequences.” She paused to see if she had my attention, “Like no more lessons.”
The slit of her mouth suggested she meant it. Skaters needed lessons. Much as I didn’t like the shows, they were part of the package. She thought of me as a skater. I thought of myself as a skater. Being a skater was almost as good as being part French.
In the confines of my room, I spent the afternoon fretting about what would happen if I skipped or two-footed the Axel, seeing myself alternatively completing it and botching it. There are only a handful of performances I remember from my skating days, a couple of national and world championships, but opening night of Les Sylphides has stayed clear in my mind.
In the dark arena, I stood shivering in my corner start position, trying to breathe slowly, like the archer in “Zen and the Art of Archery,” the book Mother had recently made me wade through. Slow breathing helped him visualize the target, as it would help me see and execute the perfect Axel. But, as I waited for the first bars of the Chopin to come over the loud speakers, my thoughts toggled between the archer and the spot that was preventing me from seeing where the Axel was supposed to happen. Racing through my mind during those interminable ten seconds in which I covered the almost hundred and eighty feet leading up to the beastly thing: don’t think, let it happen, like the archer releasing the string. Your body will do what it’s trained to do. Be the kid with enough gumption to jump into swimming grey particles. Up, up and before I knew it, I’d left that forward outside edge and was airborne. The rink seemed to tilt during the fraction of a second it took to complete the one and half rotations, find my landing leg, and come down on my back outside edge, astounded. Lessons would continue. In the remaining two minutes I could forget the archer and concentrate on creating a “romantic reverie.” Did I even know what that was? It was enough to keep my arms under control, extend my free leg, try to make the audience see a sylph, rather than just me. One more split jump, a final layback spin and then I could take off all this make-up and itchy tulle.
Some years after I’d hung up my skates, but long before the discovery of the French fabrication, when I was pregnant with my first child, Mother asked if I would like the bassinet my grandfather had woven. It had held all the French family members, she said. I’d viewed the bassinet as a peace offering. A rebellious teenager, I’d quit skating after winning Nationals and eloped a few years later. She seemed pleased by my acceptance. Before shipping it cross-country, she’d make a new lining. Fine, I agreed, something neutral; we didn’t know the baby’s sex.
The long-anticipated bassinet arrived towards the end of my third trimester, so formidably crated, it took several hours with the claw of a hammer to unpack it. A priceless heirloom, it stood almost three feet off the ground on eight-inch rubber-rimmed wheels, an arch of wicker supporting the canopy. I was removing the balls of tissue stuffing the cradle, when the first bit of lining came into view: tacked to pink satin, a bit of tulle and white chiffon, the tiny mirrors of the Spanish bolero, a piece of fan, half of the feathered Columbina.
For a brief moment I was back in the blinding spot, struggling to see out of the corner of the mask. When I mentally returned to the vestibule where I’d been uncrating Mother’s gift, I took another look to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. Then I walked to the linen closet, located a king-sized sheet and threw it over the bassinet.
The next day I took scissors and cut the stitching that tacked the lining to the wicker. Lifting out the collage of Les Sylphides, Firebird, and Lady of Spain, I stuffed those characters into a trash bag and hid them at the back of the closet.
After a few sleepless nights, I went to a seamstress who agreed to reline the bassinet with unisex Marimekko cloth. I would save the old lining, resurrect it when Mother came to visit.
The re-lined bassinet was close to what I had envisioned all along. I could imagine my baby looking up at the pink butterflies on the vibrant yellow, a far more suitable vision than its mother’s former personas.
But even during my confinement, the Carnevale characters in the back of the closet continued to nag at me. Mother was due a few days after my delivery and it was time to get them out. Only, when I pulled the trash bag from the back of the closet, after a quick peek at its contents, I tied the drawstring tighter and put it back.
When Mother arrived a few days later, I hugged her before leading her into the nursery, my pulse rising to my mouth. As I put my hand on the rim of the bassinet, I turned and caught her contorted expression, as she saw, not her granddaughter, but the Marimekko lining. She recoiled, appearing to shrink. I’ve been performing tricks for you,( Mother). That’s how I survived. You wanted it like that…Our home (was) nothing but a playroom. I wanted to tell her the costumes belonged in the dollhouse she once created, that I couldn’t put my child in them, but I knew it would be like Nora talking to Torvald and I didn’t have all of Nora’s courage. Part of me was still the little sylph in the blinding spot, trying to gather the pluck to jump into swimming grey particles.
For a few minutes, we stood over the bassinet silently frozen. Eventually, she pulled herself to a more erect position and peaked over the rim at her sleeping granddaughter, still unable to muster a smile. Then we donned our cordial masks and went about the rest of the day.
Funny how that scene came back to me as I sat at the computer perusing Carnevale masks. Or maybe not. If you didn’t count quitting skating and eloping, stripping vestiges of Mother’s masked balls from the bassinet was the most concrete action I’d taken against my dollhouse childhood. Had I to do it over again, I would hope I could find a gentler solution. Cruel as it was, it did have a long-lasting benefit: from that point on, Mother confined my skating shrine to her own home. But on the down side; I don’t think she ever forgave me and after that day, my pleasure in the Marimekko bassinet faded and eventually I tucked it away in the corner of the garage.
It had been so easy to be critical of Mother’s disguises, but I too had too been guilty of masking. For many years, I was unable to remove the skater’s mask, afraid I would not find another me behind it. And, for a long period, the French mask had suited me well. I’d kept it even when I began to suspect its validity. Though when eventually confronted with the truth, I’d promptly removed it; being part French had never defined me as well as skating had.
But that moment in the nursery, the moment Mother knew I’d rejected the childhood she’d created for me, I could not revisit years later on discovering the French charade, no matter how big the betrayal, no matter how great my anger. Whether the decision to remain silent after discovering our Italian heritage was made out of cowardice or compassion I can’t say with certainty. Perhaps it was my way of atoning for the bassinet.
For the first time now I noticed the large faux diamond designating the Volto’s widow’s peak and, remembering the painful electrolysis sessions required to produce mine, realized Mother must have never understood its cost, just as she probably forgot the Axel drama of Les Sylphides. How differently we look out from the masks we hide behind. Taking a hammer and two picture hooks from the closet toolbox, I hung the Volto and Columbina side by side on the wall, just slightly off kilter. I look at them every day.