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‘How could my mother leave her baby and then kill herself?’: author Maria Grazia Calandrone’s quest for answers

‘How could my mother leave her baby and then kill herself?’: author Maria Grazia Calandrone’s quest for answers

On 24 June 1965 a young woman sat her eight-month-old baby girl on a blanket in the gardens of the Villa Borghese in Rome, and walked quickly away. Within minutes, a passerby spotted the tiny child, alone, with no identifying documents, no note, not even a name. When the mother did not return to claim her that evening, the baby was handed over to the nuns at Rome’s adoption services. Three days later, the mother’s body was found floating in the Tiber.

Before she died, the woman had sent a letter to the press, containing a brief account of the terrible choice she had made. The letter, handwritten, gave the baby’s name and date of birth, and concluded: “Finding myself in a desperate situation, I have no other choice than to leave my daughter to the compassion of all, And I with my friend will pay with our lives for what we did, or, got right or, got wrong.” The letter was signed “Lucia Galante, now Greco”. Her “friend” was presumed to be the baby’s father, whose body surfaced in the river a week later.

For a long time these scant, heartbreaking, details were all Maria Grazia Calandrone knew of her birth mother. She resisted finding out more. “Growing up, I knew nothing about her, I didn’t want to know anything, she was an image of – I don’t know … not of love … an idea. Of a different life.”

Calandrone, now nearly 60, is speaking to me over Zoom from her house in Rome. Her narrow face is framed by untamable curly black hair and expressive eyebrows. “When I started this journey, it was to discover who she was. Obviously I had no memory of her. Then, when I understood that hers was a story of great and undeserved suffering, I wanted to write about her. Her, and all the other women who have suffered the same injustice.”

The extraordinary book that resulted from this journey, Your Little Matter, was published in Italy in 2022, and has now been translated into English. The book spent weeks on the Italian bestseller lists and was shortlisted for the country’s top literary prize, the Strega. Just as Elena Ferrante’s Naples Quartet revealed the harsh reality of life for young women in Italy’s poorer regions, Calandrone’s memoir gives an unsparing view of the brutal treatment of women in desperate times that resonated powerfully with readers.

“When the book came out, a year and a half ago,” she says, “I was overwhelmed with testimonials from women who told me about the unhappy women in their families.”

Calandrone, featured with her adoptive motherView image in fullscreen

Calandrone was adopted by the director of the Italian Communist party and his wife, a teacher. As she grew up, her adoptive mother, who was a complex personality, jealous and demanding, became increasingly exasperated as her daughter – with her dark, curly hair, her strong will, her uncontainable character – turned out to be nothing like her. Partly for fear of incurring her further displeasure, Calandrone buried the story of her birth parents deep.

She became a teacher, a mother of two, a multi-award-winning poet. In 2021, she wrote a lyrical, passionate memoir of her relationship with her adoptive mother – perhaps from a desire to appease her, to express her gratitude. It was her adoptive mother who had, after all, introduced her to literature, given her “the gift of poetry”. When she went on a popular daytime TV chat show to promote the book, it turned out that people who had known her birth mother were watching.

“Two of her friends got in touch,” says Calandrone. “They said they wanted to tell me about her. I had never had the desire … Until then, I had instinctively avoided … But at that point I couldn’t pretend any more.”

Calandrone gives workshops in schools and prisons. She is a believer in the redemptive power of poetry. One of her volumes tells the stories of missing persons. Others, of Hiroshima, 9/11, Babi Yar. Now her own origin story, charged with the power and pathos of a Greek tragedy, finally demanded her full attention. She set off with her teenage daughter Anna to visit her birth mother’s family home in Molise, then a remote and very poor part of south-eastern Italy. “We set out on a trip to find out about our relative, that’s all. But the things people told us about her created a picture of an injustice so huge and so relevant today that I had to write about it.”

Newspaper clipping 2 Italian author of Your Little Matter Maria Grazia CalandroneView image in fullscreen

To trace the story of Lucia, she plunged into the misery of postwar rural Italy, searching the archives, and the memories of those who knew her. Lucia was born in 1936, when Mussolini was already in power, and the south of Italy was cut off and abandoned, its people suffering in sickness and hunger. Carlo Levi’s 1945 memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli is one of the few books to portray the hardship of ordinary lives at the time, but Calandrone also cites film-makers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The poet turned detective to examine the evidence of her lost mother’s early life. There were school photos up to the age of 12: Lucia, a bright, wilful child, was allowed to go to school if her farm work was done. There were girlish confidences: Lucia’s friends recalled her early, wordless romance with Tonino, a boy in the village, forbidden by her father because the boy had no prospects.

“It was the times,” Calandrone says. Her voice is low and she talks rapidly. “After the war, the village was in ruins. They’ve got nothing but this pervasive sense of moral judgment. Of honour. There’s the economic question too, because in the end, what matters if you are that poor is survival. No one cares if you’re in love. What matters is that you guarantee the survival of your future children. And in some parts of the country, nothing has changed.”

Calandrone hungrily examined the few photographs she tracked down of her mother, searching her face and posture for signs of character. She was excited to find Lucia had dark curly hair, like her own. She discovered that her mother was forced to marry against her will, in a match that brought the family security in the form of property. The wedding photo shows her “all in white and she is not smiling”. She has a split lip.

Your Little Matter is a labour of love, a work of resurrection through language. In the opening lines, Calandrone declares: “I am writing this book to tear my mother’s smell from the earth. I am exploring a method for those who have lost their origins, a mathematical system of feeling and thought – so complete as to revive a body, as hot as the earth in summer and as firm.”

The Villa Borghese in Rome, where Calandrone was found abandoned.View image in fullscreen

Walking around her mother’s loveless home, she lets the furniture tell its story: Lucia moved in with her parents-in-law, their beds divided only by “a cotton curtain, white as a shroud, hanging from the roof beam”. The mattress was filled with dried maize leaves. In the morning, the newlyweds’ bodies, turned away from each other, left a ridge down the middle.

The village had no running water, and the land was farmed by hand. These were the years of the Italian economic boom, but progress was going on elsewhere, in the cities of the north. The church still had an iron grip; what rural Italy lacked in comfort, it more than made up for in hardline moral propriety. Everyone knew Lucia was battered and starved by her in-laws and her husband. Divorce was illegal and deserting the marital home carried a prison sentence.

And then, Lucia fell in love. Giuseppe was a builder, a worldly man, much older than her, already married with children, recently returned from fighting in Mussolini’s disastrous campaign in Eritrea. A skilled engineer dispatched from the world of progress to build a water tower for the village, he charmed the locals as much as he impressed them with his work. Doing repairs on a house for Lucia and her husband, Giuseppe charmed her, too, and Calandrone glimpses her transformation into a woman who laughs and dreams of a different life. This dangerous change is observed with pitiless judgment by the village, and so begins the “social violence” that will lead to Lucia’s death.

There is a sharp sense of shame in the treatment of women in the years before divorce became legal, that has not altogether gone away. Not everyone in the village was pleased to see Lucia’s long-lost daughter, now a celebrated poet; they thought Calandrone had come to drag the village’s reputation through the mud. Someone smashed her car window.

Lucia and Giuseppe defied their families and the gossips, and set up home together. “She broke the law,” Calandrone tells me. “She broke the moral and spiritual rules she had been raised to respect – and that she believed in. She was dragged by a force stronger than herself, by an unimaginable courage, that was love.”

The story became a public scandal. Giuseppe had a disabled son who was dangerously unwell. His wife wrote to the press to denounce his desertion, saying he had been bewitched. Lucia’s husband pressed charges for adultery, a criminal offence. Lucia and Giuseppe were now not only publicly disgraced, but wanted by the police. But there was no going back. Lucia discovered she was pregnant. Like many thousands of desperately poor migrants from southern Italy who moved to the promised land of Milan during the 1950s and 60s, they decided to head for the city and try to create a life for themselves.

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The register of the narrative shifts at this point from a poetic reimagining of the landscape of Lucia’s childhood, to a journalistic reconstruction of the couple’s desperate adventure. Calandrone and her daughter drove to Milan and walked the length of Viale Monza to the northern outskirts of the city where migrants settled as they searched for work. “Those who didn’t manage to get a foothold lived here in terrible conditions … in the mud, and the rats, no running water, no electricity,” she tells me.

Calandrone at home in Rome.View image in fullscreen

“I think this is something Italians are a bit ashamed of,” she says. “When I did an interview in la Stampa [newspaper], and I said that we, coming to Turin and Milan 50 years ago, were the same as the migrants arriving today, who come here looking for a better life, I was verbally abused. There were people who said, ‘No, we came to work, whereas they come to steal’ – the usual rubbish people say. People who don’t believe everyone has the same right as we do, to dream of a better life.”

By the time Giuseppe and Lucia reached Milan, the economic boom was over, and building sites were closing. Now they were fugitives, finding legal work was impossible. Six months pregnant, she was working as a cleaner. The lovers’ situation became desperate. He was in debt – it’s possible he had borrowed a sum he couldn’t repay, to secure them a place to live. Calandrone, on their trail, made numerous requests for the scraps of information contained in the public records of destitute migrants. She discovered that when a baby was born to a mother who had deserted her husband, social services were poised to take the infant into care.

“As soon as I was born I was taken from my mother and given to the nuns,” she tells me. “But after a month and a half she managed to get me back. I don’t know how but she managed to keep me with her, because we were together for a while. I think she managed the impossible. She must have been a tough, courageous woman.”

The final section of the book is a reconstruction of the couple’s desperate attempt, as they run out of road, to make sure their baby will be looked after. Calandrone follows a series of hypotheses and chases down the evidence for each, in what she admits became, for her, an all-consuming pursuit. She describes herself as an obsessive mother, who barely let her children out of her sight when they were small. “My whole life has been predicated on the question: how could a mother leave her baby and then kill herself?”

When Calandrone was 19, she had been given the handbag her mother had left on the riverside before she drowned. The objects it contained now provided precious leads. The plan, as it played out, was meticulous, executed with care. The letter the couple wrote to the leftwing broadsheet l’Unità offered more clues. There were thousands of babies being given up for adoption. Their thinking was, to give their child the best possible chance, they had to create a news story. They would leave her in a public place in Rome and then kill themselves.

your little matterView image in fullscreen

The book’s subtitle is My Mother, a News Item. Calandrone takes the press reports of her mother’s death and reconstructs her final hours, follows her into the river, to the morgue, goes through the autopsy report. Nearly 60 years after the event, Calandrone stages a dramatic rescue. Having established the cold facts, she composes an elegy:

“Here is me, looking at you from the future
As you slowly lower yourself into that atomic mirror,
Into that end of the world, and I am looking at you
And I am leaving you

Calandrone can finally establish her own identity as Lucia’s daughter, who looks like her, has her fiery personality and green eyes, her tenacity and her passion. There is a powerful sense of homecoming. She goes to see her mother’s sweetheart, Tonino, the boy (now 80) who was chased away with a shotgun by Lucia’s father. He keeps a little shrine to his lost love. He is taken aback to meet Calandrone’s daughter, who is the same age as Lucia was when they fell in love. “He is stupendous,” Calandrone tells me.

“The first time he saw my daughter, he behaved just like a grandpa, he put €50 in her pocket and said, ‘Buy yourself whatever you like.’ Yesterday he saw me on TV and rang me up. He said, ‘You look worn out. Are you sure you’re eating enough?’” She laughs.

Since Your Little Matter came out in Italy, the book has sparked a national conversation “on the subject of divorce, on the freedom of women,” Calandrone tells me. “My book is read in many schools, and I find it very moving that the story of a woman who was not able to study can talk to students through me.”

Calandrone lives in San Giovanni in Rome with her son Arturo and daughter Anna. She is separated from their father, which is happily no longer a criminal offence. It’s a life her mother could only dream of, but fought – against all odds – to secure for her. In Your Little Matter, Calandrone plunges into her tragic history to recover her mother’s memory, to restore her reputation, and to bring her home. In the last line of the book, as she witnesses Lucia’s reburial, Calandrone writes: “Music be with you, my daughter.”

It’s a startling moment: mother and daughter have become entwined. Who is speaking here, I ask, is she imagining Lucia’s voice? “When I started out on this journey, I didn’t know who I was going to meet,” she says. “And the more I got to know her, the more I became fond of her. She never got to my age. She’s still so young. She’s just a girl. And in the end I adopted her. Now I’ve got another daughter.”

Your Little Matter: My Mother, a News Item by Maria Grazia Calandrone and translated by Antonella Lettieri is published by Foundry Editions on 18 June. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source: theguardian.com