My parents were well off, when I was little. It was a matter of course that I should have a nanny and, when she was wrenched away as I turned five, that I have a governess. Who arrived one day at the beginning of autumn - mid-October, in Rome.
It was one of those glorious crystal-skied, red-leafed days that lend the old stones of the city a very special golden shine, as if making up for the loss of the summer blaze. The door to our home opened westward: looking up at my new governess standing on the threshold, I only saw a faceless silhouette dark against the magenta sky.She leaned forward to shake my mother’s hand and her head hovered over me just as any other head from the adult world did. Then she stepped in and she said something I didn’t understand; but it must have been a greeting, because Mother said, “Say good afternoon, Carlotta.” The silhouette dropped an arm in my direction, probably intending to shake my hand too; which was clearly going to be impossible unless she stooped, which she was not going to do. Her invisible face also said something that sounded harsh and I didn’t understand. I took two steps backward; mother smiled and put her hand on my shoulder - her hip-level.
Mother said it was all right - my new governess was German, which meant she usually lived beyond the mountains where everybody spoke like that, and someday I would be able to speak like that too, if I listened and learned from Fräulein Clara. In my ignorance, and with my still limited knowledge of sounds used in human communication, I found the prospect terrifying.
Clara didn’t last. The following year everything changed. My father’s sudden illness took care of my parents’ life style and of any social position where a German governess was both required and affordable.
I met Clara again, however: several years later - an incredible coincidence - in Vienna. She was sitting on a bench in the gardens at Schönbrunn; I was one of the late-summer tourists. She did not recognize me, understandably; I knew her face right away, thanks to the imprinting she had managed in the six months or so she had been around… I had been picturing her face since, in my fantasies about Cinderella’s mean stepmother. Now I was no longer looking at her from underneath, and the Austrian September sky did not blaze quite as blindingly as that Mediterranean sky of long ago.
“Hello, Fräulein Clara, do you remember me?” Clara looked up at me from the bench where she was sitting much straighter than you would have expected from a woman her age. She didn’t answer.
“Rome, in ’58…? Carlotta…? The little girl who was afraid of you…?” For a moment her eyes lit up in a sparkle of interest – maybe recollection? – but she regained her impenetrable composure almost immediately. “Fräulein Clara?”
She raised her eyes again and kept them on my face a little longer. Then she lowered them back to their usual angle. “Sorry,” she said. “I am afraid we never met. I never met anybody as tall as you are, in Rome. All the locals are much shorter than average, in Rome.”
published 13 February 2012