by Gina Briefs-Elgin
It’s hard to know what will push you over the edge.
After my mother’s memorial Mass, a young friend confided that my mother had taught her an important life lesson: never serve cantaloupe on an orange-colored plate. I could just hear my mother: “Oh! not that color, dear,” my mother would have told her, deftly switching the cantaloupe slices onto Mexican blue glass. “My first thought,” said my friend, “was who cares what color the plate is? But later I saw. Your mother taught me that beauty counts. She taught me that it matters how things look.”

It mattered to my mother how things looked one drizzly morning on the island of Capri after early Mass. My eighty-six-year-old father had died suddenly in Italy, and my mother, as a distraction from grief, had taken two of my cousins and me on a trip she had originally planned to take with him. My grief was still dormant. The four of us—three giddy girls and my widowed mother—boarded the ferry from the sleazy, criminal docks of Naples and got off on the magical island of Capri, where my mother would commit her own crime. Capri is famous for being one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Travel guidebooks tell me I should remember steep stone streets, whitewashed walls cascading with roses, crimson bougainvillea, yellow broom, and from every viewpoint, the luminous blue sea lying steeply below. An enchanted island! Instead I remember only three brief unenchanted scenes, each I fervently resented then, each my cousins and I love to remember now, thirty years later.

It was early morning. I was trying to keep sleeping, but my mother was violently shaking my foot. She had turned on all the lights in our low-ceilinged hotel room and was dripping water off her raincoat onto my bedclothes.

“Gina! You’ve got to get up and help me right now. I’ve done something terrible.”

I sat up fast. This pale woman frantically flinging raindrops, her gray hair wild, was so unlike my cheerful and practical British mother—whom lightning, poisonous snakes, and even war had never been able to rattle—that I was alarmed.

“I’ve done something awful,” my mother said, sitting down hard on my feet. “I’ve stolen something.” My heart flopped into my throat—had my father’s death unhinged her? She seemed frantic with distress and my mind filled with preposterous thoughts: had she stolen jewelry? A gun? Had she shot somebody?

I scootched to the foot of the bed. Julie and Tessa and I watched as with shaking hands she opened her straw bag and removed an object hidden under her scarf. “Oh, dear,” she said, unveiling the object of her crime. And here it was: a five-inch-high pink plastic dashboard mascot of a roguish little boy. He was holding his outsized dick in his hand and pissing into a little toilet. By means of the handle on the toilet, the penis of this fiendish boy could be ratcheted up or down. Coming out of early morning Mass, glowing with the beauty of the sacrament and the fresh Capri dawn, my mother had stepped into a shop to buy postcards. This hideous toy, grinning at her from the cash register, had struck her like a blow. She had told the shopkeeper it was a shame to have such a thing in such a beautiful setting. She had offered to buy it from him. No, he had said, shrugging, it was a present from a friend. And then he had turned his back. It had taken her only a moment to commit her crime, to swish the ugly thing into her big straw bag and hurry out into the wet street.

I was outraged and pushed her off my feet. For this she got me up? But my mother was in a frenzy of anxiety.

“What if he saw me!” she says. “What if he told the police? What if it gets into the papers?” She imagined the headlines for us, something like this: “Professor’s Widow Steals Obscene Toy.” “Gina,” she said, “you’ve got to go right now and explain to that man. Apologize for me.”

Now I was scared. Was my mother coming unglued? Why did she have to go and do this crazy thing? And now she wanted me to fix it. But I was proving good at denial these days. “I need more sleep,” I told her. “I’ll take it back later.”

“We’re not taking it back,” she said. “I just want you to explain to the man and apologize for me. Tell him his island of Capri is so beautiful that he shouldn’t have such an ugly thing on his cash register. It doesn’t belong. Offer to pay for it.” She opened her wallet, her British self again, mustering her troop.

“It doesn’t matter what’s on a store’s cash register,” I argued, exasperated now. “It’s his store.”

“Yes it does,” said my mother firmly, “it’s ugly and we’re not giving it back.” She wasn’t suffering from madness after all, I realized, just grief and offended aesthetics.

I got resentfully out of the cozy bedclothes. With very bad grace, I took the envelope of lire my mother handed me. Perhaps I even looked up crazy in the Italian dictionary. Then I put on my shorts and sweater and stepped out onto the drizzly street. I was aware that I was being a graceless daughter, that Julie or Tessa, who were devoted to my mother, would haveembraced the mission of clearing her name. But I was the one who spoke a little Italian. I walked across the cobbles towards the shop, rehearsing my speech, full of dread. And then an idea occurred to me—a way to postpone the moment of walking into the shop. A gesture that might almost redeem me in my own eyes. Minutes ticked by as I ducked in and out of tourist shops, hoping that my cousins were worrying at my delay and not enjoying breakfast without me. At last I lit on another boy-statue, this one a terracotta cherub, genderless, mostly wings.

Armed with my bland cherub, I crossed the street and walked fast into the pillaged shop and straight to the counter before I could lose my courage. But the shopkeeper was talking to a friend, which gave me time to be nervous, time to look at the cash register, where the nasty boy must have been, time to wonder—absurdly—how the shopkeeper could even keepshop, as though nothing had happened, with his interesting mascot missing from right under his eye. Time to wonder whether he knew already the reason that brought me here, while he chatted deliberately on and on.

Finally, the friend moved away from the cash register. I stepped forward, my cherub in hand. I pushed the envelope of lire across the counter, and then I unwrapped the cherub. “This is for you, signor,” I told him. “My mother,” I said, pointing to the empty spot, “has stolen your boy. She is matta, crazy,” I told him in broken Italian, dancing my fingers on either side of my face to show him crazy. “My father is dead,” I told him.

Bene, bene, it’s all right,” he told me, mostly bored. But I pressed the modest cherub on him. “Non, signorina. ” He didn’t want it and tried to give it back to me.

“Take it!” I said, and fled from the shop. In the drizzly street I cried for a long time, for my father, for my mother, for my unkindness in not recognizing her theft as a symptom of grief. Then I wiped my eyes and went back to the pensione.

On the night we left Capri, my cousins and I leaned over the white ferry railing. The black water was foaming far below us as we ploughed away from the magical island, and we had a job to do. “Here he is!” said Julie. In a moment, she and Tessa were merrily balancing the toy on the railing, pushing the tiny tank handle up and down a last few times. My mother’s crime embarrassed me still, and my own unsympathetic heart, but then I was laughing, too, as the three of us, with a giddy hoot, consigned the unzipped boy to the waves.



Gina Briefs-Elgin is a writer who lives in Sante Fe.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.