The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 9

Mme Meringue’s Story

During cena, Mme Meringue was unusually quiet, only asking Polly two questions about her day at school and a single question about how she’d spent her time since class had let out: “What did you do after school? I’d hoped you’d be home in time to go to church with me, but I guess a young girl like you needs to run around a bit after sitting all day.”

Polly answered noncommittally, “I talked with some of my new friends and explored a little.”

By the time they were eating their after-cena gelato, the silence felt more uncomfortable than peaceful, especially in light of what Polly suspected as its cause. “Are you okay, Mme Meringue?” she asked tentatively.

Her landlady sighed but answered, “Yes, of course.”

But after another minute filled by two more sighs from her, Mme Meringue said, “Polly, I just don’t know what is wrong with me these days. I simply don’t look forward to things the way I used to—to my Bible-study group, my quiet evenings at home, my work in the churches. Nothing’s really wrong. I’m not upset over anything in particular. I meet my responsibilities and keep my home in order, but the fire has gone out for me.”

It was hard to imagine a more on-fire person than the one Polly had seen in action at the church a couple of hours earlier, but Polly guessed she more or less understood what Mme Meringue meant. At cena last night, too, she’d noticed the tired, wilted appearance around her landlady’s eyes, a look that came from more than temporary fatigue. The look deepened when the older woman seemed lost in her thoughts. “You must miss your husband,” Polly said a little shyly, not wanting to risk saying the wrong thing but also not wanting to ignore Mme Meringue’s melancholy.

“Of course I miss Gustavo,” Mme Meringue said brusquely, “but that’s certainly not the problem. Gustavo and I always agreed that if one of us were left alone, we’d go on full throttle, doing the best we could with the life with which God blessed us.”

Listening to Mme Meringue’s tone of voice, Polly would have thought she’d offended her and misjudged the situation. But Polly also noticed the few tears that had washed into Mme Meringue’s eyes at Polly’s words. By the time Mme Meringue had shaken her head, the tears were gone.

“I shouldn’t have bothered you with my little troubles, Polly. A girl your age wouldn’t understand.”

“I don’t mind. I do understand a little. I read lots of books and think about things a lot.” When Polly’s dog, Taffy, had died last year, Polly had awakened for several days afterward feeling as if she’d been swallowed up by a dark and bottomless hole in the earth.

“I’d like to hear about your husband—what he was like—if you don’t mind telling me.”

Mme Meringue was silent so long that Polly thought she really had offended her landlady this time, but then she said with a mixture of sadness and pleasure in her voice, “My Gustavo was a man among millions, the best of the best. I met him when my parents sent me to Florence to study art history. He was my teacher for a religion course I added to my program. And no, I am not ashamed of this little bit of scandalous romance in my life. Actually, Gustavo was as without scandal as they come. Even though he was working in Florence, he refused to live anywhere but Pisa, and he made the round trip every day by train. He was such a saintly man, but no one found him stuffy. He liked to laugh and tell stories, but he really was very spiritual and tried hard to be good and set an excellent example.” The description fit the kind-looking man in the portrait over the buffet.

“Do you have any children, Mme Meringue?”

“We didn’t have children, but everyone was Gustavo’s child, or student anyway. He was always helping people with their problems. People came to him all the time to talk about something or other that was bothering them. He would listen and listen. Usually he talked privately to the people who came to consult him, so I don’t know much of what he said to help, but Gustavo was a true believer, so I’m sure he gave the folks some spiritual guidance to support them in their time of need.

“I love Pisa because of Gustavo, but frankly, I think he was too good for the place. And if he were alive now, he’d be appalled. What I see on the streets in broad daylight! I never told him my reservations about Pisa, because he loved it so much, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I think he should have gone to Rome, where the important religious people are and he could have been more fully appreciated.

“The trouble with Pisa is it has too many independent thinkers who aren’t sufficiently grounded in religious teachings. I truly think all the trouble started with Galileo, although the ground was laid before that. With such a big university in a small city, it’s no wonder free thinkers are rampant. It’s not that I really disagree with anything Galileo had to say, but he shouldn’t have gone around jumping on the bandwagon and questioning authority the way he did. If the church said the sun revolved around the earth, they certainly had a good reason for saying so, an important spiritual lesson for the people. And here Galileo went around messing with their divinely guided teachings. I blame Galileo, I really do, for starting the kind of behavior we see among our young people today.

“I’m not a cold woman. Really I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t want the riffraff to destroy my Gustavo’s Pisa. I can’t say it’s really ever felt like my Pisa, but I’ve made the best of my time here, and I’m trying my hardest to continue Gustavo’s wonderful work. But he was too easy on people. He never wanted to say anything bad about anyone, not even those wretched Gypsies.

“I keep trying to preach the gospel to the Gypsies, but not a single one does anything but taunt me. I try to speak to the old people praying in the churches so that they can go straight to heaven and not suffer the trials of purgatory, but I get turned out of the churches for my trouble. I try to get the Pisans to emulate the lives of their very own saints, San Ranieri and Santa Bona, but I don’t see anyone even trying, in spite of the fact that just about everyone seems so proud these saints were Pisan.

“I do love the beautiful churches around here, and the Leaning Tower is pretty impressive, I have to admit, even if it is a symbol of nothing but pride and boastfulness. Still, my Gustavo loved the tower, and so I like it for his sake.”

Polly didn’t know how to respond to the confidences Mme Meringue had shared, so she said, “Your husband sounds like a wonderful person.” Polly simply couldn’t find Mme Meringue completely idiotic and worthy of scorn, the way Sofia seemed to do. Mme Meringue certainly tended to be prejudiced and narrow-minded, but she was always kind to Polly, and now Polly had glimpsed this sad side of her life and felt even less able to ridicule her. Polly wondered what Sofia would say. Sofia “lived” to help others, but she didn’t suffer fools. Yet Mme Meringue wasn’t a fool, however much she might occasionally act like one. Still there was no denying that, at least according to Sofia, she was causing big trouble for some people about whom Polly was already beginning to care. It certainly was a dilemma.

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