The years after my father died weren’t easy for my mother and me. Our relationship had always been rocky but we were both consumed by our own problems and his absence only made it worse.
Bereft of the man who’d become a father figure, friend, husband, and son all rolled into one, my mother was overcome by grief and fear. She felt rudderless without the force that had been driving us forward. Whenever I tried to comfort her, she pushed me away, and I became too busy to try again. My marriage was crumbling, I had a new baby, and it fell to me to deal with the lawyers for my father’s estate. There was no time to grieve. Unable to guide my mother, I was powerless as she struggled to accept the loss that, for a while, rendered her completely incoherent.
Her helplessness effectively shut down all channels of communication between us at a time when I needed her most. For the next few years we hardly connected at all. By the time I was in my forties I was counting the cost of two failed marriages and the toll they had taken on my three daughters. For reasons I hadn’t yet understood, I seemed to attract the wrong kind of man and suffered immensely as a result. True love--the kind my parents shared during their long and complex relationship--had eluded me.
Thankfully, I had some wonderful friends, but they could only support me so much. Prayer and meditation helped, but I realized that part of the problem was that I didn’t feel grounded. I had never met my grandparents and I barely knew my brothers. I had only really come to know my father properly in the last phase of his life, and my mother remained a mystery to me. The more I delved into my own psyche, I began to appreciate that my misguided choices seemed to stem from my fractured childhood and dysfunctional family relationships. In order to move forward, I needed to go back to my roots and reconcile with my past.
Eventually, it occurred to me that it might help to write a book about my father. I wanted to chronicle our lives with him as we experienced it--as a record for my family. I hoped to give my children a unique and truthful memento, not one sensationalized by others. Most important, I believed that he deserved his rightful place in history, not only for his role in establishing Gucci but as a pioneer of the iconic “Made in Italy” label throughout the world.
What I didn’t expect was that my research would lead me back to my mother. After years of estrangement, I could finally begin to understand their unique bond and give her the credit she deserved.
My epiphany began in 2009 when I visited her in Rome. After a lamentable lapse of six months interspersed only with twice-weekly telephone calls, I sat with her and began to talk. Hoping to learn from her own long journey of self-discovery, I spoke about my experiences of the previous few months, including my travels and visits to spiritual retreats. She understood that I was still trying to find myself.
“I’ve met many interesting people and a few of them have made me realize just how many blanks there are in my childhood memories,” I told her, treading softly. “In fact, there’s just one big black hole. I appreciate that I never asked, but I know so little about you and Papa and your life when you were younger and I’d love to know more.”
I could tell from my mother’s body language that she was uncomfortable with the direction I was going in and would rather not speak about such matters. Every time I’d tried in the past, she’d pushed me away, saying that she didn’t remember or--more tellingly--that she didn’t want to. Her habit of bottling things up, never explaining anything, and keeping me in the dark was a pattern that had been repeated my entire life, so I feared that nothing much would change.
Sure enough, after looking askance at me she shrugged her shoulders and asked, “What good will it do after all this time?”
“Well, I thought opening up might help you too,” I replied. “I know that you’ve never felt understood.”
She looked at me for a moment in silence. When she stood abruptly and went to her bedroom I thought I’d gone too far and that our conversation was over. But something I said that day must have resonated, because she returned with a leather pouch bearing the distinctive Gucci insignia. Handing it to me, she said, “Your father wrote me many letters. I kept them all. Here, I want to give them to you.”
Until that moment in that sun-filled apartment, I had no idea that Papa had penned a single note to my mother. He lived his life at a gallop and I couldn’t imagine when he’d have had time to write her so many lettere d’amore.
Wisely, I held my tongue, unzipped the pouch, and pulled out a bundle of letters, some on blue airmail paper, some on hotel stationery, some typed or written in my father’s distinctive hand, all of them in Italian. The treasured archive of their courtship years between 1958 and 1961 was interspersed with telegrams from overseas. Why had she kept these for over fifty years?
Quickly flicking through them, my eyes settled on a sentence--“My treasure, my love, don’t leave me! Do not destroy the very best part of my life . . . do not push me away; this feeling is not just infatuation but a vast and boundless love.”
I could hardly believe what I was reading. My mother watched me for a moment as I sifted through them and then she rose to make some tea. “They are such beautiful letters,” she said softly from the doorway. “Your father had a wonderful way with words. It was one of the things that first attracted me to him.”
“Will you read them with me?” I asked, but she raised her hand and shook her head.
“I can’t. I remember how they made me feel all those years ago. That is enough.”
My eyes filling with tears, I realized she had just handed me a priceless legacy. Two decades after his death, she’d opened a window to their secret life together--my first glimpse into what had been a mystery for so long.
“But these are incredible, Mamma!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” she added. “It was a kind of fiaba [fairy tale]--but not necessarily one with a happy ending.”
Her gift marked the start of my quest to piece together the jigsaw of my parents’ lives, and ultimately of my own. My father’s words sparked a thousand questions, many of which she agreed to answer over the next few years. Subsequent research took me on an intriguing journey back to my Florentine and Roman origins, which has enlightened me on many levels.
So much has been written about the “saga” of the House of Gucci, with far too much emphasis given to my father’s fall from grace and the bitter family relationships that led to scandal, divorce, and even murder. So little has been said about what a great man he was or how much he loved my mother.
Through the power of his words, I discovered him as a passionate and sensitive person, in sharp contrast with his public reputation as the ruthless chairman who ruled with an iron fist. Mostly, I gained a whole new perspective on the unorthodox love story between my parents in the golden age of la dolce vita. This has been a deeply insightful experience for me after a somewhat scattered childhood. I have come to appreciate not only my father’s trials and tribulations but also the sacrifices my mother made as a young woman destined to become the mistress and lifelong companion of an unsung hero of modern Italy.
In the course of my pilgrimage, she has finally felt able to open up and show me the unseen Aldo Gucci--glimpses of whom I witnessed for myself only at the end of his life. “There was another side to him,” she insists. “A side that only I knew. That was the real Aldo.”
And in revealing him to me, she has allowed me to see her through his eyes for the first time.