Originally published on I, Science Magazine, Summer issue 2017.
I’m frightened by iron, and it’s my grandma’s fault. I never enjoyed visiting her until I was grown up. Each time I went to her house, I knew I would leave again full of doubts and angst. I knew that she would question every choice I made, every word I used. Every time I went to her house, she would welcome me with the door already open, sitting at the big table of her living room holding a pair of sewing scissors. She talked to me without looking into my eyes, focused on shredding the cloth whilst holding a needle in her mouth. I was always afraid it would escape from the narrow grip of her lips, and then throttle and sting her. She spoke with her lip half-open like someone holding a cigarette. She used to wear elegant and bright coloured clothes, like those which she displayed in her atelier. Her perfume, diffused in every room, was enhanced by the energy she released. I could never figure out whether that energy was positive or negative. She would probably say that, if I can’t figure it out, maybe it’s because my question is nonsense. I have always found my grandmother a bit intimidating, even when I thought I had become tougher than she was.
Her tongue was as sharp as her scissors. Firm and assured, she could cut through comforting thoughts as easily as she did through cloth. She used to destroy the foundations of what is thought to be obvious. She cut them off and kept only what she needed. She didn’t do anything with waste, and she would generously leave the small and useless pieces of cloth and words that she had cut to those who wanted to do something with them. She despised those people.
One thing I liked about my grandma was that she always cut with a purpose. She never destroyed anything for the sake of it. She cut the clothes to sew them together and make wonderful dresses, and she cut off the nonsense to sew together only relevant words, building wonderful metaphors to give some meaning to the world. “Words are expensive, like cloth,” she used to say, “words are important”. For example, she didn’t want to waste words telling me some nonsense, when she decided that at the age of three I was old enough to stop believing in Santa Claus. She decided to tell me the story of “Why people think it is important that children think Santa Claus exists”. She liked to educate me without my mother noticing her intervention. She used a certain connection present between us, that of understanding subtle metaphors. She particularly liked to use those analogies which put the big patterns of the world within the small ones. The structure of a galaxy that resembles a neuron, the veins of leaves that resemble the lines of our palms. A nut that is reminiscent of a brain. When telling her stories, she didn’t point out analogies within my life, she would just let me find the connection—or not. In most cases I think she knew I would do it. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t understood, at others I couldn’t stand her for more than a while.
Yet, her truths have never shaken my life more than her story of iron. And there hasn’t been a moment when I have questioned her love for me more than in the moment she talked about iron. It was a warm Sunday morning in June, we were on the train that would take us to St Albans for my cousin’s first communion. I was 24. We were in a four-seat: I was sitting next to George, she and my mom were in front of us. My mom was on the phone with a friend. Every now and then she would stop to make jokes. They would always be directed exclusively to George, the only one who she still respected. George and I had been together for five years, and he had proposed some weeks before. In those weeks, everyone was congratulating and asking when we wanted to celebrate the wedding. We laughed, replying that we didn’t know yet. In those cases, the only difference between me and him was that, while he sought my gaze, I made my best to avoid it. George was a good guy. He also belonged to a good family. My mother liked his family very much, and I was embarrassed at her many attempts to ingratiate herself with them. He was a good guy, so much in need of love. Much more than me. That’s why he needed gestures that I absolutely didn’t need, such as holding my hand, stroking it continuously, seeking my gaze, repeating to me that he loved me. He was a handsome guy. The first time I saw him, his scent had attracted me like a magnet. Now it seemed to me that it had changed, or perhaps I had just become accustomed to it. He was a pretty clever boy too, or rather he had features that I didn’t have, and therefore excited me. For example, he could quote entire movies, and he could do animal impressions. He could bray, crow, bark perfectly. I could never have done that. It was exciting. Sometimes, as on that Sunday, he seemed a bit dumb.
I was nervous already, by his lack of commitment to this ceremony. We were all well-dressed, except for him. He was wearing a T-shirt and trainers. He simply didn’t care about it. He knew I was nervous, and was constantly trying to hold my hand. That made me even more nervous, so I repeatedly brushed him off. My grandma, elegant in full turquoise, was looking out of the window, but I was sure that from the corner of her eye she saw everything. I was looking at my phone screen to avoid real communication, rude to everyone just to avoid George.
He stroked the back of my hand. I ignored it and kept replying to messages on my friends’ group chat. He looked at my phone only to show to the other two that we were still doing something together. And so when I wrote something funny, he laughed loud and looked at me. I ignored him. I felt he was looking at my face, I felt his eyes on me. I was so annoyed. Then he was giving me long kisses on the cheeks and on the forehead, and while he continued to stroke my hand, I sighed. I wanted to get rid of that burden as you do with a duvet on a summer night, or with an annoying insect walking over your body. I wriggled away with small movements. Then I felt unfairly cruel, and I put my hand on his – motionless, almost to hold his still. On that day I couldn’t help it, I was physically repelled by George. The worst part of it was that I felt provoked by too much love. It was breaking my nerves. Everything I had always felt for him, both positive and negative, had been passionate and violent, but lately it had become rather sloppy. And the most unsettling part of it, was that the sloppiness had been growing since the moment I said “yes” to his proposal.
I felt my grandma’s eyes on us, active and judgmental, which made me even more irritated. At some point she asked me “What’s happening? You’re looking rather bleak”. “The doctor said I’m lacking iron. Maybe it’s that”, I said dryly. She laughed and then, looking at the window, attacked: “So many stories about iron. Without it, we wouldn’t even live. No oxygen would reach our tissues. If we lack iron we feel weird and depressed. Yet, for the stars, when the iron phase comes, it’s all over soon”. I knew that if I ignored the hook, nothing would happen and I wouldn’t have to learn any shaky truth. But my curiosity was inexorable. I knew it was wrong to let her comment on the situation with one of her metaphors. But, as always, I dived into my own self-destructive pool. “Why, what happens when the iron phase comes?”
Satisfied, she went on: “So, as you may know, every star was born, lives and dies. And the length of a star’s life depends on its mass: smaller stars, for example, live longer. Greater stars burn faster. In any case, at the beginning, the star is very stable”. My mother was still on the phone and gestured to my grandma to lower her voice. George listened attentively. I was terrified. “There is a constant nuclear fusion, and the mechanism is simple. It begins with hydrogen, which blends and turns into helium, and then the helium turns into carbon, and carbon into nitrogen, and so on, until it reaches iron”. She paused. “When iron arrives, the process is interrupted, because iron fusion does not produce energy. And yet, it requires some. So at some point, when there is no energy left, the star collapses and explodes, producing in only a few days a quantity of energy that is comparable to that irradiated by the Sun in billions of years. Then the star cools down and reaches an indescribable frost, or turns into a black hole”. She paused again.
I could already see that the stars were not what my grandma was talking about. She was talking about us. About me and George. My relationship with George was a fat, exploding star, about to leave a black hole in my heart. I felt extremely irritated. I remained silent. George, instead, proclaimed: “Ah, the sad story of the stars!”, as if to give a title. He wasted those six words matching them in a meaningless way with an idiotic expression on his face. Basically, the last thing he needed to do in front of my grandma. He clearly hadn’t realised what was going on. So she went on, becoming nastier still: “It may look like a sad story, dear George. But in fact, this last explosion of energy that produces the end of the star allows the creation of new atoms and of all the nice things that are made of them. Gold, for example, wouldn’t exist if this did not happen. Well, not even human beings”.
I hated her. “I don’t see how the iron of the stars relates to the iron that is missing in my blood tests, grandma”, I said. George thought my answer was rude, and tried to get back on her sideby clumsily telling me off: “Oh, come on Anita! It’s still a beautiful story!” And then to her: “But how come you are so interested in iron?” I could see she would enjoy making fun of him. He seemed far less intelligent than usual, beside her. “Well, I think it’s because I can see how this relates to human lives. Sometimes you get to the iron phase, and everything you’ve built has gone. It’s been used, it’s over. When iron comes, energy is not produced anymore, but only demanded. It eats you until you collapse. Everything has been consumed. There is nothing left to use. You collapse and you can only wait for the explosion to generate energy again. Can we blame ourselves when this happens to human relationships? If this happens to the stars, why shouldn’t we accept it when it happens to us?”. My answer came out almost like a hiccup, with a tone of challenge: “Yes, because in the end the alternative is only between a white dwarf and a black hole, right?” George was completely lost. My grandma looked me right in the eyes. It looked as if she was proud of me, or at least as proud as I was angry. “Well, my dear, my heart is full of black holes, but I never gave up to a life without energy. And I’m fine.” In that moment, I became aware that my mum’s eyes were also on me. I hadn’t realised that she had closed her call. She turned to grandma. “We know that you are fine with your sewing scissors, mum, and that you don’t need anyone or anything else”, she said with irony, “but not every hardship in life can be cut off and be done with!”.
It’s hard to explain how I felt in that moment. Two things startled me. Metaphors were not our secret language, my mum was in on them too. And for the first time, I had no idea who was right.