Thursday, December 3, 2009

In Memory of my Mom

My dear mother Angelina was born in 1930 in Torre Faro, Messina. She was the third of three siblings born in Italy, after Uncle Joe and Aunt Rosie. The family situation at the time was not uncommon for southern Italy. My grandmother, "Nonna Antonia", was what was commonly referred to as a vedova Americana: an “American widow”. That is, my grandfather, “Nonno Nicola”, like many breadwinners in that era, spent months and years at a time in the United States, where jobs and opportunities were more plentiful, so he could send money home to his wife and children and perhaps one day bring them to the USA. Unfortunately, one of his trips abroad occurred at the end of 1929, just after my mother was conceived, and at the beginning of the Great Depression. The economic downturn and the subsequent World War--with Italy and the USA on opposite sides—prolonged the separation until after the war.

Nonna Antonia managed to carry on with a multi-generational family support network, relatives from both sides of the family clinging together and looking after each other. That support network was very much needed. In 1933, Aunt Rosie died at the tender age of six. In 1938, Uncle Joe was able to join and assist Nonno Nicola in the United States, with the hope that Nonna and Ma would be able to join them soon afterwards, but then the war broke out in Europe. During times when the war heated up near the Strait of Messina, the extended family had to abandon their homes and flee inland on foot.

Despite the difficulties, Ma had many wonderful childhood memories, growing up with her friends and cousins. But she was also forced to grow up too quickly. She had a special bond with her mother that was born of shared adversity. Nonna Antonia would refer to her as “la compagna della mia vedovanza” (the companion of my widowhood).

The “widowhood” ended in 1946 when Nonna and Ma were able to come to the United States, and my mother was able to meet her father for the first time when she was sixteen years old. Afterwards, she had the joy of welcoming a baby sister, Aunt Lillian, further evidence that Nonna’s “widowhood” was indeed over. In stark contrast to the childhood Ma had left behind, she was suddenly living in a land of plenty. And yet all was not well in this strange, new land. She longed for the family, friends and companions she had known in Italy. Her loneliness continued until 1948 when a certain Italian sailor named Domenico met her while on shore leave and fell head over heels in love.

The rest is history. I and my brothers Pete and Nick, and so many others, are all the beneficiaries of that history. A little over three years ago at my father’s funeral, Pete spoke about the wonderful childhood we had growing up as Domenic's sons. We were equally blessed to be Angie’s sons. Our parents both showered us with love but in different ways. While Daddy blessed us with his keen intellect and vast knowledge, his integrity and his faith, Ma supplemented these by filling our home with fun and laughter, music and dance, and lots and lots of exquisitely delicious food.

No one was ever in danger of going hungry at our home, not only because of the over abundance of food, but also the incredible deliciousness of everything that Ma lovingly cooked from scratch. In contrast to Pete, who was somehow blessed with a turbo-charged metabolism, Nick and I both struggled to keep the weight off.

Without taking anything away from the meals Ma served Monday through Saturday, the Sunday meals were an unforgettable weekly ritual. Ma would start early Sunday morning with the initial preparations of her special homemade tomato sauce (which we aptly called “Sunday sauce”), and the heavenly aroma was already permeating the house as some of us were leaving for Sunday mass. Upon our return, we were simply compelled by instinct to grab a piece of bread—or two or three—to sample the sauce that had been simmering all morning. I would typically draw a rebuke because I was eating too much bread and sauce and might not leave enough room for the multi-course meal to come. But it was a half-hearted reprimand, because Ma took great delight in how much we enjoyed her cooking. As she served each and every one of us by filling our plate with pasta or whatever dish was being served, we learned quickly to say “basta” well before there was enough on our plate, because she would keep heaping on portions well after we told her to stop.

Holidays just brought the culinary delights up to the next level with the addition of homemade pastas, including the homemade ravioli that graced our table at Christmas and Easter. In the earlier days she even served ravioli during the non-Italian holiday of Thanksgiving. So after we were already stuffed to the gills with an antipasto, ravioli, and the bracioli or other meats that had slow-cooked in the tomato sauce; she would then bring out a twenty-five pound turkey and all the trimmings. We eventually convinced her that perhaps ravioli were not all that necessary for Thanksgiving, which is after all an American holiday.

Cooking for her family and others was just a subset of her giving heart and generous hospitality. Our home was often filled with relatives from New York and Atlantic City, who would spend days and sometimes a week or two at a time with us. The visits from faraway relatives also gave occasion to much festivity. It seemed that there was always an excuse for a party or celebration, which of course called for lots of food, music and dance. Ma had a varied and eclectic taste in music, ranging from classic Neapolitan and Italian songs from earlier in the century, to contemporary Italian artists to big band music. And she loved to dance and tried ever so hard to teach all of us kids to dance, persistently and patiently attempting to get us to tango, mambo, waltz, fox trot, etc. You know how people often express their regrets later in life, something to the effect of, “I wish I had listened to my parents when they tried to teach me … whatever…”? Well this is my major regret: I wish I had cooperated with my mother when she tried to teach me to dance. Anyone who has seen me on a dance floor knows that it is not a pretty sight, and it is all because I didn’t listen to my mother! But I would watch longingly as my mother and father, or Uncle Joe or Aunt Lillian would gracefully breeze across the dance floor and made it look so easy.

Ma also filled our home with laughter. She loved to make people laugh, be it by dressing up in outlandish Halloween costumes or by playing practical jokes on people. She enjoyed making people laugh even when she did not intend to, and this usually happened because of her malapropisms. English was not her first language, so she would say some of the darnedest things. She wanted to go to Williamsburg, VA because it was a hysterical town. She once showed off her knowledge of Old Testament history by telling the story of how Ruth married Bozo. Then there was the time when she was showing off the flowers around the house, and proudly pointed out the peonies, but her pronunciation made it sound more like something you normally don’t hear mentioned in church.

But Ma’s most classic verbal moment occurred once when we were having a good laugh at her expense, perhaps teasing her for one of her verbal gems. She suddenly turned serious, and then she placed her left index finger under the cupped palm of her right hand, forming the shape of an umbrella, and she uttered, “Remember, under here it no rain!” After a second or two of incredulous silence, we all burst out laughing, wondering what on earth she meant by that curious phrase. Poor Ma never did figure out that idiomatic expressions don’t translate well literally. The idea behind the Sicilian expression, “Ca sutta non chiove!” is something like: “Go ahead and laugh and make fun of me now while you are under the protective umbrella of family and friends. But just you wait until I catch you without your umbrella."

Ma lavished love on her entire family: her husband, her sons and her daughters-in-law, her grandchildren, and her nieces and nephews. The circle of her love was quite wide, encompassing extended family on both sides of the ocean. Even to the children of second cousins she was known as “Zia Angie” [Aunt Angie] as they reflected back to her the affection that she lavished on them. A Sicilian phrase that she often used to express her affection is one that I will cherish forever: Ti vogghiu bene nu puzzu e ‘na funtana! The literal translation is something like, “I love you like a well and a fountain;” that is, “My love for you overflows.”

I mentioned earlier how our parents loved us in different ways, and how Daddy blessed us with, among other things, his faith. But that is not to say that Ma was lacking in this area. She had a strong, genuine and simple faith, unclouded by the intellectual questions that Daddy sometimes struggled with. Though her faith was much more vibrant later in life, I remember it was Ma who took me to Sunday mass when I was a pre-schooler. (Of course the only thing I remember was how I exasperated her by crawling under the pews or otherwise getting into mischief.) She was a loyal Catholic, but whenever she encountered anyone—Catholic or Protestant--who expressed a faith in and love for Jesus, her face would light up because she knew she had found a kindred spirit.

And when I spoke of her tastes in music, I neglected to mention another genre of music that Ma enjoyed. When I was growing up, she would often play an album of Gospel hymns by Tennessee Ernie Ford, which seems a little out of character for an Italian Catholic family. But she was moved not only by the music but also by the Gospel message of the lyrics. Like her faith, her love for those songs grew with the passing years.

When Daddy passed away three years ago, Ma’s illness was already taking a heavy toll on her. Up until a couple years ago she was still somewhat verbal, but as those skills deteriorated, we could only get her to repeat certain important phrases like “Ti vogghiu bene nu puzzu e na funtana”… or … we could get her to sing some of the songs she loved, like the old Italian songs or the many hymns or Gospel songs she enjoyed. We would sing together to CD’s or--weather permitting—we would push her wheelchair up and down the driveway and sing a cappella. Even as her ability to sing along diminished, it would do my heart good to hear her singing even a small snippet of some of the great hymns of the church such as “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Amazing Grace”, or “How Great Thou Art”, as well as the many joyful Italian songs that we grew up with.

One song in particular that is a combination of both genres was one of her favorites by Domenico Modugno. The song is actually sung in Sicilian, and it expresses the gratitude of a Sicilian peasant for God’s provision and for the simple life that God allows him to live. I will always cherish this song because I think it was the last one I was able to get her to sing along, even if just a word or two of the refrain, which says…

Ringraziu a ttia Signuri
Picchi mi lassi viviri accussi.
[I give You thanks, O Lord
Because You let me live this way]

Toward the end of the song, the author thanks God not only for His provision, but for everything that God sends in this life that He has so graciously given us:

Tu c’ a li picurelli dai pastura
E li tunni a la tunnara
Tu ca m’hai rigalatu chista vita
Cu la gioia e li duluri
Ringraziu a ttia Signuri
Picchi mi lassi viviri accussi.
[You who give pasture to the lambs
And who fill the nets with fish
You who have given me this gift of life
With all its joy and its sorrows
I give You thanks, O Lord
Because you let me live this way.]

Ti vogghiu bene assai, ma. Nu puzzu e na funtana, ti vogghiu bene.

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