I have been leading up to this blog about my mother. How does one write about one’s mother? Especially when she is a complex character of mythical proportions! Especially when her death is still fresh on my mind. An old Sicilian saying comes to mind: “La ferita e sempre fresca.” Literally, “The wound is still fresh.” or “The wound has yet to heal.” Yes, I am still raw after one and a half years of her being gone.
I think I will have to just write, free association writing, tap out the words like a rap, like a chant, like a torrent of rainfall that starts coming and doesn’t stop until the whole world is in a mess of a flood.
Everyone of us sisters experienced her and saw her differently because, in truth, our impressions are reflections of ourselves. So when I write about her, I cannot take myself out of the image I create; in a sense, I write about myself.
Quite frankly, we had a difficult relationship. Sometimes I wanted to dismiss her from my life. But how does one dismiss one’s mother? She is always here. She was everything I didn’t want to be, yet everything I was and am. I didn’t realize how much I loved her until I came close to losing her, when she had a heart attack, when I saw her so fragile, hanging on to that last thread that would hold her for another year and a half. She was so broken down, emaciated, lying on the sofa, my heart ached like never before just to see her. Luckily it was not too late for me to embrace her wholly, to get a chance to fully accept her, love all parts of her (the ugly, the difficult, the beautiful). To eradicate anger and fill the new space with compassion and love, the kind of love that doesn’t require anything on the other person’s part.
Who was she? She was one of 10 children, had to trap birds with her off-the-wall brother just to have something in their bellies until dinner time. She had terrible feet from years of walking around barefoot on the farm and later from wearing high heeled shoes. She had a dream to be a school teacher, was a brilliant student, but her dad wouldn’t let her go past the 8th grade because higher education meant going to Agrigento, the city, for school and that meant evil co-ed classes, living with relatives. Grandpa Licata saw it all as immoral living. He sent her to a local seamstress school instead. She excelled at designing and sewing men’s shirts, suits, women’s dresses and gowns. She married dad at 16 years of age, was made to live with her dreaded mother-in-law who treated mom poorly while dad was away in Belgium working in the coal mines. Mom had her first baby at 17, a terrible home birth in which the baby, her first and only boy, was torn from her with forceps when he should have been a Caesarian birth. The forceps physically damaged the boy’s head, killing him, and severely damaged my mother both physically and emotionally. A quick photo was taken of him in his baptism outfit (Aunt Lily wrapped and carried his little body to the photographers for the photo) and then he was buried. Mom carried that photo of her son in her wallet until the day she died. We buried her with his photo in her hands. She loved her brothers and sisters and was loathe to leave them, first for Belgium and then later for America, but she was obedient and she followed her husband’s dreams. She pined for her mother and brothers and sisters her whole life. In Belgium, she stood by as her daughter, my sister Toni, got meningitis and suffered terrible brain damage. She took care of Toni her whole life and at the end, her greatest worry was for Toni’s welfare. In America, she watched as another daughter, my sister Jeanie, came down with MS, so fierce and strong that it left her paralyzed, a life of constant hospitalizations and living in assisted care homes. She saw three of her children suffer. So yes, she was bitter and a bit wacky! Her suffering, we were ALL convinced, had guaranteed her a place in heaven! Strangely though, she was also very funny and could illicit the kind of pee-in-your-pants laughter was was insanely crazy funny. Her humor, comments, and laughter could make your stomach hurt!
As a good Italian mother, she made us feel guilty for her hardships. She always talked about sacrifici, sacrifices that she endured for all of us. Just as she wanted, to us, she became Christ-like in her suffering. She was very religious and devout, never missing Sunday mass, carefully reviewing our Sunday attire, making sure it wasn’t too revealing. A brown paper sack thrown over her daughters before going to Sunday church would have made her happy. She always had something to say about how we dressed. When we were young, she made all our clothing. But when we started choosing our own fashions, she commented on everything. She threw out my favorite t-shirts (actually, she donated them to the church’s clothing drive) while I was at school, clad in my wool plaid pleated uniform. She was devoted to Mother Mary. She said the rosary and read her Italian bible. Her favorite nephew was my cousin Father Vince. She mourned Jesus’ death once a year, at Easter time, singing hair-raising funeral dirges on Good Friday, covering mirrors (you can’t look at yourself and show vanity on Good Friday when Jesus died for our sins- get a grip!).
She was Victorian in regards to teaching us about the birds and the bees. She just didn’t go there. “Don’t let anyone touch you.” was the extent of that conversation! And we were supposed to know what she meant. She had no names for menstruation (“chisi cosi”, “those things ” is how she referred to our monthly periods). I was punished for being caught looking through my sister Nora’s nursing book in which there were drawings of a man and a woman anatomically dissected. I was totally absorbed and fascinated. Imagine this: say “HE” but drag out the EEEEEE and now say it while you inhale with a high pitched voice! That was the sound mom made when she found me looking at the book Nora brought home from nursing school! I was made to feel like a pervert! And yet, she could swear up a storm (when dad wasn’t around!)! Thanks to her, we knew all the nastiest of the nasty Sicilian cuss words and expressions. Dad would have flipped if he knew the extent of our vocabulary. She was judgmental and made many jokes about overweight people who wore very skimpy clothing in the hot and humid midwestern summers. Sometimes her humor was funny: about men’s certain body parts hanging loose and showing through (maybe our sexual education came about via her jokes!), women’s certain body parts or “hairy bits” showing through bathing suits (seriously, this was one of her favorite topics to go on about and I will admit, I do still giggle at the thought of her sordid stories!!). She had a keen eye and scouted it out all, squirreling it up for funny stories. She had the best fart stories and expected you to listen to them. She had her repertoire of nasty stories and embellished them each time she told them so they got better and better. Her best audience were her brothers and sisters. They understood her humor 100%. They listened, riveted to her every word! However, she was the world’s worst listener. “Yah, yah.” was what I heard as I spoke to her, knowing very well that her ADD mind was thinking about dinner, or gift buying, or cleaning house (she kept an impeccably clean house), or tending to her knitting or crocheting or sewing or rose growing or zucchini picking or tomato canning or pickling cucumbers and beets or visiting her friends. What I had to say meant nothing to her. She was not interested in my little life, except to make sure that there was no hanky panky happening and no illegitimate babies making their way into our home!
She hated cats and dogs, thinking them filthy animals who had no place in the home, but grew to love our dogs, Lulu and later Lucky. Both dogs were brought home by dog-lover-dad and ignited big shouting fights between my parents. Mom loved birds and probably always felt guilty about the birds she and her brother ensnared to eat! She feared the police and we never knew why. She did NOT fear death. And she loved my hair and asked me never to cut it short. She feared snakes and mice and ants, but feared no other insects. She was not afraid of bees and whacked at them with her hands, killing them, sometimes getting stung in the process. She was smart as a whip, excellent at math, better than any Cordon Bleu chef, and could design clothing to rival Versace’s latest creations! She loved driftwood, sand dollars, picnics at the beach on Lake Michigan. I think summer was her favorite season.
Deep down inside, I think it bothered her that I became a teacher. That was her aborted dream. I never heard her say anything nice about my work. When I went to the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa, to teach English, she asked in desperation, “What will I tell my friends?” She cared way too much about what others would say, or think concerning every situation in her life and ours.
Well, you can imagine her horror when my sister Jeanie got pregnant out of wedlock! My mother’s rage shook the house. I hid in my room. Suddenly, somehow, I was an accomplice. Suddenly, we were all evil children: filthy, conniving, worthless, not to be trusted. Mom had declared war on us. And I was only 12! From then on, I had a leash around my neck.
And mom trusted no one, except DAD and he was totally trustworthy! The best of the best, he was, and she told us that AGAIN AND AGAIN until it was drummed into our thick heads. By the way, she did sometimes call me, in her broken English, “Thick Headed!” which amusingly enough sounded more like “Tick Head” or worse yet, “Dick Head!”. You choose. Neither are intended to be complimentary! She was flawlessly devoted to my dad, putting him before her children. And they danced! They were amazing dancers, dancing the tarantella! Their feet seemingly floated across the floor at those huge gigantic Sicilian wedding receptions we went to about once every other month! She loved to dress up, but didn’t like make-up and had a horror of nail varnish. She loved people, talking to people with her broken English (and yet, as I mentioned before, she trusted no one except dad). And people loved her back. They found her exotic and funny and charming and loving. She never once told me that she loved me, but she showed it in her many ways, mostly through her cooking. Her cooking fed my soul! You have heard the expression, “It was so good, I wanted to cry.” ? Well, I have cried over her food, it was that GOOD. When I needed mom’s love, I ate! Probably why I have never been slender! She was very superstitious and believed in the evil eye! “The truth is”, she told us again and again, “no one wants your happiness. Don’t go telling people your business. They will give you the evil eye and that’s that. Nothing will come of your life, nothing.” And after Jeanie’s pregnancy, the mistrust of people spread to me. She hated most of my friends. She ferreted out and read my personal journals and read my letters from my cousins in Italy. She regularly riffled through my purse. I was outraged. What could she possibly be looking for? I was a good kid and very studious, making straight A’s. And better yet, I thought boys were disgusting. Like I said, I was 12!
She loved tablecloths, picnics at the beach, eating out in the back yard at the picnic table, growing flowers. She loved roses. She loved her grandchildren, her brothers and sisters, knitting and crocheting, wading in the pool (she couldn’t swim). She was the most amazing cook and baker of breads. She loved sweets and made wonderful cakes and cookies. She was fear driven! She hated driving but did drive. She was the worst driver in the world, going so slowly so as to cause an accident. She cursed all the cars and drivers who honked and passed her up! This was kind of funny! She rarely drank alcohol. And she didn’t like to drink water and we had to remind her to drink it! She hated milk and yogurt. She loved to slice lemons into wedges, coat them with sugar, and stick the lemon wedge in her mouth and BITE it! “Whaaaah!”, she would scream loudly with much satisfaction! Dad adored her, especially at those lemon-biting moments!! She loved to suck bones, preferring the bones to meat. If you were on her wrong side, she could make your life miserable! She saved everything. New items were preserved in their original boxes. Saved for a rainy day? The living room furniture was covered in plastic. Being a daughter of a poor family, everything was precious and too good to be used. She had a mean streak in her and could be wickedly hurtful. How many times did I hear, “No one will ever want you, not with those big shoulders…not with that tough dark skin….not with that unruly hair…etc etc.” Her goal was to UNDERMINE our vanity and self-confidence. We were to be humble and quiet and obedient. When that didn’t happen, we clashed. We often CLASHED.
She was psychic and had premonitions. She could tell the sex of a fetus in the pre-testing days of the 60’s and 70’s. My sisters brought their friends over to have my mom tell them the sex of the child. She was always right in her predictions! Mom sometimes knew a woman was pregnant before the women herself knew she was pregnant. She would announce with that matter-of-fact voice, “That one, she’s pregnant all right!” And that was that. Mom’s dreams revealed things to her such as deaths foretold. She always told us her dreams which were hair-raising freaky and then something would always come of them. Sometimes I would fall asleep and redream the same damned dream. I would actually dream her dreams just as she told them!!
In the end, she died of Pulmonary Fibrosis. We couldn’t believe the diagnosis and took her to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to Dr. Edel, leading pulmonary specialist in the country who tended to my dad’s black lung disease from coal mining which he had contracted 40+ years earlier. Dr. Edel confirmed the diagnosis. Mom ate organic foods her whole life. She never smoked, was physically active. How did she get this disease? “Could it be”, I asked Dr. Edel, “that my mom was exposed to Dad’s coal dust when he came home from the mines night after night so many years ago?” He looked at me as if I were an idiot and laughed at the silliness of my question and dismissed me with a ridiculous smirk, “No, of course not. Sometimes these things just happen.” Regardless of how it came to be, it was her death sentence and she knew it. She lived for another year after diagnosis.
That last year and a half, she became gentle, allowing me in! In my embracing her, she embraced me. I learned how NOT to judge, to simply take her into my heart and be with her. In my Catholic upbringing, I had it drummed into my head how much Christ suffered. I dare to say mom suffered more than Christ those last few days in the hospital. It was horrific. I wanted to take on her mammoth pain, to somehow lessen it, but that was not possible.
My mother gave me the gift of life and a colorful world of stories, passion, anger, laughter, magic. She gave me the ultimate gift of her last day and she died as I held her hand. I miss her, all of her, terribly.