In 1915, like today, April 5 was Easter Sunday. My grandfather, making his way home through the snow that had fallen overnight, met the doctor on the street, who told him that he had another daughter. And so my mother came into the world she would inhabit for nearly 90 years.
(I am inhibited from giving my mother’s birth surname here, as “mother’s maiden name” is so often used as an identifying question, and I don’t care to broadcast it to strangers.)
A long life, lived entirely in one South Jersey town, among family and friends known her whole life, by rules and assumptions she learned early and never saw reason to question or rebel against. A happy secure childhood as one of four children. In order, Donata, Elvira, John, Joseph. She and her elder sister remained close to for her whole life, double-dating two friends who became Dad and Uncle Charles. Bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding, and then, two years later, with Aunt Nonnie as her matron of honor, her own marriage at age 23.
Then, several months into her first pregnancy, one day before her 25th birthday, a shattering blow. Her father, seemingly in the best of health at age 50, on his way downstairs to the cellar, collapsed and died in an instant.
(If you want to have a big turnout at your funeral, though, die in the prime of life after an active career in business and politics. A news clipping I saw said Grandpop’s funeral procession was the biggest ever seen in that little town at that time, numbering more than 150 cars. One hundred and fifty cars. It’s hard to imagine. But he was very well liked.)
I don’t think Mom ever got over the shock of her father’s sudden death. I often thought, fancifully perhaps, that from that moment on she never quite trusted life. Probably that attitude was confirmed three years later, in 1943. when her favorite brother died of an infection after an operation, because the sulfa drugs that might have saved his life were reserved for the soldiers and sailors. (I suppose in a way that makes Uncle Joe, whom I never met, a wartime casualty.) and much later, in 1979, my brother Joe died at age 30 in suspicious circumstances that were never resolved.
But I don’t mean to imply that my mother’s life was particularly tragic. As my father’s mother used to say, quoting an Italian saying, “everybody rides the mule.” Life is more than tragedy or even hardship. It’s a mixed bag.
Children provide enough ups and downs for variety, and she had six: John, Margaret, Frank, Joseph, Barbara, Paul, five of whom outlived her. Additionally, nine of her nieces and nephews lived in the same small town, and it was never too long before it was somebody’s birthday, and all the family gathered for a party. Eventually there were grandchildren, of whom my daughter, the first grandchild, was the undoubted apple of her eye. From the moment Sarah was born, she and her grandmother shared a unique bond. (One wonders what they have been to each other previously.)
Her middle years had to have been hectic, between raising six kids, and keeping house, with all the chores that implies. Never an excess of money, never enough time for herself, I imagine. Conflict enough at all times, and health worries: me with asthma from age two, my brother Joe with intestinal troubles, my brother Paul with amblyopia, and all the other things that went with childhood – measles, mumps, chicken pox, and even worry (until 1952 or so) lest someone contract polio.
If this seems a curiously cold-blooded memoir (it does to me, writing it), perhaps it is because mom and I had a difficult relationship. While I never doubted that she loved me and wanted to support me in my endeavors, as she did all her children, I was too different and too difficult. She loved me but couldn’t understand me, and often disapproved of what I did (and, it seemed to me, what I was). We all need to be loved, but we also yearn to be understood, and that understanding did not flow between us. Nor did I understand myself well enough to begin to explain myself or my actions.
I got many things from my mother, among them a love of reading and puns and, eventually, crossword puzzles, and a quick verbal facility. But even what we shared in essence, we shared in different forms. Thus, she and I shared a mystical bent, but she was born into the Catholic Church, lived in it and died in it, while I was the first of the children to turn away from it. And so it went.
My father died nearly 20 years before my mother did, and it took another 20 years before I contacted him. When I did, I was pleased to see that mind-to-mind, he could understand me better than he did when he was alive. Perhaps it will be that way with Mom, too. I hope so. It will be interesting to see our relationship as she experienced it, and equally interesting to see where it goes from here.