Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Vale Mater


My mother and me, circa 1978

This past weekend I made an unplanned but long-expected visit to Boston, to say goodbye to my mother, who died earlier in August after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the constraints imposed by the ongoing pandemic, it was a very different event from our farewell to my father four years ago, but my immediate family was able to be together and I am very grateful for that. 

My sisters and I have shared the responsibility of eulogizing our parents as well as other family members who had no children to commemorate them, and this time it was my and my sister L’s turn to deliver the results of our group efforts. Having written so much about my mother here over the years gave me a ready source of stories and ideas, and over the last week we all compiled a long list of notes which my sister C and I then worked together to shape into a coherent narrative that presented who our mother was to us, as a person and a parent. This is my very shortened adaptation of that.

My mother was the youngest child of a large Italian immigrant family, and her family was the dominant force that shaped her life. She lived with her own mother for the first half of her life, until my grandmother’s death in 1977. She was both a traditionalist and a rebel: she firmly believed that her primary and most important job was to be a wife, mother, and household manager, but she also raised her six daughters to be independent thinkers, self-sufficient, and well educated. By word and by example, every day of my childhood she demonstrated the importance of a concrete set of values: people rather than things; education over performance; quality rather than convenience; service over status.

These values were exemplified in her dedication to preserving her family’s food traditions. Fiercely proud of being an Italian, she refused to lower her standards and disgrace her heritage by cutting corners or settling for lower quality. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my sisters and I were surrounded by people embracing the culture of “convenience food”, a concept that was utterly alien to and firmly rejected by my mother. Healthy, nutritious food, cooked from scratch, was the essence of a well-run home to her, and my family of eight, regularly joined by my aunt and my grandmother who lived downstairs, as well as friends and boyfriends, sat down to eat a homemade dinner seven nights a week. Whether she was simmering beef soup on the stove for hours, spending summer afternoons in the basement canning tomatoes with my grandmother and us, or making 26 apple pies’ worth of crust from scratch in a washtub in preparation for Thanksgiving so that there’d be enough for everyone in her huge family to have some, my mother expressed her love of her family, her meticulous nature, and her unwavering standards through food. Her commitment to her family and mine, supported and shared by my father, who was her true partner and best friend, is the foundation and the framework of all that I am.

I have been missing my mother for years, as Alzheimer’s slowly and relentlessly took everything that made her the passionate, opinionated, intuitive, and caring individual that she was. Her death not only frees her from its long bondage, but all of us who loved her as well, to mourn her loss and remember all that she gave us. As I walked into the grocery store on Monday morning, re-starting my normal weekly routine after a week of discombobulation, I thought of her - and then of all the things I do every day that bring her to my mind and give me the gift of her memory and her love.

My mother was shy and reserved, but had strong opinions and emotions, and one of the things she loved was music - a love she shared with my father. This song will forever remind me of watching them dance at weddings and other celebrations - having fun together, exuding joy and love.

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