For as long as I could remember, my only immediate family consisted of my parents and my sister. With the exception of an aunt on my mother’s side, my sister and I never came to know the large community of relatives that was so often regarded as a vital component of the Italian family unit. My father was a loner, and the leap from his small fishing village in Italy to New York only magnified his antisocial tendencies, opting not to find new friends or connections, and choosing instead to wallow in his disdain for Americans – with the sad irony lost on my poor dad that the children he had been raising would become more American than Italian.
It also didn’t help matters that my father married a woman who was his opposite in many unfortunate respects. Outgoing and 15 years his junior, my mother craved the stimulation of social contact, and more importantly, she enjoyed and immediately grasped the Protestant work ethic so ingrained in the cultural fabric of American life. Earning your way by hard work meant a world of possibilities for a woman who wasn’t afraid to roll up the sleeves and get a little dirty. On the contrary, my father always reminded me of an upright ostrich. Aside the fact he looked like one, he gave the impression that he never had to bury his neck in the earth, but rather the ground gladly came up to greet and engulf his bird-like head. My father was the clueless dreamer, sometimes bitter and violent, and sometimes funny and playful, he never really seemed to figure out his place in the world. My mother meanwhile, was more materialistic and grounded. She focused on issues of money, raising the family and keeping house. For such disparate personalities, it would seem that one spouse would complement the other, but these two were like flints: struck together, the sparks would flash in a torrent of recriminations, rancid insults and vicious screaming matches; and left alone, they were as cold and impervious as those very same flints.
Diametrically opposed as they were, I still found a shared quality in both of my parents. Besides a generation gap, there were cultural differences and language barriers that layered my parents with a stubborn opacity. They were impenetrable and guarded, and while I couldn’t say they were entirely cold and distant – since I can remember distinct moments of warmth and fun – I can’t help shake the impression that for the better part of our childhood, my sister and I were raised by holograms. From this point I’ll have to diverge and speak of my mother only. My parents may have been bound by marriage, but to this day I still know nothing of their courtship, nor was I ever remotely privy to the reason why these two people ever came together. But like the separate people they were, my father is another story replete with its own labyrinthine musings.
My mother never surrendered much about her past. Undoubtedly she recounted a story or two to my sister and me, but they always smacked of sterile condescension; the way an adult would convey a cautionary tale to a child, finger wagging and all. In the company of my aunt, however, my mother’s demeanor would melt. Those granite eyes of earthen brown seemed to crack and she would bloom with animation, a palpable emotion overtook her gestures, the details fleshed out and the sadness, anger, and conviction with which she narrated her early years proved ever invaluable in my quest to know this woman better.
Reared by her aunts, my mother was a child living in post-war Italy; her station in life, being a girl, was not met with the same enthusiasm or expectation had she been born a boy. Survival was more the order of the day, so privation and extensive chores were the only prospects my mother knew for the first years of her life. To be more specific, my mother was volleyed back and forth among three of her aunts. Short on merriment and their lack of patience for it, these women were of the old Roman Catholic order who believed in the virtues of self denial, hard work and most of all – sound the trumpets – black outfits. Ironically, their generous Reubenesque figures were the only physical quality that belied their otherwise ascetic character. Each was a Sherman tank of a woman, fully loaded with massive torpedo breasts that bordered on comic obscenity. And while her aunts came to be known as her protectors, they were also, as my mother came to know, strict disciplinarians who were equally capable of great acts of love as they were of selfishness and ignorant cruelty. She was regarded as little more than a housemaid who occasionally went to school, if at all. While she shuttled between aunts, my mother’s regular duties involved cleaning the community out-house, doing laundry, the dishes, or sewing. One of her more curious responsibilities was the rounding up of discarded cigarette butts at the local bar so that the remaining tobacco could be resold. Childhood fancies and simple enjoyments were not an option and food was so scant, and dessert such a rarity, that a plain slice of bread sprinkled with some sugar was a luxury never to be taken for granted.
Innocence lost, I’d like to think, is indirectly proportional to wisdom gained and fifty years later, my mother still recalls those days with sadness and resigned absolution. The passing years also granted her a sense of appreciation for the moderately prosperous life she leads today. Sure, the specter of that fearsome trifecta still rears its head. Second helpings of dessert are still hard to come by for Mom, and as a child, I can still remember how she considered something as minor as ice in our soda an offensive extravagance. But if this were only about my mother’s refusal to indulge her children in the occasional sweet (or block of ice cube), I would have foregone this story altogether. More complex and deeper issues like familial relations, identity, abuse, isolation and generation gaps, were the more paramount factors that rippled through my mother’s coming of age, and whose waves would ineluctably crash ashore onto my sister and me.
As any person who examines his life at some point, I eventually mirrored my mother’s experiences with my own childhood disappointments and came up terribly short. I understand that my mother was raised in a completely different social context, and I’ve long since come to understand that fair treatment of human beings is far from a right, but more an ideal. Disheartening as it is when it happens to a child, I couldn’t feel comfortable sulking about my upbringing again. Learning about my Mom’s past has afforded me a perspective that I never considered. And for the first time, I can understand why my mother considers America her home, despite the broken English and her occasional longing for Naples. Now I can understand why my parents’ relationship soured for so many more reasons than any of us ever suspected. And finally, I can understand why my mother raised me and my sister in the way she did. Ever the practical woman, you don’t go to my mother for matters of the heart and spirit. She doesn’t dole out Zen-like observations about life; she was too busy living it to stop and look. But a few years ago in a time of great crisis for my family and me, she squeezed my hand, a simple gesture that she knew I needed, and it spilled oceans.
Knowing my mother did the best she could promises a sense of relief and an unburdening of years fraught with angry questioning. So as all things in their natural course, I’ve had to come to a choice. The years propel forward and I choose the good memories. I pick through the shards and sift through that wreck my parents called a marriage, that childhood with very little foundation, and whatever I find, I gather them like berries, hold them close to my chest and use them to shore me. And more importantly, I go on from this and remind myself of the opening words in The Great Gatsby when the narrator intimates his reluctance to judge or criticize people because of what his father advised him long ago as a child: “Remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
It feels good to finally understand that.