A Mother’s Day Tribute
In just a few days, we’ll be celebrating, honoring, or remembering the special mothers in our lives. They gave us life, they gave us guidance, and they helped to form the people that we’ve become today. Moms come in many different forms – biological moms, adoptive moms, step moms, moms-in-law, and more. In this Mother’s Day tribute, Shea Homes at Ardiente Member Toni Di Bella celebrates, honors, and remembers her “first Sicilian mother,” a woman whom she considers her “Soul Mother.” Meet Toni and get to know her through her story below.
Majorie Kinnan Rawlings was a well-known American author. Probably her best known piece of fiction was “The Yearling,” which was made into a movie in the late 1930’s. She also had a collection of short stories published in 1936. One of the stories in that collection was called “A Mother In Mannville.” In the story the writer, presumably Rawlings herself, goes to a cabin in the Carolina Mountains so that she can concentrate on her writing. From the local orphanage, she hires a 12 year old boy, Jerry, to do odd jobs for her around the cabin. As they get to know each other, Jerry tells the writer that he has a mother in Mannville and that his mother sends him gifts for his birthday and for Christmas. This writer is perplexed that a mother would leave her son in an orphanage while she is so nearby. When the writer leaves the mountains, she goes to the orphanage to leave some money for gifts for Jerry. The writer inquires about Jerry’s mother. The director looks astonished and simply replies, “Jerry has no mother in Mannville.”
I remember the story for two reasons: first, I really grew up in a town called Manville; and second, I returned to this town and taught English for 27 years in the very high school from which I graduated. “A Mother In Mannville” is one of the short stories I taught.
And, yes, I had a mother in Manville. Actually, I had a biological mother and two biological grandmothers. For me, however, the real mother in Manville was my first Sicilian mother-in-law, Mary, a pint-sized super woman. I met her in 1958 when I was 15 years old and she was 53 years old. She immediately told me to call her “Mom.” Over the next 17 years, I had the chance to observe her closely and often, and thereby came to admire, love and respect her. I would like to honor “Mom’s” memory this Mother’s Day by sharing the following story.
Mary was born in Sicily on October 8, 1905 into a family of 3 daughters and 3 sons – I think. When she was about 12, she came to America with her father and two brothers. She soon met John, who would later become her husband of 67 years and the father of her 7 children. She wanted to marry John, but her father would not have any of it. She was supposed to work for him and give her money to her father. Big mistake. Don’t buck Mary. She demanded that her father take her home to Sicily and to her mother. And he did. Boy, I would love to have seen that pow-wow! Anyway, this was the deal. Her Dad would return her to America and to her John, but Mary had to work for her father for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. Then and only then would Mary be free to marry John. Agreed! Mom and Pop married on June 13, 1926.
Mom’s lifelong guiding belief could be summed up in one sentence: “You justa gotta accept vhat Got givesa you!” And “Got” gave Mom a lot to handle. Her first son died at birth. Her second son contracted polio. Her third son had his hand caught in a printing press. Her fourth son had a car accident and nearly lost his right leg. Her first daughter was hit by a car and nearly lost one of her legs. Her second daughter had serious spinal surgery for scoliosis and was in a body cast for almost a year. But Mom just took her heartaches and hardships in stride, and never surrendered to them. She was the apex of unbreakable, unflappable, and selfless. With all of her family’s troubles, she was intent upon caring for all of them. She was indefatigable and non-complaining. She was the picture of courage and strength in the face of her chronic familial challenges.
Simply put, Mom was the quintessential Sicilian woman. She knew her place in the family: she was just wife and mother. I came to learn, however, that one could not “just” put Mom in a box. We all know that Sicilian men think that they are the head of the house. Don’t disagree, but we all know who rules. Her husband John was not too far behind “Got” with giving Mary grief. But she was a quick learner and a master psychologist. She handled Pop with respect, diplomacy and one little sentence that chopped him off at the knees during a “discussion.” Pop bombasted at Mom often and she merely responded with, “Yes.” Now we all know how men and women see things differently. When she was finished with her response of yes, she would then give Pop her version of the situation. She never raised her voice, but she ended quietly and firmly, “I justa hava to say vhat’s right.” Pop would then leave house to go to one of the bars on Main Street in Manville for a beer. When he came home – discussion over. Mary won again!
I would not say that Mom was really malicious or selfish with her recipes, but there was a time when all four of her daughters-in law were together and compared the recipes that she had given us for her meatballs. We discovered that Mom left out a different, essential ingredient with each recipe for us. No problem. It only took the four of us together to get it right. She made homemade pizza, homemade ravioli, chicken cutlets that she sliced herself, homemade cream puffs, and the most magnificent soups almost out of nothing. Her home was clearly marked during the Depression as a good place for a good meal – even if you had to sit on the curb to eat it. But the best ever was her homemade apple pie; don’t bother asking her for the recipe, because she just worked her product until she was satisfied.
Before I met her, I did not even know the word opera, but Mom’s affection for opera was eye-opening for me. In her house often on a Saturday afternoon was a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera House out of New York City on WQXR. Mom and Pop always listened and often I heard them singing together the most beautiful and unforgettable arias. On one occasion, one of her sons took Mom and the entire family, including me, to Lincoln Center to see “La Traviata.” Talk about forever moments! In fact, I listen now to opera as I write this story.
Mom also had the most antiquated and brilliant money management system that I have ever witnessed. At home she always wore a house-dress, an apron with two pockets, a sweater and slippers. When she went out, however, she looked like Sophia Petrillo, one of the Golden Girls, replete with purse on her arm. She did not, however, have Sophia’s mouth. The two pockets in her apron were filled with cash from which she handled all of the household bills and whatever else came up. Those two apron pockets were like the seven loaves of bread and the seven fishes of Jesus himself. The money in those pockets was never ending. To this day, I don’t know if there was a system to her calculations.
The most robust memory that I have of my first Sicilian mother-in-law is when she played poker with the men – her husband, her sons, and her son-in-law. She was the only woman at the table. Certainly she was no mealy-mouthed, self-effacing woman then. She had a set! At poker she was just one of the guys and they feared her for her poker skills. It was only nickel and dime poker but she was their equal. As I look back on it now, after 55 years, I realize that I was witnessing the beginning of the feminist movement.
Until now, I failed to mention Mom’s fifth son. He was my first Sicilian husband. He was fortunate enough to escape his siblings’ debilitating childhood physical ailments. Merely, his cross to bear in life was to be married to me. I truly believe that I must have been a cross for him because recently my second Sicilian husband of forty years informed me, “Toni, you are just trouble!”
Mom died in the beginning of September in 2001, a month before her 96th birthday. I realized when I stood at her graveside, right next to her John, that she was the most influential woman in my life. She taught me to love, respect, and value my own person-hood. She accomplished this lesson simply by conversing with me – just by talking to me. In effect, demonstrated to me with her behavior that she loved, respected and valued me. She saw past my physical being. Mom talked to my soul. That is why I consider Mary to be my special mother. She is my “Soul Mother!” She is the real mother in Manville.
Mom, I love you still. Happy Mother’s Day!
Have you had a remarkable mother in your life? Please share your stories with us as well in the comments below.