We buried my dad in March.
I didn’t know that we buried a piece of Mom too. Sylva was always elegant—in that Grace Kelly way. Not sexy like Sophia Loren…but always coiffed, polite, and ironed. All things her three daughters rebelled against, but loved about her. I remember all 20 of those summers at our deli in Ocean City, New Jersey—how she looked completely non-pulsed making hoagies and answering questions on how long to boil the meat filled versus the cheese filled tortellini or how many olives you actually get in a pint of olive salad. She smiled softly as she tilted her head and spoke in her lilting Italian laced accent. Not Philadelphia American Italian either, not my mom…real Northern Italian musical gorgeousness. It so annoyed me that these Stepford wife customers talked to her like she was a little Italian doll. My mom was a beast. I knew at nine that there was a CEO somewhere buried in there and yet, she pandered to the customer’s every need. To this day, when I ask to have my turkey sliced thinly, I bristle when I get attitude from the deli clerk. “The customer is always right,” she repeated that like a mantra…with that delightful musical voice and a wink from her intense hazel eyes.
She had come to America as a 15-year-old refugee of war, with her parents and younger brother by her side. Her father, Tony, with $100 to his name, moved them from Ellis Island to the chicken farms of Vineland, N.J. My mom worked in a factory and got her GED. Her dream was to be a teacher, but instead she married my dad when she was 21 and had three girls too quickly. I knew even at four years old how frustrated she was staying home with us and running the deli out of our duplex where we lived with her non English-speaking parents. She was so smart and had wanted a college education more than anything. So, she took night classes before I was even five years old, but never graduated. That was as far as she would get, but she still was so proud of herself. As she would read me her essays on Tess of the D’Urbervilles and I ached with pride at her perfect grammar and well-placed participles. Sylva was beautiful but could be so sad at times. I know now she suffered from depression, but back then we would just leave her alone occasionally for hours in her room after dinner while my dad helped with homework. I didn’t know why she cried. I just know I wanted her to be a teacher so she could be happier. And she just wanted us to grow up and be smart and go to the best universities.
She shooed me away after dinner and said not to clean the dishes. Why waste my time when I could be studying?” You will be so important and make a difference.” I believed her. I graduated second in my class and went to Georgetown. She was delighted in her understated way. “Of course, you will go to the best school. You are my daughter. “
I sent her my essays for her editorial comments throughout my four years as an English major there.
After I left for college, my mom became a teller at the local savings and loan, and within a decade she became a corporate officer there. All the clientele loved her. Naturally. Everything about her to her customers was so poised and delightful. She was in her element dealing with the rich of our hometown and making them feel so spoiled with her attention. And that accent! And her gorgeous skin! Oh how they went on about my mom. I knew my mom was marvelous from the get-go. I just was bewitched by her skill set. She could unobtrusively insert herself in high level decisions and not be seen. She would get her agenda approved, but resisted the need for attention. As a result and ironically, she raised three loud and unafraid daughters. She was with the bank the rest of her career and ended up taking a place on the Board of Directors.
On her 75th birthday I took her to Rome. Just the two of us. We would celebrate her birthday and hang out in a city she never really got to enjoy. She is from the city of Fiume, now Rijeka after the war. But we would conquer Rome together for a week, walking, shopping, talking. What a delight to have my mom all to myself for the first time in my life! It was no surprise that once again shop keepers, bar tenders, and pedestrians were spellbound by her wherever we walked…I would wait to watch as she started magical conversations in her native tongue and could still flirt with a man her junior with her bewitching charm. I will never forget Rome. I will never forget her head tossed back as we toasted her 75th birthday at an amazing café in the Ghetto di Roma and she giggled as she confessed, she was actually 74 not 75, but still wanted this gift. Once again, she stuns me on this evening in June with the light framing her skin! Her eyes!
Today I drive back from my visit to the nursing home she lives in now that my dad is gone. It is a memory center. I try to see her every four weeks or so, but the drive is terrible and the stay is just so hard. My sister bears the brunt of the everyday visits as she lives down the street. I have to play One Republic in the car because there is a song with lots of violins and that is what I need to cry. I can’t coax tears these days. I can only dry heave in the car. I feel empty now that my mom has no memories in her head. I guess I wonder if she is just a pretty wrapped package that has nothing inside that corresponds to any of us. Does that mean she cannot be my mom anymore? I think I have lost her but I hold on. This last visit, she sits in a patchwork of clothes, she would never have worn in the past, with her false teeth once again lost or thrown out, as I collect little pieces of torn photos at her feet. She takes the photos of her grandchildren from the frames and tears them up. When I ask her why she does this, she looks at me and says, in her native tongue, “I don’t know those people.” So the only photos left in her well-appointed room are of her parents, my dad, and the three of us, her daughters. She asks if I regret never having married or having children. I remind her I have both a husband and girls who love her so very much. In fact, her granddaughter was just to visit her last weekend from NYC. But she scolds me quietly as if to say, don’t humor me, dear. So I choose not to. She wants to hear of my home in Florence and my life there. I don’t have one unfortunately. But I speak with great love of Florence and of friends I have never met just to pass the time. We have all stopped reminding her that her parents are dead and her husband isn’t upstairs. There is no upstairs. I want to believe all these dead folks are here when I leave after my visit and they drink espresso with her in her chair by the window overlooking whatever town she happens to be in that day. I want to believe when she talks to her friend Sergio, who passed in the 1980s, he answers her. Apparently, he is still quite reckless with his money.
As I say goodbye again to the woman who like vapor is hard to hold onto, she holds my hand softly and shakes her head. “Oh Lisa, please be careful on your drive back to college. And study so hard.” I promise I will.
I get in the car. I drive on empty. I put on the violin CD. But I don’t cry yet.