More on my Mama
My Mom used to say, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
I think that approach was probably more helpful before she got Alzheimers. Now, she doesn’t want anyone to help her with anything, and that doesn’t work so well in nursing homes and hospitals.
When Mom was a teenager, about 14, we think, her family went back to Italy. She used to tell this story: “We hadn’t been back in Barga (the small town where they lived) very long when word went out that we were all suppposed to gather on the piazza one night to hear a radio broadcast from Mussolini. So of course we all gathered in the square; you didn’t disobey orders like that very often back then. And first there was music and singing of course, and then Mussolini’s voice over the radio. He announced that Italy was entering the war on the side of Germany.”
Her voice would drop, “And everyone fell silent. No one cheered. No one clapped. Then one woman began to clap. And the people around her moved away from her, and nudged each other. ‘Sure,’ they said, ‘she can clap. She doesn’t have a husband, or sons, or any brothers. She has no one to lose.'”
Mom would laugh, “Italians are not big on war. Some people say it’s because we’re cowards, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because we’ve fought so many wars over the centuries that we know there’s no winning, that we always lose more than we gain.”
I used to be particularly proud of that back in the ’70’s, when the Vietnam war was raging. I liked the idea of being descendants of people who didn’t cheer for war.
Mama had lots of other war stories. After that night, her father and brother had to get out of Italy quickly. They had dual citizenship and could have been drafted into the Italian army. Fortunately, they were able to get passage back to the states in a matter of days. Someone at the Amerian Embassy in a nearby town was supposed to be working on getting my mother, her sister, Clara, and her mother, my Nonna, out of the country too.
“Days went by,” Mom would say when she told the story. “And pretty soon it was a couple of weeks. It wasn’t so easy to travel back then, but we finally found someone who was going to Lucca and would take Mama and me up to see what was happening. By then, it was probably a month after Eugene and Daddy had left. So, we get up there and go to the embassy, we have the man’s name, and we ask for him.” She would shake her head, “But he was gone. He had hightailed it back to America, and no one there knew anything about passage for us.”
So they were there for the duration of the war, my mother and her younger sister, with their mamma. She had hundreds of stories about those years; many of them were about food.
There was the time they had just made a big bowl of pasta for dinner when the sirens went off warning of bombs. My aunt Clara grabbed the bowl of pasta and they were racing to the shelter when Clara slipped and fell – and they all cried, “The pasta, the pasta! Is the pasta ok???” Clara was highly indignant that they were all more worried about the food than about her well being.
There was the loaf of bread that they were sending to the ovens to be baked when some bombs hit. The bread hit the ground along with the woman carrying it, but it was too precious to be wasted, so she brushed it off and took it on to the bakery. When they cut into it that night, you can imagine how surprised they were to discover tiny stones in it… and she had to confess what had happened. “But we ate it anyhow,” Mama would say, “And enjoyed it too. There wasn’t any complaining about food back then.”
In the nursing home, she hides food in her drawers. Although she rarely has leftovers – cleaning your plate is an important virtue – when she does, she insists on taking them home. We were forever removing pieces of bread, abandoned sandwiches, carefully wrapped in a napkin, from her underwear drawer.
But back to her stories – it’s funny, I’ve read articles about women in families where the men tell the stories and the women don’t have a voice. I could never imagine that. We are a family of storytellers, thank goodness.
So there was the story about when her mother decided that they needed meat, and tried to kill her pet rabbits. That one used to make Mom cry.
There was the story about how Barga was liberated by the American army, my Uncle Gene among them. He snuck into Barga and brought them supplies one night before the army had taken the town, and, the story goes, was appalled at the way my mother and aunt devoured the chocolate bars. “We were cramming them into our mouths,” Mom would say, “I guess it was disgusting to him, he’d probably never seen anything like it. But you have to remember, we wouldn’t have had real chocolate for – well, for years, I guess.”
And of course there were lots of non-food stories. They have titles in my mind: Hiding Daddy’s Gun; The Night the Soldiers Came; The Time We Went to a Party and Left Nonna at Home with a Flooded Bathroom; Little Mariucha, and so many more.
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” When she’d say that, I always thought of their years during the war.
And maybe the story about little Mariucha describes it best,what I think of as my mama’s attitude. At some point when the Americans – including the Bufffalo soldiers – were getting ready to move into Barga, word came that the people needed to evacuate. So they gathered together what belongings they could carry, my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt, and started walking out of Barga. Along with countless other people from the village, they started a trek toward the next big town. Among them was a family with a little girl named Mariucia. She was only five years old. The people walked all day, carrying what they could bring with them, and little Mariucia walked right with them. When they finally stopped to camp for the night, and Mariucia took off her shoes, her feet were blistered and bleeding.
Mom would pause at this point in the story, and there would be tears in her eyes. “She had walked all day,” Mom would say, “And she hadn’t complained once. She knew that no one could carry her, and she just kept walking.”
Mom was a lot like Mariucia, she just kept going. And she raised us, my sister and me, to be like that too. We don’t believe in giving up, and we don’t complain much.
But I wish she’d ease up a little bit now. Relax, and let them help her get up, help her walk, help her get dressed instead of trying to do it all herself. I wish she’d quit fighting and go with the flow a little bit more. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I can’t change my Mama. So I expect she’ll go down kicking and screaming, still convinced that “it’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”