Sunday, December 6, 2009

My mother, Colette

Probably because my family is so fractured – and because the popular stereotypes of Italian-Americans are so relentlessly idiotic or one-dimensional (Bada-bing! Shudduppayouface!) – I find myself always looking for representations of “my people” that reflect the reality of the smart, funny, absurdity-loving Italian-Americans I know. Also I think I’m looking to understand my history; and to explain myself to myself. I was at a lecture a few months ago about Italian-American women in the South Village (as in Greenwich Village in NYC) in the early 20th century and, during the Q&A, an older lady in the audience got up and told a story. She’d grown up in the neighborhood and, when she was a little girl, her mother took her over to the Little Red Schoolhouse to enroll her in class. The LRS was founded in 1921 by Elizabeth Irwin, a radical educator and “declared lesbian” (a phrase that makes me think customs forms must somehow be involved), and the school has remained progressive over the years, even as it was privatized and its tuition has skyrocketed to something zany like $29,000 for kindergarteners. Anyway, at the lecture, the woman – a small-boned, well-dressed, elegant sort of person – said that when her mother took her over to the school, Elizabeth Irwin herself received them. She said Irwin looked at her, and at her mother, and then told her mother that she should put the girl in a school “with your own kind.” Italians were not welcome at the Little Red Schoolhouse. As the lady told this story – which would have happened something like seventy years ago, say around the time of the Social Security Act – she got so upset that she began to shake. The shame and anger around this memory was still so powerful. It was hard to watch. And I remember I was looking at this woman and thinking, Why does it have to be so horrible? Why have you had to carry this pain around with you for so long? What need in you, sweet grandma lady in your nice coat, was never met that you still have so much anger over this memory?

I see so many Italian-Americans like this –
women, mostly – usually one or two generations ahead of me, who carry around a burden of resentment over opportunities they were denied, work they did that went unrewarded, tragedies that marked them that no one knew how to call by their right name. No one bore witness for them; they saw themselves seconded nowhere. In a terrific essay I found online called “In Search of Italian American Writers,” writer Fred Gardaphé quotes Alice Walker, from her essay, “Saving the Life That is Your Own”: “The absence of models, in literature as in life . . . is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect – even if rejected – enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence.” So it is an intention of mine in this blog, among other things, to try and be the bearer of that witness.

From here I think of my own mother, who was a complex, contradictory person – an artist, with an elastic, somewhat kooky turn of mind – stuck for the last forty-some years of her life among pissed-off, conformist neighbors in a working-class enclave in Wilmington, Delaware. Things had started out well for her. She was an adored child; a model student; lovely to look at; a 1951 graduate of University of Pennsylvania; a “career girl.” Then she married my dad and – porca miseria! –
it all went downhill from there. I don’t imagine she ever thought she’d be raising four freaked-out, puling children in a grim little row house. She funneled all of her disappointment and resentment into her faith and eventually became a deeply Catholic person with, sad to say, all the intolerance those words can imply. She was forever saying “Offer it up” (as in, Offer up your suffering for the souls in purgatory); and, as a kind of auxiliary to this, I really do think she believed that the greater your suffering here on earth, the greater your reward in the sweet by-and-by. It was probably easier for her to “pass” as a simple church lady and tamp down all her singularity than keep displaying her oddness among small-minded creeps and be shunned for it. I know it may be pseudo-science to link Alzheimer’s with personality, but when the disease took over my mother it was hard for me not to see it as a choice – as the ultimate retreat into unreality. Because reality had become so joyless for her. My mother endured a lot of suffering on earth, so I would like to believe for her sake that she was right about the suffering/reward ratio, and that now she’s in the heaven of her imagining.

I dedicate this blog to her.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for writing this blog, B.G. I want to say that I am in the same vein as you, regarding this search for Italian American writers, "looking for representations of “my people” that reflect the reality of the smart, funny, absurdity-loving Italian-Americans I know. Also I think I’m looking to understand my history; and to explain myself to myself."

    Have you read Tina De Rosa's novel, Paper Fish? Ben Morreale's "The Seventh Saracen"? Mari Tomasi's "Like Lesser Gods"? John Fante's "Ask the Dust" and "Wait for Spring, Bandini," among others... How about Salvatore Scibona's "The End," which was recently nominated for the National Book Award?

    Great stuff!

    Olivia Kate Cerrone