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.