MARIAELANA AND HER MOTHER, MARY
What started my mother’s sudden downfall was my father’s death. She always planned to die before him and expected to. In her mind that’s the way it should have happened. Even though Dad was seven years her senior, she had always been sick.
Not quite two weeks before she died, she called me late at night. She said she had a dream. In it she and Dad were at the USO at the fort in Jamestown, and they were dancing their hearts out. They had met there at a USO dance. She didn’t like the looks of him when she first met him. He was too short. But he was a wonderful dancer and very persistent. When she found out what a wonderful dancer he was and how popular she was with the other women when he would dance with her, she became interested. They started going together.
In the dream they were both young again and dancing at the USO. When she came out of the dream, it was like he was standing right there with this teasing, cocky grin on his face. When she went to reach out to him, she realized he wasn’t there. I encouraged her to enjoy and embrace the warmth of his presence. I also told her I felt he was there with her.
Her arthritis started at 19, and after that she had gall bladder, hysterectomy, biopsies on her intestines, a colostomy which was later reversed, and angina. She had multiple health problems and was on many medications. Her meds weren’t “cooperating.” She’d play those games where she’d go to one doctor and not tell him the medication she was taking from another. In a way she thought she could play doctor. Mother was very much the type that she told you what to do; you didn’t tell her. Mother always said her mother was domineering, but she was also. We called her The Matriarch. What she tried to get away from in her youth, she ended up becoming in adulthood. My mother was spoken of as an exotic beauty, big dark eyes. She thought she had a large hooked nose.
My grandparents worked for rich families who came to the island [Jamestown, RI]. They couldn’t read or write or speak well when they first came over as immigrants from Portugal. My grandmother was the type to see what was working in society, and she would take it and grab it and use it. She had an eye for quality. When she went out, she looked The Duchess, which was her nickname. She’d go to Boston once a year to shop. She developed a real sense of taste from what she was exposed to at the homes of the rich people where she served. My grandparents were frugal and wise and ended up owning a lot of land in Jamestown. They had money in the bank and were very comfortably set.
My mother ended up being an impulsive buyer, especially when she grew up and had money. Yet her parents were not. I don’t know if it was because of her birth place in the family, the youngest and only daughter … Grandma doted on her sons. Maybe my mother took this into herself. The three boys were a good dozen years older than my mother.
My grandfather … she was his little girl. We noticed in the photo album that the i.d.’s were “mother” and “daddy.” It may have been a rivalry between Mom and Grandma for Grandpa. Grandpa understood her needs, her thoughts, her feelings, where her mother didn’t. I wasn’t aware of that as a child but picked that up in my teenage years. She didn’t come out directly and say something when she would tell a story, but we could understand what was behind what she was saying. It helped to take the blinders off and we began to see Mom as a whole person, the good side and the conflict side of her nature from listening to the stories of her life. As teenagers we didn’t rebel when we might have because we began to see the whole picture.
I heard people say after my mother died, “Your mother was the meanest person in town.” We’d be dressed in white dresses, shoes, gloves and socks, and we had to come home looking just as we had when we left, without a speck of dirt. As girls, we all had to dress alike growing up. We couldn’t be individuals. We couldn’t buy our own clothing. We weren’t allowed to go to other people’s houses overnight. I went with the flow when it came to Mother. It was easier. I did what I was told the first time. I did what she expected because it was easier for me being the oldest girl.
As hard as it was for me, I learned a lot. Finally at 17 I rebelled, but I felt I could be on my own because I’d done it all automatically––cooking, cleaning, dealing with bill collectors, financial responsibilities, writing the business letters when necessary. I had to be mature beyond my age. My mother stayed in bed for four months after the fourth baby with arthritis of the spine, but my sister and I thought it was psychological. We were supposed to be getting ready to join my father in Germany, but my mother took to bed after the baby. The idea of leaving home––they lived with Grandma and Grandpa––was more than she could deal with, as many times as she had said she wanted to get away from her mother. My father was in Germany for three years at that time.
When my mother gave birth to the fourth child, they were ages six to newborn. I did housework at age three and was taking care of my sister at age five. I would change my sister in the crib and give the baby the two-o’clock feeding. My grandfather would stand in the doorway in his union suit to make sure everything went all right. That was woman’s work, and he was from the old country.
My mother was not a very sexual person. Anytime the subject of sex came up, she would turn it around immediately. She was very uncomfortable. How I learned about being a woman was through a book. She knew I had common sense and could read anything. She said if I had any questions, to come and ask her. But her tone of voice, her stance, just the way she presented the book to me, I knew immediately that I’d better not ask one question. She got me what I needed but never came into the bathroom to show me how to use it. I went on to explain to my sisters and to show them. She herself was 16 before she got a period and she was at school. She had thought she was bleeding to death because she had never been told or shown anything.
What Grandma never wanted for her daughter she gave to us grandkids. She said, “Wait to have children and limit them.” “Short engagements make long marriages.” “Don’t give away in engagements what should be for the marriage. Save all your surprises for the marriage.” I got married in ’62 and had a baby, and she gave the christening party and was the completely supportive one.
My mother had been hospitalized for peritonitis. I saw her at Thanksgiving. I was planning within a couple of weeks of her death to go down and visit. She had been in a nursing home since early November of ’88. It was going to be a permanent situation, and we were in the process of selling her house. Her bones were so deteriorated that her legs couldn’t support her body.
My sister Carrie had come up for Elena’s [daughter] graduation. She had a feeling she really needed to get home. She went to see Mom that Sunday. Mom’s speech was slurred and she wasn’t interested in the graduation. Carrie thought, maybe she’s medicated herself too much. The next day Carrie received a call at work. Mom was in the hospital; she had suffered a stroke. She had been dropped on the crossbar when she had been seated on the toilet, and this had injured the bowel, which slowly began to leak. They couldn’t operate because of her being in shock. By the time Carrie called me, they were still waiting to find out the diagnosis. I said, “Well, I’ll come down.” “No, you don’t have to. You know she’s pulled out of things before.”
Carrie went to see her next day in the morning. Her arms were black and blue. Her tongue was black. I felt bad because I couldn’t be there to support my sister. My other sister never went to see her. [She] doesn’t want to handle sick people. When Carrie called her about Mother’s condition, [she] said, “What can I do about it?”
June 21 she went into the hospital. Within 24 hours she was dead. She was responding with groans to the pain. Her doctor said, “She’s not conscious you’re here.You can talk to her but she’s probably not hearing you.” In the morning Carrie got the call. She died later that same day. Carrie called me when she first got to the hospital and called much later to say she had passed on. Aunt Dot was with her. She was my uncle’s ex-wife and was always an aunt to us and like a sister my mother never had. They could get mad at each other and say things to each other, but in those situations where they needed each other there was that bonding.
I left the next afternoon. I had to get all the kids’ things together, including Carrie’s son. He had stayed with us. I didn’t see [Mother] until the private showing. She looked very good, very much at peace. But she had a frown. It wasn’t until two days later that we found it was her upper plate being missing that gave her face that appearance. She looked like she was mad at us, saying, “This isn’t right, girls. There’s something going on here.”
Aunt Dot tucked some money in the casket because Mother never liked to be without money. She’d always say to us, “Girls, I need a cookie.” “Mom, you want a cookie. You don’t need a cookie.” So we tucked a package of cookies in the sleeve of her dress “for Mother’s needs” for her journey. It was together with her favorite rosaries. She was always praying the rosary for someone in the family or a friend or someone who could use her prayers or for my brother’s soul. My brother Bernard died by drowning in an accident at 19.
After burial, we had a celebration at Carrie’s on the lawn where family and friends could dine, talk, and be together with us in her name. We announced at Mass the invitation to come in and join us in her celebration, her life beyond into the next world. Our families have always done that. This is part of life. It’s not the last of life. It’s the beginning of a new life.
When I think about her, it’s something I do or it’s something that’s said, or the kids do something, and I have a reflection of Mom or Mom and Dad together. When something comes up, like Elena doesn’t show up until very late, I say a prayer and I have a feeling Mom and Dad are with her. It’s a feeling of security and comfort. Other times something funny will come up and I’ll have a deja vu about my own childhood.
I don’t experience a lot of sadness. It’s like a continuation. They’re not here bodily, but they’re here with me. I can feel it. When things aren’t going well, when I get down, I think back on them and I feel better. With my mother, I don’t often dream about her. She’s with Dad when I dream about her. When she does speak to me, it’s scolding me about something.
She was so hard on us. We did all the housework and we had to do it her way or else spankings, and she didn’t care where she hit us. That was before the days of awareness about child abuse. Times were changing. Other kids weren’t being raised this way, but we were. She felt proud when we went out and looked good and had good manners. Being a good parent is not an easy job and not for a lazy parent. We knew she was hard on us at times, but we would say, “That’s Mother.”
The first thing I thought when she died was, thank God, she has no more pain. She had had that pain all her life. We saw the level of pain she experienced that others didn’t.
Mother underneath had a wild spirit that wanted to be free and she wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t feel she could take the risk. That was not how a good woman, a real lady behaved. We saw the frustration of that in her. She, with well-chosen words, could zing. When Father couldn’t handle it, he would say, “Mary, you sound like quite the lady.” That was the limit of what she would say. When he used that word “lady,” that was her cue.
My mother was a very hard worker. Hardwood floors polished every week, rugs hung out, house immaculate. She worked with us when we were young and she was able. Later she couldn’t. She wasn’t physically able to, but we did.
My father was in the service, but she was the top sarge. He allowed it to be that way. That was fine with him. My father’s advice on my wedding day was, “If you want a happy marriage, move away from your mother.”
It’s been almost a year now since she died. I feel like an archeologist when they dig. I feel like I’m the top layer, the foundation for my children. I am on top of my mother and my grandmother. Now it’s my turn. I need to know my past. I need to let my children know their past. It’s what’s embedded in them. I hope I’m good soil for them to set their roots in.
Mariaelana was 43 when her mother died and 44 at the time of this interview.