My mother, to quote Yul Brynner in The King and I, was a puzzlement. She was a first-generation Sicilian-American—strict and extremely Catholic—yet the legendary burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee so fascinated her that she purchased a copy of Lee’s autobiography. By the time I was six or seven and a book magpie, reading anything I found lying around the house, I picked up the memoir and dove in. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary had not yet been published, so if an unfamiliar word ground my reading to a halt, I went to my most trusted source: My mother.
“Mom, what does ‘lesbian’ mean?”
“What?” She pretended not to hear me.
“Lesbian. What does it mean? It says here that someone in the book couldn’t go back to Chicago, because they knew her there as a lesbian. What’s a lesbian?”
Having sufficiently recovered, my mother replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s a kind of religion.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
It could be said that my mother taught me the art of dissembling—something that could come in handy later if I ever became a fiction writer. Or entered politics.
But that’s selling her short. Although it is true that she presented me with a lifetime of exasperating puzzles and mixed messages, she also taught me many wonderful things. Here’s a short list:
- A love of Broadway musicals. (Hence the King and I reference.)
- A love of classical music. (When I think of Saturday afternoons as a child, I always think of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts while cleaning the house. “Si mi chiamano,” choreographed with a dust rag, enhanced by the smell of Pledge.)
- A love of dogs, as evidenced by this photograph.
- The lesbian red herring notwithstanding, a respect for honesty and integrity, and an expectation of both from me.
- An abiding faith in God. She might have skipped Mass with regularity, but she taught me how to pray. And she always believed that her own prayers would be answered.
- A love of cooking and baking. I think the recipe section of my blog attests to this.
- A sense of style and a love of fashion. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, but my mother would rather go shopping than pay the electric bill. In this way and in others (again, I think of her disingenuous definition), I formed healthy and prudent life habits, sometimes as antidotes to her examples.
My mother was a complicated woman, which is to say that she was human. By trial and error, although often with her example to guide me, I figured out a way to be in the world.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. She would have been 99 this June.
But she wouldn’t want you to know that. She also lied about her age.