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Post details: Lorenza Vaccaro Santos, September 20, 1927 - July 10th 2006, pt II

09/25/06

Lorenza Vaccaro Santos, September 20, 1927 - July 10th 2006, pt II

This is the portrait that my mom had taken of herself and handed out to everyone, guess she was pretty proud of it. I swear, one time she sent me a whole sheet of this picture in wallet size! It was taken about 20 years ago.

A Preface: My mom was an unusual and complicated person. For whatever reason, she chose to keep many aspects of her personal life and history a mystery to us. I actually had to ask her surviving siblings back in Italy for more data on her. Because unfortunately, there's not much that her own children knew about her young life before she met and married my dad. What I do know is from bits and pieces of her experiences that she told me first-hand (whether they’re true or not were tough to determine, my mom tended to spin tall tales), as well as anecdotes from my aunts and uncle, who have over the years, shared certain things about her that I didn't know (like her real age!).

After getting to Italy to deliver her ashes to her family, I managed to interview my aunts and cousins to get some more solid information about my mom’s early years. I’ve updated her story to include this new, more accurate information. Her story is now more or less complete. I also cleaned up ALOT of typos and errors, so it should be an easier read now.

My mother was born in Vatolla, a small mountain village in the region of Perdifumo, Italy. It's up the mountains from the coastal city of Salerno. She was the third child out of a brood of 5 sisters, and 1 brother. My grandmother miscarried several pregnancies, and had her children when she was a bit older than the average Italian mother. This was due to the fact that my grandfather, Nicola Vaccaro, went to the US with his brother for about 14 years during and after WWI to earn money to buy land or start a business in America. He returned to Italy in 1920, to get his wife and return to the US where they would live and raise a family. At least, that was the plan.

During this visit to Italy, he fell from a wall and broke his leg pretty badly. Unfortunately, his leg injury caused him to be laid up in a hospital for five months. After finally getting out of the hospital, his doctors learned that his leg’s break had set badly, and he was sent back to the hospital for another eight months. By the time he got out of the hospital the second time, he had a bad limp caused by the aggravated break.

By this time, my grandmother, Giuseppina, had decided that she didn’t want to go to America, and told him that she wanted to stay in Vatolla. So, instead of becoming one of the rising number of Italian immigrants to America, he became a landowner and farmer on a large piece of mountainside farmland just outside of Vatolla. He cultivated the land and grew figs, olives, tomatoes and grapes. Giuseppina also worked on the farm and raised the children.

My mom’s younger years were during uncertain times in Italy, and Europe as a whole. Her family had to contend with Mussolini's rise to power. That happened in 1922, 5 years before my mother was born. Interestingly, the original platform of the fascist coalition that Mussolini led to power actually favored agrarian landowners like my grandfather. However, as time went by, those benefits eroded due to the influence of the Nazis. Eventually my grandfather was ordered by local fascist leaders to combine his farm with those of other farmers in the region to form a collective that would be controlled by the government. Though the government promised they would be well paid for doing so, he refused to yield control of his land to the fascists. This resulted in severe repercussions sometimes, including several years' crops being ordered destroyed or kept off the market due to his non-compliance.

My mom’s family encountered many hardships during these years leading up to the war. There were rampant abuses by the fascists and the nazis. Supply lines were cut off for months at a time. Her family was subject to starvation on several occasions when they were forced to give up their crops and livestock. They were able to get by due to clever hoarding. My grandfather constantly had to keep his daughters hidden or out of reach from the bad-intentioned, power-drunk nazi soldiers that were based in the village. Many times they were also denied essentials for survival in the winter, such as coal and fuel oil.

The family was forced to give up all their jewelry, gold, and other valuables to the fascists. They did try to seize the land as well, but my grandfather was rather wealthy and influential by that time. He managed to keep the nazis and/or the fascists from seizing control of the land. To do so, he wheeled and dealed with them any way he could to keep them at bay. He knew all he had to do was put them off until the inevitable war was in full bloom. He wasn’t above bribing local fascist officials to look the other way, as well as to buy influence from the nazis. He was committed to keeping his land, and did so.

When Italy entered into WWII, thanks to their alliance with the Nazis, things eased up significantly. Mussolini and the nazis had bigger fish to fry, and they focused his army and other resources outward. The war effort also needed maximum output of crops and food, so my grandfather was essentially put back into business. So not only did he manage to keep his land, he shrewdly managed to exploit the nazis and the fascists financially.

During the war, my mother and her siblings struggled to get educated and ahead. But in rural Italy, this was extremely difficult. Education suffered in the rural areas during these times due to constant turmoil. Schools and universities were closed for the most part during this period. There were plenty of engagements between the allies and the Italian and German armies in the surrounding mountains. The rough terrain and difficult roads made for tough battle situations. Her family had to endure endless bombings and skirmishes around them as the two sides vied for advantage. Despite all this, my mom and her younger sister Maria managed to complete college at a nearby convent school with a diploma in teaching.

By 1943, the allies had begun to pour into Italy (one of the major Allied Forces invasions into enemy territory was via Salerno’s beaches) and secure the countryside. Because of a strong effort by Italian communist rebels to seize control after the war, the allies were forced to maintain a strong presence in Italy for years after the war’s end. Towards the end of the 40's the threats subsided, and things began to stabilize.

After Mom completed school about 1949, she moved to the city (Salerno) along with most of her other siblings. There, she became a bit of a non-conformist, a rarity in Italy in those days. She developed a flamboyant sense of style that was a tad ahead of its time in Italy. She was definitely the one in the family to go against the traditional Italian norms of the time. Most women her age subscribed to the social conventions that said, get married, have babies, and be a good catholic housewife and mother. At this stage in her life, my mom didn’t appear to be interested in these social pressures.

At the invitation of a close friend from her village living and working in Brazil, she took a ship across the Atlantic when she was barely 23. There was work for language teachers, and she began teaching Italian in Sao Paulo. One of her older sisters, Gianna, followed a year later with her husband and their two very young daughters. He transferred and worked for a large Italian firm's division in Brazil. One of her younger sisters, Maria, also followed about the same time.

In making this journey, she had been bitten by the "travel bug", and set off on other jaunts around Europe whenever she could afford to. She lived with her sister’s family in Sao Paulo most times. But apparently, it was easy for her to get around. See, by most accounts, and evidenced by photos, my mom was quite attractive when she was in her prime (and even beyond that). And, in being so, she apparently drew the attention of men wherever she went. She was petite, light-haired, with a big smile. Apparently, men couldn't resist.

By most accounts, she was whisked off on trips, wined and dined, and rather spoiled by gentlemen. She also spent a lot of time in Argentina during this period, being part of the local “jet-set”. She likely enjoyed a fun and carefree lifestyle that she would have never experienced had she stayed in Italy. It must have been a pretty glorious time for her. Her sister Maria, who had accompanied my mom for much of this time, eventually went back to Italy to get married and have a family.

Mom tended to use Brazil as a homebase during her many jaunts. During this period, in the 50's, she spent a lot of time in Rio de Janeiro, working as a language teacher, where she had a close italian girlfriend. She met Pop during this time, who at the time was managing a bank and running a very popular bar-restaurant in the heart of Rio. As I mentioned in Pop’s story, he was married with two kids at the time they met. They had quite the scandalous affair. And after a couple years, he chose to leave his family be with my mom.

After a few whirlwind years of romance and traveling, they decided to get married and settle down in the US. My mom went to the US first, and my father followed a year later after settling his affairs in Brazil. They married in Mexico in 1960, and moved to New Jersey, where my dad bought a gas station with an adjoining small bar/restaurant. For a time, my mom worked in Philadelphia at Wanamaker's (a major department store).

After a couple of years in New Jersey, my parents made the move to Chicago. They did this so they can be close to my mom's uncle and his family. They were all pretty well planted in Chicago. As I said in Pop’s story, he bought another gas station in the southside neighborhood of Bridgeport. Meanwhile my mom worked downtown at major department stores such as Wieboldt's and Carson Pirie Scott, usually in the cosmetics department.

After my sister was born, my mom decided to try teaching Italian. She became certified to teach Italian at Chicago's Berlitz school, and did that on and off for several years at Berlitz and other language schools in the city. Meanwhile, my dad ran the gas station. We were all born in Chicago during this time, in the neighborhood of Bridgeport. It was a nice time to be living there, and my parents seemed to have achieved the American dream in only a few short years.

Below the surface, however, there were a few problems that started to eat away at that dream. For one, my mom was a bit materialistic, and liked to buy things that we didn't need. On top of that, she, like Pop, was very self-centered who craved and enjoyed attention. They usually fed this by entertaining often at our house. These people knew how to put on a party. And trust me, there were many of them at our house during their early years.

Sometimes, in buying into the American dream, you get pulled in to the extent where you think you need everything that you see on TV or in Life magazine. I remember my mom taking us shopping in downtown sometimes 3 or 4 times A WEEK for stuff we didn’t really need. Usually it she was just shopping for her, dresses, coats, shoes, jewelry, other accessories. Every once in awhile, she’d buy stuff for the kids too. That's just the way it was.

My mom was not known for subtlety. Not in the clothes she wore, the company she kept, the car she drove, or the profile she led. At the time when my parents were at their peak, my mom was really getting into her groove spending money and living the kind of high-life that she had probably come to miss or not fully enjoy by then.

There were many long-term trips to Italy, sometimes by air, sometimes by sea. I remember making two crossings by sea, and can't count all the times we did it by air, in my early years. My mother would be sure to bring lots of extravagant gifts to her family back home. And, true to her character, she'd always go a little over the top. Pop used to tell me how frustrated he'd get when he got the department store credit card bills. While they (mostly Pop) were making good money, they were also spending it. And sometimes they spent it much faster than it was coming in.

A good example of the level of excess my mom was able to reach at times. When I was about 7, we sailed across the pond aboard The SS Rafaello, from New York to Naples, for an extended visit. My mom decided she wanted to take her brand-new white 1970 convertible Ford XL Coupe along for the trip. Needless to say, this wasn't cheap, even back then. And Pop was not at all happy about it. He later told me that the cost of shipping that car to Italy and back, actually ended up costing more than the car itself was worth. While my siblings and I thought it was cool to have our favorite convertible car with us, it did seem a bit over the top, even to us.

On those visits, my mom would disappear, sometimes for weeks. Usually we were told that she was "sick" and needed to go to a doctor, or to some health spa in the mountains. She would leave us with our various aunts' and uncle, without really telling us where she was going and when she was coming back. It became quite upsetting for us sometimes to have her just leave like that without much warning. We were glad to at least be surrounded by relatives to take care of us. There were also lots of cousins our ages to play with. But it really was tough sometimes, especially since our dad was back in the states working.

Things went like this during our younger years up until I was about 10-11 years old. That was about the time that my parents really began to get rather desperate about their financial situation. Apparently, money ran out, and Pop was pretty deep in the hole with his failed import/export business. This is when things went really awry with my parents. I talk about this on Pop's story.

It was also about during this time that I first discovered Mom's addiction and resulting unpredictable behavior. See, for most of our young lives, it was very difficult for us to predict Mom's moods or disposition. At times, she'd be easygoing and pleasant. At other times, she'd fly off the handle at the smallest thing, and get violent. Sometimes, she would be VERY violent. It was difficult for us kids to deal with this erratic and violent side of her.

I remember one day, I was in the hall bathroom, and I opened the medicine chest over our sink, probably to get my Flintstones chewable vitamins or something. On the top 3 shelves of the medicine chest, I noticed several identical pill bottles all lined up on each shelf. Each one said "Valium" on them. At the time, I had no idea what Valium was, and why we had so much of it. I even opened one of them and took out the pretty yellow pills. I'd have probably eaten a few of them as they looked almost as delicious as my Flintstones vitamins. But thanks to those scary TV public-service announcements that showed the dangers of taking medicines and drugs you're not supposed to, I didn't.

So one day I asked my mom, what it was, and why we had so many bottles of it. She was rather surprised that I had seen the bottles, but got very angry and answered back that it was her “medicine” and I don’t dare ever touch them. Well, that answered that. I didn’t give it a second thought, and I was too naïve to really know what was going on.

Over the years, my mom started taking other kinds of tranquilizers and painkillers, along with Valium. Sometimes I saw Dilaudid, Demerol, Quaalude, Codeine and other stuff in her purse or in the medicine chest. My mom actually developed a strange kind of hypochondria. I think her mind TOLD her she was sick or in pain, just so she can subconsciously justify getting and taking all these prescription drugs. She was in and out of doctor’s offices, sometimes 2-3 times a week. She was always telling us how “sick” she was, and how she needed to go to the doctor and get more medicine.

She apparently got prescriptions with no problem, sometimes even from our own pediatrician when she'd bring us in for a checkup. After a while, we were able to tell when she was on something and when she wasn't. Or when she was going up on a high, or when she was coming down from one. We NEVER wanted to be around her when that happened. Sometimes, when I saw my mom popping pills, sometimes 3 or 4 at a time, I'd get concerned and ask her if the doctor says she should take so many of them. To which she'd answer, usually angrily, that it was none of my business.

The mood swings, the violent rages, the crying spells, the hyper-episodes, eventually just became part of Mom's personality as we knew it. She probably suffered from bipolar disorder, but it was hard to tell because of the effects of all the pills she was taking. She definitely was self-medicating herself to some extent for something that was profoundly wrong. I remember being really happy when I'd see my mom up and happy. Because I knew that the downer was going to be coming up soon after, and I didn't look forward to that.

She would go into very deep and horrible depressions. Judy, Nick and I all came up with our own ways of dealing with my mom's addiction and whatever disorders she had that were never diagnosed. Whenever I asked my dad about it, he'd tell me that he wished she didn't do it so much. But he’d shrug and say that there was nothing he can do. Which was odd to me, because surely there was something he could have done. At the very least, he could have tried to find out what was really wrong. I know that now.

After the whole charade that my parents pulled off (which is in Pop’s Story), we spent a year in Brazil, basically "laying low". Pop said we were there because of a “recession” going on in the states and that things were better in Brazil. I don’t know if he expected us to believe that. As much as we enjoyed being in Brazil, the poverty there was eye-opening for an 11 year-old upper middle-class Chicago kid who never saw anything like it. So while I knew that our parents were feeding us some serious bullshit, I had to assume that they had a good reason to keep us in Brazil. My dad told us we’d be there for about 2 years.

That was until Nick got ill with a nasty staph infection that could have killed him. My parents finally bit the bullet and we went back to the US to get Nick better treatment. We ended up in New Jersey, so Nick can get treated at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. After going there for a few months, he was given a clean bill of health.

By this time, my parents had embarked on their new jewelry business, which they never really talked to us about. They opened a small counter shop at the Old Diamond Exchange on Chestnut Street in Downtown Philadelphia, while we lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River. They then decided to open a store on the Jersey shore the next summer. During this time, my parents got along ok, and the fights and arguments were at a long-time low. So despite the fact that we were living in New Jersey, we were happy about that.

As we got older, Mom’s behavior and temperament became even more unpredictable. Even to Pop. After a year or so in New Jersey, we ended up in Daytona Beach, where my parents bought a motel and opened a jewelry store. Ultimately, the family was struggling financially yet again. The jewelry business faltered, and had to be closed. The small motel also had to be sold off.

So while my parents figured out what they were going to do next, we were all in a sort of limbo. We even lived in a cheap apartment complex in a bad part of Daytona for several months while my parents figured things out. They did finally buy a nice little house on the beachside, a block from the ocean, which made us kids pretty happy. Things were starting to stabilize for the most part, at least for us.

My parents however, were coming apart. There was no money coming in, and bills and were piling up. Some pivotal events on behalf of my mom caused my parents to finally split for good. While we kids were shocked at what happened, I think we were all relieved that my parents were finally splitting up. This meant that we didn’t have to deal with the fighting anymore. Things did get polarized however, and for a time, the kids were forced to choose sides between our parents. That made things very tough for all of us.

During all the periods of strife, and relative peace, I focused on keeping the house going. This was not easy to do, because my mom was gone many summers, usually in Jersey where she ran a store up there during the summer months only. Other times she would be in Italy, and we wouldn’t know about it until she’d call us and tell us. This was probably one of the most difficult things about Mom. She never felt that it was important to tell us what she was doing or where she was going.

One fall, I was about 17, things were not going well at all. We had run out of money to pay bills (which my mom wasn’t doing, and we couldn’t even reach her). Nick and I more or less had to fend for ourselves. Pop was working in Chicago, and not able to help us very much during those times. I was very stressed out, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Some of my friends and their families saw what was going on, and helped out from time to time. That’s probably what kept me above water.

Anyway, after several rough weeks and lean times, Mom finally showed up. She had driven down from New Jersey as if everything was ok. Nevermind that we hadn’t heard from her at all in the past couple of months, and the situation at home had turned desperate.

When she got to the house, I was never so glad to see her as I was that day. Finally, someone who can take some of the pressure off of me. This is very painful for me to talk about, but it’s important to her story. My mom walked into the house, and saw the utter disastrous state that it was in, as well as Nick and me, and became enraged. She was mainly upset at the condition of the house.

I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, her son, about 20 lbs underweight due to stress, anxiety and poor diet, frazzled to a nub. And she was upset about the condition of the house? I had not heard from her in 2 or 3 months, no money, no help from her, and this is what I get when she comes home. This whole thing almost destroyed me.

I made it through that, and things did go back to relatively normal slowly around the house over the next couple of months. I was pretty much on my way to a heavy depression phase that would lasted a good year or two. I managed to get jobs and stay out of the house as much as I possibly can. That was my coping mechanism. My sister was attending college, and was getting ready to transfer up to Boston University the following fall. So fortunately, she didn’t have to deal with what Nick and I had to. I was getting ready to graduate high school that year. I was still in the midst of figuring out what I was going to do next.

Just after my 18th birthday, Mom hit me with a nice surprise. She decided that she didn’t want Nick and me in the house again for the whole summer while she was in New Jersey or wherever else. So, first she moved us out of the house, which she rented out. She rented a condo down the street. There was where we would all live for the remainder of the school year. It was a nice enough condo, but there were horrible and nosy neighbors.

My mom was also on one of her raging waves, and tended to get violent and angry at anything. It didn’t help that I was full of rage and anger over everything that had transpired in the previous couple of years. Needless to say, those times were very difficult.

Then, just after graduation, she hit me with yet another surprise. She was of course going up to New Jersey again for the summer. So we were to move out of the condo. She found me a small apartment not far from our house (which was now rented out to some crazed bikers). Nick would get stay with the family of one of his friends. At first, it seemed like an attractive situation for me. I would have my own place at 18, with the rent paid by my mom for the whole summer until I started school. Sounded like a good deal.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. It turned out that my mom only paid for my place for one month, and then I was on my own after that (I said she was ‘unusual’). This whole scenario set off a chain of events that more or less resulted in me getting locked out of the community college I was attending, unable to afford to pay for my living expenses, and some other serious issues.

I basically ended up joining the navy to get myself out of the dire situation I was in during that time. Most of what I was going through at the time were direct results of some poor decisions made by my parents. Those were very desperate times, and they demanded desperate measures. I looked at going into the navy as a cathartic event. It would irreversibly change my life, and hopefully for the better. In the end, the only real good thing about joining the navy was that it ultimately made me independent. It also established that I was no longer subject to anymore fallout due to poor decisions made by my parents.

In the years after the navy, my relationship with Mom improved somewhat. Despite all that happened, I was still quite idealistic that we can have a harmonious relationship. So I always tried to play the role of the good son, even when Mom didn’t deserve it. While there were many times where we truly enjoyed each other’s company, there were many more times where our times together were strained due to my mom’s guilt-baiting, violent temper, bad moods, and other behavioral quirks that were mostly brought on or amplified by her drug use.

For years after, our relationship could best be described as going through emotional peaks and valleys. Mostly valleys, unfortunately. While I was sometimes hurt by her mostly poor and selfish decisions, I always ended up giving her the benefit of the doubt. I knew that the drug addiction was a strong force over her behavior. And if she took care of that, maybe she can function more normally.

My mom’s life became quite difficult over her last 20 or so years. Her drug use had definitely taken its toll on her. Her finances were a disaster, and her behavior was beyond unpredictable. Her mood-swings, temper tantrums and other issues tended to become more intense over time. Her behavior was just so unpredictable. You could be having a funny, stimulating conversation with her one minute. And the next, the utterance of one word, or a name, would set her off on an entirely different and ugly tangent. It became very upsetting, and exhausting. At some point, she started to alienate everyone around her, particularly my siblings and me.

My relationship with Mom continued its “peak and valley” rhythm over those years. Every time I made the effort to make things good between us, it tended to come back to haunt me later. I still continued to play the role of the good son, despite all that.

During most of the early 90’s, Mom lived mostly in suburban New York. Every time we’d ask her what she was doing up there, she would give us a different answer. First, she would be running a new jewelry store. Then, she’d tell us she was working at a department store again. Eventually, we found that she was mostly working as a home health aide for the elderly. Her life became more difficult and unstable as time went by. She eventually moved back to Florida, but never had a real stable home situation. Sometimes she would rent an apartment from a friend. Other times, she would end up house-sitting for other friends. It was always something different with her.

Eventually, she found she was qualified for low-cost senior housing at a church retirement facility in Daytona Beach. This ended up giving her some real stability for a change, and this helped settle her down a bit. She spent her last 10 or so years living there, and it ultimately became her last home. I can’t say she was always happy to be living there, but she was comfortable and safe.

In the past couple of years, Mom’s health deteriorated pretty steadily. In late 2004, she had major surgery to remove a tumor that was essentially the size of a basketball from behind her intestinal wall. The tumor forced her torso to expand outward, and it pushed back against her spinal cord, causing lots of pain. The tumor was not cancerous, but its removal caused some serious complications. Judy and I have a theory that the tumor was in fact her body’s effort to “dump” all the toxicity from her decades of drug abuse in mass quantities over the years somewhere where it can be stored. A “chemical waste dump” for her system, if you will.

The doctors needed to remove a large section of her small intestine during the surgery. As a result she apparently lost the ability to adequately digest food, and to absorb nutrition or calories. This resulted in severe weight loss. Though she ate voraciously, she simply could not gain any weight. I was out of the country when she had the surgery, but came to see her when I was stateside a couple months later. She was rather thin, and frail. It was a bit shocking to me, considering the last time I saw her she appeared to be in ok health.

Unfortunately, the visits during those times didn’t go well, and ended prematurely and abruptly most of the time. Over the past several years, I had been forced to adapt a policy of minimal contact and communication with Mom. It wasn’t out of anger or resentment, though that could have been easily justified. It was because I realized that only through this minimal contact, and distance, would I have real peace in my life. It became the price I had to pay for peace when it came my mom and me, as harsh as that may sound.

I had what I called a 30-minute rule when I did visit my mom. Here’s how it worked. Whenever I went to see her, the visit would last no less than 30 minutes. If, after 30 minutes’, the visit was not going well, I would politely end the visit and leave. On the other hand, if the visit was going well, with no negative feelings or harsh words, I would stay as long as things continued that way as practical. I found this policy worked well, and it allowed me to maintain contact, however minimal with Mom, regardless of the surrounding conditions.

When I went to the states last June, I was aware that my mom’s health had reached a point of no return. A few months before, she had fallen at a Walmart, and broke her hip. She was already frail from the weight loss, which by that time had become rather extreme. She was also not in good spirits most of the time. She was usually bitter, upset and rather miserable. The rehab center she was transferred to after her hip surgery discharged her after only 2 weeks because she would not cooperate with the therapy regimen. My brother Nick and his girlfriend Jenny took exceptionally good care of her during these months, and that helped her attitude a bit, and boosted her spirits somewhat.

I visited my mom after arriving in Florida, with my 16-year-old niece Rayna in tow. Rayna and I had this little system that whenever I was in town, we’d go visit my mom together. Rayna had a difficult time with my mom sometimes as well, and we figured that as a team we can cover each other a bit. It seemed to work, because Mom was always a bit more positive and upbeat when we showed up together.

Anyway, though I was shocked at my mom’s physical state, we managed to have a rather positive visit. She was still quite lucid, and even threw out a barbed comment or two, surprisingly without malice. I can tell that it was her way of telling me that she was "still there". I was able to talk with her in a constructive manner about her needing to make important choices for her health and welfare. At the time, she was having difficulty with the administrators of the facility she lived in because her condition was getting so dire. The place she lived was designed for retired people who can live independently at some level. This was becoming more and more difficult for Mom at this time.

We were able to discuss things positively and even with some humor for the first time in a very long time. Both Rayna and I were surprised and pleased. I knew that my mom’s time was quite limited, and if we could end things on a good note, that would be quite nice after all that has happened. That first visit lasted a few hours, which was a record since I instituting my “30 minute rule”.

I made plans to visit Mom again the following Sunday. When I got to the home, I was not able to raise her by the intercom at the front door. After a good 30 minutes of trying to raise her, I called Nick. He told me that she had fallen again that day, and while she wasn’t seriously hurt, it was a very unpleasant and difficult ordeal. The paramedics had to come over to check her out. Nick and Jenny had been there that morning to clean her and the apartment up. They had just left a little while before I got there.

After talking with Nick, I managed to get one of the residents on duty to let me in so I can see her. She was in bed and not looking good at all. When she woke up, she told me about what happened, and how she was not feeling well. I sat on her bed, and talked with her. She was extremely frail and thin, even more so than when I saw her just a few days ago.

But for the first time in a long while, she genuinely and warmly smiled at me. She appeared to be at peace for once. I know she hadn’t been at peace for a very long time. I think she was having a moment of clarity, and was not preoccupied by all the stuff that usually clouded her mind. There were no apologies or atonement, no requests for forgiveness, just peace.

She asked me if I was happy with my life. I answered her that I was, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. My mom had never been hot on the idea of me living on a boat, living what she considered a bohemian life. But she believed me when I told her I was happy. I think she was able to see it finally, and it made her happy, even if for a brief time. She knew the pain and sadness I went through when my marriage ended, and when I lost Pop. She told me she was glad that I found my way to being happy after all that.

While I sat there with her, she looked past me to the wall behind me. There was a picture on the wall. It was a print of a pastel watercolor of a small, narrow Mediterranean cobblestone street. There was an arched, whitewashed villa, some foliage, and a sketchy detail to it that brought it all together. She stared at it for awhile, and a big grin took over her face again, and she said “Look Tony, Sorrento… remember when we’d go to Sorrento?” Now, I wasn’t entirely sure if the watercolor was of Sorrento or not, but for that moment, it was Sorrento for her. I told her of course, I remembered going to Sorrento with her, many times we went during our times in Italy. She smiled a bit longer thinking about Sorrento.

After this little moment, she asked me to heat up some pasta that was in the fridge, she was hungry. I went into the kitchen, and did as she asked. While the pasta was in the microwave, I found myself overcome with emotion. I wept while her pasta cooked. It was real to me that I was about to lose my mother soon. And somehow, we were able to make a nice kind of peace before she’d leave. It was more than I could have ever hoped for. While I was sad to be losing her, I was happy and grateful at the same time.

I called my sister later after leaving Mom’s, and told her what was going on, and that she should make plans to fly to Florida asap with the kids to see Mom one last time. She didn’t have much time, and Mom wanted to see her grandkids one last time too. I was flying out there the next day to visit Judy and the kids. She agreed to fly back to Florida with me when I returned from LA the following week.

I told my mom that I would stop by to see her on my way out to Orlando to catch my flight the next morning. As luck would have it, I overslept and had to rush out to catch my flight. I called my mom and told her I was running late, so I couldn’t see her on the way out, but I would be back in a week. I made her promise me she wouldn’t fall, to which we both laughed. She ended the call by telling me she loved me, which again had not been said in some time. I responded in kind.

Unfortunately, her condition became worse while I was in LA. She was found disoriented and crawling on the floor by one of the neighbors who checked on her a couple times a day. She was rushed to the hospital. Nick called us and kept us apprised of the situation. Her condition continued to deteriorate by the next weekend, and by the weekend, she was in ICU and on a respirator. Judy and I had already booked our flights for the next day. While we were preparing to fly out, I got the call from Nick that she crashed that afternoon, and passed away, before we can get there. This was especially hard on Judy because of her strained relationship with Mom, she hadn’t effectively communicated with her in several months and not seen her in a couple of years.

Just like with Pop, I find that Mom’s story is riddled with many not so flattering points about her. Again, her life was what it was. I can’t apologize for that. But like Pop, there were many good things about her too:

At her core, my mom was a true free spirit. Though her drug addiction severely affected her ability to live it out, she established her desire to break away from the conventions imposed on her by her upbringing very early on. And for much of her life, even to her own family's detriment, she experienced many interesting travels and adventures in the time she had.

My mom was tenacious and despite her diminutive size, she could intimidate anyone who crossed her or someone she cared about. She had absolutely no fear and was not intimidated by anyone, anywhere. There were many times when I used my mom as a secret weapon. For example, when I was still a teenager, I was shopping for a car before I could actually afford to buy one. I was at a used car dealer, and found a used Datsun that I liked. I put a deposit on it just so they’d hold it. I was hoping I’d get my mom or dad to lend me more money so I can buy it.

When my efforts to raise more money failed, I went back to the dealer to get my deposit back. They wouldn’t refund it, saying that I forfeited it. I went back to tell Mom about what happened. She grabbed her purse, grabbed me, and jumped in her car. She stomped into the dealership, went to the sales manager and demanded they give me back my $200 deposit. When the sales manager said no, she transformed into a 5’2” Tasmanian devil. She was in rare form. Without getting physical, she made it clear, in no uncertain terms that she would not leave that dealership without the money. After about 10 minutes of her unbridled wrath, the dealer acquiesced and refunded the money, shuddering with fear.

There were many incidents like this where Mom refused to back down and almost always got her way. While it didn’t win her friends, it made people realize that she would not ever get pushed around.

My mom was a flamboyant woman who had her own bizarre sense of style. She loved bright colors and strange combinations. She loved to stand out. On one hand you had to do a double-take at what she was wearing, and the statement she was making. Sometimes it was her bizarre glasses, other times it was her bright green or white leather pants. She didn’t care about fashion trends most times, she made her own. But on the other hand, she managed to make it work most times, and as a result, she was unique in her taste and style. You may not have always liked what she was wearing, but it was undeniably Mom.

My mom had a hearty sense of humor, and when she laughed it was infectious. I think that the best times we ever had, her spirits were always best when we were laughing. Like Pop, her sense of humor could appreciate both the insipid and the intelligent kinds of humor.

Though it was sometimes lost in the haze of her drug addiction, my mom had a zest for life and living that was simply not extinguishable. She had a profound effect on men with this. After her death, when Judy, Nick and I were going through her pictures and personal items, we couldn’t help but wonder who all the men in the pictures were. There were pictures of her on a cruise ship with one well-dressed gentleman, and then another of her in Atlantic City with another sharp older guy. Then there’s a picture of her in Jamaica with yet another guy. Venice, another guy. Bahamas, ANOTHER guy. I never even knew that my mom ever WENT to Jamaica! Who were all these guys??

A lot of these photos, incidentally, were fairly recent. Some only dated 3 or 4 years back. So Mom kept the party going on long after we suspected she had slowed down. Mom never really talked about this side of her life with us. At least not in any detail. My guess is that this was a side of her life that had always been there, going way back to her “wild child” days, probably even when she was still with Pop. Surely, she was living these wild times during all those times that she "disappeared" on us. It was clear to us. When else could she have done it all? But rather than be angry or upset about it, we were more like… “Wow, this dame sure knew how to reel them in and have a good time!” We were all more in awe of her than anything. All we could do was laugh and look at more photos.

Though Mom was not keen on clinging on to many “old world” traditions from her Italian upbringing, being the rebel that she was, she did cling to a couple of significant ones. The main one being her devotion to Italian cuisine. I used to joke (only half-joke) that my mom’s best and only parental quality was her cooking. She was a master in the kitchen. She still has made the best lasagna I’ve ever had. And though she’s given me the recipe, and her secrets, I have never been able to make it like hers. Her homemade ravioli was to die for, as was her chicken cacciatore. I can go on and on. Her passion for perfection in the kitchen was absolutely immeasurable.

Unfortunately though, Mom tended to go all out in her cooking only when we had company or for dinner parties, etc. She tended to get lazy sometimes, and just give us pasta fagioli every night for more than a week. Or the same spaghetti with meatballs, days in a row. Judy, Nick and I used to actually invite kids over to our house for dinner all the time. Because we knew that Mom would then have to kick things up because of the guest. It was a sound strategy that worked, and for the most part, my young life was lined with some damn good food. It didn’t quite make up for my mom’s shortfalls in other departments, but it sometimes came close.

Mom was a loyal dedicated friend if you earned that privilege. While she had lots of pals and acquaintances, she had only a few real, close friends. These were friends who remained close to her for most of her life. Decades would pass, and she would still be friends with the same people. I always found that to be an incredible thing.

Mom had the ability to win people over with her personality in a way I’ve never seen anyone else do. She knew what she was capable of, and used it effectively to win people over. She had a keen sense of people, and was able to gauge her interaction with them effectively so she could get the best result possible from that encounter. It’s what made her an effective salesperson, I’m sure.

And so, it's been a long, strange journey for my mother, well, both my parents for that matter. And because of the lives they chose to live, I'm living the life I have now, at least to some extent.

I came to a realization after losing Mom, which I didn't quite come to yet when I lost my dad about 18 months ago. It’s because of the choices my parents made, the lives, however flawed, that they chose to live, that has me living the life I have now. Regardless of the circumstances, they set the course for my life, voluntarily, or involuntarily, long before I could do so on my own. So, for whatever part they played in that, directly, or indirectly, I can only be grateful.

There needed to be just the right combination of choice, chemistry, fate, destiny, and pure chance for things to come to the conclusions that they ultimately did. And though many mistakes were made, and many things could have been done better, I can only feel nothing but gratitude and peace for my parents coming together the way they did, and for putting me on this planet the way they did, and when they did. And, of course, for starting a chain of events that brings me to living what I consider to be a fantastic life.

It became clear to me.

These were the parents I was supposed to have. Theirs were the lives that they were supposed to live. This is the life I'm supposed to live, however long it lasts, good or bad. Life is the product of choices, desires, fate, coincidence, destiny and many other things. But every piece of the puzzle has to fit. So as I unceremoniously bring Mom's ashes back to Italy, this notion resounds itself to me over and over again.

By chance, a song played at probably the most significant time it could have. It summed it all up for me. I end this tome about Mom with the lyrics to a song that I've loved for a very long time, but never really understood until now:

Sweetness Follows (by R.E.M - on "Automatic for the People")

Readying to bury your father and your mother,
What did you think when you lost another?
I used to wonder why did you bother,
Distanced from one, blind to the other?

Listen here my sister and my brother
What would you care if you lost the other?
I always wonder why did we bother,
Distanced from one, deaf to the other.

Oh, oh, but sweetness follows

Its these little things, they can pull you under.
Live your life filled with joy and wonder.
I always knew this altogether thunder
Was lost in our little lives.

Oh, oh, but sweetness follows.

Its these little things, they can pull you under.
Live your life filled with joy and thunder.
Yeah, yeah we were altogether
Lost in our little lives.

Oh, oh, but sweetness follows.

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Comment from: mietsie [Visitor]
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Permalink 09/11/06 @ 16:38
Comment from: Jackey [Visitor]
Tony,

That was sad yet still very beautiful. Its terrible to hear about all the things you went through with your mom. You were right, I can sympathize with your situation. I could feel your pain and frustration. There were many parts of your story that stuck a cord with me...I'm sorry you had to go through that but like you said and I believe...

These were the parents I was supposed to have. Theirs were the lives that they were supposed to live. This is the life I'm supposed to live, however long it lasts, good or bad. Life is the product of choices, desires, fate, coincidence, destiny and many other things.

If there was one lesson I have learned from past failings with others, it is to enjoy our lives that we were given. Happiness is the key to the kingdom.

Metta,
Jackey
Permalink 01/25/07 @ 12:54
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Think I read something about this somewhere else too, thanks.
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If you wish for peace be ready for war.
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Who never climbed never fell.
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Permalink 05/26/10 @ 22:45

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