By Rosalie Tirella
The Red Devil is my father – handsome, passionate, hot-tempered and fair-skinned. Red haired as a youth. They called him Red when he was 12 and 13. 100% Italian but his roots were Northern Italy – they are fair-skinned up there. And his family owned land in Italia. Bragging Rights. The opposite of the modest, good, generous and gracious man my late uncle, “Mark,” was. Yeah, they called him Polack. Uncle Mark was thick-waisted, built like a Frigedair, but he was kind, stoic, the smart son of Polish immigrants. He went onto college – Fordam University – in the Bronx and became a school principal. You’ve read the columns about both men here but, as I grow older and the love of the superficial fades and becomes a yen for the gracious, generous and good, I think of Uncle Mark this Father’s Day. He was as close to a Dad as my two sisters and I ever knew. But today I am obsessed with my Italian father, too: the dross.
My sweet mom’s marriage to him was a disaster. …
My mother married my father for lust. And because she was pregnant with me! Surprise!!!! I recently learned this from my usually tight-lipped auntie who, after I took a good look at my parents’ marriage certificate, counted nine months … and pressed her, “fessed up.”
That’s right. Ma had me – her enchanted one, her Beloved – out of wedlock. A sin back then. After doing it for weeks and weeks with with Daddy in the cab of his big red truck!! According to my aunt who spared me no details. Under the yellow Worcester moon, under the spell of my vain, goodlooking father. Just dating. Not even engaged!
What was my pretty mother thinking?
She wasn’t thinking at all! She was flush with orgasms … This must be love, she felt. Felt!
No wonder Bapy was always enraged around Daddy in our Green Island flat – enraged at everybody, come to think of it. No wonder, out of the blue, Bapy would fling her hard-boiled-egg sandwich at my cocky father and start screaming in Polish: “DOGS BLOOD!! DOGS’ BLOOD!!” A terrible Polish curse usually reserved for the men. And it always sounded so menacing when Bapy spat it out! DOGS BLOOD! DOGS BLOOD.
I think it was menstrual blood …
It is all coming into focus.
What did Bapy and Jaju think of all this? Ma growing heavy with me, her belly starting to pop? Who took Ma to the Mart in Main South for maternity blouses and dresses? Did Bapy and Jaju think we were we all going to Hell for my mother’s Sin? Nakedness! Breasts!! Fornication!! For pleasure – not procreation!! Under God’s eyes!! – without coming to Him at the altar, asking to make sex holy … Ma virginal in a white wedding gown. … A glimmer of hope: I was not going to Hell. Babies, like me, if we died, we went straight to Limbo – not the beautiful Heaven but not the flaming Hell, either. As a kid I pictured Limbo as a kind of big white waiting room … boring … a no man’s land, but at least I would get to hang out with the other millions of dead babies – for eternity.
BAPY AND JAJU HAD TO DEAL WITH A PREGNANT UNMARRIED DAUGHTER. Ma. Their youngest. Their fave. The one they indulged. The one Jaju calked Little Sparrow because Ma, as a kid, loved to whistle tunes, was an excellent whistler. Bapy’s right hand. Ma, the perfect Catholic girl who once dreamed of being a nun, was a live in housekeeper – for A DECADE! – for the Bishop of Springfield, along with her two sisters. A good Catholic girl who attended St. Mary’s school by Kelley Square, prayed to the saints, God, Jesus, The Virgin Mary three or four times a day, reading her prayers to them from penny bookmarks and pamphlets you bought at O’Brien’s Religious Store in downtown Worcester. They were cheap, often photo copies, black and white, often adorned with a small picture of Jesus nailed to the cross and bleeding from his palms and feet – the places his tormentors drove the spikes thru. Under Roman law citizens were never crucified – just the slaves. The outsiders. They had no rights. Jesus the radical had no rights. Was Ma nailed to her own cross? Did she think she had rights? The right over her own body, the right to self-determination, the right to learning, a career … ? Of course not! Never mind that she STILL attended every Novena at our Lady of Czetchowa church near Kelley Square and prayed the rosary every night in bed. Big and round with Rosalie – named after Bapy, her beloved mother.
I was Ma’s beloved. Her gift to herself.
I try to picture Ma doing it in the cab of a truck with Daddy, panties off, skirt hiked up. She was small and lithe at the time, but still. And Red Devil Daddy knowing what he was doing all right, another notch on his steering wheel, covered in axle grease. Ma and the sterering wheel.
Me. The mistake. Pooh poohed by my dismissive father BUT ADORED BY MY MOTHER. The man who RUINED MY MOTHER’S LIFE pre-birth control, pre-abortion … Gave her 35 years working as a counter girl for minimum wage at the dry cleaners down the street. Poverty. Single, impoverished working mom.
But she was the gifted one! So she gifted me … Summers at the Worcester Girls Club … Music…reading…stories…dreams. I was the rickety little basket my mother put all her eggs in, the little girl she spent her hard earned money on to rent! the violin for, the one who took violin lessons at Lamartine Street School … the artiste. The dreamer of my mother’s dreams. All As in the WPS schools. Up until my senior year at Burncoat High – physics did me in. My mother took a nightmare and turned her into Rosalie, Her Beloved. Special art and science projects for her Rose at Lamartine Street School. I can still picture Ma proudly carrying my huge detergent flakes painted VOLCANO project on a gigantic slab of wood. Painted volcanoes and mountains! So heavy! Volcanoes molded by me – and Ma – on our big kitchen floor. Would I get an A for the project! Of course I would!… Join the Worcester Public Schools orchestra, Rosalie. Play your violin before hundreds! You can do it, my Rosalie! … I was shaking NO, Ma! I am only seven! … Ma’s brilliant mistake – the first in the family to go to college. And graduate cum laude! Later … a gal with her own community newspaper. Ma read every issue cover to cover – and would call me with her critiques! In the nursing home, at the end, she would wheel herself in her wheelchair to the nurses station and give the social worker a copy of InCity Times! See? she’d say, her hair matted and uncombed, See MY DAUGHTER’S NEWSPAPER? The social worker didn’t give a cr*p about my rag and snapped at Ma. I watched from behind my mother’s half closed door at the nursing home. Then I came out and said to the nurses at the nurses station: COMB MY MOTHER’S HAIR. SHE LOOKS DEMENTED. I NEVER WANT TO SEE HER LOOKING LIKE THIS WHEN I VISIT HER HERE.
So. I see. A lot now. This is why Daddy could never stay long in our old Green Island flat when I was a little girl, why he literally ran out the door. My father was never in love with my mother. She, my sisters and I – we were all a huge mistake. No love. He had a Rumanian sweetie in the next town. And she had a child by him – my half sister. Just found out. Jeez.
Daddy’s trapped persona is easier to understand now. His impatience at us and resentment of our poverty easier to grasp. Being dragged to City Hall by Ma, her parents, her big sisters and big brother – the justice of the peace did his duty. No priest at this wedding. Classic late 1950s/early 1960s saga. What a mess. The price paid by my mother and millions of naive Catholic girls who confused lust with love back then: physical, emotional abuse. The screams and recriminations. They were cheated on, too, and eventually – sooner rather than later – abandoned.
So … Today I miss Ma all the more for learning her secret. She rose to the occasion. And more. … And I dismiss my peripatetic father – nothing but a sperm donor in work clothes. And I think of my Uncle Mark who did it all perfectly: Kept my Aunt Mary virginal, got down on his knees to propose marriage to her, built her a cute cape off Burncoat Street, supported her and three kids with a good job, family vacations … and day trips that we went along on:
Uncle Mark never hit or yelled at Aunt Mary – he never hurt anybody! He always hugged you and laughed and complimented you. He was even warm and nice to Daddy!!! He played touch football with his boys in their big backyard. He sent his daughter – he called Ann “my Polish Princess” – to Marion High School on the West Side and Anna Maria College in Paxton – all-girls (back then) Catholic schools where they studied hard, prayed to Jesus, went on dates with the WPI boys and, hopefully, stayed virgins until their wedding nights.
A whole other can of worms.
My mother loved this song – esp the Patti Page version.