By Rosalie Tirella
My mom had a stroke a few years ago and since then she has a kind of dementia. Not the Alzheimer’s Disease kind that sends you (eventually) into a nursing home/Alzheimers’ unit – just the kind where you’re dottie enough to drive everyone around you crazy. You see, the stroke left my mother with very little short-term memory. Conversations about today are pointless. You tell her stuff a thousand times … and still she forgets.
Shame on me. I have stopped visiting her. I mean have stopped visiting WITH her. I am there at her cozy little studio apartment on the West Side every few days, but it’s pretty much to re-heat her Meals on Wheels, make her bed, check to see if she’s OK and that her homemaker and personal care attendant are on the ball. It feels more like a part-time job than a visit with Mom. Sometimes we end up in a kind of screaming match. “Please!” I say to my mother, “Don’t say a word! ‘Cause I’ll go crazy!! I’ve already told you this 20 times!”
Then I make her her precious HUGE cup of coffee and run out the door.
Gone is my best bud. In her place, a weak, disorganized 85-year-old lady.
I feel more guilty than proud. Proud of myself that, as her primary care giver, I have made it possible for my mom to continue living in her studio apartment with her cat and her big TV always turned on to a Red Sox game. If I were living away, in Boston, like my two sisters, she would not be able to continue to live in her apartment. I have promised myself (and my mom though she doesn’t know it) that my mother will not languish in a nursing home – the kind of institution that this dumpling shaped but strong-willed little woman would not – could not – thrive in. The Old Country (Poland) is where my mother’s mother, my grandmother “Bapy,” hailed from. No one put anyone away in the Old Country. Your old, dottie parents were supposed to live with you, turn your hair gray (and make you dottie!) until it was their time to meet their Maker. “God’s will be done,” folks said as they buried their ancient parents who ended up their children at the end. This phrase was always code, in our Polish/Italian household for: “Hooray! Finally! This albatross (insert problem/crisis) has been cut from our necks!”
My Bapy lived with us until she died. She was a holy terror – a 4-foot-5-inch tall woman who could go mano to mano with my hot tempered Italian father. Once she went into the pantry and came out with a huge carving knife to prove her point! So when she (finally) died, my mom cried and said: “God’s will be done.” Which meant Thank you, God, for taking this cantankerous old woman out of my little children’s lives. For the first time in my 14 years on earth, the Tirella household of Green Island was wonderfully quiet. For a few hours at a stretch even!
Easter is when I best remember my grandmother and my mother in their prime, two women who had brutal lives, and yet never missed attedning mass on Good Friday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in their EASTER BONNETS! My mom even wore gloves! All the women did in the 1950s and early 1960s. I can still picture my mother’s Easter gloves: they were cotton and went to the middle of your wrist. Their color: the softest powder pink.
I used to wonder: Why doesn’t Daddy love Mummy when she wears the prettiest gloves? When she tries so hard to make everybody happy? When she walks with us to jack and Jill’s children’s store on Green Street to buy me and my two sisters the prettiest Easter dresses?
My father never went to church and would never dress up for Easter mass. He thought it – religion – was a stupid excuse concocted by my mother. In his ignorance, he had had a Marxist epiphany: Religion is the Opiate of the masses. My father got it. “You’re as simple as the day is long!” he used to scream at my mother, his face as red as a tomato, the veins in his forehead raised and pulsating. “Keep praying!” he yelled. Which meant: You can never know what a shitty life you and your little girls have: your minimum wage job at the dry cleaners, the 60-hour work week you put in, the lack of financial support from me, no car, no vacations … nothing! – because you are too busy dressing up for Jesus, singing for God, enjoying Catholicism!
As an atheist, my father could wallow in his pointless life and perspective.
Still, I can’t – will never – forget my mom’s pink Easter gloves! When I was a little girl, they used to make me so happy! My mom used to let me try them on. Someday, they’ll be yours she told me.
And the hats! My mom and grandmother were chruch going women in the 1940s and 1950s when everyone wore hats -just like they did in all those great Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne movies. American ladies – proper ladies – in their proper hats. Lace, feathers, geometric shapes that we so dramatic! Just watch Irene Dunne (with Cary Grant) in the 1940s classic film “The Awful Truth.” You’ll see what I mean!
I remember my grandmother’s Easter hat – a purple affair, with a few purplish berries and some maroonish netting to cover the eyes/top of your face. No matter how bad things got during the Great Depression or World War II my grandmother went to mass every day – walking down Lafayette Street, up Millbury Street to Richland Street, home of her parish, the little polish church, Our lady of Czetchova. In the spring and summer, and especially Easter week, she wore that hat. Maybe a decade ago my sister got a hold of Bapy’s Easter bonnet, composting with age. She took it and I hope has it tucked away safely in some box. Someday I plan to take anothe rlook at that Easter Bonnet!
When we were little kids attending Lamartine Street School, Miss Loftus our first grade teacher had all us girls make Easter bonnets out of construction paper. The flowers that adorned our hats? Pink and yellow and blue tissue paper works of art that we folded and cut and placed on green-pipe cleaners, their stems. And then old Miss Loftus – a spinster whose life was teaching – would take out a record and play “In Your Easter Bonnet” for us and then she made us learn the song. Then we got to march around the classroom in our pretty Easter bonnets. The highlight for us kids? Parading all over the hallways of Lamartine Street School, marching down to the main office where the secretaries oohed and ahhed and smiled at all the poor little Green Island kids wearing their cute/funny creations.
I always felt loved by the adults at Lamartince Street Schoold – from the teachers, to the office secretaries, to our janitor (Mr. Grey, I think he was called). Easter at Lamartine Street School – always fun.
And now. Well, now, I have become (probably) as godless as my father, who died several years ago. I did not try to lose my faith or my God. I just did. My sisters are still great, church-going Catholic girls. Somehow, with my father, poverty, a stint at Clark University where I fell deeply in love with my first boyfriend a Catholic boy who renounced God after her took a class on Neitesche and existentialism, somehow all this caused God to fade from my life. Not the teachings of God – just HIS protection – someone to look to in times of trouble. If there is no God, who the hell has my back?!
How, I ask myself these days, when I really do need a God to lean on, when I am swimming in the deep end of mid-life and could use a life guard, how did I lose my religion? The Old Country Catholicism that made me feel so safe as a child and young girl?
Where is my Easter bonnet?