By Rosalie Tirella
Green Island kitchen … our Lafayette Street flat, a half century ago: My mom, left, a few days after she got home from Memorial Hospital on Bell Hill. She had given birth to my kid sisters (twins) and was wiped out. So my aunt (pictured here), Ma’s big sister, left her husband, two kids and Doberman pinscher on the other side of town and came down to help Ma with me (just 1 1/2 years old) and her two new born girls. My father had disappeared after the birth of my sisters. The going was too rough for him: dirty diapers, breast feeding in the middle of the night, three wee ones crying, my sisters so tiny and vulnerable (they were “preemies” who might not have survived). Ma was left holding the parenting bag. My aunt, who knew what my father was but never berated my mom for her choices, stepped in to save the day.
(Notice the Jesus picture above the old refrigerator in the original photo. Notice it in my apartment today, its old tin frame painted brown decades ago. Ma prayed to that Jesus picture – directly, with an earnest heart, “blessing” herself before it at least twice daily – all through my childhood.)
Jesus picture in Rose’s house. photos: R.T.
But Ma was a romantic, despite all her trials and tribulations and unanswered prayers. And she was an optimist. She didn’t resent us kids because we were a lot of work but loved us because we were cute, engaging, fun to dress up and, most of all, loved her back. Mostly on her terms. From baby-hood I can remember her singing love songs to me in the kitchen. All the songs she grew up with and adored, many country-tinged: “Jambalaya,” the Hank Williams version. “You are My Sunshine,” more Hank Williams. “April Showers” – she had the original Al Jolson record! (flip side, “Mule Train,” I think). Sad Polish tunes that her mother, my Bapy, had taught her or that she had learned in church. Ma loved Elvis, polkas, Chuck Berry, Dean Martin and the Beatles, but her #1 singer was Patti Page, a 1950s warbler who was very popular during the Eisenhower era. Ma used to go around the house singing Page’s biggest hit, “Tennessee Waltz.” All the time. She’d sing it to us kids over and over again in her deep, sexy but not very pretty singing voice (she had an amazing speaking voice … she belonged in some Frank Sinatra movie sipping a gin and tonic.)
I’m listening to “The Tennessee Waltz” now. I am playing my Patti Page Greatest Hits album that I picked up at a yard sale several years ago – the lp with Patti on the cover singing over some sheet music and looking elegant in her white, strapless evening gown – listening to the record I never even bothered putting on my turntable once! Too cornball for me!
Playing Patti in the country, today.
Now here I am … singing along with Patti Page! Moved by an old country standard. Funny: I know “The Tennessee Waltz” by heart! Every single word and note! It’s as if I were singing The Pledge of Allegiance! The tune imprinted on my heart 60 years ago by my mom. Such a sad, pretty song for such a sad, pretty mother! Young and so poor with three babies and a good looking but wayward husband, a husband she would never stop wanting and loving.
Now I see why The Tennessee Waltz became the theme song of my babyhood. Now I see why I had bought the LP: it was for the song, for my dead mother, the real fan, who would have sung The Tennessee Waltz to her child, but mostly to herself, to soothe her own soul. Ma never complained to anyone about anything. I saw her cry just three times in my entire life. It was through music that my mother expressed her emotions, through songs, through singing. Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Patti Page … they were Ma’s soulmates. “I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz/an old friend I happened to see/I introduced her to my darling/and while they were dancing/my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”
Says it all.