Here in the United States, it is Mother’s Day; and I find myself reflecting, once again, on two things—first, how blessed and lucky I am to be a mother, and second, on my own mother’s extraordinary generosity of spirit.
Little gestures can mean a great deal in the press of ordinary life. I learned this at my mother’s feet. My mother was wonderful at responding to others’ needs in the small ways that can truly make a difference. She reached out to the little ones in the neighborhood, greeting them when she saw them outside, inviting them into a conversation that continued as long as they lived there. In the days when we had milk delivered to the house, she always greeted the milkman. If she happened to have fresh blueberry muffins that day (which she often did when berries were in season), she would give him one. She did the same for our mailman. She welcomed newcomers. She took walks on summer evenings and stopped to talk to everyone along the way. Although I was an only child, she made sure that I had frequent opportunities to spend time with my many cousins, and that my friends knew they were always welcome in our home.
Consciously or otherwise, she practiced what we Catholics call the corporal works of mercy. My father, who typically worked out of town during the week, joined her in these good deeds, large or small, whenever he could. She visited hospitalized friends and family. She went to viewings and funerals—not just for family, but for friends from childhood, neighbors, people she had met through her work, church members—to comfort the grieving. When her long-time customers became too frail to come to her salon, she went to their homes to do their hair—not for money, but in gratitude for their patronage.
She cooked for everyone—the ailing, the grieving, those whom she thought just needed a lift. She delivered dozens of Christmas cookies to the priests first, and then to relatives and neighbors every year. She entertained friends and family graciously. She called her sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and cousins regularly, sometimes nightly, if she thought they needed attention. With my father, she made a point to continue the Italian tradition of visiting our older relatives on Sunday as a demonstration of respect. She volunteered tirelessly at church—assuring that vestments were crisp and fresh, taking charge of the altar flowers, making cakes for bake sales, helping out with Girl Scouts. She did anything the school asked of her.
Always a gracious host, she opened her home to my father’s New England family many times, assuring their comfort and spending hours preparing memorable meals from scratch, usually in the summer months when the kitchen was hotter than Hades. She took my father’s brother in at a low point in his life, and with my father helped him to recharge.
Throughout their 49-year marriage, she was a loving, completely committed wife and partner to my father. And when I became a mother, she became a “Nonnie” of infinite, loving patience, who took obvious joy in every minute she spent with her grandchildren.
The remarkable thing is that my grandmother died of the Spanish flu when my mother was only eight. Her notion of mothering, within and beyond her immediate family, was developed in her heart, on her own. She took seriously the values she heard about in church and, consciously or otherwise, lived her faith throughout her life, mothering those around her with everyday kindnesses.
Photo: My mother and me just before my cousin Sally’s wedding. My mother was in pale lavender; I was in buttercup yellow. Sadly, the original color photo has faded.
Consistent with the time, I have almost no photos of her taken in the context of ordinary, day-to-day life. Cell phones have changed all that, and that is one benefit of technology for which I’m very grateful.