Okay; I’ve gone on and on and ON about getting ready for this trip, both here and here. And there was talk of my mother possibly coming along with me for this looming Italian trip– talk which, in a Northern Italian woman, is spoken silently but nevertheless reverberates along the horsehair-and-plaster walls of her 1912 semi-detached house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We’d always spoken about making the crossing together, a trip I know she’d love. After all, Mom hasn’t been to see her cousins since 1950.
That trip was captured on film, all stored in yellow Kodak boxes and annotated by my family in various handwriting and spelling: “Porto Gallo” my grandfather wrote on the box that featured the ship’s stop in Portugal; “Le fabbriche” notes the Italian town he grew up in (“The Factories”); and another box is labeled “Marlia,” the small village on the plain below the Apuan Alps, which shares a box with “San Cassiano,” both done in my mother’s handwriting in which the dots above the letter “I” are really tiny circles. Even though I long ago transferred these 8mm films to VHS tapes, and then over to DVD, I can’t part with these old cardboard boxes with the postage stamps still attached.
My mother in 1950 is eighteen years old, and she wears voluminous New Look skirts and a short haircut. She’s clearly having a great time in these movies, and you wonder: did she vow to return every year like we all do when we visit someplace special? She had no way of knowing it would have been her last visit to Italy; and now, at almost 78, she claims she won’t be going back.
I can believe it, and I don’t push beyond a brave “oh come on, why don’t you come along?” when we decide to talk out loud about a possible return. But she won’t fly. “Why don’t we take the boat?” I suggest, but what boats ply the Atlantic like the old greyhounds? She wouldn’t want to cross on one of the cruise ships that ply the Mediterranean coast: “Who wants to eat with a bunch of strangers five times a day?” I had a taste of this when we all piled aboard a gambling ship for my sister Lois’ 40th birthday. It left from Palm Beach and anchored in choppy waters a few miles offshore; we pitched and bounced amongst the waves while we played the slots and consumed Manhattans by the pitcherful– we were fine, but an above-decks walk for some fresh air presented us with the spectacle of 90% of the boat’s revelers groaning and heaving in the dark dampness. “Oh my God,” Mom said. “Look at them… it looks like a hospital ship full of cholera victims!” The buffet line was a gymnastics event which had us all slamming intometal railings as we tried in vain to reach for our dinner and desserts. By the time we sat down we were bruised and exhausted. So no boats for Mom. I’m sure she’d have no trouble on the Berengaria or the Mauretania or even the Andrea Doria, as they all featured private cabins, showers, and endless cups of bouillon soup served on deck. Now that’s a crossing, and chances are you might even have run into Barbara Stanwyck or Princess Grace.
Even though she’s terribly afraid to fly, this mother of mine is basically fearless. The past winter in Brooklyn had her worrying about who would shovel the snow from the steps and sidewalks in front of her house, now that her older brother had died, so she hired itinerant “foreigners” with shovels for $20 after they offered their services. After they were done and walked off, the man across the street called Mom. “Vel, take a look outside: those guys didn’t do the sidewalk in front of your garden. Go catch them, they’re at Sylvia’s now.” I can just picture her dressing hurriedly, yet warmly, with the heavy coat and the wool hat and the gloves and scarf and boots– and she went after them with that shrill voice that she used to use on me when she asked me to take out the garbage for the fiftieth time. “You guys… you guys, you didn’t finish!” “Oh, we finished,” they said. “You call this finished?! You didn’t even touch this sidewalk and I want my money back!!” “Oh no, no money back!” “You’d better finish this sidewalk like I paid you for! Is this why you came to this country, so you can cheat everyone?!?” So she’s yelling at these guys– and they have big shovels– and she doesn’t budge. And they finally relent, and she forces them to finish shoveling her sidewalk without them sticking an ice pick under her ribs. But she won’t fly.
And yet simple things she hesitates doing, things that would naturally provide endless entertainment for the rest of the family in their re-telling. Her friend Grace, who is a native of Croatia, has been haranguing Mom to start going with her to pre-wedding reception cocktail hours, uninvited. Grace figures they would eat the appetizers and have a few drinks while pretending to be friends or family of the bride and /or groom. Sounds daring enough, but Mom questioned this chicanery: “You mean I gotta buy a new dress?”
She wasn’t afraid to scoop up Frank Sinatra’s discarded cigarette butt at the Copa one night when she was there with my father– fearless Mom said to Dad “dance me over to the floor by the piano where Frank just put out his cigarette.” And Dad did. “Now dip me.” And Dad dipped her and she snapped up Frank’s cigarette butt, “that I carried in my purse for years!” She loved Frank. But she won’t fly.
So maybe someday we’ll go over to Italy together. I think it would be great; she cracks me up most of the time and doesn’t embarrass me in public, and you know? She’d probably slow dance with me in the ship’s nightclub, even without Frank crooning and smoking in the room.