My Mother…Mamma Mia

November 13, 2023

I don’t often write about my mother except in terms of the kitchen. She taught me how to love the magic of the heart of the home. It was the only place that she and I found peace together for most of my young life.

My relationship with Tonia was…difficult on the best days. As I look back, she had problems; possibly she was undiagnosed bipolar. The common refrain in the family when I was young was that she was spirited and high strung. She was more than that, with a violent temper, but no one cared to speak about it.

I adored her. She represented everything I wished I was as a kid. Tall, elegant, beautiful actually with flawless soft skin; thick hair and a figure like a 1940’s pin-up girl, even after birthing four children. She was smart, educated and an avid reader. She loved movies, food and cooking. She had a palate like no other; she could taste a dish and replicate it down to the most subtly-used herb.

I saw her as perfect and me as a poor imitation of what I wished to be.

We were always at war, it seemed, but I basked in the peace when there was a truce between us. She was hard with me, but fiercely protective should anyone else give me a hard time. I craved her; I craved her embrace, her kiss on my cheek or forehead.

She died at 49 years of age, about twenty-three days before her 50th birthday, after two years battling colon cancer that had spread to her bones. I took care of her for the last eighteen months of her life and it was during that time that I got to know and understand her; her soul. I fell in love with her and lost her. She felt the same, I think. We found our way to each other at the end of her life. I was 25 years old.

Despite it all, I will always be grateful to have been her daughter. She taught me everything I wanted to be and everything I didn’t. She cultivated independence in me. She pushed me to achieve; to be of service; to be useful to others above all other achievements. She taught me about kindness through her cruelty. I was her favorite target.

As many of you have read, I come from a large Italian-Irish clan and the holiday season was wild, to put it mildly. My mother and grandmother, aunts and cousins spent every spare moment baking, decorating and preparing for Christmas.

It was one of the few times of the year when peace reigned in our house as we worked together to celebrate the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

Now, each year, as I prepare to celebrate the holidays in my own home, in my own way, with the people I love the most, I think of her and I miss her. I always miss her. I miss her smile; the way she directed me in the kitchen so I learned by doing; the rare patience she showed as I learned techniques and traditions that serve me to this day.

My mother taught me to love fiercely; to give your heart completely, even if it was given back to you beaten and broken, as mine often was with her. She taught me about passion. She was my first teacher of unconditional love, although as a child, I had no words for that love. I just knew that I loved her no matter what; no matter what she said or did. She was my mother. She was mine. And if I received nothing back from her, that was okay. I loved her still.

As I age, family becomes ever more important, especially my chosen family, a small but close group of people that I love with every cell in my body. I cherish them and as a result of how I grew up, I tell them often so that there is no question in their minds and I will never regret not saying what I feel.

During this very busy season; this season that is rooted in celebration, let us love deeply and fiercely. The times in which we live are uncertain, violent and we can lose ourselves in darkness. Instead, let us hold each other close; love as though we could lose everything and everyone. It’s our way to the light.

Maybe with enough kindness in the world, we can change the tide of war and unrest; ugliness and divisiveness and find our way back to love.

In the end, there is only love.