She was a sweet little ravioli of a woman. At age 85, she was saucy and spunky and still thought she was sexy. When our local supermarket, for example, was displaying fresh fish beneath a banner that proclaimed “Catch of the Day,” she strode right up to the good-looking man behind the counter and announced, “If you are the catch, I’ll take all I can get!”
I wanted to capture her essence while I could still remember her spunk, her spontaneity, her quick-wittedness. To illustrate. There was the time when we were checking into a hotel. There was quite a commotion in the lobby. We looked and saw a bevy of young women surrounding this tall, blond, godlike creature. If you read romance novels, you’ve seen him on the covers. And if you remember the advertisements for margarine that is as good as butter, you’ve seen him on television.
My mother being Italian and Fabio being Italian, she forgot all about registering, Instead, she waddled over to him, pushing the young girls out of the way. She tapped him on the shoulder and announced she’d like her picture taken with him. And then, just as I was about to take that picture, I heard my own mother coo. “Oh, Fabio,” she oozed in a sultry voice that 75-year-old women don’t often possess. “Oh, Fabio, you’re better than butter!”
She was a collector; my father, by contrast, a minimalist. One day he entered her sewing room, known among insiders as “the junk room,” and sadly shook his head. (Clearly, he was not familiar with Edison’s assertion that “it’s easy to create. All you need is a good idea and a lot of junk.”)
With dismay, he looked around at the amassed stacks–ribbons and sewing machines, sergers and scissors, buckram and buttons, zippers and gimp, bobbins and lace, and uncountable bolts of fabric. Then he made his logical pronouncement: “If you haven’t used something in a year, get rid of it.”
She daggered him with a dirty look and quickly responded, “I haven’t used you in 30 years. Does that mean I should get rid of you?”
Breast cancer diminished that spunky spirit of hers, but it could never extinguish it completely. My mother created beautiful things all of her life, including the smiles that appeared on people’s faces after only a few minutes of being in her presence. She even made the surgeon who performed her mastectomy laugh when she told him–just before they gave her anesthesia–“If I don’t survive, make my daughter bury me next to Frank Sinatra. And have her inscribed my gravestone: ‘Frank, let’s do it your way!’ “
But hers was not an easy life. She made dozens of wedding gowns (often free of charge because the brides could not afford to pay her). By nature, she was an emotional marshmallow, placing compassion well ahead of compensation. Of course, there have been those who have taken advantage. Like the woman who owned a building and the business it housed. She hired my mother to make drapes for every window in the place. When the work was done, she asked what the bill was. “Twenty-four dollars a window,” my mother replied.
A few days later, my mother received a check in the mail for $24….total. And she never had the courage to call and ask the businesswoman for the remainder. Then, there were those who would tell her they could not afford to pay just then as their money was in a CD and they didn’t want to lose interest by withdrawing it. Could they pay her in a few months, they would inquire.
Invariably, my mother the marshmallow would tell them not to worry about it. And, of course, they did not. The few months passed by and it was not the customer, but my mother who was embarrassed about the unpaid bill–too embarrassed to call those customers and ask for what was due her.
But she never let these experiences diminish her zest for life. They never stunted her creative spirit. Once, she was chosen a runner-up in a national contest sponsored by the American Plastics Council for re-using plastic products. And, she wrote recipes for the George Foreman Grilling Machine. The title of her recipe collection? “Boxer Shorts”!
Her most remarkable idea , however, was an invention she sold to a major American manufacturer when she was 70 years old. In hundreds of thousands of homes across the nation, her Continental drapery rod adds elegance to window treatments. Produced by the Kirsch Company, it has proven to be a drapery bestseller and has created work for a great many people.
During the creation process, though, my father, in a slightly jealous mode, belittled her invention. “You are acting like you put a man on the moon,” he told her.
When she received her first royalty check, she made a copy of it and left it with a note for my father, on the kitchen table. “Dear Pasquale,” it read. “Taking my first trip to the moon. Fix your own supper!” Then she took off for a two-week vacation …all by herself.
You owe it to yourself, to your loved one, to your family to remember the elderly family members. Yes, you have photographs. But the true essence of their personalities needs to be recorded verbally. Begin to assemble the stories that reveal that essence. Ask friends, neighbors, and family members what their favorite story is. Ask your loved ones as well what poignant moments stand out in their minds. And then, commit to weaving those stories into a tapestry that will be treasured.