Julia Rosso

Mama Never Talked

ISSUE 48 | DEAR MOM | JAN 2015

My sister Laura sits here in this kitchen saying, what kind of a wrap do you use? I don’t know what kind of a wrap I use but I say Glad wrap. A minute goes by, what kind of a wrap do you use? Glad wrap. What kind of a wrap do you use? Glad wrap. And the other thing, every minute she says, “What a healthy sandwich you make! You make such a healthy sandwich!” She can’t get over what a healthy sandwich I make. When I go over to her house she has the same ham and the turkey and they slice it so thin and they take one piece of this and one piece of that. Me I’m not complaining, I don’t care, you could give me two slices of bread with nothing on it and I would be in my glory. But there’s no reason why Laura can’t make herself a healthy sandwich in her own house if she loves it so much, she has the meats, she has the cheeses.

You’re right, I should give it to her on a piece of paper. Mama was the same way when she got to be old, Mama would sit there and say “What time is it?” “7:00.” “What time is it?” “7:01.” “What time is it?” “7:02.” So then your grandpa got out a clock for her, a regular standup alarm clock and sat it down on the table right in front of her. So when she said “What time is it?” we would say “Look at the clock” and she would say “Oh, okay” and she was satisfied with that. But then when Big Red came on the commercials—this was when Big Red first came out—must have been 1970-something… Mama would say “Que significa Big Red?” Tony said “Chewing gum.” “Oh, okay.” The next minute the commercial comes on again. “Que significa Big Red?” “Chewing gum.” Mama never had chewing gum in her life, she had no idea what it was.

But Laura I really can’t stand. She tells the same stories over and over again, things that happened a million years ago, and she never forgives people. They called her names, I’ll give her that, they called her names. But I didn’t like the way she treated Mama. Mama would tell her she couldn’t have an aspirin. Well the minute Papa came home Laura would say “Mama won’t give me an aspirin.” He’d say to Mama, “Why you donta giva no aspirin?” I tell her well maybe Mama couldn’t afford it. We were a very poor family, that bottle of aspirin has to stretch out over a long time. But she never thinks of it, Laura. Papa called her his snake eyes. I tell her I would love to be called snake eyes, snakes have very beautiful, very sharp intelligent eyes. But she doesn’t see it that way.

Before Mama died Laura had her eat in the other room—she would have a party but Mama would be eating in the other room, believe it or not. I go in to see her and Mama says to me Julie, I can’t chew this. She couldn’t chew anything that was hard, she didn’t have her teeth, her teeth were in her pocketbook all the time. And she liked to do her crocheting, she always did except in the end she wouldn’t crochet anything with any sense anymore, just these long, long strands that led nowhere, and her crocheting would be in her pocketbook and the teeth would be wrapped up in the crocheting. So I went to Laura and I said, what are you doing giving her uncooked pasta? Meanwhile the pasta for the rest of us was still cooking. She had pulled Mama’s pasta out of the pot early, special. It’s good for her, Laura says. I say, Okay, maybe it’s good for her but why don’t you bring her into the room with everybody else? I really think it’s because she never forgave her from many years ago.

* * *

No, she never talked, my mother never talked about Italy. They never told us anything. My father, he said the goats used to bring them milk every day—I guess he lived more in like the countryside. My mother lived in the city. She had a nice house. All the houses were bombed during the war—she wasn’t living there anymore at that time—and they had to move to an apartment building. But before then when she was there they had a very nice house. And they were well—not well-to-do, but they were good.

And that’s all, and she walked on the mountain with her boyfriend and so, “My mother gave me a good beating for that.” That’s all she said, but that’s probably the time that they threw her out of the country. Sent her to America. That’s the only thing I can come up with for that. Because she didn’t say too much. But she mentioned that lots of times. “I walked on the mountain with my boyfriend and my mother hit me.” Her father, her father hit her. He was very, very mad. And that’s all I know about that. But otherwise she had nothing to say, nothing much.

* * *

The oldest are my two half-brothers, Niccolo and Eckerly, that’s E-R-C-O-L-E, Eckerly. What happened was my mother had the two children and supposedly her husband died, or whether he was just a man that she lived with, whether she was really married to him, I don’t know, your father can’t find any records of him. Whether he died, whether he left her, we don’t know. She said he died. And then she went to work. In order to eat she had to go to work, she had no way of living, they didn’t have welfare and whatever they have now, Medicaid and stuff like that. So she brought the two children to the nuns to take care of them while she worked, but the nuns would not accept the bigger boy, who was about two. They’d take the baby. They were probably two years apart—I think so, because the first one was born 1913, Eckerly was born 1915, that I know for sure. They said we’ll take the baby but we can’t handle the other one because he’s already running around, so she had to put the bigger one in an orphanage. And she didn’t want to, she didn’t want to let either one of them go but she wanted to keep the bigger one because she knew him longer already. But she had no choice, she had to put him in. And then she went to go to work, she used to buy herself one loaf of bread for a nickel, Italian loaf of bread. That was her meal of the day, nothing else.

He turned out to be a very troublesome person, Nick, he lived a very troublesome life. He told your father many stories which I don’t know anything about, the mean, horrible existence that he lived, and he always ran away from home. He’d come home, they’d allow him to come home all of a sudden, and he’d always get into a lot of trouble. In those days anything was a lot of trouble. Nowadays you probably would get away with it. So they’d always put him back into the home. They didn’t put him, authorities come and take him out of the house and put him in the home. At a certain age he either left or he ran away from home and I believe he went to California. How he got there, how he survived, only God knows.

So he disappeared from around the age of 14 or so and we never saw him again until he was into his twenties. And he came into our house on 120th street and I was a teenager, Laura was a teenager, naturally I’m four years younger than Laura so she was seventeen I’d be thirteen or however it went. He’d come in, you could see he had those kind of eyes that would look at girls. Don’t forget we’re blood relatives, but he doesn’t feel that, naturally, and we didn’t feel for him either because we didn’t know him, but we were so happy to see him when he came home! Laura used to talk about her BIG, BIG brother, who never turned out to be that big after all. So he started to come after us with the hands, especially Laura, and right away she told mama. I was the type I kept silent if anybody did anything. She, she always had a big mouth, and good thing! Mama went after him and she said to him, you don’t know how to behave in this house, you’re after your own sisters, we cannot have that, out you go! You want to come for a visit, fine, but out you go. You can’t sleep in this house. He was twenty-three or twenty-something. Find your own place to live.

* * *

My mother hit me every day. On my wedding day she hit me! Every day my mother hit me and I feel that I did not do anything to deserve it, but she felt that I did. And I say she’s probably right, I must’ve did something. She used to hit me because I used to wet the bed, number one. I wet the bed until I was 11. Every morning I woke up, opened my eyes and—TTKK! I’d get a good smack from her. She had three bedwetters, all in one bed, the boys slept up there, and I slept at the bottom here. So now once in a while they would PSHSH make a leak right on me. No joke! Mark wet the bed, Julie wet the bed, Vinny wet the bed, plus she had Joey who wet the bed who was already a big man. If I’m 11, he’s 22 already. He wet til he went to the service. And he had to sleep with his brother, Eckerly, and Eckerly did not wet the bed. We had two beds together in this one bedroom—this is downtown, in Manhattan. My mother and father had one bedroom, Joe and Eckerly had a bedroom, the rest of us all had this one room that we had to squeeze in, so they must have had to squeeze in four girls in one bed, and me over here with the other two boys because we wet the bed. But we all managed well. But of course she had to hit.

Just imagine, they had no washing machines in those days so Gina used to scrub the sheets in the bathtub along with the clothes and everything like that. There’s a hard job to do for any family, let alone a family of bedwetters. She had to scrub on the scrubbing board and then rinse and Joey would squeeze all the water out cause he’s a man and he’s stronger, although nobody was stronger than my sister Gina, she was strong as anything. And lots of stuff, you had to mop constantly, had to keep keeping up with everything. My mother was very clean, very clean. By the time I was 12, I was doing everything already, ironing, washing walls, scrubbing floors, waxing on your knees, we didn’t use brushes or anything, we were on the knees washing, scrubbing, we did a lot of work all the time. And the boys did nothing. Nothing, nothing. Come in from work or from play, sit down and eat, and out they go again. But we all worked very, very hard, and we did it, and we did it my mother’s way, and it was the right way, too. It was good. She had so much work to do, my poor mother.

* * *

My mother was in Italy the summer of ‘39. She went to Italy and got caught there, that she was almost not able to come home, she couldn’t get a ship to come home because the war was beginning. Every Saturday my father would go to meet her at the boat and every Saturday she was not home. This was very, very sad but went on the whole summer. She was so heartbroken because she was going to be stuck there for the duration of the war, if she didn’t get the last ship that they finally put her on to come home. She went for a month, she was stuck there for two whole months, the whole summer. And when she come home, my father had gone out and bought a new bedroom set, he bought other furniture, and my sister Laura went with my father a couple of times to meet the boat and she was never there. And my father was, oh, he was panicking. He didn’t know what to do. And I guess he went to whoever you go to, to find out when is the ship coming, they couldn’t help him. They couldn’t help him. But that last ship she finally came.

So she comes home… she went there with very straight slick hair, like Chinese people. She went away with this slick black hair, she went away that she’s kind of on the heavy side. She comes back with permanent hair… lipstick, bright red lipstick… earrings, pearl earrings… necklace… and silk stockings… my father almost dropped dead. He was so old-fashioned. Don’t change your clothes because he wouldn’t like it. You know bloomers, they called them bloomers because they came below your knees, the elastic came here and here, instead of panties, long bloomers down to here whatever they were made out of I guess cotton. Now she’s wearing silk bloomers. Silk. He couldn’t get over this. They had such fights when she come home. Cause he insists she had a boyfriend and that’s why she was taking long to come home. She said she was crying her heart out over there because all her nieces and nephews over there are constantly asking her for money, constantly want her to buy them ice cream, she says “I never bought my children ice cream, I’m going to buy them ice cream every day?” She was so mad, she wanted to come home so badly and she couldn’t. Until she finally did.

But I didn’t really understand the true meaning of what was happening. I didn’t think that much of it but papa of course was heartbroken, Laura, Gina, cause they were older already. She just made it by the skin of her teeth or she would have been there all those years. When it was my birthday my sisters gave me this dress from my mother that she sent it to me from Italy. But she didn’t, but I believed them. My mother sent me a package from Italy, I was so happy. Such a beautiful dress, it was. So beautiful. Well! It had a swing to it and I was constantly spinning and spinning—I loved it so much. Then I meet Sissy, your grandpa’s sister, wearing the same dress. She looked like hell in it. And here I thought I looked like a queen in mine. So she said to me Oh! You got the same dress as me, I said No I don’t, mine come from Italy. She said no impossible they sell them on 3rd Avenue. I said I’m sorry but my mother sent it from Italy. Which they could have the same stuff there too. But of course it wasn’t. My sisters went to buy it on 3rd Avenue, in that particular shop for me. But I kept telling everybody you see what my mother sent me from Italy? You see what my mother sent me?

She was a different person with that lipstick on, we did not like it, nobody liked it. She never wore it again. Never had lipstick on again. But she looked pretty, she looked really pretty. Because she was pretty. And when they saw her Laura was screaming MAMA MAMA MAMA she went running to her MAMA MAMA she was screaming when she saw her and she always says til now Why did she go to Italy and leave me to watch the kids? Why did she do that? My sister Gina was working, my father was working, so Laura had to watch us, basically watch us all day, you know, do whatever you had to do in the daytime. I says you mean to tell me that Mama can’t go visit her mother one time in her whole life? After not seeing her for all these years? They wrote to each other all the time but when she came to Italy her mother didn’t recognize her. When she left Italy she was 20 I guess. And she was slim and young. Now she’s coming back double the age, let’s say she’s 49, more than double the age, and she’s heavy and she’s got straight hair… She didn’t know her. She didn’t say to her “I don’t know you.” She hugged her, they kissed, but she had no idea it was her daughter. Til that night when my mother got ready to go to bed, she had her slip on, and she saw her birthmark. And she said OOOOOOOOO! Then she was hugging her to death OH THIS IS MY DAUGHTER! Then she let her know, “I didn’t know it was you the whole while.” Up until then she just didn’t believe it was her.

The Hypocrite Reader is free, but we publish some of the most fascinating writing on the internet. Our editors are volunteers and, until recently, so were our writers. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to pay contributors for their work.

Help us pay writers (and our server bills) so we can keep this stuff coming. At that link, you can become a recurring backer on Patreon, where we offer thrilling rewards to our supporters. If you can't swing a monthly donation, you can also make a 1-time donation through our Ko-fi; even a few dollars helps!

The Hypocrite Reader operates without any kind of institutional support, and for the foreseeable future we plan to keep it that way. Your contributions are the only way we are able to keep doing what we do!

And if you'd like to read more of our useful, unexpected content—leave your email below to hear from us when we publish.