Mother’s most precious gifts are her stories
For the Appeal
“A mother can read child-rearing books … but what gets passed along to her children is something far more intimate and mysterious than anything contained therein. What gets passed along is her character, and it enters into her kids as surely and inexorably as water flows from a fuller vessel into a less-full one.” – Lauren Shames
This morning I called my mother to tell her about a concert I’d watched on PBS, so she might check her TV listings in California. Since my mother has played the violin for 70 years, I knew she would enjoy the young violinist from Julliard who played Mozart so beautifully.
Then it struck me: how wonderful that I can still call my mother, hear her voice, share a recipe, laugh together. I can visit her whenever I want – in the evening, we can still have a quiet chat over tea and biscotti; on lazy mornings, I can still lie in bed in her guestroom (our childhood bedroom furniture is there) listening to her work in the kitchen. This week before Mother’s Day, I know I am one of the lucky ones.
It is from my mother that I learned to love story telling. Her stories are not traditional ones with heroes and heroines, but stories about our family’s character, our roots and identity. Her stories describe landscapes and attitudes, define family ties and obligations, confirm family resemblances, explain the inscrutable connections and inevitable rending that bind families. As in most stories about Italians, her stories are really about love – love of place, of people, of ritual.
It seems appropriate that my earliest memory of my mother is not of a remarkable event or holiday, but of her voice. I remember it clearly, though I was only 3 or 4 years old.
It was early evening on a hot Pennsylvania summer day; golden light slanted through the living room window so that everything glowed. My mother, 25 or 26, so young now as I look back, sat on the hardwood floor, barefoot, her suntanned legs stretched out. She held me in her arms as she spoke to someone in the room. My cheek rested against her warm chest; I remember how her breath moved my hair, how her voice seemed to float above me. But I also heard another voice, a secret voice that only I could hear if I pressed my ear closer to her. And when I did, I heard the thrum of her heart.
Perhaps it is my mother’s heart that I still hear when I remember her stories about Italy, the “Old Country,” set among the inland mountains of Lago and the coastal sands of Amantea at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
My mother told of standing on the balcony of her room in the pink villa, just tall enough to rest her chin on the smooth wood railing. From there she watched bonfires across the valley, scent of burning leaves on night air, and wondered what lay beyond the hills.
On walks with her mother in Carolei, familiar streets loud with red geraniums, she ran to touch the stones of an ancient watchtower, stones that the Romans might have touched.
She described the river where wild fennel grew, where my adventurous grandmother was caught in a flash flood and had to be rescued by a friend on horseback.
She had harvest stories, like the olive harvest, when boys climbed the olive trees to shake the heavy limbs, olives falling like black raindrops onto white sheets that laughing girls held beneath.
She told of holy days, of incense that rose like ghosts around the altar, of the Mysteries of the Rosary and the Madonna’s promises to the faithful.
I especially love her stories of food and feasts. Even now, when I cook, I think of the women who came before me, how they might have rubbed dry basil between their palms and scattered it, like offerings, into bubbling red sauce.
My mother has stories for everything, stories told by her own mother: how to watch the moon for the right time to plant; how to bless a new house for good luck; how to chant prayers for l’occhio diabolico, the evil eye; how to boil yellow chamomile flowers for tender tea to soothe a sour stomach; how to whisper to crying babies; how to urge seeds to leave their safe husks behind, and grow.
She’s added her own stories, and through them I understand how I am part of something bigger than just myself: stories about the war in Europe; my great-grandfather feeding the poor from his own land; leaving everything known behind to emigrate to America; learning English and becoming a U.S. citizen; meeting my father and building a life in her new country.
Of all the gifts my mother gave me, the most precious are her stories. I know the words by heart now, for her stories have become part of my own.
• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City, where she is mother to three children, stepmother to two, and so far, grandmother to four.