Martyr’s Day

Ahh, Mother’s Day.

I think if most mothers were being completely honest, they’d tell you they’d forgo gifts and flowers for the opportunity to be left alone.  No cooking, no cleaning, no children, no husband, no pets.  Alone.  To do anything they want.  First thing on the list?  A nap.

I was never a fan of Mother’s Day when I was growing up.  My mother would always tell my sister and me that she didn’t want gifts for Mother’s Day.  All she wanted was love and respect.  We knew better, though.  We knew that if we didn’t come up with some kind of gift, we would be stricken repeatedly with the Italian guilt stick. Not in an obvious  I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-love-and-respect-me-enough-to-buy-me-a-gift way, mind you, but in a total Jedi mind trick kind of way.  It would go something like this:

Mom: I was talking to Zia Lisa today.
Me: Oh? How is she doing?
Mom: She’s doing great! Her boys gave her round-trip tickets to Italy for Mother’s Day.  They love their mother, those boys.  They love their mother.

Great.  Must kill cousins at next family function. And by ‘family function’, I mean funeral.  Unfortunately, someone must be sacrificed in order for our family to get together, which is odd because we were kind of up each other’s asses when we were little.

My mother is one of eight children – four boys and four girls.  They grew up on a farm in Italy in what can only be described as abject poverty.  She tells stories of being overjoyed about getting an orange in her stocking at Christmas and fighting with her siblings over the fat from a piece of meat.  The boys went to school until the fifth grade; the girls only until the third grade.  All but two of them emigrated to America in the 1960s, worked for slave wages and managed to scrape enough together to support themselves and eventually bring their parents over.

They lived on Union Street in Wilmington’s Little Italy.  My father (also an Italian immigrant) was a teller in a bank on Union Street. My mother would go into the bank to deposit her paychecks and he was lovestruck, so the story goes.  She was evidently engaged to someone in Italy, but he somehow convinced her to marry him instead.  They’ve been married for about 175 years.  OK, so it’s only been 47 years (‘only’..haha), but it must feel like 175.

That reminds me of a line my husband likes to use:

Unwitting Friend: ‘How long have you and your wife been married?’
Jack: ’20 years, but it feels like only five minutes…underwater.’


Being a 1st-generation American probably sounds quaint to most people. Looking back on it, I appreciate the tradition and the close-knit extended family.  As an adolescent, however, it was another story.  As a kid, you want nothing more than to just blend in with your peers.  That’s virtually impossible when your parents are from a different country with different customs and traditions.  For instance, it’s really, really difficult to explain the monumental importance of having Nike sneakers to someone who squeezed her feet into the same pair of shoes for three years and walked five miles to school in them until the soles were worn and her feet were blistered.

Or something like that.

So, I spent my adolescence in Fayva Rainbow Stripes sneakers (designed, I suppose, to look kind of like Adidas, but they weren’t fooling anyone).  We didn’t have sleepovers and we didn’t have pets.  We didn’t wear designer clothes (they were a waste of money) and we didn’t participate in extra-curricular activities because practice would interfere with dinner (at 5:30 sharp).

OhmyGod.  I just had a flashback.  My dad had a special whistle to summon us home for dinner when we were outside playing.  It was a series of 13 short, consecutive whistles.  We would hear it and know it was time to go home.  Like dogs.

Yeah.  We blended right in.

We did have food, though.  Lots of delicious food.  And all those things I wanted but couldn’t have?  The hunger for them made me the hard worker I am today.

And love.  We were loved.  Having met many broken people from dysfunctional families, I appreciate that more than anything.  So, today I will wish my mother the happiest of Mother’s Days.  We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye and it hasn’t always been a lovefest, but I know that – just like me and just about every other mother on the planet – she did the very best she could.  And that deserves a tip of the hat.


6 thoughts on “Martyr’s Day

  1. nice….loved the part about being first generation Italian. In HS my best friend parent’s were first generation Greeks. Mr. Diamond could barely speak English so his wife did most of the talking….He owned a successful sandwich shop way out in Hockessin called JDs..long before the building boom. I loved Sunday dinners at their house. So much delicious food and lots of talking and laughing…Not so much at my house. You see we were the dysfunctional family and that was a struggle to hide.

  2. Very nice post.
    As a gift to a few close friends for mother’s day – I sent them a link to your blog:) Win, win, win… they get to laugh more, your readership grows and rep as a gifted writer persists and bonus… it didn’t cost me a dime:)

  3. We didn’t have a dog whistle, my father stuck two fingers in his mouth (well, a finger and a thumb) and let out a piercing whistle that could be heard to the Pennsylvania line. Of course, we grew up in Hockessin, so you could practically walk across the bridge that was the stench from the mushroom houses the few miles it took to cross over the state line . . .

    I am second generation American. My paternal grandparents came here from Austria in the late 1890s. I could barely understand my grandfather and my grandmother was a taciturn woman who spoke little and showed her affection by feeding us pierogies, stuffed cabbage and bread (every hour on the hour, it seemed). My father, not only raised by immigrants, but during the Depression, no less, was very firmly entrenched in the ‘buy nothing unnecessary’ camp. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down courdorouys to high school. Loose in the waist, tight in the thighs, and rolled up about 3x for maximum coolness, of course. You could hear me coming three hallways away.

    We did not get brand name EVER. We were thrilled to get a semi-annual stop at a McDonalds (“I can make that better at home!” – which, while true, means nothing to consumerist children) and our occasional ‘Tastee Freeze” outing.

    My father, like your mother and father, loved us with food. We never wanted for it unless visiting a friend’s house. I’ll never forget the first time I stayed the night at a friend’s house. After dinner, my friend’s mother offered us ice cream. YES! Ice cream was one of the desserts of choice in my house, so I was excited. When the bowl was placed in front of me, I couldn’t help but think a cruel joke was being pulled on me. A scoop of dry vanilla? Seriously?

    At the Simmons house, my Dad gave his six children three to four scoops a piece, depending on your reliability in finishing it (and he remembered). There was always a choice of interesting flavors and toppings from which to choose. We dug batcaves and tunnels in our mountains of icecream. They were works of friggin’ ART! One scoop? Vanilla? No hot fudge, caramel, fresh strawberries? I ate it to be polite, but I wanted to scoff and send this mother to a Food the Immigrant Way course.

    Oh, and speaking of hardships our parents had to endure: my father had to deliver milk in the mornings before school. In. the. SNOW!

  4. Not one of you mentioned that your parents walked 5 miles to school in shoes with cardboard soles and up hills both ways.

    I get the biggest kick out of the stories my father tells about growing up. I didn’t think they were so great when I was growing up, but now I laugh and laugh. Sometimes so hard I cry.

    BTW, I sure hope your Mother never told her brother, My Dad, about her orange. He only got a nut.

  5. You’re right, it was 13 notes. He also used it when he was looking for us in a store, like Wilmington Dry Goods, to summon us away from the bin of Nikes at the foot of the kids shoe aisle that had us mesmerized. It’s a shame I never learned to whistle, because I have to admit, I’d love to pull that Pavolian shit on my girls today.

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