Believe me, I have thought a great deal about this one. I wasn’t really sure I could even write it, even though I’ve written about lot of others in my family, including my Dad.
Yeah, it’s, as the cliche goes, complicated. Writing about my Mom was never going to be easy because in her own simple way, she was an interesting bunch of people, none of whom I knew completely. And to include her sisters, well, why? Doesn’t that just make it harder?
Yes, it does, but to know my Mom and to know her sisters was to get a glimpse of alternative worlds, because Mom, Dot (Domenica) and Rita were not interchangeable pieces. In appearance, Dot favored Grandpop, at least as a kid. As I got older, a lot of people assumed, by appearance, that I was Dot’s son. This, of course, thrilled my Mom to no end. I guess at some level she figured if she had to put up with me, she was damned if anyone else was going to get the credit, if you want to call it that. So if you’re thinking there must have been some sibling stuff going on here, I’d say, well, you’re right. It was the 800 pound Goombah in the room. This is going to take some explaining, including speculation about stuff that happened long before I was born. So, you know, for what it’s worth.
My Mom, Maddalena Villari (she spelled it Vallari in high school for a time. I used to think that was just Mom being contrary, but a second cousin of mine has got me thinking it may have been more significant than that. My Grandmother’s (Francis Delia) midwife–one at least, was named Vallari, which has set off a wave of speculation about degrees of affinity in the family–which I think is possibly significant. I’ll explain later). Dot was the eldest. Mom was a year younger. and Rita was the youngest. They were all born in the United States, and my Mom in 1924. She died in 2015 at Bryn Mawr Hospital. I wasn’t there. She wasn’t supposed to die just yet, but crossed signals were always a problem for us. Until the end.
Mom went to Horace Furness Public School, which opened in 1912 (at least that’s what the cornerstone says). It is still at 3d and McKean in South Philly, although it is now a high school. She never talked much about it, other than to tell me once that she had a classmate who publicly said he wanted to be a trash man when he grew up. When queried about this considered choice of occupation, Mom said he replied “Someone has to do it.” Unlike us 1950s and 1960s veterans of parochial school, she had no tales of nun-sadism, cruelty, or savage Commies devouring Communion wafers. Stuff was different in 1930, I guess.
She did not go to parochial school, I strongly suspect because her father, Joe Villari, was a wee bit anticlerical, as many Italian men of his generation were. Or maybe because the nearest parochial school would have been at 11th and Jackson, The Epiphany, which went back to 1889. Since 11th and Jackson would have been right around the corner from 912 Tree Street, where she lived, it was closer to home. Furness, was a 15 minute walk, a lot farther for a little kid, even then. Joe didn’t much like priests in the 1950s. I can’t imagine what he was like in the 1920s.
I think that place on Tree Street was probably new (built in 1925, supposedly) when my Mom was a kid, so Grandmom and Grandpop were doing ok by our standard. They could afford a home. Not that East Passyunk was Merion, but, like I say, I never heard any complaints. It looks sort of typical South Philly today, with window units, a “custom” door, wrought iron railing–but observe the stoop. White Marble. Accept no substitutes. In today’s prices, it would have been worth about $42,000, or working class in Cobbs Creek or Feltonville. That sounds about right.
Mom never really talked much about her childhood. When I do think about it, I think of Luke 10:42, “Mary has chosen the better part.” I gather my Mom was studious in a conventional way, but that Dot, who had ambitions to sing opera, was more of an intellectual. Which meant that when it came to getting housework done and the girls were supposed to chip in, Mom would clean (she said) and Dot would sit and read a book. This rang true, because I knew my Aunt to be a reader later in life (she lent me copies of stuff by Jack Paar) while my Mom wasn’t, so I can just imagine the friction between Mom and Dot, you know, the Martha and Mary of the Villaris. Mom was the National Honors Society type. Dot and Rita, I have no idea, but I don’t think so. And with Mom, of course, inevitably, it was about grades. Well, where do you think I got it?
At some point, maybe it was junior high, or at Southern, in high school, in Philly, that stuff got a little out of hand. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the gist of it was that Mom flunked some test and, as she put it, “made herself sick.” Whatever the Hell it was, it must have been a doozy, because she had to drop out of school for a semester. Looking back on it, I now figure my Mom must have had some kind of “breakdown” (as they then said) which presented itself in something akin to pneumonia. Over a test? Well, if you knew my Mother, this would not have seemed totally implausible. I have no medical qualifications, but it’s safe to see Mom suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder. These seem to have run through most of the Italian families I knew growing up, although no one called it that.
A lot of the Italians I knew were wound pretty tight, and they could be very inflexible. It was typically well intentioned–to keep a kid out of trouble–but it ended up making a normal adolescent instinct to become independent turn some of us into, well, distant and and bit touchy. You know the type. Michael Corleone, for one. I had to laugh when a colleague said I got this Michael Corleone look on my face when someone pissed me off. I hadn’t noticed, but it’s sort of useful at times. And, at times, not so much. I don’t blame my Mother. I didn’t have the common sense to step back and realize she was hurting. Not trying to hurt me. Which, believe me, I regret more than people might suspect.
Well, enough of that. I heard more funny stories about Madeline and her sisters as they grew up than I can remember. You know, they were three very attractive young women with an old-fashioned Sicilian father, which I gather made for some hysterical incidents. One of the best was one my Mom told on Dot and Rita, who happened to get involved with two nice Polish/Hungarian American boys, both of whom they eventually married. Grandpop apparently decided he had to keep an eye on someone, although whether it was Dot and Rita or Stan and Joe was not real clear.
So if they were entertaining their beaux in the living room in the evening on Haverford Avenue, Joe Villari apparently worked up a powerful thirst at least twice an evening. He had to come down from upstairs–he should have been sleeping–to get a glass of water in the kitchen. Which meant he had to make an appearance coming and going. Now we had plumbing, you know? And running water upstairs. But he–not Grandmom–felt the need to come down and make sure everything was on the up and up. He didn’t say anything. Since he was a pretty square-jawed Sicilian–sort of 5X5 guy–this was a little like having a more benign version of Luca Brasi being your chaperone. My Mother seemed to regard this with a sort of “served them right” attitude, as if Louie calling her up and playing Body and Soul on the tenor sax maintained the proper distance and affectionate air. I wish I could have been there for any or all of this, but, well, that would have presented a problem in temporal sequence, especially in those more chaste times.
Of the other sisters, I was closest to Dot. I think that was because she was most like me–which bugged everyone other than Dot. Stan, he husband, was a buddy of Gene Krupa’s and going to Dot’s place meant I could listen to music without seeming….distant. As I got older, I had a lot of fun needling Dot, particularly after she moved to Delaware Country and became a Reagan Democrat. She actually became a Committee-Person (is that ok?) and was friends with the former Mayor of Marcus Hook and 10-term crooked Republican Congressman (and Trumper) Curt Weldon. I never let Dot forget I thought Weldon was a sleaze, which the FBI apparently agreed with, ” raiding” his daughter’s home right before his final election, which he lost. Fortunately, for Dot, she was gone by the time Curt was doing his Abscam thing. But Dot had been the Executor of my Grandmother’s estate, so I take it that my Grandparents figured she was the capable one, and they were right. She’s another one I miss a great deal, and she adored Linda. I think she figured I was lucky and better not louse things up. So far, so good.
Things with my Mom sort of were in a bad equilibrium. I lived far away, first in California, then in Texas. She wouldn’t fly. Mom loved her grandchildren, so we did a lot of traveling. She lived alone, and as she aged–she died at 92–it just got more complicated. I tried to get her to come to San Antonio–at one point a cottage home across the street from us was for sale, but no way. Of course not. It made too much sense. Her health steadily deteriorated–I hadn’t realized how much–until she fell and, well, you know what happens from there. The rest is still not something I want to talk about. Other than to say, there must have been a better way and I live with the feeling I should have been the grown up. You live and learn, or else. Did I tell you my daughter, Rosie, has a lovely cat named “Maddie?” Mom hated animals, especially dogs and cats. In this family, Irony is the only God.
Rest in Peace.