Here I Stand....

"Standin' on the edge of something much too deep
It's funny how we feel so much but we cannot say a word
We are screaming inside, but we can't be heard..." Sarah McLachlan, I Will Remember You

....will you join me?

I started this blog a few years ago when I was on the threshold of menopause. Now that I've passed through that particular gate, I found two more awaiting me... one called "Divorce" and the other "Breast Cancer." This is my journey through both.

I appreciate the company of friends.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Of Matriarchs and Mothers

The main activity at my stepdad's 75th surprise party was the taking of a family picture that included all my siblings, grandchildren, in-laws and significant others.  We gathered on my brother's backyard slope, under the searing afternoon sun.  Chairs were suggested for my mother and stepdad.  As we clustered around them, a motley crew if ever there was one, I was reminded of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip sitting side by side in William and Kate's bridal picture. 

There were a lot of us.  Besides my parents and my three sibs, there are five significant others, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.  It took a lot of shuffling and shifting to get it right.  My mother sat and chuckled while the rest of us scurried back and forth at the photographer's bidding.

As in the wedding pictures of the royal couple, there won't be any doubt who's in charge. 

I come from a long line of strong women.

The first woman of my lineage I can name is my great-great-grandmother, Angelina.  She was born exactly a hundred years before I was, in 1859, in a little village on an island hugging the shores of Naples, and she died before my mother was even born, on an island that hugs the South Jersey coast.   When she came through Ellis Island, she had her daughter, Benedetta, for whom I am named, with her.  When my mother finally went back to see the little island within sight of Mt Vesuvius from which my mother's family comes, she was amazed to see so many of the same last names she had known as a child in Ocean City.  "It's like a member or two of every family just picked up and moved to another six thousand miles away."  My great-grandfather's family was from the same village; he didn't have to go a quarter way around the world to find her.   And it certainly explains my itch to move to the Big Island - an island six thousand miles from the one on which I was born. 

But what it would have been like, to get on a ship and know you would never see your home again?  In this day when my youngest can text and instant message and Facebook me any hour of the day or night, she has no sense even of what it was like for me when I went to England as a 17 year old exchange student.  No cellphones, no computers - only pay phones and letters that still took at least five days to cross the ocean.  I thought that required a lot of backbone then... I can't imagine what it would've been like to get on a ship with children in tow, and know that not only would you never see anywhere or anyone you ever knew or loved again, you might not even make it to your destination alive. 

My grandmother evidenced the steel to make those kinds of decisions:  she was a strong, but rigid woman, who didn't know how to let go or give in.   I know she loved me; the trouble was that her kind of love was as sweet as vinegar.   A few years ago, I happened to catch a documentary about Neapolitan "godmothers" - female leaders of the Italian Mafia capable of running their family businesses every bit as cold-bloodedly as their male counterparts.  I watched it, fascinated, feeling both a chill, and a familiarity.

But it's my mother who embodies the concept of matriarch.  No monarch of any empire past or future will ever occupy a position as secure in the hearts and minds of her subjects.   Our feelings may waver between love and terror, fondness and frustration in the same way, I imagine, a sailor experiences the sea.  I've never met another woman who can match her.  I haven't always liked my mother.  But there's something about my mother I've always respected and mostly admired.

I didn't really understand what it was until one day my husband observed that he found my mother awe-inspiring.  "Your mother is a woman who made a man give up God."  The admiration in my husband's voice was palpable.

Men love my mother, I answered, somewhat dismissively.  Even her friends notice it, wherever she goes, men just love my mother.

"No, no," my husband said.  "This is more than that.  Of course, men love your mother... I love your mother...but I also know men.  I know a lot of ministers and rabbis and priests.  You don't just leave God for anyone.  Your mother is... is like  a force of nature."

That was when I began to understand the real gift that my mother had given to me.  By breaking with every tradition available to a small town Italian-Catholic wife and mother, she set me free from every traditon that might've bound me.  She opened my mind to the realization that human will trumps just about every force in the known universe; that all so-called "sacred" scripture isn't necessarily sacred and that Authority isn't just to be questioned; it's to be challenged, and when appropriate, fought and overcome. 

As a mother, she showed how to raise my own children both in what she did and didn't do.  As a writer and a story-teller, her choices are an immeasurable gift to my imagination and my intellect.  And as a woman, there is simply no one like her.  If I am facing my old age bravely, I know it's mostly because of her.  My mother, goddess bless her, makes 76 seem young. 

Which brings me back to what I thought yesterday as the photograph from across my brother's street so kindly snapped away at us in the sultry heat:  Long live the Queen.     


  1. And one day that scepter shall be passed. Indeed, long live the queen!

  2. Very beautifully said Nan! As another matriarch in training, I once said about our mother, she is like her own country. To which my husband quipped, "she certainly flies her own flag".


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