Her name was Carminella. She was born in a small town in Abruzzi, in Italy, and she came to the United States when she was still a teenager and spoke no English. Can you imagine the amount of bravery it would take to do such a thing? To move to a new country, by yourself, knowing that you would not be able to communicate with the most of the people there?
The fear she must have felt did not stop her. She came. She built a life for herself. She married a man from Sicily, and they had two children. First my late husband, Tony, then his beautiful sister, Mary Ann. They were the best parents they knew how to be. I never met Tony’s dad – he died a little less than a year before we met – but I saw much of Tony’s mom in Tony. I’ve written before about his work ethic and the difficulty he had relaxing. He got those traits from his mom.
When Carmela (as she preferred to be called) lost her husband, she was lost herself for a time. I understand that. When someone is so deeply entwined with your life and you lose them – however you lose them – you have to rediscover who you are without that person. It’s a painful process. Tony’s mom was reluctant to sell the house that the two of them bought with the money they earned working at Polaroid, but it truly was too large a house for her to maintain on her own. She agonized over the decision – as she did over many decisions, much like Tony — but she finally did sell the house and move into a condo not far from there.
It ended up being a good decision for her, however long it took her to make it. She made new friends there. She did things she’d never done, like take yoga. I still remember the day Mary Ann called Tony to tell him that. The yoga was big news, but the bigger news was that she’d worn pants. Tony’s mom never wore pants, she was always in a skirt. Always neat and pretty. She was so pretty – Tony and Mary Ann both got their good looks from her.
I have said this before, but she was unfailingly generous to me. Even this year, as she was dying, she remembered my birthday. I have a beautiful opal necklace that she gave me, a scarf that she made for me and one she bought for me in France, and – most precious of all — memories of her kindness. The memories that are harder are the ones of talking to her the day after Tony died, and how broken she sounded. Of hugging her when I visited in July and feeling how frail her body was, and hearing and seeing how my presence there, without Tony, cracked her open.
These next few weeks were always going to be hard ones for everybody who loved Tony. Three weeks from today will be the one-year anniversary of his death. I dread that date so much. It’s a strange thing. It’s just a date on the calendar, December 21st, but it will never be just that to me again. It’s like my own personal Pearl Harbor Day. There is before, and there is after.
Today is a new day with a before and after. My sweet mother-in-law tried so hard, and she fought so valiantly against the cancer that had taken over her body. I am grateful that she is no longer suffering. I will always miss her.