Celebrate and Mourn

I am Italian. Ok, I am an Italian-American. Well, I am an Irish-Italian American. FINE. I am an Irish-Italian-German (like, only a touch German)-American. But my single mother was (is) a full-blooded, New Jersey Eyetalian-American. Ergo so am I. Alright, last caveat. I’m from Pennsylvania, not New Jersey. It’s an important distinction.

Today is Loretta Festa’s (really her real Jersey Italian-American name) 60th birthday. A week from today is Loretta’s 3rd death anniversary. In true dramatic fashion, my instinct is to both celebrate and mourn. Not quite laugh-and-cry. More like howl-and-sob. And eat and drink. I thought that was implied, but realized in re-writes that not everyone reading this is Italian-American.

Without it being an objective of mine, I’ve been ‘around’ my Mom as of late. Looking back on the last few weeks, the pull to her feels completely cosmic. I’m in her orbit. In the first of two cemetery visits over the last three weeks, I was struck by where my thoughts wandered as I laid on the ground of her grave. Looking up at the friendly Maple tree just beginning it’s fall wardrobe change, I started to think about what life would be like if she was alive.

What life was like when she was alive. My thirteenth birthday. I am being scolded for outlandish behavior just before I opened her present. She got me a team field hockey sweatshirt. All my friends and fellow hockey players had one, and I felt so left out sans sweatshirt. As soon as I opened the box, I was liteally jumping for joy.

In the three years of life after her death, and the ten years prior of her struggle with Early On-Set Dementia, I never once let myself wander to the land of What If. The sign read, “Do Not Enter.”

She was terminal.

I was (am) a motherless daughter.

It was a new role.

Be here (there) now.

At the onset of the last 13 years, I had an acute awareness to the dangers of what my life will be like if I never got over my mother’s cruel fate. Tormented. Forlorn. Bitter. Fractured. Exhausted. Neurotic. Empty. Unhappy. For survival, I leaned into the reality of this motherless role for which I was not prepared. I dared not ponder, “What if she lived?” “What if she never got sick?” “What if she was happy?” “What if she thrived?” for fear I’d never recover from the disappointing, devastating meeting of dreams and reality.

Like my astrological-earth-animal archetype, I put my head down and one foot in front of the other.

Step. She is suffering.

Step. She is going to die.

Step. She is dead.

Step. Your life continues.

Up the mountain, goat

So when I was graveside shaded by Maple leaves and musing about a poem to write titled “I Lay on Your Bones,” I was dumbstruck when thoughts of the strength of her skeleton lead me to what the night before would have been like if she were present. I understand that reads quite anti-climatically, but this head space is a whole new world.

The night before I accomplished a rite of passage comparable only to a religious sacrament in divinity and sanctity-I made my Great Grandmother’s meat sauce. I not only made Elviria Ferrante’s signature, family-style, comfort food for which all living family members remember her by, I slayed that sauce. The batch yielded 30 legitimately hearty servings. Master Italian-American homecook level unlocked.

My family stuffed their faces and swooned. It was a moment of absolute pride and joy. I asked my Aunt Karen if my she thought my mom would be proud of me for making the food of our foremother. She replied that I need to get over it-my mom is always proud of me.

Sauce slayer.
The wind blows and the leaves sway on the cemetery hilltop. There’s a rock under my right side. I remove it surrendering my weight to the ground below me. I close my eyes. My breath deepens. I begin to down the yellow brick road to the land of What If.

If my mom was alive, I’d sit her at the head of table.

If my mom was alive, I’d pour her the driest Chianti in The Garden State.

If my mom was alive, I wouldn’t have a few beers while I cooked.

If my mom was alive, I’d definitely not smoke cigarettes when she was around.

If my mom was alive, I’d serve her first with the best pieces of meat.

If my mom was alive, I’d ask her to bless our table, our food, our family.

If my mom was alive, I’d raise my glass to her and honor her with words of love, admiration and respect.

If my mom was alive, she’d roll her eyes and exclaim, “Madone! This is good!” and declare me Boss of the Tomato Sauce.

If my mom was alive, she’d poke fun at family members and laugh loudly at her corny jokes.

If my mom was alive, she’d become very serious about serous topics and dive straight into the heart of the matter.

If my mom was alive, she’d be beaming taking in the meaning of this moment in time.

If my mom was alive, she’d be drunk after one glass of wine.

If my mom was alive, after dinner she’d immediately make coffee and start doing the dishes.

If my mom was alive, she’d come behind me while I was cleaning up, hug me, kiss the back of my head, tell me how much she enjoyed everything and what a good job I did.

If my mom was alive, we’d talk late into the night dunking biscottis into our coffee.

If my mom was alive, we’d be over caffenatied and start dancing to Van Morrison in the living room.

If my mom was alive, she’d tell everyone she spoke to thereafter about our wonderful night re-creating the aura of Great Grandmom’s house.

In the throes of my fantasy life, I found myself smiling up to the sentinel Maple. Eureka! I can think about what life would be like with her in it, and it’s not painful. “She supports me still,” I thought, “as I lay on her bones.”
I didn’t want my joyride through the land of What If to stop at a family celebration, so I hit the road.

If my mom was alive, I’d travel with her to Italy and France.

If my mom was alive, I’d talk to her on the phone about my love life (and lack thereof).

If my mom was alive, I’d host her in New York. We’d go to museums and fancy dinners and theater and ballets and concerts.

If my mom was alive, we’d go to Peace Valley Park when we needed quality mother-daughter time.

If my mom was alive, I’d excitedly run to tell her about professional achievements like my podcast with Peter Moville where I wax philosophical about planning.

If my mom was alive, we’d bake Christmas cookies and listen to the same Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers, and the same John Denver and The Muppets Christmas records we listened to every year since 1984.

If my mom was alive, she’d hassle me until I went to the doctor.

If my mom was alive, we’d take yoga classes together.

If my mom was alive, we’d put flowers on my brother’s grave together.

If my mom was alive, I’d go to church with her.

If my mom was alive, I’d want to plan my future.

The branches rustle with a familiar brusque energy. “She wants to teach me something,” I thought noticing the atomospheric change. My mom was abrupt when she wanted me to learn as if it was always urgent.

If my mom was alive, she’d tell me my life is my responsibility so get to work.

I’m going, Ma. I’m going. Happy Birthday.

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