My mother, born Serafina Gaetana, was the last surviving member of a large immigrant family, and one of the latest casualties of the new Coronavirus; 19. There were no last visits, we were not able to hold her hand or touch her cheek. We buried her in a burnished casket yesterday on Long Island, next to my father. The funeral was by Zoom.
Mom’s long-term skilled nursing facility in New York closed to visitors in March, days after I cancelled my scheduled trip to see her. I was warned off by my younger brother, whose decades of front-line work at a large public hospital made him understand early that this highly contagious and little understood virus was not to be messed with. Some weeks passed and mom was diagnosed with COVID-19. By that time, 50% of those in the facility were infected. She held on for a month with ups and downs, before finally succumbing to it.
My mother was one of 13 children, 7 of whom survived infancy or toddlerhood. Four little ones died in Sicily; two in Brooklyn. The records for two-year-old Arcangela gave a terse hint at the heartbreak of the 1918 flu pandemic: “bronchopneumonia, acute bronchitis, heart failure, temporary grave.”
Mom was a proud high school graduate, the only one in her family. She and my father married just out of their teens. Their parents’ signature X of permission was part of the marriage license. They weathered the Great Depression and enjoyed the relative recovery of the economy – the expansion of labor unions, and New Deal benefits like the eight-hour workday, workplace health care, sick and vacation leaves, social security, and retirement pensions. My parents had 3 children, me included, all of whom survived infancy.
As a young girl she lived in a succession of rented Brooklyn Park Slope brownstones nearly a century before the neighborhood became the expensive home to professionals, pundits, and movie stars, back when day laborers from the WPA – the New Deal work program – could afford to live there. The family moved often, each time to a slightly better place. Every apartment was still near the church and the Italian bakeries that made the best fluffy Sicilian pizza and lemon ice; the most delicious special occasion cassatas – Sicilian sweet ricotta rum cakes. For each move, their piano was hoisted up with pulleys and swung through the long windows.
Her father in Sicily was a tenant farmer; here he worked construction jobs and WPA projects until he became the janitor for their apartment building. Vittorio was stern, and expected the children to maintain the tradition of kissing his hand when he came home each evening. There was always food on the table; the children’s friends often asked to eat supper at their house. Her mother Orazia Nicolina never refused, but did insist on being asked first. The meal was pasta with sauce – homemade macaroni, the dough shapes skillfully turned out by fork, sometimes mixed with fasul beans, and meat, if they had it – sausages, meatballs, or brasciole; a little wine and crusty Italian bread.
I never met my mother’s mother; she died when mom was just 19. After 13 births, 6 lost babies, and a lifetime of scrubbing clothes with a tub and washboard, it was the asthma that finally took her spent body. Before that, though, she made sure each of her boys had an apprenticeship in a trade like baking or shoemaking until they went off to war on Normandy Beach or the South West Pacific. The girls were encouraged – as she believed proper – toward marriage, even as they entered the wartime work world.
Mom grew up strictly supervised. Her preadolescent chest was bound tightly with cloth under her clothes to camouflage her maturity. At her first menstrual period, she thought the vaginal blood meant she was dying. Her mother calmly sent her to her sister Carmela, older by 10 years, for instruction and clean rags to absorb the monthly flow. Afterward, grandma told my mother now “Don’t let any boys touch you.” Mom’s other sister Lali was working at the Army Base and introduced my father and mother. When they started dating, Carmela would chaperone, sometimes with her new husband Michele. My father told me he knew right away that if he took my mother out, he “would have to marry her,” the honorable Sicilian culmination to a chaste courtship. And, so he did.
My two brothers, me, and my young parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment near my father’s parents in the Italian immigrant community of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The apartment’s landlady regularly turned the heat off in wintertime. She hated the sound of our footsteps on the floor above her, and let us know by banging a broomstick on her ceiling. The freezing nights led to my mother’s pneumonia, more worrisome due to a vulnerability from a childhood bout with Scarlet Fever. The family doctor, who on his house calls would only ask for five dollars (“If you have it”), became our advocate. One frigid night he arrived to read the riot act to Mean Old Landlady Catherine. We had heat from then on (Thank you, doctor Fanta).
It’s impossible to tell you about my mother without talking about my father. Misale Antonino left school in the 11th grade to help support his family. He loved to read about history. He tried to enlist, but was rejected based on disability. His jobs were: day laborer, then changing gigantic tires on military vehicles at the Brooklyn Army Base, then mechanic in auto sales, then a factory worker making airplane parts – with a part-time night job as a movie theatre usher (“Hey buddy, put out that cigarette.”). When I was 3, my parents bought a small house on Long Island for $6,000. It was by a cluster of houses built by our neighbor, Marty Hamilson, known to the locals as “Old Man Hamilson.” Valley Stream was a town that was rural-becoming-suburban, and us kids thought we had died and gone to The Country. My father, with his friend Nick, who shared our last name, but as far as we knew, not our blood – spent weekends painting it. We couldn’t believe the backyard and pebbled streets; couldn’t get enough of running in and out of the bungalow, the heavy dark green wooden screen doors slamming behind us while our father and Uncle Nick got the house ready for our move. The lingering scent of thick, oil-based paint lasted for years, it seemed. It smelled of promise.
On his second try of the Civil Service Exam, my father passed it and became a Valley Stream letter carrier: “Miles the Mailman.” He walked a route carrying the heavy leather bag despite having an arm underdeveloped by nerve damage during a clumsy forceps birth (family lore says the doctor was drunk when called to the midnight home birth of 12-pound baby dad). He eventually progressed to the use of a mail cart, and finally a jeep, on his route. The upgrades allowed for a morning cup of coffee at his friend’s luncheonette, and sometimes a quick lunch of ham and swiss on toasted rye in our kitchen. And from neighbors along the route, countless glasses of lemonade and iced tea on hot summer days; steaming cups on the rainy and snowy ones.
My mother worked as a bookkeeper during the war, stopped working outside for some years when we were little, then became a school lunchroom aide. She re-entered the full-time work force as a bookkeeper for the telephone company. She kept a super clean house, taught me how to turn the kitchen chairs upside down and use a knife to pare off dust stuck on bottom of the legs. She was my Brownie and Girl Scout leader. She bought us matching white sundresses with red strawberries and rickrack trim on them. She took me to Broadway shows and bought the soundtrack records. I still know all the words to all the songs. From the swing set in our backyard, anchored by cement cubes, I could hear her singing with the radio as she ironed our clothes in the kitchen. I would swing and sing “Tammy” for hours, daydreaming by the blooming lilac and pear trees. In my other grandmother’s kitchen, my mother would sit and watch her cook so she could write down the Arabic-tinged recipes to give me. Mom always kept our refrigerator too full of food, and for too long.
After my father died 22 years ago, my mother began auditing college courses as part of a senior student program. She took every course offered. In her later years, whenever she would have an argument with us kids, she liked to remind us, “I know – I went to college!” She volunteered at the campus day care center. Growing up she’d wanted to be a teacher, said she had a desire to teach Black children – “little p*ckaninnies with their little braids” – her wistful smile crashed into the offensive term she used for the students who she was never to meet, who were spared the sympathies of another Nice White Lady On A Mission. I don’t remember if that conversation was the start of one of our fights, or if I bit my tongue and redirected my newfound outrage somewhere more productive. Could have gone either way.
When she started showing dementia in her 80’s, the kitchen table grew stacks of papers collected from every place she visited. Now and then she would send a packet to me in California, along with some fallen autumn leaves. She had more clothes than she could ever wear, all neatly folded and piled up on every chair. She had a decade’s worth of white plastic bread bag clasps in a kitchen drawer. From my flawed but good-enough mother and father, I received the benefit of witnessing their great love and loyalty for each other and seeing a man who every evening never failed to caress his wife’s face and tell her he loved her. After years of ruminating, running, resenting, and sometimes relenting, I concluded my parents did the best they could to be good providers and parents, although they showed their love to me in some ways different than the ways I show love to my own child.
From them I also gained a deep understanding of the struggles working people face and overcome in our lives. Both my parents became union members and supporters through their jobs. I’m glad they were able to enjoy some retirement years together and visit the Sicilian birthplaces of their parents.
We disagreed on many issues, but we did mostly see eye to eye on workers’ rights and solidarity. When I was a young college student, our arguments about civil rights, the war on Vietnam, and the guy I was dating boiled over to where I saw no other recourse but to move out of the house. Even so, on visits, I was all in for their stories about job actions and picket lines. Years after the war on Vietnam finally ended, my mother conceded that on this issue, “You were right, Jo.” I don’t think I ever told her she was right about much of anything then, although I did think it sometimes. In later years I learned to say it just to stop an argument. In the toughest moments, I could pretend she was someone else’s mother, who was easy to be polite to.
Now my 95-year-old mother, with debilitating dementia, who for the last several years lived in a long-term care nursing care facility, had become infected with the virus and died a few days ago.
One of the hardest things for us was not being able to visit her in her last weeks, when all visitors were prohibited. My younger brother and his wife, her lifeline for many years, were by necessity, shut out. So were their three adult children, who grew up with grandma and grandpa close by, and took on many burdens as mom’s needs mounted.
Near the end, we were grateful to the nursing staff for making time to hold the phone next to her ear so she could hear our voices, and then finally for reaching out to us for a Face Time call as her tenacity dwindled. I am thankful that I was able to tell her I love her and sing her a few songs, to hear her faint breathed “yeah” (her last word to me) when I asked her if she had liked a favorite. And she slightly stirred during the final song I sang to her on Face Time, so I like to believe she was able to perceive the love that survived and still does.
The mother who so relished a battle, who to the little me had sometimes seemed like a raging giant, had become helpless; relying for her life on a family of nurses who looked like space explorers in their bubble headed protective gear, who kindly administered morphine to dampen the final throes. Now her suffering is over; a full life has reached its mortal end.
Our family is processing my mother’s life and death in different and unique ways. There’s no way I can understand what it meant to live close to her all those years after I moved away. My brother and his family took on increased responsibility as her needs required, accompanying her on the whole journey of birthdays, illnesses, and eventual death. Clearing out the house we grew up in is a story in itself; not mine to write. I can’t even begin to understand all they did for her, but my appreciation is true.
When catastrophic things happen and they’re brought into light, often the question’s asked, “Is it too soon?” It may never feel like the right time. From a therapist’s perspective, when processing grief and trauma, after a short period of rest, sooner is usually better. On reflection, I think of this letter as being more timely than pre-mature, and I ask my family’s forgiveness for relating what may always feel too painful. I hope they receive bountiful comfort from the large, loving New York family. But I didn’t write this distant essay simply for my own healing. Today is when people need to understand the impact of the coronavirus so we can prevent more deaths, protect our elders and people with disabilities, who were left so unprotected by authorities. May we all find ways to recover and move forward through these times.
During this pandemic, I’m mindful of the many thousands of people who in several quick weeks have lost their jobs, their health care, their savings, their homes, beloved family members, or even their own lives. I’m acutely aware how many of our elders and those with disabilities have been considered throw-away people, as COVID-infected patients were sent from hospitals into their nursing facilities, sickening healthy people, killing many thousands of them, including my own mother – devastating us who, despite all our defects, regrets, and shortcomings, truly loved each other. The images of others’ mothers, fathers, and children’s bodies piled in trailers and storerooms, hastily covered in mass burials, will stay with me for a lifetime. We survivors will undoubtedly face many struggles in the months and years to come. The stark injustices in our system are revealed for us to see. What will we do about it?
I wish all of you and your beloved ones, safety, security, and health. My condolences to all who have also lost people you love. Maybe you, like I, understand deeply, with words that won’t form without becoming tears – the need to take precautions, to stay alive, to protect each other from this thing that is not the flu. And has not gone away.
(I dreamt it was springtime, and my father was sitting on a wooden bench that circled a tree in Valley Stream Hendrickson Park. It was the tree my mom had planted after he died, a memorial plaque beside it. She always visited the tree on her daily walks, and sometimes decorated it with ribbons. It had tender green and pink buds. I saw him there, young, casual and relaxed, with his legs crossed, his fingers holding a remembered or forgotten cigarette. He had a soft smile – just waiting, for her.)
Dear Humans, the future is in our hands.
Let us mourn our dead and fight like hell for the living.
Dr. JT Luna is a psychologist, Culver City resident, university professor, and first-response trainer