My dear friend, Carol Salinsky, recently lost her mother, Ruth. By all accounts, she was a wonderful woman who raised a great family. In sympathizing with my friend, I was led to reflect on my own mother, Catherine Sacchetti’s passing back in 2002. It seems no matter how old we are, we’re only kids in grown up bodies and the memories flow freely.
My mother “Kate” was a housewife. Back in the 1950s, few mothers worked outside of the home. Mom was a 5’1” Sicilian bundle of energy who ran the house, paid the bills, did the cooking and protected her two kids like a mama bear protects her cubs. She was at the same time tender and ferocious, always there to give a hug when needed or to bandage a cut. But woe to the unsuspecting neighborhood grocer who tried to overcharge her for three pounds of Jersey tomatoes.
I remember a time when I was about seven years old and just starting to be a little “pesky.” We had a peddler in the neighborhood known as “Joe Bananas.” He used to come by periodically to try to sell his wares. Watching him try to sell Mom something was more fun than watching the Little Rascals. One day he came by with a new vacuum cleaner. As luck would have it, ours had just broken so Mom consented to let him do a demo. He sprinkled some confetti on the floor and the machine only picked up about a third of it. Saying only what I guessed Mom to be thinking, I said, “That’s a piece of junk.” Joe looked at me and said, “Look young man, nobody likes a wise kid.” Saying nothing, Mom grabbed me by the arm and led me into the kitchen. “Charlie, don’t you give him a hard time, that’s my job.”
Dad worked at Westinghouse and brought home his weekly pay. After Dad took expense money, Mom would do her magic act and pay the bills, buy the food, clothes or whatever we needed. She could find a way to put a few dollars away in case we needed some cash down the line. We always had food, clothes and a warm house because Mom was a master at stretching a dollar.
She had a healthy streak of vanity and was always conscious of the way she looked. The one luxury she allowed herself was a weekly Friday morning trip to the hairdresser. These trips were usually fully funded from her bingo winnings, as she attended games a couple of nights a week at local churches.
Mom was born in April, Dad in August. My sister Kathy, Dad and I always assumed and Mom never corrected our belief that she was four months older than Dad. When it was time for Dad to sign up for Social Security he naturally had Mom do likewise. At that point the big secret was revealed that Mom was in fact five years older than Dad. She just didn’t want to let anyone know how old she was. Dad’s reaction…”Who cares? We’re married 40 years.” Mom’s guarding of her age, to others, lasted until she became 80. She looked so good that she would ask strangers, like waitresses, how old they thought she was. When they said, 65, Mom gleefully revealed her actual age, as if it were a badge of honor. She would always say that, “I don’t feel old, I’m young at heart,” an obvious reference to her favorite Sinatra song.
April 26, 2002, a Friday and four days after Mom’s 94th birthday, I decided to give Mom and Dad a call to see how things were going. When Dad answered the phone I heard the worry in his voice as he said, “I think Mom is having a stroke!” He had just driven her back from her hairdresser appointment and was outside tending to his flowers while Mom went in to make lunch. When he came into the house, not seeing Mom in the kitchen, he went in to find her on the floor, just as I called. Mom was taken to the University of Pennsylvania hospital. The fact that she arrived just 20 minutes after the onset of the stroke gave her a 50-50 chance of having successful surgery and possibly recovering. However, it was not to be and two weeks later, the night before Mother’s Day on May 11th, she passed away. It was on that day Dad told me as the EMT’s were picking Mom up to put her on the gurney, she told them she ‘first had to finish making Dad’s lunch.’ No one in the family, was surprised.
This is a story that most Italian Americans can tell. We are a people bound by love, family and our Christian upbringing. Prima la famiglia.