Saturday, March 18, 2017

If It Ain't One Thing It's Your Mother

Hanging out on West 57th
c. 1982
Today is my mom's birthday! I called her first thing this morning to wish her a happy day. Because it's a Saturday, Louie doesn't have to work, so she has the whole day planned. But first, out to breakfast.

We set a time to talk next week. When we do I'll ask how today's plan turned out. There is always a story.

JoAnna, aka JoAnna PajamaMamacita, or Jo, is just over 17 years older than I am. If you are currently navigating the world with a teenage child, ask me about having one of those creatures for a mother. I have stories, man. And so does JoAnna, both from the perspective of being a teenage mom and then, in the blink of an eye, raising an intense teenage girl. Two tempests in the same teapot.

We agree that the years have been a wild ride. Even when we were spinning in the same direction the two of us could collide and make thunder. Sometimes we fought, sometimes we just didn't talk. There was a lost decade in there when we spoke not a word.

Anything Can Happen 

One of the great things about my mother is that she makes good, logistically-solid plans, which she is ready to toss aside the instant something better and more exciting presents itself. Though this mode of operation may not always work out, it's way more interesting than the linear way. She seemed to be saying, not with words but just by example, "You could take the shortest distance between two points if you want to get there fast, but then you miss everything."

What she did say was, "We'll play it by ear."

She would go pick up a sack of chicken feed, and come back with another new dog.

One day she told me and my brother Michael, then about 11 and 8, that she wanted to adopt a black baby boy. My brother was crushed when it did not work out.

She'd give herself hennas and facials at home, but she did it all on the same day. She had been to cosmetology school, so she had creams for her eyes, a different mask for her "T Zone," whatever the hell that was. So some days we'd come home to Chief Zoomba walking around, making us grilled cheeses looking like Ricky Ricardo in the baby episode.

One time she decided she was going to sew her own kitchen chair covers. But she bought so many yards of the same fabric (something pink with flowers and paisley) that she had enough left over to make curtains. And a valance. And she made a table cloth. And some napkins.  And then, you guys. she made me shorts. Wide-legged, floral pink paisley shorts, for my squat little troll body. If I wore them in the matching kitchen I disappeared from the waist down. My aunt Sharon said it was "child abuse." I might be leaving out other things she made with that fabric.

One day I came home from school and there were three baby lambs in the living room, each one wearing a Pampers diaper, with a little hole cut out for their tails.

One time she cut my hair exactly like Dorothy Hamill, and then every single one of my friends begged for the same cut. It was the start of a school-wide fad and an in-home business that lasted for many years. I swept up the hair.

One Christmas she went shopping but she forgot to eat all day and passed out on the sidewalk in Midtown.

Hot Pants in the City

"Hot Pants"
A contender for Louie's favorite story, basically it goes, " the middle of Fifth Avenue with bags and bags from everywhere, shoes and toys for the kids, and she passes out on me. I didn't know what to do. I got all these bags---" The number of bags and how-many-degrees-it-was changes with each telling, but the final line is always the same.

"And she was wearing hot pants. I thought I was gonna get arrested."

The Same Old Story

Now that our relationship has (finally) leveled out onto some nice, flat and straight track for awhile, my mom is the best woman in the world to me. My mom is the goddamn sun. After everything we've been through, I mean when I think of how she got to where she is -- got all of us to where we are --- she did it with such strength and grace. Oh yes, she shrieked like a banshee quite often, but if anyone could pull off "graceful banshee," it is JoAnna. And she would have had just the right shoes for it, too.

She'd had no parenting. Nobody noticed if she went to school or took a bath. Nobody helped her with homework or bought her pretty things. Nobody worried where she was when she took off for days, on her bike. She swam alone for hours in the Connecticut Sound, long, strong strokes far out from the shore. She listened to records all night with her girlfriends, and of course her boyfriends. She embroidered leaves and dragons onto her faded bell-bottom jeans. Her wild mane of chestnut curls, she ironed flat and braided with daisies and dandelions. Her two brothers were good musicians -- Vinnie the drummer and Tony a gifted guitar player, they both played in bands with all these other guys.

I came on the scene in the usual way. There was this certain boy who played drums, mom liked him. Yadda yadda yadda, and here I am.

Somehow or other, this wayward girl raised me with a strong work ethic and a good moral code, and a love of art and books, and a potty mouth and a penchant for the rhythm section. She installed my bullshit detection system. She taught me how to cook.

Nobody's Princess

JoAnna's grandmother was an off-the-boat, hatchet-faced harridan who was almost certainly certifiably insane. Grandma Lucibello had 11 children, 10 survived into adulthood including the youngest, Maggie. Maggie had three, my mom her youngest. At this point it's important to know that it was a "thing" in those days for several generations of Italian families to live together. Basically my mom was raised in an asylum.

At 17 she got us both out of that asylum, fleeing, really, in the middle of the night. It all started with a cat. But that's another story.

The next several decades were tumultuous, but this girl danced through fire swamps, rode dragons and charmed bridge trolls without flinching. She got knocked down, she got back up. She got blown off course, she just shifted the baby to the other hip and leaned into the wind.

It's as though she had known the entire time that we were going to turn out awesome. In her teens, twenties -- two kids, no diploma, no big deal, as though she'd done all this before in a previous life and knew the back passages and magic words to secret doors that other people couldn't even see. What a dame.

We kicked around together, she and I, for about a year and then the Lombardi family got involved. JoAnna met Louie.

Rebels Without A Clue

Front steps of the old
converted school where we lived.
Eight years older and straight out of Central Casting, Louie was a total Guido. Cufflinks and Yves St. Laurent, wing-tip disco shoes and a pinky ring: gold, set with a milky brown stone he called a "tiger eye." Louie was the maƮtre D at a steak house & lounge, which was apparently a thing.

When they met, Louie had recently made a pilgrimage to Europe to seek out his maternal grandfather's family. He went to Switzerland, Copenhagen, Prague, Rome. In Benevento, Italy he met those relatives, ate bread and cheese, drank wine, and apparently he bought his entire wardrobe for the next decade. There was a home perm at some point. Oh yeah, he was a smoov operator. Then my mom showed up, strong and lean from all that swimming and bike riding, with me slung on her nubile little hip. He chatted her up, she told him to get lost, and she hasn't been able to shake him since.

I think they really just knocked each other out.

When they began dating, Louie still lived with his parents on the second floor of a green triple-decker in a blighted little burg called Waterbury, CT. Grandparents on the top floor, some drunk uncles in the attic, and a rag tag assortment of sisters in a basement that reeked of cigarette smoke, Juicy Fruit gum and dime store cosmetics. That house was another asylum. Seriously, this was a thing Italians did.

Hell On Wheels

In those days Louie drove a blue MG. An MG is a cunning little 2-door roadster with no trunk and no back seat. He loved that car. He'd park her outside the green triple-decker, and he'd wash her with the hose. He'd polish her with Turtle Wax and a soft chamois cloth until his mother called him in for macaroni and meatballs.

Not the actual MG.
I was only a toddler but I did not approve of his lifestyle. He was all charm, and as yet I had never in my life found anything to be charming.

I was weird. Silent, suspicious, staring sullenly from under dull brown bangs. I could talk but I wouldn't. I hated him.

I stared at him sullenly when he would be there in the mornings, in my mom's bed, all brown and strange-smelling.

I stared at him sullenly when they danced The Hustle in the living room.

I started at him sullenly when he brought over all of his strange-smelling things and put them in my mom's room. I crawled into his closet, inspecting his shiny, pointy shoes. I opened drawers I wasn't supposed to, and I turned over all his gold chains and rings, his dog tags from the National Guard. I was especially captivated by the tiger eye pinky ring, which he didn't wear by then because he had started to work as a house painter and contractor. He still had the Italian shoes and clothes, but during the day he wore paint-spattered jeans and what my mother called "Guinea shirts." You may know this garment as a "wife beater," but I wouldn't hear that term for another 30 years yet. They had another kid, my brother Michael, when I was almost four.

My mom was clearly a captivating seductress. Because in order to be with her, Louie traded in that sweet MG for a goddamn used white Ford Fairlane. Trunk the size of a child's swimming pool and a long bench-style backseat. Pale blue vinyl that turned almost molten on hot days. The seat would burn the backs of our thighs if we forgot to put down a towel in summer. Rear wheel drive, because that makes sense in New England in winter.

In 1978 it snowed a lot. You may have heard about it.

I stared at him sullenly when he was digging out the car, pouring salt and sand in an effort to get out of the driveway.

I'd like to say that things leveled out to more or less normal at some point.

Things Did Not Level Out To Normal At Any Point  

Basically, through my eyes The Addams Family was a documentary, and The Brady Bunch was an outlandish fairy tale about three princesses.

Tears of Rage and Laughter

I don't mean to suggest that my mother and I always fought. Far from it! She was an amazing mom. She was able to stay at home with us until about 6th grade, then she had to go to work because we had no money. That's when our relationship began to first break down. It had a lot to do with the amount of work that it takes to manage a household. In an Italian family in the 1970s, the in-home workforce was "female." I knew of no family where the fathers or brothers did anything even remotely domestic.

I called bullshit. There were a ton of chores and all of them were fucking mine to do, and I didn't have enough time to do my homework. Just when I was getting into it, she would come home and yell at me to "get all that shit off the table" meaning my books and papers "and set it for dinner!" We fought about that, me crying tears of rage and slamming my bedroom door. I loved when we moved to an older house. Not because anything changed in terms of the infuriating Chore Inequality between we women and the men, but because she got me a desk for my room, and also the sturdy doors of that old house were so much more satisfying to slam shut. For all the rage and door slamming, the fights were really more of a bicker-fest over the small stuff.

I was super plugged into my mom. I was weird and nobody else "got" me but her.
At Uncle Vinnie's wedding. It was held
in a firehouse. Mid-ceremony, there was a fire.
Of course I was weird, what else was going to happen? She grew me inside her, the same blood coursed through us, when she was in the throes of a chaotic adolescence. A baby ain't supposed to be swimming in that torrent of hormones and bad ideas. My first year on earth is a crocheted sling riding shotgun with Delta Dawn over here, fresh out of the tumultuous 60s. To pile on, the 70s were the weirdest decade in modern memory. Then the 80s said "hold my Wine Cooler." Me and mom held hands, planted our feet and stared the crazy down.

When we weren't bickering, singing or dancing, we cooked and cleaned and went to every tag sale and thrift store we could find hunting treasure. We took long walks, gathering living and dead things to make our temporary but spectacular "art" installations -- we'd arrange rocks and pussy willows and long grassy reeds and sprayed them into place with Aquanet. We painted eggs for Easter, we made Christmas decorations, we finger-painted and drew and sculpted a menagerie of clay creatures. She read to us. Even when we were older she'd read to us -- she read us The Prophet by Kahil Gibran in its entirety. We watched Jaws, Carrie and Close Encounters under a blanket.

We would make each other laugh until we almost pee'd. We still do that. And it's the kind of laughing where you start to worry you might actually damage an organ. Can't breathe, eyes streaming, abs start to ache. Twice this happened on a city bus. People were staring. To be the weirdest people on any city bus is a feat, but there we were, snorting snot and keening like a pair of wild monkeys on acid.

And let me tell you something. The soundtrack to our lives was fantastic. Every chapter overflows with stories connected through the hundreds of songs we played and sang and danced to. So many stories. We'd both say the same thing: music saved our lives. She gathered us in front of the Motown 25 special, and that's why I know exactly where I was when Michael Jackson moonwalked on TV for the first time.

A Thousand Words

I was looking for just the right picture that captures the family gestalt. I will explain what is going on in this picture.

This is the four of us in our living room in Washington, CT. Not pictured is a whole house full of people dancing, talking, eating and drinking and having a blast -- my parents threw THE best parties, and this was a great party. And yet, here WE are, the host family, huddled earnestly...around the turntable.

What a dame. Look at her shoes. 

By our positions, you can see that we had each arrived at the turntable separately to sort through the albums. I was first, and JoAnna sat down next to me. Michael for sure slid over in his socks, popped and locked a slick Michael Jackson dance move and stuck the landing. Not because I remember it that way, it's just that that's how Michael crossed any room in those days.

I don't know how long we were huddled there, but one of our friends had time to take this picture. That person (who?) must have seen a certain something in this family tableau. Michael in socks (for sliding) and casually cool in blue paisley and gray cords. Louie, rocking the blue suede shoes (for dancing), silk pinstripe shirt (Italian finery) and Levi jeans. Louie is clearly the one talking right then. My mom, listening, her confidence and serenity contrasting with me, just barely visible back there but for that shock of dull brown bangs and eyes fiery with some very strong opinion.

Because this is an intense, spontaneous meeting about what goes on next after Purple Rain.  I don't remember what album we did put on next. None of us ever thought to plan the music. I am sure of what JoAnna would have said if anyone had suggested it. "We'll play it by ear."

Happy birthday, Mamacita

"The old lady weathered the storm pretty good, don't you think?"
Louie asked last time we were all together. You bet your sweet ass, ya goddamn Guinea.

Related: Those Shoes Were F**king Fabulous