JoAnna, aka JoAnna Pajama, Mamacita, 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.
My mother and I agree that the years have been a wild ride. Two tempests in the same teapot. Even when we were spinning in the same direction the two of us could at any moment 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.
The House Of "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." I was apparently more of a methodical planner from the womb, and she'd drive me nuts with "play it by ear." But things always seemed to work out in the end.
Playing it By Ear
She would go pick up a sack of chicken feed, and come back with another new dog.
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 when I was in high school I came home to three baby lambs in the living room, each one wearing a Pampers diaper, with a little hole cut out for their tails.
There was the time in grade school when 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.
Hot Pants in the City
"And she was wearing hot pants. I thought I was gonna get arrested." I think it's a prostitute joke. Maybe it was a kidnapping joke, he was eight years older than this raven-haired tart passed out on the sidewalk, half naked in winter.
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.
Nobody's Princess and Her Daughter
The next several decades were tumultuous, but that 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. We did things, and then we did the next things, and we made it. 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.
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 smoooooov 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 people did.
Heck On Wheels (*hell tba)
|Not the actual MG.|
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. I was only a toddler but I did not approve of his lifestyle.
I was bookish and weird. 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 his strange-smelling things and put them in my mom's room. I crawled into his closet, inspecting shiny pointy shoes. I opened drawers I wasn't supposed to, and I turned over gold chains and rings, 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 kept the Italian shoes and clothes, but now 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. My brother Michael was born.
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
Through my eyes The Addams Family was a documentary, and The Brady Bunch was an outlandish fairy tale about three princesses. I watched a lot of TV.
Tears 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 mine to do, and that meant I didn't have enough time to do my homework. Every night, 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 and slamming my bedroom door.
There is something about teenage girl anger. These days I rarely raise my voice at all. When I think about it now, I crack up laughing. 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 so I could close the door and study in 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. In reality, 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.
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.
The DJ Saved My Life
The soundtrack to our lives was fantastic, connected through the hundreds of songs we played and sang and danced to; all my life I assumed every family made music a centerpiece, but I would come to find out that is not the case. Joe tells that he didn't really even get into the Beatles until later...meanwhile in my house, we put on skits to the narrative songs like Eleanor Rigby. We held singing contests in the living room. I thought Stevie Wonder was a god, because Songs in the Key of Life sounded like a very good bible to me (it still is). She showed us the popular 1970s dances and my brother became a crazy-good dancer. She sang us songs from TV commercials from her childhood, like the Good N Plenty jingle and something called Maypo. We watched Soul Train, Dance Fever, American Bandstand and Solid Gold. I knew who was Ginger Baker, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Mangione and Donovan (don't ask) and didn't get how come my friends didn't know these names. I loved Sonny & Cher, Ray Charles and Donna Summer. I loved everything Motown. 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 and changed the world forever. In those days, when something was on TV, you either saw it or you didn't. I saw it all.
A Thousand Words
|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 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 enough 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. I don't remember what album we did put on next. None of us ever thought to plan the music ahead of time. 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.
Look at her shoes.
Related: Those Shoes Were F**king Fabulous