During this week leading up to Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mama, Carmella, and I wanted to tell you a little about her today to honor her legacy. This post is quite a bit longer than usual, so thank you in advance for taking the time to read it. I hope my mama’s story, and my story that’s intertwined in it, will offer you some inspiration to give yourself the loving care you deserve!
I’ll start at the beginning…
My mother was born in 1924, to Italian immigrants, in a small coal mining town in West Virginia.
Her father, my grandfather, stopped working for the coal mines after losing his brother, who was working beside him, in a mining collapse when he was just 19.
My grandfather then worked for the railroad, doing manual labor, his entire life. He never learning to read, write or speak English, but he was sharp as a tack, teaching his children mathematics using matchsticks. And he was an amazing storyteller – full of wit, wisdom, and charisma.
My mom’s mother, my grandmother, also did not learn to speak English, but she was able to read and write in Italian. She was an avid reader and passed this love onto my mother.
My grandmother was ill for most of my mother’s childhood, and she passed away at only 54 years old.
Needless to say, my mama grew up poor, although her family always had food on the table thanks to a giant vegetable garden. And they also frequently had a house full of guests, friends and family, who stopped by for long visits and meals.
Life was not easy for my mom, being a female middle-child of an Italian family, where the girls were expected to serve not only any guests who visited, but also their three brothers and father.
And not only did she have to deal with the machismo culture of her household, but also a bigoted town, intolerant of her Italian heritage, economic status, and gender.
But my mama was a trailblazer and a rebel, and she held her ground.
She was well-read like her mother, and smart like her dad. Her grades were pristine. She was top in her class; however, she was demoted from valedictorian to salutatorian for discriminatory reasons.
My mom later told me, “Of course, I knew the stats better than anyone, and so I knew I was valedictorian whether they honored me for it, or not.”
My mom came to the Cleveland area while in her late teens to join two of her siblings who came first to find work. In an unprecedented move, her eldest brother, John, paid for her to attend two years of college to study accounting. He believed in her potential, truly extraordinary given the machismo household they grew up in.
My mama then worked as an accountant her entire career and worked her way up to accounting supervisor in 1967.
She was the first female supervisor at the Towmotor Corporation, but only received the promotion when the man who was being groomed for the position stepped down. Company leaders had my mother training this fella to be her boss, but when he learned this was the case, he couldn’t in good conscience take the position.
It was a big break for my mom, but it left her feeling like she always had something to prove.
My mama was a 4’11” woman working in a man’s world, with half the education of most of her male counterparts. She was always hustling for worthiness, working harder and more hours than her peers.
She was also a divorced, single mother at the time. Although not unusual by today’s standards, it definitely was in those days. We lived in a Catholic, Slovenian neighborhood filled with big families with lots of children, and generally stay-at-home moms.
My mom did not have the luxury of taking time off from work to help at my school, or even to take a phone call during the workday. She sometimes put in 15-hour long days and would get up the next morning and do it again. She was competing in the “boy’s club”, and she held her own, and then some.
That being said, my mama loved fiercely and always made me feel like I was the light of her world. I can still feel her love at my core.
Sadly, my mother passed away too soon, at age 64, when I was a young woman in my early 20’s. She was diagnosed with lung cancer the day after Thanksgiving, and died soon after, just five days before Christmas that year.
Her loss was profound for me because she was my person, my family, and my world.
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mama’s legacy, and all the parts of her that have lived on through me and my daughters, who are both strong women in their own right. I’m proud that I’ve instilled so much of my mom’s values in them.
In them I see her tenacity, independence, and grit. I also see her empathy, compassion, and insistence on living in integrity with their values, no matter what. They both appreciate the value of education, feminism, and the importance of lifting other people up.
I have distinct memories of lessons my mother taught me, by watching how she showed up in the world, that have lived on long past her days on this earth.
*I remember my mom washing the coat of a young girl from my class, who was a guest at my 8th birthday party, on the DL behind the scenes during the party. My mother later told me that the coat was so dirty that she didn’t want the child to feel “less than” because of it. She taught me the values of respectfulness, kindness, and compassion.
*I remember my mother sharing with me that my dad once told her that others at work thought she was a “bitch” because of the way she ran her department. And she then explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that this didn’t bother her in the least. “I have high standards and I expect that from my people. I would be doing them and the company a disservice otherwise. If I were a man, I would be commended for the way I lead.” She taught me to assert myself, never apologize for living in integrity, and to ignore the haters.
*I remember my mama instilling in me that women MUST be independent, in every sense of the word, especially when it came to finances. When she married, she kept her accounts separate from her husband’s, and kept track of every cent. She also paid for everything in cash and didn’t even own a credit card. She taught me to be financially responsible for myself.
*I also remember my mother being playful with money, especially when it came to the stock market and trips to Las Vegas. (Once, they had to call for her in the Vegas airport so she wouldn’t miss her plane because she was playing the slots in the bathroom and lost track of time. The entire plane applauded when she boarded, lol.) She taught me not to take money so seriously, have fun with it, and embrace an abundant mindset.
*I remember that my mom always had a housekeeper because she worked long hours, and she didn’t want to spend her time off working around the house too. She tried her best to teach me the importance of balance, and that it was more than okay to delegate tasks to achieve it.
*I remember my mother kept a small bottle of French salad dressing in the fridge, because that’s what my new boyfriend (now my husband) preferred, rather than the Italian dressing that was a staple at our house. Jerry was special to me, so my mom wanted him to feel welcome, comfortable, and cared for when he visited. She taught me the importance of kindness, thoughtfulness, and hospitality.
*I remember when my mama finally came out of the surgical recovery room, after having one and a half lungs removed. And as soon as she saw me, she put up her finger and mouthed, “Go home and rest. Please, go home dolly.” She taught me the importance of caring for myself and resting.
*I remember the Thanksgiving before my mom died, she knew she was sick but hadn’t received the biopsy results yet. She put on the biggest, fanciest, most festive family dinner one could imagine. And then that Christmas, before she went to the hospital for her surgery, my mama decorated the house in grand fashion, and she left beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree. She taught me the value of family, generosity, and love.
I have many more memories, for sure, and will always feel my mama’s love.
However, after more than 30 years without her, many of my memories of her have faded. While I can still hear the sound of my mother’s laughter, I can’t, for the life of me, hear her voice anymore.
And because I lost my mother at such a young age, I’ve had to spend most of my adult life “mothering” myself.
I’ve had to ask myself, “What would my mom advise?” at times, and mostly make up the answer.
I’ve told myself that my mama would tell me to slow down, and to rest. She would encourage me to nourish my body with healthy foods, cut back on the wine, and stick with my walks by the lake.
She would remind me that my dreams were important and to never give up. She would be so proud of all I’ve accomplished and would encourage me to do even more. She would fully believe in me and expect me to hold my head high. She would tell me to ignore the critics in my head and stay focused on what lights me up.
And she would LOVE the mission of my Shine On Program for women, telling everyone, who would listen, about it!
This is what I’ve imagined over the years, and one way that I’ve learned to love and care for myself. And this is something I’m recommending to you.
Whether you’ve had a loving mama like mine, who’s now gone or unable to nurture you like she once did, or if you weren’t so fortunate to have such a caring mother, you can always find your “inner mama” inside of you.
And then on those days when you’re not being so kind to yourself, not nurturing yourself like you know you deserve, let your “inner mama” give you a nudge.
Would she be okay with you skipping breakfast?
What would she say about the long hours you’ve been working, or that you haven’t made time in your schedule for fun?
And I’m guessing she might have a word with you if she noticed you were putting other people’s needs, wants, and dreams ahead of your own?
Am I right?
Please listen to her and care for yourself the way she would want you to.
On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to wish a beautiful day to all who are mothers. Sending happy thoughts to those who will be spending the day with their children or celebrating with their own moms.
And to all who might find this day painful because they’ve lost their mom, like I did, cannot be with their children today, lost a child, haven’t been able to conceive, or something else… I send you so much love.
And to the women who’ve courageously decided not to be a mom, counterculture to the patriarchal traditions we’ve been emersed in… I see you too and respect and admire your convictions.
To all my sisters, I encourage you to tap into your “inner-mama” and listen to her today, and every day. Let her give you a warm, loving hug.
You deserve to nurture yourself, love yourself, care for yourself, and BE yourself.
Let your “inner mama” remind you: You deserve to shine!