A recent conversation got me thinking. Who were three women that had the most impact on me in my youth other than the universal maternal one. I’m referring to the external world, the women that showed me something different. The type of woman that has you soaking in what they teach you without either of you even being aware of it. You occupy their world as a friend or relative and the time spent with them weaves into the fabric of who you will become. The three I chose came about at all different times and minds. What did they impart on me? What were the lessons learned and the sensibilities created which had a lasting effect of such magnitude, that decades later the impact suddenly comes into sharp focus? From a mother, one gets both good and bad traits. If you are fortunate, you keep the good and discard the rest. But that doesn’t occur with every mother-daughter relationship. It takes a keen eye and a fierce heart to recognize the failings of a parent and not repeat them in your own life. Most offspring see any rejection of those traits as a bold betrayal and continue the damage into their own adulthood. The influences of these external women serve to remove, perhaps, some of the matriarchal constraints. One can accept this gift knowing that it is not a betrayal of one’s mother, but rather an enlightenment of perspective and a lightening of the psychic load we carry. The influence of these women, who had either a brief or lengthy stay in my life, has guided me throughout my own ages. I cherish the memories and teachings that were given unknowingly through the lives they led.
Ronnie was the mother of my childhood best friend. She was Rat Pack cool from a bygone era. Ronnie would start her day by cleaning her house in a pink or teal housedress with those fabulous, big 1960s curlers in her hair. Not in silence, but with the music of Dean Martin and Engelbert serenading her from the big brown stereo that graced most households. When we were about eight or so, we played in the house while the dusting and twirling to the music of Dean’s “Make the World Go Away” took hold. Love of that musical genre would have me buying those records for myself years later. At midafternoon the transformation began in anticipation of her husband’s homecoming from the Brooklyn greeting card factory where he worked. The curlers were loosened and removed, revealing thick, short, auburn hair, teased and sprayed perfectly into place. The housedress was shed for her signature stretchy tight slacks and matching turtle neck top. She had those husbandly homecoming outfits in an array of lavenders, pinks and blues. The make-up and perfume mist completed her transformation. Sometimes with coffee, sometimes with a Tom Collins in hand, she sat on a chair at the top of the stoop, waiting to greet her man. Such a unique ritual taught me the art of taking delicate care and gave me a glimpse of an effortless effort made to warmly greet her spouse at the end of his hardworking day. I don’t think I ever heard a cross word between these two, quite a juxtaposition from my home, where the greater the decibel, the stronger the message was the norm.
Ronnie had a homemaker’s ease about her. Every day, her daughter and I were sent to the stores after school for the dinner ingredients. Ronnie’s menu method was to cook the same meal on the same day each week. That fascinated me. The memory of that simple daily menu plan still does today when I wrestle with what to cook for my own two sons. After awhile we didn’t need a shopping list, we knew that if it was Monday we were buying lentils. No big box stores back then, if you needed fruits and vegetables you went to Mike’s produce store lined with wooden crates up and down the two aisles with every type imaginable. The butcher shop kept the meats. We went into the A & P supermarket only for dry goods and sundry other ingredients. Our trips to Morris Park Avenue in the Bronx, weren’t complete without a stop at La Valle’s candy store or the occasional treat of an after school tuna sandwich at Angelo’s Luncheonette. Those shopping trips each day were filled with fun and laughter and the memories still cling to me. Ronnie reserved Sundays for the traditional macaroni, meatballs, and red sauce of the Southern Italians. I was often invited to these feasts. What a change they were from the Northern Italian cooking that was a staple in our home. I loved the tomato sauce drenched dishes she made of lasagna and baked ziti and would often implore my mother to try making them too.
Ronnie sitting in her chair outside the front door, with a cigarette and a smile, seemed to me a perfect end to a day filled with housework and music. From Ronnie, I soaked up the lessons of cool and class and the perfect marriage. She was kind and funny and the day the boys on the block were especially mean to us, she didn’t coddle us and create victims. She sent us marching back out there telling us to just kick them in the shins if they didn’t knock it off. And I can’t say that I didn’t take that advice a time or two with the more irritating ones. Ronnie, I thank for the lessons in true class and a glimpse into what a happy marriage could be.
Bertha. Unique! One of a kind! One of the funniest women I have ever known. I asked my ex brother-in-law for a memory or two and he wrote back, “She made Joan Rivers look weak!” And that she did with razor sharp wit, self-deprecating when necessary and a delivery that sent you rolling. He also reminded me of her penchant for annoying her friends by singing “Unchained Melody” at the top of her lungs. Bertha from Canarsie, Brooklyn was a good friend of my first mother-in-law. I used to drive her from Queens to Brooklyn to see her when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I looked forward to these trips. From Bertha I learned the fine art of drinking three-day-old coffee and chain smoking. Two things I did for many years. The cigarettes are long gone, but the coffee ritual still remains. She had thick, short black hair and was no fashion plate. She held court in her kitchen, imparting her hilarious no nonsense view of the world. She told it like it was. What a breath of fresh air from the proper “what will people think or say” way that ruled my own mother and mother-in-law. She was so different from my mother-in-law. I always wondered at that friendship. Years later, I would understand. We often gravitate to those who can say out loud what we can only think. She had two grown confirmed bachelor sons that lived with her. By “grown” I mean at least in their early 40s. They adored her and she them. She would always joke about them getting married and getting out, but you always knew she was just fine with the arrangement. As I live with my own two adult 20 something sons today, with nary a girlfriend in sight, I often chuckle to myself and think, “Am I going to end up like Bertha?”
Bertha taught me how palatable the delivery of truth can be if couched in humor. It tends to get the message across softer and louder at the same time. I can see her in her kitchen, pouring the days old coffee into another pot to heat up, apron on and a bit disheveled. But it never mattered to her. She was comfortable in her clothes and more importantly, comfortable in her own skin. She was gone from my life too soon and I wish I could remember a lot more than I do. Perhaps I should have asked for custody of her in the divorce. The common sense of her wisdom stays with me even though the actual words are gone. A friend posted a comment on my social media page the other day that said, “Thank you for being the laughter in my life”. Well if that’s true, then I owe it all to this long ago lady in my life. To Bertha, thanks for teaching me the art of laughing at life’s absurdities with a special brand of wisdom, compassion and comic timing.
Zia Fina was my mother’s older sister. At five foot nothing with a will of steel, she taught me never to suffer fools gladly. She was loyal to her friends and family when they deserved it and fearless when they did not. You always knew where you stood with her and that is brand of honesty I wanted to emulate and hopefully I have. At 17, just out of high school, I was fortunate enough to spend my summer with her. She had a network of ‘spies’ that the CIA would envy. I would come home after a night out on the little towns and she could quote chapter and verse who I was with, who I talked to and – albeit a little unsettling- who I had kissed. She would regale me with stories of her and my mother’s youth, of sneaking out to go to the local dances at night and being hauled home by my grandfather. We laughed ourselves silly each night that summer as we lay in bed rehashing the events of the day. We walked down the streets of the little Italian town we lived in and she would point out one or another of my mother’s former suitors. To this Catholic schoolgirl raised to be a paragon of virtue with standards no young girl could live up to, it was like the lifting of a storm cloud. I learned from her how human my mother was, susceptible to all the girlish foibles she so eschewed in me. What I learned that summer enabled me to tell my own sons decades later: the day you see your parents as flawed human beings is the day you become an adult. It freed me to not hide my own past from them.
From her, I gained another unique marital perspective. Zio Tino was one of the most mild mannered, gregarious and engaging human beings I’ve ever known. With my strong willed aunt, you would think he would be the typical doormat spouse. Instead, they were true partners. He let her be her strong self, but she never abused that privilege with him and you could see how much she cared and depended on him when right and necessary. He never acted emasculated, as many men are apt to do in this type of partnership. He didn’t need to. Her love and respect for him came shining through no matter what. I adored them. They both died almost a year to the day apart, a fitting tribute to their marital bond. In these days of over the top feminism, the lessons learned from my aunt stay with me. Being a true feminist doesn’t require the man to dispense with his own unique masculinity. To know that and honor the unique difference between the sexes is true equality.
I have no daughters. Hopefully, someday I will have daughters-in-law, but I do have nieces, friends’ daughters and young ladies in my recent work life. I strive to be my uncensored self in their company. I adhere to no false moral code of conduct imposed by anyone and who knows, maybe some day, years from now, I may be one of their “three women.”