Roberto C. Ferrari
Four years ago, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to speak at my mother’s funeral service. This may seem like an odd memory to cherish, but for me it was special because it gave me an opportunity to share with family and friends my thoughts and memories about her. My family had been so focused, consciously or unconsciously, on her impending death that it seemed appropriate at this time to focus on her life. Emotionally, we had been squeezed dry, and yet even then at her death we were all still shocked to discover how many more emotions could come forth. On that day, though, I had had enough of death. It was time to talk about her life. And as I noted to those gathered in the room, she lived a life most wacky.
Momma was the combined incarnation of three of the most outrageous television wives and mothers ever to exist: Lucy Ricardo, Hyacinth Bucket, and Peg Bundy. It probably seems impossible to imagine any one person playing these three incongruous roles at once, but somehow Momma did it. Like I Love Lucy, she was a crazy red-head married to an immigrant she would drive insane with her harebrained schemes, usually involving the purchase of something acquired at a bargain. Like Keeping Up Appearance’s Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “bouquet”), Momma lived beyond her means and enjoyed showing off prized possessions, which were even more valuable when purchased at a bargain. Married with Children, she whined like Peg to Al about very important things, like shopping with money she never had.
Ask Momma what her hobbies were, she’d say “Shopping.” Ask her what else, she’s shrug and say, “Shopping.” The only thing she read on a regular basis was the Classified section of the newspaper. Never the Help Wanted ads, like my father would have preferred, unless of course she was looking for a job for someone else. Her favorite part of the Classifieds were undoubtedly the garage sales. She is the only person I’ve ever known who went to a garage sale and wound up buying the owner’s house, which wasn’t even for sale.
Her shopping, of course, took on different meanings depending on what she bought. For instance, she liked to go shopping for new fur coats. My father loved to give in to her whims, so through the years we watched her evolve from owning a beautiful silvery-white rabbit jacket, then a monstrously warm furry raccoon coat that weighed 50 pounds, to the ultimate…a gorgeous, soft, black mink coat with her name embroidered in gold calligraphy on the inside silk lining. It was exquisite. She received compliments from everyone. She loved it. Until the day she realized that all her furs had come from animals. I distinctly recalling her screaming aloud in horror at this realization. I have no idea where she thought they had come from beforehand, but thereafter she felt so guilty that she sold all of her coats and became a vegetarian.
For Momma, the art of shopping was like seeking out the great mystical white tiger in the African savanna. She could shop non-stop for twelve hours, moving from sale rack to sale rack, breaking only for cups of tea and cookies as little pick-me-ups, like a Victorian grande dame on the Great Hunt. (Note that tea and cookies were consumed in my house at least four times a day, while breakfast, lunch, and dinner were our in-between snacks.) It was all about the bargain. It made no difference whether she needed a new blouse, a chair for the living room, or even a new car. If there was a way for her to get something at a sale price or for a bargain, then it was worth buying.
She had no hesitation buying dresses from Macy’s for parties or important functions, wear them with the tags hidden in her arm pits, and then return the dresses the next day. Other days she would drag my father to furniture stores like Levitz for its clearance center, not because they needed furniture, but because she was looking for merchandise with broken parts so that she could demand percentages be taken off and buy them at even cheaper prices. She even once returned a chair to a department store without a receipt and got a full refund for it, even though she had owned the chair for over a year and actually had bought it at a yard sale for $5. She did try to be entrepreneurial as well. Once she came up with a plan to sell painted plaster statues at flea markets, getting stock wholesale from a dealer in the Bronx. That, however, was a losing venture because most of these painted plaster statues—from Sacred Heart of Jesus statues, to plaster dogs, giraffes, and owls—wound up in our family room and as Christmas gifts to a lot of people that year.
Undoubtedly, however, the best bargains Momma ever came upon were those she discovered in other people’s garbage. These garbage-shopping adventures usually took place in the evening hours following the owner’s garage sale. She would find some treasure (like bar stools), return home, wait until it was dark, then drive my brother and me back to the site in question. She would park the car about a block away, point us in the direction of the garbage, and make us get out and retrieve the garbage. Needless to say, my brother and I used to resent these shopping trips greatly, and often begged her not to have us be humiliated in this way. One time we were caught by the owners and chased away in defeat and embarrassment, to which Momma expressed great disappointment that we hadn’t run off with the items in question as we were chased away. We hated these trips, but her powers of persuasion were uncanny. She always used a magical phrase that forced us to her will: “Because I’m your mother and I said so!” Spoken with her Bronx accent, she could force us to succumb to every crazy scheme she could imagine.
I discovered over time that there was a point to all this bargain hunting. She usually resold all of these great buys (and garbage) at her own garage sales. And it was shocking to see how much money she could make off of other people’s items. I distinctly recall one of our neighbors commenting once that she thought she used to own the same lamp. My mother feigned shock at the coincidence of having owned the same thing, then generously sold it to her at a discount.
Undoubtedly one probably thinks that by revealing these memories, I would be completely embarrassing her. And one would be correct. In fact, I can hear her over my shoulder saying, “Oh my God, don’t tell them about that!”, or even better “You can’t think of something nice to say? I’m your mother, for Christ’s sake!” So admittedly it seems only right that I mention a few other things that I will always remember.
I will always remember how her hair color and styles changed so much through the years that we can date our family photos by what look she had. She first dyed her hair red at the age of thirteen. During the 1960s she adopted a most fabulous red beehive that was like a cylindrical crown on her queen-like head. When I was young, she wore her shimmering red hair long like a Pre-Raphaelite stunner. Then, at the age of six, I was catatonically horrified when she cut all of it off in emulation of Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan. As the years passed, she rotated from red to brunette to frosted to blond and back to red again. In her early 50s, she began swimming, lost weight, and dyed her hair a polychrome blond that she wore short. She looked amazing. And then, shortly afterwards, she started to get sick, but she always maintained her appearance.
I will always remember Momma’s abundant love and concern for animals, even the ones that were as wacky as she. She would take in stray dogs when I was a child, like the crazy gray-and-white mutt named Kuby or the beautiful Lhasa Apso she named Champagne. She once had a suicidal goldfish who used to jump out of its bowl, but somehow always survived when Momma would rush over and save him by throwing him back in his bowl. She also had a cockatiel named Gino who used to stand on her head and shit in her hair, which oddly she never seemed to mind. She desperately tried to teach Gino to speak, but after repeatedly playing a audio tape with thirty minutes of a non-stop greeting of “Hello, Gino!”, I’m convinced the bird actually had learned to speak but refused because he was so annoyed that she kept playing the damn tape over and over. Her last pet was the ever adorable Bichon Frise named Precious, her “Baby Girl” who was literally her shadow and followed her everywhere. Momma walked Precious throughout the neighborhood on her own, then with my father or uncle, until she could no longer walk on her own at all.
I will always remember her reaction to my coming out. I was engaged to be married, and Momma absolutely adored my fiance. I was going to marry, give her the grandchildren she always wanted, and live the idyllic life she always wanted for me. And then the day came when I yanked the carpet out from underneath her, and she stumbled, uncertain where to turn, unsure how to react. I never had reason to doubt that she didn’t love me, for she reassured me that she always would. But for years afterwards, even when I had a boyfriend, she would always casually mention to me about “trying women again.” These comments usually ended in arguments. She eventually backed down with my father’s intervention, but after one of those fights, I will always remember what she told me about why she had resisted my homosexuality. She was terrified for me. It preyed on her mind that people could hate me for no other reason than because I was gay. She was desperate to protect me from bigots who knew no better than to hate because I was somehow different. She was, in essence, being a mother, and it was with this realization that I look back on my coming out experience with her as being very challenging, but surrounded with unbelievable love, acceptance, and protection.
I will always remember how much she loved to dance. Her favorite song was “Shout!” by the Isley Brothers, during which she would always get a little bit softer and then a little bit louder. She always danced with my father, but also danced with anyone who wanted to dance with her. She taught me how to lindy and cha-cha. I went through my foolish phase when I was embarrassed to hang out with my mother, let alone dance with her, but as the years passed and she became sicker, dancing with her was one of the most memorable experiences I shared with her. We last danced a lindy together at her 60th birthday party, and though it was difficult she could still twirl under my arm.
Momma died on July 13, 2006 at the age of 63 after battling for more than seven years with the effects of what can be best described as early onset Alzheimer’s disease, since there is no test to diagnose for certain what form of dementia she actually developed. Dementia has become so pandemic among the elderly that our society can only cope with it by joking about their forgetfulness, and then shrug our shoulders that at least the elderly lived a long life. Momma remembered many of us for a very long time. She knew me until September 2004. After that, I slipped from her memory like others had and others soon would. The disease is evil, now only because it robs the person of their physical abilities, but it also strips away the experiences and events that gave the person their vitality and sense of purpose. It’s a disease that robbed my mother of presence, identity, and being.
So when a woman at the age of 55 tells you that she was driving home from shopping and she completely forgot how to go home, know that something isn’t right. And when at the age of 57 she starts to tell you that there’s something wrong with her muscles and she is having difficulty holding things, listen to her and exercise her limbs. At the age of 59 when she can no longer write her name or read the Classifieds, hold her hand, write with her, and read to her. And when at the age of 60 she repeats herself incessantly because she doesn’t remember that she has asked you the same question twenty times in the past hour, breathe and count to ten, then answer as if it was the first time you had heard the question. Don’t take your anger at the disease out on her, because it’s not her fault. And when at the age of 61 she can only eat finger foods, don’t scold her for spilling things, and when you realize you must feed her, just make sure she’s getting enough nutrition. And when every single time she’s aware of the horror of what is happening to her, and when she cries and says she wants to die, knowing eventually she will, fight your sense of helplessness and anger. Squeeze her hand, hug her, kiss her, cry with her, and say, “I love you, Momma,” because it’s the only thing you can do, both for her and for yourself. And when she’s in the last stages of her illness, lying in a vegetative state in a hospital bed, think about her amazingly wacky life, think about how privileged you were to know her, and then prepare yourself, for it’s time to let her go. But never ever forget.