Twelve years old, I was lying on my bed, scribbling words in my notebook, listening to my new Ace of Base cassette tape when my mother opened the door and asked me to help her with the laundry. Actually, what she said was, “Carlina, come help with il bucato,” with a question mark almost present in the lilt at the end of her sentence. Almost a request, almost not an order. I looked up from my bed at her dark eyes watching me with their stern gaze. Her plump Italian hips swayed as she turned toward the baskets of clothes waiting in the family room, obviously expecting me to follow.
I hated helping with the laundry. We didn’t have a washing machine in our Middle Village, Queens, apartment, so washing clothes involved a half-block hike through the neighborhood to the laundromat. The plastic handles of the oblong laundry basket cut into my palms as we paraded our dirty laundry past our neighbors laughing and gossiping on their stoops. If we saw one of my classmates from St. Margaret’s, I ducked my head and watched the white rim of the basket until we safely passed by.
Worse, Mamma refused to spend quarters on the electric dryers at the laundromat. Waste of money, she said, when a clothesline is just as good. We lugged the baskets of damp, heavy fabric back home and hung each piece on the makeshift clothesline on our balcony. I cringed at the thought that the neighbors were privy to my first bra flapping tiny and intimate in the wind. The laundry was too much work and too much embarrassment. And besides, she never made my little brother, Tony, help. I had better things to do. So I told her no.
She gave me that look of hers: “Idle hands belong to il diavolo, and without some good hard work, you’ll never amount to anything.” Just for good measure, she also threw in her “If you don’t learn how to do these chores right, no decent man will want to marry you” look. Again, she said, “Come help with il bucato,” this time sans questioning lilt. Again, I said no. I added a look of my own: “I’m busy, so you go do your own stinking laundry, because that’s your job anyway.” I think she probably figured out what I said to her in my look, because she reached out and slapped me across the cheek.
I cried. Mamma yelled. I helped with the laundry. I never forgot that slap. She never forgot my rebellion.
She pushed me harder, trying to mold me into the daughter a good Italian Catholic woman should have. I looked the part: short and slender after shedding my baby fat, with curly dark brown hair and eyes the color of the acorns I collected in the park. If not for my defiant behavior, I would have been the daughter she would be proud to bring to the deli and show off to the other neighborhood women while buying salami and ground beef. Never mind what I wanted.
I stopped wearing dresses in middle school. I wanted jeans frayed at the knees and Rolling Stones t-shirts. I bought them with my best friend, Kim, at the mall. That same day, I also had my ears pierced without asking permission. When Mamma saw me walk out of my bedroom that first time in my new outfit, her eyebrows drooped over her eyes, and her hands grasped the gold cross around her neck.
“Dio ce ne scampi liberi!” she cried and ran off to rub her rosary beads. God forbid, indeed.
When I joined a rock band in high school, she shook her head and told me electric guitars were “per il diavolo.” When I turned eighteen, she asked me when I would get married. When I moved (twenty-one and still single) to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of writing Hollywood screenplays, she said nothing. But I saw that look in her furrowed Italian eyebrows.
That was five years ago. I’ve been back only a handful of times, including the visit a year ago right after the doctors diagnosed my father with lung and throat cancer. He’d been a smoker since he was thirteen. They gave him ten months to live.
I flew back to California after that visit to resume my “normal” life. In the harsh world of Hollywood, to be anybody you have to know somebody, and I knew nobody. After a couple years of writing by day and waitressing by night, I finally got a job at a meager firm named Blowbacker & Kelley. The firm hires screenwriters to create screenplays and markets the pieces they think have blockbuster potential to movie studios and producers. My job isn’t much; I proofread the work of other writers and sometimes collaborate on ideas for key scenes. Blowbacker & Kelley have yet to choose one of my screenplays for marketing. I figure once I prove myself, I’ll have my shot at the big time. So I’m on my way up and I can’t miss a beat. And I still have to waitress on the weekends for extra cash.
When the phone call about my dad finally came, it was early in the morning. Well, seven o’clock – maybe not so early, but early for me – I hadn’t gone to bed until four a.m. because of a waitressing gig, and the nightcap I’d had with friends afterward. I fumbled for my cell phone on the nightstand/coffee table next to the futon in my studio apartment. The only light in the room shone down through the skylights above the kitchenette about ten feet away. The rising L.A. sun flashed a beam of light across my face, blinding my efforts to find and silence my cell phone. My head felt dry and heavy, and I didn’t particularly want to hear the chorus of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” repeated over and over in polyphonic ring tones. Without a glance at the caller I.D., I muttered a cantankerous hello.
“Carlina? Are you there?”
My brother, Tony. Calling from New York where he still lived on the same street as our parents. The good child.
“Carlina, I have some news. Some bad news. It’s Pop. He – he finally passed last night.”
“What? Tony what… huh?”
“Sorry, sis. We – I – well, can you get on the next flight? The funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Shit. Yes, of course. Yeah. I’ll call you back.”
Two hours later I edged into the window seat on a cross-country flight to LaGuardia Airport. Five hours later, I wheeled my carry-on suitcase out the door and into Tony’s old blue El Camino, my head spinning with the fast pace of it all.
Coming back meant reverting into those days before I knew myself, before I could make my own decisions every day without worrying about Mamma’s constant censure, before I was free to be whoever I wanted to be. Visits, no matter how short, put me right back under her thumb. Like I had never even grown up at all. Back in Queens, I was eternally twenty-one. I was also eternally the disappointing daughter who let everybody down and didn’t even have one bambino yet.
Riding the elevator to our fourth floor apartment, I thought maybe this trip would be different, considering the circumstances. She opened the door and immediately assessed my baggy sweatpants and low-cut tank top. Her eyes alternately narrowing and widening as she scanned my thin frame, she subtly examined my now blond hair, pulled into a messy ponytail. She didn’t even have to say anything. I knew what she was thinking: with pants like those, she’ll never attract an uomo, and with such a scadente shirt, no decent uomo will come near her. I sighed and gave her a hug, her coarse black dress scratching against the skin on my arm. We were right back to square one. But maybe she needed that now – the constancy of our power struggle to anchor her.
She looked the same, the same as I always remembered her looking. Her black hair, still natural and dark even at fifty years old, was pulled back in a bun, not a strand escaping the invisible bobby pins holding it all together. Skin sagged off her cheekbones, drawing attention to the deep purple smudges of exhaustion under her eyes, and the clumped mascara hanging from her eyelashes. Her thin pointed nose rested above a pair of thick lips, a shade lighter and pinker than her olive skin tone. Her body was heavy, her arms strong, ready to pick a crying toddler off the floor or spank a child into submission.
I stepped through the door and looked around for visible changes. I saw none: kitchen to the left, still decorated yellow with black cabinets and a round wooden table; beyond the kitchen, the glass door leading out to the small balcony porch; my parents’ bedroom straight ahead, door closed and ominous like always; to the right, three white wooden doors all in a row, each no more than seven feet from the next – my old bedroom, Tony’s old bedroom, and the bathroom, right in the middle.
I stood in the family room, or more accurately, as I saw it, the den. A peach and yellow floral sofa against one wall faced an inexpensive wooden stand, housing a television with a screen smaller than the one on my laptop. And above the TV, looming large over the room, hung a photographed portrait of our family, back when I was eight and my mother still looked at me with hope. Tony, five years old in the picture, had a wide-eyed expression on his face and over-sized ears popping out of the sides of his head. My parents looked young, happy: my father’s eyes tipped down to admire his children in front of him, my mother’s tipped up to admire her husband next to her. Now, this day after his death, she appraised me with a critical, yet slightly bewildered eye.
“You’re too thin. What, they don’t have food in California?”
“Ma, I’m fine. Are you holding up?” I rested my right hand on the top of the pull-up handle of my rolling suitcase and cocked my head slightly in her direction.
“Me? Bah. I’m good, I’m good. Why wouldn’t I be good?” She stepped backward and swatted the air in front of her in a gesture of dismissal. She turned away from our words and toward the kitchen, where she felt most secure. I hesitated.
“Here, let me give you some food. We have some lasagna here somewhere I think.”
She plated up a helping of lasagna from a green, Saran-Wrapped dish and set it in the oven to warm. She didn’t have a microwave. Tony installed one for them once, but she and Papa could never figure out how it worked. They never used it, so when Tony’s microwave broke a couple years ago, he took theirs.
As the lasagna warmed, the scent of tomato sauce and cheese slowly permeated the air and warmed the kitchen. I inhaled and sighed, recognizing one thing, at least, I could miss about this place.
Setting the plate and a glass of milk in front of me on the kitchen table, Mamma busied herself wiping down the kitchen counters with an old sponge. I cut a square of lasagna with the side of my fork and chewed it slowly.
“Hey, Ma, this is really good. Is that oregano I taste?” I asked, scooping another forkful into my mouth.
“Eh? Oh I don’t know. I didn’t make it. That lady – the lady downstairs with the gatto…”
“Mrs. Donalli. She made it. Brought it over this morning. Tony took it in. If I was here – eh, I would say I don’t need her lasagna.” She scoffed and shook her sponge at the floor.
“Still, Ma, wasn’t that nice of her?”
“Eh? Well, Bambalina, how’s California? You still doing those movies? Maybe you have a boyfriend, now?” She wagged her eyebrows expectantly in my direction.
“No boyfriend, Ma. And I just write some screenplays. I don’t really do the movies.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean. This writing you do, it’s good?”
“It’s going fine, Ma.” I shrugged.
“Must be very hot in California. These pictures you send home, you hardly wear anything at all. It’s not fresco, and you could catch cold like here, huh?”
“Yeah, Ma. Anyway, what time does everything start tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? Tomorrow. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. No more right now.”
“But, Ma –”
“No more right now. Smetti!”
She turned away from me to stare into the kitchen cabinets. I quietly finished my lasagna and milk.
Just then Tony, who had to drive around the block to find a parking spot, kicked the door open while balancing a sympathy bouquet of yellow roses in one hand and a freshly dry-cleaned suit in the other. I jumped up to help him, taking the bouquet to the kitchen, while he laid the suit on the couch. Tony slicked his black hair back with one hand and probed Mamma with his dark eyes. Tony was short for a grown man, only five foot nine, his body bony and thin. His red t-shirt hung off his narrow chest, and he had to cuff the bottom of his jeans to keep them from dragging on the ground. He still hadn’t grown into his ears.
Mamma stared at us, shifted her eyes back and forth between the suit and the flowers, and stomped into the back bedroom. I questioned Tony with my eyes. He shrugged and pulled me out the front door into the hallway.
“What’s the deal?” I asked.
“Mamma isn’t facing it.” He pulled his eyebrows together and shook his head wearily. “She hasn’t admitted he’s dead and completely ignores all the funeral preparations. Carli, I’m worried about her. I just don’t think she’s dealing with it like she should.”
Tony massaged his forehead, and then placed his hand on my arm. Goosebumps sprang up on my skin from the chill of his fingertips.
“I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you can help.”
“Me? Yeah right. Tony, if you haven’t noticed, Ma has zero respect for me. You’re her perfect Italian kiss-ass boy. I’m the crazy bambalina bitch who ran off to wild California.”
“Nah, I mean, she’s hard on you, yes. But I think it’s just because she’s afraid you’re too much like her. And quit using that kind of language, will you? Why don’t you act like a lady for a change?”
Before I could answer, the telephone rang through the front door. Tony looked at me.
“I better get that. The funeral parlor is supposed to call. Just try to talk to Ma, okay? Please?”
I nodded and followed him back inside the apartment. While he answered the phone, I grabbed my suitcase from beside the couch and wheeled it into the side room. My old bedroom. They hadn’t touched it since I left. All my old stuffed animals, my twin bed, my collection of Nancy Drew books – all of it still where I had left it. Unmoved but clean, not dusty like I expected. I figured that after I moved out, she’d never come in here again. But somebody had obviously been keeping up with the dusting. Maybe Papa, I thought fondly. Maybe he couldn’t bear his only little girl, his principessa, leaving home, so he snuck in here every so often to sit still and remember me. I smiled at the thought, at the same time knowing my father had never dusted a thing in his life.
My thoughts drifted back to what Tony said about how Mamma worried I was too much like her. I didn’t think I was anything like her. She had her traditions and her immovable ideas of right and wrong, and I was a product of freethinking American city living. Even within our conservative Italian neighborhood, I sought after the new and exciting. Mamma tried to pry me away from all that – with a crowbar. No, if anything, Mamma wanted me to be more like her. She pushed me toward the established, the conventional, the safe.
“Carlina?” Tony called from the kitchen, “I have to go to the funeral home and drop off the suit and get some other stuff done for the funeral. I should be back in time to pick you and Mamma up for the wake tonight.”
“The wake’s tonight?” I asked, meeting him by the front door.
“Well, yeah. I thought we’d all go for a few hours. Then, I can bring you and Ma home. I have to go back after that. I’m sitting up all night to watch over Pop with Uncle Gino, Uncle Len, and John, and a few other men, I think.” He nodded his head seriously, running over details in his mind.
“Okay. What time should we be ready?”
“Uh, around seven, I guess. I hope Ma comes to terms with all this by then.”
Tony was only gone a few hours, but as the time of the wake drew nearer, Mamma got quieter. First, she responded to me as normal and lectured me as I poured vodka into my Coke – drinking hard liquor was unladylike, not effeminato. Then, to my relief, she dropped into monosyllables and half completed sentences, her eyes focused on the wall just above reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond on the TV screen. By six thirty, I could hardly get a word out of her. But I didn’t let it bother me, really. I didn’t push her to talk. She was grieving. And everyone grieves differently. Who was I to tell her how to mourn her dead husband? If she wanted to remain silent, well, I wasn’t going to complain.
Tony didn’t like it, though. He got home and immediately tried to discuss the wake with her. He stood next to the couch and talked down to her figure sinking lower into the couch cushions. Her gaze didn’t wander from the television. She refused to answer, ignoring him. He couldn’t even get monosyllables out of her.
“Mamma. Mamma? We’re going to Pop’s wake, do you understand? We’re going to see Pop lying in his coffin, and we’re going to shake hands with all the nice people who will come to say goodbye to him. Mamma? Do you understand, Mamma?” Tony condescended in a slightly sing-song voice.
“Dammit, Tony, she’s not a child,” I snapped. “She knows what’s going on.”
“I’m handling this, Carlina,” he reprimanded, “I know how this goes. I know the right thing to do. Maledizione! Why won’t she talk? She won’t even look at me!”
Mamma placed her hands on the edge of the couch and set her feet on the floor. She pushed herself up from the cushions and stood between her two children. She watched my face, her own curiously without expression.
“Just leave her alone, Tony. Why don’t we just let her stay home?” I asked.
“She can’t stay home. This is her husband’s wake! People expect her to be there. She’s supposed to be there.”
“Tony, she’s not up to it. I don’t think she should have to come.”
Tony’s shoulders tensed. He would never agree to let her stay home. Before I could stop him, he grabbed Mamma by the shoulders and shook her twice.
“Mamma! Snap out of it. Pop is dead! Your husband is dead! Get used to it.”
Mamma lifted her chin slowly to look Tony in the eye.
“Va bene,” she said, “okay. I will go.”
At the wake that night, I saw my father laid out in his best suit. His only suit, really. It was weird to see him dressed up. I felt like maybe we should have Christmas mass while we were at it. I thought they should have dressed him in his khaki slacks and ratty Sons of Italy t-shirt. His uniform.
I remember the time he wore that outfit to play bocce with his brothers and cousins at the park. The men shouted and cheered as they tried to knock the balls further down the makeshift field. Papa, the self-proclaimed king of bocce, couldn’t stand to lose. If his game were even a little bit off, he would curse at himself and shake his fist at the ball. Italian rage at its best.
The women sat on blankets with their legs tucked under their bodies and their dresses pulled tightly over their knees. They spent most of the game knitting or darning socks, watching the men play. The little boys wrestled in the grass, but I wasn’t allowed to join. Good bambalinas, my mother told me, sit quietly with their mammas. I think I was about nine years old. When the game was almost over, my mother and the other wives spread out the picnic: cold pasta, cannoli, paninos with prosciutto and salame, red wine and beer. We would eat until the sun dropped below the horizon and walk home where Papa would turn on the Mets game and snore in his big chair.
But first the final plays of bocce.Papa’s last turn. His t-shirt stuck to his chest and back as he rolled the ball. It came up about a foot short.
“Cazzo! Pezzo di cazzo!” he cried and broke into a spasm of coughing.
“Cazzo,” I repeated, “Pezzo di cazzo.”
The other women gasped and shook their heads. Mamma’s face swelled red, and she smacked her hand against the seat of my pants. “No, mai!” she thundered, “Good bambalinas don’t talk like that! Sudice!”
“But Papa said it!” I protested over my tears.
“Papa can say it. Papa is a man. Bambalinas don’t say that.”
At the wake that night, Mamma sat quietly in the back row of chairs set up in a studio-sized room in Russo’s Funeral Home. She set her gaze on the floor and wouldn’t talk to anybody. In one corner, Papa’s casket lay open for viewing, surrounded by flowers and a line of about twenty people waiting to pay their respects. Others milled around the room, chatting softly with each other or dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs. Our relatives and neighbors came to Tony and me and asked us if our mamma was feeling all right.
“She’s doing as well as can be expected,” we answered when our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Bianchi, approached us. Her long acrylic fingernails dug into my shoulder as she grabbed me for a hug. The musky perfume wafting away from her neck stung my nose and traveled down to my throat. I stifled a cough.
“Mi dispiace, mi dispiace.” She fussed, releasing me from the hug and pressing her hands on either side of my face.
“Thank you,” we answered.
“And you, Carlina! We haven’t seen you in so long! You have a boyfriend there in California?”
“No, thank you. I don’t.”
“Ah, mi dispiace! Poverino. Here, you will meet my nephew, Michael.”
In my family’s neighborhood, to die is lamentable, but to be a twenty-six year old, unmarried woman is deplorable.
In a moment alone, Tony touched my arm. When I looked up at him, he shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Carlina. I’m sorry I treated Ma that way. I’m sorry I spoke like that. My temper. You know?”
“Yeah, Tony, I know.” I shrugged, unconvinced, and added, “What did you mean earlier about me and Ma being the same?”
“I said that? You are. You both work the same, just for different things. With that self-reliance and pride.” He sighed and slipped his hands into the pockets of his black dress pants. “I don’t know, Sis, I wish she would take part in this whole thing more. I wish we didn’t have to keep making excuses for her strange behavior.”
“What excuses? We’re telling people she’s mourning. She is. In her own way she is.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t think she should act like that at her husband’s wake.”
“Leave her alone, Tony. Let her do her own thing.”
A little later, I saw Tony sitting next to Mamma, talking to her in earnest. She kept shaking her head and swatting him away. He looked up and caught my eye; his expression begged for help. I shrugged and turned away. He wouldn’t get any support from me. I mean, hell, her husband died, and Tony’s mad at her for not wanting to be sociable?
Suddenly, I heard her voice, loud and mean, stretching across the room.
“Smetti! Mi marito, no morto! Not dead! Stop ragazzaccio. You never leave me! Pace! Pace per mi! He is in pace! Paradiso! Cazzo!” She waved her arms above her head and stomped her left foot over and over again – tears exploded from her eyes and poured down her face. Tony stepped back and nervously glanced from one side of the room to the other. He shushed her futilely until I rushed over and pushed him to the side.
She was long past hysterics when I took her by the shoulders and led her into the front lobby of the funeral home. Tony looked on dumbly, perplexed and red faced, unable to speak or act. One arm hung limply at his side, while the other rested beneath his chin, his fingers covering his mouth. The ladies in the room clicked their tongues and shook their heads. The men pretended not to notice.
I calmed Mamma down enough so she stopped screaming. Her eyes, still red with tears darted around the lobby dolefully, desperately.
Taking her sagging hand in mine, I whispered, “I’m here, Mamma. I’m right here.”
She lifted her chin and met my eyes. I didn’t look away. Her countenance held a new look, one I couldn’t recognize or easily translate into words. But I knew what she meant. The creases in her forehead unfolded one-by-one, and I felt the pressure of her hand grasping mine. I reached out and smoothed the strands of hair working themselves loose from her wilted bun.
Tony finally came out to the lobby and looked to me. His eyes questioned, his eyebrows drawn together, like a little boy lost in Macy’s, longing for the safe encirclement of a parent’s arms.
“Tony, give me your keys.” I said, extending an upturned palm.
“Huh?” He asked. With a shake of his head, he reset his jaw and wedged his hand in his pocket.
“Your car keys. I’ll take Mamma home. Put her to bed.”
“But what do I tell people? Mamma’s not acting… she’s not acting right.”
“You don’t need to tell anyone anything. She’s grieving. They should understand that,” I told him. He dangled the keys, clinking against each other, over my hand. “If you change your mind about staying the night,” I said, “call me and I’ll come pick you up later.”
“Not stay! Carlina, I can’t do that. I’m supposed to stay.”
“Just because you’re supposed to doesn’t mean you have to, you know.”
He gave me that look of his that said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard and no wonder you’re the black sheep of the family.”
I shrugged and took his keys. Together, Mamma and I walked out of the funeral home and into the bright night.