I am the daughter of Sandra, the daughter of Beatrice, the daughter of Pearl.
It’s harder than I thought, this gesture of acknowledgement, to say out loud that I am truly made of these women, that I am of their bodies, their arthritic hands, their worried mouths.
I’ve spent too much of my adult life separating myself from heritage…to attach myself to these women without reservation.
I am the daughter of Barbara, the daughter of Olive, the daughter of Rosemary. The lineage of my maternal line stretches back all the way to rocky Italian soil where women were named for the nature around them, where the sun darkened their skin and hard work calloused their delicate hands. But, all I know are a few names back—the women who birthed the women who birthed me fade off into historical obscurity. Gone.
I was raised by my fierce Irish-American father and my half-Irish mother, in the Irish bar my father inherited from his. The bar he grew up upstairs from, the loud melodic clink of glasses and drunkards’ yelling voices—my father’s lullaby. We had our roots deep in our Irish ancestry. Pale-skinned, dark-haired, cleaning the bar every Sunday until the kelly green gleamed—and the alcohol, the feeling displaced, the pride in the family name, the stories of scandalous IRA ties, the high holy holiday of St. Patrick’s day, the tales of my grandfather and his father before him, the name I was given for an Irish ballad that made my father cry—my childhood. The Irish identity of my paternal side was the only identity that mattered then, and it mattered…so, so much.
I was ashamed of the quarter Italian in my blood. I used to say that I planned to marry a boy from Ireland and raise up babies even more pure-blood than I was. My mother was also proud of her Irish ancestry too, given to her by the father she adored, but there was another thread running all through her. A wild, Italian, whipstitch, crazy-quilt DNA pattern in crimson red.
Barbara, the daughter of Olive, the daughter of Rosemary. Their stories are encoded in the dark spaces of my own. I am “of their bodies, their arthritic hands, their worried mouths.” The act of claiming them, of writing my way into the history of my maternal line feels like an act of transgression and homecoming all at once.
A bundle of rosemary is tacked to my kitchen window. Rosemary I cut the night of a full blood moon, hurricane bearing down from the south, my energy rising. I went outside in the wind and the rain and felt the shift. The power to live again humming within me. My friend moved from the shadows to where I stood and said, “Come here—smell this,” and I went to him beside his wild flowerbed of rosemary and breathed in its intense perfume. I ran my fingers along the tops of the branches and smelled it on my skin. Sharp. Cleansing. Sweet.
“Remembrance,” I told him, thinking of my great-grandmother and the stories I’d heard of her name, “Rosemary is planted for remembrance.” I took heavy wet bundles of it with me when I left him. Remembrance.
Rosemary was “touched with sight” my mother told me—which I knew meant madness. She would see things and talk to spirits and perform elaborate rituals and refuse to leave her house. Remembrance, I said to this man who once watched my own decline happen right in front of him. My own brush with shadows and sight. I took heavy wet bundles of it with me when I left him—a year to the day from a day I very nearly left my life altogether. I tied it with twine and hung it from my window. Remembrance. There are lessons I’d do well not to forget—I can look to Rosemary for this.
Olive, daughter of Rosemary, a delicate beauty with a quick temper, a capacity for sacrifice, and a mind shot through with unspoken dreams and unnamed constellations of starshaped longings. Fiery, but hemmed in by a generation’s worth of expectation, a streak of silver in her long dark hair, a husband in a wheelchair, a house full of children. I remember her chain-smoking cigarettes, swirling endless cups of coffee, staring out of windows, and telling me how to be good.
Good meant polite, meant smart, meant obedient, meant devout, meant not saying too much—not risking anything. Her engagement ring sits in my jewelry box, heavy with significance and unwearable for me now in the wake of my divorce. Me, her divorced, unchurched, passionate, curious, honest, granddaughter-writer—the one who presses her pen to page and bleeds out our secrets. I look to her and attach to her uncertainty, her wounds, her arrestingly-vulnerable heart.
Barbara, daughter of Olive, and here, my words falter. Here, I begin again and again—my genesis, my afterword, the empty spaces in between every line I’ve written.
Lately, everything seems to end up a love story to my mother, no matter where the narrative itself begins.
She is gone, without warning, and I am forced again to remember that we can count on death more than anything else in this life. I trust death like I trust nothing else. I sat on the floor beside my mother’s body where it still rested in her rocking chair, one year ago this week. I took her hand in mine, felt its weight and its coldness. I cut a lock of her hair to keep with me. I told her she should really reconsider and come back. I stared at her face until the coroner came to release her body. Death waited in the corner of the room through all of my prostrations to my mother—knowing whose turn had come, deaf to my appeals for clemency.
My mother, dead too young, just like her mother before her. My inheritance of unexpected loss is so much like hers was. I have now watched the seasons change from frozen to blossom to full-bloom to waning-down again. I have watched my children process the loss of my mother, their second mother. I have picked up the phone to call her hundreds of times before remembering. I have written her letters and set them adrift in the ocean. I have wept in public, have told strangers her story, have started to write it down. I wake every morning and have a moment’s breath before it all crashes in again and I realize with a lurching panic that it wasn’t just a nightmare.
This past year, I have traveled places she’s never been. I’ve been tattooed. I have been kissed. I’ve taught more classes than I can count and reached out like never before to try to connect women to their own voices. I have lost love. I have cried more than any other year of my life. I’ve been photographed, complimented, flirted with, and I’ve been forgotten. I have found new people to connect to—including a far-flung and nearby tribe of women who love me, just as I am. Every flaw. Every weakness. Every moment I am lost again. This past year, I have laughed. I have had nights of blurry-stars and too much wine. I have immersed my body in a frigid river. I’ve been unable to get out of my bed. I have been thousands of miles from home. I have learned to fail. I have learned to live big. I have grieved her in every moment.
Somehow, I think every line I ever write for the rest of my life will have my mother in it. Every life experience I have will be multiplied—carrying her with me in my body, as she carried her mother with her, and hers before back through the generations to a rugged stretch of Italian coastline I’ve never seen—and the women who came before me whose names I don’t know, but who live in me just the same.
Barbara, daughter of Olive, daughter of Rosemary, in a few days I will catch a plane that will take me to another place I’ve never been. I am traveling to honor this first anniversary, to tell the stories of my maternal line to anyone who will listen to me, to honor remembrance, goodness, this motherly heritage, and this loss. I will keep working to help other women tell their own stories, and then trace their mothers’ back through the ages to tell theirs too.
Barbara, daughter of Olive, daughter of Rosemary, I will light a candle for you in the desert. I will write your untold stories in every one of my own until I have used all of the words you taught me. Then, I will say the words our mothers did just as forcefully and as powerfully as I can, the lilting maternal-Italian mothertongue rooting and blossoming in my blood, “Ti amo, mama. Per sempre.”