Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Mother's Day Remembrance

My mother was born Eva Costa in 1920, the youngest of five children of Martin and Jenny Costa in Philadelphia.

My mother had aspirations to become a school teacher, but by the time she was old enough to attend college the Great Depression had snuffed out her family’s ability to do anything more than survive.  She always blamed the government for the depression and had lifelong distrust of government and politicians.

She always loved music.  She came of age as a Frank Sinatra fan and loved the big band music of her day. When she was young, she and her best friend Rita D’tore would go dancing to big bands in Philadelphia before World War 2.  They both met their respective husbands at one of these dances.  My mother met my father Tony Amadio and Rita met her husband at the same dance.

I have photographs of her and Rita from then.  They looked so perfect for the time.  Almost like the Andrews Sisters, a popular singing group from that time.  

Instead of attending college, Eva went to work as a sewing machine operator and was a member of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union.  The ILGWU.  The ILGWU no longer exists since everything we buy today is imported.  Both my mother and father were strong union people.  

She stopped working once she married my father.  She was a “stay at home mom”.  A term which had not yet been coined in the 1950’s.  All moms stayed at home to raise their children then.

When I was in sixth grade, my father had a serious back operation which laid him up for months, forcing my mother to go back to work.  She took a job as pocket maker at the Isseminger Brothers coat factory on 19th and Callowhill in Philadelphia, a contract manufacturer for Evan Piccone.  The factory, which has been shut down for decades is now luxury loft condominiums.  I have copies of my mother’s pay checks from that time and I am struck by how little she made as a sewing machine operator.

My mother and I never really had any long conversations.  They weren’t necessary.  I knew what I was supposed to do and I was expected to do it.  The imperative was to do well in school.  Study, get good grades and go to college.  No on ever asked me what I wanted, since it was simply expected that I would do well in school and there was no discussion.  Being the oldest of three children I was expected to set a good example and watch out for my younger siblings.  No discussion, no instruction, simply expectation.

My wife, my sister and my sister-in-law often remark about how strong of a woman she was.  I would bet they had all whole lot more conversations with my mother than I ever had.

Both my mother and father were stoics and were not very demonstrative of their feelings except for occasional overly dramatic operatic outbursts. The thing I remember most about my mother were her sayings.  She would make short philosophical statements to let you know what she thought.

She would say things like, “Go around with people better than you, don’t go with people worse than you.”  How do you expect to ever improve yourself?  This was and is sound advice.

When we were kids she would stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window to watch us at play.  We were never out of her sight.  She raised me to believe there is always someone watching. To this day, I feel my every action is being observed by some higher authority.

Whenever there was a kid in the neighborhood who misbehaved or got into trouble, my mother would say, “I blame the parents.”  Whenever her children, mostly my brother Neil and I misbehaved, she would look up into the heavens and say, “Saint Rita, Saint Theresa and all the saints in heaven give me strength.”

In the mid 1980s I owned a small manufacturing business in Philadelphia where I opened a sewing department which had some of the same equipment my mother had used when she worked as sewing machine operator.  The day she came to visit me at the factory may have been one of her proudest moments. Her son was now the factory owner she had worked for her most of life.

My mother loved to take care of people.  She would go as far as to put the milk and sugar in my coffee and stir it for me, even years after I started drinking my coffee black.  So when she fell and broke her hip in 2002 and needed to have a full-time nurse live with her she resisted. She hated loosing her independence and especially didn't like anyone taking care of her because she had always been the caretaker.

After the dementia of Alzheimer's finally forced her into a nursing home,  I visited her every Saturday.  I would bring my iPod loaded with the music she loved hooked up to a small speaker and we would sit saying nothing much; just singing along to the songs of her life.  Frank Sinatra singing the Sunny Side of the Street.  Tony Bennett singing I Wanna be Around.

My mother died in December 2008.   One of the last things she said to me was something she said to me on many occasions.   Not a day goes by when I don’t remember her saying, “Mart, do what you are supposed to do and pay attention to what you are doing.”