My favorite photograph is of Mom Sylvia -- just a young girl herself, holding a tiny sleeping baby in her arms - me.
Her real name was Silvana, but when she moved to the US, no one could pronounce it, so Sylvia she became....
Mom had innocence and verve, was sweet and stentorian, an angel and a maelstrom, sugar and brimstone - very hard to deal with at times, for when she was bad, she was horrid. But when she was good, she was VERY VERY good. And everyone who knew her loved her.
Me too. She was my Mom. And I loved her dearly.
Mom was born in Rome, Italy. From the very beginning, she made it clear that she demanded and deserved nothing less than total respect! When she was four years old, with a raging fever she picked up a mortar and pestle and threatened to beat up the country doctor who had been summoned to examine her. She scared him off. But when she recovered (even high fevers gave her great respect!), she found and rescued a tiny baby bird.
She delighted in playing with her brother in St Peter's Square, running through her grandmother's fruit orchards in the mountains of Acuto throwing fruit at anyone who happened to be there at the time, and sitting in front of her Nonna's (Nonna means grandmother in Italian) huge fireplace when the winds were raging outside (It was so cold that they'd bring the chickens into the house). And she loved hearing her Nonna recite a special Italian poem ("Fiocca al Neve"--"Snowflakes") whenever it snowed up there in the mountains ("Lenta la neve fiocca, fiocca, fiocca ....." "Silently the snow falls, falls, falls...." ) She and her brother and the village kids/brats would play on the railroad tracks, at the area of the sharpest bend of the tracks; the conductor of the train, which was proceeding very slowly because of the acute (hence ACUTO) angle of the tracks, could not see them until he rounded the bend -- and lo and behold -- there were these kids standing on the tracks RIGHT in front of the train!! He would curse and blow his horn, and they would all laugh (and probably curse back at him) and jump out of the way. "We did this so many times" Mom said "you would THINK he'd anticipate us!!" And when it was time for Sylvia and her brother to leave Nonna' Concetta's little stone cottage in Acuto to go back home to Rome, Nonna Concetta would follow them out the door with a broom, Italian invectives flying -- sweeping their dust out of her home.
When Mussolini went into power in Italy, the whole family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York (the Bronx). It was there that Sylvia's beloved father Giuseppe (Joseph) died from injuries sustained while fighting for the Americans in W.W.I. He was given a hero's funeral, and everyone in the neighborhood (Arthur Avenue) rallied behind the family in these very hard times.
The Zoo, the pastry store, the movies, the roller rink -- chi-chi fashion shows, nesslerode pie at Lord and Taylor's, midnight Mass at Christmas. Mom was there holding us little kids by the hand, leading us here and there. What fun we had!!
I will never forget the day she blithely painted the kitchen Chartreuse and Orange, and put up chartreuse and orange drapes (much to the screaming consternation of our next door neighbor -- I thought ALL New Yorkers were unflappable!) -- and the day she painted the bedroom violet and the living room dark green. I remember well her whirlwind of non-stop activity and the order that she would produce out of chaos -- well, sometimes with Mom Sylvia, it was also the other way around!
I remember how she'd breeze through our humble Bronx apartment singing the "Sylvia Ballet", her very favorite -- so what if there really were NO words to that ballet! If Mom said there were words, - then, there were words!
Although she was a fearsome foe to anyone who dared compromise justice in any way, Mom showed her sensitive side when she'd tell us kids: "Do you hear that ambulance? Someone's in trouble - pray for them." Other times she'd tell us "You never know what someone is going through -- be kind to people."
Then one day the one who provided for us and guided us, became the Child of her Children. Mom's strength ebbed as one illness after the other took hold of her body. She who would storm to the defense of the underdog, now lay in a hospital bed, wasted away by cancer, heart failure and diabetes. Eventually she slipped into a coma. "Mom, I love you" I'd say as I placed new flowers in a vase by her bedside table.
And one night, Mom's frail body gave up the fight. Her spirit however, was undaunted, as the week she died was a week filled with violent thunderstorms (her very favorite type of "music"); and shortly before she slipped away, a special storm ripped through the area, most probably taking her with it -- or, knowing Mom Sylvia -- perhaps it was the other way around!!
God bless you Mom -- you have never really left - your spirit lives on, anytime I hear the Sylvia ballet, anytime I hear the distant rumble of thunder. And yes, I still stick up for myself just the way you used to for me, when I was a tiny little kid.
My Favorite Photo of Mom Sylvia
Photographs will soon grace this page
Life went on, Mom went to school in the Bronx, was a classmates of Carl Reiner (I don't think they ever met, but she used to see him getting a ride home from school every day, when everyone else was walking home - this was in the 1930's) jitterbugged at the USO club during WWII, interviewed Glenn Miller for the school paper, assembled gyroscopes at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, and then met my Dad. They married, and Mom would visit Dad, who was in the Army base in St. Augustine Florida ("It's very beautiful there -- you MUST go there one day" she would tell me), walked around in the rain ("the hurricanes were fantastic -- the rain was blowing SIDEWAYS!" she would tell me), and one day (this is 1946, in the deep South of Florida), she saw a car full of men speeding towards an elderly Afro-American man who was trying to cross the street. She walked out in front of that speeding car -- "I didn't think they would hit me, a pregnant white woman" -- and she was right -- the car veered away, from Mom AND the man she was standing next to. "I would sometimes see him on the street after that, and he would always say hello to me" she told me. Mom returned to NY, renting a room at the YMCA, waiting for my Dad to return home. Still pregnant with me, she developed VERY strange eating habits "I would go into the nearest lunchonette and order raw cabbage and heavy cream, and I would eat that for days on ened -- the people sitting next to me looked nauseated, watching me eat that stuff, but that's what YOU craved, so I ate it." (I DO have a fondness for Cole Slaw and Whipped Cream!!!<:-)
Dad returned from Florida and shortly afterwards, in the leanest of times, I was born. Mom always told me that I was born into a world that could be very cold some times, and she was determined to keep me safe and loved. And protected.
When Mom took me for my one-month physical at the clinic, a woman whose baby had just died ran up and tried to pry me from Mom's arms, shouting "It's not fair that YOUR baby should live and mine should die!" Mom held one to me with all her strength, or I might not be here today, and orderlies rushed over and pulled the woman off us.
We lived in welfare housing in lower Manhattan (Hell's Kitchen, in the 1940's) and we could not afford a crib, so I'd sleep in my baby carriage; Mom would be up all night brushing the mice off the carriage, to keep them from crawling all over me while I slept.
Even in the midst of all that, Mom still found time to play her favorite records for me and Sis (who came along a year later) -- 78 rpm wax records of Tex Beneke, Glen Miller, Spike Jones, Louie Prima, and other musical greats.
Life became much easier once Dad found a better job, and we moved to a pleasant neighborhood in the Bronx, with picture windows, green lawns, playgrounds and other happy sights. More records were piled on the Victrola, pretty dresses and hair ribbons were made for us little kids, and we'd dance like little Bambinas in the sunlit living room, to Italian opera and 40's jazz.
Mom was always our defender and witty humorist (Heaven protect ANYONE who crossed us kids -- Mom was there in a heartbeat to put them in their place, no matter WHO they were!). Our stern discipliner (perhaps a little TOO stern!) who taught us not to take bullying from anyone, kid or adult, would also dress us in our summer togs and whisk us by bus to Orchard Beach, to dig in the sand, hold hands, laugh and splash into the surf, and then go home in the summer twilight -- sandy, wet and happily exhausted.