My mother and I never got along well, not really, not until she had dementia. When I was small, I remember her hugging me and whispering, “I wish I had ten of you.” She loved me, of that I have no doubt, but as I got older, she didn’t like me much. I wasn’t real pretty. I was strong willed and athletic, not in a coordinated way, but in a love to move way. And I had a tongue like a viper. I can see why I wasn’t her favorite person.
I think the biggest barriers between us though were our outlooks on life. My mother worried about what people thought, and so she wanted me to fit into society’s mold for a “proper” young lady. She enrolled my sister and I in charm schools ( It didn’t do much good except to make me self-conscious when I stand, and realize my feet are far apart, pointing in the same direction, rather than the heel of one strategically placed against the arch of the other.) , dance lessons, and signed us up for Ticktocker’s, a rich girl’s philanthropy, so we could hob knob with girls who really were rich.
She worried I didn’t get asked out much, and she told me not to exercise so much. To say she was a worrier would be an understatement. If I were ten minutes late coming home, she worried I’d fallen off a cliff. If I laughed too loudly, she worried men would run the other way. If I didn’t get asked to a school dance, she worried I’d be a spinster. She was a masterful worrier- creative and consumed by it. Yet, when I look back at my life with my mother, with a mother’s perspective, I understand some of the worries.
Being a parent is scary. It’s the biggest job we’ll ever have and there is no step by step attached to the baby. And my mother took her work seriously. She did other things- hurtful things, born of her worry, I presume. And I have learned to forgive them, but an apology from her would have gone a long way. “I am sorry” is magic – an admission of humanness- a statement acknowledging our faults. But none escaped my mother’s lips so we were stuck in a false presumption where she was always right.
I grew up watching Leave it To Beaver and I always wanted my mother to be like June Cleaver. A mother who never got mad. A mother who never said anything worse than “Oh Beaver.” My mother wanted me to be someone else too. My sister, maybe, who was always perfectly obedient, or at least pretended to be. My sister never talked back, never questioned anything. Everyone liked her, including my mother.
And everyone liked my mother. A girl friend recently told me she had always wished her mother was like ours. She was doting, welcoming and a great cook. Our home was a hangout for my sister’s friends, and the boys would call my mother before they came to put in an order for her chocolate brownies. I wanted to be a mother like that. My mother had many good qualities. She was a devoted friend and mother, an excellent cook, a great joke teller and she had a laugh that was full and resonant.
But she was lost in a world shaped by her childhood, one I never understood until it was too late to ask her. In secrecy she had told me her father was shot when she was eleven. It didn’t mean much to my child ears, but as I grew older I was curious. A genealogy search revealed other questions. My mother was 100% Italian. There was speculation her father was involved in the mob. Possibly his brothers killed him. My grandmother moved them often after the murder, and changed their last name from Navigato to Navigator, maybe to take the Italian out. What?
This was the stuff of stories. It explained my mother’s idiosyncrasies- the paranoia, the worry, the high expectations for my sister and me. She was an enigma and I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand my mother. I wanted to honor her for her strength and resiliency. Thus began the story of Johnny and Evie.
In it, I took the little I knew about my mother and created a feisty, romantic character who was determined to find her father’s killers and send them to prison. Of course, she had to fall in love, but it couldn’t be an easy love. It had to define her. So she met Johnny Pizzamenti, a handsome cross between my own father and my husband, and this affair ruined her engagement to her real life Jewish boyfriend.
My novel weaved truth with fiction, historical facts with anecdotal evidence. In the process I fell in love with my mother. I understood her. I honored her, and I admired her. She was not who I had known, but in the process of creating her, I came to know her. I had served my purpose in the writing. But then I had a novel I had worked on for over five years, that I truly loved, that friends and professional editors encouraged me to share. I revised it; I edited; I rewrote most of it for the brutal process of finding an agent. Now To Your Enemies, Forgiveness is still looking for a home, but this time, I can feel my mother cheering me on.