Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Things Italian Mothers Say

Back in the Fifties, before an Italian woman was permitted to become a mother, she was required to attend Mamma Mia Boot Camp and memorize a set of sayings that she would use to guide the development of her children for the rest of her life. Every kid raised in an Italian home heard these sayings at some time growing up. It wasn't just the words...they had to be said in a special way so that they bored right through your thin outer layer of bravado and struck you deep in that guilt-ridden place in your heart. It didn't matter either if you were five or fifty, living at home or on your own, you were always fair game. Here are some of my favorites.

Finish your dinner...kids in Europe are starving. Now I was a pretty good eater so I didn't hear this one that much, but there were certain foods I just would not touch. Boiled fish, lamb, lima beans, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, anything that looked slimy. I would push them around my plate or try to hide them, and when Mom reminded me about the starving children I wanted to say: "Here's an idea, why not just wrap up those sprouts and mail them back to Brussels". I knew that if I ever wised-off like this it would bring a sharp rap to the head with the dreaded wooden spoon, so I just shut up. I always wondered if there was some kind of bizarre guilt-exchange deal made whereby European mothers used starving children in America to get kids to eat their pierogis.

If (insert name here) jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you do it too? This one came out when you wanted to do something your mother opposed, and you set her up by foolishly saying: "Well Vinnie Accola gets to do it". (Buzzer sound, Sorry, wrong answer but we have some lovely parting gifts for you. Thanks for playing.) And then Mom says, wait for it now, "If Vinnie Accola jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?" I don't think it ever occurred to Vinnie to jump off any bridge, and if he was crazy enough to try it, I certainly wouldn't follow. There was no kid comeback however that would counter this bridge argument. The Mother's Handbook said that this saying, when uttered with sarcastic contempt, would quell any foolish thing your child wanted to do, and by God it did.

Wait till your father gets home. This was the Italian mother's last resort after she had tried every trick she knew to get you to stop behaving like a jerk. Mothers were smart enough to use it sparingly to avoid diluting the ominous threat these words carried. When you had pushed your poor mother to the brink she took a deep breath and let it fly. The words were spoken slowly and deliberately, as if blows were being delivered. "Wait (smack) until (smack) your (smack) father (smack) gets (smack) home." I always felt bad for my father. He wasn't mad at me, and usually too tired from work to chase me around the kitchen table, but he had to make an effort. If Dad hit me I tried hard to pretend it really hurt because I knew his performance in carrying out my sentence was being judged by Mom, and God help him if I didn't suffer enough.

I only pray that someday you have a kid like you. This was my introduction to the concept of Karma...what goes around comes around. The Italians probably have a more sinister term for it since we have sinister terms for everything. I thought at the time that they needed to pull this one out of the Mothers Handbook because it had absolutely no effect on me. I wanted to say: "That's it? That's all you got? That someday if I get married I might have a kid like me? I'll take my chances". Little did I know that this was an Italian "time-release" curse that always came true...genetics guarantees it. I'm extremely proud of my children, but there were times when they were growing up that my mother's words came back to haunt me.

I'm not mad at you, just disappointed. Bullseye. This was the dum-dum bullet that mothers loaded in the guilt gun when regular bullets were not having the desired effect. They usually played this card when you were too old to hit, and smart enough to realize that the impact of these words hurt more than any hairbrush across your butt. I could withstand any corporal punishment my parents could dish out, but no kid wanted to be a disappointment to his mother. The phrase stopped you in your tracks, and no matter how argumentative you were feeling, you usually stared down at your shoes and mumbled something like: "Aw I'm sorry Mom, please forgive me". Score one for mamma. Hey, even Superman feared Kryptonite.

Mother's Day is coming up and it makes me think about how I could have been a better son. There are small and big things I would do differently if I had the chance, but there are no do-overs in life. I am the son of an Italian mother, and any good in me comes mostly from her. While it may be true that I could have been a better son, she could not have been a better mother. Happy Mother's Day mom.


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5 comments:

The Whiner said...

It's a pity Mike and Matt caused you to feel like you "had a kid just like you" as I am quite sure i never caused you a moment's grief...

The "just dissappointed" is a classic. Must file that away for later use.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

MY GOD JIM!! WE HD THE SAME MOTHER!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Yes we did Joe, and her name is "Italian Mother".

RPB said...

One thing you fail to mention is the influence your Mom had on your penmanship.
It was incredible how you were able to replicate her signature whenever a report card needed signing!

Jim Pantaleno said...

When Mom found out about that little caper, and she DID find out, she said she wasn't mad at me, just disappointed.