Some Memories of My Mom as She Rests in Peace

UPDATE: Visitation, funeral and donations details have been announced here:

My mother was born on February 8th in war-ravaged Italy during WWII. With little to no food, my grandmother claimed the birthdate as February 6th, in order to get more rations for her family. My grandfather was in the Italian military and later, in a concentration camp. Later on, the family was reunited and my grandfather looked to build a better life for his family and eventually found a way to get them to Canada, at first by boat to Halifax (at the now-famous Pier 21), and soon after by train to Montreal.

As a native Italian who moved to Quebec in her childhood, my mother had learned Italian first (natively in Italy) then French and Latin in Quebec schools, and much later, English. As a result, her pronunciation of many words in English often had a Latin-sounding pronunciation (she was never immersed in English speaking contexts) and her command of English wasn’t as strong overall as her Italian or French, but that didn’t stop her from doing what she had to do in English. We teased her about her frequent and funny mispronunciations, but she was a good sport about it. I think she knew that speaking 3-4 languages, she could live with some minor imperfections here and there. 

She met my father at a staffing firm that they both worked at in Montreal and they were married soon after. She was just 21. My eldest sister was born just eight months later. Despite constant denials of pre-marital activity and claims of my sister’s premature birth, she never conceded. :-)

She was always full of apparent contradictions, and yet somehow played them out in her daily life in a way that could convince anyone that they weren’t contradictions at all. For example, she fought hard (and later even paid) to keep her maiden name before this was the norm in Quebec, but she was equally insistent on maintaining very traditional husband / wife and mother / father roles within the family. As an example of this, she would cook and be home for her children but not for her benefit – it was because it was the right thing to do for her family. I also remember that she never finished her Ph.D thesis, sacrificing getting that last diploma in favour of her family life and career.

From an early age, I knew that my Mom was different from other people’s. Everyone else’s Mom seemed tender and unconditionally loving. These are wonderful qualities of course, and it’s not that my Mom wasn’t those things (because she was, in her own way) but she was simultaneously what I can only describe as “formidable”. She always seems to know what was right for me, no matter how much I’d argue to the contrary (and I did!). Even so, she never forced *her* will on me, she somehow forced *my* will upon me. To this day, it’s unclear to me how this dynamic worked, but I can’t count how many times in my life it played out in exactly this way. She was a Jedi psychologist and mother, in some ways. An unstoppable force. 

Looking back on her life and comparing it to my own, I can see now that my mother refused to “choose a career”, as such would be to separate herself into pieces. My mother’s career choice was not only to be a psychologist, but for this to permeate her role as wife and mother, and for her roles of wife and mother to permeated her career as a psychologist. I saw first hand (having worked for my parents’ consulting firm for several months after my Bachelor’s degree) that she was often as invested in the people she worked with as she was in her own family, which is meant as a way to say not that her family got less of her, but that the people she worked with benefited greatly from the time they spent at her side. She didn’t do things superficially, so she tended to deeply impact other people’s lives. I even remember a beggar near her office that she had somehow positively impacted. He paid his respects when she greeted him, differently than for other folks passing by. She taught me that doing what you love and doing it exceptionally is the most important life and career choice that you can make.

I remember a few times as a kid going to see a movie with the whole family, and my mother being the only one in the entire theatre laughing at some random part. Not just laughing, but a really unique, uncontrollable laugh. Soon enough, people would be laughing at her laughing and in no time, the entire audience would be laughing hysterically, all because of my Mom. I’d be embarrassed, but the theatre was so dark that it was no big deal until the lights came on. This happened on more than one occasion. I never quite figured out what she was laughing at, but it didn’t matter. Laughing is contagious, and people don’t care what they’re laughing at when they’re laughing. 

Going to a restaurant with my mother was usually the opposite to seeing a movie. We all knew that my mother had to be the one being shown where the host would try to seat us, because my mother already knew where she wanted to sit, and we’d often be seen going from one table without a window to one with, or one too close to the kitchen, or the entrance, or etc… it was always embarrassing as a kid, but I do the same now. I care about the environment where I’m eating because it affects my enjoyment of the meal. The food is only one part of the *experience* of dining. 

Mom always talked openly about the inevitability of her death. In general terms, she would frequently remind us of this whenever when we demonstrated frustration at her or criticized her in that way that mothers tend to get blamed for more than their share. She’d always say, “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” or “when I die, you’ll _____”. This also doubled as a reminder to treasure her or treasure what we have, something that is obviously much easier said than done. But easier said than done doesn’t make it less worthwhile, so she always made a point to remind us of it, even if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. A similar anecdote from this past January, at a family meeting that she had called to talk about planning funeral arrangements and such, she told my father: “Grieving takes at least two years. In your case, it may take longer.” It was just her way, even if knowing that didn’t make it easier – we were just used to it. I know she meant it in the most loving way possible. 

She was also an extraordinary cook. I have memories from my teenage years of being woken up on Sunday mornings to Pavarotti blaring on our stereo system while our weekly Sunday feasts were being prepared. If you were still asleep by 8:30am on Sundays, you were waking up to Pavarotti. Friends and family were *always* welcome at these feasts, and my mother’s food became famous in our circles. 

More recently (~2010?), she had a fantastic vacation with my Dad in Paris. One they would talk about long after their return. It was as if they had renewed themselves, their relationship and their outlook on life in general. Unfortunately, soon after their return, there was news about the first tumour they had found in her colon. It was a dramatic shake-up that would mark a transformation that would take her body, but would expose her best qualities of optimism, perseverance and an absolutely fierce dedication to her family and friends. 

Even through chemotherapy treatments, she would spend every available moment working with my daughters on their piano playing or other endeavours of art and science. This wasn’t to achieve perfection (although this was never frowned upon either), but to get them to *enjoy* playing piano, and the *process* of finding perfection. These are important lessons from her that I hope they’ll remember. 

If ever my Mom visited a museum or a science exhibit, my Father knew that they would be spending a ton of money at the gift shop for her grand-daughters. The gifts she’d return with were always small trinkets like a geometric puzzle or a shark tooth or something like a little notebook with a famous work of art printed on the cover, but it was essential that she bring home some of her love for art and science to her grand-daughters so that they could share in her wonder for the world. She was always thinking about her grand-daughters!!

There was a period where we could expect a weekday phone call once the kids were getting ready for bed so that my Mom could tell them the “joke of the day”, which is funny in and of itself, because my mother is widely known to have had absolutely terrible joke delivery. Now that I ponder this, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is worse at this than her. The truth is that on those phone calls, she was reading the kids the joke of the day from the local newspaper. The kids loved it nevertheless. 

She told us all on her last birthday a few weeks ago that there’s so much beauty in the world and that she was so lucky to have been surrounded by her family for so much of her life. Since Tuesday February 28th at 5:10am, there’s a big piece of that beauty and family missing from the world and our lives, but I know that the seeds she planted long ago in us, her grand-daughters, and the people she came in contact with are like an unstoppable force and will more than fill the void … exactly the way she would have wanted. 

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