I often miss my mother and father, who passed away (respectively) in 2000 and 2005. In addition to effectively managing to raise 6 sons and 5 daughters, and taking the helm of grandparents and great-grandparents over dozens, they were unique individuals, loved by many.
My mother, Elizabeth, was a selfless woman. Liz, as she was affectionately called by some family members and friends, put a 1000 percent effort into every task, no matter how small or big. Everything was handled with great care, attention, and love. To her, being a mother was the highest honor one could receive. It could be that my mother was so committed to us because she lost her mother when she was only 2 years old, and for a short time, lived in an orphanage, apart from her brothers and sisters, until her father went back to the old country (Italy), married a new wife and the family was reunited. Even though she took her mothering responsibilities quite seriously, there was never a shortage of laughter, silliness, and lightheartedness. My mother taught me to do the unexpected, and as a model for this, she showed us how to be the coolest 65-year-old belly dancer in town. She also sang with abandon at family gatherings, and if you were in the room when “Happy Birthday” was being sung, you could hear her baritone voice cut through all the other singing. Among many gifts my mother gave me over the years, I inherited her grand spirit, low voice, an occasionally off-beat sense of humor. I guess humor is what was needed to keep all the pieces of her life together.
My father, Phillip, was as dedicated a family man as you could find. He was often low-key, diverse in talents ranging from airplane pilot training to TV repairman, to band leader. He was a Renaissance man of sorts, although I didn’t realize it until I was well into my adulthood. Phil loved being at the center of attention, often telling stories of his youth, his family life, and helping his kids to have perspective of the modern world we were growing into. Being the youngest (with a twin brother) of the family, I remember hearing my older brothers and sisters talk about his courage and his unabashed efforts to protect his kids, such as the time when my brother Frank was stricken at the age of 5 with sudden heart failure (from an expired cough medication, they later discovered). At one point when my father was feeling like Frank was being used by the doctors as a guinea pig to treat this mysterious condition, my father insisted (in no uncertain terms) that the medical team stop using his son for research, and focus on finding the solution to his heart condition. Each Christmas, my father had his picture taken next to the Christmas tree, with a handkerchief wiping his brow in one hand, and an open, obviously empty wallet in the other hand. It was this humor, and seemingly a different ritual for every occasion, that held our interest. From my father, I learned to speak up for myself, and that life has ups and downs and you better find a way to roll with it, or you’ll struggle needlessly.
Liz and Phil were two individuals who were not blessed with an abundance of money or opportunity. They didn’t have lavish clothes or possessions. They gave each child one or two gifts each Christmas. But they didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They felt blessed with a full house of children, and a large network of extended family and friends. They created a home for their kids that was full of love, support, honesty, and humor. We lived simple lives, yet I never felt a moment of wanting or needing. We had their attention, time, and most importantly a strong connection with each other.
They hosted a family meal ritual for our family from the 1940’s until the 1980’s (and then beyond that for years when their children had grown and had families of their own). We enjoyed meals together at least once (often twice) a day. They made certain this was a gift we received all year long.
On this Christmas day, I want to thank my parents for the enduring gifts they gave to our family through their daily commitment of time, and activities such as our wonderful family meals together. But most of all I want to acknowledge them for this enduring legacy — faith in their God, faith in each other, and faith that their commitment to raising 11 healthy, happy children, would ensure them a better life then they could imagine.
This Christmas, my daughter is out of the country so I will be having a quiet celebration with my son. While we’re sharing meals Christmas Eve and Christmas day, I will send my loving wishes to Liz and Phil, and hope they are approving of the job I have done raising my children. I hope they can see the faith I put at work every day to create memorable and enjoyable shared-meal experiences, and a joy-filled family life, an everlasting gift I received from them.
Merry Christmas to you and your families. I hope you share magical meals together today and thank those you love by giving the gift of your presence every day.