MAMA IN HER KITCHEN 1998
MAMA TOLD STORIES
When I was a kid, I wondered where my mother acquired all the stories she told us. There was one for every incident that transpired, especially those that involved one of us kids screwing up. Mothers of our friends were all on one end or the other of the proverbial yardstick: they were either excessively doting or unreasonably punitive. Our mother, however, tried her best to balance herself and us somewhere in the middle. She told life-lesson stories. (Because she spoke with an accent, I’ve taken the liberty to edit her language.)
“And what would you think of me years from now if today I allowed you to get away with stealing that fountain pen?” my mother asked me one day after school.
I had brought home a note from my third-grade teacher Sister Mary Tiberius (not her real name, but you get the picture!) in which she had made known the grand pen theft I had committed after cafeteria lunch. Her final paragraph read, “I highly recommend you give your son a well-deserved beating.“
Mama sat at the kitchen table, taking an immoderately long time reading and re-reading Sister’s note. I sat squirming in my chair across from her.
“Ma, it wasn’t like that,” I said, but without lifting an eye, she raised her hand to silence me.
“That girl in my class ––” Mama shook her head.
“Elizabeth from Buffalo, New York.”
Again, Mama raised her hand and shook her head.
“She gave me that pen!” I said quickly.
Dramatically she let the note flutter from her hands onto the kitchen floor. When I reached to pick it up, she smiled and pointed to my chair. Here it comes, I thought. A story about pen theft would be too easy. It would have to be something wildly off the wall, but poignantly on target.
“A mother did all she could to protect her bad son from the law,” Mama began. “Whatever wrong he did she’d make excuses. Time after time she would lie for him, beg the police, the judge, the teachers, to give him one more chance. He was a good boy, she explained. But do you know how this story ends?” my mother asked.
Now it was I who was shaking my head.
“That boy grew up to be a man sentenced to die in the electric chair! And when his mother came to say goodbye that afternoon, her son pretended he was going to kiss her for the last time. But you know what he did? He bit off her ear! ‘See where I ended up?’ he screamed at her. ‘If you had made me pay for the little crimes, I wouldn’t be dying for this big crime now!’
The next morning I returned Elizabeth’s pen.
MAMA and PAPA IN 1935
MAMA SPOKE SICINGLISH
For those of you who have never heard someone speak Sicinglish, let me explain. It’s a mixture of Sicilian and English, a sprinkling of words from both languages that reflects a sincere effort on the speaker’s part to get a point across. The alternative amounts to being silent or settling on the language one is fluent in and the heck with who understands.
Before I learned to converse in Sicilian during my 1965-66 living in Acquviva Platani, Sicily, I too spoke in Sicinglish, adding new words I learned each day until they eventually outweighed the English ones. This pleased me immensely because no one enjoys being a kind of laughingstock, though I must say my learning the new language disappointed those who found my meager attempts to communicate so darn funny they would beg me to go on speaking to the accompaniment of their raucous laughter.
Growing up in a Sicilian home, we heard our mother speak Sicinglish, so it is no big surprise that the only Sicilian words we kids learned in childhood were those Mama added to her new English words. Only our older brother Alfonso whose first language was Sicilian could understand her when sometimes she and Papa spoke that “secret language.” They did so to shield us from matters they felt we were too young to know, like Papa getting laid off from his job, a relative in Sicily passing away –– anything they believed were heartaches with which we should not be burdened in our childhood years.
Mama was born in New York City on December 26, 1913. Because her mother’s poor health here, Nonna Anna returned three months later to Sicily with her son Francesco and her new baby Giuseppina. Mama’s father my nonno Salvatore Amico remained working in America until 1920 when he too returned to Acquaviva Platani.
In 1932 Mama had just married Papa, a townsman who had immigrated to America when he was fifteen and had returned for a visit when he met Mama .The two, at first sight, fell in love.
Unlike my father who worked alongside workers from whom he could learn English, my mother remained home to raise her children. When she'd get together with others, they were family who spoke Sicinglish too, so together they spoke their beddu Sicilianu, their beautiful Sicilian.
Years later Mama told us we kids were her teachers. The words we learned in school she learned from us, but it was a slower process than Mama would’ve liked it to be. In the meantime she’d say things like “Va butta u garbage!” ("Throw out the garbage!”) or “Mittiti lu gloves” (“Put on your gloves”) or “Hai fattu lu home-a-work?” (“Did you do your homework?”).
Back then her Sicinglish embarrassed me. Here I was trying so darn hard to fit in and be accepted as an American boy, a buddy of my school and neighborhood friends whose parents spoke without accents. I tried to hide Mama from them. I told them my parents had come to America right after the American Civil War. I lied through my teeth every time some kid asked about Papa and Mama. When they finally came to our Brooklyn tenement apartment and met Mama, they loved her! They ate all the oatmeal cookies she baked for them. They never mentioned her accent and only raved about how kind she was.
What I would not give to hear Mama’s accent again! To tell her one more humorous story, then watch her face light up with joy. Or say something in jest that lacked proper respect and hear Mama admonish me with “Atsa no funny!”
My consolation is that I believe she is in Heaven now. Unable to live past nearly 97 years and celebrate now her centennial, Mama enjoys eternity. If only I can be so blessed!
Here is one last story about Mama‘s Sicinglish..
One evening Sharon and I were visiting with her. Someone knocked on her door and she answered it. It was her upstairs neighbor, a Polish lady who spoke little English. My mother, always hospitable, asked her, "Coff'?" ready to pour the woman a hot cup of coffee, but the neighbor answered, "No, it’s just a little cold."
Sharon and I laughed behind our newspapers for I don't know how long!
Sal Buttaci has been writing and seeing his work published since 1957. Now retired from nearly thirty years teaching, he spends several hours each day composing poems, stories, memoirs, articles, and blogs.
He is the author of two short-flash story collections Flashing My Shorts and 200 Shorts,
both published by All Things That Matter Press and available at Amazon.com.
Buttaci lives in West Virginia with his loving and loved wife Sharon.