My mother taught me how to be strong, which I discovered as she made her final journey through life and since her death Oct. 2 at the age of 86.
It wasn't as if she sat me down and gave me lessons on how to be a strong person. Rather, she led by her example. She gave me a strength I didn't know I had until those final days when I sat with her and held her hand.
Mom always was a strong person. My nephew called his grandmother "our rock" -- and that she was. She was the person we turned to for advice or help us through one problem or another. She was the person who was always there for us. She provided a constancy for which we will forever be grateful.
Mom's strength throughout her life undoubtedly was derived from her early life, and what she learned from her parents. My grandparents arrived from Italy a few years apart at the turn of the 20th century as passengers in the ships' steerage compartments. They settled in the Bridgeport area and married a few years later. Grandma was 15, Grandpa about 10 years older.
While coming to America promised them a better life, most immigrants found day-to-day living hard, and my grandparents were no exception. They had no education, no real skills and language barriers.But they worked hard despite their challenges and provided the best home life they could for their growing brood. Mom was the youngest of 10 children, one of whom died when she was a baby and is buried at St. Thomas Cemetery in an unmarked grave. They made their home in Southport on the Old Post Road, a short walk from the Village.
Grandma ruled the house, not necessarily with an iron hand, but they all knew she was the boss -- including my grandfather.While Grandpa worked in various jobs, Grandma was the entrepreneur and the real bread winner. She sold fruits and vegetables from a rickety truck, ran a grocery store that was attached to their home and did laundry for the area's wealthier residents. They never had much, and Mom always talked about how she and her sisters (six of them) had to share beds and plates of food when they were young.
That kind of existence had to make you strong. When you face and survive some of life's biggest obstacles, you undoubtedly emerge with resiliency. Mom did.
While Mom's fortitude was her hallmark, she did lose some of it after Dad died and as she grew older. But it amazed me that she always seemed to muster some inner strength to persevere. While Mom became unsure of herself as she entered her 80s, she still challenged herself. She liked to use a phrase to describe the changes life presented -- "a new normal." She adapted as she went along.
As we planned her funeral service, I found a poem Mom had published in a book of poetry in 1997. The poem, called "Paradise," was further proof of Mom's strength and how she understood better than we what death meant.
Some day I must leave this earth
I shall be ready, as our Lord has promised me a very special berth
In a place filled with so much beauty and peace
Where all life's cares and worries will have finally ceased
He will save this space for me for my very own
As he would never let me wander aimlessly as I travel to my new home
When I arrive, I'll see the Lord gathering all the children who had been hurt and living in fear
He will tell them oh so gently "you are safe now that you are here"
He'll have me become an angel and attach a note to my arm
And send me down with this message "the children are at peace now, and never again will be harmed"
With great joy I shall see my loved ones once again
And a childhood pal who was my very dearest friend
My children's grandparents will slowly approach to say "hi!"
Grandma will give me a great big hug -- not Grandpa -- he was always so shy
When my journey is over and I touch the face of God, I need not search for my mate
As we will have entered the kingdom together as we walked through the open gate
So the beauty of heaven will not come as a great big surprise
Because in my talks with our Lord, he said
"My child, you shall see
I promise you Paradise"
I never will forget her strength and bravery in her last days on Earth. That was the ultimate lesson.