My mother went to a high school which was run by the nuns. After she got through she wanted to be a nun too. My Grandma Toscana told me. But Grandma and the whole family didn’t want her to become a nun. They told her it was all right for girls in other families to become nuns, but not their daughter. My mother’s name was Regina Toscana and she was so holy the holiness lit up her eyes. She had a statue of St. Teresa in her room, and when they kicked about her becoming a nun she stayed in her room day and night praying to St. Teresa.
“Oh beloved St. Teresa!” she prayed. “Grant me the light to see the path thou hast made for me, that I might do thy holy bidding. Visit me with sanctifying grace in the name of our Blessed Mother and the Lord Jesus, amen!”
Some prayer. But it didn’t do any good because Grandma Toscana still said nothing doing. She told my mother to cut out acting like a sick calf and get some sense. They all talked to her like that, Uncle Jim, Uncle Tony, and Grandma and Grandpa Toscana. They were Italian people and they didn’t like the way she was acting, because Italians hate it when their women don’t want to get married. They hate it and they think something is screwy somewhere. It is best for the Italian women to get married. Then the husband pays and the whole family saves money. And that was the way they talked to my mother.
Then my Uncle Tony got an idea. One night he brought a man named Pasquale Martello to the house. Uncle Tony introduced him to my mother, and he had a hunch she would go for him and maybe marry him and forget about the nun business. My mother was a honey and I know it, because we have some pictures and I can prove it.
Pasquale Martello owned a grocery store and he was lousy with money, but otherwise he wasn’t so hot for a girl like my mother. He sold fancy things in his store, like Parmesan cheese, salami, and a special kind of fancy garlic. He dressed real loud in green shirts with white stripes and red neckties. The only reason my mother went with him was on account of she was afraid of Uncle Tony, who raised hell if she didn’t go out with him. Pretty soon Pasquale Martello got a crush on my mother and he tried to get her to marry him.
But he had so many bad habits that my mother got awfully tired of him pretty soon. For one thing, he ate too much fancy garlic and his breath was something fierce. He carried garlic around in a sack in his pockets and he used to toss it up in the air and catch it in his mouth the way you eat salted peanuts. He took my mother to different places, like Lakeside Park, and the dance, and to the movies. On account of that garlic you could smell him coming for miles. Every time they went to the movies people got up and found other seats. And my mother wanted to become a nun! It was very embarrassing for her. After the show they used to sit in front of the big stove in Grandma Toscana’s parlor and talk. He was so dumb that my mother yawned right in his face and he never did catch on that she was hinting and wanted to go to bed, She had to tell him to go home or he would still be in that parlor, talking.
Every morning Uncle Tony asked the same question.
“Well, well! And when’s the marriage going to be?”
“Never,” my mother said. “There isn’t going to be any marriage.”
“Are you crazy?” Uncle Tony said. “That guy’s got money!”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My life is in another direction.” “Meaning?”
“My life is dedicated to the service of our Blessed Lady,” “My God!” Uncle Tony said. “Did you hear that one! I give up!”
“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I’m really sorry.”
“Sangue de la madonnal” Uncle Tony said. “And after all I’ve done for her! There’s gratitude for you.”
My mother went up to her room and stayed there all day, until Pasquale came that night. He always brought my grandmother something from the store, cheese mostly and sometimes tomato sauce in big cans, or Italian paste. Grandma Toscana liked him most on account of the Parmesan cheese, which was a dollar a pound in those days.
That night my mother told Pasquale it was too bad, but he would have to find another girl because she did not love him. He was crazy about her all right. He got down on his knees and kissed her hands, and he walked out of the house bawling. The next day he called Uncle Tony on the phone and told him my mother had given him the gate and wouldn’t let him come around any more.
Uncle Tony got boiling mad. He ran home from work and raised hell with the whole family. When he came to my mother he shook his fist in her face and pushed her against the sideboard so hard it knocked the wind out of her.
“You crazy fool!” he hollered. “What good are you anyhow?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Good God!” he said. “Don’t you know anything else but I’m sorry’?” “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Listen to her!” he yelled. “She’s sorry!” “But I am sorry,” she said.
My Uncle Tony was in the grocery business too, but his store was a little one and he didn’t sell Italian stuff, and he had it all figured out that when my mother and Pasquale got married he would merge his store with Pasquale’s and they would all clean up. But Pasquale never came back to the house again. Before long he married a girl, and she wasn’t an Italian either. She was an American and he didn’t love her either. Grandma Toscana said it was a spite marriage. The Italians do that sometimes. A spite marriage is when you marry somebody else to get your real girl’s goat and try to make her sorry she didn’t marry you. But my mother wasn’t sorry at all. The whole thing tickled her pink.
In North Denver is the Church of St. Cecilia’s. This was where my mother spent all of her time. It is across the street from the high school, an old red church without a lawn in front of it or anything, just the street, and not even a tree around. Once I went there for Christmas Mass with my mother. It was a long time after she got married. I mean, it had to be. The church is a big, sad church and the incense smells like my mother. It is a leery church. It scared me. I kept thinking I was not born and would never be born.
My mother knew all the nuns at St. Cecilia’s. She used to bum around with them, and they put her in charge of the altars and she decorated them with flowers. She washed and ironed the altar linen and things like that. It was more fun than getting married. She was there all afternoon, so that Uncle Jim or Uncle Tony had to come for her at supper time. Uncle Jim didn’t mind because it was only a block away, but Uncle Tony raised hell. He thought church was a lot of boloney.
He said, “Instead of fooling around here all the time, why don’t you stay home and help your mother?”
But my mother was a good worker and she told him to be careful what he said. She did all the washing and ironing around the house, and Grandma didn’t have any kick coming, and once in awhile she cooked the meals, but not often because she was not a good cook. She always did her work before she went to St. Cecilia’s. Her garden was in Grandma’s back yard, and she grew peonies and roses for the altars. Uncle Tony told her to cut out the church stuff or he would wreck her garden.
“You go to the dickens!” she said.
Oh oh, that got him mad. Italian girls are not supposed to sass their big brothers. Uncle Tony wouldn’t allow anything like that.
“By God, I’ll show you!” he said.
He ran out to the coal shed and got the spade. Then he took off his sweater and spaded every flower in the garden to pieces. It hurt my mother. She stood on the back porch and it hurt her. She was crazy about her garden, and when she saw him hacking it up she hung on the door and almost fainted. Then she ran out and screamed and screamed. She fell on the ground and kicked with her feet and hit with her hands. It scared Uncle Tony. He called Grandma. She kept screaming. He tried to lift her. She screamed and kicked him.
She was very sick. They carried her upstairs and put her to bed. The doctor came. He said she was a very sick woman. For a long time he came every day. They had to have a nurse. For a year she was sick and nervous. Everybody in the house had to be quiet and walk on tiptoe. It cost a lot of money for doctor bills. My mother cried and cried night and day. They couldn’t stop her. Even the Sisters came, but they couldn’t do anything. Finally Grandma Toscana called the priest. He gave her Holy Communion. Right away she felt better. Next day she was better than ever. Next day she was swell. Pretty soon she was able to get out of bed. Then she moved around more. All at once she was well again.
Grandma Toscana said it was a miracle. Uncle Tony felt like the devil. He told my mother how sorry he was, and he planted her a new garden. Everything was fine again. My mother liked the new garden better than ever, and Uncle Tony left her alone. Nobody bothered her any more.
She went on decorating the altars at St. Cecilia’s. Also she taught school. She went on retreats. A retreat is when you pray and meditate for three days without talking to anybody. Once she went on a retreat for six weeks. Whatever the nuns did, she did. She was crazy about them. All they ever did was wash clothes, decorate altars, scrub floors, and teach kids.
Before long, sure enough Uncle Tony started kicking again, but not like before. He was afraid my mother would get sick again. He even brought more men to the house. He brought Jack Mondi, who was the biggest bootlegger in North Denver. He isn’t any more because he got shot, but he was important when Uncle Tony brought him to meet my mother. He scared the whole family stiff. Before sitting down, he always put his gun on the table. Every few minutes he jumped up and peeked out the front window. He brought gangsters with him, and they waited for him on the front porch. Even Uncle Tony didn’t know it was going to be that scary, so he tried to get rid of Jack Mondi, but he didn’t try very hard. He was afraid he would get hurt.
Once Jack Mondi came to the house drunk and he bit my mother on the cheek. It was the first time anything like that ever happened to her, and she got mad and hauled off and slapped him. The whole family held their breaths and waited for Jack Mondi to shoot them down. Uncle Tony made a sign to my mother to go easy and not make Jack mad. But my mother didn’t think he was so tough. She told him to get out of the house and never come back. He did it too. He stuck his gun in his pocket and walked right out without saying a word. For a long time they thought he would come back and shoot the whole family, but he never came back again. Uncle Tony was so scared he even went to church. But Jack Mondi never showed up again. After he got killed they read about it in the papers. My mother went to his funeral and prayed for the repose of his soul. She was the only woman in the church besides Jack Mondi’s mother. Which proves my mother was a good sport.
Another guy with a crush on my mother was Alfredo di Posso. Uncle Tony brought him too. Whenever he found a guy he thought would make a good husband he brought him to dinner. There were others too, but I only know about Pasquale Martello, Jack Mondi, Alfredo di Posso, and a man named Murphy, but Murphy didn’t cut much ice because he was Irish. Uncle Tony never did like the Irish.
Alfredo di Posso was a salesman for Lima beans. Once in a while Alfredo comes to our town, so I know him. He doesn’t sell beans in cans or anything like that. He sells them by the carload. When he comes to our town he stops to see my mother. He is a swell guy, always laughing. He gives me money, usually four bits. When my mother met him, he didn’t have a religion. She made him join the Catholic Church, but he made fun of it; he made fun of everything. My mother got tired of it. She told him she could never marry him.
When my mother was twenty-one everybody in North Denver knew she was going to be a nun. Her favorite order was the Sisters of Charity. You have to take the train to their convent in Kentucky. For a long time you study stuff. Then you become a real nun. They cut off your hair and you wear black dresses, and you can’t get married or have fun. Your husband is Jesus. Anyway, that’s what Sister Delphine told me.
It was all set. My mother was ready to go. Uncle Tony hated it and so did the rest, but they couldn’t do anything. Grandpa was disappointed. He had a shoe shop on Osage Street. He liked nuns. He thought they were swell people, he even did their shoe work for nothing, but he couldn’t see why his own daughter had to get mixed up in it.
He promised to send my mother to Colorado U. if she would forget it. My mother wouldn’t hear of it because she thought Colorado U. was an awful place. Right now my mother knows a Catholic who doesn’t believe in God. He went to Colorado U. He was all right until then. Now the Catholics in our town are off him for life. They even kicked him out of the Knights of Columbus because he made smart cracks. So my mother wouldn’t go to a school like Colorado U. It was Kentucky or nothing.
All day long Uncle Tony yelled at her, calling her a dumb cluck and a stupe. She almost had another nervous breakdown. He followed her around the house, yelling at her and trying to make her change her mind. Next door to Grandma Toscana’s the Rocca people were building a new house. Uncle Tony had a big voice and he yelled so loud the bricklayers heard every word he hollowed. They used to stop work on the scaffold and listen to him.
One morning two months before she was to leave for Kentucky my mother was eating breakfast, and Uncle Tony started right in on the same old argument. She didn’t have any sense. Weren’t they treating her all right at home? She wanted to bury herself in a hole and forget all the fine things her family did for her. Didn’t she get enough to eat and plenty of clothes to wear? Then what more did she want? Why did she have to be so selfish? Think of her poor mother getting old without her around. Why couldn’t she think those things out and realize the mistake she was making?
My mother put her head down and started to cry.
One of the bricklayers was watching from the scaffold. He climbed down the ladder and walked over to the kitchen window. He was an Italian too, but not the ordinary kind. He had a red mustache for one thing, and red hair. He knocked on the screen and my mother looked up. Uncle Tony wanted to know what he wanted. The man had a trowel in his hand. He shook it in Uncle Tony’s face.
“If you say another word to that girl I’ll knock your head off!”
The minute my mother saw him something happened. Uncle Tony got so mad he went into the front room without speaking. My mother kept looking at the man with the trowel and the little red mustache. All at once they both started laughing. He went back to work, still laughing. At noon he sat on the scaffold looking down into the kitchen window. My mother could see him. He whistled. She laughed and came to the window. What he wanted was some salt for his sandwich. That was how it got started. The man was my father. Every day he laughed and asked for something. If it wasn’t salt it was pepper, and my mother laughed and got it for him. Another time he asked for some fresh fruit to go with his lunch. One day he came to the window and laughed and asked if she had any wine. Then he wanted to know if she could cook. My mother laughed and laughed. Finally she told him not to bring his lunch any more but to come over and eat with her. He laughed and said sure. Two months later, instead of going to Kentucky, my mother came to our town and got married.