The Taste of Memory:
Reflections on Mom's Life
By Chris Hodgkins
Yes, I knew how lucky — how greatly blessed — I was. I told Mom, early and often, and until our last conversation, how much I loved and admired her. Yet still, now that she is beyond the reach of my words, I wish that I had told her more often how much others loved and admired her, how far her motherhood extended beyond the boundaries of our immediate family, like widening ripples or a spreading sunrise. C. S. Lewis once wrote of a beloved lady that "Every young man or boy that met her became her son...Every girl that met her became her daughter...There are those who steal other people's children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more." That was Mom. She magnified love.
Mom had a way of adopting people — like my flame-haired UOP college room-mate Andrew Fink, whom she always called "my red-headed son." (To imagine Andrew, think young Ronnie Howard as Richie Cunningham, only — as Mom always said of loved ones when comparing them to the stars — "better looking.") Mom connected with people powerfully even over long distances, even if it was just on the phone. While I was living at the University of Chicago's International House dormitory in 1982, Mom called and my new British roommate John Hand answered. Instead of asking for me right off, she introduced herself to John and chatted with him for ten minutes, beginning a friendship that lasted for 25 years. "My, your mother is charming!" said John when he eventually handed me the phone.
My, she was charming.
The Food of Love
If the way to a man's — or a boy's — heart is through his stomach, then Mom had me at hello. There are few better ways of expressing or receiving love than through food. We didn't speak much Italian in our home, but the words we learned had mainly to do with eating — mangia bene, macaroni (I never heard anyone call it pasta until the 1970s), favae, grispella — or were words of affection — bella, bellissimo, caro mio, mio figlio, comare, padrone, poveretta (or occasionally were words of anger: na ciavatta, stopito, basta, infamia.)
And there was a lot to eat before dessert! Consider her vegetable salads: green pepper and red onion salad (with plenty of basil and oregano), purple kidney bean salad, Italian potato salad, cucumber-in-vinegar salad, Caesar salad. But her crowning glory was in the main dishes, especially the Italian ones — spaghetti and handmade meatballs (plenty of parmesan, per favore), manicotti, stuffed shells, ravioli ("ravs"), and (ahh) lasagna, those perfect layers of melting mozzarella, rich ricotta, and ground sweet sausage. Over the past two decades Mom never left our house in North Carolina without leaving one or two of her lasagnas waiting in our freezer to love us after she had gone.
And now she is gone. Yet food is a powerful trigger to memory, sometimes overwhelmingly and unexpectedly. One day I discovered this at the movies. At the climactic moment of the Pixar film Ratatouille, a jaded and arrogant restaurant critic takes a first bite of that humble vegetable dish and suddenly is transported back to childhood in his mother's kitchen, where she feeds and caresses her lonely little boy. The memory softens his hard heart — and that moment in the film stunned me into tears in a Greensboro theater as I instantly recalled the countless dishes of edible love that Mom set before me in my life. My brother Craig tells me that he also wept at that same moment in that same movie, and for the same reason.
Feeding Young Minds
Good meals came first, but mental food was always on Mom's menu. Interestingly, Mom fed my mind first by listening. She was a first-class listener, and since I was naturally a talker we got along famously. She had the unique ability to give undivided attention, to make you feel truly important because she cared about your ideas and the little details of your life. At the age of seven I was her little professor and she was my original class. And yet Mom's attention had an interesting side effect — it made me care about what she thought, and even (shock) listen to her advice. Mom taught us a rhyme on the wisdom of listening:
The wise old owl sat in an oak;
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard —
Why can't we be like that wise old bird?
I'm delighted but not surprised that my daughters Mary and Alice remember the same total attention from "Grammy."
Mom's natural curiosity and attentiveness also meant that she made sure we knew the importance of books, both in the house and at the library. Craig and I were "Volunteer Pages" at that old Goodman Library in Napa, and helped to dedicate the bigger library that still serves the city on Coombs Street. It's no accident that three of her children have grown up to be professional writers, because we were all readers first; and we were readers because we saw her reading, and because she read to us. She was big on books — on our bookshelves were not only modern literature like Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion (the author lived in Napa!), and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but also The Essays of Francis Bacon (published 1625 — the first Renaissance literature beside Shakespeare that I ever read), and The Puritan Dilemma by Perry Miller of Harvard University. Mom had real intellectual hunger, and took classes at American River Junior College in Sacramento, and later at Napa Community College, to satisfy it.
Some Glimpses: Her Favorite Things
Mom had many facets, none of which entirely defined her, so I won't try to define her either, except to show you some glimpses of her favorite things.
She had her favorite stars and celebrities:
Probably her all-time favorite actor was Jimmy Stewart ("OUR Jimmy Stewart" she called him); Mom especially enjoyed his movies directed by Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, and loved showing off the photos that Catherine had taken with him after the Christmas service at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in the early 1990s. (Personally, I've always been grateful to Mr. Stewart because he made tall, awkward skinny guys like me look so good.) Though Mom admired many actresses, I think that her favorites were comediennes like Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball; they were "a panic," as Mom would say, with their routines, parodies, and wacky situations. Once Mom was an extra on the popular 1980s TV series Falcon Crest, shot in the Napa Valley and starring Jane Wyman; so she especially loved Burnett's 1986 Falcon Crest parody, Fresno, in which Burnett played the domineering "raisin queen" who wore huge padded shoulders and was chauffeured around to her vineyards in the back of an old pick-up truck. This put Mom on the floor; she laughed until she cried.
And Mom had a Lucille Ball moment, not with Lucy, but with another favorite actor. She told us about the time that she bumped into someone in the Sacramento airport in the mid 1950s: "I was walking too fast and ran into a man and looked up and I said, 'Clark Gable! You're Clark Gable!!'" And he raised his eyebrow in his best roguish smirk, and he said, "Frankly, my dear, I knew that, but I don't mind bumping into a lovely like you." Well, actually, he looked mildly annoyed, said "Excuse me," and moved on, leaving young Eleanor awestruck.
Mom also enjoyed booming male singers with voices the size of Montana: Howard Keel, Harve Presnell, and Gordon McRae, who sang of deep rivers and big skies and tornadoes and lost loves and surries with the fringe on top. She liked velvet-voiced serenaders such as the now-forgotten Art Lund, and the ultra-famous Bennett and Sinatra; later in life she even confessed a weakness for Dean Martin, though she didn't much like his drunk act. And we all learned to sing "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Mom tapped her foot with Peter, Paul and Mary, and loved it when Craig, Catherine, and I performed their songs. She also wept for the dead Kennedys (the real ones, not the band), and like many young wives and mothers of the 1960s followed Jackie's fortunes from Jack through widowhood and into the "Jackie O" era as if the former first lady were a glamorous older sister. She loved baseball and her ball-playing big brothers, and revered the great DiMaggio. One of the thrills of her life was getting Joltin' Joe to autograph Craig's copy of his book on baseball, and to watch Charles serve him dinner at a Justin-Siena High School banquet in Napa. When Joe died, Mom insisted on seeing him off at the packed-out memorial Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco — even though that meant standing outside in the street.
Speaking of Italian celebrities, Mom warmed very slowly to Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films; severed horse heads and piano-wire whack jobs weren't to her taste, and she initially thought that they perpetuated negative images of Italians, the kinds of stereotypes her honest father had worked so hard to live down, and had moved from New York to escape. But over time these movies grew on her — the beautiful Mediterranean settings, the warm family dinners, the exuberant celebrations all took her back to positive parts of our heritage. And when she met Franny Coppola while they did jury duty together at the Napa County Courthouse, she found him charmingly down-to-earth — an impression that deepened when Charles worked for a time at his Niebaum-Coppola Winery upvalley.
Mom had her favorite phrases:
"Wake up, Sleepyhead!" (followed by French toast or poached eggs with OJ); "I'd better go get the groooooceries!" (and she did, by the carload, filling a fridge and full-sized freezer); "I've got brooooad shoulders!" (because many shared their burdens with her); "That's not like you!" (when we kids misbehaved); "I'm getting the wooden spoon!" (when we kept misbehaving); "I'm going to run away from home!" (when we really kept misbehaving).
That last threat was the nuclear option, and the few times she used it, she stopped me cold; not because I really believed Mom would jump ship, but because, even as a child, I knew how much my life and our family's depended on her, and that if she "ran away from home," home would go with her. Her face in the room meant that everything was going to be okay.
And the wrong face could have the opposite effect. I remember the time when I was six or seven that we stayed in a motel and in playing up and down the halls I ran into a room and put my arms around Mom's leg only to realize that the woman in Mom's dress with Mom's hairstyle had another woman's face on. She was probably a perfectly nice lady with a perfectly fine face, but she might as well have been Norman Bates' mummified mother from Psycho — I sprinted from the wrong room screaming like a banshee.
Child Management, Eleanor Style
Mom seldom had to threaten or raise her voice because the way she cared for her kids made us, more often than not, want to please her — and wanting to please is, on the whole, a better motive than just avoiding punishment (though punishment will do in a pinch). I can remember when I was six or seven deciding that I was going to clean up my room without being asked simply because I knew it would make my Mom smile. And it did, too! I can still remember her warm words and that hug. I wish I could say that I did this sort of thing often as a kid, but I can't forget the joy Mom got out of seeing us do things to make her happy.
As I grew older, Mom showed that she was a shrewd judge of my character in steering me away from bad choices. Rather than rant and lecture at length, she would clearly and gently make her views known, and then leave me with the choice and the consequences. I recall that early in my senior year at Napa High School some friends and teachers began recruiting me for the Transcendental Meditation movement. I told Mom that I'd like to join TM so that I could get a mantra and experience the enlightenment that they promised. Mom asked me why prayer to Jesus Christ wasn't good enough. I told Mom that this wasn't about prayer or God, that it was a simple exercise, like spiritual push-ups, but that I needed $75 from her for the initiation fee that would get me my secret mantra. Then all I had to do was bow to the picture of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, say a few secret words, and I'd be in.
"Well, Christopher" (generally she used my full name only when she was being very serious or very affectionate) "we don't believe in doing such things, but if you want to do it, you'll have to pay for it yourself."
"Oh," I said. "Oh. Well, I don't want to join that much." And I never seriously thought about TM again. Mom knew her thrifty son.And then there was my first drink, a few years earlier when I was about 15. One day, I found at the back of our kitchen cabinet the few bottles of liquor in the house. My parents seldom drank anything other than a little wine, so these dusty bottles had been untouched for a long time. Mom found me holding a vodka bottle and instead of scolding me, she said, "You're welcome to have some, as long as you drink it in front of me." So I said, "Sure," and Mom got out a small tumbler, poured in a splash, and slid it across the counter. I'd seen enough movies to know that real men "tossed them back," so I did; and once the flammable liquor hit my throat, my throat tossed it right up again, spraying across the room.
"Ppffew! This stuff tastes like . . . like . . . what they rub on your arm before they give you a shot!" I gasped.
"That's about right," said Mom. "Want some more?" I didn't. So ended my brief adolescent interest in booze. But Mom, no teetotaler, taught me to appreciate a good glass of wine, preferably with a big plate of pasta.
Hello; Goodbye; Good Morning
Mom's parenting skills — sometimes Solomonic, often sacrificial — owed a lot to her parents. She told me how her father inoculated her against smoking by letting her puff his cigar when she was about seven, turning her a predictable shade of green and giving her permanently queasy memories.
And, much more seriously, in later years I learned about the role that my grandmother played in my coming into the world. In Mom's memoir, she tells the rather harrowing story of my birth:
I delivered our first son at 11:56 a.m. [on August 15, 1958]. I had hoped to be awake for the delivery but there was a problem with the umbilical cord so I was anesthetized so that the doctor could work on the baby. Later that day the doctor came to my room where I was in recovery and told me that the baby did not breathe for several minutes and it was necessary to place him in an incubator. He would remain there for at least five days. I was overcome with grief. The pregnancy had been a glorious time for us but my joy was overshadowed by my worry that my baby would possibly suffer some brain damage. I lay in bed and prayed for hours until I fell asleep. My prayers were my only comfort at this time. . . . I was not allowed to touch him because it was vital that he remain in a constant temperature in the ideal conditions they had provided for him.
To make matters worse, I was born during a crisis in the larger Defazio family. The family's Villa D'Italia Restaurant, founded in 1957, was failing and about to close its doors, taking family fortunes with it. Yet even as bankruptcy loomed, Grandma Defazio came to the rescue. As Mom writes:
I cannot believe what my mother did. Knowing of my problem, she rode a Greyhound bus [from Sacramento] to East Los Angeles to be with me. It was incredible. Her mothering spirit was so resilient. She stayed only a few days but went to the hospital with Royce to bring my baby home. The sense of complete joy when I held him overwhelmed me. I took Christopher from his grandmother's arms and into mine for the first time. I could only cry and hug my infant close as she stood beside me and cried with me. . . . This was a moment of elation for her amid the anguish she had been living for the past several months.
I love the thought that Mom not only brought me into the world but prayed me into life; and that the first person to cuddle and carry me, to say "Hello" and welcome me, was my grandmother, Christina. By this time Grandma had a couple dozen other grandchildren to love, and yet she dropped everything else to come and hold me.
With women like this in my life, it's not surprising that from a young age I saw how much depended on their love and care. My greatest fear, then, was not Mom's "running away," but her passing away, her death. I can remember that when I was about five a pet died, which brought home to me how the unimaginable is also the inevitable: that everyone I love and who loves me is mortal; above all that Mom, too, would die. I sometimes lay awake at night in those early years and shuddered at the prospect — but not wanting to look silly or morbid, I never mentioned it to anyone, though I'm sure this dreadful feeling must be common enough in children, and perhaps even in adults.
And now, after all, it has come — the inevitable Goodbye; and given the circumstances of Mom's last illness, that Goodbye was much harder than I had imagined or feared; because nearly everyone she knew and loved was denied the chance to tell her Goodbye, to bid her farewell, to tell of their love. Tragically, this woman who meant so much to so many died virtually alone.
Yet, beyond those fears and that loss, life goes on, and so does love. In some sense Mom lives on in the people — children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, siblings and cousins and friends — that she has loved, served, fed, and taught; and she lives much more radiantly in the presence of God. There she lives freed from the illness, separation, and grief of her last years, and lives freed to shine like the sun — and to laugh like a girl again.
Jesus tells us that for those who have loved Him, Heaven is going to be like a wedding party — not a quiet restrained affair with punch and white cake, but a real rip-roarer, with plenty of great food and better wine and the happiest, biggest family reunion you ever saw.
And when I've gone on too, and come to that great Reunion, I hope to see Mom as I remember her best — young, lively, full of smiles and laughter, surrounded by friends and family, with words of kindness for everyone. And perhaps on that Resurrection morning the first voice I hear will be Mom's, saying "Wake up, Sleepyhead!"