Grace In Great Measure

By Craig Hodgkins

Life with Mom was a multi-sensory experience. Through the years, and in so many ways, she brought continued delight to the eye, the ear, the mouth, and the nose.

And although she is gone now, her spirit, and the essence of that delight, lives on in sense memory.

Her smile was gracious and kindhearted, the kind that would put a stranger at ease, and knowing Mom, they wouldn't remain strangers for long. Of course, if you were among the fortunate multitudes that knew her, you could rest assured a sincere question about you and your family would immediately follow.

If the smile is truly the crowning glory of the face, Mom was royalty.

She usually moved unhurriedly, with a measured grace, but was quick on her feet when the situation demanded it. One evening, my four year-old sister accidentally swallowed a butterscotch candy, and it became lodged in her throat. In an instant, Mom was across the living room, and, in one swift, unified movement, she grabbed my sister by the legs, turned her upside down, and slapped her between the shoulder blades repeatedly until the sticky candy bounced harmlessly to the carpet as Chris and I stared dumbfounded from the couch.

To this day, certain smells instantly transport me to her side, and they don't all deal with food: Noxzema, which she used every night to care for her marvelous skin; Ivory Soap (so pure, it floats!), which was always in the tub and shower; and Coppertone, which she generously slathered on us kids when we vacationed at Lake Tahoe.

Of course, there was always the food, rich in both smell and taste. From the intoxicating sauce simmering on the stove and the chopped garlic and aromatic herbs in a bowl on the kitchen counter to the legendary tollhouse cookies melting in the oven, our house was a blind man's Disneyland.

Her laugh was full-bodied and from the heart, and we laughed a lot at our house. It's something I honestly could never hear enough, and it remains one of my favorite sounds.

In 1964, Mom and Dad attended a Peter, Paul & Mary concert in Sacramento. The event (as well as shows in four other cities on the tour) was recorded by Warner Brothers, and a few of the songs the trio performed that evening would later be released on their In Concert double-LP.

To this day, I swear that I can hear her laughing at one of Paul Stookey's jokes on a track that made the album's final cut.

She also had a fun way of elongating certain vowels when she spoke to us... "Oh, Craaaaaaig," she'd say, "you're just tooooooooo much." And there were the oft-repeated stories about the Sloughhouse worker who wanted "three polk chops (always told while holding up two fingers)," her imitation of my elementary school (and "L"-deficient) recitation of "baa baa bwack sheep, have you any woooooooo?," or her insistence that she couldn't wear her swimsuit because it had a hole in the knee.

If repetition can bring children a sense of security, than Mom was better than Fort Knox.

But beyond her laugh, and her occasional silliness, her voice was also one of reason, comfort, and — perhaps a bit too frequently in my case — correction.

Make no mistake about it...Mom was the boss of our house. I experienced none of that "wait 'til your father gets home" passivity while Dad was at work. In many ways, she was like a US President we both admired: Teddy Roosevelt. In his spirit, she "walked softly and carried a big stick," which in her case was a long wooden spoon stored in a kitchen drawer close to the dining room table. It wasn't always the same one — she had splintered a few on my, um, back pockets through the years — but I knew it was there, lurking.

She believed in "instantaneous feedback," so there was never any confusion about "why" I was about to be swatted. She let the punishment fit the crime, was never excessive, and each swift blow was accompanied by a little practical motherly advice on how to improve my behavior going forward.

But the vast majority of her advice came in kinder and gentler ways. I cherish the many long talks we had, when I would go on and on about some injustice I was facing, or how I couldn't make much sense of my own teenage (and beyond!) feelings.

She had a way of drawing me out; of helping me look deep inside myself. Sometimes it was asking the right question at the right time; at others, it was giving me the space I needed to sort things out.

In 1980, I had a choice of what to do for my college summer break, and Mom had researched some good local job opportunities for me. Instead, I made plans to head off to Aspen, Colorado, where I had rented a room with a college friend for the summer. Our plan was simple: we would work construction jobs during the day, and enjoy the many wonders of Aspen's nightlife in the evenings. But a week before we were to depart, my buddy got a job working at NBC Studios, and apologetically dropped out. I decided to head out on my own.

When I arrived in town, I learned that the job I had waiting had literally washed away. I had been hired to work as a carpenter on a huge deck remodel at a local restaurant, but a flash storm had washed away the only bridge to the place. No road, no customers, no job. So I hit the (albeit lovely) streets of Aspen, filling out job applications at every gas station, hotel and restaurant that would allow me to fill one out.

The thing that kept me going were my nightly phone calls to Napa, all in that bygone era of reversed charges. Because of my faith, I knew I could always talk to God. But I also knew there would always be a wise and winsome voice waiting for me at (707) 255-6093.

Never once did she say, "I told you so." Instead, she listened (mostly), laughed (a lot), and shared some recipes with me so I could wow my host family with some authentic Italian dishes. I still have my handwritten notes on her sausage and meat sauce and her manicotti ("leave the shells more al dente than usual, they'll continue to cook out of the water"), both transcribed over the phone that summer.

Just in case you're wondering, my host family was suitably wowed.

After I no longer called Napa home, our talks continued, every week or two by phone, until the spring of 2007. And even though her motherly side probably desired a more linear career path for me (she was notorious for providing state job applications to me on multiple occasions, because a job with the State of California provided security!), she supported my decisions, knowing that life itself is often the best teacher, even for the slowest of students.

When I finally landed a salaried gig with Disney — first at Disneyland Park and later at the corporate headquarters in Burbank — she was delighted. We were Disney fans of longstanding, and it brought me great joy to finally give my parents a tour of Walt's Fun Factory after I began work there. Living in Southern California, and working in and around the entertainment industry, it was hard not to rub shoulders with some of her favorites, and she would listen attentively as I regaled her with stories of places I had visited, things I had done, and people I had met.

I am particularly thankful that I was able to introduce her to one of my favorite Disney actresses, Mary Costa, who not only voiced Princess Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, but who is Italian to boot!

Mom wasn't perfect; instead, she was marvelously human. She had an intensely private side to her personality, and she protected and defended her children, sometimes to a fault. She also held a few strong opinions on things large and small. She was mostly apolitical, but always stood up for the little guy, and for people less fortunate. She was no prude, but abhorred foul and vulgar language. And, while she was loath to speak ill of anyone, she was quite particular about the friends we made, and the people with whom we associated. In high school, if I was doing something with friends she considered to be "on the fence," she often reminded me as I walked out the door, "people are judged by the company they keep."

Of course, my stock answer to that was, "I bet their mothers tell them the same thing!"

I'm not quite sure why, but Mom wasn't big on men with ponytails, earrings or tattoos. I don't know how serious she was, because she always said it with a smile, but I heard more than once, "If you come home from college with an earring or a tattoo, don't come home." Of course, this only made me want to play a joke on her.

I didn't have a car during my two years at Pepperdine, but could occasionally borrow one to make the 400-mile drive north (I had some very accommodating friends). Remembering Mom's admonition, I borrowed a small, hoop earring from a girlfriend and crimped it down onto my left ear so that it stayed on. It didn't hurt; so I left it on as I began my drive.

Somewhere along Interstate 5, I forgot all about it.

Pulling into the driveway in Napa was always a pleasure, no matter what time of day or night. I knew that I'd have a big hug at the door, followed by a catch-up conversation, great food out of the fridge, and a warm bed, even if it was on the couch. So on this particular late evening, I parked and knocked with great expectations. Mom came to the door, in her bathrobe as always, and gave me that huge hug. I set down my bag in the doorway, and walked past her to the dining room table as she turned on the light. Food, glorious food!

Suddenly, her eyes went wide. "What is that?" she exclaimed, pointing vaguely in my direction. I had no clue what she was talking about. "What?" I asked?

She grabbed my upper arm and spun me around to face the mirror that used to hang on the wall behind the front door in the entryway. "That!" she exclaimed, pointing to the reflection of a bewildered guy in the mirror...the one with a little hoop of gold crimped down on his earlobe.

My brain finally caught up to the situation, and I grabbed the offending piece of jewelry off my ear. "It's fake. It's a joke. Honest." We stared at each other for a moment, and then we both burst out laughing. She may have known it was a joke all along, but I never tried that one again.

With Mom, it was always family first, and that included everyone in our house, as well as all of the family in Sacramento. Even though we lived in Sacramento County twice, we spent most of our time there as visitors from our various hometowns. It was always fun to see Mom at one of a myriad of Defazio functions. In the early years, the events were mostly, picnics, potlucks, and wiffle ball games at Joe Schultz Stadium. Later, it was weddings, baptisms, and first communions. Occasionally, it was for a funeral. But at every event, person after person would greet Mom as she hugged and chatted with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and kissed babies I had never seen before.

When her own grandchildren arrived, I saw her baby-handling skills in action again. She was a doting grandmother, and when she and Dad visited us in Southern California, she would always play games with my girls for as long as they wanted. We visited them in Palm Springs three or four times, and that was always fun. By the time Eric arrived on the scene in 2003, she was slowing down a bit, but they would still visit us two or three times a year, and we would return the favor each summer.

Our original house was pretty tiny, so Mom and Dad usually stayed at a Best Western right around the corner, or an Extended Stay a mile down the road. I remember how excited I was when we bought a larger house about a block away from the old one, which had a nice guest room. No more hotel rooms for my parents.

Growing up, I never really noticed going without anything, even though we didn't have much money in the bank. Fun was the monetary system in our house, something that has been a strong value for Diane and I as we raise our three children. Mom had a lot to do with that. She had a gift for life, and did it all with grace and her own special brand of humor.

I remember one other time I arrived home from college, only to see Charles playing with some new electronic toy. "He sure has a lot more stuff that I had when I was his age," I whined.

Without missing a beat, she diffused my sarcasm with a sparkle in her eye, "Yes," she responded, "but he has an old mother!"

That was Mom.