Goodbye, My Darling Philomena

This is one I never wanted to write, my babies … but I must.

My wonderful mom has died.

After a 10-year battle with the scourge of Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s finally won.

But not without a hell of a fight. My little five-foot-one mama gave it all she had. She showed reserves of grace and strength I never knew she had. She made lemonade from the bitterest of lemons.

Mom was in assisted living for almost six years. She never once complained, always thinking of me first. She knew I was steering her ship alone, as my dad and brother were long-gone. Through the years, I did have a ton of “first-mate” help from my daughter and sister-in-law; I would have foundered utterly without them.

Mom went by Phyllis, but was born Philomena. This was in honor of the mother my grandfather, Anthony, never saw again, after leaving Bari, Italy in 1911, age 12, as a stowaway on a tramp steamer called The Rotterdam. He left home because the Black Hand (Mafia precursor) was killing anyone thought to be against them – even children. (The Godfather got that one right.) Remember the scene from The Godfather II, showing young Vito Corleone, alone and quarantined on Ellis Island, looking out the window at the Statue of Liberty? That, essentially, was my grandfather.

Know anyone today with that kind of courage? I sure don’t. Age 12, alone on the ocean, headed for an alien new world that didn’t share your customs, let alone speak your language. How scared he must have been!

My grandfather’s father was already in the U.S., and when they somehow reunited, Anthony worked with his dad and uncle, building railroad tracks in Iowa and South Dakota. No schooling, no same-age chums, no playtime. Just back-breaking work, six days a week. When the work was done, they settled in Chicago. Poor as hell, discriminated against (along with the black and the Irish), they formed neighborhoods in the tenements of the near West Side and struggled for survival. At least they had each other.

Anthony eventually met my grandmother, Elizabeth (Americanized from Letitzia); they married in Chicago and had four kids. My mom was their third child and first daughter, born in 1929. Three kids during the Depression. More bitter lemonade. The deprivation was staggering, but somehow, they ate, mostly pasta, beans, rice and whatever greens they could grow. I remember Mom telling me that the rarely-obtained chicken had to last two meals for five people. They baked their own bread. How Mom yearned for sliced, white “American” bread from the store! It was important for first-generation kids to feel American and not so ethnic. Sometimes Mom had to take to school pepper and egg sandwiches for lunch, redolent in olive oil, which always dripped through its paper sack. That really gave her Italian away!

Mom was almost 13 when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. More deprivation, but this time it was for the war effort. Scrap metal and bacon fat were collected, gas severely rationed, you planted a Victory Garden. You wore shoes until the soles had holes, which you repaired with cardboard.

Butter was scarce during the war; instead, they used “war butter” – white margarine in a plastic bag, with a small capsule of yellow food coloring you squished in, so it at least looked like butter. Mom was the family squisher.

Mom graduated from Chicago’s Harrison H.S. in 1946, then went to work for Sears at the old Tower location on Homan Ave. She brought home her pay without fail, handing it over to her very strict mother, who then gave Mom a small stipend for bus fare and lunch. Imagine that, kids of today.

Mom met my dad, Mike, after he came home from Germany in late ‘46. He was drafted into the Army in 1944, age 18, as part of the replacement troops. Dad spent a year in combat, then helped to rebuild Germany after VE Day. On days off, former Nazi troops taught him to ski in the Austrian Alps. Dad said they were great guys, hating Hitler and as hungry for peace as they were.

My parents met at a neighborhood wedding; their families had been backdoor neighbors but never knew it. Dad was shy but had been eyeballing Mom all night, asking her to dance only as she was getting her coat to leave. Mom said she danced with him because she felt sorry for him, but as my daughter said when she saw old pictures of Dad in Germany, “Grandpa was HOT!”, which probably didn’t hurt his case. Dad danced all over Mom’s feet, though, and when he called her a few days later, he said, “ Hello, Phyllis … this is Elephant Feet.” Humor works, gentlemen!

They married in July, 1949, in 90-degree heat in an un-air conditioned church. I was their first-born, and my brother John (i.e., my partner in crime) came along three years later. We had a fine upbringing in the western suburbs, even if money was tight, because Dad insisted that Mom not work and stay home as our overseer. I guess Dad had juvenile-delinquent spidey-sense, because I was a JD and needed an overseer! I was initially very upset at having a sibling, but as soon as John was about three, I commissioned him as my minion. Poor Mom, riding herd on two little shits all day. She became a tough mom – she had to be!

After it was clear that her kids probably weren’t going to end up in juvie, Mom went back to work, as an executive secretary to two deans at Benedictine University in Lisle, a job she loved. She retired in 1996.

John and I both married in 1982; he, to the wonderful Sandra, and me, becoming an instant mom to my husband’s daughter, Angelina, whom I adopted. That little blond girl is now in her early 40s. Sunrise, sunset indeed. She is beautiful and a wonderful person, little thanks to her crazy mother (at this point, I think I’m tri-polar).

Mom and Dad traveled extensively – the only continents they missed were Asia and Africa. Unfortunately, things took an awful turn with my brother’s sudden death in 2002. It devastated my parents and brought me to my knees for three long years. John was my best friend.

And so it goes. Dad died in 2008, and Mom lived alone until the Parkinson’s caused a bad fall in January, 2016. She was trying to take out the garbage – forgetting that her neighbor did it for her – and fell in the garage. She spent hours passed out on the cold garage floor, and I mean cold – it was 25 degrees that night. After not being able to reach her by phone early the next morning, I asked a neighbor to check on her, and she found Mom in the garage, unconscious. It was a miracle she survived the night, but she was well-bundled and fell onto a carpet runner my Dad had tacked to the floor. She spent a week in the hospital, then six weeks in rehab to learn to walk again. Shortly thereafter, I found her a fine assisted living place, sold her house, and that was that.

And now it is six years later, and Mom is gone. She had a long-standing DNR order, and her demise was quick and merciful. Just four days in hospice care, then she died in her sleep, a week after her 93rd birthday. It was exactly what she wanted and for that, I am forever grateful.

But I miss her like holy hell. I’d give all that I own to hear her voice again.

I’m now the last one standing of my blood, and I hate it. My grief is full-tilt and all over the place…. guilt, regret, abject sorrow. I haven’t truly slept in over a week.

I know it will pass; I’ve been to this dance before. But I will never be the same. I have buried my entire blood family.

Several years ago, I had our DNA tested, and found out that on Mom’s side, we were 7% Russian Jewish. Ever after, Mom ended every phone conversation with “Shalom.” So, Shalom, my dear mamala. With what’s left of my broken heart, I love you more than you’ll ever know.

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  • May her memory be a blessing.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you. It is. She was something!

  • I'm sorry for your loss, but what a beautiful, amazing story. I know you' are busy and grieving but I hope it is okay for me to reach out to you on email or FB Messenger.

  • In reply to Michael Messinger:

    Thank you, Michael. Either is fine -

  • Michelle, What a beautiful, heart-wrenching tribute to your beloved mom. I am so sorry. You were so good to her, as she was to you. It's a loss that truly never heals. It just gets a bit more bearable with time. Sending you love, my friend.

  • In reply to Very Terry:

    Thank you, baby. I know that time is the only thing that heals. It’s just a fresh wound now. ( Miss you and CL. COVID sucks!)

  • Beautifully written tribute to your mom. Sorry for your loss.

  • In reply to Howard Moore:

    Thank you, H. Other than the gradual motor decline, she never had pain or anything like that. Just a very fast end at 93. She used to tell me all the time that she was ready. She went exactly as she wanted. Her care was top-notch. I’m so grateful for it all.
    P.S. I have a friend in a similar situation. Been praying for him for years. I’m happy to report that he’s still active, funny and agile-minded!

  • Dear Michelle, I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully, so that we can feel like we know your wonderful mother. Peace be with you as you learn how to go on.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thank you, Margaret. We’ve all been through it by now, I’m sure. I will be OK; I’ve had a lot of practice. Grief is a process and you have to just let it happen. Be well!

  • In reply to Michelle Babicz:

    Thanks, Michelle. You be well, too. A pastor taught me that grief isn't something you get over, but eventually, you get out from under it.

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