Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.68.1: MAMA MIA (1916 – 2010)

Last week, my mother, at 94, but looking maybe 80, slipped from a peaceful unconsciousness to wherever consciousness goes when the corpus will no longer contain it. Wherever that consciousness is now, it will remember that I eulogized Dad in these pages [9.4: Dad and Deng 6.20.2004], and not rest until she receives her due. So, reprinted here are the feelings and thoughts I penned as I sat with her on that last day cognizant of the imminence of her departure.

Bee and Jimmy, ca. 1943-44

Bee and Jimmy, ca. 1943-44

1916 – 2010
Mater Familias

My indelible image of her will always be of her seated in the stands at one of mine and John’s McQuaid Jesuit High basketball or football games, cheering in full voice and giving sport savvy advice and commentary to some Jesuit she had charmed to sit beside her. I could always pick her out of the crowd by that red hair.

She was, and remains, the only woman I ever knew with the name “Brunette.” Blessed with such a beautiful name, Brunette Bianchi, brown and white should have been her colors. But red was the color she was known by, that red (really auburn) hair that became her signature. My buddies called her “Big Red.”

Or maybe the appellation owes its origin to that famous marinara sauce, her delicious “elixir,” as we joked, for any ailment or melancholy mood. The sauce (not ragu, and gods of Italia forbid, not the “gravy”) complimented not only Big Red’s hair, but a temperament that could be fiery.

That calls for an apt anecdote. There was that time when teenager me got into a little trouble with our parish church (perhaps a harbinger of my Church issues to come). The cops showed up at our house, a major embarrassment for Bee as it took place in full view of the non-Italian neighbors. I was chastised and sent to the offended priest to apologize.

Dad drove me to the rectory in a stony silence; he did not like it when we upset his Queen Bee. I went in and apologized to the priest who, rather than granting absolution, told me that I was a “degenerate bastard.” I reported the compliment to Dad, who, of course, passed it on to Bee.

Much to my delight and reprieve, Bee called the priest an impious [expletive]. OK, it was more than one expletive. Then she picked up the phone, called the rectory and told him off directly. That was Bee—don’t disrespect Big Red’s family, even if you are the Church.

La familia was my mom’s overriding ambition, her raison d’etre. When John was ready for kindergarten and I for first grade, Bee went to work on the assembly line making “Brownie” cameras at Eastman Kodak. Kodak apparently was discriminating against Italians in those days because the personnel guy told her it was fortunate she had married a man named Clapp because the italic Bianchi would impede any advancement. Anyway, he added, she didn’t “look Italian”—the red hair, no doubt. I hasten to add that her decision to marry Al Clapp was fortuitous on many levels; she could not have chosen a more adoringly faithful swain Over three decades she had been promoted up to an administrative job.

Bee was proud of that: a high school education, and rising to help run an engineering division of a major corporation. But a major motivation was the money to send her boys to the best high school and on to the university. That was the destiny she ordained for us. When we went off to college, she continued working, putatively to give Kodak the benefit of her “maternal” solidarity. But she always kept the sauce simmering. By the time her boys were ready to start their own families she was the Mater Familias, the center of a universe of her own (pro)creation.

I don’t recall Bee ever asking “what kind of a name is that?” When her sons chose lovely Irish girls to start their own families she embraced them as “daughters.” They loved her back even when she could be the Mater Regina. There is no such thing as a perfect family, but you couldn’t convince Bee and Al of that. They mutually reinforced their delusion of familial perfection. But their reality was that, if you loved one of “theirs,” you were loved as one of theirs.

When John and Mary Ellen followed Patty and me out to California, Bee and Al were close behind, retiring together and selling their house on the same day. For years there greatest pleasure was gathering a clan that grew to five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The family was more disaggregated by then, but it seemed that the dining room table had made it from one home to another for us to gather round on special days, and the familiar, pungent aroma of Ma’s sauce connected us to memories of our familial past in New York.

When Dad died in 1997 Bee nearly followed in her grief and depression. She had lost her loyal prince consort. But with the love and strength of the family she had built, and especially my brother, John, undisputedly the best son any mother could wish for, Bee came to accept her dowager status with grace and good humor. She could no longer be the center, the sauce no longer simmered, but her durable presence remained the defining feature of our family. And so it will always remain in our memories.

I see those memories mostly in the scratchy 8mm movies my father shot at times when the young, vibrant and beautiful Bee was playful, mischievous, and anything but camera shy subject of his near idolatrous worship of her. Thanks to him we have many of her most sublime moments, playing in the snow with her sisters, and brothers furloughed from the war, dunking her young sons in a lake, or orchestrating a birthday party, always smiling her confidence at the camera and even giving direction.

Bee made herself special to us. She did it seemingly in the most primal maternal ways, with love, devotion and protection, passing on traits that have become part of our family genome. I also think she put something in the sauce.


© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.6.2010)