September 12, 1996

It was a Thursday night.

Mom lay in a coma, in a hospital bed, in the tiny, always-coveted front bedroom (it had an outside door). Our brothers had gone home hours ago; all still lived within 30 minutes of our childhood home. Carmie was sleeping in the finally-finished basement. Sara, sitting post in the antique wing chair, had fallen asleep reading. Linda and I were on the living room sofa drinking tea and watching a movie, attempting a mental respite from painful reality. Actually, I was watching the movie and poking her to stay awake. I wish I could remember the movie. It feels important to remember. Maybe Linda does.

We four daughters were exhausted from worry and sporadic sleep. Sara and I are owls like Mom; the other two are larks (although Linda likes to burn the midnight oil as well). So one or both of us would stay up until all hours, reading. Every few pages, we would glance up to be sure Mom’s chest was rising and falling. If we fell asleep at 4:00 or 5:00 am, we knew Carmie and/or Linda would be up in an hour or so, and Mom wouldn’t be ‘alone’ for long. I do remember the books I was devouring during those few weeks: Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, escaping to other eras, other family dramas, avoiding the waking nightmare of our own.

She had been lucid up until a few days before: talking, telling stories, making jokes. Linda had asked her to send us a reassuring sign when she left us, and she promised she would. Her taste buds were shot, but her nose was in perfect working order. “What is Marianne cooking? Tell her she burned the garlic.” She had soldiered on as she always did, without complaining, insisting the pain wasn’t too bad. Carmie was the last to arrive. As the oldest, she knew Mom the longest –perhaps the best– and must have seen past her brave face. After she spoke with the hospice nurse, morphine started to gently carry our Mom away. So we were getting used to the idea it was just a matter of time. A few days, maybe a week.

I gave up trying to keep Linda awake and also dozed off. It seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes later when a noise startled me awake –some type of alarm or buzzer– as well as cold tea spilling in my lap, from the mug in my slack hand. My heart was racing, yet I felt glued to the couch. Linda woke, rubbed her eyes, and immediately stumbled towards the kitchen. “Mare! C’mere, hurry!” I jumped up and ran to the kitchen, dark but for the florescent fixture illuminating Mom’s eclectic assortment of treasures on the little shelf above the sink. We stared, puzzled, at the buzzing stove timer. There was nothing near it; no pots, pans or anything remotely touching it and triggering it, as our dear sister-in-law Roseanne had washed and dried the dinner dishes, and stored everything away. I turned the timer off, but it started again. Linda adjusted it forward and then back to the off position, and it stopped briefly, but then started again. The third time we apparently turned the knob to precisely the right spot; it did not buzz again. We looked at each other quizzically, brows furrowed, and spoke in whispers, relieved the commotion had not woken our other sisters. With our tea warming in the microwave, we stood side by side in silence, facing the dark dining room that led down the hall to the bedroom.

Wide awake, mugs in hand, we returned to the couch. Linda picked up the remote and was just starting to channel surf when suddenly Sara rushed in and said “Lin! Mare! Come quick. I don’t know what she’s doing, but something’s changed.” I called down the stairs to wake Carmie. She was racing up in a flash, as if she hadn’t even been asleep. We four sisters gathered at our Mom’s bedside as she breathed her last breaths. I swear you could visibly see her spirit leave too, like a mist or curl of smoke rising up from her body. I was holding her left hand, and I remember being surprised by how quickly it began to grow cold in mine. A few of my hot tears fell upon it, and I kissed them before gently placing it at her side.

Our sweet mother Antoinette. She loved people, studying the Bible, and nutrition. She was musical, with a mezzo soprano voice and piano fingers so talented her teacher recommended her to Julliard. Child of the Depression, she was resilient, resourceful, remarkable. In the 1940’s, she made baby food from scratch and pancake syrup from apple peelings. In the 1970’s, she made yogurt, cheese, bread, and bought bulk food from a co-op. Baking was her passion, and our house was warmed with the tempting aromas appropriate to every religious and ethnic holiday –not just Italian Catholic ones. She packed me lunches like fried eggplant sandwiches on ‘brown’ Roman Meal bread, with an apple and a tiny Tupperware of raisins and nuts for snacks. It took me years to realize I was the lucky one, the lone outcast who wasn’t eating Oscar Mayer or marshmallow Fluff on Wonder bread, with sides of Frito Lay and Hostess.

Mom loved coffee, road trips, late night TV and changing the wallpaper on a regular basis. She longed to travel but kept her feet firmly planted and grew seven children instead. She ached to dance, but contented herself with dancing in her heart, as she shared their joys and relished the role of Grandmother. At weddings, she would giggle as she sipped a single amaretto sour, thinking herself quite decadent. She attended a Messianic Jewish Church the last ten years of her life. She nursed her husband through cancer, her parents through old age, and as she lay dying, was most concerned for the epileptic sister she had helped care for since she was a teenager. While her liver failed her physically, I believe she died of a broken heart, having lost her two lifelong best friends in December 1995 and July 1996.

There is a snapshot in my mind of the shelf above the sink. Throughout that cramped kitchen’s many incarnations of wallpaper and paint, comfortably familiar glimpses of Mom’s life cycled on and off that shelf for decades. A Palm Sunday cross tucked between recycled jars rooting Spider plants, Philodendrons and Wandering Jews. A dried out wishbone or two, a peach pit, a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it. A Veteran’s Day lapel poppy, a bottle of vitamin E oil, and a prayer card from the most recent funeral –or six. Her rings, if she was kneading bread. Underneath, a milk carton with eggshells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps for her compost pile; and a red ceramic frog with yellow speckles (painted by yours truly, age 10), perched on the side of the sink, his open mouth holding a plastic mesh scrubber. Convinced the automatic dishwasher was wasteful, outside of holidays she used it most often as a drying rack.

Mom was a farmer’s granddaughter, the daughter of a grocer, married to a farmer’s son. She loved to plant, gather, forage, harvest, preserve, cook and bake. She lived to nurture everyone she encountered, doling out heaping helpings of food, proverbs, nutritional advice, compassionate understanding, and her sunny disposition, until she was certain a body was full, body and soul. How fitting she chose the stove, the modern-day hearth and heart of the home, to let us know her time on Earth was done.

About ciaomari

Food is in my blood! My Sicilian ancestors were lemon & grape farmers, bakers & grocers. I grew up gardening, canning, fishing & berry-picking. Choosing, preparing & serving food make my heart sing. I live to feed and care for people, at home & work. Food = love! I'm an irrepressibly enthusiastic & infinitely curious East Coast Renaissance woman transplanted to the Southwest desert: beverage geek, food nerd, herb gardener, historian, hospitality pro, musician, nature lover, ordained minister, photographer, polyglot, reader, re-user, recycler, soul therapist, writer & voyager. Admiring beauty, observing details, spreading joy, living mindfully, reading voraciously, writing from the heart, loving passionately... these are a few of my priorities. Thank you for visiting and sharing yourself with me as well.
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24 Responses to September 12, 1996

  1. Wow Mari, that is all I can say…

  2. I get a good look back at my wonderful Mother-in-law every time I see one of her beautiful daughters (even more with my wife Linda) I have been blessed with a beautiful family.
    I truly am the lucky one, to see her every time I look at my wife Linda. Her comments, and expressions remind me of Antoinette Belardi.

    • ciaomari says:

      Tom, what thoughtful, lovingly-worded sentiments, thank you. Likewise, our family was blessed to welcome you 30+ years ago. It’s so interesting how we Belardi girls are like Mom in different ways! xoxoxo [I appreciate you reading & commenting]

  3. Pavle says:

    Thank you for sharing this Mari. Very touching. I will think of you and your mom when the alarm on any oven or stove goes off—can’t help it—you know my memory. Thank you again.

    • ciaomari says:

      Pavlisimo, that makes me smile (her too, I’m sure of it)! Ironically, I first wrote about her the very next day. But I didn’t read my piece at her funeral, or share it with anyone outside of a few immediate family members. It’s taken me all these years to realize by sharing memories of her, I feel her very presence. xoxoxo Thanks for reading & commenting!

  4. Comforting prayers on this anniversary of remembrance…thank you for sharing this day with us.

    • ciaomari says:

      Becky, bless you for reading and commenting, but especially for reaching beyond your comfort zone to cope with your own tremendous loss. You remind me of my oldest sister, who is also a teacher. While each individual’s process, pace, and expressions of grief may vary, as is often said of death, grief too is a great equalizer. I can imagine no grief as deep or as lasting as that of a parent for a child. My tears fell freely as I read your blog entries. I especially loved “A Stained Glass Window.” Your beautiful writing is a moving tribute to your cherished son Jason. As that milestone 10-year anniversary approaches, I pray you continue to find comfort and catharsis in remembering, expressing, and sharing. xoxoxo

      Here are links pointing to writings by other bereaved parents and a wonderful organization called MISS. Katie is my former coworker and dear friend who introduced me to Dr Joanne (The Miss Foundation) and Kara (Mother Henna).

      Katie Hodge Dean

      Joanne Cacciatore-Decker, founder of The Miss Foundation

      Kara Chipoletti-Jones

  5. Kerri says:

    Lovely Mari…Really lovely…

  6. Tina says:

    Marianne, that is so beautiful. It just brings your mom to life. I remember her so well. May she always rest in peace and be present in the lives f her children and grandchildren. I love you, Tina

    • ciaomari says:

      “…brings your mom to life.” Tina, that line reminds me how she was always brimming with vitality and energy, even on her worst day! She never seemed her age, I think that’s why her sudden decline and passing were so shocking for us. I must find ways to “share more of her” with the grandkids and greats, so they will feel her presence. xoxoxo I appreciate you reading and commenting!

  7. Lucas says:

    Moms must take class on what to keep on that shelf in the kitchen. You are an awesome writer. When is the book coming out?

    • ciaomari says:

      LOL — Thank you Lucas! Well, let’s see… I think a few different publishing houses are fighting over me. So… I’ll wait for the dust to settle, before I evaluate the offers and decide which one is the best fit. (HAHAHA…hey, dream big, right?) 😉 I appreciate you reading and posting. As Pavle says: “I can throw away my self esteem book when you’re around!” xoxoxo

  8. Sara Belardi Henry says:

    Bella sorella, I truly did not think it possible to miss our dear mom more than I already have these past fifteen years; you have put in to words the very essence of who she was. I spent my waking hours yesterday in deep reflection of mom and all the memories we collectively share. I wanted my head to be full of happy memories, the legacy of family she gave to us. Ironic that mom did not know how advanced she was in much of her beliefs and practices of all things, not just healthy diets and habits; it just made sense to her! The tears I refused to shed yesterday, came readily and steadily as I read your homage to mom and I am amazed at how I felt her presence surround me. Grazie la mia sorella, tu sei una benedizione per la tua famiglia! A presto….xoxoxo

    • ciaomari says:

      Carissima sorella… One day we were adults experiencing Disneyland for the first time, the next day we learned Mom was ill and felt as helpless as children. I’m still grateful we were all able to put our lives in AZ/TX on hold to be with her during those last weeks, and then take her to Portland one last time. She lives there for me not under that headstone, but as she is in the old black and white photos: a young bride wearing a plaid jacket, playing in the snow with Daddy’s Beagle Sport… posing with a baby Carmie sitting on top of the mail box… pushing me through the grapevines in the wooden cart… or in my memory of her feeding wood to the stove, shelling peas on the porch, cranking tomatoes through a food mill, making fresh peach ice cream in the front yard, rolling pie crust while I picked berries with the Aunts. I wish my siblings shared more of the wonderful Farm memories I treasure! Reflect, reminisce, and release; I think it’s really healthy and important for us. Happy my words may have helped you feel Mom’s presence. I love our family, and am glad our parents were brave and crazy enough to bring me into the world! xoxoxo

  9. Wow! Mari, my heart to you — what a treasure to get to know your mom through your post here. And the stove beeping like that! Did you see Joanne’s post the other day about the clock above her stove blinking with 7:27 for a full minute and then stopping when it flipped over to the 8? So interesting! Zillions of hugs to you!!! xoxoxo

    • ciaomari says:

      Thank you Kara, from my heart. I did see Joanne’s video of the microwave clock flashing, and it reminded me of the FB note I wrote last year, which was an especially tough anniversary as it was devastating enough my brother was battling advanced lung cancer, but the timing was so painfully reminiscent of Mom. Is 7:27 Cheyenne’s birthday… or the day she died? So kind of you to reach out to Becky, I loved her 9/11 post too. Yes, once the time for flowers, cards and casseroles is past, people may not necessarily ‘forget,’ but their comfort zone (action) to reach out and be supportive is gone. Americans are just so uncomfortable/afraid to deal with death, they don’t know what to say, do, etc. I’m sure in your work and volunteer efforts, you see the bereaved behave similarly, stuffing/internalizing it, suffering privately. Hugs back to you! xoxoxo

  10. Oh Marianne! If I can be remembered by just one single paragraph of what you wrote about your amazing mother…. what a gift. What an honor to read! What an honor to know you and to be introduced to her through you.

    That was a marvelous read.

    Peace and Grace

    Amazing that we both share the same day, September 12, as such pain-filled, life altering days.

    So much love to you!

  11. ciaomari says:

    Katie, your three living children will have *plenty* to celebrate and remember about their own amazing mother! You are truly an inspiration –recovering from your brain injury in record time and turning the unspeakable tragedy of Blake’s death into a healing tool for others, your work with MISS, and so much more. Your first son lives on in the comfort your book/blog have given to other bereaved parents. I wish the book/journal were not out of print. If I win the lottery I’m buying you a print run! xoxoxo

  12. Shinae Nae says:

    Wow, Marianne. I think there was a reason I was compelled to read your post today. Thank you.

  13. I was there a couple weeks before this event had happened. That, along with this detailed note and my mom telling this same story helps me to feel like I was there.

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