August 15, 1937- February 16, 2022
That is what she said to me every night when I called her. I would respond always by telling her that I was in traffic and I had no choice but to go slow. I called her every night on my way home from work. Sometimes, it would be when I left and she would tell me I was working too late. Some days it would be earlier and she would say, good, you need to leave early. Other times, I would call her after I crossed the George Washington Bridge because she always seemed to feel better when I was closer to home. She always worried about me – about us. “Go slow.”
My mother was a force to be reckoned with. She was born in Harlem in 1937. She was named Assunta, because she was born on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary, but she was known as Sue or Suzanne. She was the second of three children born to our grandparents, Louis and Laura, and sister to Maryann and Anthony. She went Julia Richman High School where she failed gym and had to go to summer school. That seemed to be a story she told a lot when we were younger. She always remembered that teacher’s name and always followed her name with a choice expletive or two.
She fell madly in love with my father at the age of 14. We have some love letter to him written when she was a teenager, but he did not start dating her until she was 18 and out of high school. He was nine years older than she was. They married in 1958, raised three sons and remained married until our dad’s passing after 57 years of marriage. They had their struggles but they came from a time when – if something was not working, you fixed it. You did not throw it out. So despite all their struggles, they weathered the storms. My mother was fiercely devoted to my dad and when he had his stroke, she decided to take him home instead of keeping him in a rehab. She said that there was nothing he was getting there that he could not get at home.
From the time we were small, she was focused on ensuring that we had a superb education. That meant sacrificing a lot to send us to private school. When the three local parish schools did not accept me in – because they did not give the weekly envelopes – she found Sacred Heart Private on Zerega Avenue. The tuition in 1966 was $15 a family and the conversation between them went something like, “Can we afford this?” And my dad said they would find a way.
We never really knew how much of a struggle it was. That changed when I was in the 5th grade. The new principal of our school the principal raised the tuition significantly. It meant that my family was going from paying $45 a month to $95 a month. The principal saw me in the hallway and told me how sad it was going to be that we were not going to be there in the next year because my parents could not afford it. You have to remember that I had no idea about our finances. So, when I told my mom, she marched in and gave the nun a lecture which in many ways was unheard of in 1972. We were not to know of their financial situation. All we knew was that we were supposed to do was do well in school.
For nine years, mom’s friend Barbara Annunziata, drove us to school in the morning, and mom picked us in the afternoon. Six to eight kids in a car, no locks, no seatbelts, no car seats. She and Barbara would go on to be good friends for many years, sitting around the table with the coffee, an Entenmann’s cake and the cigarettes. They were true friends. During that time, she worked part time at Macy’s and at Rotanelli foods where she was doing assembly line work which she compared to Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. She did not last long there, but she did what she felt she needed to do.
When we went to high school, the only choice was Fordham Prep. And tuition was significantly higher than at Sacred Heart. But they once again struggled to make ends meet. She began working as a paraprofessional in the Board of Education to help out. It was a full time job at regular school hours which she enjoyed. When I graduated high school, she made another sacrifice and took a full time job – nine to five – at Fordham University. It was her way of ensuring that we could afford to go to college, because employees got a discount for their families. I do not think that she ever imagined she would spend 34 years there. She loved her job and they loved her. I received a number of notes from former students who worked for her as work study students years ago. They never forgot her. Most of her time was spent in enrollment services and her boss before retiring was Anna Conte whom she loved very much and who made her last years there easier for her. Mom worked an additional six years as a consultant and got her second Bene Merenti medal for 40 years of service. When she finally gave it all up she was 80! You really have to love not only your job but the people you work with to remain working that long.
I think some of the happiest times for her was when we lived on Wellman Avenue and we had a block full of kids who were friends and parents who were friends. My mother and Connie Orza were the best of friends for a long time. With all her friendships, there was coffee, the Entenmann’s cake and cigarettes. I look at those years as golden.
My mother was fiercely protective of her children and her family. She saw me get hit by a car when I was in the third grade –I was fine but they called the ambulance for her. One day, for twenty minutes while driving home from school, she kept yelling at my brother, Michael, to get off the car door -remember – no locks, no seatbelts – he did not listen and when she turned on to Edison Avenue, he fell out of the car. Once again, he was fine but they called the ambulance for her.
When I was about 12, I was sitting on a friend’s stoop, eating ice cream and the kids on the block were playing in the street. The old man who lived on the corner came out and started screaming and out of no where, he grabbed me and pulled my hair. The kids rode their bikes down three blocks to my grandmothers’ and told my mom what happened. She took one of their bikes, pedaled three blocks uphill, went to his door and pulled the guy’s hair. He was never seen again.
One night, my brothers, who were about nine and six years old, would not go to bed and she kept banging on the wall. The banging became progressively worse and more frequent, a sure sign she was losing her patience. Then came the expletives – through the wall. Finally, after one too many bangs, and a good number of choice words, she came out of her room, threw Louis’s dinosaur models off the shelf and proceeded to open their dresser. She threw all their clothes all over the room. She told them if they were going to stay up, they needed something to do.
When I started doing cabaret shows in the city, she came to every one of them. Once, she and my aunts were late in getting into the city and they got off the express bus and took a rickshaw from the east side to the west side of Manhattan. She always inserted her comments into the show as I told stories, so much so, that the audience actually thought she was part of the show. When I broke into singing ‘Runaround Sue’, she would scream like a teenager at a Beatle’s concert.
Before my brother got married, we were having a fairly difficult time as a family – as most families do –and she got us all in one room and she said, we go in today as a family and we come out as a family. And we will deal with tomorrow then. But that was how strong she was. She felt we could weather any storm and we did.
There was no one like her. She smoked and she cursed. She cooked like no one else. Her meals were extraordinary feasts. While some might say she had no filter, I disagree. She not only knew what to say and when to say it, but more importantly, how to say it. If that meant adding a curse word or two, then so be it. She spoke from the heart and believed her truth. She could spot a phony from a mile away.
There were two thing my mother asked for in life. One was that she did not want to be dependent on us. She did not want to be a burden to us. She wanted to live on her own terms and she did. The other was that she wanted to make sure that her three sons got along, and were close. She succeeded in both and I could not be happier with the two brothers I have. Did I really just say that? If they were allowed to have their cell phone on right now, they would be texting each other talking about me.
Seriously though, they are great and they helped her a lot. In a time when kids are looking to unload their parents on someone else, or even into a nursing home, she was being moved in with Louis, right down the block from Michael, with her sister at her side.
There are so many people I want to recognize today. She idolized to her last day, her beloved Aunt Tillie who is with us today. We have so many memories of spending summer days in her pool. My cousin Donna was her god daughter and she is here too. My cousins from Rochester adored her and she loved them as well. Donna, Jennie, Carmela and Louise, although not related by blood, you were more than family to her.
She adored nothing more than being a grandmother to Sandra, Victoria and Isabelle. Sandra was the first – she practically lived with my mom and dad, and they loved having the girls. She babysat a lot, and loved being with them..and as they got older, she loved their visits. She was so proud always of them. This year she taught Victoria how to make Struffoli.
To my aunt Maryann, you were her best friend and confidante. Know that she will always be here and we look to you now to be the leader for us. Louis, Laura, Michael, Debbie and Nick, thank you all for everything you did for her over the years but especially in the last year.
Finally, to my mom – you loved us unconditionally and you sacrificed to make our lives better. We are eternally grateful. It was my privilege to be your son and to be your friend as an adult.