In 1982 I read a copy of a speech by Jeffrey R. Holland, then President of Brigham Young University, about how stay-at-home mothers are undervalued. I don’t agree with the Mormons about a lot of things but I saved that speech.
Holland told the attendees at the American Mother of the Year Convention that women who devote their lives to their children can have as profound an impact on society as Nobel Prizewinners.
“How do you get the world to notice the mother who gave her daughter the courage to run for student body president?” Holland said. “Would ’60 Minutes’ tell the story of a widow who made baby clothes for each arrival in the neighborhood? Could we build a best seller around the mother who silently but meticulously raised an honest accountant, a high school teacher, a medical doctor or a concert pianist? Yet the sons or daughters of mothers make our society honest or dishonest, educated or uneducated, healthy or unhealthy, lovely or unlovely.”
I thought about this last week when I traveled to suburban Philadelphia for my Aunt Rita’s funeral. While it was sad to lose her, it was great to reconnect with my dozens of cousins, some of whom I had not seen in at least 15 years. Aunt Rita was 91 when she died, and luckily stayed in great health until her last three weeks or so. And she died surrounded by her family, which along with her faith was her only career.
We paid our respects in the town where we all grew up and where Aunt Rita had lived nearly all her life. The wake was at the same funeral home where my dad and beloved aunts and uncles had been laid out; the funeral was at the church where Aunt Rita attended Mass for at least 80 years. The post-burial luncheon was our first huge family gathering in quite a while.
Such gatherings were frequent when I was growing up, and Aunt Rita’s house was where many of them took place. She lived in the house where her parents, my grandparents, had lived for decades. She and Uncle Frank inherited the house, took care of my grandparents as they aged, and raised their own four children there. Our big Italian and Polish family gathered at that homestead on many a Sunday. My uncles drank Seagrams VO and argued about Roosevelt around the big dining room table, while we played with cousins Frank, Nancy, Rick and Lorraine around the house. We watched my grandfather pick tomatoes in the garden out back. We played hide-and-seek in the unfinished basement — where we could see my grandmother’s old ringer washer; the stove where she made pizzelli and a stone-lined storage closet for the vegetables and fruits that my grandparents canned.
In the kitchen, Aunt Rita was always cooking something wondrous. From the time she was a little girl she cooked side by side with my grandmother, who taught her everything she knew. After my grandmother died in 1963 Aunt Rita continued to make her home the nexus for family connections and a place where one could always find an encouraging word and something delightful to eat. Since Uncle Frank was Polish, Aunt Rita perfected many Polish dishes as part of her cooking repertoire. We enjoyed her Italian Sunday gravy; her cherry pies on Washington’s birthday; her Polish babka on Easter; her kugelhopf cake at Christmas; her pierogi many times of the year.
In fact, Aunt Rita — an Italian — became the pierogi mogul at her church, where she led a monthly fundraiser selling the Polish, potato-filled version of ravioli. Some estimated that she might have raised close to $1 million for the church over the decades. In a bold stroke of leadership, she convinced the incredulous old Polish ladies in the church kitchen to give up peeling fresh potatoes and use potato flakes instead, enabling the pierogi initiative to save time, scale up and make more money.
We shared these memories at Aunt Rita’s funeral Mass and at the funeral luncheon, both warm and loving events that Aunt Rita would have loved. No doubt she enjoyed looking down from Heaven at all the graying heads that once belonged to the small children whose laughter filled her home, and at the fresh and beautiful expression of the family genes in their own children, now in the prime of young adulthood. She no doubt was smiling when she saw cousins exchanging emails, cell phone numbers and promises to keep in touch. She was smiling when she saw the comfort and support that surrounded her two sisters — my aunts Theresa and Chickie — the last survivors of the eight children in their family. The love and concern we showed one another, the joy we felt in being together, was her life’s work and her legacy.
Rest in peace, Aunt Rita, and thanks for teaching us what’s most important.