Happy Mother’s Day. There are many ladies whose influence have a significant impact on our lives. Today we celebrate and remember our mothers, and I, like so many children, will honor my mother today, even if 500 miles separate us. Two of the other principal female players in my upbringing are missing – my great aunt, Emma, and my grandmother, Fortunata. 

As I posted a few years ago, my “Gramma,” Fortunata, is pictured above with my Papa on their honeymoon in 1937. Rather than mourn her loss, I’d prefer to pay a loving tribute. After all, memories keep us connected to loved ones who live in our memories.

I want to thank my grandmother for her storytelling, giving me and my sister a limited but priceless history of how 1/4 of our family came to America. All of my grandparents were first-generation Americans, but only my Gramma managed to keep us connected to our European roots and our ancestors. Fortunata was 1 of approximately 15 children born to Maria Abanante Sabetta and Nicola Sabetta at the turn of the last century. Throughout her childhood, she’d survive poverty, the death of siblings in the 1918 flu epidemic; rickets; the loss of her mother in childbirth; a betrayal by the Roman Catholic Church; ethnic and religious bigotry; and classism. As one of the remaining older siblings, she’d help to raise her youngest brothers and sisters until she met and married my grandfather four years before World War II.

Although women from this era may not be viewed as independent and progressive as women are today, I can only imagine the strength it must have taken to survive childhood and young adulthood in a time that saw frequent illness, untimely death, extreme poverty, limited education and war. Any girl who managed to survive into adulthood would then be thrust into the factories while “our boys” went to the shores of Europe and the South Pacific to battle the Nazis and Japanese. They were resilient women, workers and mothers, keeping it together “at home” Stateside until our soldiers came home.

She was a child; a girl who had a crush on a man named “January,” and a lady who loved and married my Neapolitan grandfather, Nicholas.  Until the day she died (10 years after my grandfather’s death), she mourned for my grandfather, the love of her life for nearly 40 years. She became a grandmother the year I was born, always having more than enough love to share with five grandchildren.

As her granddaughter, I miss making apizza with her; singing Italian lullabies; and learning the history of how her parents came to America. She had the best hugs and always supplied a multitude of kisses. She had stories about the Depression, her lost siblings, and what it was like to learn English as a child. She’d fondly recall her brother Matthew, a talented artist whose painting adorned her living room. When Papa was alive, she’d encourage me and my sister to tickle his nose with a feather if he drifted off during soap operas.

Oh, those Neapolitan swear words, not very bad ones, but “polite” ones we learned in place of English ones. I adored the stories of my dad and uncle scaring the daylights out of her on a regular basis. Her soups, made with homemade pasta my great aunts made, were legendary. Her zucchini cake and meatball soup were written on recipes cards starting with the words, “In a bowl…”

My grandmother was a rascal known for her pranks with her sister, Julia. She was also a spunky lady whose wrath you didn’t want to cross when it came to her kids and grandchildren. I will never forget how she chased nasty kids (“from the block”) down the alley with a broom when they hit my sister, nor the story of how she threatened an abusive teacher with a rolling pin after the teacher hit my young father. Never cross “Mama!”

I won’t forget the tea parties when she’d serve us milky tea in beautifully decorated red, white or blue espresso cups laced with Italian gold. She always knew how to make me and my sister feel like princesses. When Mom would drop us off to see her, Gramma would be calling us from the kitchen door as we raced up the alley to greet her. She’d be at the dining room window when we’d leave, waving between the sheer curtains, blowing kisses. Occasionally, when I am home visiting, I need to drive by her old house just to “feel “the memories of those sweet hellos and goodbyes.

This lovely lady died the night before my 17th birthday after a very long battle with several illnesses. That night, I asked God to end her pain for my birthday present, because she was so ill, and yet too afraid to leave us. He granted my wish, and she finally found peace. I miss her terribly, and see a bit of her every day in my daughter, Grace Fortune. 

So today I honor her along with my mother, whom I am blessed to still have. If you are a mother, mother figure or grandmother, I wish you a wonderful Mother’s Day with your loved ones. If you are a child or grandchild, spoil your loved ones and hug them mightily, because they may not be around tomorrow. If your loved ones are gone, remember them fondly, and celebrate them, joyfully, with a toast, a whisper, a song, a prayer… or a story. 

Buona festa della mamma. Ti amo, Gramma.