I loved Mirella. I married her son and along with a husband I gained a mother-in-law who taught me to forgive and laugh at myself.
You see I came from a British family where keeping a stiff upper lip was a way of life and emotions were not to be displayed. My mother was always reading self-help books and emotions, although weren’t shown, could be discussed. But that went along with charts and theories on how to improve ourselves. One was never good enough and any mistake carried shame and was a lesson learned on a path to improvement.
My husband Mario on the other hand came from a loud emotional Italian family who took their marital fights to the streets of the neighbourhood. My mother-in-law was a well-educated and vocal woman who had grown up with all the privileges of wealth in Rome. When I first met her, though, her life had changed and she was managing to live a full life in poverty on a widow’s pension. She loved the classics and opera and managed with her bus pass to go to free lectures, art exhibits and musical events.
I remember one day Mario and I were arm and arm out walking downtown Vancouver while Mirella was behind us sauntering along one hand on her hip and the other twirling her gloves to the side like a tassel. As we walked we passed a man handing out pamphlets. I smiled and brushed him off. All of a sudden I felt a hard thump on my back. When I turned around in shock there was Mirella with a pamphlet in her hand shaking it under my nose. “You never pass by information," she said. "You never know what the world has to offer.”
Another day Mario and I came over to her apartment for a visit and discovered her floundering on the floor on her back. She had rocked the overstuffed rocking chair so hard that it had tipped backwards and now my middle-aged mother-in-law couldn’t get up. She was howling with laughter and had peed herself while she laid there cracking up as tears rolled down her face. As we detangled her from the chair she saw my shocked expression, for my mother would have died before being in such a position.
Mirella pulled me close and said, “You can’t take yourself too seriously, Cara. Just think how boring we would be if we were all perfect.”
After changing Mirella went into the kitchen and put the espresso pot on the stove. As she put the sugar on the table she told me to sit. “Cara have I ever told you about my favourite Aunt Lucia? She lived in Rome in the 30s not far from where we lived. She was a very religious woman. Some might have thought her immoral, but I loved her. Lucia lived in a beautiful house with my uncle, whom everyone one called Povero Gino. You see he had come back from the First World War shell shocked, with the mind of a child.
“When we visited, Povero Gino used to lay on the living room floor playing with tiny tin soldiers. Sometime after Povero Gino came back home from the war Lucia took a lover. Every Thursday she would dress and walk across Rome to a hotel. As she passed the church she would go in and say a prayer. Later that afternoon as she came back she went into the church again where she would put lira in the box and light a candle and pray again before returning home.
“One evening our family had come over to Lucia and Povero Gino’s for a dinner party. We were all gathered around the table when Povero Gino noticed there was a new servant. Povero Gino didn’t like change. ‘Where’s Maria?’ he asked.
“In a patient voice, Lucia explained that Maria was sick and had caught an illness from a gentleman and had to be sent away for a while.
“Povero Gino became agitated and kept asking where and why.
“Lucia explained that because she was sick she couldn’t touch our food. She insisted that Maria was getting the best of care because she was one of ours, but that it was better that she didn’t touch anything right now.
“Povero Gino became more agitated and started saying over and over that he had touched Maria. Smiling, Lucia tried to calm him and explained they had all touched her and that he was fine and that he couldn’t catch this by just touching Maria.
“But Povero Gino kept getting more and more agitated till he stood up and started banging his fist on the table and screamed, ‘No, I TOUCHED her!’
“I remember all of us sitting there with stunned looks on our faces as we took in Povero Gino’s revelation. We couldn’t believe what this man child was telling us. As the silence lengthened, Lucia calmly told Povero Gino to sit down and they would discuss the matter later. Taking up her glass of wine and being the good hostess that she was, Lucia smiled and, turning to my mother, started discussing the new fashions that were arriving that spring.
“After that, every Thursday before Lucia would take off for her weekly visit to her lover, she would call Povero Gino to the study. There she would tell him that she understood he had his needs and so would dole out lira for him to go down the road to the local whore house.”
By the end of this story, my jaw may have been drooping open, but Mirella stood and as she poured me another coffee she put her hand out and caressed my cheek. Smiling she said, “Faults are what make us human and ultimately make us loveable. We’re all just trying to get along in this world the best we can, Picinina. Love yourself. Laugh at your mistakes. Cara, you’re human.”
Carla Reid retired to Grimsby and is happily living a slower pace away from the city with her brand new puppy Mika. Carla is finally able to pursue her lifelong dream of writing.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including Saturday writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Alliston, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Jackson’s Point, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, New Tecumseth, Oakville, Ottawa, St. Catharines, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.