MADA RANA

My great-grandmother, Mada Rana, 1947

The house is quiet tonight. Eerily quiet. All the lights are off and only the glow of candles shines dimly through the curtained windows, performing a ballet of shadows on the walls and ceiling. Every so often a door softly opens, barely perceptible murmurings are audible, then the door gently closes. Intermittent muted sobbing creeps up from the parlor.

I sit on my bed huddled under a blanket, a tiny flashlight flickering a pale yellow beam on my diary as I jot down my memories of the day. I must be quiet; my mother will be very upset with me if she discovers I’m still awake at this late hour.

My window is open just enough to let in some fresh air. The distinct smell of cigarette smoke wafts up into my room. I peek out to see my mother’s uncles sitting on the back steps silently smoking their unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes. Their black armbands are starkly visible against their plain starched white shirts. 

I tip-toe across the length of my bedroom, praying the old wooden floorboards beneath the well-worn rug will not creak. Ever so slowly I turn the glass doorknob; the hallway is dark. I can detect a muted light downstairs and I scurry nearer to the staircase railing for a better look. I sit there hugging my knees for a long time; there is no movement on the lower level. Just as I am about to descend the stairs, a giant amorphous outline begins approaching the parlor. The huge silhouette is frightening but only momentarily as it slowly becomes smaller and eventually reveals itself to be the profile of my mother draped from head to knees in a long lace shawl. She stands just outside the parlor for a moment fidgeting with her handkerchief, then enters the room, quietly sliding closed the heavy pocket doors.

A few hours earlier the ambience of the house was much different, still subdued but active as delivery men and acquaintances paying their respects came and went. My mother and her aunts labored in the kitchen like silent worker bees, preparing trays of food for the constant flow of visitors. My father, along with my mother’s uncles, directed the traffic of floral deliveries and positioned the many arrangements throughout the parlor. And we children sat quietly on the two enormous matching sofas along the side walls, eyes downcast, confused and uncharacteristically subdued. Occasionally we would glance toward the walnut casket resting atop a platform in the center of the room and quickly look away. Around 6:00 we were quietly whisked away into the dining room where we silently ate our evening meal, then returned to the parlor to continue our vigil.

There seemed to be a never-ending flow of people, a soft parade of mourners entering my house. Veiled women dabbed their eyes and men removed their hats, heads bowed. This stream flowed seamlessly from 2:00 in the afternoon until 9:30 that evening, many people lingering to reflect while others stayed only minutes. The priest arrived shortly after 9:30; he spoke softly in our native Sicilian dialect, offering prayers and words of consolation. When he was finished, everyone except my mother’s aunts and uncles departed. My little cousins, some no longer able to stay awake, were carried home and my sister and I were shooed off to our bedrooms upstairs.

It had been a long and sorrowful day. Mada Rana, the family matriarch, had died.

Her name was Maria Giuliano and she was my great-grandmother. We called her Mada Rana, our abbreviated version of the Italian Mamma Grande or Big Mamma. Mada Rana was a Sicilian immigrant, mother of six, grandmother of 16 (including my mother) and great-grandmother of 27. Her husband Giovanni died long ago when my mother was still a very young child and Mada Rana remained a widow for the rest of her life. 

Heavy-set and of medium height, she had the appearance of being stoic and unapproachable but her blue eyes danced whenever the children were around. Like magic, she would produce homemade cookies from her apron pockets and sneak them to us behind her back, pressing her fingers to her lips signaling us to keep her secret.

At one time or another most of the family lived in the same apartment building on 153rd Street and Third Avenue in the Melrose section of The Bronx. In time all Mada Rana’s children married and had families of their own. Mada Rana never lived by herself; her children were happy to take turns providing a home for her until she eventually moved into our house with my parents, sister and me. That was where she held court over the family meal every Sunday. Our house was large and well-appointed, filled with the noisy sounds of children laughing, women cooking and men excitedly playing cards. And there was music, always music. Mada Rana’s bedroom was on the first floor near the parlor and that’s where she died, surrounded by her loved ones.

Tonight the house is silent and the intense perfume of flowers hangs heavy in the air. As is the tradition, Mada Rana lay in repose in the center of the house; she wore a dress of deep purple to compliment the lilac velvet lining of her casket, her rosary beads secure in her hands.

Tomorrow morning we will say our last goodbyes to our beloved matriarch. Our cars will slowly follow a horse drawn carriage to St. Raymond’s Cemetery where Mada Rana will be laid to rest with her beloved Giovanni. It has been firmly explained to the children that everyone will kiss Mada Rana’s forehead as a final sign of respect; my stomach is in knots thinking about kissing a dead person. The concept is frightening and I don’t want to do it but I must.

I will forever hold dear countless memories of Mada Rana – her larger-than-life presence at the dinner table, her silver hair pulled in a bun, black stockings rolled down below her knees, the house-dresses she wore inside and the ubiquitous black mourning ensemble she wore when in public, the rapid-fire way she would roll home-made cavatelli one after the other off a small grooved paddle, her muted prayers as she devoutly recited her rosary, the way she closed her eyes and smiled when Caruso sang.

I will never be able to erase from my mind the overwhelming smell of flowers in the parlor during her wake, the sound of dirt and pebbles pelting her casket or the cold, waxy feel of her forehead under my quivering lips. My dreams were filled with those recollections for years and sometimes still haunt my sleep.

NAR © 2022

This recording was made in September 1920, less than a year before Caruso’s death. His health was failing and the recording equipment was, by our standards, primitive. Despite all that, the power and beauty of his voice remain unmatched.