According to today’s standards and statistics, my mother had what is now referred to as a “borderline geriatric pregnancy”; she was 34 years old when I was born. Thirty-four! That’s not even half my current age! Oh, to be 34 again.
I wish I knew my mom when she was still young, sexy, vivacious and carefree with a glowing tan and a radiant smile – just as she was in that photo.
Yes, how I wish I knew her then. That woman is not the mother I remember. Life changed her.
By the time I came along mom had been through hell, caring for her own sick mother, losing her precious golden-haired two-year-old baby boy to nephritis and watching her husband march off to fight a war. As bad as that was, it was just the beginning of my mother’s difficult life. To say she suffered many hardships would be an understatement.
Yet, through it all, she never stopped doing, caring, giving. Only when she became old and tired, her thoughts wandering and her memory failing, did she rest.
That’s what women do. That’s what mothers do. They give until the well runs dry.
There are many things in my heart I long to say to my mother. Later tonight when all is quiet I’ll share my thoughts with her but for now all I want to do is wish her Happy Mother’s Day.
My mother. Concetta DiStefano Schembre, 1917-2009. Rest peacefully, Mom.
Rosa Scalia was born in 1896 in the tiny Sicilian village of Cattolica Eraclea in the Province of Agrigento. The village, which was founded in medieval times, is situated in the valley of the Plàtani River, a 64-mile-long natural thing of beauty which feeds into the Mediterranean Sea.
Surrounded by high chalky mountains, the valley has a bountiful production of grapes, olives, almonds, pistachios, honey, citrus plantations as well as cattle breeding and sheep farming.
These ancient mountains with their numerous caves and tunnels are fortresses and castles for young boys at play, secret rendezvous destinations for lovers and even hideouts for bandits and highwaymen.
When the almond trees blossom in Sicily, it is a glorious sight. Throughout February the trees dotting the cool green hills are bedecked in lacy blossoms. Almonds are ready for harvesting between the end of July and the beginning of September.
This was the happiest time of year for Rosa. Every morning during the summer it was the 14-year-old girl’s job to walk by the chalky mountains to harvest almonds. Her supplies consisted of two huge baskets, a long-handled broom and a sheet. The Sicilian sun was strong so to keep cool during her day of hard work Rosa would wear sandals, a long cotton skirt, a thin white peasant blouse and a straw hat concealing her lustrous raven curls. Tied around her waist was a sack with her lunch – fruit, cheese and a water skin.
Thanks to their protective shells, harvesting almonds was not difficult but it did require hours of manual activity. Rosa would begin by spreading her sheet under the almond tree, then shake the branches of the tree by hitting them with the broom until the almonds fell onto the sheet. She would then pour the contents of the sheet into her baskets, moving from one tree to the next until the baskets were full.
Before beginning her laborious walk back to her village, Rosa would grab the back hem of her long skirt, pull it forward between her legs and tuck it into the front waistband transforming the skirt into knee-length pantaloons. Rosa would then shake the debris off the sheet, fold it into a thick ‘scarf’ and drape it over her neck and shoulders to act as a cushion for her delicate skin. Hanging one full basket on each end of the broom handle, she would carefully balance it across her shoulders, grasping the pole firmly with her hands on both sides of her neck.
Rosa walked deliberately, her sylphlike hips swaying with each step. Her sheer blouse became translucent as beads of sweat trickled down her neck, chest and back. On the tender cusp of womanhood, Rosa was unaware of how desirable she could look at times. She continued her journey, peaceful and content with another day’s work.
However, this day was different for unknown danger lurked inside the caves of the mountains as Rosa innocently walked by.
In need of a rest, Rosa paused in the shade of a sprawling olive tree and carefully lowered the heavy baskets to the ground. Before she knew what was happening, two ruffians emerged from a nearby cave, whistling and taunting as they encircled her. One pinned her arms behind her back while the other tore at her paper-thin blouse revealing her developing breasts. Her hat was tossed to the ground and long black hair cascaded around her lovely face. The men were encouraged by Rosa’s beauty and grinned lasciviously at her naked and writhing torso as she fought their advances.
One wretch roughly groped Rosa’s breasts while the other who held her arms behind her back reached around to cover her mouth, but Rosa was able to let out a loud scream. Her cry ricocheted off the mountains and echoed loudly, powerful enough to reach the ears of a young man returning home to Cattolica Eraclea with his flock of sheep. His name was Francesco Schembre.
Well acquainted with the area, Francesco knew the shriek was not far away. He commanded his sheepdog Dante to hunt down the source of the scream while he followed as quickly as possible. A second dog, Rico, helped to keep the sheep moving along. Francesco reached for the shotgun which he always carried over his shoulder in case of a wolf attack so he was well prepared for whatever awaited him.
Meanwhile, Rosa was struggling for her life. She grew weaker by the minute and one attacker pinned her to the ground while the other dropped his pants. Just then the man’s eyes bulged in his head and he screamed in agony as Dante sunk his fangs into the would-be rapist’s dangling testicles and would not let go.
Francesco fired his gun once into the air and Dante released his clench. Both men quickly unhanded Rosa and began scrambling down the path, however they were no match for Dante and Rico. The fearless dogs jumped on the men’s backs and knocked them to the ground.
Francesco tied the attacker’s together and pulled their pants down around their ankles as the growling dogs stood by, teeth bared. Francesco commanded his faithful dogs to stand their guard. He then ran to Rosa who by this time had regained her wits. The feisty young woman had wrapped the sheet around her exposed chest and tucked it securely into her skirt. Francesco and Rosa walked back to the men who were still cowering in fear of the dogs, their shaking hands protecting their precious private parts.
The two men were still tied together as Francesco adjusted their pants around their waists. He demanded both men to pick up a heavy basket of almonds and start walking – no easy task. Francesco kept his shotgun aimed at them while Dante and Rico herded the sheep.
They were quite a sight as they walked into the village; Francesco quickly explained what happened although it was obvious to everyone. Rosa’s mother ran to her and embraced her, tearfully kissing her face while her father thanked Francesco profusely for protecting his daughter. The highwaymen were quickly taken into custody before the villagers could turn on them.
In the months that followed, Francesco and Rosa’s relationship blossomed and they fell in love. They were married one year later and began a family. The young couple had five children – one daughter and four sons. One of their sons, Vito, would eventually become my father.
Francesco and Rosa Schembre were my grandparents and this is the story of how our family started long ago and far away in the village of Cattolica Eraclea.
Written in memory of my grandparents, parents and many relatives, some gone a long time and others recently departed. May they rest in peace.
The night of my husband’s funeral was the loneliest point in my life. After everyone went home, I was totally alone in the house I shared with Ned for 32 years. I don’t ever remember the house being so cold and quiet. Moonbeams engulfed my bedroom yet emptiness was all around.
Ned made me promise that I’d get on with my life after he was gone. The last thing he wanted was for me to spend my days grieving. I agreed because I knew that’s what he needed to hear but I doubted turning that corner and moving on after losing the love of my life would be easy for me.
The next few weeks were a blur. I went out only to buy groceries, turning down all invitations from well-meaning friends to join them for lunch, a movie or a round of golf; it just wasn’t in me.
The time inevitably came when I knew I had to do something with Ned’s belongings. I found some empty boxes in the attic and began filling them with his things to donate to a men’s shelter. Lovingly I folded each shirt, jacket and pair of pants. I polished his shoes and included a couple of packages of new socks and underwear. The men living in the shelter were going through dire straits and deserved to be treated with respect.
The one thing I couldn’t part with was Ned’s cherished pipe collection. The warm aroma of cherry and whiskey lingered in the house. I pictured Ned sitting at his desk meticulously cleaning each pipe and placing it in the rosewood stand. I walked to the den where he watched TV, enjoying his pipe after dinner; my eyes filled with tears and I broke down – probably my first really good cry since Ned died.
It took about a week to get everything boxed and I called for a donation pick-up. The man I spoke to told me someone would come by on Thursday before noon; I told him I’d leave the boxes on the front porch in case I wasn’t home at the time.
Thursday morning I placed the boxes on the porch and headed out to the cemetery. It was four months since Ned’s passing and I had flowers to place on his grave. I stood by Ned’s gravesite reminiscing about our time together when I noticed the sun dancing off a coin on the headstone. “Of course!” I thought. “I should have known Tom would come by.” Ned and Tom were best friends ever since serving together in Vietnam. Keeping with tradition, Tom left the coin on Ned’s headstone as a sign that he stopped by to pay his respects.
After the cemetery I shopped for a few groceries. When I got home the boxes were gone; there was a receipt from the men’s shelter stuck in the front door. I placed the groceries down and sat on the porch’s double swing, staring at the vacant spot where the boxes sat just a few hours earlier. The void I felt at that moment was almost unbearable.
Silent tears rippled down my cheeks. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!” I cried as I pounded my fists against my legs.
“No, it isn’t, Lizzie. Lots of things in life aren’t fair.” There was Tom standing on the top step. Without a word he walked over to the swing, sat down beside me and cradled me in his arms as I wept. Tom spoke in hushed tones: “I know exactly how you feel, Lizzie. I went through it when Kay died. You and Ned were there for me through it all. There’s no feeling that comes close to a broken heart. We lost our soul mates; I hope you’ll let me help you like you helped me.”
We sat for a long time without talking, just holding hands sitting on the swing. Words weren’t necessary between dear old friends. Tom helped me bring my shopping bags into the house and together we put everything away.
“How about I brew a fresh pot of coffee, Tom? Make yourself comfortable in the den and I’ll bring it in.”
When I got to the den, Tom was sitting at Ned’s desk admiring his pipe collection. His still handsome face was creased with a sweet, sentimental smile.
“You know, Lizzie, that long-stemmed pipe in the middle was always my favorite.” Tom’s blue eyes glistened and I could tell he had shed a tear or two for his dear friend.
“It was Ned’s favorite, too, Tom. I remember the day you gave it to him.”
My heart fluttered as I removed the pipe from its stand and placed it in Tom’s hand. “I know Ned would want you to have this.”
Tom closed his eyes for a few seconds, his hands cradling the pipe. “Thank you, Lizzie. I’ll treasure this always.”
Tom said he had to get home and we walked to the front door.
“Wait, Tom. Can you come for dinner Saturday night?”
“I’d like that, Lizzie. Very much.”
“Me too, Tom. Is 6:30 okay?” and he nodded ‘yes’.
I said goodbye and pressed my back against the closed door. And I smiled for the first time in months.
Eastern Long Island, New York. A little village called Montauk. “The End”, according to locals; drive to the tip of the peninsula, walk a few steps and you’re in the Atlantic Ocean. Can’t get much more east than that!
We first drove to Montauk in 1984 to a no-frills family motel right on the beach overlooking the ocean. “Let’s go out for a weekend. If we don’t like it, we won’t go back.” Famous last words.
It was paradise.
Step outside the sliding back door of the motel room and your toes disappear into the sand. Big pool full of sunburned people having the time of their lives. Huge towels and colorful umbrellas along the shore, saltwater mist sprayed by the balmy breeze, a dog running with a Frisbee in its mouth.
There was a pizza place and an ice cream joint constantly busy. Seemed like all the kids had sun-streaked blonde hair and bronze tans, feet perpetually covered in sand, happy as clams.
Drive five minutes west on ‘the stretch’ between Montauk and Amagansett to a place known simply as ‘LUNCH’ for a mouth-watering lobster roll or a platter of fried puffers and chips. Best meal ever.
At night little fires dotted the beach, kindling glowed and crackled. Kids pierced marshmallows with long sticks and stuck them in the flames for a gooey sweet treat you won’t eat again till the next summer.
That weekend trip in ’84 turned into 37 years of vacations, each one longer that the one before it. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been able to get out to “The End” but we’ll be back.
“Well, hello there. I’m Archie … Archie the Armchair. And you? Ah, a pleasure to meet you, Reader. Please have a seat, get comfortable and let me tell you a little about myself.
My family and I were purchased in 1964 by Vito and Connie Schembre for their new home in the Bronx. Connie kept a beautiful house, immaculately clean upstairs as well as downstairs. Like most Italian households, the basement was where the family really lived … fully furnished with a kitchen, dining area, bathroom and tv section. Connie had a nice sewing room where she spent many hours making costumes for school plays, clothes for her daughters and custom order dresses for a small clientele of local women.
My parents combined to form one beautiful sofa, my big sister was a loveseat and my twin brother and I were armchairs. Together we were too much furniture for the formal living room so it was decided that I would join the other furniture downstairs in the tv section. Connie enjoyed her rocking chair while Vito preferred stretching out in the plush recliner. Seventeen year old Rosemarie loved her straw bucket chair (a hideous thing!) which meant I became thirteen year old Nancy’s chair. She couldn’t have been happier; I was a big step up from a bunch of pillows on the floor!
From my vantage point I could see everything that happened in the basement – Vito listening to opera, Connie frying her tantalizing meatballs every Sunday morning, the girls doing their homework at the kitchen table. I had a front row seat for every tv show the family watched. In fact, the only time Nancy didn’t sit on me with her legs curled under her was when she sat on the floor five inches from the tv to see the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Oh, the memories! I snuck a peek when Rosemarie made out with her boyfriend Billy Mack. I held back tears when Connie meticulously stitched my torn seam. And I bet I’m the only one who knows that Nancy plopped on me, relishing her Oreos and milk …ON HER WEDDING DAY … IN HER WEDDING GOWN! How I wish I had a picture of that!
Then the day came that the Schembre’s decided to move to a smaller house upstate. They had too many items for the new place so some things had to go. It was the scariest day of my life. The thought of going to strangers … or worse … being put out for the trash was unbearable. Suddenly Nancy’s husband Bill picked me up and put me in their van. Oh joy! I was going to live at Nancy’s house! And to make the day even better I overheard Nancy and Bill saying that one of Connie’s dear friends bought the rest of my family. They were all staying together!
Now I reside in Nancy’s Beatles Room donning a new beautiful coat of blue leather. And Nancy sits on me with her legs curled under her while writing her stories. I tell you, dear Reader, things couldn’t be better in my life.