Looking at this beautiful, mutely colored photograph of my mother when she was about twenty-one years old, it's easy to see why my father fell in love with her. I'd say I inherited my good looks from her, but I've never remotely looked this good.
My mother was a first generation American of Italian and Sicilian descent. She identified as American and was more than ready to give up the majority of her Italian background. At an early age she changed her name from Caterina Celeste Galeano, named after her two grandmothers, to Catherine Agnes Galeano, adding Amberg when she married my dad in 1945. Everyone knew her as Catty. She understood Italian, but I never knew her to speak it. We ate spaghetti most Sundays and lasagna on Christmas and Easter, along with my grandmother's classic Italian wedding soup. But we mostly ate my father's mid-western, German meat and potatoes diet. Early on, she traded olive oil for Wesson and Crisco.
But she was also a classic Italian mother. To say she was driven underestimates her and in her lifetime she achieved more than she dreamed possible as a young girl growing up in a Italian neighborhood in depression-era DC. She was adept at pointing that drive toward her children. There were expectations about education, cleanliness, family, church, loyalty and patriotism and she used guilt with the best of them to see those expectations were met. She could be fierce about this and it drove me crazy.
On our recent trip we stopped for a brief time in my grandmother's home town of Gioia del Colle in Puglia. There, walking around town, having coffee, and later driving through the immediate countryside, I felt familiar and comfortable, like I had been there before, even though I hadn’t. Psychologists call it genetic memory, that is, memory that is with us at birth even without any sensory experience of the memory. For me, there was something in the air, as we’re fond of saying, the smell, the taste, the salt coming off of the nearby Aegean Sea. It was something I knew, deep inside, but couldn’t quite identify. But I sensed the answer lay in ten or more generations of genetic memory that preceded me, most recently passed from my grandmother and mother, and onward to my children. For this I am eternally grateful.