My Mother – hard head, hard work and strong family
John B. Susa, Ph.D.
After only two years of school my mother’s parents were told to take her out of school because of her ‘Testa Dura” (hard head). In other words, she was unable to learn the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills expected of her, at the rate of her peers. In northern Italy, girls who had a hard time learning worked on the farm or as servants in the city. The three Rs were not necessary survival skills until we moved to the US when I was six years old. Although learning came easily for me, it was a grueling struggle for my mother. As we were diffusing into the American culture I become the official translator and scribe for my mother when she needed to deal with the outside world. Her world was home as a wife and mother. My father went to work and I went to school. The two of us mediated her contact with the outside world. I can recall how despite our limited means we ate deliciously prepared meals that were a mixture of our regional Italian dishes and easy to prepare American fare. Our house was spotless and well cared for by my mother. A talented seamstress, my mother mended our clothing to extend its lifetime.
During those years it appeared to me that my mother’s interests were wholly domestic and that she entered the outside world only with me at her side. One form of help, begun early in my school experience that continued through high school, was helping her with my homework. That’s right! Helping her with my schoolwork was a way for her to keep working on her reading and writing of English. While working together she was learning. She eventually developed her reading abilities to a level sufficient to be able to read the newspaper. In her later years, she regularly read the Sunday edition of the paper. She would spend hours pouring over the paper daily so that by the end of the week she had read most of the paper. She would often reread the same stories many times until she understood.
The protective cocoon that was so comforting to my mother began to unravel just as I was entering college. I was moving several hundred miles from home and was not going to be available to be a mediator of her interaction with the outside world. Worse though was the diagnosis of cancer for my father! In eighteen difficult months she was a widow with a three-year-old daughter, no income, significant debt, and a grown son living two states away from them. With the help of her sister and other family who had also immigrated to the US she sold our home, paid her debts, moved in with her sister and began to rebuild her world.
She was a good seamstress, she knew how to work hard and she loved my little sister. She looked for work and took any kind she could find. Working conditions were usually poor to intolerable, but she kept working. For the next few years she and my sister lived very limited but safe lives. The necessities were there thanks to her hard work. As my sister got older she began to be the modulator of my mother’s involvement with the outside world as I had previously done. It was the obvious thing to do! My sister was a gifted student, my mother struggled with simple math and literacy so it happened again: this time it was my sister helping our mother through my sister’s homework. By this time I was living thousands of miles away and was of little or no help to them (guilt! guilt! guilt!).
Eventually my sister grew up and went away to college too. By then our mother had bought her own apartment in a housing cooperative and was planning on living by herself in her retirement. After a few years I was able to find employment close enough to visit her frequently and help her again. I convinced her to move closer to us, which she did. Living only a five-minute walk from her apartment allowed Connie and I and our three boys to see and help her frequently, as she aged and needed extra help.
My mother has taught me much about the strength of the human spirit, what really defines a good life, and the interdependence of us all. My mother had the support of a loving and faithful husband who did the things that were hard for her to do. Her children learned from her many of life’s important lessons and had the chance to help her more than most children are called upon to do. When within the environments that allowed her to use and develop his skills my mother succeed. She worked to her strengths and abilities not her weaknesses. She was born in a time and place where what she could do was more important to the survival of the family than what she could not do. No one labeled her a defective or lesser person.
It was hard for her to learn and hard to change but she did both! In the larger scheme of things the limitations of her “hard head” paled in the shadow of her hard work and limitless love for her children that defined her life!
John is a former Board member of TASP – he was at the meeting in Denver, CO on May 28, 2009 when TASP was “born”. He is and will always remain a guiding light for TASP. Many times, the current Board members, say, “John would know – call him”. Thank you John for sharing your moving story of your beloved mother.