By Carrie Mills
There are some little girls who grow up wanting to be just like their mothers, and others who swear they will be anything but. For me, it was always a bit more complicated. While I started out as the former, as I’ve matured, if that’s what you can call it, and rather late in life I might add, I began to appreciate the complexity of who my mother was as a person.
As this year’s Mother’s Day is upon us, and since I let the cat out of the bag last month that my mom dated someone in the Mafia, I found myself reminiscing about that particular time in my young life with my mom and her choice of men, in particular Johnny D. I’ll leave his last name out for understandable reasons.
When it came to Johnny, my mom alluded to the fact that he did not have the usual day job, and while I was too afraid to ask too many questions, there were certainly enough indications that that was the case.
For instance, whenever Johnny would take us out for dinner deep in the heart of Brooklyn, at the most authentic of Italian restaurants, he would always have to face the door. Let me tell you, I knew what that meant. As you may imagine, there was always stress throughout the entire meal whether I would make it out alive. That was layered on top of all the other insanity that went on in my family that made me question if I would make it out alive. And while I liked Johnny D., he was jovial and funny and warm in that big Italian way, I would also whine to my mom, “Do we have to go out to dinner with Johnny?”
All my friends loved Johnny. He would hand out $10 and $20 bills like they were going out of style when he came over. Heck, now that I think about it, maybe some other shady things were going on that I didn’t know about. And there were the boxes of Italian pastries he brought every time he visited, which were no help to my already awkward teenage figure and my acne prone face, though boy were they delicious. On top of that, maybe because of his chosen profession, he wasn’t afraid of a dare. One time my brother, for God knows what reason, dared Johnny to throw that delicious Italian custard pie in his face, and yes indeed, without hesitation, Johnny D. picked up that pie and smashed it right into my stunned brother’s face and to the hysterical laughter of us all. There was always some kind of excitement when he was in the house. He made us all smile, especially my mom, until he didn’t.
When he really wanted to take the relationship to the next level with my mom, expecting her to cook and cater to him in that old fashioned 1950’s way, my mom was not having any of it. Don’t get me wrong, my mom was a great cook, she just didn’t like people telling her what to do. At my mom’s funeral, one of the songs we played, one of her favorite songs, Shirley Bassey’s,“This is My Life.” My overly dramatic, mashugenah Aunt started yelling to the casket, “Yes Marion (that’s my mom’s name) it was your life!”
And then there was the time when we were driving in the city, my mom pulled up to a storefront, maybe it was Mulberry St. in Little Italy, when it truly was Little Italy, with a little Italian man sitting on a chair on the sidewalk outside the door of a shady looking club, the kind that shows up in a Scorsese film. My mom pushed me out of the car and said, “Go ask if Johnny’s there.” That was the last place on earth I wanted to be at that moment. She and Johnny lasted a few years until, it was apparent that he couldn’t change her, and she would not accommodate him, so my mom, like any mom you don’t want your mom to be, went back to her married Jewish boyfriend Sid, who she dated in total for 16 years, with the Johnny D. break somewhere in the middle.
Between Johnny D. and Sid, and my mom’s three former failed marriages, suffice it to say, I did not have the most conventional upbringing or example of healthy relationships. What I did have was a lot of colorful moments and insight into adult human behavior gone awry. Sometimes, seeing what you don’t want helps clarify the things you do. It was hard for a young me to navigate my teenage years in a house on the fringes of society’s norm. But I realize it shaped my character in ways that I can now appreciate.
Did I mention that members of the Gambino family attended my mom’s funeral? Well, that’s a story for another time…