There are many shades of blue and each one elicits from me a different expectation and emotion. I love looking out my kitchen window at our backyard, the gazebo framed perfectly in the Carolina blue sky. If you haven’t seen the sky in Carolina, you don’t know what true blue is: deep, scintillating, saturated, and infinite. I feel my insignificance, but there is certain comfort in the knowledge that nothing that seems life altering really matters in the bigger scheme of the universe.
When we were driving home from the store the other night we passed a house clad in blue Christmas lights. They were cobalt blue and made the house look not festive but like a dark sepulcher, a place to lay and mourn the dead. I was overwhelmed with sadness, remembering the many times I rode in a funeral procession to the cemetery: Dad, Ma, my grandmother-in-law Mama Mack, my sister-in-law Sylvia, my uncles Rocco, Lenny and Punch, my nephew Yancy, and my Aunt Josephine.
Soon after, midnight blue settled in my bones, the kind of blue that leaves me wistful and wanting.
This week is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s passing. It might very well be the cause of my blue mood. I’ve understood for years that I carry the legacy of sadness and unspoken words that I only wish had passed between us, and it sneaks up on me every once in a while particularly during the holidays.
Ma loved turquoise, perhaps because it reminded her of the ocean she had crossed to join Dad in America and that separated her from her mother.
Our kitchen, her favorite spot to sit with a cuppa and a good book, was decorated with turquoise print wallpaper. Dad painted the metal cabinets turquoise and the refrigerator was turquoise, too, in contrast to the laminate red countertops and red tile floor. Ma was a study of contrasts, too.
Ma at the kitchen table circa 1982
My youngest brother Andy and I at the table in our turquoise kitchen circa 1967
The holidays often left me sad when I was a kid. Maybe every person, including me, is under the impression that everyone else’s holidays looked like the holidays portrayed in the movies and on television, and we all suffer unrealistic expectations. But the holidays of my childhood had a set progression that began with quiet enough mornings, though the air was rife with tension. Then the tension mounted steadily as the day wore on until detonation. Each holiday was unrelentingly similar. The following excerpt from my memoir is typical of my holiday memories.
(Excerpt from Chapter 3, Guinea Bastard, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
That night Ma started in after dinner. She yelled over the running water in the kitchen sink to Dad in the parlor reading the paper. “Goddamned little, beady, brown-eyed Guinea bastard,” she said. “Your ignorant mother moved her bowels, didn’t know any better, slapped a bonnet on it, and named it Francesco!”
Dad shook the sports section he held up in two hands and kept on reading. When he didn’t respond, Ma continued.
“You have a woman on the side, don’t you? You don’t care about me. I’m fat and old,” she said. Then she threw one of her precious bone china cups across the kitchen and it smashed against the cellar door. I knew that in short order Dad would explode with anger and frustration. I headed to my bedroom and turned on my transistor radio. I sat on the floor, my legs folded under me, and rocked back and forth, my eyes staring straight ahead, my mind pulling me to daydreams far from home.
The daydreams had me dressed in glittery gowns on the red carpet outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater with crowds of adoring fans asking for autographs. Men lined up to ask for my hand, leaning toward me like the men on the front covers of Ma’s romance novels. Sometimes I saved the town by dragging large dinosaur bones (amazingly still in one piece in the large, hulking shape of the T-Rex) into the town square where the attention of the media and tourists stopped the town from closing down and blowing away in the dessert dust.
Dad reached ignition. “Jesus H. Christ! “ he yelled, and I knew he had thrown the paper to the floor and jumped on it.
“Can’t a man sit down and enjoy his paper after a day’s work? I can’t afford to have a goddamned woman on the side,” he said.
“Your eyes are brown because you’re full of shit! My mother warned me the first time she saw you sucking raw eggs on her front porch. You’re a barbarian. Your children are barbarians. All Italians are barbarians. I left my mother for this!”
“There’s no rest for the wicked,” Dad said, “I work hard. I put food on the table. The house is a mess. You’re all a bunch of prima donnas.”
“Nothing works! I burn my hands at the sink every time I wash dishes.”
“I ought to get a room at the Y and get some peace and quiet,” Dad said.
“I’ve bloody well had it. I’m going to kill myself; I’m going to slit my wrists,” Ma screamed, and I heard the bathroom door slam shut and the lock click. It was not the first time she had said this, nor the last, but each time felt fresh and raw. I raced out of my bedroom to the bathroom door. Andy had beaten me there. We banged on the door. We were both crying.
“Please, Ma, don’t do it!” we screamed in seeming unison. My fists ached from hitting the door over and over and my breath was ragged with terror.
I could hear her jagged sobs. Soon the door opened and she pushed past us into her bedroom. She took a suitcase out of the closet, put it on the bed, threw a few housedresses into it, then slammed the lid shut and lifted it by the handle.
“I’m leaving,” she announced, brushing past us again.
“No, Ma, please,” I wailed, “I’ll try harder to be good.”
Andy grabbed the hem of her housedress, but Ma pressed on. She went out the front door, and we watched her walk down the driveway and out into the street.
Dad went into their bedroom. He shut the door, and Andy and I were without parents at that moment. Suddenly I felt flat and tired. I turned without a word, went into my bedroom, and shut my door.
Dad in the parlor, 1968
(Excerpt from essay Mother Mother)
I was twenty-five when I lost Ma. She had a series of heart attacks over the Christmas holiday that year, and her heart finally gave out. Dad had died eighteen months before. They did not live to see my twin daughters.
But I lost them long before they died and had only begun to get them back in my life before they each left me for good. There were all the years I wished for Ma to step in, invoke structure and obedience, and demonstrate unconditional love. She did not until I was already eighteen, a young adult, entering into an interracial relationship. That would have been the time to just sit back and watch me make my choices, but she could not do that. Causing a breakup between Ronald and me became her obsession, perhaps fueled by late stage alcoholism. Her obsession would cause me not to speak to her for almost three years. When I might have appreciated some well-placed encouragement and perhaps even joy that I had found love, I instead found myself, once again, figuring it out alone.
Then she was gone, and we both lost our chance to right our prickly, intermeshed relationship.
I look at my grown daughters today and marvel at how wonderful I think they are. They are accomplished, confident, intelligent, beautiful, young women who seem to know exactly who they are and what they want out of life. Their twinship, unlike the weirdly ambiguous one between Ma and me, is their strength, one complementing and supporting the other while still being a strong individual.
The three of us are close, but I still worry about my maternal inadequacy. I know that as much as I tried not to, my mothering damaged them in ways visible and invisible, just because I am human and flawed, and so are they. I once told a counselor, sobbing as I said it, “I feel terrible for all the things I didn’t get right as a mother.” She assured me all mothers feel that way at one time or another. I realize my overwhelming sadness was for what I didn’t get right as a daughter, too.
Ruth Alison Elliott Liuzzi, a daughter, a wife, a mother, and an alcoholic, still lives within me, right in the center of my being, a twin in situ. I feel her stirring within me whenever I feel anxious or afraid but also when I feel brave and accomplished or when I think about myself as a mother. I know we did our best to be good daughters and good mothers, in spite of ourselves. I hope Ma realized that, too.
I still feel the decimation Ma left behind when she departed thirty years ago, her suitcase sitting empty in the closet, as she had not prepared for that journey.
I am still that barbarian child, the one that was not good enough to make her stay. I am still abandoned and continue to feel the hurt that comes from wondering if I will ever be found and reclaimed, despite being surrounded with a loving husband and daughters. That wonder is manifested in the fragile and estranged relationships I have with my siblings, some of whom experienced Ma’s alcoholism at its worst, and others who didn’t because they had already left by the time the late stage alcoholism consumed those of us left behind.
Yet I don’t blame Ma. I’m not angry with her. There is nothing to forgive, though I sometimes feel I am the one needing forgiveness.
Ma did what she could in life. She was courageous in ways I’m not so sure I could ever be and she made me courageous in ways I am sure she never imagined. At the end of it, I truly miss her, and I don’t question whether or not she loved me, but wonder if she ever learned to love herself.
The many shades of blue are the colors of sadness and hope and distance and healing. I revel in their contrasts as surely as Ma did.