My mother, Ruth Ellen Emerson Campana, died on 8 May 2003 at the age of 83. Although she lived for almost two years beyond 9/11, that event killed her just as sure as those Saudi Arabian terrorists killed her youngest child, Ann Campana Judge, on American Airlines flight 77.
My mother was remarkable woman. Born in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, in 1920, she was an archetypical Southern lady. No profane language, kind, compassionate, soft spoken, a beautiful drawl, proud of her Southern Scots-Irish roots but no apologist for the Confederacy although her great grandfather fought for the South.
At age 23, she married my father, John Pilgrim Campana, an Italian-American from Boston, and the two of them settled in New York City, where my father taught high school. Although my Harvard-educated father was the family scholar, my mother was no slouch. She majored in history and English at Flora Macdonald College (now part of St. Andrew's Presbyterian College) in Red Springs, SC, and graduated at 20. I owe many of my semi-decent English skills to her. Each Sunday night she would would write five words and their definitions on my blackboard. Those were the 'Weekly Words.' I relied on her to correct my writing more than I did my teachers. Why? Becuase she was better than they!
My friends loved her. 'How come your mother's so nice?' was a common question. But she was no pushover. My father's hot-blooded Italian nature often manifested itself when one us overstepped our bounds, but my mother would generally raise her voice only slightly, or just glare at us. The message got through.
While still raising three children, she returned to teaching in 1960 and taught fourth grade. Her students idolized her. Here is a beautiful tribute from one of her fourth-grade students, Fred Avolio. Fred also remembers the 'Weekly Words.' And yes, Fred, I remember bringing my pet iguana into class.
My mother was also somewhat naive. One story stands out. I must have been 16, Ann 13, and older sister Ellen was away at college. We were chatting at the dinner table, something we did every evening. My mother related a discussion that occurred in the teachers' lounge at her school. Seems she came in during a conversation, and a few of the teachers were laughing about something called '69.' She was puzzled so she asked one of her colleagues what it was (she had concluded that it had nothing to do with math). He told her that she had better ask someone in her family. So she did. Ann and I could hardly contain our laughter, and my father's jaw dropped like I had never seen (he taught high-school in Brooklyn so I knew he knew). I believe it was Ann who matter-of-factly told her what it was. Then my mother's jaw dropped. I think what surprised her and my father more than anything was that their 13-year old daughter knew exactly what it was.
Despite the fact that she lived in the North for 35 years, she never lost her Southern grace and charm.
In 1978 she finally returned to her beloved Tar Heel State.
When my sister Ann was murdered, my mother was living with her and husband Geoff Judge. After Ann was killed she continued to live with Geoff (an amazing man who treated her as he did his own mother) but soon after that she began to shut down. When Ann's beloved black Labrador Bubba died, that was it. First she decided she couldn't walk on her own. Then, she stopped talking. Finally, she stopped eating. The end came soon after that, peacefully, while she slept. I believe the death certificate reads 'heart attack' but I know better - burying her baby killed her.
The irony is that today's saying is something she would say whenever she heard of a parent burying a child. I doubt she ever expected she'd have to do the same.
Especially her youngest.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom!
'The hardest thing any parent has to do is bury a child." -- Ruth Emerson Campana