Real ice cream she loved; butter pecan was by far her favorite. Today's penchant for frozen yogurt would be a non-starter. Strong coffee? You'd better believe it! Don't ever serve her a cup if she could see the bottom; it would go right down the drain. Kids? No, a 'kid' is a baby goat; the word is 'children'. Four-letter words from a Southern lady? Numerology? Well, you'll have to read this entire post.
My mother, Ruth Ellen Emerson Campana, is shown below (c. Easter 1953 or 1954) with the family. Note the scowl on Ann's face - not the angelic smiles of older sister Ellen and me. Did that facial expression ever portend the shape of things to come!
Mom died on 8 May 2003 at the age of 83. Hard to believe that was 12 years ago. Although she lived for almost two years beyond 9/11, that event killed her just as sure as those five Saudi Arabian terrorists killed her youngest child, Ann Campana Judge, on American Airlines flight 77.
My mother was a 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 and slavery 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 in Brooklyn.
Although my Harvard-educated father was the family scholar (American history ABD) , 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, NC, and graduated at 20. She acquired her love of learning from her mother Julia Johnston Emerson, who was a college graduate in a time when that was almost unheard of for a woman. What stubbornness she had no doubt came from her father Harris Emerson, a farmer and an avowed Republican in a time when the South was the 'Solid South', always voting for Democrats (hard to believe, I know). My mother said he was a Republican because everyone else was a Democrat.
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? Because she was far 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 of 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 Leroy into class.
My mother was also somewhat naive. One story, somewhat risqué, 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. Yes, that faclal expression above was coming home to roost.
On another occasion at the dinner table, she told us that one of her fourth-graders had made a gesture to a classmate and she was unsure what it meant. We children knew what was coming. When my father asked what it was, she extended her right arm and raised her right middle finger. Before my father could recover, Ann, all of 12 or 13 at the time, exclaimed, "'Fuck you!' It means 'Fuck you!'" I thought the Big One was going to strike my father. I chimed in and said that it didn't mean that literally but more like 'Fuck off!' At that point my mother said she got the message and did not need to know any more. In all our years chatting at the dinner table that was the only time I recall the word 'fuck' being spoken - not once, but thrice.
Needless to say, I did not mention either of these instances in the eulogy at her funeral service, although I was tempted to. It would have sent those North Carolina Presbyterians over the edge.
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. She and my father settled in Mooresville, just north up I-77 from Charlotte. She and I shared one dislike: that of including 'NC' after Charlotte in lists of US cities' weather or some other characteristic. Every other city stood alone, but there was 'Charlotte, NC'. She viewed it as very disrespectful for NC's beloved Queen City. Check it out - some newspapers still do that.
When my sister Ann was murdered, my mother was living with her and husband Geoff Judge in Great Falls, VA. 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 Lab 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 read 'heart attack' but I knew better. It should have read 'broken heart' - 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!
One last thing - I turn 67 in three days, and the older I get, the wiser I've become. You were right about so much stuff, Mom. I do forgive you for trying to transform me into a Southern gentleman. Some things aren't just meant to be. Probably one of the few times you failed. But I still won't apologize for not going to law school.
Boy, do I miss you! In a couple of weeks I will finally get to visit your ancestral homeland - Scotland. I'll be thinking of you.
And it's funny, but each time this year I get a strange hankering for some butter pecan ice cream. And none of that low-fat or frozen yogurt stuff - the real deal.
"The hardest thing any parent has to do is bury a child." -- Ruth Emerson Campana