Irma Scenna Giampolo (December 2, 1919 – March 24, 2014)
“In every gesture dignity and love.” I read these words, written about my mother, in her 1938 high school yearbook. She lived those words everyday of her life. That was her grace. That was what came naturally to her. She was a devoted wife, mother, and friend, and although she never studied to become any of those, she instinctively knew how to fulfill each role. My mother also didn’t study to become a teacher, but she was my greatest teacher.
It is hard to describe the essence of my mother, because how can one truly describe love? Writers and poets have been attempting that paramount task since the beginning of literature, and there are not enough words in our language to adequately describe such a complex concept. You can talk about the functions of love, but love itself is only understood through experience. I have been truly blessed throughout my entire life in experiencing that type of indescribable love, by having the great fortune to be my mother’s son.
My mother had the rare gift of being able to transform others simply by being near them. She had a beautiful welcoming aura, and everyone who met my mother walked away with an elevated sense of self-worth. She taught me the tremendous power of gratitude and to always be grateful for what someone does for you. Any small gesture I would offer, from giving her a glass of water to helping her into the car, always was acknowledged with her enchanting and heart-warming smile, and a thank you.
My mother instinctively knew that you love each person differently. Where her children were concerned, she loved us by putting us first. She made numerous personal sacrifices to make certain that all of our needs were fulfilled, and that we were happy. She didn’t want worldly possessions; she only wanted the best for each one of us.
When I attended grade school, my mother would prepare my little brown lunch bag every day. Though this was a small gesture in and of itself, I was always proud and happy with her labor of love. Whenever there was an emergency or inclement weather, she was at the door waiting to take her children home from school. Our family very seldom ate fast food. Nearly every meal we ate was home cooked, and those who ate her cooking and baking knew that it was extraordinary.
She would have liked for me to be a choirboy, but I just can’t carry a tune. So she encouraged my aspirations to be an altar boy. My mother never compared me to anyone and always accepted me as I am, teaching me simply to do my best. She taught me to respect the nuns and priests and the good people in authority.
When I was 12 years old, my mother gave me one of her most precious gifts of love. After some teenage boys in the neighborhood were arrested for stealing, my mother took me aside and said, “Don’t ever steal. If you need something, just ask. If your father and I don’t have it, we will find a way to get it.” For a 12-year-old boy, that was a defining moment when my mother instilled in me a deep sense of belonging and security, the very first function that love should provide.
In high school, when I was required to wear a tie and sport coat, my shirts were always starched and pressed. High school was also the time that I experienced my first heartbreak, which came with the end of a relationship. My mother was there to see me through that strange and difficult emotional time.
When I turned 21 and would venture out with my friends, returning home around midnight, she would always be awake. Her excuse was that there was some laundry or ironing that needed to be done, that the floor needed a good cleaning, or some other household chore had to be completed. But I knew that the real reason she stayed awake was to make certain that I came home safely.
Carlino with his mother in Corfinio, Italy (1977)
Another defining moment in my relationship with my mother came when I decided to move to Hawaii. Although my mother would have preferred for me to stay in Pittsburgh, her love for me never allowed her to stand in the way of my freedom and my destiny. It was at that time when she again showed me her extraordinary depth of loving. I was embarking on a journey that would eventually help lead to a change in the course of Hawaiian history. The symbol I used to make that change was street light structures. While others abandoned me for thinking that I was out of touch with reality for focusing on this particular symbol of oppression in Hawaii, my mother was there for me, even though she had little understanding of the meaning behind that symbol. She taught me that love is sufficient unto itself, and that with unconditional and boundless love, one doesn’t need anything else, including understanding.
My mother had a profound sense of wisdom that she would express in ways easy to understand. When she and my father were in their eighties, my father’s eyesight began to fail and my mother developed arthritis that limited the use of her hands. She said to my father something very simple that sums up the beauty of marriage. She said to him, “I’ll be your eyes, you be my hands,” perfectly capturing the essence of love, devotion, and partnership.
Some of the greatest treasures of my life were either taught to me or reinforced by my mother in the last few years of her life, when she had a condition that I would simply describe as memory loss. Though that condition may have taken away many of the things that my mother was able to do on a daily basis, it never took away the essence of her person.
In the initial stages of that medical condition, I watched her face the dread of losing her sense of self. She did so with courage, perseverance, and conviction. She never blamed anyone or lashed out in anger as to why such a tragedy was happening to her. She faced the challenge with her trademarks of dignity and love.
My mother impressed upon me that even with her limited memory, what you remember most about people is the true nature of their being. We would take a walk up our street and sit on a bench, and I would tell her the names of the people who lived there, from one end of the street to the other. She would pause and make a short comment, usually about how she really liked the person, for my mother always looked for the good in others.
As my mother lived with her medical condition, she taught me to look to the future and never give up hope. When I would say to her, “Every day in every way you are getting better and better,” she would simply reply, “I hope so.”
In the last few years of her life she also taught me to live in the moment and to do what you can, and not to dwell upon the past or what you cannot do. One of my mother’s skills was to remember the lyrics to numerous songs that she knew. Miraculously, this skill did not disappear as her memory deteriorated. I made a CD of her favorite songs, and she knew all the words to most of those songs. It was a joy to sing those songs over and over again with her.
My mother reinforced in me the simple notion that having fun is a fundamental human purpose in life, and it should continue for the entirety of our lives. My mother and I had innumerable precious moments of laughter together in the last few years of her life, from her many witty comments to pretending that we just arrived from the old country in Italy as we would speak to each other in broken English. We would laugh together when I would say to her “budda bing budda bang” to express how my heart felt when she would kiss me on the cheek.
There will be no canonization ceremony for my mother, but in my eyes she stands equal to all of those individuals who have received that saintly honor.
I will close with words that I wish I could say with my mother once again, “I love you, forever and a day.”
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