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Nothing is more powerful than a mother's love. That is why mothers are so difficult to live with.
The mother is the most important force in every boy's life, but this is especially true in the Italian community and in the goomba household. The mother is king, queen, president, and dictator. The goomba loves his mother more than he will ever love another human being until he has children.
Nothing is more powerful than a mother's love. That is why mothers are so difficult to live with. In my house, when I was a kid, my mother ran everything. That's partly because my dad was a screw-up. He was a bookie, and a gambler, and a ladies' man, and he wasn't around all that much. But it was also partly because my mother was one tough broad, and she knew how to run a household.
She ruled with an iron fist. No, that's not true. She ruled with a wooden spoon. This was her weapon of choice. Some families it's a dad with a belt. In my house, if you got out of line, you got the wooden spoon.
One time, I was about 17 or 18, and I stayed out all night. I'd been out with some people, and it was morning before I got home. I came in wearing the same clothes I was wearing the night before. My mother came after me with the wooden spoon, screaming. "Where have you been? Who were you with? You're a whoo-ah! Nothing but a whoo-ah!"
All the time, she's battin' me over the head with this big wooden spoon. I had Sunday sauce all over me by the time she was done.
This is tough love. It comes from having a tough life-and my mother had a tough life. My father wasn't around. She was raising five kids. On her own. On welfare, and working a job on the side. She got sixty bucks a month for cleaning up at the local Democratic Club. They'd rent the hall out for parties, and then my mother would come in and mop the floors and scrub the toilets. And we still didn't have enough money, partly because my mother refused to move out of the neighborhood. We couldn't afford a good apartment in Brooklyn, but she refused to move to the projects or to some crummy neighborhood with no Italians. So, we stayed in a good neighborhood, in Bensonhurst, all six of us crammed into this two-bedroom apartment on Bay 11th Street. My mother clawed and struggled, and why? For the love of her kids.
I come from two generations of tough mothers, now that I think about it. My grandmother was tough, too-especially on my grandfather. I think they hated each other. They had an arranged marriage. They were both Calabrese, from the same little town. He was older, and he'd been married before and his first wife had died. Now he's married to my grandmother, and they come to America. She's got two brothers. She loves these guys! They live with her and her husband. She cooks for them, and treats them nice, and everything. For my grandfather, nothing. She won't even cook for him. He has to take his meals in a restaurant, while she's at home cooking for her brothers.
He was like this old Italian guy I heard a story about. This guy was dying. He was on his deathbed. He knew his number was up. But as he lay there preparing to meet his maker, he starts to smell this unbelievable smell. Something incredible is coming from the kitchen. He thinks he's died and gone to heaven already, it smells so good. So he gathers all his strength and gets up from his deathbed. He goes toward the smell. All he can think is, "My wonderful wife has made a delicious meal to serve me before I die! What a lovely woman!"
He finally makes it into the dining room. What does he see? His wife's meatballs! In Sunday sauce! His favorite meal in all the world! He reaches for a taste of this heavenly food, and picks up a meatball and puts it to his lips-when suddenly his wife comes out of nowhere and smacks him on the hand with a big wooden spoon.
"Drop it!" she yells. "Those are for the funeral!"
My grandfather was a sweet old guy. Every time he saw me in the street he'd give me a quarter-which in those days was pretty good money. Sometimes, me and my friends would go looking for him. "Let's go find my grandfather and get a quarter!" We'd usually find him at the bocci court. He'd give us money and we'd go buy potato chips. I was his favorite grandchild.
That's tough love. It starts early. There's a lot of screaming and yelling and smacking going on between the goomba mother and her children. More than in other cultures. When my wife and I first got married, we came to New York. She went to the market. All she saw was these goomba mothers with their children, shopping in groups of threes and fours. And all of them were screaming the whole time and smacking their children. "Anthony, stop it!" Smack. "Angelo, get over here!" Smack.
She came back to the apartment and said, "You won't believe what I saw at the market."
I said, "Welcome to my life."
Whenever my family would get together on Sunday, she'd say, "Don't you people ever stop yelling?"
I'd say, "Only when we eat."
The goomba mother's love is complete, and unconditional. Goomba parents love their children more than anything in the world. But it's a firm love. There are limits to what the goomba mother is going to take. You can hear this in what they say, and what they don't say. Here are some things you will never hear.
Things a goomba mother will never say to her daughter:
"That boyfriend of yours is some rapper!"
"You're right. You don't need a bra with that dress."
"Benjamin Goldberg, welcome to the family!"
Things a goomba mother will never say to her son:
"Shawanna seems like a nice girl."
"Why Yale? I think Harvard's English department is stronger."
"You and Todd make a lovely couple."
The emotions run high in the goomba household. No one talks anything out. If there's a problem, there's going to be some action, now. Yelling, screaming, slapping, something. Now.
But tough as she is, the goomba mother loves her son in a special way. To the goomba mother, a son can do no wrong. Whatever happened, it wasn't his fault. If he's in trouble, he didn't do it. She'll swear on a stack of Bibles that he's innocent. He was home the whole time!
If he gets in trouble with a girl, it was the girl's fault-always. Go into a goomba neighborhood. Sooner or later you'll hear two mothers screaming at each other:
"Your son got my daughter pregnant!"
"It's because she has her legs open all the time, the whoo-ah."
"But they have three children together!"
"That's what I mean-with her legs open all the time!"
I didn't get in all that much trouble when I was a kid, but my mother was always there trying to bail me out. For example, I used to get parking tickets. My mother would take them away from me, and write a check. This woman was still mopping floors for sixty bucks a month! But she'd write the check. And then she'd say, "Don't tell your father."
The goomba mother will never take anyone's side against her child-not even her husband's. In most goomba households, the mother will take her child's side every time. Many a goomba has heard his mother scream at his father, "Don't you touch my child!"
Sometimes that kind of protective instinct gets carried away. I remember once in my street these two kids got into a tussle. They were about six. One of the kid's mothers came outside and started yelling. She called the other kid a "monster." He ran home and told his mother. She went directly to the other mother's apartment and started banging on the door. The other mother wouldn't unlock the door. So this kid's mom smashed her hand through the glass and opened the door herself. She's screaming, "You come out here and apologize to my son!" with so much blood pouring out of her that she looks like she's dying. She got the apology and then went to the emergency room to get stitched up.
Even if he is caught red-handed, the goomba mother defends her son. There was a story in the papers not long ago. This Italian guy threatened to blow up an airplane in France. He said he was a terrorist and that he had a bomb. The plane made an emergency landing and the cops grabbed the guy. It turns out he didn't have a bomb, and he wasn't a terrorist. But he was crazy, and dangerous. He had already tried to hijack another French plane in 1999, and had hijacked an Italian train in 1998. He'd been in and out of the nut house.
The police contacted his family. They told his mother exactly what had happened. What was his mother's response?
She said, "Oh, no! He's done it again! I've been anxious for hours because he didn't come home for lunch."
This is a classic goomba mother! Her son is a psychotic, serial hijacker of passenger jets and trains, but he's still living at home, and his mother gets worried when he's late for lunch. She's not even worried about the hijacking stuff. She just wants to know should she keep his lunch hot, or start making dinner.
A goomba mother will do anything for her children. No sacrifice is too big. She'll scrimp and save, work two jobs, lie and steal, anything! She's going to take care of the family, or die. Nothing is too much.
For example, we were very poor when I was growing up. No money. No father to support us. My mother would send us to the market with little notes for the grocer, promising to pay him back if he could just let us have some things on account. Or, worse, we would go and pick up welfare food. We were on the food stamp program, and once a month we were also given free food. It was all inedible. They'd give us these huge blocks of government cheese-big yellow bricks of this tasteless, odorless junk. We were the only family on the block on welfare. We were the only family I knew that had eggs for dinner-because it was the only thing in the house you could cook for dinner. We had welfare eggs.
My mother would send me to the market with the food stamps, to buy food. By the time I was a teenager, I couldn't do it anymore. It was too embarrassing. I was 13, and I said, "Everybody in the neighborhood knows me. I can't go into the market with food stamps!" I refused. To this day, I can't go into the supermarket with a coupon.
It was embarrassing for us not to have money. But somehow we always had what we needed. We always had Christmas presents. We always had birthday presents. We always had clean clothes-even if they were usually hand-me-downs. I do remember having to wear tennis shoes with holes in the soles. I had to put pieces of cardboard in there to keep from wearing holes in my socks, too. And I remember having the electricity turned off sometimes. Looking back now, that seems pretty bad. How much could it cost to keep the electricity going? A few bucks? But we didn't have it.
But it didn't stop us from doing the things we wanted to do. I wanted to be in Little League, but we couldn't afford the uniform. Or the equipment. But somehow my mother made it happen. She hustled it. She called the church and said, "My son wants to play ball, but we can't afford the uniform." So we got a uniform for free. She told someone else the same story, and I got a glove. This must have been hard on her dignity, to go begging to the church. But she did it.
She got us into all kinds of programs that way. Every summer, we'd go away to camp, to this place called IBG-the Italian Board of Guardians. It was for underprivileged Italian kids. It was in upstate New York. She managed to get all us kids in there, year after year.
One year, I was playing ball. I was about nine. At the end of the season, I was picked for the all-star team. What an honor! This was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me. But there was a problem. The all-star game was going to be played on a Tuesday, at the beginning of the summer. And summer camp at IBG started on Monday. My mother had pulled some strings to get me into the camp. There was no way I wasn't going. But she also knew how important this all-star game was.
So she called the camp and said I was sick. On Tuesday night, I was in the all-star game. On Wednesday morning, she left all my brothers and sisters home, alone, and took me to camp. We took the train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, to the Port Authority. We got a Greyhound bus from there to upstate New York. We rode about three hours, to the town where the camp was. She dropped me off at the camp, kissed me goodbye, and then went back to the Greyhound station. It was three or four hours back, then the train back into Brooklyn.
This was eight or ten hours of traveling for her-just so her son could play in the Little League all-star game. And this was a woman that had hardly ever left the city before. This wasn't some world traveler who just hops on a bus every day. I don't think she had ever been upstate, even. She had never been out of New York, except to New Jersey. She had never been in an airplane until I flew her out to Las Vegas, almost twenty years later. The only time she had ever stayed in a hotel room until then was on her honeymoon.
From the Hardcover edition.