Mom waved a hand at my wife. “Oh,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just an espression.”
Yes, that’s how she rolled. Bobbing on seas of anger and comedy. And that is also how she pronounced that word. She was born in Italy (if the Mussolini pic below doesn’t make that obvious) and arrived in America when she was 15 years old. She spoke English with an Italian accent her whole life, which ended in 2016. Mom was occasionally openly self-conscious about her lack of education. She’d never finished high school, but managed to learn to write and speak English with the help of a nun at the first American church she attended, in Brooklyn, New York.
I think of her every year at this time because Mother’s Day’s proximity to Easter means that at least one of my brothers will hit me up for one of Mom’s old recipes. After her funeral, I swiped the index card file box from her kitchen, and have been slowly compiling her recipes, an exhausting project that requires me to decipher her handwriting and her bizarre spellings. Recipes call for ingredients such as vinella extract, garlic gloves, buches of scallions, and cicken brests pounded into tin cotolets. But those types of errors are easier to grapple with than the wacky way she used to express—er, I mean espress herself.
Not once in my life did I ever hear her say, “Never mind!” Instead, for some reason, she’d say, “Levver mind!” Similarly, the word meanwhile became meanwise. Otherwise was always notherwise. Members of Orthodox churches or beliefs were described as Ortodosk. Angry and hungry were interchangeable. When she speculated about the future—which in her cosmology was universally bleak—she mused, “Who knows what’s gonna be?” The kitchen was her domain, but she suffered from a crazy case of butterfingers. After a loud crash and the shattering of glass or china, we’d hear her exclaim: “Oooooh, what I did!”
When we were kids, my brothers and I could not help bursting into laughter at the way she mangled the language. When it was all the rage to describe a cool kid at school as a “dude,” we were reduced to tears hearing our Mom suddenly ask of a kid she spied on the school grounds, “Who is that doo-doo?”
Kids can be cruel, and I was no angel. Whenever I broke into her accent, she’d scream: “Stop mimmying me! I’m not an idjit, you know! I made you, didn’t I?” Or she’d shake a fist at me and yell, “Hey, body, I’m gonna sawk you!” That is to say, Hey buddy, I’m gonna sock you!
Sometimes her word choices made a bizarre kind of sense. She hated using munch—ie, mulch—in her flower beds because she was convinced all it did was invite birds to scrounge through the moist bark in search of fat worms to, well, munch on. As a neighborhood cat was about to defile her roses, she lunged at it, screaming, “I’ll kill you, you munster!” (Hearing her, I immediately thought of the old TV show, The Munsters, who were in fact monsters.) She once asked me and Denise: “So, guys? Are you busy? Do you have a lot of dead-ends?” She meant to say deadlines, of course, but she had unwittingly nailed the essence of the writer’s life.
Mom: But officer, I made a left on red!
Cop: Yes, I know. That’s why I stopped you!
Mom: Oh, you not gonna give me a ticket on Valentine, are you?
(Yes—the date of her infraction was February 14th.) Moved by this madwoman’s logic, the cop let her off with a warning. But for the rest of day, while driving around town, my mother was subjected to angry honks, shouts, or worse from her fellow drivers. Exasperated, she arrived home and dropped her own brand of f-bomb. “Everybody is fooking me!” she told my father. As this was not a word she used often, even my father was left struggling to comprehend what she had just said.
Only later, when we returned, did we calm her down enough to extract the reason for her strange outburst. She pointed to the T-shirt Denise was wearing, which read, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.”
I can just imagine how she felt seeing those words on that shirt. It was bad enough that the writer Mom had given birth to had mocked her ceaselessly during his childhood. But now the ungrateful whelp had joined in matrimony with another writer. Surely one day they would mock her in print! It was all too much.
My mother’s revenge came in a manner she could not have predicted. When Denise and I were married, Denise was living in Rome, covering soccer for ESPN. I joined her there for a year, and discovered upon arrival in the Eternal City how worthless my knowledge of high school Italian truly was. I understood one out of every 10 words a Roman spoke to me. My brain unwisely seized upon any word with a Latin root that sounded like one I knew in English—only to discover that I’d mistaken a falsi amici—“false friend”—for a bonafide cognate. No, Joe, morbido in Italian does not mean morbid. A person who is noisoso is boring, not annoying.
I floundered for months, despite the tongue’s seeming simplicity. Only five vowel sounds; what could go wrong?
And yes, the longer I was there, the more the language seeped into my brain. But in strangely diabolical ways. When I attempted to speak English with visiting Americans or Brits, I sounded like a moron. Why? Because now, rather than produce the English I had known all my life, my brain was translating Italian words and syntax into English. In my newfound insanity, porcupines didn’t have quills, they had spines, because the Italian word for a quill or thorn was spina. Oh, and the animal wasn’t a porcupine, but a porcuspine. And you know what? That’s pretty much how my mother used to refer to that creature: porky-spine.
That short time abroad helped me understand Mom better than I ever had. Was it possible that she said Levver mind! because the Italian command “Lasciala!”—ie, Leave it be, Leave it there, Leave it alone—had somehow become coded in her brain for the American English way to dismiss one’s thought or concern? Given her background, she would never nail the word expression for the same reason that some Americans will be ordering expressos until the end of their days.
I returned from that overseas adventure with more story ideas than I could ever use. Years later, I proudly presented Mom with a mystery novel I’d written that was set in Italy. The entire book was a work of mimmying—I mean mimicry. One of the writers who reviewed it said that he was convinced the book had been written by an Italian writer, and later translated into English.* I took that as a compliment.
I know for a fact that she had once attempted an oral history. When I was still in elementary school, I found a tape recorder on which she had begun speaking about her childhood in wartime Italy. A childhood filled with an absentee father, Nazi soldiers encamped in her village, Allied bombings, and breathtaking scenery that she could never quite dislodge from her heart. “I don’t need your mountains,” she told my brother angrily when he moved to Colorado to attend college. “I left my mountains in Italy!”
She never completed that life story. Maybe someday I will. Until then, stories like the ones you’ve just read are the best I can do to commemorate her memory. Wherever you are, Mom, let’s remember one thing. I waited till you were gone.