Days of Our Lives

Mama Rose could neither read nor write, but her life was filled with as much tragedy and drama as the afternoon soap operas she adored.

By Ann Hood

Dec 15 2016

Photo Credit : Cindy Rizza
“Days of Our Lives”
Photo Credit : Cindy Rizza

Growing up, I used to beg my grandmother—Mama Rose—for stories. This was in the 1960s and ’70s, when I was a mostly lonely kid living in a dilapidated mill town in Rhode Island. Truth be told, I was odd and didn’t know how to make friends, how to be a friend. Books—stories—kept me company until I figured out how to act socially. My parents and my older brother, Skip, and I had spent three glorious years living in Arlington, Virginia, beginning when I was 2 years old. For Skip and me, life in the Shirley Park Apartments was a whirlwind of playing outside in the woods that bordered the buildings, spying on our parents’ cocktail parties, and spending long weekend afternoons in the Smithsonian if the weather was poor, or picnicking in the Blue Ridge Mountains if it was good. Parents smoked cigarettes and wondered aloud about Jack and Jackie Kennedy; we kids spilled in and out of one another’s apartments clutching Barbie dolls and mud pies.

This idyllic life—and it truly was idyllic; on this we four always agreed—came to an end when my father, who worked for Admiral Rickover at the Pentagon, got transferred to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, a post that did not allow families. So we packed up our apartment and moved in with Mama Rose, into the house her mother had bought when she emigrated from Italy at the end of the 19th century, where my mother and her nine siblings were born in what was still Mama Rose’s bedroom.

The house on Fiume Street looked like all of the other Italian immigrant houses in the neighborhood, which is to say there were saints everywhere, staring out at me with soulful or pained eyes. Saint Christopher carrying a baby Jesus. Saint Anthony in his brown monk’s robes. The Virgin Mary draped in a blue gown. At their feet burned votive candles. Around their necks hung rosary beads. Most everything else there was either covered in plastic (tables, the good armchair) or made out of plastic (the grapes in the bowl on the table, the flowers in the vases). Outside, as far as I could see, stretched the garden: gnarled grapevines, squat fig trees, tall cherry and crab apple trees, rows of blueberry bushes, tomatoes climbing up wooden stakes, shiny purple eggplants, carrots and green beans. To one side, the chicken coop with its squawking chickens pecking in the dirt. Beside that, the rickety rabbit hutches. Beside that, my great-grandmother’s outhouse; she refused to use an indoor toilet for fear it would suck her down when she flushed.

I’d left an American childhood, full of shiny metal swing sets and a neighborhood pool with clear, blue water, and entered a confusing, immigrant one. In the Shirley Park Apartments, women smelled of Shalimar and the unmistakable waxy scent of lipstick. Here, they smelled of garlic and earth and mustiness. There, I nibbled Fritos and Popsicles for snacks. Here, I was given prosciutto rolled tight as a cigar or a freshly fried meatball on a fork. I couldn’t make sense of this world, of the way everyone lapsed into Italian, leaving me behind. Or the way they dropped to their knees in front of those statues and muttered prayers that included pounding their chests three times and kissing the saints’ feet.

With my father off in Cuba and my mother at a job in the candy factory, the one constant in my new world was television. A large Zenith dominated one corner of the living room. Back in Virginia, I’d spent happy mornings watching Top Cat and Romper Room sitting in front of our TV eating sugary cereal. The whole family gathered in front of it on Sunday nights with pans of scorched Jiffy Pop popcorn to watch The Wonderful World of Disney. But, I learned quickly, here the television was Mama Rose’s domain. Everyone had to watch what she watched, and she was a maniacal enforcer of this policy. I might beg for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but if the Saturday Night Movie starred John Wayne or Barbara Stanwyck, I was out of luck. In particular, Mama Rose loved westerns, and so I spent miserable hours watching Wagon Train, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke, held captive by my 4-foot-11, red-haired grandmother.

Worse than those nights, though, was daytime television. Of course, usually I was at school. But in second grade I began suffering from severe tonsillitis, which plagued me until the end of fourth grade, when I had finally had my tonsils removed. In those years I missed as many as 60 days of school per grade. Feverish and with my throat raw, I lay on the turquoise Danish couch my parents had brought with us from Virginia, and watched television.

Mornings, after Mama Rose called and placed her bets with her bookie, Angelo, she stayed away, in the kitchen. Mama Rose cooked for a minimum of six people a night, but often as many as 12 or 14. Her menu was unwavering: soup or stew on Monday; pasta with various meats on Tuesday; chicken on Wednesday; pork or veal on Thursday; and, since we were Catholic, something meatless on Fridays. While she chopped and sautéed and swore in Italian, I watched game shows all morning. My favorite was Jeopardy!, hosted by Art Fleming, and I swear to this day that my vast store of useless facts comes from all that Jeopardy!

At five minutes before noon, Mama Rose marched into the living room in her faded, food-splattered apron and plopped into her pink chair, part of the same Danish set from our old apartment.

“Anna,” she’d order me, “put on my stories.”

Never mind that I was sick, shivering under one of her avocado-green, burnt-orange, harvest-gold crocheted afghans. I was meant to follow Mama Rose’s orders or risk a slap in the head or, worse, her telling my mother what a disobedient brat I’d been.

So up I’d go, changing the channel from You Don’t Say or Password to her stories, which began at noon with As the World Turns and ended at 3 with Another World. Then she would heave herself up with loud groans and return to the kitchen to finish making supper, which we ate at 4:30 sharp. Until then, my swollen tonsils and I were prisoners to the hijinks of Lisa Hughes and an ever-changing roster of villains and—as Mama Rose used to shout at the television—putanas.

What neither Mama Rose nor I realized at the time—or ever in her lifetime—was that she and I shared a love for stories, for plot twists and dramatic climaxes, for a large cast of characters faced with moral dilemmas. I satisfied my love of stories with books. But Mama Rose, who had come to this country when she was 2 years old and worked briefly in the textile mills until she was 8 or 9 (finally quitting because of her weak heart), never learned to read. She could sign her name, writing slowly and carefully, like a young child. But she could not write or read anything else.

Our town did not have a library during the years of my tonsillitis, or I would have been able to bury my head in a book as I lay captive to Mama Rose and her soap operas. At home, we didn’t have books. We had Reader’s Digest every month, and I would build my vocabulary taking the Word Power quizzes and practice jokes from Humor in Uniform. I’d get my fix for drama from Drama in Real Life, reading about kids trapped in wells, or capsized boats or fatal train wrecks. But when I finished I had nothing else to read (I dipped freely into our Golden Book Encyclopedias and the dictionary, but these did not satisfy my love, my need for stories). And so soon enough I was left watching the vixen Lisa Hughes or the wise Tom Horton in Mama Rose’s soap operas.

I’m not sure at what point I realized that Mama Rose had her own stories to tell, but during those feverish days on the turquoise sofa, I began to pelt her with questions. Why did she have so many children? Had she loved her husband? Would she describe his death scene to me? Why did her parents leave Italy? Why didn’t we go back there? Why couldn’t she drive? I knew to ask these questions only during commercials so that she didn’t miss even one word of her stories. Sometimes she even indulged me, describing how her husband—a barber—had gone as always to Block Island during the summer to cut hair, and returned one August sick; how he quickly got sicker, delirious even, and was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Boston, where they diagnosed triple E encephalitis and sent him home to die.

“He die right there,” she’d say, pointing one arthritic finger toward her bedroom. “He scream crazy things, day and night.”

“Like what?” I’d ask her, sitting upright now.

But the sands were moving through the hourglass, and I was shushed.

Usually, she answered monosyllabically, waving her hand at me as if to shoo me away.

“I no like stories,” she’d say, turning her gaze onto the troubles in Oakdale or Bay City.

Depending how bored I was, I might persist.

But this never proved successful.

“Jesus Crest!” she’d yell at me. “Shut up your mouth.”

The same year I had my tonsils out, our town finally got a library. Every Tuesday night, my father took me there, and I would wander the shelves, touching the spines and breathing in the smell of new carpeting and books that permeated that beautiful place. Had I been home sick as much as I used to be, I would no doubt have read Les Misérables or A Stone for Danny Fisher or one of the other big thick books I toted around back then. But with my tonsils out, I resumed good health and no longer languished on the sofa during the afternoon, recovering.

As Mama Rose got older, she grew even fonder of and more connected to her stories. She talked about the scandals of the Bradys and Hortons at dinner. She relayed the plots to me if we found ourselves alone together. On the day she died, during my winter break from college in 1976, Mama Rose spent the morning—as she always did—making meatballs and gravy (red sauce). As she cooked, I tried again to get her to tell me her own stories. What she remembered about Italy. What her life was like, the mother of 10 children married to a man she’d never loved.

She told me the story of her arranged marriage, one I’d heard before but still counted among my favorites. Her parents had made an arranged marriage for her when she was 16 and my grand-father was 32. He had been born here, in America, which was considered a good thing. And he owned two barbershops, the one on Block Island and the one closer to home. Her parents believed she would be well taken care of by this older man with a trade and an American birth certificate. But the story ended badly: That summer on Block Island when he’d gotten the mosquito bite that infected him with triple E encephalitis, he’d gambled away the property on Block Island, assuming he’d be back by summer’s end to win it again.

“That idiot,” Mama Rose said, shaking her head. “We could have had a beach house! On Block Island!”

She handed me a hot, just-fried meatball on a fork and resumed her cooking.

I remember thinking how like a great novel her life had been: the unhappy marriage, the tragic deaths (for there were many, not just my grandfather but two of Mama Rose’s children as well), the lost fortunes. Like a Russian novel, I remember thinking. Like Shakespeare. Before I left to meet my father for lunch, she asked me turn on her stories. I did. There were Bob and Lisa Hughes, as if frozen in time, their world still turning.

As my father and I ate French dip sandwiches at a new restaurant in Providence, Mama Rose finished making her gravy and meatballs and, en route to the living room and her stories, sat down and died.

Since then I have understood why Mama Rose loved those soap operas. Another World used to open with an announcer intoning: “We do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds.” That, I realize now, was how Mama Rose found those other worlds. Unable to read, but with an imaginative and creative mind, she’d found stories the only place she could. How different her life might have been had she been able to read a book, as I do. How large it might have been, how far she might have traveled in her mind. Or maybe, with the help of Nancy Hughes, Liz Matthew, and Alice Horton, that’s exactly what she did.

Excerpted from the anthology Soap Opera Confidential (McFarland & Co., 2017).