“My mom is a never-ending song in my heart of comfort, happiness, and being. I may sometimes forget the words but I always remember the tune.”
~ Graycie Harmon
Many years ago, I whispered in my mother’s ear, and I promised her that I would always be her voice, and years after her passing, today, would be no different, especially with-it being Mother’s Day. She lived in a world of silence for the last five years of her life, and her life was not without heartbreak or hardship, but yet through it all she fought for herself, her family, and faced every challenge with courage, poise, and grace. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and a great-grandmother. A constant guardian, and a woman who loved unconditionally, and for many years after my father’s passing, she fought a brave battle against the awful and devastating disease of Alzheimer’s. A disease that robbed her of her memory, stripped her of her dignity, along with taking away life as she once knew it, her smile, and her laugh. As promised, I am here to tell a portion of her life story, and to be her voice but first a small disclaimer, some may dispute my version of my mother’s life, but I ask, respectfully, to remember while reading this story, it is my story, and more importantly, it is my mother’s.
Eighty-eight years ago, my mother entered this world as Domenica, later to be known as Minnie. She was born, and raised in Harlem, New York on 116th Street by her Italian immigrant parents, and she was one of fourteen children, of which eight were from previous marriages of her fathers. Her mother, my grandmother was not my grandfather’s first wife, but she was his last. His previous wives had passed away, and many of his children from his previous marriages remained in Italy, with the exception of three children from his second marriage, a son and two daughters. They also lived in the same Harlem neighborhood. One half-sister returned to Italy, and my grandmother treated the remaining two, as if they were her own, and they ate dinner with the family nearly every day.
My mother often spoke of her upbringing during the depression era, and the lifestyle during those trying times. She would tell stories of her father, and her family, which were verified by my uncle’s (her brothers) in consideration of writing this blog. My grandfather was a Blacksmith back in his small hometown of Sarno, which was outside of Naples, Italy, and when he came to this country, he used the skills he learned from working with horses, and to fix the wagons, known as buggy’s. My grandfather also sold watermelons. He would rent a horse and buggy and go to our blind uncles’ (my grandfather’s brother) store on 107th Street, to pick up the watermelons that were stored there. I often wondered why, besides the obvious, he was always referred to as the blind uncle versus his name, Dominick. My grandfather then would proceed to steer the watermelon filled horse drawn buggy up from East Harlem to the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. This is where he would sell the watermelons through the streets, yelling, with what I am sure was a definitive Italian accent, “get your watermelon here”, which back in the day was called “hawking”. He was once arrested for “hawking”, and was held at the 41st Precinct, known as Fort Apache, and was fined $2.00. During the off season, my grandfather used the horse and buggy to pick up junk, and was considered a junkman, which turned into a successful family junk, and demolition business that was eventually run by my mother’s brothers. She told stories of how all her siblings needed to help out with the family finances, and the meals she grew up on, were known as peasant food. Through all of that, and much more, the family was rich in history, traditions, and a strong family bond that spilled over into the many future generations to follow.
During 1944, at the age of eighteen, my mother, and her family moved to Mt Vernon, New York, and settled in their new home on South High St. Most, if not all of her brothers, and sisters had little to no education, and all of them went to work at an incredibly young age. My mother first worked in a button factory, on 2nd Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street, which is where she met my father (more on that later), and then she moved on to work for the Corn Exchange Bank. The bank merged with Chemical Bank in 1954, and ironically, 26 years later, I began a career with Chemical Bank, which lasted 26 years. My mother was extremely proud of my career, and she often said she wished she had stayed in banking.
My mother was known for having a love for shoes, clothes, along with pocketbooks, and she always dressed well. I guess that apple did not fall far from the tree, but she knew how to shop for bargains, and she knew how to save money. That is where the apple did fall far from the tree. She was all of a size 2, and from many old pictures she always dressed nicely, and she was very slender. She traveled every day from Mount Vernon to Manhattan to go to work, and after she left for work, her younger sister was known to sneak into her closet, and she would wear my mother’s clothes, and shoes but she would make sure they were cleaned, pressed, and returned to their rightful place before my mother returned from work. During this era, it was not unusual that most, if not all of your paycheck, went to straight to your parents, nor was it unusual for the oldest brother to take on the role of watching over the family, and to be the disciplinarian of the younger siblings or to be considered the bread winner of the family.
According to the standards of her era, my mother married late in life, at the age of twenty-eight. When she met my father, while working in the button factory, he was a charming, and handsome Puerto Rican, and it goes without saying the 100% Italian family did not approve of the relationship nor the fact that he was married before and had a child from a previous marriage. This was unheard of during this era to consider marrying a divorced man, but my mother loved him, and her love persevered. There are several versions of the story, and one thing I know for sure, at the end of the day, my grandfather approved of the marriage, my parents were married at St Mary’s Church, my grandfather walked her down the aisle, my parents had three daughters, and my mother loved my father unconditionally, and my father most certainly loved my mother. Of course, they had their ups and downs but what marriage does not. They built a life together, and they were committed to their marriage for better or worse, and my mother always referred to the next generations divorce rate, as being an easy out. She said the new generation thought it was easier to give up on a marriage than it was to work on one. Today, my parents would have been married for 60 years, and they worked side by side in their luncheonette business for over 30 years.
They were married on January 30, 1954, and they first lived in the Bronx on Wallace Ave, and ironically, when my older sister came into the world during February 1955, and then me, eleven months later, they moved to Wallace Ave in Mount Vernon. Eighteen months later, my younger sister was born, and yet another move, and for my mother it was back to South High Street, across the street from what was my grandparents’ house, into the 2nd floor apartment of my uncle’s three family home. Years later, my parents purchased the house from my uncle, who moved into a bigger home with his growing family, and this is where my parents remained for next 25 years.
My grandfather died days after my oldest sister’s second birthday, and I had just turned one, the previous month. My grandmother passed away when I was five years old, and I really have only a slight memory of her. However, I do remember her living with us for a short period of time. I have one vivid memory of her standing with one of those fancy brushes in her hand (the kind that were kept on a mirrored tray on top of the dresser) waiving it, and yelling at my sisters, and I, in Italian, of course, for jumping on her bed. She would live back, and forth between her children. She was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries, and more than likely today, she would have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When she stayed with us, it was difficult for my mother, who had three small children, to watch my grandmother every minute. But my mother loved her mother, and she did whatever she could to help her, and to keep her with us.
My grandmother would frequently wonder off into the surrounding neighborhood, and as her forgetfulness worsened, it required her to wear her name, and address on piece of paper, which was pinned to her clothing. After some time, a family decision was made about the future of my grandmother’s care. Back then, the medical field did not know what they know today about Alzheimer’s. They did not know how to treat the disease or how to adequately care for a patient with the disease. My grandmother was institutionalized, at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, Queens Village, New York. It is my understanding that it was a place that left you with the memory of it being dreary, dark, and a place someone would hope to never end up in. My grandmother died three months later. I have such a clear memory of my mother speaking about this time of her life, and she often said she could never be a part of the decision to commit her mother. She believed her mother died of a broken heart from being left at the institution all alone.
When I think back about my mother, and her thoughts about my grandmother, I now understand her fear, and the panic that overcame her entire being every time she would forget where she put something. She always believed she was losing her mind, just as she believed her mother did. Eventually, she resorted to keeping notes as frequent reminders of things to do, and where she put things.
Growing up, my memories of my mother are of a vibrant, hard working woman, loving, and caring mother, and when she became a grandmother, her grandchildren added a newness to her life. She was always doing something from cleaning to cooking, and taking care of the house, along with caring for her daughter’s and husband. For many years, she was a stay-at-home mom, and the kitchen curtains, and living room drapes were changed every three months, along with windows being washed. She had a love for music, and once she joined the Columbia Record Club, she would wait with such anticipation to see what album would be delivered each month. Music was always playing while she was cleaning, and she would sing along with her favorites, from Connie Francis to Frank Sinatra to Jerry Vale. She kept herself busy, and while she never learned how to drive, she walked everywhere or took the bus. Nothing stopped her. There were countless number of days that she walked with her three daughters to go shopping on Fourth Avenue, and she always found a way to make the trip special by taking us to the Beehive for ice cream.
During the summers, she would pack up my sisters, and I, along with lunch, and her beach chair, and we would walk to the bus stop by the 11th Avenue park. We would take the bus to Glen Island Beach and we would spend hours there. My mother loved the beach, and it is probably where my love for the beach came from. Years later, she went back to work to help my father with the family finances. I remember feeling sad that she was no longer at the house when I came home from school. Times were changing, and our family was, without exception, feeling the changes to the family dynamic, we all once knew.
I think what kept her mind going, active, and alert for so long was that all of her energy, and efforts went into caring for my father, who became ill during the last 10 years of his life. He suffered with heart disease, and diabetes, and eventually, went into kidney failure. He had open heart surgery back in 1994, which gave him a new lease on life for a number of years, and then he reverted back to his bad eating habits. He put some weight back on and was now back at square one. My mother was relentless with taking care for him, She stood by his side every step of the way, and with every doctor appointment. He was stubborn, and she could only fight his ways of being, to a certain extent. It was during 1998 that he took a turn for the worse, and we were not sure he would make it through another angioplasty procedure. It took some time for him to recovery, and I remember on Father’s Day of that year, I found him, in bed, in a fetal position, with silent tears rolling down his face. I laid next to him, and we spoke quietly. He admitted he was scared, and was not sure he was going to make it to his granddaughter’s wedding, which was the following month. Low and behold, the man recovered, and there he was dancing with me at his granddaughter’s wedding.
During 2000, six months after his great-granddaughter was born, his health took a turn for the worse, and this time he never recovered. He left us on January 23, 2001. My point to sharing my father’s health and his death, is that I believe this is when my mother’s life changed completely. After the loss of the love of her life, her memory spiraled, and she rapidly went downhill, and eventually, she was completely bedridden, never to see the outside world again. I honestly believe taking care of my dad, for so many years, stimulated her brain, and gave her life purpose. After he was gone, there was nothing left for her that could keep her stimulated, and the sadness of losing him took control of her thoughts and her being. I often wondered if my grandmother’s rapid decline was also related to the loss of my grandfather.
Watching my mother’s decline, was like watching a movie that I had heard about my entire life, and history was repeating itself for my mother, as it did for my grandmother. She moved back, and forth between my two sisters, and occasionally, spent a weekend here, and there with me. At the time, my sisters lived minutes apart, they worked together, and were fortunate enough that they were able to take our mother to work with them. She would sometimes be picked up to attend activities at the senior center, but she disliked it, and complained constantly about going. She lost interest in socializing with others, and especially, anyone she considered to be old. My mother was a woman of few words, and I am sure knowing what I know today, she was scared, and her rock was no longer here to help her with making decisions or to keep her safe. She did like being in the office with my sisters, and she would putter around the kitchen, and wait for the workers to come in at the end of the day and make them coffee. I think she felt useful and had a sense of purpose. She would sit with them, talk, and laugh, and occasionally play cards with a few of them. The atmosphere of the office was less intimidating to her versus a senior center, which I believe was a constant reminder to her of the aging process.
I most certainly believe she knew what was happening to her brain function, along with her memory. She knew her stability, and caring for herself were on the decline, but she did not have the ability to verbalize her fears or thoughts, and I am sure all of the unknowns were frightening her. The times I spent alone with her, I could see the fear in her eyes, and the confusion but I did everything I could to make her feel comfortable, to keep her spirits up, and to give her the space, the grace and the dignity she so rightfully deserved. In the beginning to the mid-stages of her dementia, it always amazed me how her long-term memory was intact, and she could tell you anything from back in the day, yet her short-term memory was non-existent. I think the hardest thing to witness was her unhappiness, her sadness, her confusion, her depression, the fear in her eyes, and the angry person, who she eventually became. For me, it became a mission, to thank her for all of those years she “just did”, unconditionally, and with every opportunity presented to me, I treated her like a queen because in my mind, she was.
I owe a special debt of gratitude to my two sisters’. Our parents always stressed we could, and we should always rely on each other, and that has never been truer than during our mother’s illness. I lived in Connecticut during that time, and my work was extremely demanding, along with not having the same flexibility that my sisters did with their work. For a number of years, they took care of my mother 24/7. Then the day came when my mother’s memory was progressively getting worse, and her ability or willingness to care for herself became extremely challenging. Life was also changing, for both of my sisters, and a decision was made that it was time to place our mother in a nursing home. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and again, in my mind, history was repeating itself, and all I could think of were my mother’s words about her own mother when that difficult decision was made for my grandmother. How could I be part of this decision, knowing how my mother felt. I found myself in a place where I wanted no part of the decision. I was crushed, for her, not for me. I was so angry about the decision, and yet, I had no viable solution that could save her or keep her out of a nursing home. In retrospect, it was the right decision but at the same, she was my mother, and I always wished there had been another option.
Over four plus years of her being in a nursing home, with each visit, I struggled to find a connection with a woman, who eventually, did not know my name or who I was. I would say, “Hi, Mom.” Sometimes she looked at me with a blank or confused stare, as if she were thinking should I say hello back or if she was trying to figure out who I was. I would say, “How are you doing?” and there would be an occasional, limited response or just silence or a rare, “Shut up!” I would sometimes laugh, and say, “It’s me, Deborah Ann.” Sometimes she would reply, “Really?” She sometimes mumbled, and I did not understand what she said, and it just broke my heart. After each visit, on my drive back home, more often than not, I would cry all the way home. Talking or yelling at God, and asking him, why? Why are you not taking her? She did not deserve to live the rest of her life this way. I was told many times; she was not ready to leave this world. After years of watching her slowly deteriorate, I finally came to terms with believing she had worked so hard all of her life, she was tired, and she was just resting until she was ready to go home. The hardest truth about Alzheimer’s is that you watch someone you love die twice, and get stripped of every ounce of their dignity.
My sisters dealt with our mother in a way I really could not. They talked to her. She mumbled, they mumbled back. She growled, they growled back. She would refuse to do something, and they would say okay fine just sit there. It did not matter to them that she did not remember things. She was treated with such love, and acceptance. They took her everywhere. They fed her, they changed her, and they bathed her. My sisters stepped up, and stepped in. What mattered was that she was comforted by the warmth of their human connection. These are just some of the gifts they gave our mother. I was in awe of them, and they have given our family a whole new kind of role model to emulate in every part of our lives. I love, and admire them both, and I am forever grateful for what they gave our mother.
When our mother passed, I was, again, my mother’s voice, and I thanked my sister’s for taking such good care of her. For being her strength, and her courage when she was weak, and for loving her unconditionally. Our mother rests peacefully now and is back in the arms of the love of her life, my Dad. I am not sure I have done her justice with celebrating her life, but this Mother’s Day seemed like a perfect time to tell a portion of her life story. There is never a day that my mother does not pass through my thoughts, and I am sure she is looking down upon her family, smiling with happiness, and with a tremendous amount of love, and pride. For me, I am proud to call Domenica Squillante Lugo, my mother. She will always be my hero, my mother, and a woman, who silently had incredible strength, courage, perseverance, devotion, commitment, and an enormous amount of unconditional love for her family.
While it has been a long time since I have seen her beautiful smile or smelled her perfume or received her hugs and kisses, I am thankful she has passed on all of her love, wisdom, strength, and courage, which have made me the woman I am today. With this message, I am sending her this song, which was always one of her favorites, and I can still hear her sweet voice singing the words.
I love and I miss you, Mom, but I find comfort in knowing you are at peace, with your true love. I hope you always know that I will continue to be your whisper, and I will always be your voice.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. ❤️