The suitcase lay crumpled in the garbage can…so rank and disgusting in smell, even flies
Having been told by my mother as a young man that cheese could be used as a weapon of
revenge, only then, that day, did I fully appreciate one of her idiosyncratic, but usually valuable
lessons in life. My wife had flown to New York City for a few days and when asked what she
could bring me as a present I suggested she go to Zabars, the famous Jewish grocery store in
Manhatten, and as a treat pick out the strongest, smelliest cheese she could find . After several
hours in her suitcase at the airport and later in the hold of the returning plane it had softened,
permeating its pungency beyond normal human tolerance. Not only was the cheese not edible
but the house had to be aired out and the suitcase was ruined…
Born to older Italian immigrant parents, my mother, a “mistake”, something her mother never let
her forget, was often left to fend for herself in a small village in rural Illinois where Piedmontese,
a dialect of Northern Italy, was the main spoken language. Nearly all the occupants of
Wilsonville were immigrant families who worked the coal mines or farmed the local lands. Her
older brother by 16 years and sister by 14 had little to do with her and found her to be a
bothersome pest. As a very intelligent but unwanted mistake she learned to be assertive, tough,
resilient, resourceful, and persistent in reaching goals far beyond her family’s minimal
Such toughness often led to fights at school with children much older in age.
One such altercation, at the tender age of eight, was rewarded with a teacher’s punishment of
” Write 1000 times , I will not fight “.
As my mother trudged home , a mile on foot, she passed the butcher shop, paused, and then
turned back toward the school house casting forth a sly, mischievous grin…
The next morning , arriving at school, she was accosted by the teacher who demanded her
1000 line punishment…out from her cloth bag came sheets of greasy salami wrapping paper
covered in smeared number 1 pencil lead…” I will not fight ” 1000 times. With ginger touch the
teacher laid the punishment in the trash can and ordered her to sit down…
Later that winter, again punished for fighting, Mariarosa decided to up the ante of revenge.
Swiping a chunk of limburger cheese from her mother’s cupboard…now for those of you who do
not know, this is a distinctly rancid and foul blue cheese when warmed… that night leaving her
warm bed, she walked a mile in the dark, snuck back into the schoolhouse and liberally applied
the softened butter like blue cheese to the inner cast iron cylinders of a steaming radiator…
which was…conveniently situated next to the teacher’s desk…
As expected the morning stench was overpowering… and the school room…well… had to be
While adults searched for the source of the foul smell, quite well hidden within the radiator
pipes, the children were sent off to play and eventually told to go home…for 3 days…
To the little ones, a Heroine had been born…
Age 16, precocious for her age, she finished high school and left to find employment in St.Louis,
a difficult goal for a young woman with millions of men returning home from WWII.
5 years later through resourcefulness and hard work she had put herself through college (a
waste of time as far as her family was concerned), and had a full time job as a city social worker
(not a real job according to her brother).
A year later she married my father, also of Piedmontese stock, got pregnant, and had a child.
When her young husband parted for the Korean War, she unfortunately found herself again at
home now unable to work with a small child in tow. Unlike hers, my fortunes in life were just to
begin as I was not only accepted but quite loved by her parents, the same two who had all those
years …and even then… shunned her both as a daughter and a person of worth.
A year and a half later transferred to Italy she was able to reconnect with her Italian roots, a
large extended family which lovingly accepted and took her in. It was there that Sabrina, my
sister was born, and Patrick, my brother, conceived.
Many moves and years later my parents divorced…years of struggles, fights, and pains
compounded by his excessive alcohol use and the climb of the military chain with demands on
her to be an military officer’s conforming wife…not her natural style in life…
Suddenly she found herself alone, with three children, no child support, and just a small income
as a state employed social worker. Luckily she did own 20 acres of forest land 15 miles east of
her Fairfax home.
Turning to survival mode she tapped into her childhood strengths and started all over again.
Giving up that plot of land, she acquired two small 3 unit apartment buildings not far from
Arlington Cemetery. With years of hard work as a landlord, plumber, painter, cleaning woman,
and yardman… while still maintaining her “full time job” …she used the rental income to send
three children to college and Medical School before beginning to buy other properties to create
a lasting financial trust for all of her 5 grand children. At the same time she, for herself, finished
a Master’s Program at George Mason University and later a Doctorate of Education traveling
back and forth to San Diego, California.
Misfortune again began to knock at her door in the form of small strokes in her late 50’s. Never
very good at taking her health seriously she finally had to come to terms with her own mortality.
Repeated cerebral infarcts began to slow her down until a major event in late 1999 left her
completely paralyzed on the right side. After a short hospitalization she was transferred to a
rehab unit near Mount Vernon. As a family we met and clustered around her bed to “asses the
situation”. Something seemed not quite right to me…there looked to be a flicker of movement on
her right side. Now there were many facets to my mother’s personality and multiple driving
forces to her day to day life but as her children, we all knew her preoccupation with money…
Before the astonished stares of her doctors and nurses, also gathered round her bed, I threw a
shiny coin on her bare white belly, looked her in the eye, and said ” Mama, get the dime with
your right hand”. Slowly, ever so slowly, she moved her “paralyzed’ right arm, grasped the coin in
her hand and smiled from a supposedly immobile face. I looked up at the medical staff and said
“ She will be just fine, now push her hard, no rehab limits”.
6 weeks later she walked out of the hospital and drove herself home.
Over the next 15 years repeated small strokes chipped away at her body but not her soul.
Three years ago , knowing her time was nearly at hand I took her back to Italy to see her family
one last time. We were supposed to pick out a burial plot, but aghast at the cost of a funeral and
stone box in an above ground vault , she quickly rejected the idea of death and decided to live
Even for the strongest of us time takes its toll. Over the past 10 months her health rapidly
declined, due to an unknown heart condition present for many years. As her thoughts turned to
the afterlife and her reunion with passed family and friends, she seemed to postpone death over
and over again, waiting for her grandchildren to marry, for me to return from a cross country
bike ride, and finally for the birth of her great grand son, Leonard Vincent Patrone.
4 weeks ago she told me she was tired and it was time. She went so far as to ask me to take
her to Oregon for a physician assisted suicide…she was just too tired and exhausted to go on.
We compromised… she said she would try to eat better, rest, and think of reasons to live but
her body just continued to wear down…
In poignant conversation she asked permission from me and my sister to be allowed to die at
home in peace… could we as her children accept her decision?
Of course we could, it was obvious the Matriarch’s time was at hand.
Hospice was arranged but she lasted less than a week. As she deteriorated she asked only that
we “ not leave her” and be present at her death. Sliding in and out of a sleeping state she
mumbled her repeated thanks to all of her family who came to say their goodbyes, to all of her
family who accepted her and loved her in her vulnerable dying state. It was ironic, yet fortunate,
that in the end she was finally able to recognize the love and acceptance she had craved all her
Her last spoken words were “ I want to go to church”.
An hour later her forehead was anointed with holy oil and she received a final blessing to allow
the gentle passage of her soul while my sister held her hand.
My family would like to thank the Mormon church for all their help and concern over the past 15
years. A special thanks goes out to all the Missionaries who repeatedly visited her home, to Yen
Zhao and to the Nantos family…all people who added so much to her life.
Finally I would like to propose a toast in memory of my mother. I know that Mormon’s do not
drink alcohol but there are other kinds of toasts. One of her favorite meals was cornflakes and
blue cheese soaked in milk , the blue cheese being a close cousin of the infamous radiator
Limburger cheese. Accordingly I have included on the “After the Service Refreshment Table”
cornflakes, blue cheese and milk. Please do her the favor of tasting this treat, and in so doing,
share in a communal toast to her soul.
So ends the Eulogy of Mariarosa Vigna Patrone.
P.S. On Janruary 4th, 2016 I will take her ashes home…one half to where her mother and father were each born, at the base of the Italian French Alps from a time not so long ago…