My Mom, the Mob Wife
JUST AS YOU MAY HAVE HEARD, old-school Italians don’t go in much for blabbing the family secrets. There’s an expression I remember from childhood (having had it drilled into me over and over again): It’s nobody’s business but ours. So my great-grandfather, Nicola Schioppa, would roll over in his grave if he read this.
Avert your eyes, Grandpa Nic.
But the truth is, the things I’ll be writing about here are not true secrets, only things none of us wished had happened. Doesn’t every family have such stories? Besides, concerning those few surviving family members with any personal connection to the events I write about, while they don’t go in for blabbing, they also no longer go in that much for whatever little Jimmy has to say.
I’m pretty sure they won’t be reading my airing of the family laundry.
Married to the You-Know-What
Ironically, my first stepfather was not Italian–I call that ironic because he was the one connected, not us. He was Irish. (Not unheard of, by the way. See Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, playing a character based in turn on the real-life Henry Hill of the Lucchese crime family.)
Sure, there was a time when some of what I will write about might have–might have–gotten certain family members hurt. Including me. But to be honest, it would have been a long shot, even back then, and I feel a little silly even bringing that up now. We’re safe these days, post The Godfather, Part 3. Post the final season of The Sopranos. And my mother wasn’t what you’d call a true, card-carrying mob wife. Still, when push came to shove, she might as well have been.
I only learned the details more than a decade later and years after my step-father was dead. Only then did my mother–in an attempt to reconcile our separation of more than a decade–only then did she feel safe to reveal why she had no choice but to leave me and my sister, me at the age of eleven, my sister aged thirteen.
You Are Dead to Me, I Would Have Said
At that time, I didn’t understand what my mother saw in Bus Cartwright, he was so the opposite of my dad. James Frank Starr wasn’t so polished. So slick. Just the same Bus pretty much lost any chance of winning me over–if he’d ever had any interest in that to begin with–on that day I heard him insult my father.
I may have been only ten, but I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. I sat with my sister in the backseat of Bus’s car as we approached Pittsburgh on our way to a Pirates game at old Forbes Field. My mother, impressed by his knowledge of a local landmark, said something like, “Ooh, you’re so smart.”
“Smarter than any half-assed millworker,” Bus said of my father.
Done. Finito, I thought.
The Fairy Tale, Part 1
So, yes, it was of great personal satisfaction to me when, on another day perhaps a year later, I sat in the backseat with my sister once again. This time in my dad’s car. This time wedged in with suitcases, cardboard boxes, piles of clothes, and a birdcage. This time with a plan that would put Bus Cartwright in his place.
Dad drove along, towing a rented U-Haul stuffed full with all our belongings. And when we crept up to the curb behind Bus’s house, my mother came running out the back door with her bags. Seconds later we were gone, and a few days later we were in Dallas. To me it was a new world, one in which we’d never again face the troubles of our past.
I remember feeling as if I were living a fairy tale.
The Fairy Tale, Part 2
What happened next, those same details I never knew until I heard them from my mother when I was in my twenties, was what you might call the grim part of the fairy tale.
My parents were pretty broke when we arrived in Dallas, and one of the first things they did was to pawn the diamond wedding ring Bus had given her. Not weeks but days later, she received a threatening phone call. She was told that if she wasn’t on the next plane back to Bus, they’d throw acid in her face and maybe even hurt my sister and me.
And if that weren’t creepy enough, she said that when she returned to Bus in Ohio, he held out in his hand the very wedding ring she’d hocked in Dallas. It was a big fat, in her face, don’t-think-you-can-get-away-with-that-again welcome home.
There’s a Point to All This
It’s not about spilling lurid family secrets. It’s not about getting even with anyone. It’s all tragic, to be sure, but tragedy in the Greek sense. With catharsis in the offing, and a chance to learn from others’ mistakes.
The most valuable lesson, in my opinion, is the example my mother’s life provides. I continue learning the lesson along with everyone, more deeply now, more internalized, as I write it all out. For the first time I’ll record in cold hard facts, not couched in the dramatic narratives of the novels I’m writing, what I never felt free to share before her death.
And it’s not per se about running from your past, or only about seeking false security, or directly related to any of the other mistakes I think she may have made.
It is rather about turning your back on who you really are. About turning your back on who you were truly meant to be.
“Laundry hanging on clotheslines between buildings, New York City, 1900.”
(United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division)
You’ve just read part 3 of this personal account. To read the fourth installment, click here.