Golden Girl: Giving thanks for a long life

Remembering the former Rose Popolo

  • The former Rose Popolo, late mother of Dan Rodricks.
The former Rose Popolo, late mother of Dan Rodricks. (Baltimore Sun )
March 12, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Last Sunday, my brother and I went to the Catholic church in our hometown to make arrangements for a funeral Mass for my mother, Rose — more familiar to readers of this column as the former Rose Popolo — and, for the first time in all the years since I lived there and served as an altar boy, I didn't recognize a single soul in the pews.

What I did recognize were names engraved on a wall — the men and women who had donated things the church needed for its reconstruction after a fire in 1954. These were the blue-collar Irish, Italian and Portuguese who had settled in the little town in southeastern Massachusetts. They were the village elders. They had saved their pennies and donated the baptismal font, the vestments, the statues of saints and all the other material ingredients that form a spiritual place. They were my mother's generation — born in the early 20th century, survivors of the Great Depression and World War II, builders and shapers of their communities, the progenitors of the baby boom.

So many of them are gone now. That's not exactly a news bulletin to anyone watching the American clock. The parents of the baby boom have been leaving us for a couple of decades. My mother lived 96 years, 11 months and 17 days, and she outlived her husband and all his friends and all but two of her 11 siblings. Rose was a golden girl. The longer she lived, the longer we could hold off the chilly reality of a world without that whole generation.

The former Rose Popolo was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1914, to Italian immigrants who were poor but resourceful and happy. Her childhood memories were simple: picking peas for an uncle who owned a small farm, performing scenes from silent movies in the loft of a barn, eating chocolate a relative brought from Boston. She became a homemaker after her marriage during the Depression, but she took factory work when her husband's back-breaking job literally did just that, and when a gas explosion and fire destroyed the small foundry he ran with his stepbrothers in the 1960s.

I remember her often being frazzled and worried but somehow cheerful, delivering a Christmas tree and modest presents even in years when there was little income, making the best meals when she ran out of money for food — polenta, pizza, salad from dandelions in the backyard, pies from blueberries she'd picked that morning, shin bone soup, homemade Boston baked beans. In better times, there were amazing lasagna and veal cutlets, roasts and stews, Easter confections and Christmas Eve seafood dinners. My friends used to come over in summer, sit beneath our grape arbor and gorge themselves on Rose's spaghetti and meatballs.

I mention all the food because for Rose, food was love.

She also expressed herself with a form of goofy logic that left those around her exasperated and laughing. There would be a problem or situation of some kind — a cardiologist trying to persuade her to consume fewer bananas, for instance — and Rose would speak in a way that sounded at once absurd and rational.

Doctor: I don't want you eating any bananas.

Rose: Can't I have just one?

Doctor: Not every day!

Rose: Can I have one a month?

Doctor: OK, but you have to wait until May for your next one.

Rose: I have one at home. It'll go bad by May.

She prepared for a thunderstorm by pulling the plugs of every appliance and light out of their wall sockets, then sitting in the living room and saying the rosary. She warded off foul weather for special occasions by placing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a window.

She loved to watch my brother play baseball but never quite understood the rules. She'd sit behind home plate, in foul territory, and implore him to: "Hit it here, Eddie! Hit it to me!" She once declared: "I only cook turkey once a year — Christmas and Thanksgiving." She did not have an advanced vocabulary and so would use "jiggers" to fill in the blank, as on the morning after hubcaps were stolen from my brother's car: "Eddie, wake up! Your jiggers are missing!"

A couple of years ago, I took her for a ride. We were stopped at a traffic light near the spot where her favorite restaurant, the Toll House, used to be. There's a Wendy's there now. "Things change," she said.

We drove to a place my mother remembered because it had been important to her for years — a pick-your-own blueberry farm. The farm was still there, in high season, the bushes loaded with fruit. The morning temperature was 70-something, with soft sunshine and a mild breeze. By then, Rose was not as mobile as she used to be, so our golden girl sat in the car while I picked, and she smiled each time I looked up and waved from the blueberry bushes. I had never thought of my mother as serene until that moment.

"Nothing gold can stay," our favorite poet, Robert Frost, had said. But some things stay longer than others, and thank God for that.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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