The quest to understand a complex parent never ends

It’s that time of year. Mother’s Day. It is my 14th since the death of the complicated, mercurial woman who brought me into this world.

If the good Lord grants me another 14, I might be able to finish figuring out Joan Lucas Satullo.

My mother was a war bride.

She was British, a clerk in the Royal Air Force during World War II. She endured the pounding terror of the Blitz, lost a boyfriend in the Battle of Britain.   One night, at a USO dance, she met an earnest, balding young man from faraway, exotic Ohio.

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Their dance lasted 30 years, until my father died all too young.

My mother never remarried. She barely dated. What was the point, she said. She’d had the love of her life. However much Tony and Joan had stormed at each other over the years, that was never in doubt.

My father was Italian. The two of them reversed the national stereotypes. He was the stoic of stiff upper lip, she the virtuoso of emotion who talked with her hands.

My mother survived Hitler’s bombs. But they left scars. The term didn’t exist when I was kid, but I can see it now: She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was prone to crippling anxiety attacks, fierce migraines. Needless to say, doctors of the day patronized her, instead of trying to understand her.

She was smart and creative; alas, her working class roots and gender denied her the education she deserved. But she was a voracious reader and fervent conversationalist. She was at once quite Americanized – a great fan of baseball and the NFL – but colorfully British in her speech, full of expressions such as “what you lose in the roundabouts you make up in the straight-aways.”

She was inspiring, and exhausting. She was one of those moms who never gave you cause to doubt her love, but never let you off the hook for a moment either.

For 20 years, I’ve had at home a box of letters my mom and dad wrote in the period after they were engaged, but before she crossed an ocean to marry him. I’ve never been able to read them. My wife has, and tells me they speak of naïve hopes that would suffer many rude shocks in the years to come.

It’s about time, don’t you think, that I cracked open that box, and learned more about who my mother really was?

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