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The Eulogy Lee Never Gave For His Mother

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 10, 2024 3:02 am

The Eulogy Lee Never Gave For His Mother

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 10, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Lee Habeeb opens up about his mother's life and legacy in the patch of earth in Northern New Jersey she cared for, and influenced with her love, grace, and class.

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The best conversations I have with my colleagues are the ones that happen when no one is looking, when we're not 100% sure yet what to write. Hopefully having conversations like this can help you figure out your own point of view. That's kind of our job as Washington Post opinions columnist.

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The world didn't notice when she died in December of 2012 at the age of 80. But those of us who knew her and loved her, we all noticed. We lost someone who lived for us. Someone who loved us. Someone who would have done anything for us. And her friends.

Even strangers. Christina Lapidula, my mom, came into the world in December of 1932, a pretty tough time to be born, you'd think. Though she grew up through the Great Depression and World War II, the stories of her childhood were mostly fond ones. She grew up in West New York, New Jersey, a densely populated town a mere three miles from downtown New York City. Like the neighboring cities of Hoboken, Union City, and Jersey City, West New York was packed with immigrant families from all over Europe.

First generation Poles, Jews, Irish, and German families all had distinct cultures, food, and languages. Her parents were both from Italy and came to this country with no money and no education. Neither could speak English. Like all of the immigrants in their neighborhood, her parents didn't come to America to change the country. They came to have America change them and the lives of their family. Her parents wanted their children to assimilate into the fabric of their adopted homeland and to do it fast.

That meant no speaking Italian in the house. Luckily for her, the English as a second language movement in education had not yet been born. The school systems of the day didn't adapt to the kids.

The kids adapted to the school system. My mom lived in a small five-story walk-up apartment with her sister Marie and her brother John. The streets bustled with non-stop action and drama, and though times were tough, my mom never really remembered many really hard times. I didn't know we didn't have much because no one else I knew had much, she would always tell us. We were never poor, she would always add. We didn't have money, but we were never poor. I remember my mom seeing some of the tough neighborhoods in the 60s and the 70s and mothers pushing baby carriages and graffiti and just what had happened to the American family. And she knew it wasn't just lack of money that could explain it, given the time she'd grown up in.

To have a family intact and have families around you that are intact and churches around you. And she was surrounded by Catholic and Protestant churches everywhere. It's harder to imagine the kind of poverty that we now know because there were kids who were loved by families. My mom met her husband-to-be in high school. She was the captain of the cheerleading team, he was the captain of the basketball team, and yes, these things happen in life.

My dad was a stutterer and was shy about it and ultimately could have easily after some very good sporting years ended up, as he put it, in the penal system because he had a temper and he was angry at the world for this affliction of stuttering. And my mom knew it and ultimately worked with him, loved on him, and got him through college and he became an educator. My parents got married right after dad graduated from college, but they never took time to be a married couple. There were always kids. By the time they were 30, they'd had four of us to take care of. Were they ready for it all? Well, mom didn't ask that kind of question, nor did dad or any of them back in the 1950s. They were probably better off.

No matter how long we delay such things, we're never ready. I remember as a kid looking at pictures of mom and dad before they became the adults they became. They looked like grownups even in their high school yearbooks, as did most of their peers. Why did they sacrifice so much? We asked that a lot of both of them.

I learned as I got older that calling what my mom did as sacrifice irritated them. They were doing what they were supposed to do. No one back then thought postponing adolescence into their 30s was an option. They started things. They started lives. They started families and careers. One picture from their wedding is my favorite. The young bride and groom grinning as they cut their wedding cake, celebrating on a rooftop in a neighboring building. No wedding planners, folks. No exotic honeymoons. It was a drive up and down to Niagara Falls and back to life.

One of the great gifts my mom gave me, along with my dad, was watching a marriage grow. In the early days, my dad had a temper. It actually scared all of us.

He never hit anybody, but just the power of his voice. Well, it almost made all of us cry. None of us understood what the fights were about, what kid does.

They probably didn't know either. Sometimes I thought one of them would just call it quits. But always, always, the next day came and there they were. As time passed, dad's temper faded. As dad's temper faded and he got more comfortable, the marriage settled. My mom had learned a lot.

She picked less fights and just with her patience, let him grow up. As I got older, I came to appreciate the small things, the daily habits and rituals that my dad and mom shared. Those rituals and rhythms of life gave me a great sense of stability, a great sense that relationships can last, that love can last. The coffee they had every morning, the daily run to the supermarket, the evening coffee out by the pool listening to WOR on the transistor radio, the early dinners at a local bar for pizza and mussels marinara, the card games.

Mom always won them. The habits of love were there for me to observe and later in life to imitate. The love I witnessed didn't look like anything I saw in movies. It looked like something so much better, something within reach, the constancy, the consistency, the mutual understanding.

None of it was terribly exciting, but it was good for me. It was good for my parents too. There's a line of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said this in a letter to his niece before her wedding, quote, it's not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on the marriage that sustains your love. That lesson may be the greatest lesson my mom and my dad taught me.

Marriage sustains love. The number of things my mom did for us, well, there are too many to count, but the thing we almost appreciated was her taking a job as a secretary at a local college, Fairleigh Dickinson University. So all four of us could go through college for free.

And by the way, there were two years where all four of us were in college at the same time. By the way, my mom loved doing it, loved the work. But in the end, as we grew up and left home, a little part of my mom, well, just died because in the end, what gave her the greatest satisfaction was motherhood.

It just did not work. She had a thrift shop called Anything Goes in our little town, and we're not sure whether it ever made money. Dad never came clean.

He never told us the truth about that. But I always watched my mom give stuff away to people who couldn't afford it. The negotiation was always, I really can't afford that, Chris.

And Chris would say, well, just pay me what you can. Not exactly the way forward for a great business enterprise, but I think my mom ran that business just to just keep her maternal instincts going and just continue to help and serve folks. I also remember my mom is a warrior. An African-American couple moved into town with a beautiful family, and there were some efforts to resist this. And it's called blockbusting. That was the discrimination pattern of the North. The South had theirs, the North had, well, we had our own, too.

And I'm broadcasting from Oxford, Mississippi, and speaking about segregation in New Jersey. But it happened. My mom fought that. She remembered as a young Italian girl being called WAP and DAGO, and Italians did not get perfect treatment from their white European brothers and sisters. It was rough go. And my mom also always stood up for the young Jewish kids in the neighborhood.

So discrimination was something she just didn't, well, she didn't stomach well. The other big memory I have is of my mom sharing with me one day as she gave to me the Purple Heart and the picture of her brother's tombstone in Saint Laurent, France. She lost her brother in World War II.

He was a paratrooper and was killed in France not long after D-Day. And I was honored with that presentation. My mom gave it to me, and it hangs in my office still. My last memory of my mom is at the nursing home. I remember those last days I would always take the late shift, and I would sneak in cigarettes for her, more menthols, and I would sneak in a really good meal there. She said, the stuff here is rubbish.

You can't eat it. And so I would bring in all the food she wasn't allowed to eat, and we'd go outside in the dark and in the cold at midnight. I'd turn on that transistor radio and put on her favorite station, try and catch some Sinatra oldies, and she would puff away and then slice up a good steak with some of the great macaroni and cheese at the diner next door. And those are the fondest memories I have of my mom. Those are just some of the stories I remember.

So many more I don't have the time to tell. This is the life of Christina Lapidula, Christina Habib, my mom, here on Our American Stories. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA. He says, somebody's in the house, and I screamed. Listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts, if you dare.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-10 04:33:12 / 2024-05-10 04:38:37 / 5

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