A friend of mine recently gave me a CD of the book “Amy’s Answering Machine.” For those of you unfamiliar with it, the CD includes 28 tracks that revolve around a message or series of messages left on one young New Yorker’s answering machine by her mother. I had read the book a few years ago, but the CD is needed to experience fully this particular work.
The author, Amy (Amilia) Borkowsky, must be an only child and her mother’s raison d’être because her mother clearly devotes much of her existence to worrying about how incredibly random and unlikely events could befall her daughter. More importantly, she appears to make every effort to use telephone messages to prevent such random events, such as her daughter being the victim of a gang-related crime while taking out the trash in her terry cloth robe, which happens to be red – a gang color.
Bill, Grace and I listened to the CD yesterday and I thought we were all going to wet our pants. Bill was literally doubled over during one track called “Lambskin Condoms.” My favorite one was titled ‘Where’s Amila?” and involved not only two messages to the daughter but also a half a dozen messages from Amila’s friends telling her that her mother called them at some ungodly hour trying to find her.
This was where I got sentimental for my own mother. Thankfully, my mother did not feel the need to call me and leave inane messages on my machine, but she did often call with some random news item that she thought might have some bearing on my life. “Where’s Amila?” really got to me because one summer I worked as a health economist for the World Bank. During that time, I was stationed mostly in Nairobi, Kenya. Calls home were expensive and I tried to keep them to a minimum. After not hearing from me for 5 days, my mother was in a panic. Surely I had been killed, kidnapped, or something similarly drastic. Armed with only two pieces of information – my name and my “home base” in Nairobi – she called the World Bank’s general number. Now I remind you, this was before the Internet was widely available. The woman was relying on 4-1-1. Somehow with these two snippets of information, she managed to get connected to my boss. Out of 8,000 people in the DC office, she found the right person. The woman has the tenacity of a pit-bull. After she finished with him I received word to “Call your mother.” I, of course, was teased about this relentlessly for the remainder of the project.
It could have been worse. My mother actually rejected most of the superstitious ways of her mother. My grandmother had a litany of behaviors that should have been avoided to ensure one’s safety. For example, photos of pregnant women were strictly forbidden. We have two of my mother and you cannot see her head in one of them; in both pictures she is in the background and captured on film purely be accident. When my pregnant mother was asked to stand as godmother for my cousin Steven, my grandmother nearly had a coronary. Apparently to be a godmother while pregnant was to invite harm to the child in your womb. “Ma,” my mother would reason with her, “Why would God do that? It makes no sense.” My mother stood for Steven; my grandmother was not happy.
My favorite of the many tales about my grandmother involves the “malocchio” and my eldest brother’s baby carriage. The malocchio is the evil eye. The Italian gesture associated with the evil eye involves holding your middle and ring fingers down with your thumb and pointing with your index and pinky fingers. Whenever my grandmother came to see my mother and Anthony, which was every day, she would check the stroller to make sure there was a pair of scissors under the cushion. You see, the points of the scissors make the malocchio ricochet back onto the evildoer. Apparently my mother always found the cushion moved after my grandmother’s visit. (As an aside my grandmother would leave my parents’ apartment if my mother let Anthony “cry it out.” She would get mad at my mom or not picking him up. She’d walk the two blocks home and call my mother, “Did you pick up that baby yet?” she’d ask in Italian. When my mother responded, “No,” my grandmother would yell, “Va fungool! [Fuck you]” and slam down the phone. My grandmother must have been a trip.)
My cousin Debbie gave the malocchio to someone at work once. A co-worker, an African American man, saw her and asked her what she was doing. Shortly thereafter Debbie's intended victim was fired. Her co-worker was then quoted as saying, “Don’t make Debbie angry. She’s got some evil fingers.”
I told Bill about the malocchio when we were dating and he had a field day with the concept. He used to walk around the apartment with his hands tucked into pockets like he was preparing to draw. Then he would pull them out in malocchio formation and start pointing at things. “Stop it,” I would cry even though I don’t really believe in the evil eye.
While my mother did not buy into the superstitions, she was really into Catholic voodoo. Selling a house? Gotta bury St. Joseph in the front yard. Getting married? Better put a statue of the Virgin in every window of the house to ensure good weather (Her proof that this works is that the Saturday we got married was the only Saturday in a 13-week period that it did not rain. It does not explain, however, why it rained on two of my three brother’s weddings). In my childhood home, we built Mary shrines for the month of May and had various statues of the Saints around the house. Even now, the St. Theresa statue my mother gave us is staring at me.
The most humiliating Catholic voodoo ritual occurred the summer after my senior year of high school. I had hoodwinked my parents into letting me go to the Jersey shore with my high school boyfriend, Tim, for a long weekend. This was an unimaginable feat in my parents’ house. To this day, I cannot believe I persuaded them to let me go. My approach was honest and straightforward. Before my dad came home from work, I approached my mother after dinner. I explained that I wanted to take the trip. I also told her that all my friends told me to lie about it and that I probably could have gotten away with doing that. But instead, I chose to be honest with her as a sign of my maturity. “We’ll talk about it when your dad gets home,” she replied. My dad was enjoying a mouthful of food when my mother blurted out, “Your daughter wants to spend the weekend at the shore with Tim, alone.” My father, literally, spit out his food. There was much debate and negotiation and in the end, I won. There were two conditions: 1) Tim and I had to sit through an embarrassing abstinence-only talk with my dad and 2) my mother would hold a blessing ritual before we left.
On the day of our departure, Tim, I, and the other couple going were made to kneel on my parents’ living room floor. My mom then proceeded to bless us with holy water and holy oil while murmuring prayers. We all had the sense to stare straight ahead lest my mother smack one of us. You can imagine the shit I caught for this. At least everyone else had a crazy Catholic mother as well, but theirs were of the Irish variant.
I’m glad Amy Borkowsky shared her mother with the world. I liked “meeting” her, and she made me grateful that my mother was downright boring in comparison.