When I was small, my mother attended a weekly bingo night.
After dinner, as she hurried out the door, I sat in front of a television screen. I watched a musical variety show called Solid Gold. During the broadcast, a pop star cradled a sparkling microphone and sang her notes under beams of studio light. With each verse, a sleek troupe of dancers moved in time with a Top 40 rhythm.
One dancer, with raven hair and sculpted cheekbones, resembled my mother.
In my young mind, I believed Mom routinely left the house to dance behind Marilyn McCoo. The Bingo game was a cover story.
Some evenings, I stayed awake to watch her return home. She smelled of cigarette smoke and spearmint gum.
I liked to crouch behind her and run my hands through her midnight dancer hair.
Al Di Là
My mother liked the Italian song Al Di Là.
She was also fond of the mini-series The Thorn Birds. She recited the fictional name “Father Ralph de Bricassart” with a reverence few can muster for the actual pope. Mom appreciated complicated, scandalous love.
She cherished two profile portraits of my brother and me. Our small faces appeared solemn, and our hands were clasped in prayer. The pictures hung above a table containing a single candle and a ring of silk flowers.
Our neighbor, Margie, once glanced at Mom’s decorative altar and asked, “Am I supposed to genuflect each time I pass that?”
Mom connected with friends and family through card games. She was fond of Shanghai, a type of rummy. The idea is to have the lowest score after multiple rounds of runs and sets. Player buys and penalty draws add tension, and wild cards deliver a sliver of grace to a poor hand.
I rarely joined in. I chose books and phone calls and aimless hangouts with cousins and neighbors instead.
Some things still resonate. Her laughter after a game. The metallic clink of new quarters entering the pot. Another shuffle and bridge. Decks slapped, stacked, cut, and stacked again. Casual gossip mixing with smoke, floating up and out of the kitchen.
She gambled in other ways, too.
She opened her own salon when my brother and I were in high school. It was a challenging process involving renovation, zoning, and rounds of inspections. She steeled herself and marched through it.
My mother is everywhere and nowhere. She’s around when a card deck is shuffled. She’s hiding behind a mirror while my hair is cut. I can hear her saying my nickname as I pack my suitcase.
We are Demeter and Persephone in reverse. The shy daughter (uncaptured, free to pick flowers) must roam the world in search of her capable, defiant mother. Instead of devouring pomegranate seeds in the underworld, I sort bingo daubers in the basement.
She appears at odd times. Mostly she stares back from faded pictures, or dances into focus when a particular song is played. I have a lightly penciled note. It contains my mother’s words for Dad, folded into a tiny book. The book says, “Darlin’, Darlin’, my true love. Come a-swoopin’ like a dove.” A love incantation stolen from The Beverly Hillbillies.
I sense her nearby when the gates swing open at a horse race. Then, she’s on a billboard advertising bail bonds. She’s borrowed several umbrellas and forgotten to return them. She remembers to correct my posture at every public function I attend.
Her imagined appearances and exits are important because the historical record is paltry. No recipes. No diaries. Rather, there are lists and old phone numbers. A silver pendant on a delicate chain with an engraved date. Was it a gift from an admirer? The date is after her graduation yet before her marriage.
I stay vigilant. I never know when she is going to deliver a message. An ornament leaping off a Christmas tree. A picture frame sliding down a wall on 18th Street (my aunts and I watched it fall one Sunday afternoon). Mom usually drops clues with dramatic urgency.
Mom was the third daughter of Helen and Emilio “Emil” Cataldo. With ringlets framing a moon face, she became the capstone to what is jokingly called “The First Family.”
The dark-haired girls were close in age with distinct personalities. Helen made sure each child was styled and polished before the trio lined up beside her for their outings. They lived in a three-bedroom house on 18th Street.
After a space of years, four siblings joined them. Two girls, a boy, and then another baby girl. Aside from the slight age gap, the seven children all shared the wild hair and temper of Emil, mixed with Helen’s sense of fairness and generosity.
Emil’s parents emigrated from the Apulia region of Italy—the coastal heel of the boot.
When Mom graduated from high school, she moved to a town five miles northeast, along the Ohio River. She visited Helen every Sunday. Her visits continued through my childhood and college years.
Mom eventually became too weak to leave the house, so Helen traveled to visit and care for her daughter.
She was self-conscious about her nose. It had a slight bump on the bridge. A souvenir from a car accident in her teens.
The accident convinced her that she must walk wherever she needed to go.
She walked to the beauty salon where she had a styling chair. She walked to the funeral home where she groomed former customers before their families and friends arrived for calling hours. She walked in the park with Dad, after her mastectomy.
At one point during a walk, she reflexively swatted at a falling leaf. Pain gripped the right side of her body.
I remember hearing her describe the shock of it and the irritation in her voice. Her impatience with incessant treatments and a slow recovery.
Maybe that was when I realized she was not going to step around and over cancer as she did with everything else that annoyed her.
It’s a wonder she never visited France. There, the name Marianne is revered and represents the ideals of a republic. In our corner of Ohio, it is frequently misspelled.
I have a press clipping from Dad’s swearing-in ceremony. She smiled directly at the camera and pinned police lieutenant’s bars on his shirt, while the reporter lopped off the “e” from her name in the caption.
She didn’t like her name. Two names in one. She felt it deprived her of a strange, ancestral middle name.
That’s why my heart jumped to see her name spelled correctly on a chocolatier’s window in Ashtabula, Ohio. It made perfect sense. She adored chocolate and hid bags of nonpareils in the vegetable bin and crowded pockets of the refrigerator.
When I walked down Bridge Street, and saw her name painted on a shop window, with mounds of chocolate behind the glass—I had to stop. I left the store with bags and bags of chocolate, which I later gave away. The long bars, wrapped in clear packaging, with her name on each label: Marianne.
Marianne Cataldo Dillon was born during the Ides of March and died on Christmas Day. She was a business owner, wife, mother, stepmother, daughter, sister, and friend.
She had a fondness for gambling, hiding chocolates, and forbidden love. She enjoyed walking around obstacles. She liked to think the obstacles were staring wistfully at her retreating backside.
Few people realize she was also a gifted dancer. Her daughter always knew.
Danielle Dillon is a public health consultant living in Youngstown, Ohio, with her husband, Jeremy Lydic.
© 2022, Danielle Dillon