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My mother loves roses. But she doesn’t grow them herself—too difficult to tend to the combinations of soil, growing, blooming, and pruning seasons. Her green thumb has been to raise five daughters and three sons, in an adopted country and under sometimes harsh and thorny family situations.
She’s called Toni by those American friends who know her well, and she is an American citizen. She was born and grew up in Santa Croce del Sannio, a mountain town in Italy, the only girl in a family of five. Having lost both her parents by the time she was twelve, she learned early on that resilience was her signature trait. She met my father in a typical way: he a returning veteran of World War II visiting his cousin, the Mother Superior of a convent school, and my mother a star student destined for a future she could never have predicted.
Teaching that resiliency as a transplanted American woman meeting life’s many challenges in a new country, is her greatest gift to her children. When my father’s health deteriorated and he was hospitalized for months—and then years—at a mental health facility 30 miles away, she learned to manage his business and command a new language. She learned to drive a car so we could travel to family outings and veterans’ events and visit him. When the city’s redevelopment efforts razed my father’s business and properties, she found a new home for us and a new job for herself. By that time, I was the one who was twelve, the oldest of the eight Cassetta children, and helping her apply for a machinist position at a local manufacturer.
By working the second and third shifts, she earned more money and was free to be with us during the day. What mattered was the “mother” she had become for us—and many more in our circle of friends and in our neighborhood. She sponsored two of her brothers so they could have manufacturing careers in Connecticut and raise their families in the U.S.
It’s the many “blooming” moments of her life’s choices we love: the Saturday nights of feeding the entire neighborhood with dozens of homemade pizzas rolling out of her kitchen oven. The special visits with comforting acceptance for a young friend, a prodigal daughter whose own family rejected her mixed racial marriage and child. The loving care for my father during those times he was able to be at home.
Gardening takes many forms, and for my mother it is life-nourishing, family-centered, medicinal and healing, ornamental and fragrant…and a full lifetime of blooms.