A Eulogy for My Mother, Fortuna Ziccardi Cacciottoli
December 14, 1924—January 9, 2021
By Vince Cacciottoli
The story of my Mother’s life is a love story. The love of a wife for a husband, a mother for her children, a grandmother for her grand and great‐children, a sister for her sisters and brother‐in‐law, an aunt for her nieces and nephews, a dressmaker for her craft, a music aficionada for her opera, a child of immigrants for her Italian heritage.
So, let me share a few memories of Mom to give you a good insight into the person she was, what she valued and what gave her joy in life.
My Mom’s life revolved around the love of her life, her husband, Vincent. They met in a RomCom type of way, but with a decidely Bronx‐like twist. The Cacciottoli and the Ziccardi family lived on the same street in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. Everyone knew everyone else, and the beauty of the Ziccardi girls was well known to all the young bucks in the neighborhood. One day, my Father showed up at the Ziccardi apartment, and when the door was opened, so the story goes, my Father asked, in his characteristically totally unpretentious manner: “Does anyone here wanna go out with me?” Yep, just the sort of line young girls dream of hearing from Prince Charming! Well, maybe in the Bronx at least.
My Mom was the sole brave volunteer…and the rest was Kismet. They fell head over heels in love. (My Dad would on occasion tell my brother, Joseph, and me about the dress our Mom wore on their first date—yep, he was that smitten!) They soon got married and spent the next 54 years together, enjoying the highs and enduring the lows of married life, but always there to back each other up no matter what life threw at them.
Once my brother and I came along, Mom had a singular purpose in life—her sons were going to do better than their parents. The American Dream at work. Although she spoke Italian very well, neither my brother nor I were taught it. In those pre‐identity politics days, it was important that her sons be “Medigan’” (Italian‐American slang for American—the spelling varies). Some of this was undoubtedly a reaction to her own upbringing. She was raised in an Italian‐speaking household. Grandma and Grandpa spoke broken English, at best, and Mom talked about the difficulties she had when she started school barely able to speak English.
Making sure her sons were educated was a driving force. She wanted us to read and so, bless her, she bought us the Golden Books series of children’s readers about science and history and “Classic Comics,” which featured, in comic book format, things like Caesar’s Gallic Wars. And she took a job to make sure there was money to buy us books and pay our tuition at the Catholic school. And those jobs were far from glamorous. They were in sweat shops, actually. Dressmaking factories housed over grocery stores
or bakeries with 50 to 100 sewing machines all going at once in a raucous din. She started out doing “piece work.” She was paid by the number of sleeves, or collars or dresses she sewed in a day. She quickly became a top producer. She had a natural talent for the feel of the cloth and how to work a sewing machine to fashion a garment that draped properly.
Her talent served her well when she started working downtown at some of the top fashion houses—Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Yves St. Laurent and Norman Norell. One of her favorite stories was how the great Oscar de la Renta himself came to her to fix the pocket he had torn on his jacket. At the fashion houses, Mom was a “duplicate maker.” She was the one who first sewed up the dress from a new design to see if the pattern and the stitching and the fabric itself would all work right. Mom’s crowning moment came when she sewed the gowns for Lady Bird Johnson and her two daughters for President Johnson’s inauguration. The gowns were later shown in the window of an exclusive shop on Park Avenue. We all went down to see them. I remember the tear in Grandpa’s eye as he looked in awe at the beautiful gowns his daughter had sewn. (By the way, Mom also sewed dresses for Pat and Tricia Nixon; and Lady Bird Johnson’s gown is on display at the Smithsonian.)
For someone from such an unassuming background, Mom had a taste for high culture. She had a passion for opera and accumulated quite a record collection. (My brother and I always knew what to get Mom for Christmas.) When she could afford it, she’d take the family downtown for dinner at an elegant Italian restaurant for a sumptuous dinner followed by taking in a classic opera—Italian, of course—at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera House. Mom would listen in rapt attention while Dad, my brother and I slept off dinner. (At least I woke up for the arias.) All kidding aside, it was a wonderful experience. We had the pleasure of seeing the opera greats, including Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland, in their prime.
Mom also enjoyed classical Neopolitan songs, so something like Caruso singing O Sole Mio would be playing in the background while she cooked. And, boy, could she cook! One of her greatest delights in life was to put a huge meal in front of my Dad, my brother and me and watch us go to town. Mangia! It was only later in life that I came to learn that not every family sat around the dinner table every night to a hearty home‐cooked meal. What can I say…she spoiled us rotten.
Joseph and I left The Bronx to pursue our dreams. I went to Oregon. Joseph to New Jersey and then Illinois. Joseph and his lovely wife, Ann, had two children: Joseph Vincent (Joe) and Victoria (Vicky). And Mom became Grandma, a role she loved. To Grandma, Joe was always “Little Guy,” even when he grew big enough to tower over her. And Vicky was “La Chiacchieressa” (The Chatterbox). Joe married his soulmate, the delightful Brittany, and the two of them had three absolutely adorable children: Olivia, Emilia and Avery. And so Grandma became Great Grandma! That was a promotion which left Mom both ecstatic and astounded (“Can you believe it, I’m a Great Grandma!!!”).
But life brings pain as well as joy, and several years ago Mom’s health began to decline and her memory began to fade. Although, up until the end, she continued to live in the same apartment we had moved into back in 1964, she grew less and less able to care for herself. Aunt Frances (my Mom’s twin) and Aunt Terry started visiting her daily to take care of her. And their selfless and unflagging efforts, despite
all the challenges they faced, kept Mom out of a nursing home until the very end. Once Aunt Frances could no longer make the trip over to my Mom’s, Aunt Terry soldiered on by herself. God bless the two of them. They are absolute saints and have certainly earned themselves a front‐row seat in Heaven.
And other family members came to help. Aunt Antoinette and Uncle Chick would take the cross‐town bus and visit weekly, bringing with them scrumptious cold cuts and pastries from Arthur Avenue. Mom held Uncle Chick in high esteem to the extent that, after almost 70 years, she started calling him by his given name, Carmine. But our family ties have always been strong and that was even more evident in Mom’s final days. The support my Mom (and my Brother and I) received from Cousins JoAnne, Rose, Sal and the hardworking Christopher has been touching and heartwarming—especially so since they themselves are still grieving the recent loss of their own mother, my beloved Aunt Antoinette (the “Other Mommy” my brother and I had when we were kids).
I called Mom every day and, as her memory continued to slip, I came to learn more about her. You see, although she struggled to recall recent things, she had vivid recollections of the past. And so I got to hear about conversations she had years and years ago with her Mother and Father and her Sisters and my Father. I started to see my Mom as a young girl and a young woman. I was a part of her I had never known before. As terrible as her illness was, it gave me a firsthand peek into her past. And I am very grateful for that.
As Mom’s condition continued to deteriorate, Joseph and Ann stepped in and took truly heroic action to care for Mom—coordinating with the nursing home, her doctors, nurses and social workers and also with Cousin Christopher (Bless him) to close down Mom’s apartment. Joseph and Ann also made extensive plans to move Mom to a nursing home very close to their new house in Illinois. They had everything in place and ready to go, but unfortunately, the move never happened. Mom passed on only a few days after she was scheduled to be moved.
The one that that came across most emphatically in my phone conservations with Mom was how strong the bonds of our family were. And that she wanted, more than anything, to be back together with her beloved husband. So, while we mourn her passing, let us rejoice that she finally got her fervent wish. And let’s allow our cherished memories of the good times with her and with her extended family to keep her memory alive in our hearts.
Ciao, Mamma! Requiescat in Pace.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to:
St. Jude's Childrens Hospital (StJude.org) or the Alton Youth Symphony (altonyouthsymphony.org)
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