Comari, Grandmothers, and Godmothers: Wise Women Speak from Experience

Old Woman

Illustration by Paola de Manincor

Folk stories were the myths that guided my ancestors’ lives in the villages and valleys of what is now northern Italy. They were told in nightly gatherings, known as the filò, a word related to the Italian verb filare, meaning to spin. Words were spun into stories about every aspect of life, as fibers were spun into thread and baskets were made. The magic and wonder of the natural world came alive and not only entertained the families gathered there, but also conveyed valuable messages.

As an academic researcher searching for her cultural identity, finding these stories written down became an invaluable source of knowledge for my dissertation, as well as a repository of wisdom that serve as guidance towards sustainable living in harmony with the cycles of nature. I have come to appreciate the value of older women in my family and communities, women who hold a culmination of spiritual agency from their experience. I have sought my own value and validation in a youth-oriented patriarchal society and have dedicated decades of research to my own family’s history and to the untold stories of women across time.

In the folk stories, old women were counselors and advisors, knowledgeable in matters of health and love. As comari, (“co-mothers” or “with Mary”) women shared their knowledge in sisterhood with friends; as godmothers they held babies at baptism, as midwives they were present at birth; as grandmothers they were the storytellers, the conveyer of the culture through their words. Although women’s wisdom was negated as “old wives tales,” and the old women of the folk stories sometimes became described as witches, the Wise Women have always known and understood their own power.

Life Cycles – Ode to Francesco Moser

IMG_2704As a tribute to a Trentino bicycling legend, I am posting an excerpt of an article from 15 years ago, published as “My Tour du Trentin,” with an update at the end. Happy cycling, everyone! 

With the completion of the Tour de France last month, a three-week bike race covering 2000 miles, I have bicycling on my mind. As a bicycling enthusiast, and an Italian American, I was delighted to learn that one of the189 participants in the 2004 Tour, Gilberto Simoni of the Saeco team, is from Palù di Giovo in Trentino. This small village of 500 is the hometown of my cousin, Francesco Moser.

Avid bicycling fans may recognize Francesco’s name from the record books. He won many firsts over the course of his 15-year racing career, including the Giro d’Italia, the Paris-Roubaix, and other classics. In 1984, he set the world record for the hour ride on an outdoor track at altitude, thus breaking the record set by Eddy Merckx in 1972. His record setting distance was 51.151 kilometers in one hour (31.8 MPH), earning a place in history. (In the world of cycling, the third decimal place is significant). Francesco Moser is still recognized for this prestigious, most difficult accomplishment. A decade later, at age 42, he rode it again as a personal test to beat himself, which he did.

I first learned of Francesco in 1981 when I arrived in the valleys of Trentino in Northern Italy to do genealogy research. As I walked into one of the small villages, I felt particularly welcome when there, painted on the road, was my surname, MOSER! Later I learned from a resident in town that a race had gone through this way. As a sign of encouragement, the supporters of Francesco had painted his name on the street along with the letters VV an acronym for ViVa – long live MOSER!

In Trentino the surname is pronounced Mosér, with the accent on the second syllable. When I would introduce myself in Trentino, inevitably someone would tell me that there was un professionista with that name. I was thrilled to know I shared a cognome with a famous, respected bicyclist, especially since I love to ride recreationally. Maybe there was a genetic link to this passion! I asked the residents of his hometown where I might meet him; I went to a bar where he sometimes went, and even wandered up the street where he they told me he lived with no luck of a chance meeting.

Over the years on my trips to Trentino, the outcome was the same – always hearing about Francesco Moser, even visiting the MoserSport bicycle shop outside of Trento where he sold Moser brand bikes, other equipment and clothing, but, alas, never meeting him.

Finally, in August 1995 my opportunity came. I was staying in the village of Ceola in the Val di Cembra at the Agritur Ress. At dinner, Pia Ress, the delightful proprietor, told me that a group of bicyclists from all over would be arriving that weekend for a bike ride with Francesco! Every year, she said, he participates in a ‘little’ ride of 50 winding mountain miles with the locals in an event called Ritrovarsi con Francesco. On Sunday morning, they would be riding past the agritur.

On the evening before the ride, I learned there was a bike exposition in his nearby hometown as part of the event. I hurried over, found the location and learned that Francesco was there! I waited for him to be alone, approached him, and in my best Italian introduced myself as his cousin from America. He laughed in surprise and welcomed me warmly. My dream to meet him had come true.

From my roadside seat the next morning at Pia’s, I watched as hundreds of colorful riders sped by. It was hard to tell which one was Francesco, but it didn’t matter, as we cheered for everyone. Afterwards, in his town of Palù di Giovo where the ride ended, there was an outdoor festa with food and awards. I was thrilled to get my photo taken with him and he willingly autographed a poster. He seemed so unassuming for all his fame and glory. I read later that he was one of twelve children; his youth was spent in the fields around his home, after losing his father at age thirteen. Perhaps this hard work in the outdoors accounted for his focused ability to be a world champion and his down-to-earth presence. After his professional bicycling career, he returned to his hometown, becoming a respected businessman, tending vineyards, making wine, running for mayor, making bikes, and raising a family. He has shared his prosperity.

IMG_8916I confess that I can’t show – yet – on paper that Francesco and I are cousins. Both of our Moser ancestors lived in the village of Fàida di Pine as far back as 1517, a likely place for our family trees to intersect. (Most of 200 residents there, I was told, carry the name of Moser!) In 1732, Tomaso Moser married and carried the beginnings of Francesco’s family line to Palù di Giovo, (about 30 miles away) according to Padre Remo Stenico in his book Momenti di Vita about the history of the villages in that region. Perhaps our kinship goes back before Fàida, to the time of the colonization of the central Alps in the 10-12th centuries. Our common ancestor may have been one of the hearty folks that came from Bavaria called by the lords of the territory to clear the land of the pine-covered plateau and till the soil. Padre Stenico says the name Moser comes from the word Mos, for swamp. Francesco and I are swamp people. But more than that, we share a rich heritage of the village life that characterizes Trentino.

2019 UPDATE: Last fall I visited the beautiful hilltop shrine to the Madonna del Ghisallo, protector of cyclists, near Lago di Como, where one is rewarded with sweeping views. Inside the Madonna’s chapel there are several bikes on display given to her as an act of gratitude, including Francesco Moser’s record-winning bike. Next to the church is the fabulous modern Ghisallo Cycling Museum which includes a wealth of bicycles and memorabilia, including Francesco’s pink jersey from the 1984 Giro d’Italia. Francesco Moser and his family now operate a winery in Palu di Giovo, as well as an Agriturismo where people can stay. One of the Moser wines is named 51.151.IMG_2705

 

 

 

 

A Message from My Mother (2014)

SardegnaTree

Olive Tree, Sardegna

Recently I traveled to Texas to receive the Kore Award from the Association of Women in Mythology for my dissertation in Women’s Spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies, “The Everyday Spirituality of Women in the Italian Alps: A Trentino American Woman’s Search for Spiritual Agency, Folk Wisdom, and Ancestral Values.”

Shortly after I had arrived in San Antonio, and met my younger sister and her daughter who were in town, we received word that my Mother was not well.   Although Mom had been in precarious health throughout the last year, she had pulled through several times. That night in the hotel room, we hoped for the best.  The next morning as I lay in my dream state, I felt someone come and lay beside me in bed, compressing the covers, which I have come to understand as a visitation from my Mother. Then the phone rang with the news that Mom had died peacefully that morning.  It was comforting for me to be with my sister and niece, especially since we were away from home. Together, we made it through that long, rainy day.

Later that morning, my other siblings, who were gathered around my Mother’s kitchen table, called the hotel room where I was staying. They passed the phone around to each person, voicing their consensus that I should stay in Texas to attend the conference, give my presentation, and receive the award. There was nothing I could do in the next few days if I flew to Denver, they said.  All the arrangements had already been made; the funeral wasn’t until the next week. So, reluctantly, I surrendered to their decision. My heart wanted to be with them. However, I stayed, unsure. . . .

Lydia and Mary Beth. Photo by Kay Keys

When I entered the room of the Matriarchal Studies Conference the next day, I was greeted visually by Lydia Ruyle’s banners, dozens of colorful multicultural expressions of the Divine Mother. And then, there was Lydia herself, her head encircled in a wreath of flowers. I whispered to her what had happened and she gave me a big hug, her own heart fresh from the loss of her brother last year. I looked around the room at women from so many places, and saw the altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe they had created. I knew then that I could stay. The nurturing energy was palpable.  I felt the support of my siblings from afar and my Mother’s peaceful state from within. My grief of the past year, in anticipation of losing her, was transformed into something else.The kindness of the women I met there nurtured me.

On Saturday, the board members of ASWM ceremoniously presented me the Kore Award. Inscribed on the plaque, along with the title of my dissertation, was a small but important detail: an accent mark on my name, Mary Beth Mosèr, indicating that my ancestry is from Trentino, a precious detail of cultural specificity told to me by Carmela Mosèr, one of my interviewees, at her kitchen table in a northern Italian village.

The next day I flew to Denver to attend a communal prayer to the Virgin Mary, known as the Rosary, said the night before the funeral in the Roman Catholic rite over the presence of body of the deceased. The church was somber, draped inside with purple cloth for Lent, which seemed fitting.  The next morning, with sun shining, we – Mom’s seven children, and most of her twenty grandchildren and twenty-one great grandchildren –attended her funeral at Our Lady of Fatima Church.  It was poignant to see the participation of so many family members: my nephews as pallbearers and altar boys, my teenage nieces doing the readings with such poise, the grandchildren and great grandchildren bringing up the gifts of offering as part of the Mass. It was a day filled with a particular kind of Grace, inexplicably joyful. Although I had been unsure if I could read the eulogy I had hand written, I found myself drawing from a deep current, some ancient and sustaining source of strength.  Later, at the cemetery, the young children were respectful, yet curious as the casket was lowered into the earth. . . how deep did it go, they wondered. . . and cautiously left their parent’s embrace to peek over the edge. There was an irrepressible life-energy emanating from them. It felt comforting to witness first-hand the continuity of the life cycle manifest in them.

I am grateful for our work in women’s spirituality and for our community, which allowed me to honor my Mother and my ancestors in this way. I felt held in a larger spiritual vessel, secure and grounded in my own experience of the Mystery. I know there are times of sadness ahead.

Since that time, I have been in Colorado, fulfilling my role as Sacred Custodian of my Mother’s possessions, a strange mix of legal responsibility and emotional remembering. Together with my siblings, we are figuring things out.  Mom led a simple life over her nine decades, which has simplified the process of dispersion. Her clothes went to the Samaritan House, a homeless shelter where she used to volunteer her time, one of numerous acts of service throughout her life. Her reading/magnification machine has gone to someone else who suffers from macular degeneration, a condition that causes loss of central vision. The beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary that hung near her chair in the living room (interestingly, known as the Madonna of the Chair, by Raphael) went to the woman who brought my Mom Communion every morning when she did not have enough energy to go to church.

I claimed Mom’s cast iron skillets, which she cooked with her entire adult life, and the hand-made rosary she carried in 1987 to Medjugorje, a Marian apparition site in what was then Yugoslavia. There were other items that I brought home, precious to me because I knew the story of them from conversations with my Mother over the years as well as from my “formal” interviews of her for my dissertation. Going through her things became a daily ritual act of discovery, a remembrance of my childhood and the lives of my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles; of my father who died three decades ago; and my grandparents, two of whom I knew as a child.

On my first night alone in Mom’s home, with her pearl rosary pressed to my heart, I dreamt about the Black Madonna as a massive dark Tree with breasts – evoking the several thousand-year-old wild olive tree we students saw in Sardegna on a study tour with Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum ten years ago.  I awoke with a tingling exhilaration as if I were between worlds.

The journey of my dissertation has been marked with deep sorrow and great joy, great loss and incredible insights, as is also true for so many.  It felt strange that this honor of my life-work should be coincident with the end of my Mother’s life. Yet with the timing, she seemed to be saying “Go forward. Your work and your life continue on.”

In honor of Lena Pearl Moser, August 7, 1923 – March 26, 2014 and Lydia Ruyle August 4, 1935 – March 26, 2016

This essay originally appeared on the web site Feminism and Religion.

 

My Mother’s Letters: Everyday Stories Across Time

edited Mom and Me 2012As a tribute to my mother, Lena Moser, who left this world five years ago today at age 90, it feels appropriate to reprint an excerpt of my introduction from She Is Everywhere, Volume 3. It is a testimony to her resilience (she recovered fully from the episode below), the power of stories to sustain us; and the importance of sharing and caring. Blessed be, dearest Mother! Blessed be!

New Moon, March 4, 2011   As I write this introduction, I have just returned from a period of caring for and being with my mother, who is recovering from a broken hip. When she fell, on January 3, 2011 and hit the floor of her dining room, the earth shook for me upon hearing the news. Learning of her progress with reports from my sister, Marlene, and then witnessing her daily improvements in person have inspired me during these tumbling times of change. Will I have her determination when I am 87 years old to meet such challenges? Do I have such courage now to rise up and learn to move in new ways in a changing world? Will we all be able to do the hard work of rebuilding broken structures that no longer sustain us? Continue reading

The Joy of Wild Plants

IMG_4932I learned about plants as my Trentino ancestors and relatives learned: orally, seasonally, and in the forest and meadows. Erin Kenny, my teacher, is an ethnobotanist whose knowledge derives from decades of observation and foraging experience in the forests of the Northwest United States. Kenny has recorded her observations and plant wisdom in her book A Naturalist’s Journal although her primary and preferred teaching method is experiential. Her classes are held in the forest at Camp Terra, an internationally-recognized outdoor school where she teaches children and trains teachers. In the forest classroom, we experienced the plants in context of where and how they grow, observed them changing over the months, and eventually learned to discern differences among numerous plants that at first appeared similar. We also touched, tasted, and smelled the plants, gathering wild edibles for a lunchtime tea, brewed in water heated over a small open fire at the center of a stone circle. Continue reading

The Golden Chain of May

IMG_5875As in any meaningful relationship, my initial encounter with a special tree remains in my memory. I first met Maggiociondolo in Trentino, Italy in 1995 while visiting my cousin Angelo. Soon after my arrival, we were walking one day when I saw the most beautiful tree in bloom, heavy with golden yellow blossoms that hung in grape-like clusters.Che cos’è?” I asked in awe. “What is it?”

“Maggiociondolo,” Angelo replied. It was a difficult word to master, and I had to repeat it several times, until he explained that it was “Maggio” – May, “ciondolo” – pendant. Of course, the pendant of the month of May! May’s Necklace. It felt like this Golden Tree was personally welcoming me to Italy for my extended stay, as I wrote down its name in my spiral notebook of important vocabulary.

The following May, when I was back home in the Northwest US, I was astounded to see this tree, laden with yellow blossoms, growing on the nearby school grounds. It grew on the Island where I lived! I learned that its common name is Golden Chain, although I always greet it by its Italian name, Maggiociondolo. Embodied seasonal memories of delight rush in when I first see the blossoms appear in the canopy of spring growth.

One autumn for my birthday, my friend Theresa gifted me with a Maggiociondolo tree, knowing the story of how much I loved it. With loving intentionality, she planted it so that my kitchen window perfectly frames its seasonal beauty.

When May arrives, the first blossoms begin to form, often coming into fullness right on Theresa’s birthday, when the days are long and warm. It feels meaningful that Maggiociondolo blossoms in the month that Angelo left this world, and that Theresa entered this world. Seeing its flowers fills my heart with golden memories of Trentino, and with gratitude for this living expression of friendship.

“We’ve been waiting for you. . . .”

Felicita.JPGDecades ago, after my grandparents had died, I felt called by my ancestors to visit my ancestral homeland and to find my grandparents’ birthplaces. From the years of genealogical research that followed, I know that I am the daughter of Lena, granddaughter of Edvige, great granddaughter of Felicita, and great great granddaughter of Margerita. It is these women in my motherline who beckoned me to retrieve my cultural heritage with a focus on folk women’s culture.

On the eve of February 2, 2007, the midway point on the solar cycle of the year between the longest night and the spring equinox, I opened El Meledri, the periodical from the village of my maternal grandmother in northern Italy, named for the river that borders the village. Inside, there was a photo of three women: my great grandmother, at the center, and her two oldest daughters, Emma and Erminia on either side. Their eyes seemed to look straight across the ages into mine and say, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Knowledge of my culture was not handed down to me explicitly, as it was for centuries from mother to daughter, parent to child, for a number of reasons including early deaths, immigration to the United States, discrimination, and the missing link of stories tied to particular places.

Much of the oral history was lost due to language. My mother could understand her mother’s spoken dialect (a particular variation of Italian), but she responded to her in English. Here in the United States, my grandmother’s language—the very medium of agency through which her culture had been communicated for generations—became a source of shame, due to her inability to speak “good English.” Her oldest daughter, my Aunt Annie, told me that my grandmother brought her along as a translator in shops to conduct transactions. Through language courses, and with time, my grandmother mastered the English necessary to pass the difficult exam for citizenship, which became a source of pride.

Three years before I was born, my grandmother died while sitting in my mother’s kitchen. As a result, I did not hear a single word of my grandmother’s language growing up. Only in 1981, when I traveled with my mother to Italy so that she could see the birth village of her mother, did this hidden language that she held inside for thirty years tumble out.

In this unfolding story of my heritage, I have sought to recover and make more evident the folk wisdom of my ancestors, particularly of my female ancestors. The arrival of the photo of my bisononna by mail on the sacred day of Santa Brigida, also known as Candlemas, while I was deep in coursework for my dissertation on my ancestral heritage, seemed to be an auspicious affirmation of my Ancestor’s desire to be known.

From my studies and travels, I now know – and thus can appreciate more fully – the numerous ways that cultural values have been transmitted to me in everyday family life, including through food, clothing, medicine, religious practices, acts of service, and celebration.

Moonbeams of Mystery

moon-1109746_960_720FWI am standing under the light of the full moon near the apple tree in the backyard of my home. Suddenly the light of the moonbeam begins to lift me up, off the ground, towards the moon. I awake, frightened, my heart beating fast.

I have never forgotten this childhood dream. As a young girl, I did not yet know that I had a lunar legacy in my cultural history.  In years to come, I came to understand the power of the cycle of the moon: the potency reflected in its darkness and the manifestation of that potential energy in its fullness fourteen days later. Continue reading

Chance Encounters in the Cemetery

Bedollo CemeteryToday the glittery orange Ancestral Box on my desk caught my eye and I opened it. The images of my Grandmothers I had cut out and pasted in it were there to greet me, along with my great grandmother and other women in the family who influenced me. When I started my Ancestral work as part of an academic program, I created this sacred box on Halloween – the time of year when we remember those who have died – to ask for help and guidance from them. It is full of intention and hope, beauty and promise. Continue reading

A Thousand Flowers

Golden HoneyToday I am finishing the last bit of the honey I hand-carried home from my most recent trip to Trentino. Sun yellow in color, it is made from the nectar of mountain flowers. Its label tells its origin: di montagna, of the mountains, and its type, mille fiore, often translated as “wildflowers.” Literally, however, it means “a thousand flowers.”

The valley where my maternal grandmother was born, Val di Sole, is renowned for its honey. In Croviana, one of the villages in the valley, new honey is celebrated in July with a sagra, a communal food festival. There are more than a dozen different types of honey from Trentino, including apple, chestnut, and rhododendron. These are plants of place – nature’s gifts that appear in the folk stories and are present in everyday life.

Honey appears in recipes for traditional food, beverages, and medicines. My preference, however, is a taste of honey all by itself, with no other competing flavors or textures. This intentional act of eating honey feels like a direct connection with the mountains of my grandparents’ homeland. I imagine I am taking in the wisdom of my ancestors, the healing of nature, and the essence of place. With a taste, I am in union with the exquisiteness of a thousand wildflowers in spring bloom. Continue reading