Over the years, when I needed to imagine a place of comfort, it was with my beloved cousin Irma, at her kitchen table. Today, January 2nd, would have been her 84th birthday. In July of 2020, we received the most difficult news from our cousins in Italy that she had left this world. Irma felt like more than a cousin, more than a friend. She was a living connection to a way of life that allowed me to see into my family’s story.
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. . . .
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.
As 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
As 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.
Decades 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.
Today 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
The other night
with the Moon’s light
veiled in her dark
the wilderness sky revealed
a dome of dazzling stars
I gasped with delight,
a familiar memory
Around the rim where sky touches earth,
in every direction,
lightning danced in soft spreads of light
messengers of potent possibility.
With Her dark spaciousness
this Star Mother
tells me that
She will hold my troubles.
“Offer it up,” She says,
just as my birth/earth Mother used to say
when my childhood sorrows felt too much to bear.
“Offer it up.”
In memory of my mother, Lena Pearl Moser, who left this world on March 26, 2014, and of my friend, Lydia Ruyle, who departed on March 26, 2016.
The blackberries are fermenting on the vine, fallen leaves blanket the picnic table, and the slice of sun on my clothesline arrives later each day. With the arrival of fall, the days of being able to hang my laundry outside are growing fewer. Lately I have been pondering my passion for this ritual of outdoor clothes drying. Is it only the sensual pleasure I crave, or something more? Continue reading
My ancestral calling began decades ago with a curiosity about my heritage. Growing up, I knew only that my four grandparents, immigrants from Europe to “L’America,” were from “The Old Country.” Their early deaths, differences of language, and the pressure for immigrants to the United States in the 20th century to assimilate all contributed to a loss of transmission of cultural identity. As a result, I was raised without an explicit knowledge of my cultural heritage. In my twenties, when I first located my grandparents’ villages in the northern Italian region of Trentino, and walked on the paths there, I felt a stirring of recognition, a genetic memory of a long connection to that land. Some part of me came alive and felt connected in a different way than I had experienced in my Colorado birthplace.
My initial research took the form of on-site genealogical research in the village churches, carefully paging through centuries-old, hand written documents, a thrilling and sometimes frustrating endeavor. Years later, while on a sabbatical to do family research in Italy, I encountered a rich spiritual heritage in the folk Catholicism embodied in the form of the Black Madonna, which became the focus of my graduate studies and master’s thesis. Through mitochondrial DNA testing, I realized more fully that my very body carried the knowledge of my family tree, one that extended much further back than the 500 years I had managed to research so far, to my oldest known mother – and the mother of all humans – in Africa 150,000 years ago. The paths of my research, both genealogical and spiritual, led to a Dark Mother.
After several research trips to document Black Madonna sites throughout Italy, my Ancestral Mothers called to me once again to know more about them. As part of a PhD program in Women’s Spirituality, I researched and studied my cultural history, with a focus on women, spirituality, and folk culture. It has been a deeply meaningful work to discover and uncover the layers of my story across time. Although I lamented having no material possessions of my grandparents, I realized that their values – including caring and sharing, respect for elders, honoring the ancestors, and care for children – have been passed down. These values, still present in the living culture, became evident in my oral interviews in the US and in Italy, and in the folk stories told across the ages.
In the days and months to come I will be sharing more of what I learned. While my stories draw from my specific cultural heritage, viewed from the perspective of a third generation Trentino American woman, I hope they will provide guidance and inspiration, just as I have been informed by the culturally specific stories of others. My cultural history – that is, the story of my culture – roots me to the past, unites me to others, and grounds me for the future. This particularity of my history, one that often has been submerged under other stories, enhances my understanding of self and others. Through this endeavor, I feel connected to the spiral of life.