Although the lifestyle of italian families is rapidly changing, la mamma, particularly in the South, is more than a person, she’s an all-embracing concept.
To her daughters she is a source of information, a co-conspirator and a friend. Mamma gets her daughter through the minefields of growing up, social interactions, boys and marriage. When her daughter has children and becomes a mother in her own right, Mamma gets automatically promoted to Nonna (grandma) and begins a second life as senior advisor and babysitter. Actually, babysitter doesn’t even begin to describe it; now her job entails giving her daughter and son-in-law some sort of private and social life. She is always called on to watch little Giovanni or Carla when mammina and papino go away for the weekend or are called away for work or social obligations. Nonna can be seen with the grandchildren everywhere: at the doctor’s office, at the park, at the beach, at school functions, sporting events, buying clothes and meting out the discipline.
When she grows old Nonna will almost always prefer to live with her daughter.
To her sons she is the sun, the font of all things good and warm. Though she inevitably spoils him to the bone, she does teach him the finer points of social interaction, including how to find and marry the right woman. Mamma is the stencil by which Italian men evaluate their girlfriends and wives. Does she cook like Mamma? Does she keep house like Mamma? Does she get along with Mamma?
The concept of mother as caretaker is inherent in other aspects of Italian life as well. The national television company is known as mamma Rai. Important governmental and financial institutions are matronly in gender: la Republica Italiana, la Banca d’Italia, (the central bank) la Borsa (the stock market) la Farnesina (the State Department),.
So where is Papà in all this? He’s probably taken a shower and gone out with his friends. Yes, papà has a rather easy time of it. So don’t be taken in; his is only the semblance of power. It’s Mamma who rules the roost…
Which is why they are so devastated when she passes away. The word leaps out from the black and white mortuary notices, as if to implore her attention: MAMMA!
– Actually contributed by Paul Goldfield, brother of Barbara (below). Thanks so much!