Mother Knows Best: A Tribute to Ethel Fasano Roberto

A week ago I thought it would be easy to write a tribute to my mother, Ethel Fasano Roberto, who turned 91 in January and is struggling with advanced COPD which she, a non-smoker, contracted from my father Joe, whose addiction to tobacco and alcohol eventually brought his life to a close on New Year’s Day 2000. They were of that “Greatest Generation” as Tom Brokaw famously called them. Like other men of his times, Dad smoked and drank excessively for most of his adult life. Canadian Club and Marlboros, his brands of choice I remember most, laid claim on his mind and body much too early. To my knowledge, Mom never smoked – at least I never saw her light up. She did have a horrible bout with alcohol the last few years of my father’s life and following his death. But her love for the one and only man in her life never wavered.

I last saw Mom in late January and then only briefly and there’s no chance of seeing her now. Given that she is among the most vulnerable of the vulnerable to COVID-19, I wonder if I will ever hug her again. I am certainly not alone on this score. Many of my fellow “Boomers” have parents in their late eighties or nineties who they only see on Facetime or Zoom. Thankfully, Mom has my sister Joy to care for her, just as she has for the last decade, or more.

Above all, I am grateful that in my own advanced age I know Mom always knew what was best for her firstborn and oldest son.

Mom and me in the backyard of our first home as a family, circa 1953.

Recalling my adolescence I now see this more clearly. To the extent that Mom kept track of my academic progress with five younger children to care for is now a memory I savor. She was the parent who paid closer attention to my schoolwork. She knew what I could do academically, as opposed to the little I actually did. Both my parents were proud I got accepted to the only college I applied to, a small commuter school about 20 minutes away with a campus on an old estate alongside a tranquil river. I tried living at home the first semester but even a sheltered guy like me knew it wasn’t going to work. Mom did, too, and supported my exit though she made sure I returned for a good meal and also to wash my clothes. She knew that education, and especially my love for history, was making a difference in my life and supported my entry into graduate school and a burning desire to one day earn a Ph.D. in medieval European history. “What’s graduate school,” I remember Dad, who had followed his own father into the beer business as a salesman and later became a successful manager, bellowing at me when I told him I was going on for a masters at the University of Rhode Island. “What’s a masters? What’s in Rhode Island?” he implored. Dad was bent on me following him into the business, convinced that with my education and his credible reputation I myself could become the “King of Beers.”

Mother knew best. I was a person who loved history and the very idea of scholarship and teaching and writing books. She knew this. As I studied medieval history at Boston College, she shared an interest in the history of the Catholic Church and its notables. I would pass along biographies of Saint Augustine or Saint Francis of Assisi and she would actually read them. Later in life she understood the importance of revolutionary Christianity in the struggles of the Central American peoples to free themselves of U.S. imperialism and the brutal dictatorships it supported in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala during the 1980s. She knew who Oscar Romero was, the archbishop of San Salvador, assassinated while saying mass by one of the Salvadoran death squads operating under the protection of the Reagan administration and rabid Republicans like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. We mourned Romero’s death and understood its significance. When Sharon and I joined others from Greensboro on a trip to San Salvador in 2005 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Romero’s assassination, Mom was all for it.

Mom’s senior high yearbook photo. She had the smarts, the looks, and good friends.

I often heard Mom say she had hopes of an education when she was an adolescent but because she was the youngest daughter of a poor, working-class immigrant family, she was automatically placed at a vocational high school where college entry was off the table. But she was very smart and excelled as a student and made the Honor Society. I believe she also worked in a candy factory part time because she talked about how sick she got eating the candy as it came down the line to be boxed. Mom never had a chance at higher education but she was very sharp and later in life made it a point to keep up with the news and world events.

Mom with older sisters Amelia, center, and Anna. Some trio when the Fasano/D’Andria/’Lisa/Roberto factions of “La Familia” came together.

Before she took a turn for the worse a few months ago that swept her and Joy in and out of hospital and rehab more than once, I would call her every Wednesday at 11 am. She watched the clock and knowing that made it special to me. We always talked about politics, about Trump who she called a fascist without hesitation because she grasped the meaning of fascism in its essence, i.e. the total rule of money and those few who have most of it and how they are being serviced by Trump. She understood that the “sicko” – one of her favored usages – in the White House and those around him were gangsters, in effect, echoing what Franz Neumann called Hitler and the Nazis in his outstanding 1943 book, Behemoth. Every week for quite a long time, Mom demonstrated a deep understanding of historical forces swirling around us, always sharpened by her keen sense of class. Her humble beginnings as the first American-born child of Italian immigrant parents and the youngest of her three siblings remains the basis of her politics.

I will never forget the last time I saw her back in January. I was sitting on her bed talking to her Jamaican nurse about Trump. Mom was listening intently and then suddenly sat up and leaned toward me and asked, “So what happened?” She had been following the impeachment trial until going back to the hospital and was not aware how it had ended. When I told her the Senate did not convict Trump, she looked me straight in the eyes and, with that famous frown she and her older sisters Amelia and Anna got from the matriarch of the Fasanos, Maria, said, “That’s just great! Now what?”

But what Mom knows best about me is what she saw from jump. I was a born musician. Both she and Dad were music lovers who taught us so much about Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, to mention just a few of the artists whose LPs sat in our stereo cabinet and were played quite often. Anyway, when I was eight or nine, they asked me if I wanted to play a musical instrument. Yes, I wanted to play the drums. They already had bought me a pair of wooden bongos so I could play along with the first LP to sell over a million copies, Harry Belafonte’s Calypso (1956). Then Mom made her only error in judgment about me as I remember it. Thinking her son was too good a kid to become a drummer whom she associated with a less than desirable type of man, it was decided I should take clarinet lessons in school. To prove they were serious, she and Dad promptly went to a local music store and shelled out $175 for a Buffet clarinet, no cheap way to go in 1957 for a kid whose heart wasn’t in it. For more than a year, I looked at the thing in my bedroom and hardly touched it. In fact, the only song I ever learned, squeaks and all, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” became a running joke in my family.

Finally when I was about to enter junior high (now middle school) I got my wish when Grandma Roberto bought me my first set of drums. I learned how to play in school and also took lessons privately. My mother still talks about how I would get off the bus and run into the house to put on a Gene Krupa record or Ravel’s “Bolero” and just play along. Honestly, I got more enjoyment doing that than practicing boring exercises for snare drum or complex instructions about how to play jazz patterns with both hands and both feet. Loved to improvise but less inclined to learn someone else’s stuff.

And the rest is history. School band and orchestra were integral to my high school experience. I also played in rock bands, the first one called “The House of Commons” because I was swept along by the British wave like most white kids at the time. Then I discovered James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and other R&B guys most of my friends cared less about. I won’t burden you with any more details. But I always loved playing and still do. I’ve been fortunate to gig with some great musicians and take none of it for granted. That said, I close this tribute to Mom by explaining why.

Just before I finished writing my first book about 3 years ago, I told Mom one day that it had been so long since I had played my congas because of the daily pressure of writing and other troubles in my life that I was thinking it was time to quit music and let go whatever unrealized dreams I ever had about playing. I’ll paraphrase her immediate response simply because it was so powerful, and I’ve thought about it so much since then that the actual words are lost to me.

Michael, she said. You have accomplished many great things in your life. You finished your Ph.D. You were a journalist and then a university professor. You published a book that people should and will read. You’ve been a good father to Ana and Nate and a loving grandfather to Jordan and a faithful and loyal husband to Sharon. You have tried to help people around you where you live and elsewhere. But Michael, you have always been a musician. That’s who you are and always will be. Give it up? Come on, you can’t do that. Don’t do it!

And so I now play with greater heart and purpose and am focused on technique whether I am playing congas, bongos, timbales, or get this, the first drum set I’ve had since my early twenties. If Mom could only hear me gig again as she last did in the late 90s.

Yeah, Mom sure knew what was best for me for such a long time. Good thing because I didn’t.

And for that I am forever her loving son.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.