Joe's mother died in her sleep Thursday night after an extended period of ill health.
I met Rita Costanzo and her husband Massimo about 30 years ago. They emigrated to Salt lake City from Italy aboard the Andrea Doria in the early 1950s.They were from a very poor, isolated village in Calabria, Southern Italy. They bravely came to America with nothing except for a determination to make a good life for themselves and their four children.
They were very successful in doing so. Joe (Giuseppe) and his siblings -- Rugiero, Fausto and Maria Theresa -- are extraordinary people, personally as well as professionally.
Because of her background, I initially regarded Rita as a simple village girl -- sweet and generous but naive and dependent. She was always cooking and always happy, or so it seemed.
Over the years, I came to realize that she possessed a depth of compassion that I had never known in another person. She felt pain for others that seemed at times to tear her apart. She worried endlessly about the well-being of those she cared about. Her empathy was a beautiful, intrinsic quality that gave her an awe-inspiring wisdom about the travails of her many friends and extended, loving family.
I was wrong ever to have believed that Rita was the stereotypical, beaming Italian mama. She suffered in many ways. I think that this suffering attuned her to the anguish of others. She believed and respected their internal turmoil in ways that most people are unable to grasp. She understood, and she did not judge. She just loved.
When my father died just over a year ago, Joe took me to see her. She was quite ill and homebound even then. But she came rushing to embrace me, already sobbing. I had never been the recipient of such an intensely heartfelt gesture.
Rita didn't talk much. She listened. Although she had little book learning, she was very wise and intuitive about the human condition. She made tough decisions and stood by them. She made major decisions without feeling the need to seek anyone's assistance. She knew what was right, and she never wavered. She loved all people regardless of status, race or religion. She ran her home and her life with competence and bravery. All of this she did in a quiet way, just as she held tightly to her religious beliefs without fanfare. She never discussed her ardent faith in Catholicism, but it gave her an indomitable foundation.
Rita and Massimo never sought the spotlight, but it seemed that wherever they went -- even to the grocery store -- people knew them, flocked to them, delighted in them. They were the sweetest, most unassuming pair, who carried with them the warmth and charming manners of the Old World. Joe and I go into the same grocery store, and no one pays us the slightest bit of attention. When his parents enter, store employees do everything short of announcing it on the intercom. Simply put, they were irresistibly lovable.
Rita's ever-fragrant kitchen became a gathering place of sorts, for people ranging from politicians, the Monsignor and prominent businessmen to the school crossing guard out front and countless neighbors, relatives and fellow Italian immigrants. Platters of luscious food were always just a moment away, and Rita welcomed everyone, no matter how ill she was feeling. She was always there to make people feel validated, and she always did.
For me, the greatest testament to Rita's brilliance is her children. I once told her she should write a book on child-rearing. I truly can't conceive of how she went about creating such spectacularly smart, decent, generous, modest and responsible human beings (especially my Joe).
In her final days -- spent at home, as she insisted -- her beautiful husband Massimo stood at her bedside, crying silently.
When she died, and I embraced him, he said, with a trembling voice, "She was different."
Indeed she was, and she was grandly loved for it. I will miss you, Rita, and I will never forget you.