Monthly Archives: January 2013

laugh mother cry

The product of a writing exercise inspired by the piece “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams, designed and led by the talented teaching artist Alice George:

by Daniel Valentine

by Daniel Valentine

I mother to avoid being a mother

I mother because I fear I will have no children to call my own

I mother to emulate my mother

I mother, filling a hole of giving that is always with me

I mother to keep my heart beating, my soul uplifted

I mother to push away pain

I mother because it’s what I was taught to do and I resent it

I mother so no one feels the pain of abandonment

I mother the hungry, even when their mouths are full

I mother to be a father, sister, brother, auntie, uncle

I mother because I miss my grandmothers and I do not know how to replace them

I mother because I accept the responsibility of other people’s children

I mother to love and feel loved

I mother because I used to work in a place where no mothers existed, fighting the power  that brought children to this place, saying no Fear, no Hopelessness, no Loneliness — these children are mine

Going Home to Dolly

My nonno, my Italian grandfather, passed away this morning. That means I have no more grandparents. Want a grandparent? Don’t ask me! I’m tapped.

Ah, gallow’s humor. Or is it gallows humor? Who is Gallow if it’s his/her/their humor?

My nonno…I won’t lie, he wasn’t this outstanding citizen of the world. He was cranky and miserable; he didn’t treat his children well as they grew up. He always said, “Everyone’s out to get you,” and “Don’t trust nobody!” or “I just want to die,” in this morbid, slightly paranoid way. But I loved him.  When my nonna was alive, they lived only 5 minutes from my parents’ house for the majority of my childhood.  They were my brother and mine’s regular babysitters, always taking us to their home or coming over to visit. My nonno would teach me how to draw and paint; he was a self-taught oil painter who used to make his own brushes out of cloth strips. His oil paintings covered the walls of our house, mostly landscapes and single portraits.  My nonno said he never painted smiling people, because the world wasn’t like that. We would have dinner with them at least a few times a week.  My nonna was a phenomenal cook and would bring over baked ziti, foccaccia, profiteroles, meatloaf…believe me, you’ve never had Italian food like hers, not even at the Olive Garden. And my nonno would call her “Dolly” – “Dahhlly,” he would say — that’s what she has on her gravestone now under her name.

One of nonno's many oil paintings.

One of nonno’s many oil paintings.

Nonno was a captivating storyteller and a jokester. As my nonna was ailing, I started recording both of them telling stories of growing up in Italy, fighting in World War II, raising their kids in a railroad apartment in Brooklyn. Nonno didn’t like Jewish people because he had worked at a garment factory for a Jewish guy who was cheap and mean.  But when I brought home Dan, who’s Jewish, nonno immediately liked him because, “He’s a good guy.  He got a job.” When really, it was the fact that Dan sat and listened to his stories, asked him questions and spent time with him when the rest of the family wanted a break. Nonno would tell me, “that man — he really loves you!” I didn’t want to acknowledge what he saw for a long time, but he was right. He knew a soulmate when he saw one.



After my nonna died, my nonno was revealed in a way. Without her, he said he had nothing to live for, and so was nothing to the world. I know there are statistics regarding long-term relationships about the surviving partner dying usually within a year from their partner’s passing; that’s what was happening to nonno. Even though nonna and nonno fought like crazy, drove each other nuts, they Loved in a big, capitalized way, even into their 80s. It wasn’t the healthiest love, but it gave their lives meaning. Nonna and nonno met in Italy when they were in their early teens; nonna said she knew she was going to marry nonno from that very moment. Nonna was constantly jealous of the older woman who lived across the street from them in their retirement complex. Nonna thought this woman was trying to steal nonno from her, especially when the woman put up a sign in her garden that had an innocuous quote about love on it. My nonna called other women “chickens,” implying that nonno was indeed a rooster, but her rooster only.

I realize that in a way, I loved nonno because of nonna. As an elderly man, it was hard to love nonno because his outlook on life was so bleak.  But with nonna, either alive or in memory, I loved him because she made him a better person. As a child and into adulthood, I could see that they complimented each other in how much they loved their family. We were the center of their universe, and that space overflowed with affection everyday of their lives.

I am sad because my nonno will not be at our wedding. I was really hoping he would make it because I wanted a grandparent there – it just felt important to me as a representation of my life cycle. But also because I wanted something of my nonna there with me; that through his eyes, she’d be able to see her earring that I made into my engagement ring or her wedding picture I’d put up at our ceremony…I miss being able to talk about my wedding planning with her because I know it would have brought her so much joy.  I don’t speak about my wedding in serious or detailed terms with many people, but I would have told her everything, over and over, as much as she wanted to hear it.  Ultimately though, what I want is my nonna and nonno together, when they are their happiest. And that’s how they’ll be at our wedding this summer.

There was a nurse, no doubt of the chicken variety, who was with my nonno when he passed this morning. She said he had a little smile on his face as he stopped breathing. I’m positive it was because he was finally going home to his Dolly.


Performance Reading at 2nd Story! January 13th and 14th

Hurray! Performance time is almost here, a time of love, a time of fear. Just kidding! No real fear, though I’m sure I will be nervous for my very first reading as an ensemble member of 2nd Story, a fabulous organization collecting and curating performances of personal stories in Chicago. If you are in Chicago, and have a few hours to spend listening to well-written, compellingly performed stories of Starting Over, please come to our show on Sunday, January 13th or Monday, January 14th at 7p. Click here for tickets and more information.

And now for an excerpt from my story GO ON BACK TO YOUR BOYFRIEND    (or GOBTYB):

Naomi could tell I was brushing her off. She followed me downstairs to the coat check where she badgered me enough to get my number, and then quickly started dancing into the crowd. Completely put-off, I left the club without bothering to find my friends. I boarded the first leg of my 30-minute commute home to Stoke Newington, London’s answer to Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. The train was jammed with sloppy drunk English people, all shameless before midnight. The white doors slid shut and I was pressed against very loud, smelly bodies. I made myself as small as possible so no one would notice me…or my type.

A few days later I was sitting on my bed when my phone pinged with a text message from Naomi, “I really enjoyed meeting you. You’re so beautiful. I’d love to take you out this weekend.”

I looked at the text and Naomi’s taunting refrain repeated in my mind: Go on back to your boyfriend. I thought about my decision to leave the US. Had I been overdramatic? Was this living in London thing really going to work, or was Naomi right? In the end, was I just going to go on back to my boyfriend?

Hope to see you there!