How I Buried My Mother

Although the title of this work infers that I have completed the burial of my mother, this is not yet the case. I’ve been lugging her ashes from coast to cost and intercontinentally for years, burying and disinterring her, so that neither of us is ever resting in peace.

My mother was chic and rich. She came to New York from Italy in 1955, on an ocean liner called the Andrea Doria, in first class with 13 pieces of luggage. It was the ship’s final passage before it famously sank.

She inherited her father’s apartment in Rome at the base of the Spanish Steps. 

My father made her sell it and spent all her money. He was selfish, thoughtless and he used people.

My mother failed to protect me from his physical perversions and psychological abuse. I think she knew and chose to look the other way.

She gave me painful enemas when I was a little girl. As soon as I started walking, she made me wear granny panties and wool tights with a girdle on top. I found out this wasn’t normal when I was ridiculed at a sleepover. Were the enemas and girdle her way of cleansing and protecting me?  

I don’t remember her ever kissing me good night or tucking me in or being in my room at night. My father was the person who put me to bed. He was the one who “tickled” my back “to put me to sleep” until his fingers went down too far. He died when I was 27 and I’ve never shed a tear. When the funeral home asked my mother what she wanted to do with his ashes, she said, “Just throw them away”.

When she fell on her bad hip, I rode in the back of the ambulance with her. She said a gang of teenagers had broken into the house and raped her while she was holding a dollar bill and then the fireplace started to melt. I was furiously writing because I thought I might be able to use it someday. 

She was diagnosed with dementia and the doctors said it would happen to me too. That grim prediction. I was 30. 

She was going to be placed in a nursing home and I didn’t have any financial resources, although I knew a lot about “working the system”, so the moment she was admitted to the hospital I found a notary and got Power of Attorney. I cleared all the money out of her bank account so the nursing home couldn’t take it and I spent it all on designer clothing I never wore and no longer own. I could’ve bought an apartment in New York instead, but I knew nothing about money. In my household we had a lot of it and then suddenly we didn’t have any. Five star hotels and Michelin star restaurants for three months in Italy every summer suddenly became a weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. 

If I’d been paying attention, I might’ve noticed her dementia starting the year before, when she called me to help her get to the hairdresser. She wasn’t moving well because her hip was hurting and she had trouble getting in and out of a taxi. I was irritated and impatient. Now that I’m older I know what it feels like to have a bad hip. Yet instead of showing compassion all I did was think about how annoyed I was that I had to wait hours to take her home. 

It reminded me of all the times I waited for her as a little girl. When we went to Rome, I waited while she got measured for custom gloves and sandals. Then her pedicure. Then shopping at Gucci. Then visiting her mother’s grave. My mother complained of anemia and said it was important for her to lie in the sun. I have many photos of me bored on a beach. 

She discouraged all my dreams because she thought they had no potential for profit. Who knows what I might have accomplished with some encouragement. 

I found a letter about an IQ test I took when I was 4. “Test results show that your child, Marina, places in the 98 percentile… indicative of superior ability”. My mother had written “no good”. 

This letter still hurts me so much. Did she think I wasn’t smart enough? Or that being smart was “no good”? 

When I was 10 I had to write an essay for school about my family. It was one sentence long. “I live alone, except for my mother and my father”. 

I rarely visited her in the nursing home. I didn’t want to spend any time with her. I didn’t even spend time with her when she was alive. I left her in New York and moved to Los Angeles.

After five years of phone calls from the nursing home requesting approvals for amputations of my mother’s body parts, I decided to visit. I put together a photo album with pictures from her youth because I heard that when you have dementia, memories of your past become clearer.

I turned the pages so she could see. She wailed and closed her eyes and cried. I felt so cruel. I wanted her to love me for putting the photo album together. That was the last time I saw her. 

The first time I buried her, I was living in LA, so I bought a niche for four in the famous Forest Lawn Hollywood cemetery because I thought it might be valuable if I chose to resell it. I had no interest in being buried with her. I just wanted to use it in my standup act. “I’m gonna make it to Hollywood one way or another”.

So, to recap, when I was 30 my mother got dementia. I left her in a nursing home in NY and moved to LA. When I was 36 she died. I had her ashes shipped from NY to LA where I buried her, and then I moved back to NY. 

23 years later, I started going through her stuff. After much due diligence, I determined she was the illegitimate child of a silent screen siren and circus strongman, abandoned by her mother and reared by an Austrian nanny. Her birth certificate indicated she was born in Vienna. There was no father listed. She cavorted with militant Fascists during her WWII upbringing. She must have been delighted when I was born on Mussolini’s birthday. She named our cat Benito. 

Here she is on a ski trip with a Fascist soldier. 

And here she is with an American soldier. Look at her sitting on a jeep in a bikini with flirty legs and a big smile. I wish this woman had been my mother. 

The mother I knew was stern and humorless. 

She barely showed me any warmth or maternal affection. 

She never got that from her own mother. My mother, who rarely shared any personal information, said her mother told her, “You’re ugly. You better study“.

Even when my mother cooked, I had to eat with a book under each arm to keep my elbows off the table and a book balanced on my head so I would sit up straight. Did she learn this from her Austrian nanny? It’s a miracle I don’t have an eating disorder. 

If she held my hand, it was to restrain me, to stop me from running away. She used to tell people I came out feet first and never crawled. She said I just started walking. So even as an infant, my instinct was to walk away as quickly as possible. 

Her biological parents, Linda and Luciano Albertini, made 12 silent films together in the early 1900’s. I was infatuated with her glamorous mother and had her photos all over my apartment until I learned what a terrible person she was. 

Luciano was also a famous stuntman. He recued women falling from trees and babies crawling up ladders.

Linda made extra money in the circus. 

She also modeled for Amleto Cataldi, the person I thought was my mother’s father, since she took his last name. I don’t think my mother ever met her biological father or her stepfather.

Cataldi was a wealthy Italian sculptor with famous friends’ like Picasso, De Chirico and Rodin. Cataldi’s statues are throughout Rome as public works and in museums. My mother said the King of Italy bought some of his art. Cataldi was commissioned by Mussolini to make a statue that still adorns the entrance of the 1924 Olympics.

When Linda had an affair with Luciano and got pregnant, she holed up in a house in Vienna until my mother was born. It was 1922 and she sure looks miserable thinking about all the fancy soirées she was missing in Rome. 

During this time Luciano sent Linda many postcards, always stills from his films, referring to himself as Papa Luciano. 

He loved Linda and wanted to be with her and their baby. But he was a penniless drunk philanderer, and Linda was a gold digger. My mother told our dentist her mother was a prostitute.

Linda paid an Austrian nanny, Anna Neuber, to raise my mother. I have a few photos of my mother with Anna, but not one photo of my mother with her biological mother Linda.

I spent several years trying to figure out who Anna was and why my mother ended up with her personal effects, including Anna’s passport, endless illegible German postcards, a document indicating my mother paid for Anna’s burial, and a swastika armband. Everything was neatly placed in a box, beside my father’s Bar Mitzvah stuff. How did my Fascist mother, raised by a Nazi nanny, end up marrying a Jew?

Cataldi died in 1930, so in 1929, when he was probably already ill, I think Linda forced him to marry her. She made him sign a document legally adopting my mother, who he didn’t know about and had never met. He also signed a will leaving everything to Linda and my mother. I’m surprised Linda included my mother in the will at all.

This is a clip from one of Linda’s films that I believe encapsulates her relationship with my mother. 

I think it looks like she’s saying, “Fuck you”.

23 years after my mother’s first burial, I had my mother’s ashes disinterred and I buried her again, this time in Italy. 

I sold her cremation niche on eBay. When I researched Forest Lawn Hollywood to write the auction description, I discovered there was another Forest Lawn in Glendale that had a crypt with a statue by my grandfather. Should I have buried her there? 

Forest Lawn is a prestigious cemetery that is known for prominent entertainment industry people. She was down the hall from Liberace and Marty Feldman, and eventually near the crypt of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I used this detail to sell her columbarium niche as “Star Wars adjacent”. 

My mother buried her own mother in a prestigious monumental 19th Century cemetery in Rome, the final resting place of many esteemed Catholics, writers, politicians and to my delight, Marcello Mastroianni. He acted in several Fellini films. 

My mother loved to ski and wanted to be buried at the top of the Alps with a flower called edelweiss. I found edelweiss pressed into all of her journals and dried in small bundles held together with thread. I read that Italian’s traditionally bury the dead with a treasured possession to make certain their soul leaves the earth. I’ve tried to grow it on my windowsill and in my garden, so far unsuccessfully. 

I planned a trip to toss her ashes from the top of Mont Blanc. They have a tourist attraction called “Step Into The Void” which is a glass box that juts out the top of the mountain so you can look down and see where you’re going to die when it snaps off.

Due to unexpected circumstances that plan changed. 

Maybe I’ll bury my mother in Rimini, since it’s where Fellini was born and my mother was friends with him.  I’m an extra in Fellini’s Roma.   

Before going to Italy, I opened the urn. I thought it was weird when the funeral director told me I would need a flathead screwdriver to open it. The “urn” was a filthy black plastic box in what they called a “velvet bag” which was just a cotton sack. 

Inside was a plastic bag closed with a twist tie, the kind you would use to close a garbage bag. I asked him if the bag was biodegradable or water-soluble and he said neither. I put my mother’s edelweiss in the sack.  

I booked a flight to Bologna on my phone and received an email confirming my flight to Florence. So I spent the day in Florence with a friend and took the train to Bologna. 

I got the last seat on the train and asked the young man behind me if he could put my suitcase in the rack overhead. ‘È molto pesante perché dentro c’è mia mamma’. (It’s very heavy, because my mother’s inside). He obliged with no acknowledgment. When we got to Bologna he took the suitcase down and rolled it over to the exit door. His name was Andrea.

He carried my suitcase and whisked me to the connecting train to Rimini. I was 20 minutes early so he waited with me and we had an intense conversation about our life changing events. I explained that I planned to bury my mother in Rimini but my friend who was going to film the burial wasn’t able to come, so I was hoping to find someone on the beach to film it on my phone. He said he would be honored to do it. He was not an artist and had never filmed anything, but wanted to help me. We exchanged emails, I held my phone up for a selfie, he kissed me on both cheeks and I got on the train. I immediately posted it on Instagram and proclaimed he was my new Italian boyfriend. 

That night, I emailed him the selfie and thanked him. He replied immediately. “Ciao Marina! If you still need someone to record you, I can come to Rimini this week!”

We walked the beach until late afternoon, looking for the right spot. He pointed to a small island of wet sand at the edge of the sea, surrounded by water. High tide would wash her away. I handed him my phone.

I didn’t plan a ritual. No rose petals tossed. No words said. 

I sat in the wet sand, something I always hated to do as a child. I dug a hole like a dog, fast and deep. I dumped the ashes and replaced the wet sand. It felt incomplete and anti-climactic. I took my time smoothing out the burial spot. Then I realized I forgot to bury her with the edelweiss. I felt awful.  

I walked into the sea. I became the little girl on the beach who hated the gritty sand in my bathing suit. I couldn’t wait to wash it off.

I looked for a landmark. Every path to the beach has an identifying number. My mother’s was 28, and had a beautiful hand-painted drawing of a starfish around it. She used to call me Stellamarina, the word for starfish in Italian. I finally felt like I’d buried her in the right place. 

I went back to Rimini a year later and there was a large mound of sand on top of where I buried her. 

I walked towards the mound and around it. 

With my back towards the ocean all I could see were tractors and large machines hauling sand. There was so much noise I can’t believe I didn’t notice it when I got there. 

I moved backwards into the water. It was so much easier to be a filmmaker than the daughter who buried her mother in a construction site. I already had complicated feelings about the process and reasoning behind my mother’s burials. Now I had so much regret.

I waded back and stood at the edge of the sand where I believe I buried her. I looked down and filmed the sand and watched the water come in around my feet and the head of a red carnation landed at my toes. 

I thought the red carnation was a funeral flower in Italy, used to make rosaries that are laid across a casket. My friends said the carnation was my mother telling me she is okay. I wanted to believe it was important. I wonder why I didn’t save it and dry it pressed in a book like my mother did with all of her flowers. I feel sad that I didn’t do that. 

Her mother abandoned her and my mother abandoned me. Why did she choose to pass the cruelty down? Maybe Anna gave her enemas and she thought that’s what mother’s did? Since she had no parenting herself, how could she possibly have known how to parent me? I struggle to grieve. When my mother was in the hospital with dementia I noticed her hand firmly clutching nothing, and I wondered if she was hanging on to the past so tightly, there was no room for her future. 

Thank you to Cineteca Nazionale for the rights to use Linda Albertini’s silent film footage, to Andrea Sandri for filming the Rimini burial and taking the black and white stills, to Ivo Blom for the still of Luciano Albertini saving a baby on a ladder, to Spaarnestad Photo for the still of Luciano Albertini hanging with woman from tree, and to Mick Harvey for tirelessly translating my mother’s German letters and documents. 

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