Good Jean


When I compliment my mom on her youthful skin, she normally says something like, “I have good genes; I’ve got the Genaro skin.” She doesn’t deny the compliment (I mean, how could she?) but deflects it as a gift, part of her heritage. She also has a pretty snappy sense of style, and she knows that too, because she’s been told quite a bit over the years. Some things you just accept.

When my dad had back surgery recently, I was on an extended stay with Mom at their home in northern California. I stayed with my mom at night, and chauffeured her back and forth to the hospital and then later to Dad’s rehab, every day. A few times along the way, we’d see an animal along the highway, gone on to his heavenly reward—what some might refer to as roadkill. Every time, I’d hear my mom suck her teeth and then emit a soft, “Awwww, poor thing.” It was sometimes a possum or another nasty rodent, and she’d react with that level of compassion as though it were a child’s pet golden retriever.

When the rubber meets the roadkill, she’s all about everyone else.

Jean Genaro Ciarolla is a character with character. When I was at her home, I had several duties. One was to answer the phone. Her instructions: Answer the phone, find out who it is, and then hang up.

She has the kind of caller ID that audibly announces the “intruder,” and so most of the time she already knows it’s a telemarketer, which she wants to avoid. Rather than letting it just go to the answering machine, though, she wanted me to physically pick up the phone and then hang up immediately.

My mom is a feisty one—stalwart, confident in her own way, direct, firm outer shell but soft, chewy center, heart of gold, true.

I’ve never seen anyone transform so dramatically when encountering someone in pain or need. One minute she’s her cantankerous self, reciting an incident when she had to give someone the what-for, and then a minute later, in a this-needs-empathy moment, she’s as soft as a bowl of her perfectly whisked, mashed potatoes.

It was her idea—her split-second decision to take me home when, at eighteen months old, I didn’t have one. She, along with my dad, swooped in and rescued me. Beginning and end of story.

Okay, so it’s not the end of the story.

Let’s talk about food. Here’s an example. I don’t know how she does it, but she has the ability to make a mundane iceberg lettuce salad taste better than the fancy schmancy field greens from the Waldorf Astoria. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s iceberg lettuce. It’s supposed to be boring—that’s its job. I don’t know if it’s the sliced radishes, the green onion, the diced tomatoes, the generic vinegar and olive oil, or the salt and pepper. It’s barebones, and it’s fantastic. Always hand-tossed, the only thing I can figure is that it’s because it’s her hands are doing the tossing.

As a little girl, I loved the comforting sound of my mom walking down the hallway at night and bending down to switch on the nightlight—that click of the light was my signal that she was about to tuck me in. I loved this moment. Once I was properly tucked, I knew that if I later got sick or had a bad dream, all I would have to do is call out to her and she’d be there instantly. She’d never make me feel guilty for waking her, and I never sensed she was annoyed by the interruption to her sleep. She knew I needed her.

I did. I do.

During my stay up north, we went to the home of some family friends one night for dinner. Someone said, “I know why you turned out so great, Pam; just take one look at your mom.”

At church one Sunday, someone told my mom that we look alike. I heard this a lot growing up, and I loved it. Jean Ciarolla didn’t give birth to me, but in a way, she did.

Sitting side by side in church—the church John and I were married in—I recalled the days as a child when I sat with her and with my trusty little baggie of dry Cheerios, in case I’d get hungry. How, when I’d get sleepy, I’d lay my head on her lap and she would stroke the wispy hair on my temples. Hers was a touch of heaven.

If I know how to love, it’s because she taught me how.

Technically, she was unable to pass her good genes onto me, but she did pass down her good Jean to me. She gave me her heart.–Pam Capone, I Punched Myself in the Eye