Petaluma Profile: Memoir heals daughter’s broken tie to mother
Your relationship with a parent does not end with his or her death.
That's the central message of “The Cardinal Club: A Daughter's Journey to Acceptance,” a new memoir by Penngrove writer Suzanne Maggio.
“The book is about my effort after my mother died to reconcile a troubled relationship with her,” the veteran social worker said. “I've spent 30 years working with families on similar problems - people trying to connect with each other - but I couldn't do it in my own family.”
So she wrote a book.
Maggio's mother, Beatrice Maggio, was also a writer, penning two columns a week for the local newspaper in Somerset County, New Jersey. The popular columns were humorous and often talked about her own husband and children.
“She was an extraordinary woman, bright, gifted, the center of the universe for me,” Maggio said. “She wanted us to love her and give her lots of attention.” The children were happy to oblige. “But as we grow, we go from being shadows of our parents to our own true selves. I had always wanted my mother to see me for who I was. The entire effort in writing the book was rooted in my need to be seen.”
In her early 60s, Beatrice Maggio was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She lived with the disease and steadily declined for 19 years, until her death in 2016. During these years, Maggio would fly home from the West Coast every three months to visit. Two of Maggio's siblings lived nearby and did the lion's share of caregiving, but Maggio remained very involved, having her mother's medical power of attorney.
“As I saw her disappearing, I realized I wanted to write about her,” she said. “Once I began, I was driven to complete the book.”
While her mother was still alive, Maggio had taken a memoir-writing course offered by author and columnist Adair Lara in San Francisco. When she expressed the desire to write about her mother, Lara urged her to wait.
“She told me it was not time yet to tell that story.”
But Lara did teach her how to effectively tell such a story.
The book starts with Beatrice Maggio's death, then moves backward.
“I play with time,” explained Maggio, “going back and forth, tracing my path as I re-examine our relationship and begin to make amends.
“My book was about me accepting her, not her accepting me. Death is never the end of the relationship.”
Maggio suggested the book is for families, for people who have lost a loved one, for mothers and daughters and for people with unfinished business.
“It gives a roadmap for reaching understanding,” she said.
Game mother invented
The title comes from a game her mother invented to play when Maggio's father was away on business, a game they kept secret from him. She and her children would begin dinner by folding their cloth napkins into triangles and putting them on their heads, where they remained throughout dinner. She would present questions to the “cardinals,” such as the name of the river in Florence, Italy. The child who answered correctly received a nickel. The book cover features a photo of Beatrice Maggio, cigarette in hand, enjoying a warm day on the lawn. Next to her is an empty chair.
Maggio and her husband, Bob Hucek, moved to Petaluma in 1987 and relocated to Penngrove 14 years ago. Hucek is a former school administrator who retired from Santa Rosa City schools in 2015.
Growing up in New Jersey with three siblings, Maggio graduated from Boston College with a degree in English. She joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a national service organization serving the poor. She was sent to Great Falls, Montana, where her responsibilities included working in a children's home. She also spent several years working on a Native American reservation in Montana.
“That experience set me on my journey as a social worker,” she said. “It was clear to me that my path was one of service.”
Maggio worked on the book for 18 months, devoting Friday, Saturday and Sunday to full days of writing. “The process of writing the book was remarkable - therapeutic, lots of tears,” she said. “I had been carrying this pain a long time.”
Although Maggio loves to write, she couldn't write anything of a personal nature until this relationship had been settled. At a book launch in Penngrove last December, several attendees approached her with tears in their eyes and stories they needed to share about similar experiences.
“I've been blown away by the early response to the book,” Maggio said.
While not an expert on Alzheimer's, Maggio has gained considerable insight into the disease. She feels the most common misconception is that it's all about memory.
“The first symptom is memory loss, but as the brain atrophies, the essence of the person disappears,” she said. “My mom could not be vulnerable when she was whole.”
As do many Alzheimer's patients, Beatrice Maggio initially became combative, full of rage, even paranoid. “In the book, I describe some of those moments. For example, one day she said I had stolen dad's car. But by the end you just have vacancy.”
Maggio recalls bringing her mother out west for a week for her grandson's graduation. “It was like ‘Groundhog Day,'” Maggio said. “At the end of the week, she said, ‘I think I'll visit my daughter Suzanne.'?”
While the cause of Alzheimer's remains unclear, Maggio suspects her mother's heavy smoking habit and regular social drinking may have contributed. One of the most promising interventions for the incurable disease is music.
“Response to music is one of the last things to disappear,” she said. “It was true with my mom. We played opera for her, especially her favorite, ‘La Boheme' by Puccini.”
As someone who has worked with many troubled families, Maggio respects the human capacity to endure suffering and loss.
“There's something about watching people struggle and overcome their problems. They are more resilient than we realize,” she said. “During my career, I've watched people pull themselves out of severe conditions, sometimes the worst. It's amazing how strong and courageous people can be.”