Albina Milani-Bianco (Albina Mazza)
A Special Memorial Tribute to my Mom and Her Life… the Amazing Albina!
Written by Diva (Milani) Clendenin
My heart aches that I am unable to be at my Mom’s funeral but as some of you may know, I have developed a host of health issues myself and I’m scheduled for open-heart surgery within a week (as well as other health procedures) and I have been advised by my cardiologist that it is not safe for me to travel. In lieu of sharing this tribute for my Mom personally today, I want to honor her by sharing a little bit about her life journey in writing.
Those who met my Mom when she was an adult, knew an astonishingly beautiful woman that always looked stylish and classy and carried herself with grace in all circumstances. My Mom experienced a life fraught with struggles, and her story is important. It is a story about tenacity, rising above circumstances, moving forward despite fears, and having courage when all seems lost. Because of my Mom, I am the woman I am today. I learned so much from her through the years, including sensitivity and strength… and I know that she was an inspiration to many people through the years, including many friends of mine.
My Mom was born Albina Mazza on September 15, 1936 in a humble little town in Northern Italy known as Ravezza. Her parents were Marcello and Assunta Mazza. She grew up with four siblings, Lidia, Diva, Marco, and Renata. She was devastated by the death of her sister Diva, who died at the tender age of 3, and upon her sister’s death, my mother made a promise to herself that when she grew up, if she gave birth to a daughter, she would name her after her sister. I am the lucky recipient of this name, and have always felt honored by this.
She grew up in poverty, and it was years before she owned her first pair of shoes. She once told me about a time when she was at a feast in the town of Tarsogno, standing behind a table next to her older sister Lidia, who sweetly shared an ice cream cone with my Mom (a memory she always treasured). But she was ashamed and self-conscious about her tattered and worn-out shoes, despite the fact that she had used the dark juice of wild blackberries from the fields, to cover up the scuff marks. (This is why she was trying to hide herself a bit behind the table). As an adult in later years, she owned what I felt were too many pairs of shoes… beautiful Italian leather shoes… and when I flew to New York to start packing up Mom’s apartment in preparation for her move to California this year, I asked her about ALL the shoes and why she had so many pairs of what looked like almost identical black pumps! She reminded me of her story with the shoes as a young girl. Anyone who knew my Mom, knew that she was extremely elegant, and well-dressed. The pride she took in her appearance was rooted in her early experiences in life, where she felt ashamed of her clothing and shoes, due to how poor her family was. She rose above her circumstances and exuded impeccable classiness… in all things. And with creativity and a sense of style, even with very little money, she always managed to look flawless, with attention to every detail. This tasteful and fashionable style of hers was something worth emulating and left an impression on me through my life. I wanted to be like my Mom, stylish and beautiful.
During the war, while still living in Northern Italy, she often told me about how frightening it was for her and her family and how the Nazi soldiers would go from home to home terrorizing the poor people in her town, stealing their food, abusing the women, killing the men. It was, perhaps, in those early days, that my Mom developed the inner strength that carried her, throughout her oftentimes very difficult and challenging life.
As a child, she wore her beautiful hair in braids, and sometimes enjoyed careless days playing and frolicking in the open fields in the mountainous region of Tarsogno, in the Province of Parma. She sometimes got in trouble with her own Mom, who wasn’t too happy about Albina losing track of the time, probably fearful of her young daughter being alone in the woods too long. But those were the times when little Albinetta, as she was affectionately called, allowed herself to dream and play. She appreciated simple pleasures throughout her life.
When my Mom was still at a very tender age, my grandfather (Marcello) came to New York and afterwards, her parents embarked upon an adventure to travel to the United States of America with their children, to build a life in the land of freedom and opportunity. But Albinetta was unable to make the trip and was left behind with her grandmother. When she was able to join them, at the age of 13, it was by ship, a transatlantic journey which she made alone, without her family. She told me many times about how frightening this trip was for her, and how sick she was during the entire journey, and I often wondered what stories may have been left untold about that voyage. Upon her arrival in New York, she was terrified in the crowd and didn’t even know how to use the public pay phone to let her family know she had disembarked. Through her own vulnerabilities and unexpected challenges, she developed sensitivity to others and a sincere compassion towards people, and she practiced kindness and generosity to everyone whose life she touched.
As a teenager in New York City, she tried to make sense of a place that was so foreign to her and vastly different from her small hometown in Italy. She had her struggles. And then, she met my father, Egidio Milani, who was born in a small town in Italy that was very close to my Mom’s birthplace, and who had come to the United States as a teenager himself. They were destined to be together and he was instantly smitten with her. He romanced her and won her heart and in October of 1955, when my Mom was 19 years old, they were married, and she became Albina Milani. They lived in Manhattan together as happy newlyweds and at the age of 21, my mother gave birth to me. We lived in Greenwich Village. Within 18 months, my sister Margaret was born. My parents had a toddler and a baby and not too long after that, purchased a home in Astoria, Queens. They later purchased another home in Astoria where my sister Diana was born and rented their first home. While we lived a very modest life, my hard-working father made sure there was a roof over our heads, and food on the table, and my stay-at-home Mom created a home-life for our immediate and extended family that was filled with love and generous hospitality. She loved my father, and my sisters and I, with her whole heart, and she demonstrated this with everything she did, and every word she spoke. They were both tremendous role models to me in the generosity they consistently extended to everyone, their faith in God, honesty, work ethic and sense of responsibility.
When I was a young child, my Mom also taught me how to cook, sew, embroider, do laundry, do food shopping, and clean house. My parents taught me how guests to our home were to be treated with extraordinary hospitality, and how to treat people with respect, and how to have respect for ourselves. They taught me the importance of education, and they both worked hard to provide the best life they could for my sisters and I. My Mom encouraged me to follow my dreams, and she taught me repeatedly that I could accomplish anything I wanted to achieve in life as long as I studied hard and stayed in school and applied myself. She always let me know how proud she was of my accomplishments and because of her generous encouragement and patience, I felt free to pursue my dreams and take chances in business and in my personal life. I owe much of my success in life to the tenacity and resilience encouraged in me by my parents. My Mom helped me develop courage and self-sufficiency, and prepared me for how to survive in the world without her.
Tragedy struck when my father died in 1969… and my Mom, a 32 year old widow with 3 small children, now had to navigate very tough times, emotionally and financially… not knowing how she would pay the mortgage, put food on the table, keep us clothed, pay for our education, and survive without my father. Her pain was deep and she was devastated on multiple levels. Just as she was forced to do during other times in her life, she once again faced the difficulties head-on and moved forward with courage. She sewed for neighbors in an attempt to squeeze out a meager living, and had incredible talent as a seamstress. She even designed and sewed most of our clothing as children, and took pride in creating matching outfits for us and with very little money, managed to create beautiful dresses and coats for us. Her creative talent was boundless and it seemed as if she was always cooking or sewing. She also worked cleaning apartments for clients in Manhattan. My parents had no savings, lived week to week, and anything they had was invested in property. We were always cash poor but we made it and my Mom often said it was the four of us against the world. My Mom was an incredible role model to the three of us, and many others… and a shining example of courage and tenacity. She worked very hard and didn’t sleep much, and often went without so that we had what she felt we needed. It’s amazing to think about how much a mother gives, and is willing to give, and she was incredibly selfless, always putting us (and others) first… a true model of being a servant to others… and therefore, a true model of being Christ-like. My mother also taught us a lot about faith through the years and helped us build a strong foundation in this area.
My Mom was eventually offered the opportunity to work in the restaurant business by my uncle Emilio. Learning to be a cashier was terrifying for her as she felt very insecure in her abilities but she faced her anxieties head-on and became the best and most efficient cashier ever, and was appreciated and respected by many people that she interacted with during her years in the workplace. She generously loaned my uncle money he needed to open his own restaurant years later, helping him to fulfill his dream for his family, and she worked as a cashier in this restaurant until her retirement. She also used her extraordinary creativity to design all flower arrangements for Emilio Ristorante. And with no formal training, she did a better job than any professional florist could have done.
There were years when my Mom and I worked together at a restaurant in the Citicorp Building in Manhattan, and then again at my uncle Emilio’s restaurant in Westchester, and we also enjoyed going out together to enjoy dinner, an occasional show or party, and we danced together, had very meaningful conversations, and were best buddies. Because my Mom was always so energetic and young-looking, people sometimes commented that we looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. My Mom taught me about having fun and we always enjoyed a closeness that I treasured. She had an exceptional way of making a person feel like the most important person in the world and was brilliant at one-on-one time. Those times were so precious to me!
At the age of 50, she became a grandmother when my niece Laura was born and that is when she also started to experience health issues that continued through the next 31 years. She endured a myriad of diagnostic tests, surgeries, hospital stays, restricted diets, medical procedures, numerous medications and more. We’ll never feel as if we had enough time with her, and yet, it is such a blessing that we had her in our lives as many years as we did, as she had more health issues than anyone I’ve ever known, and we almost lost her so many times. Through all her medical hardships, she continued to push forward… and she loved and enjoyed her three grandchildren, Laura, Steve and Cathy, and was the absolute best mother my sisters and I could have ever hoped for… and she continued to serve and honor every person she came into contact with, whether family members, neighbors, friends or strangers.
After years of being a widow and never dating, and focusing her entire life on others, always putting her own needs aside, a man walked into her life quite unexpectedly when she was in her 60’s, and was determined to have a relationship with her. I remember the conversation my Mom and I had when John Bianco asked her out to lunch, and she was truly reluctant about accepting the invitation. I encouraged her to say yes, to go out and enjoy herself, reminding her that my sisters and I were grown and all doing okay, and that it was all right for her to do things that would bring HER happiness for a change, cinching the deal by telling her: “It’s just lunch, not like the guy is asking you to marry him or anything!” Well, it wasn’t too long before John did propose marriage and at the age of 70, she married for a second time and became Albina Milani-Bianco. For the first time in years, we got to see my Mom enjoying romance, traveling with friends, enjoying a cruise and wonderful vacations, going on weekend getaways, attending concerts, and so much more. She laughed and lived well, and enjoyed the devotion and attention of a man again. She was generous and loving to an extended family and a new group of friends, and blessed an entirely new group of people in the world with the amazing Albina that we all knew and loved.
My Mom and John enjoyed 11 years together, 5 years as man and wife, until he passed in 2011. As a widow for the second time in her life, she experienced another loss, and once again, learned to trudge forward. Her health issues escalated in 2013 with multiple surgeries, and each time I was with my Mom, I never knew if it would be for the last time. There were constant reminders that each day could be her last. My husband and I begged her many times to come live with us in Northern California, increasingly concerned about her living alone. Earlier this year, it was my sister Margaret, and new circumstances, that persuaded my Mom to join us on the West Coast. We had hoped to enjoy at least a few more years with her but she took her last breath on October 20, 2017 after a week in hospice care at home, surrounded by her family.
A pillar of courage and strength, through everything that life threw her way, we were all inspired to be our best selves because of my Mom.
I hope and pray that I was able to give her the love, honor, and joy she deserved and I hope I always made her proud. My Mom was a precious gift from God to me, and I’m honored that God chose her to bring me into this world and be my Mom, my friend, my role model, my teacher, my inspiration, and more.
She was kind, overwhelmingly generous, funny, detail oriented, strong, charismatic and gorgeous! My Mom exuded so much beauty, grace, love, class, generosity, strength and patience in her life… that her children, grandchildren, brother and sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, extended family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others that met her and knew her… couldn’t help but be positively impacted by her presence in this world!
Her faith and trust in God carried her through all her difficult and challenging times and she always felt God would provide. She was thankful for all God gave her and had entrusted to her and I thank God that she was born.
My Mom told me that she loved me more and more each day and I’ll carry that love in my heart forever. I love my Mom so much, it hurts, and I will miss her every day of my life. There is no way to measure the pain of losing her now. I do feel comfort and peace knowing that she is no longer in pain, at that she is home and at peace in the loving arms of Jesus, and I believe she was greeted in heaven with open arms and “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23)
I look forward to the day when I will be with her again and share eternity with her. Until then, I hope and pray that I can live up to all that she wished and hoped for me and that I will always be the kind of woman that she would always be proud to have as a daughter.
Thank for allowing me to share a little bit about my amazing Mom.
Please be so kind as to bless my family with your own stories and experiences of my Mom by sharing your thoughts and honoring her on her tribute page at www.harrisonfuneral.com and by also touching the lives of others each day… the way she touched yours… and be the living proof of a loving God in this world!
Proverbs 31: 25-31 New International Version (NIV)
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.