Jim Shepard
Photo: Michael Lionstar
My mother was born Ida Picarazzi in Strangolagalli, Italy, a town whose name roughly translates as "strangle the rooster," and if you were to meet my mother, you’d think: "Of course that’s where she’s from." An observer could tell from a low-flying aircraft that my mother comes from what used to be called hearty peasant stock, and when it comes to both the social niceties and interacting with her family, Ida has always had the touch of a blacksmith.

When agitated, she’s something to behold, and she’s almost always agitated. She has a voice that could knock squirrels from trees. I remember a boy who lived two streets over remarking on the bus to school that he’d heard me being disciplined the day before. She’s half-deaf, or by now more than half-deaf, thanks to a punctured eardrum from childhood, which means that even when she’s trying to be discreet—say, when sitting in a theater and needing help with a movie’s plot—those all around her, in a wide, wide circle, have the uncanny impression that Ida is talking directly to them.

A few years ago, at her 80th birthday, I found myself wondering where to begin, when celebrating her. There are so many lessons that I realize I’ve learned from Ida’s examples—positive and negative—over the years: The importance of calm. The advantages of beating your children with a wooden spoon as opposed to a metal one. And here’s a good rule of thumb, for those of you who might wonder what it’s like to grow up with a mother who A) was raised in a particularly poverty-stricken region of Italy and B) lived through the Great Depression: You’re going to learn some lessons about frugality from a woman who eats dandelion sandwiches.

Without Ida, I also probably wouldn’t be a writer. One characteristic of writers is a playfulness with words—and boy, is being around Ida a crash course in that. She has, over the years, told her children to stay away from strange animals in the woods, because those animals could bite you and give you rabbis. She’s told us that someone she knew was well-off because he had an ingrown swimming pool. She’s told us, when unable to decide about something, that she didn’t care; that as far as she was concerned, it was eight of one or a half dozen of another. She’s told us that her brother Guido was so generous he’d give you the skin off his back. She told a friend of mine that one of my favorite monster movies when I was a kid was King Kong vs. Gonzales.

And how’s this for an unexpectedly highbrow contribution that my mother made to my life: Maybe more than anyone I know, she’s demonstrated just how mysterious a thing identity really is. Who are we, really? Can we ever really know? My mother has had a hilariously hard time keeping names and faces straight, even within her own nuclear family. Over the years, she’s called me Guido, Mario, Johnny, Agnes, Jean and Hey You. But it wasn’t that it was she was distracted; it was that she was so excited about the things that other people take for granted. As in: "Oh, my God, Guido, come look: A MONKEY ON TV!"