My mom’s origin story began in a small town in southern Italy called Castellaneta in 1957. That’s where her and her sister were born to Nicola Galatone and Giuseppina Ripa. Nicola (my Nonno) and Pina (my Nonna) were a tinsmith and a seamstress, respectively. Life conditions were difficult and work was hard to come by for my grandparents. Without too much concern for the expected difficulties of immigrating to a new country with a different language, a cross-Atlantic trip was planned with the hope of a better life in Canada, where my mom’s zio (uncle) Franko (unlcle Frank) was working as a nurse in Montreal and able to sponsor the young family of four. I don’t think it was so much a spirit of adventure but instead one of love for their small family and trust in God that led my grandparents to take such a giant leap of faith. A last minute car accident almost scuttled the entire trip and Nonna spent nearly a month in hospital caring for her husband as they pondered their family’s future.
Life wasn’t immediately better in Montreal, with a number of barriers preventing an immediate boost to their fortunes. Affable people, they were able to find work within days, Nonno as a helper in a shipping facility and Nonna as a seamstress. They commuted for hours each day from their tiny apartment shared with zio but this didn’t deter or prevent them from the arduous task of learning English and French in the little spare time that they had. Canadian winters? No problem, that’s what coats, hats, gloves and boots are made for. I honestly don’t think they skipped a beat on their way to eventually finding their own apartment and beginning the process of securing the family’s financial security for decades to come. Of course some of the traditions from back home continued; Nonno made his own wine and Nonna made meals and desserts that reminded them of their lives back in Italy. They loved life in spite of the challenges because it was one that they had themselves chosen.
I don’t know all of the details of how my mom and my aunt perceived this new life in Canada in those early years. What I do know about my mom is that she was determined to make an even better life for herself and how best to do that by getting an education. Making new friends wasn’t the priority for bambina Vincenza as she focused on her studies. She finished as her high school’s valedictorian and went to McGill University on a scholarship. Money wasn’t driving her; in fact, she only realized after her graduation that the scholarship money she was owed had never been collected or applied to her studies. She had been determined to pave her own way and even fibbed her desire to go back to school in order to secure a job that better utilized her talents than the one Nonna had her doing at her own work. Sorting objects by colour for hours on end for an entire summer wasn’t going to cut it for mom.
With a degree in Chemical Engineering, she was an outlier in a male dominated profession. Despite the many obstacles she herself encountered along her own journey, she passionately persisted, drawing on the tenacity her own parents demonstrated day in and day out. She eventually had an extremely long and successful career in public service for various ministries in the Federal Government, with her last role as an Executive with Environment Canada. I still recall her retirement party where colleagues and friends lauded her accomplishments and praised her leadership. Of course she had to make her own sacrifices to make it all work, often traveling to find the best opportunities for her career advancement and the opportunity for a better life for her family. What started with work in a lab in Kanata, ON continued at the Syncrude facility in what is now Fort McMurry, AB, then onwards to Ottawa ON, next to Varennes, QC and back to Ottawa, ON.
I think a portion of this origin story is what shaped mom’s hopes and dreams for her own two children, my older sister and I. I was never told to become an Engineer, or a Doctor or Lawyer, but I knew that education was important for her. While it was never a big focus of mine in my youth as I instead concentrated my efforts on playing sports and making friends, I knew that it was important to her and I made the minimum effort required to do well in school. For university I wanted to stay close to home in Ottawa where I felt like we had finally settled in. I chose nearby Carleton University and ultimately completed a Bachelor of Commerce. While my mom had obviously come a long way from the impoverished Italy south of the 1950s, I couldn’t help but compare myself to those around me in a thriving Canadian economy. I wanted even better for myself and so I returned to Montreal to complete an MBA at Concordia University and pass my CFA exams. When I was named the top student (class of 36) at the graduation dinner for students in the Goodman Institute of Investment Management program, I knew that my mom was proud of me.
I had lots to look forward to that indicated I was on the right path towards ‘my own’ bright future – an opportunity to work with renowned Canadian businessman Stephen Jarislowsky, a job offer at CIBC, my wedding. Life was really good. And then I got diagnosed with MS. Ever since, my mom and I have shed many tears together; I think because at the time it meant the possibility of having this dream of a better life shattered before our eyes. I’ll never forget the first time my mom told me that she wished she had been diagnosed with MS instead of me. I mean how could life be so cruel to her son? Every time she would bring this up, I felt very conflicted – I mean I wouldn’t wish this disease on my worst enemy let along my mother but deep down I understood the message she was trying to convey and I hugged her and cried all the same.
Mom, I’m proud to say that you no longer need to wish you had received the diagnoses instead of me. I am grateful to have received it because it has forever changed my life for the better. I now live with the understanding of what truly matters in life, the same thing that Nonno and Nonna already knew over 70 years ago, that family is truly the most important thing in life. Regardless of what MS will throw at me in the future, I am resolved to bring the same grit and determination to any challenges that our family has shown for decades. I will do so with a smile on my face knowing that I already have everything I need in life and that all I have to do now is look for ways to give back to the communities that have helped us along the way.
I love you with all my heart. Happy Mother’s Day