Marianne Leone

Marianne Leone

Marianne Leone is a writer/actor, and a first-generation American. Both her parents were Italian. She has written two memoirs, JESSE (Simon & Schuster, 2010, and MA SPEAKS UP (Beacon Press, 2017). She has written essays for the Boston Globe, Post Road Literary Magazine, Lithub, Coastal Living, and many more. Marianne Leone played Michael Imperioli’s mother on the Sopranos for four seasons (Christopher Moltisanti. She was Joanne Moltisanti).


Il Mare


The first time I walk into the Mediterranean from the crowded beach at Santa Maria di Castellabata, the temperature of the water is a revelation. I am astonished that my body is able to flow into the sea without adjustment. It’s as if I am walking backwards into a womb, forming a synthesis that must be part amniotic fluid. The physical rules of space begin to fall away. In this waking dream I feel as if I could now take flight or walk through solid things like a ghost. This water is saltier, ancient, welcoming. It surrounds me in a maternal embrace that makes me question why mare in Italian is ascribed a masculine descriptor. The water that holds me in that storied sea feels like a mother, like the source of all life. My Italian mother lived in the mountains, surrounded and enclosed by them, and her association with the Mediterranean was as a place of tears, of escape from a looming war, and an arranged marriage to an old man who brought a dowry of hectares and pigs. That water was a river Styx, a place of departure and separation forever from her own mother, who died six months after her arrival in America.

In Massachusetts, the place where I swim every day in summer demands that I lurch warily over a rocky beach to prove myself worthy in some ancient warrior rite of passage before I can enter and surrender my shrinking flesh to its cold embrace. In the deep south of Italy on the Cilento coast, the beach is powdery; I can float like an angel without wings as I glide towards the mirrored blue, reborn into a languid body stupefied by sun. This magically fluid new body is one that somehow familiar. It’s the spirit-form from my baby dreams, when I thought I could make myself do anything, grow like Alice to Amazon size in an instant, or walk a tightrope to the stars. At my beach on the south shore of Boston, I must carefully, slowly pick my way through its prickly sands, wary of concealed assassins, the jagged clamshell lying in wait to jab and slice, the thuggish piece of quartz stabbing my instep from its half-submerged hiding place. Screaming in protest like a newborn entering the unknown world, I finally submerge after staggering the shock waves to my body, reassuring first my ankles, then my knees, and finally, shoulders, introducing each part timidly, bowing to the power of the pain this unforgiving water can inflict. But it is finally this crueler rite that I prefer: after an hour of treading water in the bay my flesh feels firmer, my heartbeat stronger, my life affirmed. The water and I are equals, adversaries with mutual respect for one another.

This acceptance mirrors the hard-won relationship I had with my mother. During the childhood and teen wars of attrition that really lasted well into my twenties, my mother and I were enemies facing off against the cultural barriers that made us strangers to one another. Embracing the Med felt like a chance to rewrite those years of criss cross misunderstandings, of suspicion and fear of each other, of letting go my primal dread that the warmth my mother offered freely would drag me down, steal the air from my lungs, drown me in her otherness. My mother called me by her own name, Mamma, in the way of southern Italian mothers, implying that there was no defining point where she ended and I began. When I had my son, I finally understood the blurred lines that parenting can bring, the overlapping of one life with another. My mother and I became allies then, at last affording each other the love that comes from a deeper understanding of the differences that separated us.

I am here, in the flinty Northeast, the place where I began. The Med is a whisper, a memory in the oomphalos, a life remembered only in the cells I hold within, a legacy from my immigrant mother, who sailed away on this ancient sea to find her destino on another, wilder, American shore.

Words in this post: © Marianne Leone
Published with the permission of Marianne Leone