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Sean Kirst: From Niagara, the great truth Mario Pirastru understood

This column originally ran only digitally, just before Mother's Day. It was revised as a tribute for the print version of The Buffalo News, following the death of Mario Pirastru.

Thirty years ago this spring, my mother died of lung cancer. She was only 65. It was a fast and difficult descent. I was a young reporter at the time for the Niagara Gazette. After the funeral, once I went back to work, I did an interview for a news story I was writing for that paper. I met with a man who was essentially a stranger to me.

I remember it was a gorgeous May morning. I remember we spoke in an office of dark and gleaming wood, not far from the edge of Niagara Falls themselves. I do not even remember the topic of the story that brought me there to speak with him.

By chance, he had read my mother’s obituary in the paper. I barely knew him. Before we started, he told me he had something to say. He offered the greatest and most lasting condolence I have ever received. It was a gift. Since that time, when people I know have lost their mothers, I have shared what he told me. Over the years, I have passed along this story dozens upon dozens of times.

It is living advice. It is as true as anything I've ever heard. I always hope it means as much for someone else as it did for me.

Mario and Marie Pirastru, married 63 years, at their home in Niagara Falls: Love and loss lead to deep lessons, for Mother's Day. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The man's name was Mario Pirastru, whose funeral was last week. When I first met him, he was regional director of state parks, the guy who oversaw the state reservation at Niagara Falls. I interviewed him occasionally during my years at Niagara, but I hardly knew him. I had no bond, no personal connection.

When I walked in that morning, he was behind his desk. He stood up and shook my hand. His speech always had a kind of lyrical cadence so familiar to his city. As we prepared to do our jobs in that quiet office, this is what he told me:

“Look,” he said, “I saw your mother died. Before we get started, I just want to tell you something. I don’t know you, but I think I know something about your mother. You had a big family?”

I told him there were six of us, that I was the youngest.

“Six of you,” he said. “I just want to tell you this. I know people are telling you they know how you feel. That will continue for weeks, for months. They mean well. They really do.

“But they’re wrong. They don’t know how you feel. No one does, not really. No one ever will. The relationship between a mother and a child is completely unique.  Even your brothers and sisters, even your wife, no matter how close they are to you, they can’t totally understand – just like you can’t know exactly how it is for them. No one else can totally understand the way you felt when it was just you and your mother.”

He paused, seated behind that wooden desk. “I just want to tell you that,” he said. “What you’ve lost is yours alone, and will always be yours alone. I understand. And I’m sorry.”

I was stunned at what he had put into words. I remembered the feeling of warmth and presence my mother always offered during childhood, the way I'd run home from school to tell her stories as she drank coffee at the kitchen table, the words of courage she'd speak to me as I left the house each day.

At that moment, as Mario spoke, I had to pull myself away from the sudden wave of loss. I forced myself to focus on the job. Mario and I went on to do an interview about a subject that I can’t even recall.

A year later, I left Niagara. But I never forgot his words about my mother. Since then, many times, I have told others of Mario’s message by sympathy card, by email, by Facebook messenger. The core of it – that your relationship with your mother is singular, mystical, absolutely distinct – has only grown more powerful as I move deeper into life.

Last spring marked 30 years since that conversation. When I thought of my mother's passing, I thought of Mario. I wondered how he was, what happened to him. It had been a long time. So I went to Google, and I checked around, and there he was – still in the Grand Avenue home in Niagara Falls where his family had lived for a half-century.

Mario Pirastru's parents, Giovana and Luigi: They were immigrants who spoke only Italian in their home. (Family image, courtesy John Hickey/ Buffalo News)

I was lucky I made the call, lucky I had the chance for one last conversation. The phone was answered by his wife, Marie, who’d been a longtime clerk with the state Supreme Court. We set up a time and I went over to see them. Mario retired from state parks in 1995. When he saw my face, he remembered me.

He was 88. He had survived a stroke. He told me he was going through difficult treatment for lung cancer. Those illnesses, he said, had affected some minor elements of his memory. He did not recall our exact conversation from 1987, but he said he certainly still lives by that idea.

“I think of my mother as much as ever,” Mario said. “I think of her every day.”

Her name was Giovana. She was from Sardinia, an Italian island. She never learned English. Mario’s father, Luigi, was a bricklayer, a guy who served with the Italian army in World War I and with the American military in World War II. The couple spoke only Sardinian in their house.

When Mario and his brother Louis started kindergarten in Niagara Falls, they had no English, which accounted for the melody that stayed in his voice into his 80s.

What did he remember? That Giovana baked homemade bread several times a week, and the way that aroma greeted him when he walked in the door. That she was a magnificent cook, a master with fried chicken, an artist with Christmas cookies. That his family would often host visiting friends and relatives, fellow immigrants from Italy still learning their way, and how his mother greeted them, cooked and cleaned for them, prepared their beds and made them feel at home.

Every night, Mario said, she would come to the room he shared with his brother. Before they slept, she would tuck them in and tell them “good night” in Sardinian.

When Mario left for the service, during the Korean War, his mother wept as he climbed onto a train.

“She used to tell us to love one another, to care about each other,” he said of Giovana, who died in 1984. “She used to tell me all the time to do the right thing: 'Be a good boy.'”

Deep into his 80s, with plenty of time to think, he measured his life against his mother's words.

As he spoke, Marie listened quietly. The aching truth Mario told me, long ago: She said they have known it from both sides. They lost their only son, also named Mario, to illness in 2009. He spent much of his adult life in Las Vegas, but he would call Marie every day. For a mother, that sense of absence never goes away.

“My son and I had a bond,” she said. Marie can remember the feeling, exactly, of how young Mario would lean against her for comfort when he was little. She can remember how he'd study the world as she pushed him on a swing at Hyde Park. As her husband once told me of my mother, as Mario recalled of his own mother, as Marie feels about her only son:

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “but he was very close to me.”

She and Mario, married 63 years, were great-grandparents. They met at a big band dance hall in Niagara Falls, Ont., at a time when Marie and her friends could casually walk across the Rainbow Bridge. All of it has been fresh in her mind since she lost her husband. She has turned for strength to their daughters, Michele and Marisa, in a family where every name started with "m."

Yet Marie has learned something in the days since Mario died, that what he said of his mother was also true of them.

With her husband, what they shared, now that he's gone:

It’s hers alone.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist with The Buffalo News. You can read more of his work in this archive. To offer your own reflection on Mother's Day, or the relationship between mothers and their children, leave a comment below or email Kirst at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. 

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