04/09/2013 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

And Then There Was One

My mother, Lucy (Lucia) Basile Bradley, celebrated her 94th birthday this week in fine fashion -- with family, friends, food, card games (pinochle is her favorite) and presents. She likes to get presents. This year's bounty included a cake and flowers...


... and gift cards to two of her favorite food stores, plus a very special birthday dinner at her favorite local restaurant.

I ask my mom every year what she'd like for her birthday and her answers are always the same -- "I want my lamb chops and I want to see my Phillies" (she's an avid Philadelphia Phillies baseball fan). Lucky for us, the nearest baseball town to Madison is Milwaukee and the Brewers are in the National League. So every year, we go to Miller Park and watch her Phillies play my Brewers. She gets mad at me for rooting for the Brewers, but the Phillies win more than they lose, so she's usually happy.

That's something I find particularly interesting about my mom that I've noticed up close since I moved my parents to Madison from the Philadelphia area seven years ago. (My dad passed away in May of 2009, just shy of his 90th birthday and my folks' 68th wedding anniversary.) Namely, that she's usually happy and that she is very, very competitive. I don't know why we baby boomer males think we get all of our traits from our fathers, but I've come to realize that I probably inherited my highly competitive nature from my mother, who likes to win at just about everything. I attribute some of this to her being the youngest of 11 children born to Giuseppe Basile and Maria Donatangelo Basile. She had to be feisty and hold her own among her 10 older siblings who were always giving her orders, and a good deal of guff.

I also think some of it has to do with the fact that the Basiles are actually Albanian-Italian, a spirited clan if there ever was one. They hailed from Castroregio, a town and commune in the province of Cosenza in the Calabria region of southern Italy. The largest waves of Albanian immigrants arrived there during the second half of the 15th century, following the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Those early Albanian communities were shaped mainly by warriors, hence the needing-to-win gene my mom inherited.

Albanians like the Basiles managed to preserve a sense of common cultural identity in southern Italy, manifested primarily in its own language, Arbresh. My mom loves to tell stories about her childhood friends, fluent in Italian, who'd come over to her house when she was growing up only to be baffled by what language the senior Basiles were speaking. "Mom and Pop never talked Italian around visitors," she explains, "because they didn't want other people to know what they were saying." Sounds kinda competitive to me . . .

Throughout Calabria and much of Southern Italy, Albanian customs have influenced local festivals, in particular celebrations for the harvest that emphasize mushrooms and chestnuts. My mom recounts many stories of rummaging for edible mushrooms in the parks in south Philadelphia with her father. "He knew which ones were poisonous," she points out.

Coincidentally, we have a good number of Albanian-Italians in Madison. They've told me that nostalgia for the Albanian soil left behind is a thread that runs through family histories and festivities.

And so we gather to celebrate our family history, enshrined in the lone surviving member of the original Basile clan. Here's the entire family (plus an uncle) in a photo from the early 1920s. My mom's the tiny one, fourth from the left, her mother's arm trying to hold down the leg I'm sure my mom was kicking.


And she's still kicking today! At 94 no less. Salute!