My mother came into this world on a cold December night, exactly a week before Christmas 1924. She was born Liliana Bona in Torino, Italy.
My grandma, Ada, was from Bari, a small city in Southern Italy. She fell for one of her father's older friends and got pregnant. Her only choice was to elope and head north with my grandfather. In 1924 Italy, an unwed mother was a big humiliation to a Catholic family, especially in a small southern Italian town.
My grandfather was not only a bad husband but also not much of a father.
In fact, shortly after Mama was born, he left my grandmother deciding he wanted to continue on as a lady’s man and philanderer.
To save face, my family hatched a story that grandpa was killed in a bad car accident when Mama was a baby. The story was fine with Grandma Ada. Grandpa was dead to her after he abandoned his family.
Grandma was tough. She was going to raise Mama well, no matter what. She took Mama, jumped on a train, and headed to Rome. Grandma got a small flat, telegramming her older sister to join her. There, the two of them raised Mama. Grandma worked as a seamstress while my great aunt babysat Mama at home. No expense was spared on little Liliana. She went to a good school, studied dance, music and drama.
Mussolini was in power at the time. The Italians had hope that he would be a great leader. Unfortunately, they soon found out that was not to be, especially after he joined forces with the insane Austrian with the little mustache. But the Italians continued to hope. Mama was breathtakingly beautiful, even at the age of 13. Her beauty was such that she was chosen out of 500 girls to present Mussolini with two dozen roses after a major speech by him. Old black-and-white newsreels show her giving the bald dictator a kiss on the cheek as she handed him the roses. That led to her being offered roles in films, including some directed by Vittorio de Sica, an award-winning cinematographer who directed Ladri di Bicicletta (The Bicycle Thief), a well-known film. Mama continued to work in films for several years until she met a U.S. airman, Steve Aikin. Steve was her ticket to America where she hoped to become a star. They married and moved to Texas. Mama got pregnant right away, and my half-sister, Lili was born in Paris, Texas on Nov. 3, 1946. Mama soon sent for grandma and my great aunt to help her raise Lili.
Mama’s marriage to Steve was short-lived as he had many problems, including being a bisexual alcoholic. Mom kept the family fed by working nights as the hostess at a private Italian gaming club. Yes, the club was illegal. But that didn't matter. The club's owner, “Rose" Missio, adored Mama. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. For one of her birthdays, he sent her a dozen roses with hundred-dollar bills carefully coiled inside each rose. Roses were his signature, hence his name. Rose was married and connected with the “goodfellas”. He was also much older and walked with a cane, saving mama the unpleasant thought of sleeping with him.
A short time later, she divorced Steve and moved to Hollywood…still ever-hopeful to be “discovered”.
Until next time…