Author's optimism born in wake of war
May 11, 2011 - Growing up amid the ruins of post-World War II Italy taught Maria Rotondo Mark of Springfield Township the value of community.
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"The saying, 'it takes a village to raise a child' – it was like that," said Mark, who was born in a farming village near Monte Cassino, the site of intense Allied bombing and four pitched battles in 1944.
"Everything was destroyed, homes, buildings, emotions, but people helped one another," she said. "It was Italian in heart, mind, and spirit – hospitality, holding onto our values in spite of having nothing. There was a lot of music, a lot of joy."
Her grandmother, who had immigrated to Detroit in 1936 to join her husband, would send care packages to family in Italy – stitched up bags made of muslin fabric.
"They weren't like today's cardboard boxes," Mark said. "In one package she included some Exlax. We couldn't read English. We thought it was chocolate and ate it up. You can imagine the rest."
She has good memories of American troops, occupying Italy.
"They were friendly and kind – they gave out gum, candy, and treats to the kids," she said. "I remember them fondly. That's why we came here."
Her optimistic philosophy on life also reflects her teachers, who taught her to look for the good in life, and the monks of the Monte Cassino Abbey.
"When monks returned to rebuild the monastery, they would come and walk through the neighborhood," said Mark, who would join groups of children walking with them. "I was intrigued by their wisdom. They said a lot about faith and hope."
Her family moved to America in the 1950s, settling with Mark's grandparents in Detroit. As a new American, she put away her Italian heritage in favor of her new home, she said.
"I embraced everything American," she said. "I changed my name to Mary. I gave my life a makeover."
She moved to Clarkston in 1983 because of her husband's work. When her marriage of 27 years ended about 10 years later, she found herself at a crossroads.
|Maria Rotondo Mark, seated in front, with her family in Italy shortly after World War II. From left are her brother Elio, her father, Giovanni, Josie her sister, and Elisa, her mother. Her brother Ernesto had emigrated to Canada. Photo provided (click for larger version)|
"It was a time to regroup," she said. "I felt like the birth of my own life. I felt like a college student just out of school – which direction would I go? I reclaimed the name 'Maria.' Mary was only half of me."
She decided to rebuild her life in Clarkston, opening a business in Independence Township, Makeover Place Salon, and writing motivational poems and articles for the community.
"This is a perfect, peaceful community," said Mark, who has two children and six grandchildren. "I have friends here, roots here. My kids went to school here. I thought I would continue my life here as Maria."
She shares lessons she learned throughout her life in Italy and the United States in a book, "Recipes for Living."
"Relationships and connections, that's the stock of the culture, like stock in soup – that's what the book is all about," she said. "I want to speak to all people in America and provide them with 'recipes for living' in a spirit of community—just as I lived it in that tiny Italian village so many years ago."
Its cover, by local artist Laura Ginn, represents life, she said.
"Animals, people, everything," she said.
The book is dedicated to her parents, Giovanni and Elisa Rotondo.
"My parents were good people, and they raised good people," Maria said. "They did the best they could with life. They were extremely quiet and unassuming, hard working and making sacrifice for their family. I value all of that. Now I want to share that."
"Recipes for Living" is available at the MakeOver Place, 5888 Dixie Highway. Call 248-623-9348.
Phil is editor for The Clarkston News. He is a veteran of the first Iraq war, having served in the U.S. Army.