I first met Rosemary Cardinalli during my second interview at Chamberlain’s, sometime during the second week of December 2003. She was sitting next to the window in the Annex in a bright pink dress, at the long table that used to be in there before we cleaned the place up a few years later. I don’t really remember what we talked about; she was supposed to be telling me about the agency and helping to figure out if I was good enough to hire, so that’s what we did. She must have seen something in me, because I started working the following week.
I have to admit, Rosemary intimidated me for years. She was loud . . . Italian loud. She was decisive. She knew what she wanted and usually argued until she got it. She knew how she wanted things done and dag-gum it, it had better be done that way! Rosemary worked at Chamberlain’s from the time I was two years old and, most of the time, could do my job better than I could. For a long time I was nervous every time I had to talk to her because I knew I would find out all the things I needed to do differently.
The thing was, she was usually right. I teased her incessantly for her obsession with keeping copies of almost every paper that crossed her desk in two decades, about her gallon-size ziplock bag of precious highlighters that she used to color-code everything, her constant reminders and lists. But I was secretly fully dependent on those organizational quirks of hers. One year for Christmas I bought her a lovely attaché with lots of pockets and filing sections, but she never used it. She told me it was because she wanted to keep it nice, but I know it was just because she much preferred her portable filing system that consisted of stuffing papers into the spaces between stacked paper grocery bags (with a big space in the middle for her highlighters).
Years ago at a staff meeting everyone was chatting jokingly and good-naturedly about men and marriage. Someone told me I was lucky to not be married, which I argued against immediately. Rosemary, who never married, said that it wasn’t so bad and maybe I didn’t need to be married. I impulsively replied, “Of course I want to get married – I don’t want to end up like you!” Immediately (and still now) shame overtook me. Those impulsive joking words didn’t sound half as rude in my head, but they rung through that room like a gong, reverberating back at me out of the eyes of everyone at the table. My eyes immediately filled with tears as I made my stuttered apologies. In that moment, Rosemary became Mama Rose to me. When I continued to apologize later she hugged me and said that she understood. She remembered what it was like to be 25 and knew that I spoke from my desire to be married and not my opinion of her.
Over the years I realized that her goal was not to be right . . . her goal was to get everyone to do the best job we could to help our clients in the best way possible. Mama Rose taught us through her stories. She told me once that she considered becoming a nun, but chose instead to work with children who needed to be loved and believed in. She told me about her childhood and the hard work she did from her early years. She told me about kids she had worked with in her nearly three decades at Chamberlain’s, about things she had done well, things she had done wrong, and her most difficult moments. I think she had clear memories of nearly all of the hundreds of children who were fortunate enough to be loved by her.
Mama Rose taught us by her example. I could never do things as meticulously and thoroughly as she did, but her organization techniques served as a starting point for my own. I only have 8 different colors of highlighters, but I’d be lost without them. I keep copies of everything, save every phone number, summarize events in lists, make up charts of handy information; sometimes it’s a little too time consuming and my obsession with detail becomes irritating, but more than once has it come in handy.
Mama Rose taught us by her love. This is a hard job that comes with a lot of stress, many overwhelming demands, and – if you do it right – constant self-evaluation. Her office was always a safe place. She brainstormed with me, commiserated with me, listened to me vent, allowed me to cry. She knew about my family and my friends and my weight and my crushes and my cats. It’s been years since she intimidated me. I learned to love her Italian fire and often went to her when I needed help. She always had an answer of some sort that was usually the one I needed.
Mama Rose died yesterday. Those words seem almost ludicrous. How could such a force of nature, a dependable pillar in my world, one of the toughest and most stubborn people I’ve ever met, suddenly be gone? And yet, I take comfort knowing that she suffered for only a short time. I know that she would never have lived a fulfilled life without the work that she loved, so I am glad she was spared from this. I am amazed at how quickly the news has spread. Not just in my little work world, but around the whole town. Everyone I’ve talked to seems to at least heard of her in some context. This unmarried woman who gave her life to love under-loved children in a little group home in the middle of nowhere has impacted an entire community. But then I realize that, in fact, she has impacted so much more. Generations of children who have been changed by her, who have grown up to break negative family cycles and be wonderful citizens themselves, who have followed her examples of commitment, hard work, and unconditional love. We don’t know where most of these children have gone. Quite possibly, Mama Rose has impacted the world. What a thought!
I’ve grown an awful lot since that shameful staff meeting all those years ago. I’m not desperate for marriage anymore. I still want to get married, but by her example and others I’ve clearly seen that being single is not a sentence to misery and loneliness. I posted Mama Rose’s picture on Facebook yesterday, and a friend commented that my eyes seem to be filled with the same love as hers. This is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. To help others grow, to set such an example, to love so unconditionally . . .
When my life comes to a close . . . may I end up at least a little bit like her!