On the long bus ride from Houston to Austin, the green flatlands float past the window and Madonna settles down for an interview. She is wearing a Kelly green knit skirt, which is peeled down over her belly, and a Paisley shirt knotted above her waist. Her streaked blond hair is twisted into a bun and held in place by a big red bow. Her lips are painted bright red and exaggerated. Her voice is a little raw and raspy.
FATHER. My father is firstgeneration Italian. He was the youngest of six boys. My grandparents came from Italy on the boat. They went to Pennsylvania, a town right outside of Pittsburgh, because the steel mills are there and there was a lot of work. They lived in sort of an Italian ghettotype neighborhood, and my grandfather got a job in a steel mill. My grandmother and grandfather spoke no English at all. They are dead now, but when I was a little girl I would see them all the time. They weren’t very educated, and I think in a way they represented an old lifestyle that my father really didn’t want to have anything to do with. It’s not that he was ashamed, really, but he wanted to be better. I think he was the only one of all my grandparents’ children who got a college education. He got an engineering degree and moved to Michigan because of the automotive industry. I think he wanted to be upwardly mobile and go into the educated, prosperous America. I think he wanted us to have a better life than he did when he was growing up.
He was in the Air Force, and one of his best friends was my mother’s oldest brother. Of course he met my mother, and he fell in love with her immediately. She was very beautiful. I look like her. I have my father’s eyes but I have my mother’s smile and a lot of her facial structure. She was French Canadian but she was born in Bay City. The reason I was born in Bay City is that we were at my grandmother’s house. I’m the third oldest child and the oldest girl. There were six of us. Then my mother died and my father remarried three years later, and he had children with my stepmother.
My father was very strong. I don’t agree with some of his values but he did have integrity, and if he told us not to do something he didn’t do it either. A lot of parents tell their kids not to smoke cigarettes and they smoke cigarettes. Or they give you some idea of sexual modesty but my father lived that way. He believed that making love to someone is a very sacred thing and it shouldn’t happen until after you are married. He stuck by those beliefs, and that represented a very strong person to me. He was my role model.
I was my father’s favorite. I knew how to wrap him around my finger. I knew there was another way to go besides saying, “No, I’m not going to do it,” and I employed those techniques. I was a very good student. I got all A’s. My father rewarded us for good grades. He gave us quarters and 50 cents for every A we got. I was really competitive, and my brothers and sisters hated me for it. I made the most money off of every report card.
My father and I are still close. When I moved away for a long time we weren’t really that close. He didn’t understand what I was doing when I first moved away. First I was a dancer and I would call him and say, “Well, I’m dancing.” He never, well, he’s a sensible guy, and what’s dancing to him? He can’t imagine that you can make a living from it or work at it or be proud of it or think of it as an accomplishment. He could never really be supportive about it.
When I went to Paris, and I went from dancing to singing, I would call him . and say, “Well, I’m in France.” And he would say, “What are you doing there?” and I said, “I’m going to be a singer.” And he said, “What do you mean you’re going to be a singer?” I would always tell him not to worry and that everything was O.K., and he would say, “How are you surviving? Who pays for everything?” I would say, “They pay for everything.” And he wanted to know what I had to do for that, and I didn’t have to do anything really. I lived a handtomouth existence. I relied on friends and on money I could get here and there on short stints at jobs which I could never keep.
It wasn’t until my first album came out and my father started hearing my songs on the radio that he stopped asking me questions. I think now he has some conception of my success. He reads about me and people bother him and he has to change his phone number all the time. All of a sudden he’s popular, and my brothers and sisters are popular in school because of their association. If he didn’t know then, he knows now. He still works for General Dynamics. He’s an optics and defense engineer, and he makes a lot more money now. I never considered my parents incredibly wealthy, but at least now they can travel. They go to Europe, and they have enough to have a good life.
MOTHER. I was about six and a half or seven when my mother died. I remember her being a very forgiving, angelic person. I think my parents pissed a lot of people off because they had so many kids and they never screamed at us. My older brothers were very rambunctious and they would start fires in the basement or throw rocks at windows and my mother and father would never yell at them. They would just hug us and put their arms around us and talk to us quietly.
I have a memory of my mother in the kitchen scrubbing the floor. She did all the housecleaning, and she was always picking up after us. We were really messy, awful kids. I remember having these mixed feelings. I have a lot of feelings of love and warmth for her but sometimes I think I tortured her. I think little kids do that to people who are really good to them. They can’t believe they’re not getting yelled at or something so they taunt you. I really taunted my mother. I remember also I knew she was sick for a long time with breast cancer, so she was very weak, but she would continue to go on and do the things she had to do. I knew she was very fragile and kept getting more fragile. I knew that, because she would stop during the day and just sit down ! on the couch. I wanted her to get up and play with me and do the things she did before.
I know she tried to keep her feelings inside, her fear inside, and not let us know. She never complained. I remember she was really sick and was sitting on the couch. I went up to her and I remember climbing on her back and saying, “Play with me, play with me,” and she wouldn’t. She couldn’t and she started crying and I got really angry with her and I remember, like, pounding her back with my fist and saying, “Why are you doing this?” Then I realized she was crying. (Madonna stops talking and covers her face with her hands and cries.) I remember feeling stronger than she was. I was so little and I put my arms around her and I could feel her body underneath me sobbing and I felt like she was the child. I stopped tormenting her after that. That was the turning point when I knew. I think that made me grow up fast. I knew I could be either sad and weak and not in control or I could just take control and say it’s going to get better.
Then my mother spent about a year in the hospital, and I saw my father going through changes also. He was devastated. It is awful to see your father cry. But he was very strong about it. He would take us to the hospital to see her, and I remember my mother was always cracking up and making jokes. She was really funny so it wasn’t so awful to go and visit her there. Then my mother died. I remember that right before she died she asked for a hamburger. She wanted to eat a hamburger because she couldn’t eat anything for so long, and I thought that was very funny. I didn’t actually watch her die. I left and then she died. Then everything changed. My family was always split up and we had to go stay at relatives’.