A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"In the year 1348 after the fruitful incarnation of the Son of God, that most beautiful of Italian cities, noble Florence, was attacked by deadly plague. It started in the East either through the influence of the heavenly bodies or because God's anger with our wicked deeds sent it as a punishment to mortal men; and in a few years killed an innumerable quantity of people. Ceaselessly passing from place to place, it extended its miserable length over the West. Against this plague all human wisdom and foresight were vain."
-Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
Three different people asked me if I'd been to church on Easter morning, and that was before I'd gotten my coat off. Faith runs strong in my family: faith in the Lord, the Church, the Pope, the Saints. Faith in the wayward daughter? Not so much.
Grandma didn't ask, and I appreciated that, but I couldn't be certain that word had not been passed along from Auntie Livia to Auntie Gina while I was snagging one of the stuffed mushrooms from the first batch out of the oven.
"You look so nice, Nancy." Mom had opened the door for me, whispered that Grandma wasn't feeling well again, and started with the preliminary interrogation. She'd managed to confirm that I'd attended Mass, but she wanted the details. Hence the flattery. I knew the routine. I'd grown up with it.
"Thanks, Mom. Yeah, Church was good. Went bright and early." At least she'd given up on harping about the nose ring. A couple of years ago, I made a point of wearing my pentacle on the next visit after she gave me grief for the nose ring. Took six months, but it did the trick. I'm not the only one in the family with an eye for routines.
I'd slept in the back room of my store and gotten to attend 8:00 AM Mass at Our Lady's Chapel in downtown Worcester. The Mass was in Portuguese, and only the Catholic aerobic workout of sit-stand-kneel-stand kept me awake. Mass celebrated in a foreign language might technically fulfill my church obligations, but I suspected Mom would feel it fell short of her own expectations. I wasn't planning on mentioning that detail. I don't tell lies at family gatherings. We are more subtle in our means of deception. That runs in the family too.
I wouldn't need to lie about my pagan activities, at least. Easter this year fell on April 16, a little more than three weeks after Ostara (alternatively called Eostar for some additional confusion), and two weeks before Beltane. It wasn't necessary to lie about any of this because my family had, with my Mom leading the charge, instituted an ironclad don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it came to all things pagan. That was fine with me. Religious discussions always led to trouble. My brother found that out the hard way when he went and got himself born again two years ago. The irony of him getting exactly the treatment for turning more Christian that I got for falling into paganism proved delicious. It also brought Joseph and me closer than we'd been in years, united in an awkward alliance in the strangest of strange-bedfellows traditions.
Joseph was taking his wife and kids to services at the Baptist church out in Brimfield, and he'd promised he'd try to make it in time for dinner. His loss. The whole point of an Italian holiday celebration is that you don't just sit down for dinner. You eat continuously all day.
Auntie Gina asked me how things were going at the bookshop as she carefully inspected the celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese and chopped olives. Grandma's stuffed mushrooms were the highlight of the appetizers, but they were just one item in a selection that included bowls of mixed nuts, potato chips and onion dip, pita and hummus (a recent addition to the menu that the older generation hadn't quite accepted yet), and the ever-popular port wine cheese log.
"You know Mariana and Lucia? They walk by your store every Thursday on the way to Bingo. They say you got the place looking nice. I tell them, 'Go in there! She's got those romance books you like. Maybe they stop in sometime.'"
"Any time, Auntie." So nice to know the family is keeping tabs on me.
"I get all my books out of the library, you know, dear." I knew. She told me every time she saw me. I wasn't sure if it was meant as an apology, or a criticism of a business that sold something she considered to be readily available for free.
I asked her how her sons were doing, and she just wrinkled her nose, made her final selection from the celery sticks and wandered back into the living room where the men had the baseball game on.
Grandma emerged through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen, carrying another tray of stuffed mushrooms, and a crowd quickly gathered at the appetizer table. Mom was right. Grandma was walking very slowly and winced as she reached to pick up the empty tray from the first mushroom batch. I took the tray from her and carried it into the kitchen. There were dishes that needed washing, so I rolled my sleeves up, took off my rings, and got to work.
"You don't need to do that, Nancy."
I smiled. "I want to, Grandma. Sit and rest." I waved her over to the little kitchen table.
"It's bad." She sighed.
"You've been sick again, Grandma?"
"Just old. Being old. It's bad." She laughed at that. It was one of her favorite observations about life.
There was a roar of laughter out in the dining room. The storytelling had started. Italians celebrate the holidays by eating all day long, but between courses it was all about the stories. If I had to guess, they were probably going over the latest brush with the law by one of Auntie Gina's sons. We are not quite the stereotypical Italian crime family. There is the occasional crime, but it's always something pretty minor. Tony and his buddies got into a brawl with some Yankees fans on Lansdowne Street, and the cops did everything short of pinning a medal on them as they put them in the squad car. On a warm January evening three years ago, Lou was driving his snowplow when some yuppie talking on a cell phone cut him off. The cop apparently didn't view the resulting action with the same sense of humor that Lou did, but Lou ended up dating a woman he met in the class they made him take to get his license back. And then there was Mike, who lived down in Bristol, Rhode Island, and kept getting cited for illegally digging clams. Career criminals, all of them.
I'd had the good fortune to buck this trend, for the most part, although Grandma did once wire me three hundred bucks when my car got booted for parking in a loading zone in Cambridge, back when I could afford a car. Other than that my record was clean, not that it stopped Mom from being in constant fear for my immortal soul.
But somehow, Grandma took it all in stride. She never hesitated to remind me that she went to daily Mass, but she never inquired about my churchgoing either. It never felt like a guilt-trip coming from Grandma, and I freely admit that might only be proof that she was an exceptionally skilled guilt-tripper.
"Nancy, you go up the attic after dessert." It was a command, not a request.
"Sure, Grandma. What do you need? Do you want me to go get it right now?"
She shook her head. "I need to tell you a story. You wait. Eat some more. What? You on a diet? Go eat!"
She passed me the tray with the last batch of stuffed mushrooms and relieved me of the dish towel.
Antipasto was salad and soup. In a restaurant, the soup would be called Italian wedding soup. In our house, it was just "chicken soup with meatball". Meatball was always singular, at least in Grandma's generation. Rice is cooked separately and you add a spoonful of it to your bowl of soup. The salad was loaded with cold cuts and cheese, tuna and olives. Someone had sprung for artichoke hearts, although this was not a standard feature of the antipasto. Occasionally of my generation would buy an extra ingredient or two like marinated mushrooms or roasted red peppers or a selection from the olive bar at the Super Stop & Shop, seemingly in an effort to make the whole affair somehow more authentically Italian. Really, our feast was authentically Italian-American, a cuisine where macaroni had never been pasta and the olive oil was purchased in big tins that went on sale once or twice a year in the little corner markets a few blocks downtown from my store. Sometimes I'd get recruited to help with the twice-yearly olive-oil expedition, and I'd haul the tins into the trunk of Uncle Tony's Cadillac while Auntie Gina and Auntie Livia observed from the sidewalk, complaining to Grandma about how the prices had gone up.
We said the blessing when we sat down for the antipasto, rushing through an unpunctuated "Bless us oh Lord for these thy gifts which we are about to receive in thy bounty through Christ our Lord Amen", with an extra "Amen!" or two thrown in for good measure by Mom and the Aunts. Joe had tried to expand on the mealtime praying following his conversion, but he was never able to muster much enthusiasm from the group, and finally took to settling for an additional few moments of silent prayer shared with his wife and his two little girls. For the rest of us, prayer was essential, but we saw little reason for it to keep us too long from the important business of the day. The blessing was heartfelt and to the point. There was eating to be done. And stories to be told.
Antipasto was when the storytelling turned formal, going around the table, a collection of old favorite bits of family history that ended with Grandma, who always took us back to 1918.
In August of 1918, Grandma watched her mother die of Spanish Flu, what these days sometimes gets called "Influenza Type A, Subtype H1N1", the frighteningly close cousin of the H5N1 bird flu strain that newspaper editors have been in the habit lately of using to sell papers. Apocalyptic scenarios sell newspapers pretty well these days.
In August of 1918, Grandma was 9 years old. She lost her mother. She lost two cousins. She lost her schoolteacher, three of her classmates, the cop who used to wave to the kids as they walked to school, one of the priests at Saint Mary's, and three of the nuns who lived in the old sea captain's house that had been purchased for the convent only two years earlier. The family was living Camden, Maine, where they'd moved seeking work after Grandma's parents had arrived in Boston on a ship from Italy. They had friends in Camden. One of Grandma's uncles survived the 1918 influenza only to be lost at sea with his fishing boat. A cousin caught Spanish Flu and recovered and went on to run a general store for years. We still have distant relatives working in real estate up there.
Camden is a pretty tourist town on the coast these days, remembered as a location for shooting the film version of Peyton Place in the 1950's. But in 1918, it was an isolated little enclave that found itself cut off and dying of something that struck as suddenly and as efficiently as the Black Death. And we know the Black Death. We are Italians. I'd like to think it's somewhere in our collective memories, passed along through stories like the ones Grandma imparted to us each year at Easter.
My great grandmother helped organize the town's response to the Spanish Flu, and as bad as things were, it was pretty clear they could have been much worse. Some villages further north are not even on the map anymore since the summer of 1918. Great Grandma helped arrange for the distribution of food when the stores began to close. She passed out leaflets with quarantine instructions and she visited the sick, wearing veils and gloves, but always smiling as she delivered pots of chicken soup (with meatball, no doubt).
Grandma never spoke of her mother as a victim. Great Grandma was a casualty of war, and she died doing her duty. The stories never failed to make that point clear.
The table always got quiet as Grandma finished up. Hearing these stories was different from hearing about how I'd almost been born in a taxi stuck in traffic on the way to Mass General Hospital or how Uncle Mike's dog had gotten into the meatball at Christmas sometime back in the eighties (pets have been banned from the family holiday celebrations ever since). Still, Grandma would always end abruptly when things seemed to be getting too somber.
"But what do I know? I was just a baby then. Eat! You all on a diet or what?"
She grabbed a bowl of salad that needed finishing and passed it my way.
There was about an hour between antipasto and dinner, and the men retired back to the living room to catch the end of the afternoon game at Fenway. From the sound of things, there was little remaining of the euphoria of 2004. Business as usual, in other words.
I slipped away and wandered into Mom's old room, now the guest room where I stay when I visit overnight. Some of the books that Mom used to read to me as a kid still occupied a small bookshelf there. Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess, alongside slightly faded Richard Scarry picture books. Even before I started my business selling used books online, I would always remind Grandma not to throw any of the old books out. I would take them, I'd assure her, although I doubt I'd have the heart to sell any of these books if she did pass them on to me.
I went back to the kitchen in time to help drain the macaroni, and Grandma called the men back to the dining room. Manny Ramirez had just struck out in the bottom of the ninth, ending the afternoon for the Sox, and it was clear from the comments that 2004's World Champions were back to being plain old bums in the eyes of their long-suffering fans. Before 2004, the Red Sox had last won the World Series in 1918, but if anyone in Camden Maine had been following baseball during the summer of the Spanish Flu, Grandma never mentioned it.
Dinner was really two dinners in one. There was a baked ham with sweet potatoes and corn. There was also a big pot of macaroni with meatball and sausage, and eggplant parmigiana.
Joe arrived with his family a couple of minutes after we sat down, and there was a scramble of hugs and rearranging of chairs as Grandma and her sisters doted on Joe's daughters in their Easter dresses and bonnets. The girls were loving all the attention, and probably eagerly anticipating the bounty of candy they would find in their Easter baskets after dinner.
I hugged Joe's wife Tricia, who always seemed a little harried. Not that I could blame her. When I have kids, I'll probably be frazzled all the time too.
"Heya Sis. How's business?" Joe asked.
I turned to give my little brother a hug. "Busy. At least I'm keeping busy. I wouldn't mind it if the store was busier, but it's going okay."
Aside from the occasional curse being placed on the store, but that wouldn't be prudent to mention to Joe.
We settled back in to eat, and the storytelling picked right back up, this time with the current news and gossip. Uncle Lou had a new girlfriend, but she was out of town for the holiday. Grandma offered to pack some leftovers for Lou to give her. Joe's girls were superstars in Brimfield's Youth Soccer League, and Tricia had a new job working for a payroll service in Ludlow.
At some point it got to be my turn to tell stories. For once, I felt ready for the spotlight. I got some laughs relating tales of some of the crazy book ladies who have become regular customers. One old lady comes in with a group of her elderly friends and buys Stephen King and Clive Barker, hiding them in a stack of Harlequins so that her friends won't notice. Then she comes in alone once a month and sells back all the romance novels.
I received nods of approval from around the table when I told of my grand opening day and the visit from the city councilman, although Auntie Livia thought I should have offered him something to eat.
The transition from dinner to dessert is quicker than from antipasto to dinner. Everyone helps clear the table and then we chat and sip wine. Joe got his camera out and was snapping photos of us in groups of two or three, and Uncle Mike poured coffee while the desserts were brought to the table. I was stuffed by this time, and was relieved when Grandma called me aside just as the family was settling back down, scooping out ice cream and insisting that they only wanted "just a sliver" of ricotta pie.
The house is a two-family, not too different from the one I live in, although bigger. Auntie Livia and Auntie Gina live downstairs, and Grandma lives upstairs. For years, the family has been trying unsuccessfully to convince Grandma to move down to the first floor with her sisters, but however much she slows down, she always seems to manage the climb, and she insists she'd drive her sisters crazy if she lived down in their quarters.
The attic is spacious and dry, and it's like an oven in the summer. It's pretty cozy this time of year. I asked Grandma what she wanted me to bring down, but she just shook her head, gripped the railing and started the ascent.
"Open the light, Nancy. And shut the door behind you."
Grandma wasn't supposed to have sweets, a restriction she cheated on frequently. Still, the family was used to the idea that she sometimes misses dessert, preferring some peace and quiet, a cup of coffee, and then a head start on cleaning up the kitchen and preparing the containers of leftovers we would all take home and devour over the next few days.
I've sometimes found these family gatherings to be a bit overwhelming, and I've also been known to seek out some alone time with the books in Mom's bedroom. Neither of us would be missed at dessert and Grandma knew it. Mom wouldn't have approved of Grandma climbing the attic stairs for no good reason, so Grandma had picked a moment when we could both safely slip away.
I flipped the light switch, stepped onto the rough wood stairs, and closed the door as quietly as I could manage with the squeaky hinges. Grandma climbed each step and stopped a moment to rest, and I waited at the bottom until she was most of the way up before I joined her.
She pointed to some boxes in the far corner where the roof sloped down low.
I ducked down, wary of the rusty nails that protruded from the beams, and started to shift the boxes around. They were heavy, a familiar kind of weight. Books.
"That one. And that one. And the one behind it."
I slid the first two along the floor toward Grandma, and found the last one stuck out of sight in an alcove in the wall.
"Those are some of your mother's books from when she was a little girl. You want them to sell?" Grandma pointed at the two bigger boxes.
I thought about it a moment. "I want them to keep, Grandma. If that's all right."
She smiled and nodded. "Now you listen to this story."
Grandma opened up the small box. It was sealed with old masking tape that was brittle with age. Inside were a deck of playing cards, secured by a rubber band that was as hardened as the tape had been, and some yellowed papers and notebooks.
"We played fortune-telling with these cards, Nancy. When I was a little girl. They came to me from Italy from my Grandma."
I looked at the cards. They were very old, faded. The illustrations were plain in style with none of the rich array of symbolism you'd see in something like a Rider-Waite tarot or the like. These were not tarot cards in the modern sense at all. I scanned through the cards quickly. No Major Arcana. Just the traditional suits we use for card games now. But of course plenty of diviners use the traditional 52-card deck.
"These are beautiful."
"You know about the Sight? Our family has the Sight. I'm to tell you this like my Grandma told me in a letter from Italy that came with these cards. It came on my tenth birthday, after your Great Grandma passed. The letter is in there, and there's a diary I kept until I got married. You take good care of those."
"Of course, Grandma."
"When I turned ten, I learned that our family has the Sight, and how they kept track down the years. It's every other generation. The first baby girl born to a daughter in our line. Never through sons. It isn't like they say, you know, about it being from the Devil. Nancy, you can have the Sight and still go to church, you know?"
"I have it, then, Grandma?" I had certainly been experiencing some weird occurrences lately, but I found myself trying to decide if any of those reconciled with the idea of "the sight".
Grandma shook her head. "No, Nancy. You don't and I don't either. My mother had it. She knew what was coming, what she had to do."
"But that would meanů My Mom?" If anyone qualified as a mundane, a complete and total muggle, that would be Mom.
Then I remembered. Mom's older sister. Little Elaina drowned when she was three. She's in the family plot next to Grandpa in Forest Hills. By the rules Grandma had laid out, it would have been Elaina.
"Your daughter will have it."
"Grandma, I don't even know if I'm going to have children. And you just said yourself that you don't see the future."
Grandma turned and took hold of the railing.
"If you weren't having babies someday, then you'd be selling your Momma's books. Come back downstairs, Nancy. Eat."
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007