Spring

And now it is spring in our Northern Hemisphere. We are halfway between winter solstice and summer solstice. Change, the only thing that stays the same: each day a bit different from the one before and the one to come, and yet for a few days, we will be in balance: day and night roughly the same, across the globe. The sun due east as it rises, due west as it sets.

When we were in New York earlier this month for Dad’s funeral, at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood, I happened upon these flowers beginning to bloom. Since then, they’ve been covered in snow and I don’t know if they’ll be blooming again or not. But I liked how, that day, at least, it was a little bit of everything, all at one time, at least in that frame: dry leaves of autumn, fresh growth of spring, earthy browns, miraculous purples. With each passing day, light and springtime gradually win over darkness and winter, and before you know it, summer will be coming in, and we will welcome again that gentle time of year.

 

May You Feel the Angels Bend Closer When You Call (Or, Three Saints’ Days)

So I’ve discovered what many of you may already know: there are no hard and fast rules for grieving. I find myself mostly going through my days, doing what needs doing, but feeling a bit like my gears are not aligned quite right. Inspiration is tough to come by, as is enthusiasm. There are certain things lately that make me uneasy: suburban Delray Beach, hospitals in general (I had to visit one last week for a medical test, and it felt a bit too soon), and straws: I unwrapped so many straws for my father in the last few weeks of his life, sometimes six or seven in a visit. Protein shake, orange juice, ginger ale, water… for each I would carefully tear the paper wrap from around the middle of the straw, remove one end of the wrapper while I held the other, then put the straw into his drink and remove the rest of the paper. It’s fine if my drink arrives at my table with a straw already in it, but there was an instance two weeks ago where my waitress brought me a drink and a straw on the side and as I went through those same motions again––tearing the paper, holding one end while removing the paper at the other––well… suddenly it felt too soon for straws, too.

But life goes on, of course. We’ve had quite a few celebrations with family and friends, honoring my dad, for even a funeral is a celebration of life. It is one of the ceremonies of our days, a hugely important one, I’ve found. And Dad, I’m sure he was shaking his head sometimes at his kid who was encouraging him to celebrate ancient Roman holidays and the birthdays of those who have passed. He always went along with our ways, though, maybe only because he liked a good meal. This week, though, we come to some celebrations he really enjoyed, and these will be the first traditional holiday celebrations we’ll have where he won’t be seated at the table. That will be strange, I know. But we will get through that strangeness, and we will raise our glasses to him, and we will conjure his presence as best we can. One foot in front of the other. It is what we do.

And so this week come three saints’ days: St. Patrick’s Day, the day when everyone is at least a little bit Irish; St. Urho’s Day, for the Finns; and St. Joseph’s Day, when we Italians feast (imagine that)… but mainly on one very particular pastry, the zeppole.

The day before St. Patrick’s Day, 1974, my mom and dad and sister flew from New York to Chicago to my Aunt Anne and Uncle Joe’s house. I was already there, a stowaway on the train that my grandparents had taken the week before. My dad arrived dressed head to toe in green: green leisure suit (it was 1974, after all), green shirt, green socks, and patent leather and suede green shoes. A woman in the elevator at O’Hare cried out, “He’s even got green shoes!” He was probably wearing green underwear, too.

Our St. Patrick’s Day celebrations since then mostly revolve around corned beef and cabbage and soda bread. My sister, through and through Italian, makes one mean soda bread. Now there’s something I’m looking forward to this week, and I’m sure it will inspire my mom to say what she always says about soda bread: “Why do we have to have this just once a year?” (She says the same about the Pan de Muertos we make each November for Dia de Muertos.)

For St. Joseph’s Day, we will have zeppole: dough, sometimes fried, sometimes baked, filled with custard and cherries. Sometimes we get sfinci, the same dough, but filled instead with a sweet ricotta cream, like they use in cannoli. I have to admit we’ve had quite a few already. When we were in New York last week for my father’s burial, cousins inundated us with Italian pastries, and already there were zeppole and sfinci, even in early March. The 19th of March, though, is St. Joseph’s Day, and this is the proper day to eat them.

Before both St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day, though, comes St. Urho’s Day on the 16th. Urho is a fictional saint, and you have to be Finnish or amongst Finns to know him. I know him only because I live here in Lake Worth, home to more Finns than anywhere but Finland. How do these things happen, I wonder? Why did so many Finns come to this town? The Finns love cardamom and smoked salmon and saunas and so many of our local homes have saunas in them because of them. And some of these very same Finns will be celebrating St. Urho, the saint who drove the grasshoppers from Finland. If this sounds a lot like the guy who drove the snakes from Ireland, well… that’s the point of this fictional saint whose day comes just before that of the more famous Patrick.

It’s been decided the family will gather here at our house for St. Patrick’s Day dinner, which means I’ll be doing the cooking, and then at my family’s home for St. Joseph’s Day dinner, and this makes me happy, that even in loss and grieving, we can come together and celebrate. There are the things that make me uneasy lately but also just as many things that carry me forward: the love I feel from family and friends, all of you included. Your words of kindness have been like a raft for me. Some music has helped me, too. My mom remembers in times of mourning when she was a kid that even listening to the radio was forbidden, but one day not long after Dad died when I was at home at my house and she was at home in hers, we were speaking on the phone and she told me to put on some music. I did. It was the new Jane Siberry recording that my nephew gave me for Christmas, the one I hadn’t opened yet. My friend Kelly suggested it was time, and she was right. It’s called Angels Bend Closer, and it, too, has been a raft for me to float upon. It was five years between this and Jane’s last major recording release, and in that space of time, she lost her father, too, and her mother. So she gets it. She always does. Dipped just a bit in darkness and melancholy, still this collection of songs is nothing but uplifting. Jane reminds me over and over again that I always have and always will be well. Perhaps you need that reminder, too.

Image: Mom and Dad at our St. Patrick’s Day dinner table, 2008. My sister brought the hats.

 

Forty Days, & Your March Book of Days

Tonight we eat pancakes for our supper. It is Shrove Tuesday, and with this dinner we clear out the pantry, for tomorrow, we enter a new month and the lenten season, too: our annual forty days of solemn reflection that set the stage for rebirth and the miracle of spring. Forty days, or Quadragesima in Latin, fortieth, which is why the Italians call this season Quaresima. It sounds lovely, no? Not nearly as spare as the English word lent, pared down to four letters, bare-bones. But whether we say lent or quaresima, it is, traditionally, a period in stark contrast to the excess of carnival, which has been going on for weeks now in festive towns like Venice and New Orleans and ends tonight with Mardi Gras. And once Mardi Gras passes, so lent, quaresima, begins.

It is no secret that here at home, it’s been a rough time for us. We lost my dad earlier this month. But life is all of this, the joy and the sorrow, embracing it all, not turning from the hardest parts. And so we do not turn away and we love, even if it brings hardship. Family was the most important thing to my dad. And my dad, it seems, took care of us to the very end. While the past few months brought many challenges his way, and worry on the part of the rest of us, Dad took care of that worry for us. He checked out on his own terms, at peace, it seems, with all he had to make peace with, and he took those worries we had about him and dispelled them, sent them out to the world, diluting them to nothing. One last great act of love and caring.

Ceremony, celebration, is a curious thing. It appears at times like frivolity, and it certainly can be. But there are deeper roots to these ceremonies we hold, year after year, as our parents and grandparents did, through time immemorial. Roots that grow through the ground, the ground that holds my father and all our ancestors, all who came before us. It is the one commonality we all share. Were it not for death, we would have no pressing reason to celebrate, no reason to make the most of each day. And this is why we say there is a seat for death at the table at all our celebrations. Death is the guest who must be present at every celebration, every ceremony. Without death, the “ceremony of a day” is nothing.

And so we approach these forty days, forty days that begin with ashes and an invitation to be well, to put all our efforts into making a good life for ourselves and for all around us: “Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And yet there is more than this, too. The dust is what remains and there is something more that is larger than all of us. Here, I know, we run into belief systems and philosophies, but I think we can all agree that something more remains once we are gone: spirit, soul, memories… call it what you will. What you call it does not matter.

Last Friday, after work, I stopped at the rehab center where I would go see Dad most every day for the last few weeks of his life. More than two weeks had passed since I was last there, and it felt important that day to stop and to say thank you to the nurses and assistants who took such good care of him in his last days on this earth. It was, perhaps, another aspect of closure I was seeking. And so I drove up, with a heavy heart, and I entered the building. At the reception desk, where earlier in the month I had been checking in multiple times each day, I explained, as tears welled up in my eyes, what I wished to do. The volunteer there expressed her condolences and she issued me a visitor’s badge. I went up to the second floor, stepped off the elevator, and walked the corridors, past Dad’s first room, past the nurse’s station, past the room Dad moved to halfway through his stay, past the second nurse’s station, and then another loop around again. There were RNs and nursing assistants everywhere, but I didn’t recognize a single soul. Not one of them. Even Dad’s old roommate and his wife: they were gone. “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?” echoed through my mind, and I began chuckling a bit. There was nothing for me there. I stepped again into the elevator. I descended, and I left the building. Outside, the sun was bright and the air was warm. There was a gardener working in a bed nearby. I looked at him twice, but definitely did not recognize him, either.

 

Here is a link to where you’ll find your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for March. It may not be updated to March’s calendar when I first publish this blog chapter, but if not, check back again in an hour or two, for it will be. This month’s cover star is a type of shaving brush tree that we see round Lake Worth and neighboring towns. The tree loses its leaves each winter, one of our few deciduous trees here in South Florida. Come spring, it blossoms in advance of the year’s new green leaves. The blossoms are amazing bursts of pink energy––the pink shaving brushes that give the tree its common name. Death and rebirth: the story never grows old.

 

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