Monthly Archives: May 2017

Memorial Day

One of my favorite things about the Convivio Book of Days is when a reader shares with the rest of us their own traditions or memories in the comments section. To get any comments at all is a wonderful thing, as comments help us writers see that folks are actually reading and engaging. But I learn so much from you when you share what you do in your family or what you remember doing when you were a kid. And last year, in the comments section of the blog chapter for Memorial Day, Convivio pal Marilyn Pancoast wrote her memory of the day:

When I was young it was called Decoration Day and all the family’s and friend’s graves were cleaned and then decorated with flowers. Then in the late afternoon there was a parade and a ceremony after dusk. Someone, many times me, would play taps and small candlelit flower boats were released into the river. There was one for each soldier and sometimes more for others. The ceremonies and activities were quite moving and a way to involve and teach each new generation.

I think Marilyn sums up this day beautifully and I hope that someone on some river is still doing what she did when she was young. This is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. Memorial Day (or some version of it) is celebrated not just here in the United States, but in other countries, as well, and usually at this time of year, a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. Our own Memorial/Decoration Day traditions in this country go back to the Civil War era. The original date, May 30, was chosen for it was believed that flowers for decorating graves would be in bloom in every state of the Union on that date. It’s since been moved to the last Monday of May. This year it falls on the 29th, which happens to be the same date as my mom and dad’s wedding anniversary. Those two good looking kids from Brooklyn tied the knot at St. Blaise Church on May 29, 1949––the Sunday, that year, of Memorial Day weekend. Today would have been their 68th wedding anniversary, but it’s the first time we honor the day without Dad’s physical presence. That will make for a bittersweet day, I know, but Memorial Day is kind of like this. It is our unofficial start of summer here in the US, but a somber one if we honor the day in its proper tradition. And so we decorate, and we remember. Flowers for remembrance, and flowers beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

Image: Decoration Day. Photographic print from glass negative, 1917. From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Ramadan Mubarak

Once again, Ramadan has snuck up on me. This Book of Days is by no means perfect; we are all learning as we go. Perhaps I’m just saving the perfection for the time when it is a real book, printed and bound. Let’s hope so, anyway. For now, though, during this first night of feasting that followed the first day of fasting of this holy month, please accept this in good spirit: a reprint of last year’s chapter on Ramadan, as well as my greeting for a month of joy and happiness: Ramadan Mubarak! ~ John


My grandmother used to talk sometimes about a distant ancestor in our family line who was not Italian but Moroccan, and I loved that something so exotic could be part of the fabric from which we both were woven. It never crossed my mind back then to ask her more about this person, and now of course it’s too late to ask her. I’m older now and I’ve done a good bit of genealogical research on my family, tracing things back as far as the 1700s on my grandmother’s line, and the ancestor from Morocco has yet to turn up. But Italian records are notoriously muddy once you get further back in time than that. It’s a mystery I’ll most likely never solve, but chances are good that Grandma’s story is true, for the Southern Italian city from which our ancestors hail was once, in the 13th century, home to about 60,000 people of North African descent, all Muslims who had been expelled from Sicily by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. There have always been refugees, it would seem.

And so they left Sicily and traveled north and settled in Lucera, my maternal grandparents’ hometown, which became known then as Lucaera Saracenorum, or Saracen Lucera. They were Arabs and Berbers from Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco. Sadly, things eventually did not end well for them, even in Saracen Lucera. We have always been terrible to each other, it would seem (consider much of the current political rhetoric today in our own country). Be that as it may, even if I never find that Moroccan ancestor in my lineage, the cultural influence of these people on the culture of my family and on families throughout Southern Italy is undeniable, especially in local dialects and in the foods we prepare, even after all these centuries.

If the ancestor from Morocco lived in Lucaera Saracenorum, then he would have celebrated Ramadan, which begins tonight, most likely, with the first sighting of the new crescent moon. The start of this month of fasting is never concrete, for it is based on that sighting and this can vary slightly from place to place. Ramadan commemorates the month when Mohammed received the first revelations of the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. The observance of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, with fasting during the daylight hours throughout this month, as well as an increase in prayer and charity. And while Ramadan is a month of fasting, the meals that break the fast each night with the setting sun are known to be quite wonderful and very celebratory––meals that, in some places, can last through the night. Meals flavored, certainly, with some of the same flavors––mint, almond, vinegar, rose water––that were brought by Arabs and Berbers to the tables of Southern Italy in centuries past. A thread alone hasn’t much strength, but a woven fabric is a different story.

Image: One of Lucera’s most famous landmarks, the Castello di Lucera. The building dates to the time of Saracen Lucera, built in 1233. My grandparents and all their ancestors––Italian and Moroccan––lived near this castle. Photograph 2006 Creative Commons.


Wind Telephone (Kaze No Denwa)

In 1997, I printed a broadside especially for my dad. It was his birthday, his 71st. Today, in fact, would have been his 91st. It is our first of Dad’s birthdays without him, but we have this thing in my family, by my prodding, I suppose. We celebrate birthdays, even of those who have passed. I’ve told you about it before; it’s a custom I read about in a book called Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. I liked this idea of remembering and celebrating, and so sometimes we will do as the Delany Sisters did: celebrate birthdays of those who have come and gone by making their favorite meals, or sometimes it will be simple, like a favorite dessert, or sometimes we will simply raise our glasses in tribute. For Dad’s birthday today, we are going to lunch, as many of us as can gather together, at a restaurant he loved to go to, Cosa Duci, a little Italian place in Boca Raton where Silvia and Giovanna come up with a menu each day and what they make is what they bring you, if you order the special, at least. It always tastes like home and the folks there are always wonderful to us. I don’t know exactly how it will go, but the goal is to remember my father and to celebrate him and to bring a little joy of life to this day.

But back to 1997 and the broadside. It’s called “Dad’s Apple.” In it, I describe a dinner table trick that Dad loved to perform, a trick that his Uncle Jack taught him, probably when my dad was a kid. One portion of the text for the broadside was my first attempt at technical writing: not an easy task, let me tell you. In fact, at the end of my instructions, I provide the following disclaimer: If your apple doesn’t pull into 2 equal crazy halves, try another one. Apples are good for you!

So yes, after dinner sometimes, especially in the fall, Dad would pick up a knife in one hand and an apple in the other and he would make four cuts: one from the top, one from the bottom, then two along the middle of the apple. And then he would ask if you wanted to split an apple. He’d hold out the apple, offer it to you, and you’d grab it and pull it away and there in your hand would be this jigsaw puzzle piece of apple, one end going up, one end going sideways, that was, indeed, one half an apple. It is a pretty wonderful trick, the kind that makes kids go, “Whoa!” And that, my friends, is Dad’s Apple.

Last fall, on one of our haircut nights, Seth began as he always does, by tuning into the podcast of This American Life. No doubt the wooden bowl on the kitchen counter was filled with fresh apples as we listened to Episode No. 597: One Last Thing Before I Go. My haircut is always first, and during Act One of this episode, Seth cut my hair as Miki Meek told the story of man in Japan who installed a telephone booth in his garden. There’s a wooden shelf in the phone booth, and on the shelf, a phone, the old-fashioned kind, with a rotary dial. It’s connected to nothing, this phone, but the gardener placed it there so he could sit in the phone booth and talk to his cousin, who had recently died. It just seemed, to him, the natural thing to do. As the years passed, other people began using the gardener’s phone booth to speak to their dead friends and relatives, especially after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the gardener’s town in 2011. The episode was full of conversations that folks who used the phone booth had had with those who have passed. They gave their permission to be recorded, and they typically start out quite rational, as if they are aware of the recording, talking about what’s new in their lives. Work, school, that kind of stuff. Almost always, though, they let down their guard. The conversations become more emotionally charged.

The haircut turned out just fine; it always does. But I was a blubbering mess through the whole thing. And this was months before I had experienced my own loss. Miki Meek, who led us through the story, gave a name to the gardener’s telephone: kaze no denwa, wind telephone. If the wind telephone was here, I would use it, because I am like that. I celebrate birthdays, like Dad’s birthday today, out of love and out of a wish to keep the channels open. I think Dad was doing the same a few days back when I found the Mother’s Day card that was the subject of the previous Convivio Book of Days chapter. We are all learning and wending our way through uncharted territory, and part of the process, I suppose––of keeping the circle unbroken in our book of days––is being receptive, being open, and learning to communicate in new ways, be it an old card that bubbles up out of a pile of junk, or an apple, or a meal, or a telephone that transmits its signal into the wind.


I printed an edition of 95 copies of Dad’s Apple, and gave Dad copy no. 1 for his 71st birthday. It’s in the family kitchen, framed, right above the cabinet where the napkins are kept. The broadside is printed from handset Van Dijck and Franklin Gothic types. I carved the illustration in linoleum and printed it as a monoprint, applying the inks in a painterly fashion with a brush onto the linoleum, so each one is different from all the others. The print hangs in the kitchens of many people I know. It would probably look great in your kitchen, too!