Monthly Archives: June 2019

Freedom Day

It is Juneteenth, a holiday named via portmanteau, a combination of June and Nineteenth: Juneteenth. It marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that slaves were now free and that all laborers were to be paid wages for their work. It is a day when we remember hard-earned freedoms. The day is also known, perhaps more properly, as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.

How important is a day like Juneteenth? I doubt many of us think about it until we are faced with a strong reminder. Like this one, perhaps: an artists’ book by Ben Blount called Africans in America. It looks like a standard library book: a hardcover book with a buckram binding, the title stamped in gold lettering on the spine. It’s a thick book. A single year is printed on each white page, but a few of those pages are highlighted in red––four pages, to be exact. The book begins at 1619: the year the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. Year after year passes as page after page passes. Then we get to the next page highlighted in red. It’s 1865: the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Again year after year passes as page after page passes. The next red page is 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Again, year after year quietly passes until 2009, when Barack Obama, our first African American president, is inaugurated. “Racism is officially ended,” says the book at that page. We all know better. The book is extremely powerful in its minimalism, a visual testimony of all those years of oppression and all that whiteness through all those stark white pages. How do we get out from under the lingering effects of all that heaviness, all that history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement? We understand then why a day like Juneteenth is so important. Or why a Pride event is so important. Or a women’s march.

Juneteenth is celebrated mainly in Texas but is spreading more and more with each passing year. From its earliest days in the 1860s, Juneteenth became a day to celebrate those hard-earned freedoms and also a celebration of African-American culture, and a day for family and friends to gather. The road has not been an easy one, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward real equality.

 

Image: Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, c. 1905 [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

 

Sliding into Second

It’s Father’s Day. I was so lucky as a boy to have both Mom & Dad and Grandma & Grandpa––my mom’s parents––all in the family home. This is the way of my people. We Italians don’t disperse well; we gather: we gather for a good meal, we gather as a family, and we don’t strike out on our own so much as bring others into our fold. My husband Seth, God bless him: he knew soon after he met me, some twenty odd years ago, that he was getting not just me but my whole family, too: an entire clan. He seems to like this, but it’s no wonder: his grandmother was Italian, too. She married and became Emily Winter––a name that could belong to any good Daughter of the American Revolution––but her birth name was Tomassina Emilia Vacca, which is about as Italian as you can get.

And so it is that when I was a boy I had two fathers at home to celebrate each Father’s Day––my dad and my grandpa––which was pretty wonderful. There were plenty of others we celebrated, as well, for in my family we think of many people as family… not just mothers and fathers and blood relations but even friends of the family. Two years after my grandparents arrived in this country, their second daughter––my mother––was born. My grandmother, nine months pregnant, knew the baby was about to arrive, but when the doctor came, he told her she was wrong and he packed up his medical bag and went on his way… but a few minutes later Grandma went into labor and it was the next door neighbor, Philomena, who delivered the baby. And so all her life, my mother called her Mamam, for she was like another mother. Mamam had children, too. There was Josephine, and Nicky, and Frank, and there was Benny, who would bring me a toy every time he came to visit. We called him Uncle Benny. He would do things like throw pennies on the floor because he didn’t like them in his pockets, or put his little Pekingese dog in my playpen with me, or see my Aunt Anne & Uncle Joe off on their road trip back home to Chicago by getting in the backseat of their car and then hopping on a train back to Brooklyn once he knew they had reached their destination safely. I don’t think he even stayed for coffee.

When his wife Phyllis gave birth to their second son, Johnny, Uncle Benny decided he would ask Joe DiMaggio to be the godfather. Not that he knew Joe DiMaggio. But I guess Uncle Benny really liked Joe DiMaggio. He wanted to name the kid Joe, in honor of ol’ Joltin’ Joe, the Yankee Clipper, but Phyllis insisted they name him after her father, and he went along with that, Benny did. But he decided he wanted things his way with the baptism, and so on the 12th of June, 1948, during the 6th inning of the Yankees game at home in New York (Yankees vs. Cleveland), with the Yanks defending the field, Uncle Benny scrambled down from the stands at Yankee Stadium and and ran out to Center Field to ask Joe DiMaggio if he would be his son’s godfather. There are a bunch of newspaper clippings in the family scrapbook about this event, which made the New York Daily News, a sort of Keystone Kops adventure on the field, as Uncle Benny rushes to chat with Joe, is pursued by cops and umpires, then slides into second base before being apprehended and taken off to Bellevue Hospital. One headline reads: Nabbed but It Took 4 Cops and Ump. All the newspaper stories say that the perpetrator wanted Joe DiMaggio’s autograph. But we know better. Uncle Benny was family, after all.

Uncle Benny’s antics make for some of our family’s best stories, and my dad was one of the best tellers of Uncle Benny tales––all of which are true, even though they seem too fantastic to be so. Even generations who never met him, like my nephews, know the stories. They are legendary family lore. If we are lucky––and I know that I am––these are some of the best things we get from our fathers and our families. Happy Father’s Day.

 

Photos: Here is Uncle Benny asking Joe DiMaggio if he’d be godfather to his new son. Joe declined, but at least gave Uncle Benny an audience. Above: That’s Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto slapping his knee as Uncle Benny slides into second base at the foot of umpire Cal Hubbard. Behind him, one of four cops in pursuit. Photo clippings from the New York Daily News, June 13, 1948.

The 16th of June also brings each year Bloomsday, a literary holiday based on the novel Ulysses by James Joyce. Click here for last year’s June 16 Convivio Book of Days chapter about Bloomsday.

 

The League of Italian Grandmothers

June 13 brings the Feast of San Antonio: St. Anthony of Padua, sacred to Italy. He is one of the more popular saints, patron saint of lost things. Here is a Convivio Book of Days chapter about this day you may have read before; so much about June this year has snuck up on me, and St. Anthony’s Day was no exception. And while I apologize about the reprint, I’ve also rewritten some of it and so it’s a bit improved, I think. I’m also unapologetic about loving this chapter and am pleased to bring it to you again as it features some of my favorite people with photographs, too, of a place I knew as home when I was a little boy. The photos were all taken in our backyard in Valley Stream, New York. I don’t know if that St. Anthony shrine is still there at the house on Victor Street, but my parents sold the house to the son of an old Italian friend who had helped my Dad and Grandpa build the house, and now the house belongs to that man’s son. With such a long line of Italian occupants, chances are good San Antonio is still there looking over things.

Please enjoy.
John

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With the possible exception of the three years I spent in Alabama, I have always lived in places where it is common to see religious statues in front yards. St. Francis is one you see often. But if we’re talking about a statue of the Blessed Mother or of St. Joseph or St. Anthony, and especially if it’s enclosed in a little shrine, most especially if a spotlight is trained on the statue at night, well, chances are very good that these are my people. We Italians love our saints, and it’s hard to say which is most beloved… but surely a contender for that top spot would be San Antonio, St. Anthony of Padua.

He is a populist, a saint of the people, a saint you can talk to, one who will help you with trivial matters. Finding lost car keys, for instance, or anything at all you’ve misplaced… St. Anthony is there, ready and willing to come to your aid. Case in point: one Labor Day, on a family trip to the beach, when my nephew lost the same gold bracelet off his wrist not once but twice in the surf, my mother retrieved said bracelet both times after praying to St. Anthony. We’re talking needle in a haystack here, folks: crashing Atlantic waves, sand, wind. And to find it twice? Mom swears by St. Anthony’s helpful powers to find lost articles. You may even be familiar with the old children’s rhyme: Tony, Tony come around, something’s lost and must be found. If you’ve ever said that, it’s St. Anthony you’re invoking, and he’s all too happy to assist in your trivial worries. He is an all-around good guy and today, June 13, we celebrate the feast day of San Antonio.

What I remember most about June as a boy was Grandma sitting in a folding upright lawn chair in front of our statue of St. Anthony, which was in the backyard. Grandma always sat in the upright chairs; never a lounge or God forbid a sand chair at the beach (she’d never get out of one of those), and in June, her chair was there in front of St. Anthony and in her hands were her little prayer books printed at the orphanage of San Antonio in Italy that she supported and usually a rosary, as well. The folks at the orphanage would send her things, like those prayer books or, one Christmas, a little floppy record the children had made; we put it on the record player on the Hi-Fi and heard them sing “Tu Scende dalle Stelle,” the beloved Italian Christmas carol. But for St. Anthony’s Day and indeed for all these first thirteen days of June, she would sit there in front of that statue with her rosary and prayer books for what seemed to me hours each day. And very often she would have a friend over doing the same thing, a friend just like her, muttering prayers in Italian into the thick summer air.

They were saying their Tredicina to San Antonio. Tredicina as in thirteen. It is a prayer that is said for thirteen consecutive days starting on June 1, and there are variations of the Tredicina: it could be offered for St. Anthony’s general intercession in a problem in your life or it could be offered for no reason in particular or it could be offered even to help you find something, though one would think after thirteen days you might move on (the Tredicina does even offer this option as a viable suggestion: St. Anthony, perfect imitator of Jesus, who received from God the special power of restoring lost things, grant that I may find [name the item] which has been lost. At least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss.)

My mother remembers this very same thing going on when she was a kid, but it was at Mamam’s house. Mamam was the neighbor. Back in 1926, when my grandmother was 9 months pregnant and thought it was time for the baby to arrive, she had Grandpa call the doctor. The doctor came, told her it wasn’t time… and then after he left, Grandma went into labor. It was Mamam who delivered the baby. My mother was that baby. So they were very close, all of them––my grandparents’ family and Mamam’s family. Back then, for these first thirteen days of June, Grandma would go to Mamam’s house to say the Tredicina to San Antonio, because Mamam had the big statue of St. Anthony in her home. Mom remembers many Junes when she was a little girl, popping into Mamam’s house and finding them there saying their prayers: Grandma, who could read, said the prayers, and Mamam, who could not, said the response: “Pray for us.” Mom was just passing through––coming by to say hello or maybe get a cookie or something. But then she was caught. “Millie,” they’d say, “come kneel down and pray with us.” There she was, roped into a situation she did not care to be in. Sometimes she’d sneak out quietly if she wasn’t noticed right away. The Tredicina to San Antonio: it’s not a prayer for the faint of heart.

St. Anthony was born in Lisbon in the late 12th century but spent most of his life in Italy. He was an early Franciscan: cowled brown habit, sandals, tonsured haircut. He is known for many miracles, one of the best known being his preaching to the fishes, who gathered in great numbers to hear St. Anthony speak. He preached to the fishes after trying first preaching to people, but they weren’t much interested at the time, so he took his lesson to a nearby body of water and found a more receptive audience… which then impressed the people enough that they began listening.

The feast day of St. Anthony is a day that, for me, always calls to mind Italian grandmothers, which were the only kind of grandmothers I knew as a boy. Occasionally I would meet a grandmother who wasn’t Italian if I went to a friend’s house after school, and I would be a little taken aback sometimes if their Grandma was tall or spoke good English. And one thing all of these Italian grandmothers seemed to have in common, whether they were my grandmothers or a cousin’s, was this devotion to St. Anthony. There may have been one summer day I recall when Grandma was joined by three or four of them, all saying their prayers, all sitting on folding upright lawn chairs, all muttering in Italian, lips moving just slightly, eyes fixed lovingly upon the statue of St. Anthony in his enclave in our little backyard.

The image above is of Mom and Grandma with corsages and fancy coats, posing near San Antonio, for my sister’s first communion, and below, that’s Grandma with one of any number of her friends, all Italian, and all of whom were referred to as “Cummara”.