Category Archives: St. Anthony’s Day

Tony Tony Come Around

It’s way past midnight. Past one, even. I’ve been thinking to myself, “St. Anthony won’t mind so much if I skip writing about him this year,” and that’s probably true, but then I began hearing the voice of my grandma, Assunta. If I wasn’t eating my stewed prunes or if I was being stubborn about cleaning up my room or something like that, she would come up to me and say, “Come on, Johnny. Do for Grandma.”  St. Anthony was Grandma’s favorite saint, and by the 13th of June, his feast day, she would have been offering prayers to him for thirteen days straight. There’s devotion for you, and an example to follow if ever there was one. And so this late night, when the clock is telling me it is already well into the 13th of June, I will––super quick––write to you about St. Anthony’s Day. I “do for Grandma” (and for you, too).

St. Anthony of Padua is a familiar figure. He was born in Lisbon in the late 12th century, but he spent most of his life in Italy, in Padua especially. He was an early follower of St. Francis, and as a Franciscan, he wore the iconic brown cowled habit with a tonsured haircut that left the crown of his head bare, a clear portal, perhaps, from head to heaven. He is a populist saint, and is called upon for many reasons, but he is best known as the saint who helps you find lost articles. And so when we misplace our glasses or our keys, we say Tony Tony come around, something’s lost and must be found, an old children’s rhyme. And more often than not, it works. Perhaps because of that populism that surrounds him. He died in Padua in 1231 and was canonized soon after. Some of the miracles attributed to him: a donkey knelt before him. And he preached to the fishes––the people weren’t listening to him but they did once they saw the fishes listening. And just before he died, he was seen in ecstasy holding the baby Jesus in his arms. This is the image we see most often depicted in all those statues in front of Italian American homes. He’s a presence we Italians like to talk to, like an old paisano. Grandma certainly did. I do, too. And who knows, maybe you will, too, the next time you misplace your keys or your wallet or those pesky reading glasses, and there’s no harm in that. We need all the help we can get.

Image: Grandma with our backyard statue of St. Anthony, before Dad painted it. Grandma is on the left, and nearby is one of any number of her friends, all Italian, and all of whom were referred to as “Cummara”.

 

The Sensual World, or Your June Book of Days

Once again from the Better Late Than Never Department, here is our monthly gift to you: Your printable Convivio Book of Days calendar, this one for June. It was a hectic close to May and it’s been a hectic start to June, and since there’s not much happening at the start of the month, I figured all right then, we would ease into this month’s calendar. In fact, the first red letter day of the month isn’t until the 13th, when we celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua.

Now my grandmother, Assunta, she would have been celebrating St. Anthony in her way from the start of the month. St. Anthony was her guy, and Grandma would offer thirteen days of novenas in his honor beginning on the First of June. She would sit there in her upright beach chair in front of the statue of St. Anthony, the one that Dad painted by hand, and mumble her prayers, prayers she would read from books sent to her by the children at the orphanage in Padua named for St. Anthony, the one she supported for years with gifts. They were good friends, in a way, my grandma and St. Anthony, but this is how we Italians are, talking to the saints that guide us, as if they are right there in the room with us.

My mom remembers as a girl coming in from outside on warm June days just like this and wandering through the house, wondering, “Where’s my mother?” and there she would be, with Mamam, the neighbor, the one who delivered my mom soon after the doctor had left the house because he didn’t think the baby would be coming any time soon. She was like a second mother to my mom, Mamam was, and she and Grandma would be in the house, these June days, reading and reciting before the statue of St. Anthony, saying their novena. Grandma would read the prayers out loud in Italian, and Mamam, who didn’t know how to read, would say the response. She’d catch a glimpse of my mom, little girl that she was at the time, and wave her in. “Come on, Millie, come pray with us.” Just what a little girl wants to do on a warm June day. But she was seen, and now she was stuck there. It was too late to turn away. And so my Mom would sit there, too, with Grandma and Mamam, saying “Pray for us” in Italian after each petition to St. Anthony. There was no turning away from the old friend.

This would go on each day through to St. Anthony’s Day on the 13th. I imagine not many people do this anymore. For me, a little boy watching my Grandma sit and pray on her beach chair by the statue in the yard, it was always a Grandma thing, something that all the grandmothers I knew did. Then again, all the grandmothers I knew as a child were Italian. I remember the first time I met the grandmother of another boy I knew, a grandmother who was tall and who spoke proper English. I was a little taken aback. It was just plain weird. Like the time in 1970 when my grandparents went back to Italy and came home again with photographs in color. Color? Italy, to me at 6-years old, was sepia-toned.

But I digress. Back to the calendar. June is the month of Old Midsummer, of William Shakespeare and his Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, as well, the month of Bloomsday and Juneteenth, all days that have some literary connection. It was Ralph Ellison who titled a novel Juneteenth, a name taken from the obscure June holiday that commemorates the formal and official end of slavery in Texas, and Bloomsday is of course based on the work of James Joyce, who wrote about the day’s adventures through Dublin of a character named Leopold Bloom in his novel Ulysses, and now, each 16th of June, people all over the world call down his memory. If there is a cover star of sorts on this month’s calendar, it would be Kate Bush, who recorded a song in 1989 titled “The Sensual World,” a song that is steeped, too, in James Joyce’s Ulysses and in Bloomsday, based as it is on the closing passage of the book, a soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife.

So many words on our lips––prayers and plays, novels and soliloquies–– in a month of beauty. With June we welcome summer by the almanac. We embrace the gentle time of year, the sensual world. Go, enjoy it.

 

The League of Italian Grandmothers

Today it’s 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. All of my writing these past few days has been directed toward completing an annual report at work, and so, to be honest, I forgot to write you a Book of Days chapter about this day. I did, however, wrangle a few moments to rewrite one of my favorite past chapters on St. Anthony, and so here it is, complete with photos of some of my favorite people in a place I knew as home when I was a little boy, 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

 

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.)

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”.