Category Archives: Transitions

Tales from Two Continents

In Japan it is the time of Obon. It occurs in mid July in some places, and in mid August at others, depending on the region and the use of solar or lunar calendars. But for me, growing up near the Morikami Museum, founded on the site of an old Japanese farming village west of Delray Beach, Obon has always been a late summer holiday, for this is the time it was celebrated at the Morikami; at least until a few years ago, when they decided to rename it Lantern Festival and move it to October.

Obon is the time when the ancestors come back to visit the land of the living for a few days. It has no fixed dates, but where it is celebrated in August, it is generally about this time, these middle days of the month. There are street fairs and there is dancing and music and there are altars in the homes designed to welcome the spirits of those passed. For me, just six months now since I lost my dad, it is a time to think more about him and to welcome his spirit back home to us. Will he be there? I cannot say, but I do feel I’ve had some contact with him over these six months, messages delivered in ways only he and I and a handful of others would understand, bolstering my faith that we can still communicate, still commune, just in ways transformed from what we both had been accustomed to before.

When Obon at the Morikami was in August, I had a way of dragging people there to experience it, even people who hate crowds, and oh, it was a crowded affair. There were one or two times I got Mom and Dad there. I remember them sitting on the grass, watching the fireworks at the end of the festival, and then watching the lanterns set afloat upon the water… hundreds and hundreds of lanterns, carrying the ancestors back to their homes on the distant shore. Such a beautiful sight. My father now part of that luminous procession, sailing upon the water.

Six months ago, I promised you Dad’s stories. So for this Obon, as the Dog Days of summer reach their close, let’s get to a story or two. A good one, I think, for this time of year, is the Watermelon Story. My dad was just a boy, dinner was done, and his mom, my grandma, sent him downstairs––the basement, I imagine, for this was in Brooklyn where they have those things (here we do not)––to get the watermelon after dinner. Down the stairs he went, got the melon, a big oblong one, whole. It was the old fashioned kind that we hardly see any more in these days of seedless melons; probably a Charleston Gray, no doubt half his size. He hoisted it up on one shoulder and headed up the stairs and got all the way to the top and there, at the landing, the delicate balance tilted just a bit, just enough for that melon to tip back slightly. The laws of gravity took over and Dad got to turn and watch the melon crash down the staircase, exploding with each impact on the way down, spraying watermelon pulp and seeds and juice upon the steps and the risers and the walls and the banister and all the wooden balusters to boot. That little kid, my dad Angelo, spent the rest of the night cleaning up the sticky mess. He did, I’m sure, a thorough job.

He still loved watermelon, even after the watermelon incident. Fruit of all kinds, in fact, and I think of Dad most every time I am at a produce market and most every time I am eating fruit. I also think of him when I am involved in some tedious cleaning task. It seems he was charged with lots of these tasks growing up. It was his job to clean the kitchen floor each Saturday night, once everyone had left the room after dinner. He scrubbed the floor, listening to “Gang Busters” on the radio, laying sheets of newspaper on the floor after it was dry. As far as I know, he never delivered papers or sold papers on the corners of Brooklyn, but he did start working for his dad when he was 13, helping Grandpa with his ice, coal, and oil route. One of his first days on the job, my dad put the truck in the wrong gear and drove it right into a customer’s house. The customer made Grandpa promise he wouldn’t harm the kid… but that promise didn’t cover Grandma, who had large arms and who believed in the old proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” There was probably some sparing of the rod after the watermelon incident, too, before the big cleanup. My poor dad. It was a different time, of course, and Dad took all of these things of his childhood and made them into the stories he told all his life, his honor badges. And told them always with good humor… and like you had never heard them before.

Sometimes I feel like I do that with you, too. But such is the nature of a blog that covers the wheel of the year. The wheel turns and turns, in constant motion, and though we move forward, everything is the same as it was before. It is one of the paradoxes of the seasonal round, making time seem both linear and yet a circular spiral, as well. The players change, but the events remain constant.

If you wish to learn more about Obon and its traditions in Japan, click here and you’ll be directed to a past Convivio Book of Days chapter about the holiday. As for that photo at the top of the page here, those are the Cutrone Brothers. Aunt Mary, their only sister, is not in the photo; perhaps she was the photographer. The tallest in the photo was the eldest, Uncle Al. Next to him is Uncle Dick. The little one is Uncle Frank, and holding his hand, my dad, looking a bit mischievous. He is in this picture the spitting image of my great nephew Joseph, especially when he is being mischievous. Joseph, my dad’s first great-grandchild. He would make my dad crazy sometimes, like when he locked Dad out of the house and watched with delight from the other side of the glass as Dad yelled and cursed at him. My theory? The little kid that was my dad would rile up Grandma Cutrone just as Joseph would rile up my dad.

We saw this photo for the first time only after Dad’s passing, when my cousin Cammie brought it to us after the funeral. It was one of many photos tipped into old photo albums, the ones with black paper pages and photo corners and captions written in white ink. I had never seen photos of Dad as a child before. It was the most amazing thing.

 

Somewhere in the Stars

We are in the midst of summer and a period ruled by stars: Sirius, Altair, and Vega. Sirius, the Dog Star, entered onto the scene a few days ago: by July 3rd, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, began rising with the sun. The sun occupies the same part of the sky as Sirius through the middle of August. It just so happens to be the hottest time of the year while all this is going on… and so we call these hottest days of the year, ruled by Sirius, the Dog Days of Summer.

That’s our story about Sirius in Canis Major. Meanwhile, here is an old story from Japan that relates to our other summer stars, Altair and Vega: It is the story of Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, and Orihime, the beautiful daughter of the Sky King, Tentei. Orihime wove beautiful cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way. Her father loved the cloth she wove, and so she worked very hard to make enough for him so that he would always have plenty of it. But Orihime worked so hard at her weaving that she never had time for anything else. And as much as Tentei loved the cloth Orihime wove, he knew she needed some balance, some time away from her work, and so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa.

And so Orihime and Hikoboshi met. They fell in love right then and there. The two soon married, and that was wonderful, but they became so enamored with each other that all else fell by the wayside. Orihime pretty much gave up her work at the loom, and as for Hikoboshi’s cattle, well, they were soon roaming all over Heaven. Tentei grew angrier and angrier over all this, until finally he had enough. He separated the two lovers on either side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to see each other. Orihime despaired over the loss of her husband and pleaded with her father. Moved by his daughter’s tears, Tentei relented. But he allowed the two lovers to meet only once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And so the story goes each year, and here we are today: the seventh day of the seventh month. It is the Japanese star festival, Tanabata.

As stars, the lovers are Vega and Altair: Vega, the Weaver Star, is Orihime, and Altair, the Cowherd Star, is Hikoboshi, separated always by the Milky Way, except, as legend has it, for this one night each year when they are reunited. Beneath the stars, here on Earth, we honor Orihime and Hikoboshi by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees. Bamboo is traditional, and that’s what I tied my wishes to last year, but I would think any tree would do. Heaven and the stars, I am sure, grant us a bit of leeway in these matters.

Two or three of my wishes from last year remain still on the bamboo outside our back door. The ink is long faded. I know I wished for protection, and for good health for us all, and especially for my father. His health gradually faded over the seven months that followed, until his death in February. But I am grateful he did not suffer terribly, and so perhaps that was the best manifestation of my wishes for good health and protection. Will I write some wishes on paper and tie them to the bamboo this year? Probably, though it most likely won’t be until after dark. There are no rules about that, either, and if there are, well, again: Heaven and the stars surely can be flexible with us mortals.

Perhaps it is all these thoughts of stars, but there is a song that popped into my head last night, a song I’ve not thought of in years. In 1982, when my grandpa Arturo died, Rosanne Cash released a record called “Somewhere in the Stars.” I know the title track is a sappy love song, but even so, I was able to reinterpret it for my own situation. It meant a lot to me then when I was missing Grandpa, and it suddenly means a lot to me tonight, too, missing him again, and my dad, and everyone else who is somewhere other than where I’d like them to be (like right here in front of me). If it’s a little sappy, so be it. I’m a little sappy sometimes, too, and there are nights when we need stories about dog stars and star-crossed lovers and reminders of all the ones we love.

 

 

Top Image: A very particular Somewhere in the Stars. This is a Hubble Telescope wide field image showing the “Summer Triangle,” a giant triangle in the sky composed of three bright summer stars: Vega (top left), Altair (lower middle), and Deneb (far left). Can you make out the triangle? [Public domain] via NASA, 2009.

 

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.

 

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