Category Archives: Transitions

Quando suona la tromba

It’s Monday morning here in Lake Worth. I’ve taken the day off from work to bind books and to get started on taxes. The day started bright and sunny, but just now, a heavy downpour is falling from the sky, falling on the roof, falling all around me, falling on the streets of Downtown Lake Worth, where this past weekend it was our annual Street Painting Festival. It is the largest street painting festival in the country, and this year was our 24th annual. At the information booth that was smack in the middle of Lucerne Avenue, closed to traffic for the weekend, was a board of FAQs. The first one: “What happens if it rains?” The answer: “The paintings get wet.”

It is a beautiful lesson in the ephemeral nature of things, the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival. Each year we have all this beauty bestowed upon us by artists painting with chalk on our streets, and once the festival is over, the roads are reopened to traffic, and of course you never know when the first rain will come, but it always does. Sometimes very quickly, or sometimes more gradually, all of it––the chalk transformed into paintings––it all vanishes.

We spent Saturday afternoon, my mom and sister and Seth and I, saying good bye to an old family friend at a funeral that was attended by hundreds and maybe thousands of people. I could not tell. All I know is Father Alonso’s funeral was standing room only at what used to be our neighborhood church when we lived in Lighthouse Point, Florida. We stood against the stained glass windows and even my mom, 91 years old, stood through the whole thing. The crowds were a testament to how loved this man was. My grandma loved him because Father Alonso, who was sent to the States by his Piarist mission in Spain, spoke so slowly. One day she went up to him and told him, in her broken English, “I like you. You, I understand. The others, they talk too fast.” He loved calling her by her name, Assunta, a name he understood, too, because Italian and Spanish are so similar. He knew she was named for the Feast of the Assumption. After Grandma died in 1987, Father Alonso began calling my mother Assunta, just because. Even to the last time we saw him, when he made a special trip to see us at my father’s wake last year, he came into the room and saw my mother and said, “Assunta.” He was the kindest man. He did not judge. He radiated joy and compassion and would hold his hands out when he saw you, always welcoming.

He called the boys chicos and the girls chicas and he told them all to be nice to the Old Man, which was him, even decades ago when he certainly was not an old man. He was barely an old man when he died last week; only 77. We learnt at his funeral from his fellow Piarists that Father Alonso would have celebrated 50 years in the priesthood, but wanted nothing to do with any celebration of that fact, for it did not matter to him, and he did not want to call attention to it. He lived humbly. As it turns out, he went to sleep the night before that golden jubilee day and died peacefully in his sleep. We kept hearing at the funeral that God’s ways are not our ways and when it came to Father Alonso, this was certainly true. He was so many things to so many people, and this was clear by the vast number of us celebrating his life… which is exactly what Saturday felt like to all of us, no matter if we spoke Spanish or English (or, if my Grandma had been there, a mix of Italian and the language of our adopted country).

When I lived with my family in the old family homestead, our neighbor was a retired New York cop, also of Italian descent, named Tony. Tony was loud and animated and he had a saying that no doubt reflected his experience growing up in a home with Italian immigrants, for part of it was in Italian and part in English: “Quando suona la trumpet,” he would say, as he picked his arms up to the sky. Proper Italian would be Quando suona la tromba… basically, “When the trumpet sounds…” When the trumpet sounds, that’s it, it’s our time to go. I thought about that a lot this past week whenever I thought of Father Alonso, who left us too quickly, and I thought about it this morning when the rain began falling in Lake Worth. I think about it when I am mowing the lawn at my family’s home, because I always think of my Dad when I am doing that task that we so often did together, and I think of Tony sometimes, too, because that’s usually when Dad and I would see Tony, out puttering about his yard, too. The best we can do is to do the best we can: paint good paintings, tell good stories, be kind to each other. It’s all ephemeral, but we do it anyway.

 

One Year Since

And so we’ve made one full revolution around the sun since my dad passed away. I’ve been a little uncertain just how to approach this week; I knew it would not be an easy one. I know everything I did last year on February 7th, 8th, and 9th. These things are imprinted on my memory. Seth and I were with friends at a concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on the night of the 7th. Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich were on the program. I was there but I was equally not, as I sat there in the box, worried about my dad, acknowledging for the first time, as I listened to the Rachmaninoff piano concerto, that maybe he was not going to get better. On the 8th, Seth and I went to see Dad in the morning at the rehabilitation center he’d been at since late January. He was in good spirits. We left, for we had to go to work, and we had breakfast at a nearby bagel place, a place with a chain to keep the people in line in check, a place that drained the energy from me. But we ate there all the same. And then we parted, Seth and I, he to his job and me to mine. All day long I worked but I wanted to leave to go see Dad. Late in the afternoon, I did. When I arrived at his room, he was surrounded by nurses. They were moving him to Medical ICU. “To keep better watch on him,” they said. I watched from a corner of the room as they made things ready for the move. Dad seemed ok. I walked alongside his bed as they rolled him down the corridors, down the elevator, into the ICU, where I was told to wait outside. I called my mom and sister, and I called Seth. They came and waited with me in the waiting area. We finally got inside, late in the evening, to visit with Dad. He seemed ok then, too. We talked some, but he was tired. And then the ICU nurse came and told us it was time to go. We didn’t want to, but we had to, I guess. We said goodnight to Dad. We each kissed him. We each said, “I love you.” He told us he loved us, too. We went to eat, at Brewzzis, probably their last customers of the night. We had the same waiter that served us a few nights earlier, when my cousin Al came to visit Dad, the night that Dad was so animated and so much like his usual self, it was hard to remember he had had a stroke. The waiter remembered us. When we were done, we said goodnight in the parking lot; my sister and my mom went home, Seth and I went home. We fed the cat. We showered. We went to bed. We kissed each other goodnight. I fell asleep. Sometime past midnight, the phone rang. I jumped out of bed. I answered. It was my sister; Dad had gone into cardiac arrest. We rushed to the hospital. We met my mom and sister there, all of us anxious, nervous. It was after hours, so they wouldn’t let us in. We explained. We waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, a security guard came and took us to ICU. We opened the door. The nurse calmly told us she was so sorry. And that was that.

My dad had been diagnosed with cancer years before. It was prostate cancer that had spread to the bones. But never did he “seem” to have cancer. He never had chemo, he never lost weight, he never lost his hair, all the things that I had thought, in my limited knowledge, came with the disease. He carried on, just as he always did. He had spinal stenosis, too, and it got more difficult for him to walk as the years passed. A cane would have been a great help, but he was too proud to use one. Dad never liked to call attention to himself. He began radiation treatments at the start of January last year, to help control the cancer that was beginning to spread more rapidly. His doctor said that he was responding really well to the treatments. There’s a bell there at the center that folks who complete their treatments ring––a right of passage of sorts. I was excited for Dad to ring the bell after his last treatment. He laughed at me. “I’m not ringing that bell,” he said. To him, ringing a big brass bell was no better than being seen with a cane.

He never did ring it. He had a stroke the morning he was supposed to have his last radiation treatment, which is what brought him to the hospital in Boca Raton and a week later to the rehabilitation center in Delray Beach. He even took his stroke in stride. There was going to be a long road of therapy ahead to learn how to walk again, but his speech was fine. He was a master at making us think all was well. In the end, I think he checked out on his own terms. He did so gently and in his own perfect timing. We said goodnight, we said our I love yous, and he went to sleep. Who can ask for better than that?

I wish I wasn’t so nice about quietly waiting all those hours in the waiting area while he was alone in ICU. I did what I was told, and think they just forgot about me, and it bothers me sometimes that I just sat there. I wish I had known to call my nephews. But things didn’t seem that bad. I wish we had been there with him at the very end, all of us. But we weren’t.

Dad gave us so many gifts over his lifetime, and the last one he gave us was a peaceful transition. Actually, it wasn’t the last gift he gave us. There have been so many little things that have happened over the course of this past year, coincidences maybe, but some have been just too coincidental. I never know when these gifts will come, but they do. It is my job, I think, to be open to them, to believe that there are occasional passings across that bridge that keep us connected. And so I meander through this week of memories, bumping through each day of it, not sure what to do or what not to do. Maybe some of you are going through weeks like this of your own. I’m right there with you; I understand. There is no right or wrong way to do any of this. We just do it. And we hope we do it well, pushing through to a week that holds different memories, as the planet we stand upon keeps spinning and traveling around the star that holds us and gathers us in.

*       *      *      *

Opening image: Seth and I keep this photograph of my dad in the bookcase in our living room. Paula Marie Gourley was the photographer, three or four years ago, snapping the picture of Dad in his home, which always was his favorite place to be.

Dad loved home, but he also loved cars. Dad was an auto mechanic most of his life––a Doctor of Engines, he would say, or a Doctor of Automobiles. In 1974, he bought a burgundy Cadillac Coupe De Ville. Not long after the new car purchase, the three of us were in the car, Mom, Dad, and me. Mom just happened to reach across the dashboard for something, and as her hand passed in front of the radio, the station changed. We all agreed that that was pretty odd, but sure enough, when she reached over a second time, again the radio station changed. It happened again and again and we decided it was Mom’s diamond ring that was causing this. I happened to have a ring in those days, too, with a little ruby and a little diamond. I waved my ring in front of the radio and the station changed for me, too. For months, Mom and I believed our rings had the power to move the radio dial in that 1974 Cadillac.

Turns out there was a button on the driver’s side floor that controlled the radio. Each time one of us passed our ring in front of the radio, Dad would secretly step on the button to activate the station change. We were convinced it was some sort of magic, the diamonds operating on a higher frequency. That was my dad, though: he dealt in magic of a practical sort, and helped you believe you could do anything you wanted to do.

 

Round the Star

ELEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

Twelfth Night used to be a really big deal, a celebration rivaling that of Christmas Day. Ever the champion of the underdog, I am here today to champion Twelfth Night, too. If you are inclined to feelings of melancholy or disappointment after Christmas Day has passed, these Twelve Days––and especially Twelfth Night and Epiphany, which provide a proper send-off to the season––are just what’s needed to help get you through that. For all we talk about maintaining links to the past, perhaps it is this, more than anything, that offers the best reason behind keeping an obscure old holiday like Twelfth Night in our contemporary world. Twelfth Night helps us feel more rounded, more complete. This is the value of Twelfth Night.

My family never did celebrate Twelfth Night when I was younger, but we did mark Epiphany. My mom calls it “Little Christmas.” I do remember one year feeling kind of down after Christmas Day had passed, and she told me, “It’s ok, we still have Little Christmas ahead.” Our little tabletop tinsel Christmas tree, the one she bought decades ago at Lord & Taylor and which we set up at our house now each year, meant a lot more to me after that. Maybe because the tree is little, just like Mom’s “Little Christmas.”

Years later, after my first internship at the Shaker Press, Brother Arnold Hadd and I exchanged so many letters. In one of those letters, that winter that followed my internship, he wrote about the Shakers’ Christmas celebration. It included things like “shaking the tree” (for presents, I think) and their tradition of a Swedish smörgåsbord (this, a tradition handed them by Brother Ted, who I never did meet), and yes, Twelfth Night. There is some confusion about when Twelfth Night actually falls, but I trust the Shakers on this. They celebrate on the evening of the this day, the Eleventh Day of Christmas. I think the confusion comes out of the way we reckon our days now as opposed to the way our ancestors reckoned theirs. Traditionally, the start of a new day begins at sundown. This is why so many evenings before holidays are so important. Think of Halloween (the Eve of All Hallows) or Christmas Eve. There is a scene in The Bishop’s Wife where Cary Grant’s character convinces Mildred, the bishop’s secretary, to leave work and let him take care of typing the bishop’s sermon. “It’s almost Christmas Eve,” he tells Mildred. “You must have shopping to do.” It’s the afternoon of the 24th when he tells her this. Even then, just 70 years ago when this film was made, there was a general understanding that Christmas Eve began once the sun went down and that was the ushering in of Christmas. As for Twelfth Night, the Shakers believe (as do I) that Twelfth Night ushers in the Twelfth Day of Christmas. As such, it begins with the setting sun on the 5th of January. Twelfth Night has, as well, another name: Eve of the Epiphany.

So the traditional English Twelfth Night was a fun filled party with, no doubt, lots of ale and cider and punch, lots of food, and music, dancing, and games. When I picture a Twelfth Night party in my head, it looks a lot like the party that Old Fezziwig throws for his employees in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is, alas, not much celebrated here in the States. Inspired by our Shaker friends, though, we’ve hosted a few Twelfth Night dinners in the past. That, I think, is a good start.

In Italy, la Befana will make her rounds tonight, and in Latin America, los Tres Reyes, the Three Kings, will be doing the same. All of them will be delivering gifts; they are the last of the Midwinter gift bearers. Their stories are intertwined. Epiphany––a celebration older even than Christmas itself––marks the day the Magi arrived after their long journey, following that star, to see the child born in a barn. They arrived with gifts for the child, and so it is no surprise that they are amongst our Midwinter gift bearers. In Italy, though, the legends get a little more interesting, wrapped up as they are with a kindly old witch. There, it is said that the Magi stopped at la Befana’s and asked her to join them on their journey. They found her sweeping her floor. “No, no,” she told them, “I’m too busy with my housework!” And so the Magi went on their way. But as she swept, la Befana grew remorseful that she had not gone with them, and so she stopped her sweeping, hopped on her broom, and left her home in search of the Magi and the child. But she never found them. Each year on the Eve of the Epiphany, she sets out on her journey again, in search of the child, delivering small presents to good boys and girls, and coal for the not so good ones.

I have known lots of Befanas in my day. It comes with the territory when you are of Italian descent. Women and men who clean and clean and clean, and who take great pride in their clean homes. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, but you know that they would’ve said no to the Magi, too, just like la Befana herself did at that first Christmas. Where does she even come from, la Befana? Well, she is an old hag… and so is the earthly goddess at Midwinter in the circular nature of the year: Born in springtime, fair maiden in summer, mother in autumn, old woman in winter. A cycle repeating with each orbit around the sun, the story told again and again.

Closer to home, it’s not been the happiest Christmas for us, after losing my dad in February. I’d say all of us in my family are all doing well, but we are all aware, too, that Dad is missing and there have been a few days this season where I’ve been plain sad and melancholy. There is another tradition for Twelfth Night, in which the Yuletide decorations are taken down. This, too, makes me a little melancholy. In case you haven’t noticed, I am a bit in love with Christmas. There is much about our celebration these days that is grating and irksome, but Seth and I, we do a very good job of keeping these things at bay, leaving to the best of our abilities only what is pure and essential. And so Christmas is in this little home a truly extraordinary time––a time outside ordinary time––and it does make us sad to see it go. Many years, and this may very well be one of them, we follow another, even older tradition: the idea that Christmas and Yuletide run all the way to Candlemas Eve, the First of February. This is an idea that is more aligned with the planet’s natural rhythm, for with Candlemas we reach the next cross-quarter day after the Midwinter Solstice. With it, the earth shifts toward spring for winter is then beginning to wane: astronomically, we’ll be, at that point, halfway between the solstice and the spring equinox. Our ancestors enjoyed their Yuletide greenery all the way to Candlemas but not beyond… keeping it in the house any later than the First of February was an invitation for bad luck.

If you are celebrating Twelfth Night, or if you have memories of celebrating in days past, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below. I hope you are. It is our chance to send Old Father Christmas on his way in style. He deserves as much as that, no?

 

Image: Christmas pyramids from Germany’s Erzgebirge region can be quite elaborate, but ours is a simple one, featuring three carolers, one of them holding a traditional caroling star. Singing round the star was a common Twelfth Night practice though Northern Europe centuries ago. I hope it still is.