Category Archives: Transitions

Almost Christmas

So much hustle and hubbub for so long––weeks, months––and then Christmas Eve comes and with it, a wash of calm. It is the calm of reality: what is not yet done is probably not going to get done, and there is a certain beauty to that. We accept our humanity and the fact that we are not perfect and we understand that all is well, no matter what is done or not done. Once again, it is Christmas.

Beyond Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the twelve days of the year that complete Christmastide. They are days that stand traditionally outside ordinary time; six days in the old year, six days in the new. Here in this house, we know these as days filled with music and warmth, days when we can make our Christmas greetings and send them out to the world, days when we can bake once-a-year treats, days when we can read books and watch Christmas movies, days that evolve into nights when we can celebrate with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts and visit with family and friends. They are days that help me appreciate all we have, days when we count our blessings, and know that they are abundant.

The books I’ll be reading are most likely going to be old and most likely about Christmas. There is a long tradition of the Christmas ghost story––think of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol and all the spirits that appear in that tale. My mom and sister confided in Seth and me just tonight, in slow, hushed voices, that our great niece Joy––my sister’s little 3-year old granddaughter and my mom’s great-granddaughter––was in my old room at my family’s home with her mom just the other day and quietly announced to her mom that, “Oh, there’s Pop.” Pop, her name for my dad, her buddy. She loved him something crazy and if she can see him looking after her, well, who are we to discredit what she sees? Kids seem to be better connected to possibilities than adults. The ancient Celts thought of all these spokes in the wheel of the year––Midwinter the one we’re at now––as times when the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world was more easily crossed.

I like to think of myself as open to these things, and so the story did not surprise me, but rather made me smile. I’ve felt Dad’s presence myself, and if he’s watching over me, certainly he’s watching over his little great-granddaughter, too. And certainly at Christmastime. It is part of the magic of this night and of this season. The nights are at their longest and darkest. The lights we illuminate, candles and electric bulbs alike, pierce the darkness, call down the light. The music and foods, carried down through the centuries, connect us to the past and the future. The stories, especially that of the child born in a barn amongst the animals on a cold winter’s night, are bridges, as well. We gather those we love and pull them close, as close as we can. We laugh, we cry, we sing, we pray. We bask in the glowing radiance of the light piercing the powerful darkness. If we allow the spirit to carry us, nothing, when we get right down to it, feels like these days feel. I’ll be with you, if I can muster the energy each day (and I think I can), through all Twelve Days of Christmas, writing about each of them. “You’ll be visited by three spirits,” Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge, but I guess in my version of the story, you’ll be visited by twelve. I pray you’ll make me welcome, much like Father Christmas himself, who comes each year, welcome or welcome not. But for now, to all of you: A very merry Christmas.

The advent candles are almost burnt down. On Sunday morning, we light three purple candles and one rose. By evening, though, it will already be Christmas Eve. And our daily advent candle, burning for a few hours each night, is ready soon to announce Christmas’ arrival.


Finding Our Way

This is for everyone who has experienced loss this past year, or ever, for that matter. I’m right there with you. I lost my dad in February. Nothing is ever the same once someone we love is gone. Things do get better eventually, but they are forever different. And this is just part of living, we know this. Knowing it, however, makes it no easier. Especially now, when we come to a juncture of the year that can be very difficult for anyone who is missing someone. And so this chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is for you, and for me, and for everyone who has felt this particular loss.

My dad is wrapped inextricably through my Christmas memories. He is part of the memories of Christmases I have from even before I was on this earth, for the stories come down through the ages. Dad was the one who, in recent years, spent hours trying to get light sets to work again once half the set had gone out, and he would re-wire some so that they had odd plugs spliced to them with electrical tape: green wires, brown plugs, black electrical tape… an “Angelo Cutrone Special.” They worked, but I’d cringe sometimes as I plugged them in, half expecting to get a shock or to have the plug explode once it made contact with the outlet. They never did. He usually knew what he was doing.

When I was little, it was Dad who decorated the house and front yard for Christmas. In the late 1960s, this involved a large electric candle, which, to the me that was 4-years old, seemed to tower twice my size, and it may very well have. It illuminated through and through and at the metal base, in script, it said Seasons Greetings and Dad would set it in place near where the driveway met the slate-covered walkway to the front door. There were illuminated choir boys, too, and multicolor lights––the kind with the big screw in ceramic bulbs, strung along the roofline attached to the stainless steel gutters that Dad would occasionally buff and polish. By 1970 or so, Dad quit the illuminated figures and the ceramic lights and from that point on it was a fresh balsam wreath wrapped in multicolor Italian fairy lights on the front door, another wrapped in red lights on the big front window of my sister’s room, and a strand or two of white lights thrown into the canopy of the crab apple tree. He’d just toss them up there. Where they landed, they landed.

Before I was born, though, there was a record player connected to outdoor speakers and Dad would play Christmas music for the neighbors, whether they wanted to hear it or not. He rotated through four or five records that we still have and still play each Christmas: Johnny Mathis’ Christmas album, an album featuring a child’s choir from England backed up by a Big Band era sounding orchestra, Christmas carols on piano by Roger Williams, and an album of all your Christmas favorites played entirely by an orchestra of bells. The Hartmans, an older couple up the road, did not care for the music, but they were friendly about it all the same. Dad would always complain that he should’ve put the lights up the week before it had gotten so cold. But he never did; he’d always be out there on the coldest day of December. Christmas was not to be rushed, after all. Sometimes there was snow. Once he pulled me up the sidewalk while I sat on my sled. I think it’s the only time I used it. For the rest of my childhood, the sled hung on the wall in the garage. We were not an outdoor people, my family.

I think of all these things––even of the Hartmans, who had moved to Vero Beach before I was born––and I think of my dad as I do my own decorating outside in the balmy Lake Worth night, just as I think of Dad every single time I go to my family’s home to mow the lawn since his passing. I sit on the rider mower as he used to and I think of Dad, as I mow with care, trying to keep straight lines like he would, and I think of him as I sweep the sidewalk, sweeping up the grass clippings just as he taught me: Corn broom along the edge, push broom down the middle.

This simple task of mowing the lawn can make me a bit emotional sometimes, and Christmas just heightens this. Earlier this month Seth and I received the new Christmas Revels recording for 2017, Tutta Bella: A Venetian Christmas Revels. For years I’ve watched the Revels create Christmas programs set in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, and Spain, and wished that someday there would be a Revels set in Italy. This year I got my wish. But when the CD arrived, I read the list of songs and was disappointed to find my favorite Italian Christmas carol, “Tu Scende Dalle Stelle,” was not part of the program. The disc arrived in early December, too soon in our book to listen to Christmas music (we’re just beginning to listen to Advent music at that point). But on Sunday morning, just yesterday, I finally added the new CD to the player. The first couple of songs played and they were good, a bit of horn fanfare… and then the third song began with a familiar haunting melody. It was my song, given a different name, “Quanno Nascette Ninno.” My heart leapt and then tears welled up in my eyes. I thought of my grandmother, who did not sing but who did sing that song. The pipers would come down from the mountains, she told me, each Christmas Eve, into her village in Italy. They would play this song. I thought of Grandma, and Grandpa, and Dad, too, and I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. Certainly some combination of sadness and joy. And this, too, is life.

Mom has agreed to a Christmas tree this year and so we put up the tree at the family homestead a week ago. But she wants no decorations outside and a very pared down celebration of Christmas in general, out of respect for Dad’s passing. Christmas, especially, brings up so many emotions for those of us who have experienced loss, and it feels a bit inauthentic, perhaps, to celebrate. But it is right as well to celebrate and continue what those who have passed taught us, if for no other reason than to keep them present in our days. There is, of course, no right or wrong way to approach these things. What I know is I am so happy that Mom chose to keep a tree this year. That tree will be even more central and more important than ever when we gather round it, and so will the creche, the nativity scene, reminding us of the child (and the child we all once were) and the story we’ve heard a thousand times, the story that never grows old. We’ll hear it again, and again: the child come down from the stars… and in that light, we gather up our memories and we take joy, take peace, take heaven. And so if you, too, are in this same strange place this Christmastime: it’s ok. We are right where we need to be, you and me both. And we’ll all be there for each other.


Film: Dad shoveling snow in Brooklyn, New York, 1952 or 1953.


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.