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”.

 

Circle of Days, or Your June Book of Days

It’s summer, so maybe I’ve begun to take things slow. Forgive me, then, for the slow-as-molasses posting of your June Convivio Book of Days calendar. The month, as Book of Days ceremonies go, has a slow start, with nothing much going on until the 13th. Once things get rolling, though, they do get pretty exciting. We start with the feast of St. Anthony, progress to Flag Day and Father’s Day. There are a couple of literary holidays in there, too: Bloomsday on the 16th honors James Joyce and his novel Ulysses, while St. John’s Eve on the 23rd is the night that William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place. It is the month of the solstice, and it is St. John’s Day on the 24th that is that Old Midsummer Day.

Midsummer? When summer’s has just begun? Yes, the almanac tells us that summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere with the solstice, but if that is the longest day, wouldn’t that day be the height of summer? Anyway, our ancestors thought so, hence that traditional monicker of Midsummer. There is some sense to their way of thinking, and we will explore that world view as the solstice gets closer.

Cover star on this month’s calendar: another of our native Florida plants, the Coontie, also known as Florida Arrowroot. Coontie is more the more common Seminole name. The leaves are just coming in as June arrives, bright green.

Even the coontie plants we thought were long dead in our yard (like the one beneath the bamboo, near the outdoor shower) have new growth. The plant is the source of an edible starch called arrowroot (as in arrowroot cookies) and is of supreme importance to the atala butterfly, for the atala lays its eggs on the coontie, and when the caterpillars hatch, the coontie leaves are what they eat. The plants get decimated by the caterpillars each year, but then they spin their cocoons on the same plants, and before you know it, atala butterflies are everywhere in the yard. The atala, a small black butterfly with irredescent blue spots and an orange tail, was thought extinct until not all that long ago, and I love that all of this goes on right here under our noses in our sandy Lake Worth yard. Circle of days, circle of life. That’s what this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar is all about.

 

Top image: the lovely prehistoric looking seed cones of the coontie. Middle image: new growth on the plant. By the way, if you, too, have coontie plants in your yard, don’t go harvesting the roots to make arrowroot cookies; coontie is one of those plants that is poisonous until the extracted starch is prepared just right. It’s a complex process and an old Florida industry perhaps better left in the past. My advice? Buy your arrowroot cookies at the supermarket. Enjoy the coontie for what it is: lovely plant and host of the atala.

 

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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