Monthly Archives: May 2021

Memorial Day Weekend, 1949

Memorial Day has always come prepackaged with bonus material for my family, for it was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1949, that my mom and dad got married––two good looking kids from Brooklyn, tying the knot in the company of their family and friends at St. Blaise, the Italian neighborhood church, with a football reception afterward at Livingston Manor in Downtown Brooklyn: piles and piles of sandwiches, “football” referring to the idea that folks would toss the waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches across the room. “Hey,” someone would shout, “send me a capocolla!” and indeed, someone would toss a capocolla sandwich his or her way. How great is that? Sandwiches flying (and maybe being intercepted), mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. There was beer and soda and Grandpa’s homemade anisette. “We didn’t want a fancy reception,” Mom said, “but we wanted good music.” And so the Roy Rogers Orchestra played all evening and people danced and danced and certainly at least one or two of those dances were traditional Italian tarantella dances, and they played the Grand March, too, as everyone got up off their seats and marched around the hall. Mom and Dad’s wedding song was an old tango called Jealousy. I asked if they learned to dance the tango before the wedding; they did not. They just heard the song in a movie, and despite the name, knew it was theirs. There was a big fight between them the night before the wedding––it was something about mustard––but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. No wedding planners, no destinations, not even a cake; just mountains of waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches and homemade cream puffs and Italian cookies. Now that’s a wedding.

This year their anniversary fell on Saturday, the day Seth and I often head over to help out with chores. And though my dad is gone these four years now, still, when my phone conversation on Friday with my mom and my sister turned to What should we eat tomorrow? a decision came quickly: Let’s have sandwiches, and let’s have Italian cookies, and my sister said, “I’ll make the cream puffs.” It was a just right day. My nephew and his family happened to drop in just as we were finishing our sandwiches. We put two big pots of espresso on. We laughed, Mom told stories about the wedding, we listened to the Harry James version of their song, Jealousy, and we pictured Mom and Dad dancing to the song at the Livingston Manor while imagining Morticia and Gomez Addams dancing to it, as well, Morticia clutching a red rose in her teeth, because it starts with that tango sound before moving into fox trot territory. We had such a nice time. And when I kissed Mom goodnight and gave her a hug, she said, “Thank you for my anniversary party.” 72 years ago and still these things warm our hearts.

Memorial Day is special to my family, but it is special to many. As a nation, it is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. But it is one more day where we just remember, plain and simple, all who have come and gone. 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 particular time of year. It is a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. The day here in the States was known earlier on as Decoration Day, and the 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 31st, the very last day of the month. 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. And we tell stories. And for some of us, we eat sandwiches and cream puffs. Flowers and stories and all these things for remembrance, beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

Image: Johnny & Millie. It’s their engagement photograph, 1948… a year before their Memorial Day Weekend wedding.



Exhalation, Inspiration

Happy Whitsuntide. Easter is past, Ascension Day, too, and now it is Pentecost: Holy Spirit descended upon earth. It is the day when the apostles gathered in Jerusalem and spoke to the people and everyone, it is said, understood them, no matter whether they were Jew or Greek or Roman: there was, that day, no barrier of language. A day of clarity. Like no day before and no day since, and if the world has shown us anything in recent days, it is that we are as far from understanding each other as we’ve ever been.

They say that in France on Pentecost it is traditional to hear trumpets playing during Mass, the trumpet music symbolizing wind, breath, Holy Spirit manifested. But each Pentecost, my thoughts return to a simpler place with the very first Pentecost I spent at Chosen Land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine, in 1996. It’s a story I tell you each year, but it’s a story I love, and just like my father told stories over and over again, usually as if it was the first time he had ever told you, I’ll tell you this one again, too, because this is what we do: We tell the stories again and again, to keep them alive, always on the breath, exhaled into the world. Exhalation, inspiration.

And so I was there for that Shaker Sunday Meeting, and Seth was there, and all the Shakers I had just met were there, too (and it was a larger Community then), the men on one side of the 1794 Meetinghouse, the women on the other. Father Bob Limpert, an Episcopal minister from New York, was there, too, and still to this day occasionally I’ll hear from Father Bob. And the Shakers that Pentecost in 1996 let Father Bob give a more formal sermon to all who were gathered: all the Shakers, and all the people “from the world,” as the Shakers say, who were there that Sunday, too. It was a very windy day. Father Bob was inspired that blustery day to talk about the relationships between words like gust and ghost and it was Pentecost, of course, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit… which, when I was a kid, was better known as the Holy Ghost. And here was this day of gusting wind ushering in holy ghosts of all kinds in this old building full of history: gust to ghost to spirit. And spirit brings us to inspiration.

And this always reminds me of one of my favorite professors from college, Myriam Swennen Ruthenberg, who also remains in touch with me to this day, and who, in an Italian Literature class, perhaps over Dante or Bocaccio or Giuseppe di Lampedusa, spoke one day of the connexions between words, too. Her words that day were the Italian versions of respiration and inspiration and their common Latin root: spirare, breath. We breathe in and out in the act of respiration, but we also breathe in and out inspiration: we are inspired by what we take in, and what we exude or breathe out hopefully inspires others.

If you’ll follow along on my winding trail, these things all connect: the gust and ghost of Father Bob, the breathing in and out of Professoressa Ruthenberg. All are not so much of the earth as they are of the air and so they lack heaviness and instead are light and ethereal. Inspiration comes to us sometimes as fleeting as breath, a ghost seen just briefly from the corner of the eye.

gust–> ghost–> spirit–> breath–> respiration–> inspiration

Pentecost never meant much to me but it did after that Pentecost Sunday at Chosen Land in 1996. I think of it now as a day of exquisite connexions. (And yes, the X is purposeful, for that, to me, seems more closely related to the idea of connecting ideas––like a mathematical expression of language.)


Image: Illustration of a weathervane from Die Gartenlaube (The Gazebo), a hugely popular weekly illustrated magazine published in Germany in the 19th century by bookseller Ernst Keil. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. An angel blowing a trumpet as weathervane activated by wind? I think it’s the perfect illustration for today’s Book of Days chapter.


Pocketful o’ Chores

It’s my dad’s birthday on Tuesday; our fourth one without him being here. It seems like an incredibly long time and it seems like it’s not been long at all, which, I’ve come to realize, is the way we come to experience grieving. Or certainly the way I have. Dad is still very much a part of my life and (again, I’ve come to realize) I don’t think that will change, either. I talk to him, especially while I’m at the family homestead, mowing the lawn. I say goodnight to his photo each night as I shut the lights, but I say goodnight to all the people in the photos, and each night I feel the same hint of surprise that he is not in my daily life quite the same way as he was before. It’s all very strange and all very reassuring, too, and if it sounds a bit muddled, well, welcome to my world. It seems to work for me.

If you are a loyal Convivio Book of Days reader, I worry sometimes that you must get tired of hearing me ramble on about my father and all those who have come and gone before me. But I know in my core that this line of people I come from and this Book of Days are of the same fabric. They are part of my round of the year and part of my spiraling thread of time and so the things all those people taught me––even ancestors I never knew––those things are all part of this book. It’s a collaboration, co-authored by you and me and all my family, no matter where they are or when they walked this old earth.

So let’s get back to the lawn. First of all, let me state that I am not a fan of the concept. I think lawns are a waste of time and resources and I have to agree a bit with those who say that suburban America has been brainwashed into the green lawn concept. And when I hear, as I did this past weekend, about communities that don’t even allow homeowners to plant fruits or vegetables––on their own land!––I know the lawn thing has gone too far. Allow me to say exactly what you’re thinking: Rules like that are just plain stupid. If you are on a neighborhood board making such rules, it’s clear we will not get along.

Seth and I, we have more sense than to have a lawn at our house. Instead, we live on a plot of land that more closely resembles a dense forest. There are fruit trees and there’s a vegetable garden (fallow right now, but still), and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but we think it’s just right.

But when I think of my dad, even though he was an auto mechanic by trade (a “Doctor of Motors,” he’d say), Dad has a broom in hand, sweeping up after mowing the lawn. The lawn is green and lush, like a carpet, as Mom says. We Cutrones are not a traveling people, by and large, and so Dad’s pride was his home. He polished the stainless steel gutters, he kept everything running, and mostly, Dad loved his lawn. At the family homestead, we’d work on it together most Saturdays. Dad mowed on his tractor while I did the rest. Back then, I did it because I felt obligated to help. I’d peel my eyes open on a Saturday morning, waking to the sound of Dad riding the mower tractor outside my bedroom window after a Friday night of dancing to the Smiths and New Order at Respectable Street Cafe, and I’d drag myself out there, roll up my sleeves, and get to work. My favorite times were summer days, when we’d finish just before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in: Dad and I would take shelter in the open garage and watch the wind and the rain and delight in the rain cooled air.

But these four years now the lawn is my job. It has come to be my Dad Time. I watch the skies and the trees and the pond for wood storks and other tall wading birds. Sometimes I sing songs to myself. Mostly I am lost in my thoughts, thoughts that I share with my father as I go about the work that needs doing, the work we’d do together.

Recently, Dad’s old tractor, which, for a long time now, required a growing list of preliminary tasks before it would start properly, finally gave up the ghost. It felt a bit clunky that last time as I rode it and mowed. All was fine in the front yard, but the back yard? Not so much. At one point, I looked behind me and gasped: I was creating deep gouges in the lawn, but it was too late; I was halfway to the finish line, so I kept on mowing. When I was done, the lawn looked more like a field freshly plowed for planting with row after row of furrows. I looked at the undercarriage of the mower and realized the blade assembly had rusted through and one side had given way so that the mower was cutting at an angle of about 45 degrees. My sister came out, gave me a look, and said exactly what I was thinking: “Oh, Dad would not be happy.” She put an awful lot of emphasis on the word not.

I spent a couple of weeks feeling badly and paralyzed by indecision over what to do: fix the tractor? It seemed beyond repair. Buy a new one? That’s a lot of money. Buy an electric tractor? More my speed, but that’s even more money. Finally, I took a leap of faith and bought an electric push mower, a Ryobi that’s powered by rechargeable batteries. It’s a lot of walking, but it turned out to be, I think, one of my better decisions in life. I can mow that lawn using two fully charged batteries. I get exercise and lawn day now counts as a work-out day. It’s quiet. It reminds me a bit of Dad’s old Sunbeam mower, the push mower he used when we lived in New York. And you know what? I think Dad would approve. The lawn looks better than ever, and in spite of how I feel about lawns in suburbia in general, I want that lawn looking verdant and rich. Like a carpet.

Images: “No one ever got bored with a pocketful of chores.” I never heard Dad complain of boredom, and I don’t remember what that particular phenomenon feels like, either. Top: Dad with his broom, sweeping up after a fresh cut with his Sunbeam push mower, Valley Stream, New York, circa 1972. Bottom: Me with what my sister Marietta calls “Johnny’s new toy.” It’s the electric battery powered Ryobi push mower at the family homestead. If you need a new mower yourself, I highly recommend it. Dad’s birthday is on Tuesday and I know exactly what I’ll be doing: I’m mowing the lawn, and maybe singing him a song or two.