San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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April 20, 2003

Holy Cards

“I remember when your mother was carrying you”, she said, gently gripping my arm. She went on, describing how it was when she first saw me through the glass of the delivery room. “I asked your mother, ‘Where did that beautiful little boy come from?’” It’s one of the stories my great aunt Maria tells me more frequently these days. She’s been getting foggier since she turned 100. Last Christmas Eve was her 103rd birthday.

I look at her, thinking about what she’s been through—from horse and buggy to man on the moon. She’s lived through two World Wars, post-war famine and sickness, and then immigrated to the United States at the age of 73. That’s quite a bit of living. The funny thing is most of her life took place in two countries and two places: Italy, then America and home then church. The only other occasions she has ever left the house, besides church on Sundays, were occasional family get-togethers (birthdays and religious holidays).

I still regard her, this Catholic woman from Sicily, sitting in the kitchen, in the same chair she sat in when I was a child. Her look is far away, as if she is reminiscing. Her brow furrows occasionally, head nodding gently. I wonder what she thinks about, as she clutches her rosary beads and recites the Padre Nostro. In front of her, on the table, sits a small triptych of Saint Anthony and holy cards, alongside the army of pill bottles she draws from daily.

It was from Zia Maria, or Zi’ Zi’ (as in tse-tse fly) in Sicilian dialect, that I got my earliest religious education. She lived with my grandparents and my three uncles (all of them emigrated together). As a child, I was there almost every day. My grandfather would be out in the yard tending to the garden, which yielded milincani, cucuzza, pumaroru, fiche, nespole, and limiuni (eggplant, zucchini, tomato, figs, loquats, and lemons). They even had rabbits out back. While my grandmother cooked the mid-day pasta, my great aunt would be teaching me prayers in Italian. We sat together in the kitchen, huddled around a candle, my little fingers counting the beads of the rosary and praying the Ave Maria, while I gazed at the walls, dotted with holy cards, pictures of Padre Pio, and the standard painting of DaVinci’s Last Supper.

Looking at those illustrations, I was amazed and afraid at the same time. They were powerful. They gave me some early sense of identity; I knew that they somehow were a part of me, even to this day. I think it’s fair to say that if you are born Sicilian, you are pretty much born Catholic, whether you like it or not. No matter where you go, how you adapt, how much you think you’ve changed, even if you convert to another religion…it might as well be part of your DNA. In any case, you’ll get used to it, especially if you have a Sicilian grandmother who is a swell cook!

Zia Maria was born on Christmas Eve, 1899 in the small fishing village of Porticello. She was the oldest daughter of six children, the only one who never married. She was engaged thrice, before deciding to dedicate her life to the church. I assume that it was practice for mothers to bargain over whom their daughters were going to marry. The dowry was a serious matter. For example, her mother would appear with a ring one day and stick it on her daughter Maria’s finger, saying, “You’re marrying so-and-so’s son”, and that was it. Then, some time later, at random, her mother would simply pull the ring off her finger, automatically voiding the engagement.

Well, this happened three more times, in the same fashion. According to Zia Maria, the last fellow to whom she was engaged had desperately, in a last-ditch effort, tried to get her to elope, to go to Milwaukee with him, in spite of their parents’ wishes. He followed her in the street, practically begging, until it the answer was obvious. She refused. Eloping was considered taboo, and frowned upon by the church and family, even though many couples did just that. Some days later, Zia Maria went to speak with the local priest, and had a conversation that would change her life. Padre Salvatore told her marriage wasn’t in her future, but that the church would always be there. And that was that, she never again considered marriage.

She sleeps a lot these days, getting up to only to eat and move around a bit. On visits, I try to talk to her, because she doesn’t say much. It seems as if she’s waiting for something to happen. It makes me think of a proverb I learned from my great-uncle Girolamo (her brother), “Unne si nasci si sape, unne si mori nun si sape” which translates to, “You know where you’re born, but you don’t know where you’ll die”. I suppose she thought she would someday return to Sicily. That is definitely not going to happen. I look up at the walls again, my gaze met by the perpetual stares of the saints on those holy cards.

Zia Maria nudges me. Her grip is still firm, and she looks at me, nodding. I hold her small, wrinkled hand in mine. It’s soft and warm, just like when I was a little runt, praying along side her. In dialect, I say, “Zi Zi, do you remember…?”, and she smiles.

Posted by sfilippone at 09:53 PM | Comments (1)