Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian, Sometimes Awesome, but Mostly Creepy, Childhood (Sand Hill Review Press)
The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything—the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they are officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” Though one thing that all my relations do agree on is the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side of my family survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons—all because they were wearing their crucifixes.
I volunteer to tell the story of the miracle of my uncles’ salvation to my second grade class. The bombs were bursting in air. My uncles, years before my birth, were staring at the rockets’ red glare. The rockets were about to come down on them when they touched their crosses around their necks, and God touched them back. A heavenly host of angels singing alleluia held up American flags against our enemies who didn’t believe in God. And all of this to save my two uncles, Johnny Flaherty and Tony Alonzo. God is Italian. Or Irish. Or American. He was on our side. That’s why we won.
While I’m finishing my story, Sister Helen Mary starts to push and almost lift me back to my desk. She won’t allow my classmates to ask me any questions, even though their hands are waving frantically, and many are calling out “Ssst! Ssst!” half-standing up. It’s a great story. And it’s true. But Sister Helen Mary says it’s time for phonics.
My mother is asked to go to the principal’s office soon after I tell this story. She is summoned again later in the month when I try to illustrate my Easter alphabet book with the signs of war and my uncles’ salvation. A is for angels (or alleluia). B is for bombs. C is for crucifix. D is for dead. Sister Helen Mary warns me that I cannot talk about my uncles or crucifixes any more in school. I try to explain that even though we have a lot of family secrets, what happened to my uncles in the war isn’t one of them. But she won’t listen. My uncles’ salvation is to become a secret when I am in school. I can see that the crucifix is clearly more special to my family and me than to the nuns, who are supposed to be God’s brides.
Sister Helen Mary wants our alphabet books to be about Easter food and Jesus and the resurrection and eternal salvation and flowers. I have all sort of ideas for Easter food, but my mother tells me that because most of the nuns and families in the parish are Irish, I can’t say that A is for artichokes (or antipasto). Even though my grandmother always makes artichokes on Easter, and they are one of my favorite foods of all time. So it seems to me that saying A is for “apples,” though true alphabetically, is also kind of a lie because it isn’t what A means to me. Lying is a sin. And since I’m seven and I’ll be receiving my First Holy Communion in a month, I want my soul to be particularly spotless. My mother says I’m not sinning, that I’m just learning to keep quiet and say something diplomatic, which you have to do a lot in life if you’re going to get along with people, and that “God knows she has to.” But it just seems like more secrets and more pretending, which I hate. As I practice drawing apples, with tears streaming down my cheeks, my mother says she has a story about how she and my whole family kept quiet about something a lot more important than artichokes. This is going to be a new family secret that I’m about to be let in on. I just know it.
My mother moves my drawings off the table, gets me some milk with a straw in it, and then tells me war isn’t glorious, that it is actually really horrible. I’ve never heard that before. “War is a terrible thing, Kathy, and not many people know this, but I only became really devoted to God after your father received a draft deferment.” I have no idea what she is talking about and start to blow bubbles into my milk. My mother grabs the straw away and tells me to concentrate. “It means he didn’t have to go to war.”
I’m stunned. Everyone in our family—on both sides—seems so patriotic that I can’t imagine that my father wasn’t a soldier when he was young. And that my mother was happy about it. “Why didn’t he go to war?” I ask, trying to hide my disappointment.
“Because of his flat feet.”
Feet? Feet! My father missed World War II because of his feet? I shake my foot out of my slipper and look at it and try to say that I think everyone’s feet are kind of flat, but my mother stops me. My father’s feet are such a family secret that we can’t talk about them in front of anyone, even each other. It embarrasses my father, she says, though the money he earned working while everyone else was at war still supports Grandpa and Uncle Johnny downstairs. I agree to keep quiet about my father’s flat feet, which is easy enough because people don’t really ever talk much about feet. But I know my mother’s wrong about war. The war not only proved to our families how special Johnny and Tony are in the eyes of God but how important the crucifix is to salvation.
And it seems that the rest of the family agrees with me. Hence the presence of the crucifix in all our households and in so many styles and sizes. Above the mantel here. Nearly always over the bed. In kitchens above the spices. Sometimes even in the bathroom. In my opinion God and the angels could obviously have done a better job saving my Uncle Johnny. But I know as well as anyone that God works in mysterious ways. Because of the shrapnel in Johnny’s head and his seizures, he can’t ever hold a job. He also has begun to drink enough for everyone to agree that he is an alcoholic. “Still fighting the war. Always fighting the war,” Grandpa says, shaking his head when they carry a sweating and bluish Johnny into his room after one of his seizures.
My Uncle Tony, who lives in New York with most of my other Italian relatives, fared better than Johnny. He has a blond Italian wife and three big sons—all too old for me to think of as cousins. Tony runs a successful grocery store on Staten Island and says you can buy corn on the cob from him that tastes like it has just come off the farm. “More like just off the boat,” Grandpa jeers. My father joins in the jeering whenever he points out that Tony isn’t a “real uncle” because he isn’t my mother’s brother. But who cares? I call our Staten Island relations uncles or aunts or cousins even if they’re my mother’s cousins or second cousins. What’s important is that we are all part of the same family. And Tony doesn’t care about what my grandpa or my father says. He survived foreigners attacking him all during the war and isn’t about to let an Irishman get to him now. And he still always wears his crucifix.
One Saturday at breakfast, about a month before my First Holy Communion, when we are finishing our diluted porridge, my mother announces that we’re going to redecorate my room. I set my sights on a feminine and quite expensive ruffled bedspread. I pray to Mother Mary that one will show up in Filene’s Basement in her favorite colors, blue and white. I pray to St. Anthony that we’ll also find matching curtains. I try my guardian angel for new lace dresser scarves. Their responses are mixed. I get a purple and pink bedspread that had been my Aunt Anna’s. There are no ruffles. The new curtains are white. I have to keep the old dresser scarves.
But the greatest redecorating excitement for me is the anticipation of receiving my crucifix for my Holy Communion present. I’ve been thinking about the kind of cross I might be given for a long time. Just about every time we go the Catholic store, even though that is rarely what we are shopping for, I head right for the crucifix aisle. Lying in bed at night or swinging on the swing set in the yard in the evening when the mosquitoes are biting, I can picture all the different styles of crucifixes and their descriptions. There is the plain ten-inch cross, made of gold or silver—pretty, but it has no Jesus hanging on it. The mother-of-pearl crucifix has a multi-toned Jesus with most of his bones really sticking out, but at sixteen inches, it’s probably too big for my bedroom. Uncle Johnny’s and Uncle Tony’s crucifixes are the popular soldiers’ style: small, metal, and worn on a chain around the neck because you have no walls to hang a cross on in a war. Their crucifixes aren’t appropriate for a young lady’s bedroom.
My preferences runs to a medium-sized, “authentic-detailed” heavy wooden crucifix. The crown of thorns on this cross is actually pointy and sharp, and there is deep-red blood dripping down Christ’s head. You can see exactly where the long nails enter his hands and feet. Just looking at it gives you the feeling that you went through the whole fourteen Stations of the Cross. That you witnessed Veronica wiping the blood and sweat from Christ’s face. That you were there with Mary Mother Most Sorrowful on Calvary, desperate and helpless, as she watched the soldiers kill her son. Some people we know think that a young girl might be afraid of realistic crucifixes, but I don’t see why. It’s one thing to be frightened by the Devil, but I don’t see how an accurate depiction of Christ’s blood could bother anyone because we all know that every wound of his, every bit of his suffering, helps to lessen ours here on earth. To give my mother subtle hints about my crucifix style preference, I endlessly, if not quite recognizably, draw images of a wooden cross with a bleeding Jesus on scraps of paper while she paints and repapers my room. But she always throws my drawings away with the old pieces of wallpaper at the end of the day.
When the room is finished, my mother and father present me with an elaborately decorated gift. “This is to celebrate your First Holy Communion, Kathy,” says my father, sounding official, but with a glint of pleasure in his eyes. “And we wanted it to coincide with your room redecoration so that it could have a rightful place,” adds my mother. I know it’s my crucifix and am surprised that the box is so small and light. Nonetheless, I unwrap it with suspense and reverence. This will be my Jesus, my own sacrificial lamb. When I finally get the box completely opened, I see in it a thin, almost transparent, white plastic crucifix on a tiny matching round stand—it couldn’t even hang—with a puny silver Jesus on it. It stands only about six inches high. It’s smooth. There are no signs of blood, thorns, or nails, no sense of pain or torture. This is a baby’s version of a cross. They don’t even sell these in the Catholic store. I look at my parents, my face hot, my stomach clenched, and feel betrayed that they don’t think that I’m old enough for a real crucifix after all. But they’re smiling. “We’re so proud of you, Kathy, growing up to be such a young lady now.” They each hug me. Then my mother tells me I’m free to go and set up my crucifix on my new bedside table.
Only after my mother gets me into bed that night and turns out the light do I discover that my crucifix has magic powers. How could I have doubted my parents? In the dark the cross casts a Godly glow. It is as if Johnny and Tony’s bombs bursting in air have been captured inside my Christ. The bright lights of war at night are shining through my crucifix, reminding me that God can appear to anyone He chooses and in any way He wants. This cross is giving me a vision of how God must have revealed Himself to Johnny and Tony when He intervened on their behalf against the enemy infidels. God shone in the darkness, His mighty hand reaching out to protect them, as He is protecting me now. But very gradually there begins to creep over me an uncertainty as to whether I exactly like this form of protection. “Shine on soldiers in foreign lands who need you more than I do, since I’m already safe in my bed,” I pray softly to my silver Jesus. The cross keeps shining. “Dear God, I thank you for your gift of light. Goodnight now.” He glows on.
My hands begin to sweat. I feel like I have to go to the bathroom. In a fit of wild, irreverent passion that is perhaps like my Uncle Johnny’s seizures, I wish I wasn’t Catholic, that my family were pagans and worshipped the sun, which leaves you alone at night to get some sleep. These sacrilegious thoughts still don’t make the light of the cross go out. Finally I cover the crucifix with one of my pillows. I sleep fitfully, but in the morning the light has gone out. I’m so relieved. But the glow comes on again every night once it gets dark, and every night I put a pillow over the crucifix.
As my father’s birthday nears, and the days start to get longer and warmer, God’s shining out at me through my crucifix begins to bother me less. My mother is so excited about a surprise she has for my father, and on his birthday we have to wait all day for him to come home from work and finally unwrap his secret gift.
The whole family, even Grandpa, who doesn’t go in much for exchanging presents anyway, is disappointed, given the fuss my mother has been making. “Wait,” she cries, seeing the looks on our faces. “They’re the latest!” pointing to the plastic inner soles. “Dad will never lose these slippers getting out of bed at night, but you have to wait until it’s dark to see how they work.” That will be at least another hour. The instant the sun goes down, my mother removes the slippers from the box and tells us to have a good look inside them. They are glowing, just like the crucifix. I think I’m going to be sick. God is in my daddy’s slippers.
The more my father wears those slippers, the more I start to hate them because God, in a sneaky sort of way, can now move all around the house. If my father walks to the kitchen to sit down to have a piece of toast in the morning, there God is under the table, possibly looking up my nightie, so I have to make extra sure to keep my ankles crossed. Or watching TV. We’re eating popcorn, enjoying the Red Sox, even though they’re losing, when my father starts to fall asleep and off comes a slipper, and there is God staring straight at me. Then I get the German measles. My father is reading to me in my room—Cinderella or Diana and the Golden Apples, two of my favorites. He has one leg crossed over the other and is slapping his slippers up and down, and God is peeking out again and again. I can’t believe that God is such a Nosey Parker.
But the more I think about it, it seems very odd for God to be in my father’s slippers. I know that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, but would He really want to live in their slippers? Sometimes my father’s feet smell just like Asiago. My mother says they reek even more in these slippers. Would God want to be with stinky feet? But just as I am having these doubts, the Gospel at Mass is about how humble God is, about how He went among the least of His servants. And I begin to think of how God chose to have His angels save Johnny and Tony and how my father didn’t even get to go to war because of his flat feet. Maybe these slippers are God’s way of telling my father it’s okay that he didn’t fight in the war, that his feet are still special.
I stop putting the pillow over my crucifix at night. I pray to Jesus, thanking Him for loving my father and his feet. I thank Him for my mother, who literally makes His light shine among us. For Father’s Day, my mother and I buy my dad a metal crucifix that looks just like Johnny’s and Tony’s, and he puts it on because I ask him to, even though he doesn’t like things around his neck. I even tell my guardian angel that it’s okay about not getting the dresser scarves.
It was at least a year after my father got those slippers before I found out that phosphorus is a chemical that makes things glow in the dark and probably has nothing whatsoever to do with God, salvation, the rockets’ red glare, or anything holy at all. That it’s used in all sorts of things, from crucifixes to slipper liners to Halloween decorations. It was a number of years before I realized that some of those foreigners my uncles fought in the war were Italian. Real Italians. From Italy. That God doesn’t have a nationality. That in some other people’s eyes, we were the enemy.
But this year my class wins the school prize for buying the most pagan babies: seventy-two! I start going to morning Mass with my mother in the summer. Before swimming lessons. Tony’s store continues to prosper. Uncle Johnny begins to take a new medicine that reduces his seizures a bit. My mother redecorates the dining room, partly to cover up a stain on the wallpaper where she had thrown a freshly made, hot blueberry pie at my father. And missed. My father wears his slippers every night and on the weekends. God is in our apartment this year, and all is all right with the world. And no one was to know that, within a decade, two of Tony’s sons, my cousins Alberto and Domenico, would come home in body bags from Vietnam—still wearing their crucifixes.