Joanna Clapps Herman has had 42 publications during the Covid era (poems, micro
fiction and longer prose work) in Odyssey PM, MUTHA, Pummerola, The Ocean
State Review, Italian Americana, Persimmon Tree, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine
Short Beasts and ASGFY. Book length publications include When I am Italian:
Quando sono italiana, No Longer and Not Yet and The Anarchist Bastard: Growing
Up Italian in America. She has co-edited two anthologies: Wild Dreams and Our
Roots Are Deep with Passion.
IL SACRIFICIO PASQUALE
The Easter Sacrifice
The girl cousins are a pack, a passel, a parcel, a bunch. We play together inside and outside. Six of us clustered in four years: Gilda, Lucia, Diane, Linda, Bede, and me. Gilda, the oldest of the girls, tells us what to do. When we’re being stupid. Like babies. She teaches us things like acrobatic tricks. We practice cartwheels, handstands, backbends, backflips. She’s taking dance, ballet and tap, and acrobatics. We spend many hours playing on one or another of our big lawns in all kinds of weather.
We play house all the time too. In our basements, backyards, bedrooms, in our living rooms when no one is watching. We are mothers. We have many children who are bad and disobey us. We have to give them real spankings when they don’t obey. “I’m going to give you such a palliad’ if you don’t listen to me,” or “I’ll beat you senseless,” we say to our little children.
When we are up the farm where Bede lives, we often climb up onto the Indian rock in the woods out back and set up house there. Sticks are knives and forks. We set out elaborate meals on our leaf plates.
We say, “I’d better start cooking now because Bob hates it when dinner isn’t ready when he gets home from work.” Then we scurry into the scratchy bushes, good little wives that we are. I scrape my arms, my calves, fingers to collect acorns, berries, leaves, buds, and grasses to make dinner. We gather our small skirts up as our mothers do in their gardens to make a saccetta to carry our bounty back to the home on the rock.
“Real Indians could have lived here. They really did. I mean it.”
“Look at the hole in rock. That is where they ground their corn.”
“Waterbury used to be called Mattatuck,” we remind each other over and over. “That’s the real Indian name.” This reminds us to look for arrowheads again.
The girl cousins plan long, afternoons of hiking or biking on the back roads of Waterbury. On bright, winter afternoons and into darkening twilight, we ice-skate on the small pond at the bottom of Lakewood Road where our grandparents’ farm is. We practice tricks and stunts, ice-skating backwards, doing flips, landing then continuing to skate backward. We teach these things to one another. Practice together for days until we get each new trick perfect.
In the summer we swim in our lake every day at Lakewood Park. We race, swim the backstroke, the breaststroke. I especially like to practice increasingly difficult dives for hours until I perfect them. I learn the front dive first, then the jackknife, the somersault, and the back dive.
We are little goats, strong and agile, climbing rocks, trees and running outside every second we don’t have to help our mothers in the house. We hurry to get our housework done so we can run out and play. Make a cake for company. Iron the two baskets of clothes. Start the sauce for the macaroni. Weed the garden. Paint the back porch. We are trained to get things done.
We are cousins and friends, but no amount of connection is enough between us. We have to be blood sisters too. We stick safety pins into our skin when two or three of us are together and then we rub our blood together to seal our oaths to one another. Such urgency to bind our blood further together. It is startlingly painful each time the pin pierces the skin. A terrible pain, like a bee sting—the same sudden shock. A tiny drop quickly becomes enough to swear our deep loyalty forever.
A Country of Two
Early on, Bede and I become a tight two. I am a year older, più o meno, but Bede and I go back so completely there aren’t earliest memories. She is my first cousin, but also my best friend. She’s at the center from the indefinite time of our infancy.
We live in a world only we inhabit, citizens of a country we invent. Certain in our certainty, we have no common sense. We dismiss all warnings from the grownups. Our special escapades, adventures, secrets—we’re in it together, folies a deux, also known as love.
The games for just the two of us happen when I sleep over at the farm on weekends. I am allowed to sleep at Bede’s house whenever I want, but Bede isn’t usually allowed to sleep at my house even though it’s right down the street.
Aunt Bea always says, “It’s okay with me, Rose. Ask your brother.”
Even though my mother is her father’s older sister. But that’s my Uncle Rocky. He likes to say no to everything that’s fun.
My mother has to talk to him into it, “Come on Rock, let her stay at my house. What’s the harm?”
“Let her sleep in her own bed. What does she need to go sleep somewhere else for? She’s fine right here.” It makes him happy to be mean. Stravers’!
Only once in a while he says yes.
So I stay at the farm for most of our sleepovers. We disappear into the realm of our own making.
We climb the slanting legs of the swing sets. She’s the better gymnast. We both swing dangerously high, coming close to flipping over the top bar. But when we get too high, the swing jerks us down. We climb up the legs to the crossbar and do flips over the top, swinging hard with our bodies. Then we jump down, our feet hitting the dirt with a thud. We run up to the top of the rocks all over the farm in our bare feet, then down through the woods. We cut our legs, feet, and arms daily. Big scabs cover our knees all the time, cuts and bruises, escaping into feral childhood.
Lots of stuff we do gets us into trouble. Like running through the hayfield right behind the house, flattening the hay before it is harvested. Uncle Rocky is furious. “How many times have I told you kids not to do that! I need that hay for the cows!” But his fury is directed at Bede. I’m just in his general line of fire—though we ran through the hay together. Jumping down fifteen feet from the hayloft into the truck filled with loose hay. Uncle Rocky is furious again.
I’m in trouble at my house all the time. “Just don’t talk back to Mommy,” my older sister whispers to me. But I am a disobedient child. I don’t listen. She doesn’t know what to do with this bad, unruly daughter. Me neither.
In my house getting into trouble means being pinched, slapped, my hair pulled, being given a spanking or a beating. I drop the sugar bowl on the floor one day and don’t clean it up properly. I’m sitting at the kitchen table reading again when I hear the grit of sugar under my mother’s footsteps, when she walks back into the kitchen. She lifts her foot to see the bottom of her shoe. “What is this? I thought I told you to clean it up good!” Her voice is rising. “And you left the dirty rag in the sink! Get over here.”
At Bede’s house it is the other way around. Aunt Bea protects her children as much as she can from Uncle Rocky. All the kids get beatings, but especially the three oldest: Bede, Rocky and Vito.
Bede is the firstborn in that family. She really gets it bad. But my grandfather loves Bede: teaching her how to tie her shoes, teaching her Italian songs. Small sweetnesses between them.
Bede’s younger brothers, Rocky and Vito, also have to work like men on the farm with their father but the other boys in our family have it easy. Everybody knows that. We wish we were boys. Bede and I talk about how unfair it is being girls.
They don’t have to do housework or help our mothers. They don’t have to set the table, do the dishes, iron the clothes. The girls take turns with the same remarks.
“And they get away with everything too. Not like us. Boys are so lucky. Nobody makes them work. Or just a little. Like throwing out the garbage. But we have to do that too.”
To talk about important things like this or to plan one of our special expeditions we hang around by the bread oven that looks just like a little house with a peaked roof and a small entranceway.
I’m getting ready to go for a sleepover up the farm. My mother said it was okay. I’m packing my nightgown, my new paper doll book, crayons, and scissors so we can cut snowflakes and paper doll chains from the old newspapers no one wants to read anymore piled on the radiator.
We spend hours with paper, crayons, and scissors. I’ve just successfully cut out a beautiful, pale blue gown from a magazine. I get each edge just right. No mistakes. I feel so good. My mother is standing at her place at the kitchen table, sorting through magazine recipes. I confide in her, “I love using scissors. I love cutting things out.”
She looks down at me, hesitating for a second or two as if she has something important to say. Her hair is wrapped in curlers and there’s a bandana tied on top of her head. Then she says, “I read in a magazine that people who love scissors and knives are sadists, they want to hurt people, like your Uncle Rocky.”
Something lurches inside of me. I just like to make things. Why is she saying this to me?
Blett and Barrette
We are ten, maybe eleven, older than little children but not yet teenagers, in that time where the line between what is a boy and what is a girl is more strikingly the same than different. Our bodies are driven only by the intense desire to move, climb, sprint, use every muscle. These tight, lean bodies give us confidence. Our lack of judgment even more.
In one of the private games Bede and I play, we decide we should have secret names that we’ll use only for this one game. We’re down by the brick bread oven shaped like a little house. We take our time trying different names out. It’s important that they rhyme and that they both start with the same letter. They have to be special. We spend a long time trying out combinations of sounds. We find only one name we like but who will get it? Brett. Neither of us can claim it until we find another that is just as good. We like the “ett” at the end. It could be a name of one of our dolls. Brett sounds like barrette, so we fool around with lots of words until we come upon the sound of Blett. Like bracelet. To us, the “ett” makes both names sound pretty and strong.
The heart of this game is that we are tough and able to handle anything. So we decide that we have to ride motorcycles and carry guns. We plan long, long rides on our motorcycles out into the wilds of back roads, through mountains or maybe desserts. No one will know where we have gone.
We’ll ride our motorcycles with our guns slung over our backs. We think we’ll probably start in Africa, or maybe Arizona, taking long, long rides where we’ll be free.
“We’ll ride forever,” we say, leaning against the hard brick oven’s back.
“Or until we’re so tired we’re going to fall off our motorcycles.” We laugh at this, slap at each other. “Or we’re so hungry, we’re going to die.” This sends us into hilarity. “Or we run into bad guys.” We become more sober.
“We’ll take care of them.”
“We can kill our own food and cook it over campfires.”
“We’d better bring blankets too.”
We consider what we’ll need for food and clothes so we’ll be prepared for anything. We plan our supplies next.
This game can go on for days, weeks, months, years. On another day we draw a map of the roads through mountains and deserts. We draw ourselves on our motorcycles with our guns and bedrolls. We draw pictures of all of the foods we’ll take, the boots we’ll wear. The drawings and maps become more and more detailed because this is what the game actually consists of. Planning.
We don’t make motor sounds or gunshot sounds like the boys do when they play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. We don’t linger in front of Bede’s father’s locked gun cabinet. We simply dream these adventures and talk about them and draw up images of them. Planning them is the same as living them. We acquire what we need in our heads and on paper, give ourselves names, and then run off to play something else in the woods or down by the lake.
Signs and Omens
My Aunt Bea, Bede’s mother, is pregnant with her fourth child. We are sure that if we pray and pay attention, we can figure out whether she will have a boy or a girl. We know God sends signs about these things if you pay attention. No question.
We know about signs and curses from our family. The dead visit our mothers and aunts, send them messages. Grandma knows all about dreams too. All the grownups receive them and talk about them at “coffee and” time.
Like the time cousin Leon came to say goodbye to Aunt Vicki the night he died in the war. “He was right by my bed, sitting there with such a beautiful smile on his face. He looked so nice. It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t. He came to say goodbye. I know that must have been as he was leaving.”
So we know.
Bede and I pack a picnic. Saltine sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly. Lemonade in a big glass jar wrapped in a mappin’. Often, we end up in the thicket of small woods behind the rocks at the edge of the lake.
We are still on the farm but out of sight of the house and barns and no one comes here much. Just the cows. It is a special spot for us. There will probably be signs here. We find a broken piece of china with gold trim and flowers at the edge. This might be trying to tell us something. But then we find a ripped newspaper headline.
“This is the real omen,” Bede says. The paper is damp from the grass, but the headline is almost all there. I fall in line. She’s got to be right. The way it rips along the lines of important words tells us everything. “Baby Boy Found on the Steps of the Silas Bronson Library.” This could be the message we’ve been waiting for. But how can we be sure?
We decide it might be telling us the baby is going to be a boy. We feel happy at this exciting news. “Should we tell your mother? Do you think?” I ask.
“I’m not sure. We’re not positive yet. We need more messages before we can be sure,” Bede says.
“Anyway, maybe we’d be spoiling the surprise? They might get mad at us,” I say.
We’re walking across the field toward the rock where we like to sit to talk things over.
We sit on top of this special rock looking at the water moving back and forth. Maybe the water will tell us something.
“Vito went through the rock, you know,” my cousin tells me after a while.
We climb down the rock. We look into its long, narrow opening as we do every time we come here. We can see that the opening leads to a cave that widens just a bit. The crack is very narrow, but just wide enough for our slender girl bodies to maybe slip through.
“We can fit in there. Right?” We hesitate.
“It’s big enough.” We nod our heads, but we don’t look each other in the eye for long.
I peer into the crevice. There’s space. Maybe, enough to wiggle through. I imagine the rock’s weight pressing in on my body—my body unable to move back out once I have wedged myself in. Our parents will kill us if we get caught.
For one of the younger kids to be braver than we are, isn’t right. “Did you see Vito do it?” I ask, looking away from her.
“Rocky told me. He saw him.” This news means we’re going to have to try.
“Maybe we should make it our special cave day tomorrow,” I suggest. We can make a vow tonight to do it. That will make it better.”
That night in bed we make our plans for cave day.
“We could take some of Grampa’s wine to drink before we go in,” Bede suggests. “I know where he keeps it in the cellar.”
“Yes, and we’ll say special vows and prayers. That will make it more important.”
“I can sneak some of Gramma’s cookies that she saves only for when the New York cousins come.”
We squirm under the blankets in our excitement.
When we arrive at the face of the rock, we place our holy juice and cookies on a mappina. Then we get down on our knees before the crevice and pray. Bede starts, “Oh holy rock mother, we are going to come into your home. We aren’t going to hurt you.”
“And we pray for your acceptance,” I add, inspired by the many prayers I’ve said at St. Lucy’s.
Meticulously, we pour the wine into the jelly jars with little black dogs circling their bases. We lift our glasses and say, “Salut’, e per cint’ann’.” This is what our family says when they have some wine. The wine tastes sour and odd so we decide to splash some on the rock to baptize it. But we eat the cookies slowly and solemnly.
Bede goes in first because she lives on the farm. As she moves into the rock, I want to grab onto her leg. But instead I just say, “Are you okay?”
I’m sure we’re both going to die now. I’m trying to see into the cave. I’ll be in real trouble if she gets stuck.
When she gets in deeper, even the soles of her shoes disappear.
I don’t hear her say anything. “Bede . . .? Where are you?”
I hear a sound I don’t understand. Is it her body pushing against the rocks? Is it the rocks moving?
Then she pops up on the other side of the rock, brushing the dirt off her clothes, especially her knees.
“It’s okay,” she says bravely, “just a little tight going around the corner. You have to wiggle through. I wasn’t too afraid.” She doesn’t look scared.
This is terrifying to me now. I can’t lose face. She’s younger than me. I begin to squirm my way in. The scraping sound of my clothes against the stone sides is terrifying and soothing. I’m wedged in now. I can’t move in any direction, forward or backward. I’m pretty sure the rock is starting to shift in on me. I press my toes behind me hard. I pull my belly forward an inch or two against the earth and stone. I’m worried that using my elbows to push against the sides could make the rock shift even more. If I push the wrong way I will be crushed to death.
Then I am further inside and it’s just a small dark hole in front of me. There seems to be a corner, maybe a speck of light. I’m sick with fear as I inch my way on my belly around that bend. I might throw up.
“That wasn’t even scary,” I say when I come out into the air.
Bede doesn’t say anything.
Then she says, “Let’s check these stones for fossils. We never finished looking for our signs from God. Those could be messages too.”
In silence we walk close to the lake’s edge, our shoes getting muddy as we search through the stones lying on the ground. The water laps quietly.
We examine each stone in the sunlight, to see if there are patterns to the mica. Or, are they just ordinary rocks? No messages? We have just been so brave: why wouldn’t God send us a sign? Lots of children have visions and see miracles. Why shouldn’t we?
“Maybe we should write a letter to God tonight,” I say, trying to scrape some of the mud off the soles of my red leather shoes. They are my play shoes, but I love them because of the color. I don’t want them to get too worn out or my mother will give them to the church for the poor in Italy.
“But how can we send it?” Bede turns one of the stones over and over.
“I don’t think we can put it in the mailbox.”
“Could we leave it on an altar at St. Lucy’s?”
“Or near a statue?”
Bede wants to be Methodist like her mother. I can’t understand this. What if she goes to hell because she’s not in the one true religion? I worry about her soul. I talk to her about this a lot.
We decide to go up to her bedroom to talk this over some more.
“We might be able to use this.” She picks up a red and white plastic Jesus statue from her big bureau with the mirror on top.
“See,” she shows me that the statue has a bottom that comes off. “We can tuck it in here.”
A mailbox to God. We spend that afternoon up in Bede’s bedroom writing the letter—thinking carefully about what we’re saying. We ask God several questions. Who will we marry when we grow up? What will the baby be, a boy or a girl? We’d like proof. We copy it over a few times so that there aren’t any erasures or cross-outs. We’re thrilled with ourselves. We say a prayer when we put the letter into the statue. Make the sign of the cross.
We’re fidgety, going to sleep that night. Tossing and turning and stealing the blankets from each other. In the middle of the night, I yell at her, “Leave me some covers!” She looks scared and mad at the same time.
“I’m going to go home in the morning if you don’t stop it,” I say meanly and smack her arm.
“Well, you were scared this afternoon,” she says to get back at me.
“I’m not your friend anymore. I’m not even talking to you.” I turn my back on her in the bed.
In the morning we wake at dawn, the fight forgotten, excited to see what’s happened with our letter.
“You get it,” we urge each other from the bed.
“Well, you’re closer to the bureau,” I say.
“Okay, I’ll get it.”
“But you can open it, too, if you want.” This is me, making up for our fight.
We’re sitting on the same side of the bed when she carries the statue back. We’re going to hear directly from God.
Bede opens the bottom of statue and pulls out the letter. The paper has exactly the same folds as the night before. When we unfold it, we see that it still holds our exact words, with nothing added. Nothing has changed. It’s just our letter. We look inside Jesus to see if there’s anything else. But that’s all there is.
We look at each other in confusion. We shrug our shoulders.
“What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know. Did we do something wrong?”
“Should we leave it there another night?”
But Aunt Bea is calling to us to come downstairs.
“I’m leaving for the wedding in New York. Hurry up. Your father is waiting for me in the car,” she shouts up the stairs.
Swimming in March
Grandma Ferguson, my Aunt Bea’s mother, is taking care of us while the grownups attend a family wedding in Queens. Bede’s brothers are staying over with other cousins. Everyone will be back on Sunday. Aunt Bea looks beautiful in a blue taffeta outfit with a small, beaded hat on her head. Her dark hair is glistening, her pale skin glowing. She has on dark pink lipstick. She’s our Yankee beauty.
We watch her leave from the kitchen. It’s March so she has a wool coat over her arm as she runs down the cellar steps to the garage off the cellar, where Uncle Rocky shouting, “For God’s sake, Bea, come on!”
Grandma Ferguson, like Aunt Bea, is sweet and gentle. So it’s the perfect time for a plan we’ve been considering for a while. A swim in March. The sun was shining on the lake, the water a perfect blue, yesterday when we made up this plan. We’ll cross through the field, not the park. Someone could be strolling there and see us. No one will see us in the field.
We tell Grandma Ferguson that we’re going for a walk in the woods. We have already put our bathing suits on under our clothes, and we don’t take towels with us. That would give us away. It’s a warm March day. Maybe in the sixties. A perfect day. We always take food with us when we plan an adventure. Tuna fish sandwiches and apples. “We’re going now,” we say with special sweetness after we’ve washed the breakfast dishes and put them back in the cupboard. We had promised Aunt Bea we’d clean up so Grandma Ferguson wouldn’t have to. She’ll sit on the sun porch, nodding gently in the sun. We’re always allowed to go outside to play if our chores are done.
We wander down through the field near the lake where Pasquale had died when he was two years old. We know how silly Grandma Becce is about this lake. It’s not dangerous. It’s just a lake.
A light breeze brushes our skin as we set up camp at the edge of the lake. Now it’s crisp, sunny. The snow melted a couple of weeks ago. We fold our clothes very slowly into two piles side by side. We take our time. We refold the top of the brown paper lunch bag so no animals can get into it. We sit with our hands holding onto our upper arms while we look at the water. We can’t believe we’re going to get away with this.
When we walk into the water, the cold of it bites our skin. It’s painful how cold it is. How can it look so blue and perfect and be so cold? We plunge further in, up to our waists, then our shoulders. At each new descent another stunning. Our skin is hit as if with bewilderment. How can it be this cold? How does it feel so wrong? We’re dazed with the icy cold on our warm, young skin.
We can’t stay in for more than a few minutes before we must surrender and get out. We climb out in confusion. In silence we put our clothes on over our wet swimsuits and run back to the house, leaving the food in the field. We have to get home.
Back at the house we hang our bathing suits over the bathroom towel rack and put on fresh, dry clothes. We don’t talk about what just happened much. “That was so cold.”
A few days later Bede calls to tell me Aunt Bea found the wet bathing suits in the bathroom. “She called your mother.”
We didn’t have a cover story, like we’d worn our bathing suits when we took baths for fun. We weren’t doing anything wrong.
My mother grabs me by the arm, her own hand swinging hard in rhythm against my colie.
“Do you know how dangerous it was to do that? To go swimming like that alone with no one watching? Are you crazy?” A few more whacks. “I’m surprised at you. Don’t you know any better than that?” A few more palliades. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore. You make me so mad. What will I do with you?”
Neither of us has any idea what should be done with me.
Bede and I both get spankings. But Aunt Bea hasn’t told Uncle Rocky, or Bede would have gotten it so bad.
I’m dazed by each part of this experiment. But more than anything, how could the water be that cold on a sunny day?
Days later, Bede is quite annoyed. In a private bathroom conversation she says, “My mother told me it’s not true what you said about the hair.”
I had carefully explained, after our swim, that more and more hair grew down there, as we got older.
“Where does it grow?” she had asked, shivering as we peeled off the suits. This question inspired me. I could see it. I explained that the hair grows so much, it goes—I showed her this with my fingers—“up the middle of our bellies across belly buttons and then up through the middle making a heart shape.” I pointed to where we’d one day have breasts. “And then it goes over our shoulders like a bathing suit.”
I had forgotten I said that. Why couldn’t I stop myself from saying these things out loud?
“What did your mom say when you told her I said that?” I ask, staring at her. I could be in real trouble.
“She just laughed and said, ‘Oh that Jo, she has some imagination.’”
I picture my aunt’s laugh, her dark hair flung back, her mouth wide with the silliness of it. A near miss. She won’t tell my mother.
Slaughtering a Pig
A few weeks later there’s great excitement. Uncle Rocky will slaughter a pig today, and this time, all of the kids get to watch. After lunch, we go outside to play while the grownups are having coffee. Pigs are slaughtered on the farm so for sausage, prosciutto, and to render the lard. I’ve never watched before.
“Alright everybody. If you want to see it come on now. I’m not going to wait for anyone.” All the kids scamper up the road behind Uncle Rocky, racing each other to the slaughterhouse, which sits above the garden. It’s a glistening hot July day.
When we reach the slaughterhouse my uncle and his workmen wrestle the pig off the back of the truck. Its squeals are high-pitched, piercing when they hang it upside down on a metal hook. It’s a massive animal, oddly long once it hangs. It writhes and twists trying to free itself. One of the workmen holds the animal as my uncle binds its back feet together, yanking the binding rag tight. That rag is not going to come loose. He laughs and slaps the pig hard on the flank.
“Okay. Everybody ready,” my uncle calls out, ready for the coup de grace. I’ve never heard squealing like this.
He takes a long sharp knife. He reaches high up and points the knife in, as a shrill screech comes from the pig. He slices hard across the pig’s throat. Blood gushes and spurts everywhere. The men jump away. There’s a bucket below, to catch the blood for blood pudding.
Uncle Rocky looks around at us and laughs oddly. “You like sausage, don’t you?” As if he’s challenging us to something.
He wipes the knife on a rag he yanks from his back pocket. Angles the point of the knife at the top of the body, presses in and with one long quick slice, pulls the knife down through the pig.
I’m scioccato, shocked. I feel sick and confused. About the pig, about the blood, about the knife.
My uncle looks at us, quick, eyes bright, gives another high-pitched laugh. The kids in a loose semicircle are quiet. “Oh gee,” someone says.
His two sons, Rocky and Vito, are running in circles in the blood, splattering it on themselves and tracking it everywhere.
“I’m going to give you two such a beating,” Uncle Rocky shrieks and grabs Vito, who is closer to him. “You want to see some blood? I’ll slap you so hard it’ll come out your ears!” Vito looks terrified. Rocky, sober, stands to one side.
“Rock, they’re just being boys. Come on. We did the same at their age,” one of the uncles says.
“Yeah, and I got plenty of beatings for it too!” And he swings as if it’s going hit Vito so hard his ears will ring. But then drops his hand at the last minute.
Did my cousins, who lived on the farm, know this was the way it would be? The kids straggle back down to the house. No one says much on the way. I don’t tell anyone how it made me feel.
Sacrificed for Our Sins
Ash Wednesday. All the girl cousins, except for Bede, are lined up at St. Lucy’s waiting our turn to kneel quietly at the altar rail and receive the priest’s fingers making a dusty cross on our foreheads. When I stand up from the altar rail, my hands together in devotion, I know Lent has started. I feel a flood of goodness in me. I’ll become a better person this year. I won’t disobey my mother. Or fight with her. I’ll get rid of my bad ways that get me in trouble.
Leaving the church to walk back to the bus stop on North Main Street, I notice all the people I don’t know who bear the cross on their foreheads. We are connected. We are all in a state of grace.
Bede doesn’t come to St. Lucy’s. This is one of the very few things that makes Aunt Bea put her foot down. Aunt Bea keeps her Methodist upbringing, her Methodist Easter, from her childhood for herself and her children. She has accepted our Italian ways but doesn’t want Bede to become Catholic. I want Bede to be like us, to come to church with us, to have an ashy cross on her forehead too. To be thinking about what to give up for Lent.
The rest of us have been thinking about making a sacrifice for God. He has sacrificed his only Son for us, for our sins. And look at what Christ gave up so we could have immortal life.
We give up something that we really care about. Our mothers think about it too and discuss it at their kitchen tables, their afternoon “coffee and” gatherings.
It helps to talk it over with each other.
“I think I’ll stop eating any chocolate,” Diane says on the front lawn. Then she does an especially perfect cartwheel to mark this thought.
“I’m going to give up everything with sugar, not just cookies and cake,” Linda says. The new grass on the lawn is coming up bright and fresh, yellow green, through the still-cold earth. The sunny air has a slight chill.
“I’m not going to ride my bike even once, even to the store.” A serious face. My sister Lucia.
“I’m going to stop eating candy. And I’m going to say the rosary every day this year.” Gilda holds her handstand longer than usual, then drops back to earth. The crocuses have begun to push through the dead leaves at the borders of our lawns.
It is possible to change your decision during the time leading up to Lent, but not after.
Our holy season has started. Special masses, holy days, all leading up to Holy Week. But there’s a long time before Holy Thursday, which marks the last supper. On Holy Thursday, all the holy water, for the whole year, is blessed at St. Lucy’s, our tiny wood church, and we must be sitting there in the church when it happens.
Then there are new clothes to be sewn or purchased to wear on Easter Day.
Each mother spends weeks shopping for clothes, or fabric and patterns to make new outfits. Spring toppers in light colors, short jackets with collars and buttons, light fabrics with linings. Pleated skirts, pale blouses with lace. New suits. New patent leather shoes, brand new socks, the color to match the outfit each of us will be wearing for the first time.
Shopping for the girls’ hats takes place only once the outfits are complete. In our early years, there were straw hats with ribbons or a flower for the girls. But now there are hats shaped by wires fitted over the crown of our heads. On these hats are luscious flowers and feathers decorating the fabric, veils that come down over our eyes. We go to the hat store downtown, a small narrow shop, filled with wooden heads presenting these confections. My sister and I go with our mother every year, trying them on until we agree. A special day each year.
“Mommy, I like this one. What do you think?” I have a blue hat in my hand, with blue velvet trim.
“That’s nice. But try this on too. Maybe it matches. I have a piece of the fabric with me.” She scrambles through her purse to find the scrap of cloth folded in an embroidered hanky.
The shopkeeper offers new possibilities. Or stands to one side, offering her opinion. “That’s lovely on you, Rose.”
“What do you think of this on me, girls?” A dazzler—shimmering green encircled with feathers. An elegant fine veil that covers the whole face.
“Oh Mommy. You look so pretty.”
“You think so . . .?” She turns this way and that to see her reflection in the three-way mirror. Then off with a quick look at the price tag. “Oh dear, Peter will be so mad if he knows what this cost.” But it’s so pretty on her.
Later. “Okay, okay, you can have that one Jo.” “Lucia, that will go right with your new topper.”
She’s negotiated the price for three down a little. We’re all excited about our new hats. My mother’s is in a hatbox. Ours are wrapped in tissue paper, in heavy paper shopping bags.
The boys get new suits too. Robert Hall. And hats, no matter how young the boys—tiny fedoras on their heads with hatbands around the crowns.
We don’t wear hand-me-downs for Easter. Sometimes we like our hand-me-downs because they come from the older cousins who are more important that we are. But not for Easter.
This year, Lucia and I have new blue toppers made of a nubby fabric. We all go up to the farm for Easter Sunday dinner. All of the aunts and uncles. All of the cousins. We manage to fit around two tables. The one for the grownups and the one for the kids.
The paesans come for a visit before dinner. They have a drink to a salut’, anisette, limoncello, scotch or rye, and they have a nice piece of abizz’ a ghein. That’s a big deep pie filled with sausage, prosciutto, provolone, ricotta, and eggs, that we all make and eat during Easter week. While visiting with the grownups, the girls have set the two tables and made sure the silverware is all in the right place. We use the good china from the sideboard. Only at Christmas and today. When the paesans leave, go to their houses for Easter dinner, we get the food ready to bring to the table.
First, we have a large platter of antipasto. After that there is always asparagus soup with veal and egg dropped at the end. Each an ingredient to show “new life for the spring.” Then usually a ravioli, pillowy light and delicate with a rich ragu and all of the meats that go into the ragu, sausage, meatballs, bracioll’. Then a lamb roast, with pockets of breadcrumbs, garlic, ham, parsley. Golden roasted potatoes made with olive oil, butter, rosemary. At least a couple of good vegetables. A huge salad at the end a‘leger’ to make us lighter, to help us digest this rich meal. We’re so filled up after a holiday dinner that even the kids don’t even want desserts yet. We’ve all had some of the chocolate bunnies that came from our Easter Baskets too. Desserts will be later. The men take naps. The girls and women clear and wash the dishes. All the mothers put their rings in small dishes near the sink, so they don’t lose them in the soapy water. After the dishes are done, we run outside. Later, when the men get up, we’ll have grain pie, pineapple ricotta pie, pineapple cream pie, pastel colored Mastaccioll’, our egg cookies with colored icing to look like dyed Easter eggs.
The boys go down by the lake while the girls go walking up through the rocky woods. While we’re walking, we plan our Easter week vacation, collecting branches and sticks for hiking sticks. The sound of our feet against the deep layers of wet and dry leaves, twigs cracking as we step on them, is a part of the day. There are special rocks that become beautiful if you wet them with your spit. And we see signs from God on Easter. Tiny flowers that really shouldn’t be coming up that early, almost crowded out by the dead leaves all around them. We can barely see the tips of purple and yellow peeking out.
“They aren’t supposed to come up yet,” a cousin declares.
“Not yet. That’s really true.”
“I know that for sure. Because I remember from last year.”
“What do you think God is telling us?” We take turns thinking about this.
Bede and I walk along the stone wall where there are brambles, away from the others, so we can talk about the other signs we’ve seen. The letter we wrote to God.
“That’s our secret,” I say. “They might make fun of us.”
“Or even tell the New York cousins,” Bede suggests.
So, we’re the only two walking next to the bushes with the burrs as we come back down to the house where the other girls are already waiting. We hear Aunt Bea give her, shrill, aaeeeyaeyeee call that means it’s time for everyone to come back.
My new topper has some burrs stuck in the loops. I pull them off as fast as I can as we run back toward the house.
The day is full of dazzling, white sunshine, a coolness mixed into the warmth. So all the grownups are outside after their naps, to breathe some fresh air and get us kids to come inside for our desserts. The coffee has been made, the cups and cake plates set out. One of the paesans has given Gramma a box of special chocolates, the ones with nuts in the middle, which she’ll serve too.
We start to tell our mothers about the hikes we’re going to take that week. And could we have sleepovers? But my mother notices the burrs stuck to my nubby topper. So she interrupts.
“Jo, what did you do to your brand new, spring topper? Come over here.”
A little annoyed, she gives me a couple of dutiful whacks on my coli, then starts picking the burrs out of the fabric, one at a time.
“What on earth am I going to do with you?” she asks in almost pretend disgust. A performance for the others.
The grownups are in a loose circle, talking about planting gardens later in the spring. “I’ve started my seedlings,” Uncle Joe says. “Want some, Rock?”
“Nah, I have them going already up by the pigs.”
“And what about you?” Uncle Rocky asks his daughter. “What were you doing bringing your cousin up there where the burrs are?”
“I didn’t bring her,” Bede says, “we went together. We were looking for—”
But before she finishes that sentence, he’s crossed over to her and grabbed her by the arm. “You were looking for what?” He’s pulling her away from the rest of us. “A beating. Is that what you’re looking for? I can give you that!”
He likes to get himself worked up. Build himself into a fury.
“What were you doing up in those woods in your Easter clothes?”
Bede tries to pull away. “It’s not my coat. My coat is good. Jo . . . is the one . . ..”
But Uncle Rocky begins to swing hard at her. He’s hitting wherever he can reach.
All of us stand frozen. I move closer to my mother.
“That’s not right,” Aunt Vicki says to Aunt Toni in a low voice.
“Just like we used to get all the time from Papa,” Aunt Toni says shaking her head.
I’m the one who got burrs on her new blue Easter coat. I’m the one who didn’t pay attention. But Bede is taking the beating.
“Rock, why are you doing that? She didn’t do anything,” my mother says.
He only swings his arm harder now.
He flips Bede upside down by one foot as he continues beating her; he beats her back, her arms, her legs, her coli in a frenzy. Her skirt has gone over her waist. Her underpants are showing, above her small strong legs.
“Rocky, stop it.”
“You’re overdoing it now.”
“Come on Rock, now.”
But it’s a helpless chorus. He’s not listening. Everyone knows he won’t stop.
The grownups were all beaten when they were kids.
But this is worse. Different. Uncle Rocky’s using all of his strength on my cousin, his young daughter.
Even Gramma raises her hand in disgust, “Ma com’on a, whata you do?”
It’s holiday. He shouldn’t do this on a holiday. We watch the display in a horrified, helpless, uneven circle. It’s the way she hangs upside down, her white cotton underpants showing, that pushes some of the undigested lamb back up into my throat.
No one moves towards him. No one walks over and stops his hand from reaching her small upside-down body.
When his fury is spent, he lets go like she’s an annoyance, dropping her down to the earth. “Are you satisfied now? Are you glad you went into the woods? That’s what you get.” No one says anything. He walks toward the slaughterhouse now.
Turning his head toward Aunt Bea, “Take your daughter,” he says as if this too is her fault.
No one knows what to do. I push closer into my mother’s side. She puts an arm around me. “For God’s sake,” she mutters under her breath.
My grandmother turns her back on this scene. “Roc, Roc, attsa non good. You, non good.” She waves her hand behind her in his direction, dismissing her beloved only son as she walks back toward the house.
Bede has crumbled in the grass as if she’ll sink down into the earth and stay there. Her mother walks over, shaking her head, glaring at her husband. But she doesn’t say a word. She just bends over to bring her daughter’s sobbing, beaten body into her own. They stay there, curled into each other. Mother and child on Easter Sunday.