Joanna Clapps Herman has had 21 short prose pieces and poems accepted for publication during this Covid era. Five of these are poems published in MUTHA, about the birth of her first grandchild. 12 others were in the Ocean State Review. Her most recent book length publication, When I am Italian: Quando sono italiana, (SUNY Press, November, 2019) explores the question of whether it’s possible to be Italian if you weren’t born in Italy. Other books include 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. She loves to cook, eat and drink wine as much as she loves to read write and learn.
Please visit: joannaclappsherman.com
When we leave the church to walk back to the bus top on North Main Street, I notice all of the people I don’t know who have 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 about which Aunt Bea puts her foot down. Aunt Bea keeps her Methodist upbringing from her childhood for herself and her children. Easter is a part of their year too, but not our Catholic way. She has accepted our Italian family ways but doesn’t want Bede to become Catholic in addition. 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 giving up something for Lent.
For the rest of us it’s time to think about making a sacrifice for God. He has sacrificed his only Son for us, for our sins. We have all been thinking about what we are going to “give up for Lent.”
No chocolate, or no sweets, or no sugar, not even in coffee. We might decide to say our rosaries every day during the season. We give up something that we really care about. Look at what Christ gave up for us, so that we can have immortal life. It’s the mothers and children who are religious. Our mothers think about it too and discuss what they have decided to give up for Lent this year at their “coffee and” gatherings in the afternoons at their kitchen tables.
It helps to talk it over with each other.
We might be on the front lawn doing cartwheels during a discussion like this.
“I think I’ll stop eating any chocolate,” Diane says. 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, almost yellow green, through the still-cold earth. The air has a chill under the sunny day.
“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 about what you are giving up 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 when the holy water, 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. Holy Thursday marks the last supper.
Then there are new clothes to be sewn or purchased to wear on Easter Day itself.
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. Or new suits. New patent leather shoes, brand new socks, the color to match the dress or blouse each of us will be wearing for the first time.
Shopping for hats took place only once the outfits were completed. In our early years, there are straw hats with ribbons or a flower for the girls. But a little later there are hats shaped by wires fitted over the crown of our heads. On these hats are luscious flowers and feathers decorating the fabric covering the wires, veils that come down over our eyes. We go to the hat store downtown, a small narrow shop, filled with heads presenting these confections. My sister and I go with our mother every year trying various ones on until we agree. The three of us are there for our new Easter hats. 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 piece of cloth folded in an embroidered hanky.
The shopkeeper offered 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 . . .?” 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 looks so pretty on her.
Later. “Okay, okay, you can have that one Jo.
“Lucia, I think 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 hat is in a hatbox. Our hats are wrapped in tissue paper in heavy paper shopping bags
The boys get new suits too. Robert Hall. No matter how young the boys—tiny Fedora’s 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 one of the older cousins who are more important that we are. But not for Easter.
That Easter Lucia and I have new blue toppers made of a nubby fabric, with tiny loops of blue threads throughout the weave. 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 the two tables. The one for the grownups and the one for the kids.
The paesans come for an Easter 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 they’ve been visiting with the grownups, the girls have been setting the two tables and making sure the silverware is all in the right place. We use the china from the sideboard where the good dishes are kept. Only at Christmas and today. When the paesans leave, go to their houses for Easter dinner, we begin to get all of 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” my mother tells us. 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 all had some of the chocolate bunnies that came from our Easter Baskets that morning 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 that they don’t lose them in the soapy water. When all the dishes are done, we run outside. No grownups will be paying attention for hours. It’s a still hour of naps and the women gossiping around the table.
Later when the men get up, we’ll have dessert: grain pie, pineapple ricotta pie, pineapple cream pie, pastel colored Mastaccioll’, our egg cookies with colored icing to look like dyed Easter eggs.
We love to explore deep in the rock woods 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. Sometimes we see signs from God on Easter. Tiny flowers that really shouldn’t be coming up that early it could be a sign from God. They are almost crowded out by the dead leaves all around them. We can barely see the tips of purple and yellow starting to peak out from the dead leaves.
“They aren’t supposed to come up yet,” someone declares.
“Not yet. That’s really true.” Another cousin agrees.
“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 a bit away from the others where there are some brambles so we can talk about whether we could tell about the other signs we’ve seen. The letter we wrote to God.
I say. “They might make fun of us. It’s our secret,”
“Or even tell the New York cousins,” Bede suggests. That could be really embarrassing. They are teenagers.
We agree. Better to just keep that between us.
We just heard Aunt Bea give her, shrill, aaeeeyaeyeee call that meant it was time for everyone to come back to the house.
The spring day was full of dazzling, white sunshine, a coolness mixed into the warmth. So all the grown-ups came out after their naps to breathe some fresh air and get us kids to come back inside for our desserts. The coffee has been made, the cups and cake plates set out.
We’ll eat all the sweets that all the aunts made. Ricotta and pineapple pie. Pineapple and cream pie. Mastachiol’. The sugared almonds in a china bowl.
I know that one of the paesans had given Gramma a box of special chocolates, so she was going to give us some of those too with dessert. The ones with nuts in the middle.
There will be a bowl of nuts still in their shells for after. When we’re cracking the shells, the jokes and stories begin.
All the same stories of the priests making loans for seeds and then taking the land for themselves if the crops weren’t good enough. Of the uncle who took more of his share of the profits when a piece of land was sold. How much more beautiful the air is in Italy.
Then the story about a boy whose father sells his cow so his son can go to school in in Naples. But come Easter vacation asks his father if the moon in Naples in the same one as the in Tolve. Even we know the punch line. Povera vacca me a perse’. My poor lost cow. And we all laugh again.
It will all go back to ordinary tomorrow, but for tonight there is enough of the holiday left that my mother doesn’t even make us dry the dishes in the dish drain. It’s been a long Easter season. And we’re all too exhausted even to tidy up.
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Prose in this post: © Joanna Clapps Herman
Published with the permission of Joanna Clapps Herman