COMING TOGETHER

I’m sure many of you will be able to identify with the Sundays I’m going to describe from my childhood. I think for many of us  during the 1950’s and ’60’s, before schedules got turbo charged, Sundays were family time, first and foremost. My Sundays, growing up, meant going to Mass in the morning and then going to my Italian grandmother’s house for a get-together in the afternoon. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my mother, father and I lived together with my Slovak grandparents whom I adored and who just doted on me, until I was ten. So I saw that much-smaller side of my family, including my mother’s brothers, almost every day.

But it’s those Sundays and the dynamic of growing up part of a very large ethnic family in mid-century America that I’m writing about this time. I think it’s a story that resonates among a vast swathe of the baby boom, no matter what the nationality. Nana, my father’s mother, had been having children from 1906 to 1931, ultimately having 13 children, not totally unusual for Italian families in those days. With my grandfather’s death in 1939, she became the matriarch of this large, and still growing, clan. By the 1950’s Nana’s children were all married and had children of their own. Some of my father’s siblings – 4 of them – had moved from Pennsylvania, to California, Utah or Nebraska. But, when you consider my father’s 9 other siblings, their spouses and children, that still left a large contingent in our hometown to gather on Sundays.

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My Italian grandparents on their wedding day

I’m not sure when I realized – but it was early in my life – that my father and his brothers spelled their last names in different ways. I have no idea how my father’s sisters spelled the name before they married. The family name was Piparato (this is the way my father, and therefore my mother and I, spelled it). My grandfather – the patriarch of this family – spelled it Piperata. There were at least three spellings that I was aware of: Piperata, Piparato, Piperato.

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Thus the t-shirt at our 2016 family reunion!

How did this happen? The answer that was handed down to me is that whichever way the siblings’ teachers spelled it when they started school was what that child went with. I keep thinking about how we now work with our kids and grandkids to know their colors, shapes, numbers, the alphabet and how to spell their names before they start school. My grandparents were likely feeling very blessed, rightfully so, to keep all their children fed, clothed and housed, nevermind teaching them to spell their names. So it is very plausable in the early twentieth century that the first time they were taught to spell their names was from a teacher in school.

Sunday at Nana’s was sacrosanct. It was more of an open house than an actual dinner, although there was always pasta, salad, Italian bread to graze on whenever you arrived. I could always be sure that I would see at least a  number of my aunts, uncles and cousins. If I missed a cousin or two at Nana’s, I would see one of them in the school halls on Monday and they might say, “You weren’t at Nana’s yesterday!” “Yes, I was – just not when you were there!” It was the rare occasion that we missed Nana’s on Sunday. And every summer at least once, my Uncle John  would give Nana a break and have all of us out to this house for a cookout. In addition, we kicked off each year with a family gathering on New Year’s Day.  There was no need for a Piparato reunion back then!

I never gave much thought to being an only child growing up because of the presence of this large extended family. I took it for granted. And it was not unusual, especially as I got into older, childhood,  to bemoan having to go to Nana’s each and every week. But once that weekly obligation was removed, after my grandmother died and my father and some of his siblings had died and my cousins moved all over the country, not having Sundays at Nana’s gradually became a void, especially after having my own child who was part of the family. The family as I knew it was gone but I wanted my son to know the family of which he was a part. My son knew about them from stories I told and he had episodic first-hand experiences with the family: a few Sundays at Aunt Mary’s when Nana was still alive and living with my aunt; his pizza birthday party at Aunt Theresa’s Italian restaurant; his confirmation party at our house when both the Slovak side and the Italian side were invited. But it was hardly the constant presence I had and wanted for him.

The last reunion of the Piparato family had been in 1990 when one of my cousins pulled it together virtually singlehandedly. Unfortunately, I had been unable to attend that one but I kept the beautful follow up letter my cousin had written to all, whether we had attended or not, ending with the hope that a reunion would be an ongoing thing. It turns out that that reunion was the last time that so many of our aunts and uncles would be with us to attend.

I had been promoting the idea of a family reunion for a long time with several of my cousins. Most that I talked with were very interested but time went on and there had been no reunion. I was still working at the time and the reunion, even with my enthusiasm about it, always seemed to fall near the bottom of my to-do list. Then two years ago, after I fully retired, a beloved cousin passed away. Within minutes of hearing the news, another cousin called me and said, “We have to do this reunion. We need to bring all of us together again.” So that was our sad push to get this going. We formed a committee of three to spearhead the planning. We sent questionnaires out to cousins for whom we had email or regular mail addresses across the country. Were they in favor of a reunion? Would they attend? Where should we have it – back in Pennsylvania where the Piparato’s started in this country or somewhere else more centralized to make it easier for both East and West Coast cousins to attend? If they attended, how many from their family did they think would come: sons, daughters, grandkids – we wanted to go out to all generations. Would they be willing to help defray the cost?

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Special cupcakes made and brought by one wonderful industrious cousin!

The response was great, in my opinion. There was so much enthusiasm for a reunion not only from our first cousins but particularly from my son’s generation – those who I believe felt like he does, that he’s heard the stories but wanted to see the family interact for real and in person. One interesting note that I pretty much expected was that the interest was essentially concentrated among the East Coast cousins, those of us that grew up in Pennsylvania with Nana and our family and experienced it week in and week out for our whole childhoods. The Piparato clan was well known in Easton, Pennsylvania when we grew up. My father and several of his brothers, and a number of my cousins gained reputations as major football or baseball stars in high school. Two of them went on to college on football scholarships; one cousin on a baseball scholarship. Their lore was such that they have been written up in books. Later, my father and a number of his siblings started well known businesses in town. So there was some cache in being a Piparato in that town in the years we grew up and one we all keenly felt. To this day, when I go back and visit a certain business in town that I have known most of my life, the owner who was a few years younger than my youngest uncles, tells his story of when he himself was a very good football player at the same high school my uncles attended. He tells me that his mother would say, “You’re a great football player, but you’re not as good as the Piparato’s!” And that was his mother saying that! His Italian mother saying that!
I imagine that because the West Coast cousins visited once a year or so, and then left, the dynamic between them and the rest of the family was totally different. I don’t know if their identity was caught up in being a Piparato as much as ours was. But possibly that’s an unfair assessment, because I didn’t interact with them as much as some of my other cousins did.
All I know is that from the time we sent out the first “what do you think about a reunion” survey, it was Katie bar the doors. Cousins – and many second and third cousins that I didn’t know – contacted us with great ideas, offers to help and expressing the sense that this is exactly what we’ve all been waiting for! It was remarkable!   We had cousins come from up and down the East Coast, primarily.   My family came from Chicago.   After years of talking about it, we were actually going to pull this off.

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Those who attended our family reunion and made it the success it was!

 

 

 

On June 25, 2016, on a magnificently beautiful day, our Piparato family reunion became a reality: at a park in Easton, a park that has its own beginnings with the immigrant Italian Catholic families that came to Easton in the early 1900’s from a Sicilian town called Santo Stefano di Camastra. Our grandfather and about 80 of his Santo Stefano friends donated amounts of money that were very small by today’s standards – $1, $2, $5.  With these meager  contributions along with their local Italian parish, they eventually bought this land on which now sits a large picnic pavilion, a field where their great and great-great grandchildren were now playing frisbee and jumped in bounce-y houses; and a beautiful little chapel in which to pray and honor their memory, down the hill from where much of the Piparato clan is buried. Just one thought about visiting the cemetery: you see all those tombstones with all those memories, you say a prayer and as you’re walking away down the hill, you invariably have a smile on your face about some funny  family incident from long ago and all those different spellings of the name saved for posterity for all eternity: PIPARATO, PIPERATA, OR PIPERATO.

I would encourage you to have a family reunion if that is already not your tradition.  Whether there are 10 in your family or 300, it is so worthwhile for you, for your children, and their children to come together to share stories and confirm where you came from.   It’s a primal yearning I think we all have.   Our reunion was a total blast, and so satisfying on such a deep level,  and one we hope to replicate in another 2 years in our family.

Until we meet again…

TANANA

There were four overriding priorities  I envisioned as I approached my retirement three years ago:   being able to spend more time with my son, daughter-in-law and our grandkids, learning to speak Italian, traveling and writing.

It was Christmas Eve, 2007. We were hosting Christmas Eve dinner at our house. We had a houseful of guests that included  our immediate family plus my husband’s cousins visiting from Italy and  my son’s high school friend.  We were getting ready to sit down when, just before dinner, my son asked me to come into the family room because they had a gift they wanted to give me right then. What was the urgency? Was it a utensil that I needed for the dinner? I sat on an ottoman when he and my daughter-in-law gave me a small cube of a box.     It seemed too small to be a utensil but you never know!     My husband tells me that at that moment he had an inkling that this was not about the gift in the box, but that this was an announcement.   I  pulled off the ribbon and and took off the paper. Inside was a plain box that gave no indication of what was inside. I opened the tissue and inside was a small red onesie with the inscription – July 20, 2008.    My fervent wish since my son and daughter-in-law had married five years before was that we would be grandparents, so you would think that this would have been the first thing I would have thought of.    But I can be pretty thick at the strangest times.     All I could think of were the onesies I had given to the daughter of a friend at her baby shower a few weeks earlier, on which was inscribed “The result of Mommy kissing Santa Claus.” “How adorable!”  I said, holding up the onesie,  still oblivious to its meaning, “Almost like the one I gave to Julia!”

IMG_0163And then it registered! It was one of those moments when everything is happening in slow motion on the outside but my brain was in the middle of a firestorm – “Oh my God!” “Oh my God” I kept screaming! My husband and I had been waiting for this moment, we were going to be grandparents and I was going to be Nana. That sense of thrill and wonder  – that reveling in grandparenthood – has stayed with me from that day to this.

I believe I was born to be a grandmother. I remember the relationship  my son had with my mother  who  found it difficult to describe adequately the love she felt for him – he was truly the light of her life. And it was a joy for me –  his parent, her child –  to behold the two generations on either side of me bonding the way they did. I saw my mother-in-law and father-in-law and my son and the fun they had together.     I watched  my friends become a grandparents, and what  a unique gift that was.    I remembered my own special relationship with my  grandparents and how important they were to me.     Grandparents are the ones you can rely upon to confirm that you are the best, the smartest and, yes,  to tell you that sometimes you screw up. I knew I wanted to be that person for another generation of our family.
My son and daughter-in-law chose not to know the baby’s sex before the birth of their first child who was actually born on July 26  that year (“Same day as Mick Jagger,”  my grandson now tells me!). So when my son came out to the waiting room and breathlessly told us that the baby was here, told us the baby’s weight, told us we could go back with him to see the baby, I finally exploded, “Is it a boy or a girl!?” “Oh!” my son said laughing, “it’s a boy!” I saw my grandson just minutes after he was born almost 9 years ago.  He was a large baby, 9 pounds 5 ounces, and very alert.   I knew right then that I would take any opportunity to be with him. I was still working at my job  for the first six years of his life. But when any chance came up to take care of him on a workday, I made it a priority (and I know I was blessed to have  the kind of position where it was possible to do this) to  clear my calendar in order to be with him. I didn’t want to miss out. I wanted that connection, to pay attention and know the infant that he was and watch the child he is now.
I didn’t know whether there would be another grandchild but just 2 years after our grandson was born, we were ecstatic to receive   another red onesie with the date July 14, 2010 (actually born July 11)!    IMG_0165  This one to be a “perfect little girl,” as my son told me after her first ultrasound.
So that was it – our dreams had come true – we had a boy and a girl to dote on! And what a joy they have been! They are healthy (both), beautiful (both), smart (both), funny (both) , dramatic (my granddaughter), willful (both). With our grandson, we have learned all there is to know about construction equipment, dynosaurs, dragons, horned animals, cars, and soccer and soccer stars. With our granddaughter, we have watched FROZEN many times, I’ve played Barbie and American Girl dolls, and have taken up the role of errant student to her very stern, officious  principal, when we play school. Together, we have had countless sleepovers,  taken numerous trips to visit family in Italy, attended a family reunion in Pennsylvania, visited Disneyland, gone to plays and movies,  and splash parks, gone  bowling, visited arcades.

Last week, I happened to be at their house for dinner.   My daughter-in-law was filling wine glasses and writing on the glasses to identify whose glass was whose.   She called my glass “Tanana.”   I said, “Tanana?”   She explained that whenever they get in the car to come out to the western suburbs, the kids ask, “Are we going ta Nana’s?”   It doesn’t get better than that!

See you next time!

 

 

 

 

THE NEAPOLITAN NOVELS

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Recently I finished reading the Neapolitan Novels. Have you read this series of four books by Elena Ferrante? It’s about the friendship of two Italian girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo,  from their childhood in working class Naples beginning in the 1950’s and ending five decades later. In addition to following Elena and Lila, and their families and friends, the backstory is one of the evolution of crime and politics in gritty Naples and the rest of Italy through the decades. The books in the series are entitled: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of A New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child. 

They say that all nonfiction is fiction and all fiction is nonfiction. I believe that’s true. I think that faulty memory involved in telling a non-fiction story can impact the ironclad truth of the tale. Or if no observers or first hand participants are available to lend their first person memories and perspectives to the story, certain aspects such as conversations or ruminations may have to be reconstructed to the best of an author’s ability. This brings an element of fiction to a “true” story. On the other hand in the case of fiction, the author will often use aspects of their real life experiences,  introducing reality to enhance the veracity of the story.    And as I read this series, I wondered if Elena Greco was really Elena Ferrante in whole or in part.   Was it memoir or was it historical fiction?
As I was reading the actual books, though,  I began to see articles in many publications  about the  author,  and the actual identity of Elena Ferrante.    Is “Elena Ferrante” a pen name of the translator of these books, is the translator the actual author of these stories, as described in a New Yorker article (“The “Unmasking” of Elena Ferrante”)? Or is it someone else?    It does appear that the author has taken great pains to remain anonymous.   He or she will periodically do an interview via email or issue a statement though the publishing house, but not in person.   Whoever writes books under the name Elena Ferrante, I believe that person did a terrific job, capturing well the Italian family dynamics – both the working class families of Lila and Elena’s neighborhood and the more upper-crust family into which Elena marries. This is made all the more impressive since one of the theories about the identity is that the writer is not Italian at all, but may be married to someone from Naples. Was this story written by a man?   I don’t know if we know the definitive answer.

The characters and the ebb and flow of the friendship between Lila and Elena are also well drawn and the story is insightful and very well represents the chaos and violence of their early and later lives, I thought. It also depicts the Italian working class culture well. What I found somewhat tedious was the author’s (translator’s?) penchant for writing paragraph-long sentences and some repitition and duplication through the volumes that I thought, while somewhat needed given the scope of the story,  was a bit  overdone. Charming and somewhat endearing for me is the awkwardness of some of the translations from Italian to English.
The reason I even started reading the series is that I have been stuck in the writing of the true story of my mother in law as a World War II war bride from Italy and her subsequent life here in America. I started writing the story in mid 2014 and eventually put it down in 2015 after growing frustrated with my portrayal of the very young Italian girl who became the bride, came to America and following her through the decades.    I vastly synopsized her story for her birthday edition of my blog two weeks ago.   Several friends recommended the Neapolitan Novels to me and thought it might help me burst through the writers’ block.

There are similarities between my own personal story, the War bride story and the Neapolitan story. First of all, Elena Greco’s lifespan and ethnicity are in lockstep with my own so I found it easy to identify with the Italian culture and high emotion of family, even though I was living it in the United States and she was living in Italy. We are members of the same age cohort so we questioned together the truths as the young did in the sixties and embraced feminism and equal rights in the seventies. In many ways, it was pretty easy for me to know and understand Elena. The very complicated Lila was much more elusive.   The use of Italian language  in the book along with the characters’  flip-flopping between proper Italian and use of the Neapolitan dialect of the neighborhood with those with whom they were extremely close, was familiar to me.   There’s an intimacy and a secrecy that use of dialect conveys that I found very authentic.      So I approached the story as a reader enmeshed in good storytelling, and as a writer looking for guidance in crafting the story I want to tell. I enjoyed the reading from both aspects.

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All in all, although reading the four volumes one right after the other was a commitment of time, I found that I didn’t want to give up on it or put it down (what more can an author ask for?).  In my opinion the writer created an epic with Elena and Lila’s relationship as a central theme around which a sprawling story is masterfully told.
As for the identity of the author, I came to realize that it is a work of fiction and, as long as I like the story, I don’t so much care about who wrote it. Now if it were non-fiction, that’s when the credentials of the author become important and, then, I care about the identity of who wrote it.

If you’ve read this series, what are your thoughts?

Until next time…..

 

90 CANDLES

thumb_img_0150_1024Rose is 90 years old today, born in Lecce, Italy on February 10, 1927. She still walks briskly each day, relishing the clean air, sunshine when it’s present and keeping herself healthy. She still cooks large southern Italian dinners considering anything less than that unacceptable. She makes sure that her hair is still the auburn that it had been when she arrived as a war bride in the NewYork Harbor across from the Statue of Liberty 71 years ago at age 19. Not one to acquiesce quietly to the ravages or conventions of aging, she makes sure she does not dress like an “old lady.” She dresses to the teeth, always wearing “the latest.” I’ve lived along side her story for the forty years I’ve been married to her son. I’ve heard many of the stories over and over. But it wasn’t until her families and friends were all gathered together in her home twenty years ago after her 70th birthday party that I heard the chorus of stories that witnessed what she and they really went through and yet, all these years later, here they were laughing, singing, and truly grateful for the lives that they and America had created.

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“What if she has a heart attack when they all come through the door,” her friend said with usual Italian drama. “Nah, Rosie’s strong. She’ll love this,” another friend, responded. It was 1997, in Easton, Pennsylvania and we were celebrating Rose’s seventieth birthday. Easton had been her American home since April 4, 1946, the day she first arrived. Our family had planned a big birthday party with many of the friends that she had made in America over the previous 50 years. Her birthday party was not held in February but rather in that summer when we could rely on more favorable weather. As her gift, her husband, Nick, brought across the Atlantic from Italy her 3 surviving sisters, one brother, their spouses, and one niece who represented the sister, Anna, who had died about 10 years before. Even though she is now financially able to go to Italy every year, this would be the first time that all of them had been together in America in the five decades since she left the Naples port. Having her family come for the party followed by a month-long stay was to be a huge surprise, with each couple and the niece staying with various friends around town until the moment at the party when they would be unveiled.

The party at a restaurant was not intended to be a surprise. Most of those gathered were of Italian heritage and in true Italian fashion any significant life event is memorialized with huge fanfare. So it would be unthinkable that we would just ignore the milestone of her seventieth birthday.

The food in any Italian gathering is almost a living guest at the event. Many guests in the room were real Italian, defined as born in Italy. Thus they were very familiar with how authentic Italian food was to be prepared. The main courses, the salads, the desserts were of the highest quality and the guests partook heartily of each item. “Che buona!” was heard throughout the room, each person sampling and savoring each bite, weighing in on the taste and enjoyment of the item.

Rose warmly greeted all her guests and looked radiant! She laughed happily and hugged everyone – all these dear people who formed her American family, who supported each other in bad times and laughed and sang in good times. But Rose remained unaware of the surprise that awaited her.

During cocktails and appetizers at the beginning of the party, she was seated in a chair with about 60 close friends and Nick, her husband; Frank, her son; Paul, her grandson and me, her daughter-in-law, gathered around her. “If you could have anything for your birthday, what would it be?” Nick asked. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded with the answer she always gave during those times when we were all celebrating (or mourning), “If only my family could be here with me.” By “my family” she meant her birth family – those she left behind after the war those many years ago. Those whom she missed every Christmas and Easter, every baptism, every wedding, when she would call and all of them would be gathered, and eating and laughing (or crying) and she was again was not there.

With those words, “If only my family could be here,” the first couple came from behind Rose from a small holding area, in the anteroom of the restaurant. But this was her brother, Pino, the “baby” of the family, and sister- in- law, Cory, who lived in the Netherlands and actually they were the only ones who had ever visited her in America a number of times. So while their entrance was greeted with squeals of joy and hugs and laughter, and she was surprised and thrilled that they were with her, it could be somewhat anticipated that they might make the trip. It was when her sisters, their husbands and her niece, one by one, paraded in that all hell broke loose. “Oh my God! Oh my God! This isn’t real!” over and over, she screamed. “This is not possible!” which she pronounced “POSE-ee-ble.” She actually sat down hard in her chair for a minute to gather herself. She had given up all hope that they would ever come to America because they themselves were in their late 60’s. It was Nick’s generosity that made this the best birthday she would ever have.

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It was over the course of the next weeks during the month-long family visit, that these elegant ladies, all now well into their sixties and seventies, gathered around Rose’s table and the stories spilled out. They came from various parts of Italy but most, like Rose, were from deep within southern Italy , the heel of the boot, and a few were from even farther south, in Sicily.

Around her table, her friends, her “American family” reminisced with her birth family about their long journey of grit, determination, strength and no small amount of good fortune. Their arthritic fingers and still beautiful necks now sparkled with jewelry, and they laughed over how lean those first years were, how they scrimped to make clothes with the best fabrics available after the war so that they would look their best. Now we sat in Rose’s large home sipping espresso from bone china demitasse cups, remembering how hard it was to find a decent “Italian” store to buy espresso or acceptable olive oil when they first arrived. “I guess you could find it in Philadelphia but going into Philly cost money; where were we going to get that? We thought you were rich if you could go into Philly then. Nobody but us drank espresso in those days. Now everyone drinks it,” they said, all laughing again.

They reminisced about how Rose settled in to her life in her new country, surrounded by Frank’s family and new friends that she made in her new neighborhood. They moved in with Frank’s sister and brother in law and lived in the top floor of their house. Easton had a large population of Italian descendants. And so it was her good fortune that she and her GI husband moved into a neighborhood that was largely of Italian heritage. She was fortunate in that she was able to communicate with them in Italian and create a new family of friends. It may have been the closeness of the homes, or the warmth of the families that made her neighborhood more of an enclave with people helping people, sharing dinners, talking over backyard fences. She loved the familiarity of their celebrations – the tone, the food, the raucous fun, the singing of the old Italian songs. She joined St. Anthony of Padua Church which was begun by a young Italian priest in the early part of the twentieth century for the Italian people of the community. It’s sister chapel, St. Mary’s, was just a few blocks from her house and it became her home away from home.

Rose and her friends made do with what passed for Italian in the late forties and early fifties in the local general food stores. Most of the time spaghetti sauce came out too thick, too strong and too red because of the consistency of the canned tomatoes available to them. In Italy, they picked the tomatoes right off the vine and indeed many of the families had their backyard gardens. In southern Italy the ground was dry which was purported to change the flavor of the produce, the tomatoes grew small and red and sweet. In Italy the sauce came out a more delicate lighter color than the telltale bright red than the sauces made of canned tomatoes of the day. They were lucky in that some of the Italian immigrants started their own grocery stores in Easton and imported whatever authentic Italian food could be brought in to the United States after the war. Even though it was weak olive oil, and the spaghetti noodles turned out gummy and pasty, not al dente as they were used to, and not yet uniformly called “pasta” by the vast public, it was all they had and they did their best to make meals reminiscent of those served back home. Even these watered down imports came at a high cost that most of them could not afford to squander so they used it sparingly, realizing that the food would fall short of anything they had back home. In Italy, homemade pasta dried as it hung from strings across their kitchens, and they ate pomegranates, figs and arugula, artichokes and gnocchi, dishes that would only decades later become trendy in America. The aromas wafting from their homes were of garlic and onions, tomatoes and cheeses. Here, they found hot dogs, mustard, and corn on the cob. Delicious and fun foods for Americans; foreign to them. When Rose saw someone eating corn on the cob for the first time, she recoiled and asked, in horror, why they would eat that, “In Italy, we feed that to the animals.” It was only later that she acquired a taste for the corn which she found to be  a staple at summer picnics.

They talked and I marveled at their spirit, their indomitable spirit. Their attitude that nothing was guaranteed but with work, with moving forward they would succeed and be grateful for all they had. No whining here. They took nothing for granted. That Greatest Generation wasn’t only men – there was another side to it and it’s so worth knowing. I was/am in awe.

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Italy is a country renowned for its rich culture: its history, its art, its style, its food, its fashion. But the governance of Italy has always been unstable, no more so than in the decades prior to the start of the Second World War. It was in 1922, five years before Rose was born, that a brash despot named Benito Mussolini rose to power as leader of the National Fascist Party. He ruled constitutionally until 1925 when he established himself as dictator, remaining thus until he was deposed by King Victor Emmanuel in 1943 and eventually murdered by political enemies. Rose left Italy in 1946. So for the vast majority of her young life, she lived under Mussolini’s reign.

Convinced that the war would not last, and with German victory looking very likely, Mussolini decided to enter the war on the Axis side. It was on June 10, 1940 that Italy declared war on Britian and France. Italy fought with Germany in numerous campaigns on the European mainland and in Africa. At a meeting with Adolf Hitler in August 1941, Mussolini offered and Hitler accepted the commitment of further Italian troops to fight the Soviets Union. It was when Italy experienced heavy losses on the Eastern Front that allegiance to Mussolini quickly deteriorated among the Italian people.

Additionally, Italy itself was suffering mightily as a result of the Allied bombings. Factories in Italy were brought to a virtual standstill due to lack of raw materials such as coal and oil. There was a widespread shortage of food throughout Italy but particularly in the South. The largely agrarian south where Rose lived relied on food it could grow to feed its families but meals where often meager. The industrial North suffered as well and soon labor strikes broke out throughout the country. The physical presence of the Germans in Italy sharply turned public opinion against Mussolini. This is the backdrop under which Rose’s family tried to decide which group they mistrusted more – the Germans or the Americans. So you can imagine  her family’s anguish and outrage when a young American GI began coming to their house, trying to court their young daughter, Rose. Her father was adamantly against any involvement; her mother ultimately softened to this young man as time went on and sympathized with his plight of being in a war so far from home. Rose was so very young, only 15, when she met Frank. I once asked her how it came about that she would decide to leave her Italy, everything and everyone she held so dear, all she knew and go to America? She wasn’t rebellious. With all its hardship she wasn’t looking for a way out of Italy. Her simple answer to me, “I was in love and I didn’t know how far away it was.”   So it was that on May 5, 1945, just days before the war ended in Europe that Rose, age 18,  married Frank, in a gown made of parachute silk.thumb_img_0148_1024

It was indeed not until she was on the troop ship Algonquin, carrying her and other war brides to the United States, that she realized as each day at sea passed and still they had not reached the American shore, how very, very far she would be from her family. It had taken 9 days to reach New York and Rose was almost in a state of nervous collapse. She knew how far from her home she was.

When they arrived at the dock, other GIs were there to welcome their brides, but not Frank. Rose was almost hysterical. What could she do? She knew no one in America except Frank. The American Red Cross had contacted each soldier to let them know when the ship would arrive but through a mistake in communication Frank had not been contacted until very late in the day and the trip from Easton to New York, now a trip that takes about 90 minutes, took much longer. Eventually he arrived with his sister and brother in law, with whom they would live for the first years of their marriage. Rose was so relieved and happy to see him that she ran toward him and caught her heel on a groove in the pavement and fell flat on her face, tearing her outfit and the stockings that she wore!

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As she began her life in America, she wrestled with how everything seemed so different from where she came – some for the better, some for the worst. America, unlike Italy and the rest of Europe, generally was physically untouched by the war. And there indeed seemed to be opportunity here. But she realized that if she was going to live in America, she would need to learn to speak English. Because she needed to work in the clothing factories, there was no time or money to take English classes. Instead, she learned through full immersion from Frank’s family, from her neighbors and by attending weekly movies. Over time, TV would enhance her learning further and she became completely conversant in both languages. Every week she would spend a dime and go to the local movie theater to see a movie starring Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. Rose loved the movies. The scenes playing out on the screen represented viewing a life apart from the life she lived. She paid attention to how they spoke, words new to her that the actors used. And gradually she learned. An added bonus was that, in those days, theaters often ran premium promotions whereby the audience could, for an additional sum, purchase towels or dishes or other household goods. When she could afford it, Rose delighted in taking an extra dime to buy a spoon or a fork or a dish to start a full set of tableware for the home she and Frank would one day have.

Her friends and their husbands all lacked an abundance of formal education. But some of the men were barbers or brick or tile layers. Those who had none of those skills got jobs in post-war America in manufacturing or steel plants, where one could earn reasonably good incomes for the time and build toward pensions. Or they drove trucks and made deliveries. Most of the women could operate a sewing machine and got jobs in local factories. These women now laughed as they remembered their factory jobs, wages of $.75 an hour and how they eagerly vied for overtime which would pay time and a half, enough by the end of the week possibly to buy a cabinet or a door as, little by little, they built their first homes by themselves on weekends. There was little loyalty to their employer, as they jumped from one factory to another if they found that they could make more money somewhere else. In Italy, some of the women had been trained in tailoring or embroidery or as seamstresses. They picked up additional work altering clothing.

In 1947, Rose’s only child, Frank, was born. He became the focus of their lives and they doubled down to create a life so that their child would have everything he needed.

Rose had an uncanny ability to save money, even in the tightest money years. A dollar here and a dollar there and eventually, after 8 years in America, they were able to buy a shell of a building that was supposed to have been a club, but Rose and Frank made it into their first home. While still living in an apartment, each day before or after work, Frank and Rose sanded floors, or painted rooms, or put up doors. Eventually it was ready for them to move in. They lived in that house until 1965, the year their son started college, when they sold it to buy another house.

And little by little, over the years, they and most of their friends prospered. As for Rose and Frank, in 1967 they quit their jobs and bought a small luncheonette in which they would flourish and would be the source of their livelihood for the rest of Frank’s life.

Some gradually invested in real estate or in stocks or both. By the time they were telling their stories around that table, most were living financially comfortable lives that they built with their own blood, sweat and tears.

Rose found love twice – with Frank, the GI she met and married in Italy in 1945, who brought her to America and changed the whole trajectory of her life. Together she and Frank started with nothing and built it into a wonderful life. She was young – 48 years old, and married to him just under 30 years – when Frank died in 1975. Devastated, she and her son sold the luncheonette and, a few months after Frank’s death, she went back to Italy for a year. Her family wanted her to stay for the rest of her life but she said she had a son and that she wanted to be in America with him. So once again, she left her beloved Italy and family for America.

Upon her return from Italy in 1976, she resumed her life in America with her son and her friends. A number of years after Frank died, she met Nick, an Italian American, whose ancestors came from Calabria in southern Italy. Nick was also a part of that generation who lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, came back, got a job, raised a family, understood the value of hard work and prospered. With Nick, she had a home in Pennsylvania and a condo in Florida, they traveled extensively, started going to Italy each year, had many friends and loved life until Nick died 13 years ago.thumb_img_0149_1024

She’s having a large life, well lived, but with her heart divided – loving America and the life she enjoys here but still missing the life and family she left behind all those years ago.

And, in case you’re wondering, she’s far from done. Today her life is made up of her dear friends in Easton, Nick’s family and her frequent visits to Chicago to visit with her son and me, and her grandson and grandaughter-in-law and her beautiful great grandchildren. Almost every summer, she travels to Europe, to Italy to visit her sisters and nieces and nephews, cousins and a 99 year old aunt, and to the Netherlands to visit her brother and sister-in-law and their family.

Happy 90th birthday, my dear mother in law! Many, many more!

JANUARY TURNING TO FEBRUARY

It’s  actually hard to believe but we’ve already plowed through January. And although we’ve had something like 20 straight days of cloudy weather, it went by at lightning speed and has been a surprisingly busy, productive time in my household. And the remarkable part is that, I, who always laments the length of January, is saying this!
PAINTING AND BUILDING PROJECTS 
January was shaping up to be  quieter than usual this year – a perfect time to fill it up with needed household projects. Our front parlor, which serves double duty as my office, needed to be painted, along with 3 of the bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. I wanted to try something a bit different this time. I’ve always liked the idea of painting the ceiling a color rather than just plain white – either a coordinating color or the same color as the walls. But I had concerns that it would make the room look like a giant box. So, with the attitude that it’s only paint, I did have the ceiling of one of the bedrooms and the first floor parlor made the same color as the walls where the color we chose was light enough not to be oppressive but dark enough to show that there was an actual color. And I am thrilled with the result. Because of the way the light hits it, the ceiling actually takes on a lighter hue than the color on the walls and I in no way feel boxed in.

 

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Also in the parlor, we painted my stained brown bookcase a high gloss white. The once-brown blob is now a luminous white! The difference is remarkable in how it opens the room and shows off the books and other things on the shelves much better than the dingy brown did!
About seven years ago, we renovated our kitchen, removing everything back to the walls and starting over. Our kitchen is  a reasonably large room that sits at the back of our house and is darkened by a large  adjacent screen porch. My husband and I had a number of discussions about what style and finish we would use on the cabinetry in our new space. My husband strongly prefers stained wood; he has never been a fan of white cabinetry. My position was that while I do like natural stained wood, I also like white, thought  it would brighten the space and tends to be timeless. I’ve also had friends who have white kitchens and they are gorgeous.   But I eventually caved and went with the stained wood since my husband was not in favor of re-doing the kitchen in the first place and was conceding on other items I wanted. So natural cabinetry was my big give – a huge give in retrospect since the cabinetry is one of the most obvious changes in any kitchen re-do. I must say that since I like the warmth of stained wood in a home  I was not totally against the choice at the time we redid the kitchen. Even now when I look into the kitchen I like the feeling it conveys – but I can still see the benefits white would have brought, now more than ever since I’ve had other things  painted white.thumb_img_0135_1024
One thing I eventually did in the kitchen was to change the appliances because they were getting old and would need to be replaced soon anyway. In the old kitchen, I had black dish drawers and a black stove, which I loved. When I redid the kitchen, I had stained wood panels made for the new fridge to match the cabinetry. Black, and particularly, if it had been available at the time, the new black stainless that is becoming so popular now, would have worked wonderfully in my kitchen remodel because my new cabinets have black piping in the doors and crown molding. I eventually replaced the black appliances  with the ubiquitous stainless steel only because at the time,  I couldn’t find the brand or style of appliances I wanted in black.
The other change I made this month was to the dated oak cabinetry we had installed in our basement thirteen years ago. Instead of the honey colored cabinets we had, we now have bright dove white cabinetry that lights up the whole room. In addition we are having a custom cabinet built for an alcove at the bottom of our basement stairs that will serve as additional storage for rarely used kitchenware, also to be painted in dove white.   Looking for other opportunities to use white paint!
Lastly as far as current projects are concerned,  we replaced the baseboard in several bedrooms with the more substantial 4-inch molding. In addition we replaced the wooden baseboard in our master bathroom with stone skirting to match the ten-year old tiles on the bathroom floor. It was a bit of a challenge to find stone that would match the tile but eventually we did make a choice that coordinated nicely.

OH, YES, BUNIONS…..

thumb_img_0124_1024In the midst of all this activity at the house, there was also an opening for me to have bunion surgery that I have been contemplating for the better of ten years!    Having spent my career in health care, I am, more than acquainted with the wonderful, often miraculous, work that is done in hospitals every day.   I personally, however, am  slow to agree to  any procedure on my own body  that involves cutting or anesthesia.   So when my podiatrist said, “I can fix this” he caught me at a vulnerable  moment.   I had about had it with the unpredictable pain that I was experiencing with ever-increasing frequency, particularly on my right foot.  And it was January, after all; what better time to move forward with this, so that .    So last week, terrified,  I had my right foot bunionectomy and other required foot reconstruction in a same day surgery unit at a local hospital.

Here’s what I can say about my surgery:  I had a wonderful podiatrist who did it.  And I have waited for the past 7 days for the post-surgery pain the start.   And, thankfully, it has not.  I have not needed even one dose of the pain med to help with discomfort.    The surgeon, his staff and my nurse friends are kind of shocked at this.  Me too – shocked but happy!    I tend to be a positive thinker so I’m not looking for a dark cloud here but it actually crossed my mind that maybe my foot is permanently numbed.   But that’s not the case since I feel small twinges all over my foot that lead me to believe that some healing is already happening.     I will say is that the experts are correct in that you really don’t approach this surgery solely for cosmetic reasons (and heaven knows, I love my shoes!) because the length and  inconveniences of the recovery are pretty daunting.   I have a lot of it ahead of me still but, suffice to say, so far so good and for now I hobble around on my crutches and my  little scooter!

Until next time!

AH, JANUARY

January in Illinois is not what one would call fun. In a good weather year, we have bitter, biting, frigid polar-vortex-ish cold but plenty of sunshine because there is no cloud cover to keep us warm-ish. In a bad weather year, we have warmer weather – say in the low ’30’s- but that comes with charcoal, spirit-sapping gray skies. As I write this, I realize that I guess it depends on what your definition is of good or bad winter weather is. Where I come down on it is that I would rather have cold and sunshine than gloom and warmth.
Some retired people, I guess,  escape this environment and go somewhere warm, beachy and sunny. My husband is not what one would call a beach lover, so January and February are not usually months when we travel, although I myself have been known to take off periodically for a week in Florida or the Caribbean with a friend or two. Last February was an exception when my husband and I went  with a bunch of friends to Australia and New Zealand for most of the month and experienced their summer down under.
Generally, I hibernate with the rest of Illinois. My grandkids are in school so they can’t come out and play during the week. The great news is that if the snow is coming down in buckets, or the frigidity is just too much to bear, in retirement, I don’t really need to go anywhere except for Italian classes and Pilates.   Or friends and I get together for coffee or lunch on days when the weather is more forgiving. I’m happy for a short while just staying in and putting together good soups and stews or I have my reading, my writing and my Italian homework.
AH, JANUARY
On the one hand, I think January gets a bad rap in some ways. I’ve heard it called a month of Mondays but I guess that analogy works only if you’re employed when the  weekend goes by with lightening speed and “Oh, God, it’s Monday already.” As a friend has said, “What do you call a person who is happy on a Monday? Retired!”

I’ve heard January called boring with nothing to do. Is that so bad? After all the festivities of the previous month, how about “Finally, there’s nothing I have to do.” I’ve gone on record with my love for the Christmas holidays. I love everything that goes on from Thanksgiving to New Years Day. But I think at some point (that point being January) even the most inveterate reveler says, “How about a cup of tea and a wonderful chair with a good book. That’s all the fun and frivolity I need for right now.” And even with all my complaining about the weather, there is something calm and serene about watching the snow fly this first month of the year.
I’m not really a resolution maker but privately in my mind I usually take stock as a new year begins and set out to look for new adventures, new skills to learn, tweak certain things about my life – whether large, like going into retirement, or smaller, such as eating fewer carbs. Let’s face it, January 1 is just a turn of a page, no different from any other day. But it always feels to me like a new beginning – no matter how many new years I’ve had!

AND IF THINGS REALLY GET TOO QUIET, THERE’S ALWAYS A HOUSE PROJECT…..
Here’s the ambivalence part! I can get cabin fever fairly quickly during January and February. Since I’m inside most of these months, I find myself looking around, room by room, and conjuring ways to perk up the house. Starting at about seven years before I retired, we touched every room in the house that I believed needed to be renovated, refreshed or, in some way, upgraded before I left my job for good. Over those seven years, we took on fairly sizable projects, almost rebuilt our home. We took our master bathroom, our guest bathroom and kitchen back to the studs and completely overhauled them.   We re-did our landscaping.  We created a large screened porch from the deck that had been there previously – ah, summer, how much longer do we have to wait?   thumb_img_1124_1024

There is never a shortage of ideas. Between what I can think up on my own and what I see on HGTV and Pinterest, my mind is whirring all the time with plans for upgrades and re-decorating. The current renovations are not mandatory but highly desirable and are actually pretty mundane: thumb_img_0115_1024painting the four bedrooms, two bathrooms upstairs and one den downstairs; painting the brown bookcase in our front parlor a lacquered white;  completing the upgrading of all the baseboards in the house from the builder grade 3-inch baseboards that were installed when we built the house 28 years ago to a more substantial 4 and 1/2-inch seen in newer homes. Finally, we are having some additional floor to ceiling cabinetry built in our finished basement to handle some of the overflow from what I am now storing in the kitchen.

PICKING PAINT COLORS…..
thumb_img_0112_1024How many different colors of paint are there? How many shades of white? Picking paint is one of the hardest tasks. My husband who is color blind tends to stay out of any aspect of choosing color. His only request is that the color be a change from what is currently on the wall. If we’re spending to have rooms painted, he wants to see something different. That’s a pretty reasonable request so it’s not hard to comply. Sometimes if I change the color so dramatically that nothing else in the room coordinates in any way, my project turns into a complete re-do extending to replacing things like bedspreads, sheets, towels, and other enhancements. So right now I’m slathering paint samples onto my walls and see where this goes!
At any rate, I’m trying to make the most of January and February.   I hope you’re staying warm during these months and truly enjoying them in whatever way you find fun.     Before long,  the robins will start to chirp, and we can play outside again.

I’ll be back in touch again soon!

CHRISTMAS EVE

thumb_img_0061_1024Christmas has always been very emotional for me. It’s about ethnicity and tradition and family and friends. My Christmases as a child were divided up between the Slovak and Italian families. Christmas Eve was always with my Slovak relatives and with my grandparents, whom I called Baba and Dzedush, in our house in Bethlehem, PA. Yes, it’s true, as a child, I spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem! My aunts, uncles and cousins would come and we would have the traditional Slovak Christmas Eve dinner. My cousin, Louann, reminded me the last time we talked that she remembers that we never ate dinner – either Easter or Christmas – in the dining room, always at the big table in the kitchen. And that’s true. Even when my parents and I moved to another house when I was 10, we always came back to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve. The last Christmas Eve we had together in my grandmother’s house was in 1967.

Christmas Eve is the most important day of the Christmas season for Slovaks. It was the beginning of the Christmas season which then lasted until January 6, the feast of the Three Kings, the Epiphany. Our Christmas Eve dinner was steeped in tradition and from earliest childhood to now, it has always been magical to me – much more so than Christmas day. The meal consisted of 12 courses commemorating the 12 Apostles and it never started until the first star could be seen in the sky (on cloudy nights, I guess we made some assumptions about the stars being there!). What I remember most about this meal is  her Christmas Eve mushroom soup and the Oplatky, the blessed wafers Baba would get at church. The rectangular white wafers were embossed with the Nativity scene and were blessed by the priest before being brought home. Each of us had our own wafer at our place at the table. Dzedush would say a prayer and each of us would break off a piece at various times throughout the meal and dip it in the small dishes of honey at each of our places and eat it.

The mushroom soup was almost black, very dark brown. It was made from mushrooms that Baba picked in the woods in the hills above our house in June and dried behind her stove until the soup was ready to be made in December. Obviously, Baba knew what she was doing when picking the mushrooms – none of us every got sick from them. The soup was made of the mushrooms, onions, sauerkraut juice and was pretty sour – I won’t deny that it is probably an acquired taste to most people but I loved it from my earliest taste of it.
The rest of the dinner included nuts, fruit, bread, fried fish, potatoes – all of this symbolized abundance. For Slovaks, Christmas Eve was also known as Generous Day – that’s why many families gave presents on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. I, however, always got my presents on Christmas Day.

My cousin Jack always sang in the boys’ choir at his church, so, his parents, Aunt Anne and Uncle John and Jack would leave soon after dinner so that Jack could sing. I remember he told me that he had a solo in Adeste Fideles (“O Come All Ye Faithful”) and every time I hear that song to this day, I think of Jack.

thumb_img_0062_1024I remember one Christmas Eve when I was very little, maybe 5, waking up and going to the bathroom. Our bathroom window was carved glass so you couldn’t see clearly through it and as I looked outside, I saw antlers! Santa was coming! I was so excited! As I got older, I came to realize that what I saw were branches from Baba’s tree in the yard distorted by the glass  – but the memory still warms me.    And somewhere deep inside of me, there’s always been a part that still holds on to some level of belief…..

On Christmas morning I would wake up and find a stocking hanging on my bedroom door knob (we had no fireplace in that house). In the stocking were walnuts, oranges and small toys. My bigger toys awaited under the tree downstairs.

After we attended mass in the morning, Christmas Day was spent with Nana (not “Nonna” as is the accurate word for grandmother in Italian; my family always called my Italian grandmother “Nana”) and my large Italian family. Tons of cousins, aunts and uncles packed into Nana’s house, eating, singing, shouting, laughing, reminiscing. The traditional meal at a southern Italian Christmas Eve table includes Seven Fishes. Italian families all over the world gather together for La Viglia di Natale—the Christmas vigil—where fish is on the menu instead of meat. Also called The Feast of the Seven Fishes, the ritual of La Viglia has been handed down from generation to generation over the centuries. I never spent a Christmas Eve with my Italian family because we were always in Bethlehem. I do know that there were many different kinds of  fishes eaten, and, I’ve been told, it often involved eel.

Legend has it that the tradition of the “sette pesci” (“seven fishes”) started in Italy’s southern regions  like Naples and Sicily and is little known in northern Italy. Though many facts surrounding the feast are unknown, there are two definite truths: It’s about seafood and family. As more and more Italians migrated to America, they brought this tradition with them. Observing “Cena della Vigilia,” or the Christmas Eve dinner, started when Catholics fasted to anticipate the birth of the baby Jesus on Christmas Day. The fast would end when they received Holy Communion during Midnight Mass. Since meat cannot be eaten during the fast, Italians indulged in seven different types of fish. (As Mario Batali has famously said, “It’s what Italians do when they say they are fasting.”).
Apparently there are no hard and fast rules about which fish need to be included. Only this one rule: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve. Preferably with wine. No problem there!

thumb_img_0063_1024Those of us with origins from southern Italy generally have bacala which is  cod soaked in water (which we change frequently)  for about three days to remove the salt (we’re in the salt-removal process now in our family)  and then fried and served in a red sauce. Some people cook seven courses; some choose to make 12 (again as with the Slovaks, in deference to the 12 apostles). Some, like me, have been known to put a bunch of seafood in a stew and call it a day. I have done that but I prefer the idea of the drama and comaraderie of a number of courses.

I think I learned the significance of Christmas Eve when I was young and so that night is when we have always had our major dinner, even as I married and hosted Christmas in my own home. My son and daughter in law also have hosted Christmas and they too have maintained the tradition of Christmas Eve dinner.

OLD TRADITIONS GIVE WAY TO NEW ONES……
As my friend said so eloquently  in her recent blog, time goes on and children marry or leave the nest, and we parents need to learn to exercise our flexibility muscle (Visit http://www.ivyandironstone.com). New families enter our circle so that Christmas Eves are not always celebrated around our table, or even together, but yet  somehow they are all memorable. There have been times when we have traveled to be together such as the first Christmas that we had our first grandchild. We traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico so that my daughter-in-law could also share Luke’s first Christmas with her family.    I will always remember walking Canyon Road with all the luminaria, the singing of carols and the fires in drums lighting and warming our way. There have been other Christmases when our son and daughter-in-law were with her family in other parts of the country and so my husband, mother-in-law and I have celebrated Christmas on our own in places like Williamsburg or New York City.

This year, I am thrilled to be hosting Christmas weekend with my son, daughter-in law and grandkids, and a niece and my mother-in-law, all  staying with us in the ‘burbs. The weekend will kick off with us going to see the Illumination at the Morton Arboretum on Friday, the 23rd. Christmas Eve will be busy throughout the day. Hopefully there will be enough snow left so that the grandkids can go tubing or sledding nearby. Then we will all gather around our table for our Christmas Eve dinner. My dinner this year will consist of an antipasto (served with a side of anchovies for those, like me, who like that particular  fish – I usually have the anchovies all to myself!). Interspersed throughout the meal,  we will have shrimp cocktail, an octopus side dish (don’t grimace: in our family, most of us love octopus, including, unless his tastes have recently changed, my 8-year-old grandson!). And for the few of us who like bacala, we will also have small portions of that fish. So that will give us Four Fishes. We will have chicken soup,  beef tenderloin, broccoli rabe and twice baked potatoes for the main courses (the fasting part of the tradition has long since left our table!). For dessert, we will have something light: homemade cookies and possibly small cannolis. A number of us will then go to the 10:30 p.m. version of Midnight Mass which is the time it is typically done  in the ‘burbs.   Upon returning from mass,  some of us stalwarts will watch Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” (the only version that has any real credibility in our family).   Christmas morning there will be presents and breakfast and fun and togetherness.

Until next time, I wish all of you have a peaceful, lovely Christmas that is filled with love and laughter.