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March 16, 2011

SAL'S PLACE: MAMA AND ST. JOSEPH'S DAY by Salvatore Buttaci

SAL'S PLACE: MAMA AND ST. JOSEPH'S DAY by Salvatore Buttaci: " St. Joseph's Day, March 19, was always a day of celebration in our family. It was my late mother's saint's-name ..."

MAMA AND ST. JOSEPH'S DAY by Salvatore Buttaci















St. Joseph's Day, March 19, was always a day of celebration in our family. It was my late mother's saint's-name day, and we would eat dishes to which my mother would give a traditional touch, like red-sauced spaghetti sprinkled with muddichi, toasted breadcrumbs, instead of the usual grated cheeses. For dessert, unpeeled oranges were cut into thin slices. Of course, Mama baked her delicious cream puffs!

Mama's parents named her Giuseppina, Josephine, in a deal they made with Sicily's patron saint, San Giuseppe, Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus. It was a difficult birth and my grandparents needed all the prayers they could get. They prayed St. Joseph would join them in those prayers. Several years before, they had lost their young daughter Rosalia, named after the infant's paternal grandmother, and now they chose not to give that same name to my mother. Years later, when Mama and Papa lost their first daughter Giovanna, who was only three, they chose instead to also name their third daughter Giovanna, but they called her Joan, rather than Jenny, “the baby we lost.”

I also remember the Happy St. Joseph's Day greeting cards my mother received, which she displayed on top of the TV. My Aunt Fannie Giambrone and Aunt Rosie Palazzola never forgot my mother's special day. The cards came from relatives and friends, here and from their old village in Acquaviva Platani, Sicily.

My mother had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary and to several of the saints. St. Joseph was just one of them. San Antonio di Padua, whose feast day is June 13, was another favorite. My middle name is Antonio because she too made a deal with a saint on the day of my birth, June 12. A healthy baby to carry the name of a saint!

Another favorite of hers was Santa Lucia, St. Lucy, patron saint of the physically blind. Every December 13th, on the saint's feast day, she would not eat anything made from regular flour. Instead, she would cook wheat flour and make a dish she called cuccia. She said she made that small sacrifice so that all of us would enjoy good eyesight. In fact, I believe I made it through three laser eye surgeries because Mama and good St. Lucy were looking out for me.

Mama prayed constantly. Growing up, I would tease her about her rosary, how she would say five of them a day! Once I told her, “Ma, you should've been a nun!” then thought, How dumb. Where would I be if she had been Sister Giuseppina instead of my mother!

One of the proudest memories I have of both my parents is walking in on them one early evening. They were kneeling before their huge crucifix in the living room, reciting the rosary, Papa beginning the prayers in Latin and Mama completing them in Italian. No way did I expect them to stop their prayers, so I sat on the sofa and read the newspaper.

And all those nights we kept her up worrying and working those beads. She couldn't sleep until we walked through the door, but I am certain before letting herself drift into dreamsville, she prayed an additional string of beads in thanksgiving prayers.

Once my cousin Betty told her, “No wonder you're up all night, Aunt Josie. You're praying for everybody! Why not just say, 'God bless us all,' and let it go at that,” but my mother said she preferred naming each of us by name in the prayers she offered up to Heaven. She prayed for the people she knew, the people she did not know, the so-called enemy nations of our country, and for the poor souls in Purgatory. I asked her in her last years, “Ma, who will pray for me when you are gone?” She smiled and said, “I will go on praying for you and all my family until we are reunited in Heaven!”

In my godless days in college and beyond, I had little use for church and religion. I had fallen into that old trap where I felt competent enough to look at the world's sorrows and blame God, or worse, question God's existence. After all, would a good God allow genocide or infant deaths or a host of so many other unexplainable misfortunes? But like St. Monica who prayed for her atheist son Augustine, later a saint of the church, to change his unbelief in God, Mama prayed for me. If I ever reach Heaven and they let me in, it will be because of my mother's prayers.

This is the first year for as long as I can recall that I do not send Mama a St. Joseph's Day card. On September 18, 2010, she left her pain and suffering behind and winged her way to the God she loved with her whole heart and soul. We miss her terribly, but now when I pray and ask my mother's favorite saints to pray with me, I include Mama among them. After all, who, more than my mother, knew precisely how to pray, how to ask for graces and then end all her prayers with, “Your will, not mine be done.”

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Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts
and the soon-to-be-released 200 Shorts

March 9, 2011

MY BROTHER ALPHONSE by Salvatore Buttaci

My brother Alphonse, our mother, and I (1995)


MY BROTHER ALPHONSE


He was my big brother. In a family of eight children, he was the oldest child; I was the middle one. He spent his early years in the Great Depression while I was born six months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Nine years separated us. We called him “Alphonse,” and sometimes “Al,” but my parents called him by his birth name, “Alfonso.”

We were hardly close back then.

During those 1940s Brooklyn days gone by, Al was studying to be a priest, a straight-A student at the Pallottine Fathers Seminary in Sag Harbor, New York. I can still vividly remember those long train trips from New York City, past Poughkeepsie, and finally the taxi ride that stopped at the main hall. We'd visit with him, take black-and-white pictures of the family with Papa's old Kodak camera, and take the train back to our tenement apartment on Graham Avenue.

After three years at the seminary, Al decided against a religious vocation. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps and we saw even less of him than before. Upon his discharge from the service after four years, he took a salesman's job selling magazines in various American cities, one at which he met his future wife Celia Ann Hitechew. Together they had four children: Michael, Jodi, John, and Alfonsina.

Al was an excellent believer in the old adage, “Believe in yourself.” From magazine salesman he advanced himself up the executive ladder until finally he was a vice-president in a leading janitorial maintenance corporation that boasted offices all over the country. He had a knack for winning friends and influencing potential buyers. A super-keen sense of business helped him earn money for himself and for the corporate people he worked for. We were proud of him.

It was not until the 1970s that we two brothers seem to meet on common ground. I was no longer the kid brother. He had become less distant. What brought us together was the fear of losing our mother to a serious brain tumor. He had come to visit; we talked, perhaps one can say, we bonded. As for Mama, her brain tumors miraculously disappeared! About that same time, Al became a Born-again Catholic and looked at life in a much different light than ever before. For me, he was easier to talk to. He cared about the important things in life. He put his trust in the Peace of Christ and life became more meaningful than ever before.

In the 80s, he, my friend Aldo, and I began collaborating on country and gospel songs. Al and Aldo wrote the music and Al and I, the lyrics. In fact, four of our country songs were used as background music in a B-film called Fortress of Amerikkka. We were Saldo Music, ASCAP members!

By the time 1990 rolled around, Al and I decided to spend three weeks in Sicily, visiting the Sicilian mountain village of Acquaviva Platani where our parents originated. We went again in 1995, and those two vacations were filled with such happy memories: two brothers rattling off our Sicilian, drinking homemade wine, singing in the streets, laughing with our Sicilian cousins. Those days were priceless.

Alphonse died one year ago today. He had beaten cancer in 1999 when the two of us struggled with it and our sister Anna had died from hers, but it came back and took his life. Sharon and I drove from West Virginia to the hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey, hardly expecting to find him in his last hours. Though he was unconscious, I spoke to him, told him how much I loved him, said prayers with Sharon and the family gathered at the sides of his deathbed. All the while I kept thinking of an old Janis Joplin
song line, “Take another little piece of my heart now...” Papa, Anna and Frankie were gone. Now Alphonse. One more heartbreak.

Two weeks before, Al and I were talking on the phone, something we did quite often. He was explaining how the cancer, first in his bladder, now showed up in his lung, and the doctors suspected it had also traveled to his liver.

“I'm worried, Al,” I said.

“No, don't worry.”

“If the cancer's moving--”

Then my brother said something that reflected his strong faith in God, his trust in God's Will, that same trust our mother had taught us would see us through all things.

“Way I look at it,” Al began, “if it spreads and I'm meant to die, I'll die. If not, I'll survive. Either way, I can't lose.”

It's been a year, March 10 again, and I miss him terribly, but I know one day we'll all meet again. Whatever made us joyful, whatever made us laugh, will do so again, but in that timelessness of life beyond this finite one we shall dance and sing in the Light of Christ!

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Salvatore Buttaci, author of Flashing My Shorts