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