Snakes and Ladders

If Italians were officially despised by 12 year old Pauls Chicago Irish relatives, everyone in his family seemed to have at least one Italian best friend. His grandmother Jane had two. Olivetta (a spinster who had held onto her virginity to care for her mother until the old crone had died at the age of 83 after a 47 year long terminal illness) was Grandmas cemetery friend. Olivettas mother had thrown her house into perpetual mourning when Olivetta was three after Olivettas father had been killed in an industrial accident that no one would talk about. He drowned after he fell into a giant vat of chocolate at the Cocobar factory admitted Pauls mother one day as she dipped a Christmas cookie into her scotch. He was badly chopped up by the machine. At the wake, you could smell the nougat through the closed coffin. The poor mans wife had never forgiven him for having had such a ridiculous death. But she made the best of it in traditional Italian style and became a perpetual widow. The rooms were darkened and black crepe was hung around a startled looking husband hanging over the fireplace in the living room. This was the home environment of little Olivetta, who decorated her own dollhouse in deep mourning to the approval of her mother. As she grew up, she carried the somber darkness of her house with her in a tight-lipped and dignified manner, wrapping herself in the thick rich shadows of death and the creamy nougat center of perpetual mourning. She lived the destiny given to her as the daughter of a man who had been transformed into a chocolate bar before his time. Grandma Janes hobby was going to wakes. Olivettas hobby was going to the cemetery. When they finally found each other through the incense mists of a First Saturday Sorrowful Mother Novena, this happy confluence of possibilities made them realize how much they stood to expand each others horizons.

Grandma Jane found Olivettas perpetual dourness and the quiet reverence of her superstitions familiar and comforting. She viewed with admiration the pale kohl eyed statues and sexless portraits of saints and Madonnas that Olivettas mother had used to decorate their apartment.Olivetta taught Grandma Jane how to decorate a grave. In the days when cemeteries were hand-mowed by vacationing high school boys, a Catholic cemetery was a patchwork of thousands of well kept little islands. Olivetta brushed aside Grandmas feeble clumps of faded petunias and mums and soon Grandpas grave was a veritable Amazon basin of jade plants, African violets and babys breath. This business of grave farming was hard work and Olivetta was a stern taskmaster. Three times a week they would take the bus, bucket and spades in hand, in order to perform the necessary maintenance. Grandma sometimes said that she seemed to be giving Grandpa far more attention now than when he was alive, but upon reflection she had to admit that she liked him better now that he had stopped drinking. The high point of her summer that first year was when the Italian widow who tended the Pirelli complex eight plots over paused to look at Grandpas grave during one of her endless trips to the nearby pump for water to wash the tombstones. Inspecting the plot with a cold shrewd eye, she had glanced up at Pauls grandmother, frowned, nodded slowly, and moved on.Grandma Jane taught Olivetta the finer points of wake going. Whereas Olivettas prior practice had been to walk in, greet the family, kneel at the coffin, say a prayer, step out of the way for ten minutes looking fondly at the corpse before greeting the family again and leaving, Grandma Jane showed her how pressing the hand of the corpse firmly in ones own while mumbling the prayer in a semi-audible manner not only showed the deceased a greater level of sincerity, it instilled a stronger feeling of actual participation in the event. Olivetta was squeamish at first, but when she discovered that she could take a dead person by the hand with dignity, she began to enjoy herself. She also secretly fancied that she might be able to meet men at the wakes, good men, since the bad men that her mother had told her about were likely out at bars and pursuing loose women through the streets. The fact that most of the men that Olivetta met at wakes were dead didnt discourage her. She had been waiting for the right man now for almost 50 years and she knew that it was just a matter of time.Grandma Janes other Italian friend was Julia, who lived down the hall from her. Julia was an entirely different kind of Italian, which she herself attributed to the fact that she a real Italian from Sicily whereas Olivetta was an uptight northerner from Naples. Julia was earthy, energetic and primitive in her superstitions, a widow whose exhausted husband had finally departed life with joy years before. When Julia had a headache, she would appear at the door to Grandma Janes horrified delight with a holy card taped to her forehead. She wore several rosaries around her neck, which clicked-clacked as she maneuvered her 300-pound frame gracefully about the furniture, muttering incantations against Satan, who seemed to be around every corner. Paul loved her apartment. Unlike Olivettas with its cold whisper of marble and holy water, Julias was a hot monastic charnel house in Palermo. Her saint pictures suffered in glorious full color, her saint statues writhed. Pauls favorite was an almost life sized painting of what he called Jesus Inside Out, a gory bleeding sacred heart Christ whose chest looked like it had been ripped open by a giant bird. This hung over the kitchen table.The best Christ that Grandma Jane could offer was a blonde, blue-eyed gentle Christ done in 3-D, a Garden of Gethsemane Jesus perpetually blinking as though He had something in His eye. Julia didnt like this Christ and would constantly try to spice up Grandmas devotional life by bringing her statues of stoned, flogged and flailed saints that she had relatives send her from Sicily.Got you a Saint Sebastian. I got three already you can have this one for the living room. She unwrapped the plaster Technicolor saint rolling its eyes in divine resignation at the 24 arrows sticking out of his body.Grandma kept these statues in a discrete place on a sort of devotional altar she had made on the top of the old dead radio console the family had used before the war. She had accumulated a fair number of these over time, and together they looked like the disoriented survivors of a plane crash. Paul loved this altar and when he was a young child he would linger by it, hoping that God would talk to him through the radio.It was not surprising that all this vivid Catholicism influenced Paul. From an early age his grandmother would take him to Mass, then in Latin. While the priest droned the sacred mysteries, Grandma would review her massive collection of holy cards culled from countless wakes. Paul was allowed to look at the pictures. When he got older, Grandma gave him a few of her doubles to keep in his little missal. He became an avid collector of holy cards, in the way that other boys collected stamps or baseball cards, and in due time he had also collected a group of pale boys from his parochial school who shared his hobby. Male adults in Pauls family would come into the living room and see the group of boys sitting on the carpet busily trading cards and comparing notes, and they would smile until they noticed that the players on the cards were holding orbs and crosses and were wearing mitres. Pauls father decided to nip this in the bud by buying Paul a fielders glove. This glove was of such high quality and so expensive that the street boys who saw first the skinny pale stranger carry it to their lot put him in center field. There, at the sharp crack of the bat, Paul raised the wonderful glove and was hit in the forehead by the speeding ball so hard, it knocked him all the way back onto the living room floor with his collection. Later that day his parents, thinking from the silence in the house that Paul might not be feeling well, opened his bedroom door quietly, and saw him on his knees before a statue of the Infant of Prague, a rosary in his hand and four around his neck, a holy card taped to his aching forehead. They closed his door discretely and as Pauls father led his quietly sobbing mother away he said, Dont worry Honey. Well send him to a Jesuit school. That will knock the religion out of him.Grandma Jane thought that Pauls piety was a bit overdone, but Julia was delighted with him. She loaded him with frequent gifts of rosaries and religious medals. Paul liked to put all of them on at the same time sometimes and when he would come out into the living room with them, Pauls father would say to his mother Here comes Father Superpimp from the Vatican again. Julia felt that Paul should be a priest and she took it upon herself to educate him about theology and The Church, explaining, for example, that the current occupant of the papal throne was an imposter, a non-Italian put there in place of the kidnapped John XXIII by the Jews and German Lutherans who were behind Vatican II. When Paul proudly pulled out the before and after photos proving her theory that Julia had given him for Show and Tell at his catechism class, he had burst into tears when the smiling nun had suddenlymuttered a blasphemy and rushed forward to him, covering him with her voluminous brown scapular.Although Julia was as enthusiastic about wakes as Grandma Jane, Grandma Jane avoided taking her. Julia tended to get broken up and sentimental in the presence of a body and she would invariably end up throwing herself on top of it, crying loudly with her face pressed against the decedents chest. This would have been only barely passable at an Irish wake if she had actually known the dead person in real life. But since Grandma Jane went to any wake that looked promising from her daily reading of the obituaries, this was usually not the case. Years later, when Julia came to Pauls mothers wake, she launched herself moaning from the very door of the mortuary chapel, waddling rapidly down the aisle at full speed and grabbing Pauls mothers shoulders so forcefully that she dislodged the layers of padding that the undertaker had used to build up the dead womans diseased and emaciated body. While Julia sobbed on her chest, Paul had to go to the undertakers office to fetch him saying A mourner, well, um, there was a bit of disruption to my mother, and to which the undertaker jumped to his feet, and straightening his tie, muttered a single exasperated Italians as he whisked past Paul to the chapel, Paul following. A crowd of American Legion Auxiliaries was consoling Julia by the holy card table. The undertaker stood over the corpse and after a discrete glance over his left shoulder, reached down and decisively grabbed Pauls mothers breasts and snapped them back into place. He stepped back slightly to admire his work and then, lightly stroking her hair once he turned to a deeply awed Paul and winked.This ambiguous and disturbing wink was many years in the future from Pauls favorite childhood memory of his mother. One 6th grade morning, he gingerly approached her as she dipped the fifth tea bag into her bracing morning cup. On a second saucer were two slices of cinnamon and butter toast and on a third saucer, placed so they would get neither buttery nor wet, were four aspirins. Paul waited until she had quaffed half of the scalding cup in one long gulp and taken a long drag from her cigarette; he knew that she didnt really open her eyes to the world until that moment. He then presented her with his holy card and his request.His mother listened, frowned, looked at the picture, then turned it over and said You want to dress up as Bernard Dolan 1893 1951, for Halloween?No. As Saint Patrick. See, in the picture. Hes standing on a snake.His mother sighed as she gazed at the picture. She took another sip of tannin. Paul could see the thoughts pouring across her face. Cost, effort, cost, effort, cost, effort. Finally, to his surprise and delight, she said Yes.All right, Ill do it. Whens Halloween?Tomorrow.His mother sighed again, picked up the saucer with the aspirins, and poured them into her hand. She tossed all four into her mouth, then she took another swig of tea and held it in her mouth long enough to start dissolving the aspirin, in order to savor the bitterness. She swallowed and then took a decisive drag from her cigarette.All right. Ill put something together. Now you better go to school.Its Sunday, Mom.Then go to church.Paul retreated from his mothers morning solitude, chest tingling with victory. An hour later, she roused herself to action. In a cupboard with a stuck door, she found some old green curtains. From Pauls fathers starched white shirts, lying folded at attention in their drawer she extracted several good-sized pieces of light green cardboard. She measured, cut and sewed, encouraging her reluctant long unused sewing machine like she was driving a rusty Model T down a dirt road. As the costume began to come together she found that she was enjoying herself and she entirely forgot to eat lunch. Finishing her sewing in the early afternoon, she had rushed out to Steiners, the local five and dime on Madison Street, for a few essential accessories. Returning home, she found Grandma Jane and Olivetta in her kitchen. Having been alerted by Paul that morning his mother was working at her sewing machine, they had happened to drop by. Olivetta was just drying the breakfast dishes and Grandma Jane was rinsing off what appeared to be some spades in the sink. The look of hope and joy in Pauls face at her arrival had caused her to put aside her perturbation and she swept up the bag within which she had earlier placed the costume and taking Paul by the hand, led him to his room.She emerged with a Why dont you wait there and surprise your father over her right shoulder as she quietly closed his door. Olivetta and Grandma were sitting quietly at the dining room table. Pauls mother ignored them, went into the kitchen, and came out with a large cut glass tumbler filled with ice. As she snapped open the doors of the liquor cabinet, they heard the key turn in the front door as Pauls father came in. He walked into the dining room and greeted his wife with a Hi Honey and the two grim women glaring at the liquor cabinet with Hi ladies. Are we having a party?Paul has something to show you said his wife, as Pauls door cracked open and he peeked out. I made him a costume.The hat that Pauls father was placing on the table paused in midair.You made him a costume? His eyes darted to the bedroom door.With a most pleased look on his face, a fully costumed Paul promenaded out into the dining room wearing his mothers gold bedroom slippers. Pauls mother ignored the gasps from the old women, and beaming with a pleasure almost as great as Pauls own, took an ice clinking sip of her scotch.Pauls father was delighted too. Nice mitre, he said, of the beautiful green hat that almost doubled Pauls height.How many snakes do you think you have there, son?Over forty, said Paul.Most impressive.But it wasnt the snakes that impressed the two old women as much as the flamingos and palm trees that were worked into the green fabric of the saints regal gown and cape. Olivetta recognized the curtains that she had given as a wedding present, a fact that had slipped Pauls mothers mind until that very moment.I think that a drink is in order, said Pauls father. Paul began to shuffle around the dining room table, raising his snakes in benediction and in a low stentorian voice recited the Confiteor in Latin. As much as Grandma Jane thought that he looked like Zora the Snake Charmer, she had to admit that he was pretty cute. Olivettas lips clamped together in simmering Christian charity.Mom, asked Paul, interrupting his chant, Are there any snakes in Ireland now?No, sweetie, replied his mother, pouring a real scotch for Grandma and a virgin one for Olivetta.No flamingos, either, muttered Olivetta, under her breath. But this little comment was the only one she made about the costume that evening. She didnt flinch when Paul had her try on the mitre and didnt seem to notice when Pauls father said that she looked like the Queen of Spades. She even began to relax a bit from the effects of her virgin scotch and was in good spirits by the time that Paul, gently reminded by his mother, made his final bedtime round of the room, kissing the women on the cheek and giving his father a hug.Its nice to see him so happy like that, said Grandma as she and Olivetta stood at the door to leave.Yes it is agreed Pauls mother.Have him stop by to see us tomorrow afternoon before he starts out for Trick or Treats., said Olivetta.Oh, I will. But I dont think I will have to remind him. Youre his favorite aunt.For the briefest of moments Olivetta looked unsettled, and then she beamed.Take care, now, said Pauls mother as the two women went down the stairs.She stood on the landing listening to them descend. She heard the television go on in her living room and the thump of Pauls father pushing back the reclining chair. She waited for the click-bang of the security door opening and closing in the lobby, and then she went back into the apartment.Im going to check on Paul. Do you want anything?No thanks Honey.She went to Pauls room and silently opened the door and let herself in. His room had the familiar smell of boysweat and incense. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she realized with a start that he was lying there on his back wearing costume and mitre, hands folded over his chest. She came closer, caught her breath and waited in the diffuse night-light coming in through the drawn curtains. His chest moved. Silly, she said to herself and she reached down and carefully removed the hat and then lifted him gently by the shoulders and pulled him up to the pillow. He sighed and snorted once, but didnt wake up. She gazed into his sleeping face for a moment. Then she stood up and glancing around the room at his vast collection of religious paraphernalia (Holy Hardware, her husband called it) she murmured, my son, my strange little boy, and at that moment felt a welling in her chest of affection and pride. She glanced back at his face and his little hand that now clutched the edge of his robe. With a thoughtful look, she turned and left the room.Darling, she said, as she entered the living room come sit on the sofa with me.Halloween dawned and Paul could hardly eat his breakfast for his excitement. His father offered to drive him to school that morning, since he had both his books and the bags with his costume.I know youre excited, but take care that you dont wake your mother on the way out.Pauls costume was the hit of the school costume party. The nuns would not let him put on the dangerous loose slippers, but they took him from room to room to show him off, ending up at the principals office. The principal herself took him to the rectory to show the pastor. Interrupted by this unexpected intrusion on his meditations, Pastor Fahey quickly put down his magazine, stubbed out his cigarette, and threw on a black coat over his dickey and white sleeves.Why its Zora the Snake Charmer! he exclaimed with a smile. Wonderful!No, said the principal in the clipped tone that the pastor found so damned intimidating. This is St. Patrick.Ah. The snakes. The mitre. The green. Did your mother make you this costume?Paul was in utter awe at his first visit to the pastors own office in the pastors own house. This was the very room to which his grandfather had been summoned for a friendly chat with the old pastor, Father ONaill. His grandfather had been a large red-faced man, the pastor a small dark man. But when his shaken grandfather had emerged from the interview, he found that his desire for alcohol had diminished to such a degree that Grandma never again had to call a desk sergeant on a Sunday morning to find out what Grandpa wanted to have for dinner that evening. Paul mumbled something.Whats that, my son?Paul blushed and stammered, Yes, father.--- Well, its Halloween and you deserve a treat. The priest glanced at the pack of cigarettes on his desk and realized that he didnt have anything at hand to give the boy.--- Wait, he said, Ill look in my box of treats.He walked over to a cabinet and pulled out a shoebox; the church lost and found for non-clothing items of some value. He rummaged hopefully through the key chains, smelling salts, dentures, wedding rings; a brown object that he realized with a wince was a sap; a pipe; something, something--- Ah, here we are. The priest flashed an impish smile at the principal and pulled out an exquisite sterling cross on a chain; French workmanship and style, very old.The principals jaw dropped open.--- Um, dont you think the owner will miss that?--- Probably would. But my predecessors used to keep a log of this stuff and I happen to know that this item has been sitting in this box since Prohibition. Who better to give it to than the Patron Saint of Ireland?The old nun started to say something, and then clamped her jaw shut as she enviously watched the smiling priest hand the cross to the delighted boy. The boy mumbled something.--- Whats that, my son?--- Thank you, father.The nun touched the boys shoulder and they turned towards the door. But Paul stopped and whispered something to the nun.--- What? Well, ask him yourself.--- Father, can I have the blessing?--- Um, sure. Father Fahey had forgotten that all Catholic children wanted the blessing as often as possible, which is why it would take him up to 30 minutes to walk across the small schoolyard if he was stupid enough to try to do it during recess.--- I bless you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.--- Amen, said Paul.Paul reported to his Grandmas promptly after school. Cabbage, carrots and potatoes boiled away in Grandmas nightly rendition of the Irish flag, and her antiquated broiler had already raised the overall temperature of the apartment by 10 degrees. Olivetta was there and Paul proudly showed both women his new cross that he was now wearing.--- Very nice, said Olivetta, I buried my mother in one just like it. Very nice.Olivetta presented Paul with a green cloth trick or treat bag that complemented his outfit. Grandma Jane secured the gold slippers to his insteps with rubber bands and declared the costume complete. Then at Pauls request, she sent Paul next door to show Julia, Olivetta following primly behind.The door of the Julias apartment was ajar and they heard the banging of the steam radiators inside.--- Flagellating herself, no doubt, said Julia under her breath. They knocked, then knocked again, and then pushed the door open and called in.The first thing that appeared was the horses charging sound of Julias blind 24 year old bulldog Popo, who heard the call with his one remaining ear and came bouncing into the kitchen on his toes.. He headed toward what he remembered as the front door and, as usual, missed, crashing into the wall beside. This did not dampen his enthusiasm. Behind lumbered Julia, yelling Popo, POPO, Blessed John of the Cross. She stopped when she saw Paul standing there and letting out a yelp of delight she came forward and gave him a crushing cellulite flapping embrace.--- Look at you! The very image of a young Pius X, she said, causing Paul to marvel at the thought of a 12-year-old pope.--- Come in; come in, both of you. Popo put that bandage down and go to your room, bad dog!Paul bent down to scratch Popos head, which was the only part of its body not covered with tumors or shingles. It panted with delight, sticking out its tongue and flapping it in Pauls general direction. Popo was a miracle dog and despite its weekly trip to the vet, whose initial advice to Julia was always Kill it, he continued on a diet of ground sirloin and steroids. Julia played her own part as well. When she made Popo his morning cup of coffee (cream, one lump) shed sprinkle in a few drops of Fatima water.--- Dogs looking better, said Olivetta, pointedly. Whats that stuck to his leg?--- Blessed Arnaldo of Padua. Popo was having some arthritis pains. Hes better now with the codeine, but I cant seem to get the holy card off.Paul stood up and Julia patted him on the cheek.--- St. Patrick, she said. Very good. You make the costume, Olivetta? I like the snakes. Those snakes ate a lot of people before St. Patrick took care of them. But doesnt St. Patrick carry a crozier?Paul remembered that indeed he did.--- Hold on.Julia waddled over to a shallow closet that used to hold a folding ironing board. She opened it and rummaging amongst brooms, mops and umbrellas, she emerged with an 18th century gilded bishops crozier.--- Here, Pauli.---Where on earth did you get that thing? said Olivetta.--- Uh, it was my great grandfathers. But, she said, casting a glance at Olivetta, its not what you might think.--- Im not thinking anything, said Olivetta, distractedly bending to scratch Popo and pulling back her hand suddenly, alarmed.---Ah, wed better let Paul go on his way, she said.--- Yeah. Oh you look so cute, like a little pope.Julia tweaked his cheek so hard he saw stars. She reached into a bowl on the table and took out a handful of colorfully wrapped candies with foreign words on them and stuffed them into Pauls bag.--- Good luck. Have fun and watch out for strangers, she said. Olivetta, please go tell Jane to come over after dinner for a cup of coffee. You too.--- Okay, said Olivetta. Have fun Paul.And with that, he was out in the hallway beginning his long descent to the street.

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

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