From: Put It On The Windowsill: An Italian-American Family Memoir by Marcia Brennan.
Wipe the Floor With It!
In the tailor shop in Calabria, where my grandfather learned the trade, the Master Tailor was known for having a bad temper. As an apprentice in the shop, Grandpa not only learned how to be a tailor but, as Dad observed, he also “learned to swear from the Master Tailor in Italy. When your grandfather got mad, he would swear in Italian. He learned these curses from the Master.”
One day, the tailor designed a custom wedding gown for a woman who was also known for having a difficult personality. As she went in for her fittings, the woman kept telling the tailor, “Adjust, adjust, adjust…” Finally, the tailor lost his patience. After the woman left the shop, the Master told Grandpa and the other apprentices, “Take that gown and wipe the floor with it!” So they did; they had to do what the Master told them. The boys dragged the white wedding gown all over the dirty floor, and then they hung it back up, and the tailor fixed it up a little. When the woman returned to pick up the gown, she said, “Beautiful!” Evidently, she never suspected that anything was wrong.
Hearing the story, I was horrified, and I wanted to make sure I was understanding everything correctly. So, I repeated the plot back to my father. “Oh yeah,” Dad assured me, using a hybrid form of English and Italian, “This story comes from Mary Falvo, and you know Mary. She didn’t exaggerate. No che volare the bullshit.” In other words, Mary told the truth, and she didn’t let anything fly.
Like many of the curses that were hurled in this world, “Wipe the Floor With It!” is a story of inversion, of flipping things on their head because they are seemingly too low or too high. While the wedding gown belonged to a woman who, the tailor felt, overstepped her boundaries and didn’t show sufficient respect, telling the apprentices to drag the white gown all over the dirty floor represented a form of retribution – the payback of a curse. While the people in the shop all knew what happened, apparently, the woman never even noticed. Asymmetry of information is often key to the curses.
Dad also told me that, when he was little, Nannie left him at the tailor shop for a day. This was before Dad started school, and Nannie had to go to a funeral. A woman came into the tailor shop to have a garment altered. Grandpa marked the garment with tailor’s chalk and, even as he did this, the woman kept wanting changes made. This frustrated Grandpa, and he said to her, “Lady, you are the limits out of the limits.” This expression still makes Dad laugh. I asked if this was all that Grandpa said, or if he didn’t add a little something extra, in Italian. Dad insisted no, not that time, but I still wonder about this. After all, back in Italy, he learned to curse from the Master.
The Wedding in Worcester: The Frames Were Too Tight
When it was time for Nannie and Grandpa to get married, Nannie’s wedding gown came from Raphael’s Department Store in downtown New Britain. While the story of their wedding is a blessing, there is another wedding-themed story concerning Nannie and Grandpa that is not exactly a curse, yet which describes a potentially serious mistake that caused considerable difficulty for one person, and only mild inconvenience for the other. As Dad tells it:
My father and mother got invited to a wedding
In Worcester, Massachusetts.
This was when Pa still owned the package store.
The wedding was on a Saturday,
And they couldn’t both go.
One of them had to stay and run the store.
Because it was Pa who really knew these people,
They decided that he should be the one to go.
The wedding was all the way in Worcester –
So, a good distance away.
Pa took a whole carload of people
Up to Massachusetts with him.
When he left in the morning,
He put on my mother’s eyeglasses, by mistake.
He didn’t even realize what he had done,
And he was gone the whole day.
All that day, your poor grandmother
Had to struggle to see.
She had a really hard time,
But Pa didn’t even notice.
He went all day long,
And he drove the car to and from Worcester.
When he got back later that night,
My mother told him that he took her glasses.
All he said was, “Oh, I felt that the frames
Were too tight.
I was going to bend them a little.”
So while my mother struggled all day long,
Pa was only going to bend the arms of the glasses
A little bit,
Because the frames were too tight.
In my family, there is one other story of a cursed wedding gown. Aunt Lucy was Nannie’s younger sister, and one of three siblings who lived in the family home where Nannie grew up. The house was also the lifetime residence of Uncle John, Aunt Millie, and her husband, Uncle Bing. Uncle Bing was Greek, and Dad still remembers how, when he was a little boy, he saw Uncle Bing picking grape leaves from a vine in the back yard. At first, Dad thought Uncle Bing was crazy for picking the leaves rather than the fruit, but the next day, Dad ate stuffed grape leaves for the first time, and he loved them. As a child, this taught my father to keep an open mind about things.
Aunt Lucy never married, and everyone adored her. She always made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Aunt Lucy would make wedding cakes, and on one occasion, she took care of a woman’s wedding dress. Dad refers to this story as: “Ghostus!”
One time, somebody in the family was getting married,
And they got a wedding gown.
Your Aunt Lou was always so good about these things,
And she said she would take it and press it.
So she did – she pressed it,
And the only place she could see
To hang the long gown without wrinkling it
Was from a fixture in the living room.
So, she hung it there.
At that time, she lived downstairs,
And Aunt Millie and Uncle Bing lived upstairs.
Later that day everyone was out in the yard,
And they needed something from inside the house.
Uncle Bing went in to get it,
And he came running out again,
Calling “Ghostus! Ghostus!”
Uncle Bing was Greek, and he was a timid person.
As your Auntie Theresa would say,
He was afraid of his own shadow.
So, Uncle Bing thought there was a ghost in the house,
But it was just the wedding gown.
Apparently, the unexpected sight of a long white gown hovering in the living room frightened poor Uncle Bing. The wedding gown must have seemed otherworldly, like a spectral apparition that arose from a basic misunderstanding of the world. After Dad told the story, I said it was a good thing he didn’t have a heart attack. Dad quickly replied, “He did. That’s what killed him. He had a heart attack, but not from this. He had a hard job, buffing and polishing chrome appliances. He was a slight and timid person, and one day he did pass away from a heart attack.”
Before Uncle Bing passed away, he had been planning to buy a new suit, but he didn’t get around to it. After he died, Grandpa was asked to perform this task. He chose a suit for his brother-in-law, and he told the tailor how he wanted it altered. The tailor said to Grandpa, “We’d prefer for you to bring the person in,” but Grandpa only said that he couldn’t – he didn’t tell them why. All the necessary adjustments were made, just as Grandpa had specified, and Uncle Bing was buried in that suit.
Like Close Cousins Who Live Across Town
There is far too much to say about Italian curses and blessings. Many Italian swear words are extremely well known in our culture, yet there is so much more to this fascinating subject than most people realize. While writing this book, I have come to appreciate the many ways in which curses and blessings often appear like intimate companions. They are closer than you think – a bit like first cousins who live across town, and who visit one another on the weekends.
In one sense, curses and blessings are categorical opposites. The orientation of a curse is typically negative, and the intention is to do harm, or take away another person’s sense of power or well-being. In turn, blessings reinforce a positive sense of goodness, kindness, love, joy, peace, comfort, and compassion. While all of this is clear prima facie, when approached philosophically, things become more complicated. Curses and blessings often appear like opposites that attract; they reinforce and contrast with one another. Profanities are essentially profane. As such, they are intrinsically related to everyday life and to its opposite – to the sacred. Curses can seem either worldly or otherworldly, and sometimes they convey an imaginative perspective as ordinary life takes on a symbolic life all its own. Much like the Master Tailor’s command to “Wipe the Floor With It!” or Aunt Mary from Hartford’s unforgettable pronouncement that my cousin “should put it on the windowsill and slam the window down hard,” many curses involve strategic acts of reversal. Such inversions express a corresponding sense of turning the world on its head, while thwarting someone or overturning an expectation that actually represents another way of flipping someone off. Some vulgar expressions are extremely imaginative, and a handful of curses are sheer marvels of creative invention. The more deeply you explore the issue of ‘what is a blessing, and what is a curse?’ the more you come to realize that this is really a hell of a good question.
As a child, I was exposed to a wide spectrum of unforgettable imagery. Sometimes, the curses centered on themes of revenge, sometimes they concerned people’s inappropriate behavior, and occasionally, people’s inept attempts to indulge in a cover-up. Sometimes, the curses were rooted in a basic misunderstanding of how the world actually works. Many of the curses emphasized a lack of proportion, and a corresponding sense of being out of balance with life. It was a bit like all that excessive housecleaning, except that the curses related to something dirty. Almost all of the phrases contained a sensual component, and they related to various states of human and animal embodiment.
If there is a pattern to the curses, it lies in the way the imagery relates to knowing the world through the flesh. These themes applied to issues of food and eating, marriage and sex. Some of the curses related to themes of family life, and they could be used ambivalently, either to reinforce a shared cultural ideal, or to express the ways in which these values became unbalanced or violated. The scope of these destructive creations is really quite impressive.
Finally, there are some curses that don’t make sense until you hear the accompanying story, and even then – after the stories are carefully recounted and unpacked – the curses still don’t fully make sense. Yet somehow, you just can’t forget them. The next story is one of these.
“Catch-a Benny!” was a phrase I heard fairly often in childhood. Yet, when it was mentioned to me recently, I realized I had no idea what it actually meant. Perhaps this expression didn’t mean anything at all? Did somebody just make it up? I had to know, so I got the story from Dad. He told me that Auntie Theresa and Benny went to high school together, and that Benny was very funny and always laughing. Benny’s family lived in a residential section of town. One summer, Benny decided to construct a kind of portable shower out in the yard. Dad described it as the type of thing you would use to wash off, when getting into or out of a swimming pool. The shower was outside the house, and Dad said that Benny’s “homemade creation must have been a mess. Benny’s father was probably mad about this because he decided to pull the shower apart.”
While Benny’s father was outside dismantling the plumbing, he threw parts of the shower at Benny. Just as this was unfolding, a neighbor walked by and saw an older man throwing heavy metal objects at his teenage son. The father saw that the neighbor saw this, so he called out, in a loud voice with a thick Italian accent, “Catch-a-Benny!” This bit of quick thinking made it look as though this were some type of game they were playing, as though the older man was throwing shower parts to his son, not hurling plumbing at his son. Of course, everyone knew what was really going on.
It’s easy to see how such a phrase becomes repeated over the years. It’s just too good to forget. There is a perverse intelligence in all of this, a capacity for quick thinking when you’ve suddenly been caught in a bad situation, and you want to cover it up to avoid further embarrassment. Just as a person is discovered doing something they shouldn’t be doing, they turn the situation on its head to make it appear like they are collaborating with – perhaps even, assisting – another person. It’s intriguingly malicious because, when viewed through this lens, it looks like the recipient is somehow at fault if, for some reason, they don’t anticipate what is coming and they fail to make the catch. So, a “Catch-a-Benny!” isn’t just about projectiles; it is about deflection and deception. It is about the ability to think on your feet while you are hurling heavy objects at your own flesh and blood. It’s a twisted example of how a good offense is sometimes the best defense (and sometimes not), and what a profoundly misguided version of this philosophy looks like in action. It looks a lot like hardware being flung across a suburban lawn on an otherwise quiet summer afternoon in Connecticut, as a neighbor casually strolls by.
I Don’t Need That Cataplasma!
A few months after my mother passed away, Dad turned 80. After 50 years of married life, my father was now living independently. Just when I thought he could no longer surprise me, he managed to find a way. During one of our morning conversations, Dad told me that he was going to the YMCA to exercise, and that he would be seeing a friend there. Innocently, I thought, “Oh good… Dad has an exercise buddy.” Of course, the story goes downhill from there.
This friend from the Y had asked Dad, now that his wife was gone, would he ever remarry or get a girlfriend? With a strong emphasis in his voice, Dad said, “No, I don’t need that cataplasma!” Good God, I thought to myself, what is a cataplasma, and why does my 80-year-old father no longer feel the need for one? Dad was always so conservative. Could this be a euphemism for some kind of sex thing that people did back in the swinging 1960s, when he was last dating? Obviously, this was not something I wanted to contemplate further. We’ll just gently move on, I thought to myself, and I’ll smoothly change the subject. I’ll ask Dad about his balance class at the Y… but before I could do this, the next words out of Dad’s mouth were, “Aunt Millie always used to talk about that.” At this point, all I could think is, “Worse and worse. If this has to do with Aunt Millie, this is not good, and it’s not heading anywhere good.”
Before continuing, let me provide a bit of context. I am a modernist art historian, and part of my academic training involves the study of European languages. Yet, for the life of me, at that moment, I could not figure out what a cataplasma was. Next, Aunt Millie was a rough diamond who did not mince words and who always spoke her mind. When Camille and I were little, she often served as our babysitter. Aunt Millie was always extremely good to us, far more than we deserved. Even though I knew we could be difficult little kids, she always called us her little trina caro, her little sweethearts (literally, her little lace hearts). Yet, when she was not babysitting us or talking with Nannie, Aunt Millie generally lacked a filter, and she was never one to shy away from discussing inappropriate subjects. Once Aunt Millie had to remind her sisters, “You know, I have a sense of humor!” Dad thought this was really funny, because everyone knew that Aunt Millie was usually so rough-edged and grouchy. All of which brings us back to the cataplasma.
Even with all my years of academic training, during that phone call, I could not figure out what a cataplasma was. Given that the term was being credited to Aunt Millie, I assumed it was something so awful that our parents had kept it from us as children, or perhaps, it could be something that Aunt Millie had simply made up. And, because Aunt Millie repeated this expression so often, it magically took on a life of its own, like “Catch-a-Benny!” While these possibilities flashed through my mind, Dad quickly picked up on my confusion, and he was already on the case. As though speaking to a small child who is not that intelligent, he patiently explained, “You know, a plaster cast.”
This clue started me searching through the language databases in my mind, looking for terms relating either to sculpture or to medicine, including “plaster” and “cast.” Plaster is gesso – this I know for certain. Could she be thinking of calco, for cast? Or, could she be thinking of plasma, like you would receive in a blood transfusion? Could this be a regional dialect kind of thing, or perhaps some odd pronunciation or inflection, because plasma sounds more like plaster than gesso does? What was she thinking? This began to take on the proportions of a research problem, so I became determined to figure this out. Consulting The Bantam New College Italian & English Dictionary, I saw that, while the medical term for plaster cast is ingessaturà, a cataplasma actually exists! Technically, the word refers to a poultice or plaster, but pejoratively, it means someone or something that is a bore. Aunt Millie was actually right about this. This took me about half an hour, but now we had a clear answer. Sort of.
My father still has good mobility, so the question remained as to why he did not need a plaster cast, or a cataplasma, particularly given that he didn’t have a broken leg or a smashed finger (thank goodness). In Aunt Millie’s metaphorical world, a cataplasma meant a burden, a load to carry, a heavy thing you didn’t need and didn’t want. These encumbrances could refer to anything from extra tax forms to fill out, to a heavy winter coat you had to lug around all afternoon. And yes, this term could refer to someone’s spouse or partner. It was all coming back to me… Let’s say that a woman was going out with a man the family did not approve of. This sentiment could cryptically be expressed as, “Hey, look at that one, over there! What’s she doing with that cataplasma?” Then louder, across the room: “Hey Marie, how’s the cataplasma?” Everybody would laugh out loud, and no one would have any idea what they were talking about. No one except each other, and that was just the way they liked it. As a burden to carry, a cataplasma is definitely a curse. So all I can say is, thank goodness my elderly father doesn’t feel the need for one now.
They Made It Stink!
Just as a cataplasma is a metaphor for a weight that hangs heavily on the body, many of the curses express states of being that are known or experienced through the flesh. Virtually any organ or body part could be enlisted as a pathway for such cursed knowledge. The curses could encompass all five senses, including the nose and the sense of smell. Just as Nannie’s world was all about balance and cleanliness, order and proportion, when something was excessive, my relatives would say with pronounced disgust: “They made it stink!”
This compact little phrase covers a surprising amount of ground. If someone made a toast at a party and they seemingly spoke for too long – and especially if the speech interfered with the vital activities of eating, drinking, or talking – then the person’s perceived loquaciousness was dismissed as: “They made it stink! They didn’t know enough to stop!” I’ll never forget the gem of a time this expression surfaced at a reception following a funeral. The deceased person’s niece spoke for what one of my relatives felt was far too long a time. Never mind that the poor woman had just lost her beloved uncle, and that she was deeply grieving. The food had been served, and it was already getting cold. The woman’s tribute was taken as a decided imposition, so the judgment was, “She made it stink! She went on for too long!”
This unfortunate expression is not only offensive; it can be a game-changer. The phrase provides an efficient means for reframing a personal inconvenience so that the perceived offense is posed in collective terms. Thus, an individual annoyance or irritation becomes presented as a visceral response to excess, a kind of violation that ruins it for everyone else. It’s as though a person is taking up far too much air, and their excessive behavior emits a distasteful odor throughout the entire room. After all, “They made it stink!”
As a complement to “They made it stink!” we have what is known as a “’bout-a-time!” At Saint Joseph’s Church, the Sacrament of Confession was conducted during the afternoons. People would enter a darkened confessional booth where they would kneel down and confess their sins to a priest, who would be sitting on the other side of an opaque screen. The priest would hear the confession – say a blessing to absolve the person of their sins – and then assign a penance, which typically involved saying additional prayers. On the subject of confession, Dad related a story that kept us laughing for years: “’Bout-a-Time!”
Nannie and I were at church,
Waiting for our confession to be heard.
It was Easter time, and this happened on Holy Thursday.
We were sitting in the pews, waiting in line.
There was an older gentleman behind us.
He and my mother knew each other, so we said hello.
This man was related to
One of your grandmother’s goomads.
The man’s wife was having memory problems,
But he kept her at home.
He used to take her by the hand
And walk her all over the place.
He was a good person to do that.
So we’re all sitting there in the pews,
And we’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
When a younger woman finally came out
Of the confessional,
The man behind us blurted out, in a loud tone,
The woman kept walking toward the altar.
Nannie didn’t say anything,
But she and I laughed.
After all, we did wait a long time…
Given that the elderly man was about to go to confession anyway, perhaps he didn’t mind adding another item to the list? Whatever the case, the next time someone keeps you waiting because they take far too long to do something that should be simple, when they finally finish, you can think to yourself, “’bout-a-time!”
A Jackass of a Cucumber
In case you’ve ever heard the phrase “a che ass of a jadrool” and wondered just what it meant, the term denotes “a person who is a jackass of a cucumber.” While, technically, the word for jackass is asino and cucumber is cetriolo, this is a stylized pronunciation that mixes Italian nouns with English articles and prepositions. It is another cursethat doesn’t fully make sense, even in translation. As a child, I would often hear this phrase, and I knew it was a rude way of saying that someone was unintelligent, or as Dad would say, “It’s someone who is not too swift.” By calling someone a che ass of a jadrool, you were able to reinforce your own sense of superiority through a dehumanizing expression that portrayed someone else as both obnoxious and slow. As I recall, this expression was a particular favorite when people were driving on the highway in heavy traffic.
Apparently, in Italian, if you call somebody a cucumber, this is like the English equivalent of saying that a person has the I.Q. of a houseplant. The image of the jackass speaks for itself, as this braying animal is known for being both stubborn and offensive. Yet this is colloquial Italian-American, so the composite curse takes on a life all its own. What emerges is a human-animal-vegetable combination; all that is missing is a mineral to make this particular insult a microcosm of the universe. Both the donkey and the cucumber are transformational.
The Evil Eye
Calling someone a che ass of a jadrool is a symbolic way of turning a human being into both a plant and an animal. Other curses engage the strategic usage of body parts in ways that are at once natural and supernatural. One of the most intriguing and disturbing of these is malòc-chio, the evil eye. Notably, this imagery evokes both an eye and a horn. Malòc relates to the word for bad (mal), while occhio is especially interesting because the term relates to both an eye and a hook. Thus if you were giving someone the evil eye or “the sign of malòc,” you were essentially hurling a curse at a target, aiming the thought through your mind and your gaze, in order to hook or catch someone and have the ill-intention stick to them.
Wishing someone such intense harm was a serious curse, and it had its corresponding countermeasures. When Dad was growing up, if someone had a headache or didn’t feel well, people would say that someone had given this person the malòc, and prayers would be said so that they “would pass the malòc.” Grandpa’s youngest sister, Aunt Mary Costanza, believed strongly in such forces. She would pray, and if she began to yawn, this was taken as a sign that the malòc would pass and the person would feel better soon.
The symbol of malòc-chio is fascinating because it is inherently ambivalent; it is an embodiment of both dark and white magic. Malòc-chio is associated both with a curse and with the blessing of protection from such curses and other forms of bad luck. It is the principle of repulsion through identification – using like to deflect like. The amulet for malòc-chio appears like a little curved horn. It is usually red or gold, and it is often worn on a chain around the neck, like a charm. This ambivalent symbol can thus represent both the evil eye and the lucky horn. Much like an animal horn, the token can be used either for offense or defense. As a protective force, medals with the sign of malòc were hooked on our diaper pins when my sister and I were infants; Camille recalls that Nannie and Mom used to have lively arguments over this.
Just as there are many ways of approaching the concept of malòc, Auntie Palma’s husband, Uncle Leonard, took an alternative tack. Uncle Leonard was not of Italian heritage. As my cousin Gene reminded me, his father was an avid gun collector. When Auntie Palma and Uncle Leonard were first married, they lived in the same house with Aunt Millie. One day, Aunt Millie was saying something about being afraid of the malòc, the evil eye. Hearing this, Uncle Leonard took a handgun out of his pocket, put it on the table, and succinctly said, “This will take care of the malòc.”
Gouge in Culo
Making our way down the body, the rear end was always a favorite site for jokes and curses. Even Auntie Theresa, who was so patient and wonderful, would occasionally threaten to give someone a gouge in culo – a kick in the behind. Of course, we always knew this was an idle threat. The phrase was usually expressed as a kind of hypothetical possibility, as in, “You know what you’ll get if you don’t behave…” We never had to guess. We could have completed the sentence in our sleep, because the answer was always the same: “a gouge in culo.”
Speaking of ends, the end of a loaf of bread is called a culaccino, but the word became transformed depending on how it was used. The hard “c” was pronounced like a hard “g,” so the end of a loaf of bread was commonly referred to as something that sounded like “goog-a-loon.” In everyday usage, the phrase could be shortened even further, so that a person’s rear end could be referred to as their “goog.” While an overweight person would be described as having a large goog, for much of my life I have been on the thin side. As a teenager, I could easily squeeze between tight spaces in an overcrowded room, so I was affectionately known as “Goomada Skinny.” Again, such embodied metaphors expressed cultural perceptions concerning balance and proportion. While Goomada Skinny is an Italian-English hybrid that refers to a woman who is seemingly too thin, her counterpart is a sexy woman with a large bottom.
My godfather, Goomba Tony, used to tell the story of how, in the 1950s, he heard a group of young men standing on a street corner, longingly referring to a woman with a shapely figure as “Goomada Culo Turno.” Translation: The boys were dreaming of their Godmother with the Invitingly Round Rear End. Even if this woman did not happen to be Italian, if she heard this phrase, she could take a pretty good guess at what they were saying, and she could start walking down another street.
He Saw More Ass than a Toilet Seat
The stories of ends don’t end there. We’re only just beginning, although I’ll only share one more. Another unforgettable expression was associated with one of my distantly-related bachelor cousins. I only met this man once, when he knocked on our door one Christmas morning. Even though I was only a child, I immediately recognized that this man was a sharp dresser. What I could not have known was that he was a womanizer. As one uncle put it, “He had a reputation with the ladies.” Or, as another uncle put it, “Oh yeah – he saw more ass than a toilet seat.” This was yet another expression I was not supposed to have heard, which only made it funnier because it was stated on Christmas day.
Later that afternoon, when people were mentioning that this man had dropped by for a holiday visit, my uncles knew right away who this unaccustomed visitor was, and they identified him in the terms stated above. Once again, this was all about forms of forbidden embodied knowledge, so my uncles engaged a particularly vivid metaphor for expressing something “filthy,” in the dual sense of being pornographic and scatological. Depending on who was using the phrase, it could either be a curse or a blessing, an expression of total disgust or of vicarious admiration. Either way, one thing was crystal clear: this man was having sexual relations outside the boundaries of marriage.
It goes without saying that no one would ever use such a phrase in front of Nannie, and she was certainly not pleased with this man’s behavior. Dad recalls that, when he was a young man, Nannie strongly admonished him, “Don’t be like your cousin! You get married!” Dad said that, at the time, this man was already on his way to being a bachelor, and that he stayed a bachelor all his life. Whether this was a curse or a blessing depended on your point of view. Either way, the vivid phrase exemplified people’s perceptions of what were considered normative expressions of eros, marriage, and the family – and thus, matters of life and death themselves.
One Hundred Years!
At parties, a traditional Italian toast is Chindon! which means, “May you live for a hundred years!” This phrase is especially popular at birthday and anniversary parties, because it expresses a wish for a long life, or for a long life together. Either way, the words convey a blessing.
My father remembers Grandpa telling a story that put an unexpected twist on the phrase. At one of the clubs my grandfather belonged to, a birthday party was held for an extremely elderly man. During the party, the traditional toast was given: “Chindon! May you live to be 100!” Instead of being pleased, the elderly man became really angry. Apparently, no one knew his real age, so he told them, “I’m 99 – all of you want me to die?” In fact, the man did die before the year was over.
The inherent ambivalence of this story is fascinating. As with so many things, so much depends on your point of view, and of knowing how meanings operate within a given context. Flipping the themes of birth and death, this story describes the inversion of a celebration, just as it tells how a blessing inadvertently became a curse.
I Thought You’d Never Ask!
One of my grandparents’ friends had a drinking problem. According to Dad, “He was a nice guy, and he was funny. He’d walk around with a shot glass in his pocket, and when he visited people, he’d pull the shot glass out and set it down on the table. Then he’d look at the person and say, ‘Gee, I’d love one. I thought you’d never ask!’” While this story engages a certain type of inverted humor, it’s also very sad. As with so many things, this is about excess and a lack of balance; in this case, using the lightness of hospitality and the charm of humor to cloak the darkness of a serious situation. Once again, everyone knew the truth of the matter.
Goodbye, I Go!
Another of my grandparents’ friends liked to make homemade wine. This family consisted of a middle-aged couple and the man’s elderly parents, who lived with them. At one point the family bought a new house, so they all had to move. The house they were leaving had many steps, and while transporting the heavy wine barrels, the older man fell down the stairs. As he fell, he called out to his son, “Goodbye, I Go!” Unfazed, the younger man turned around and said to his father, “Where the hell are you going? Get up!” The older man got up, and fortunately, he wasn’t hurt. So, a “Goodbye, I Go!” is shorthand for a faux fatality, for someone thinking a situation is worse than it is, when it turns out to be not as bad as they had originally thought. It’s a phrase of resilience; it is about the ability to see a blessing in what could have been a curse. This phrase represents another inversion, of knowing that this is not the end of the world, and that it is possible to get up again, even if you’ve dropped a heavy wine barrel down a steep flight of steps, and you’ve just gone down with it.
Testing the Brakes
Sometimes stories of “near misses” arise by accident, and sometimes they happen by design. In the latter case, they are often rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the world, in which a person acts without thinking things through. There are several of these stories in my family. The first one involves a misguided sense of judgment, because Dad’s godfather, Goomba Pippie, wanted to make a larger statement about public safety. As Dad tells it:
My godfather was a good guy,
But he never drove a car.
Later in life, he worked as a school crossing guard.
He did the school crossings
On Farmington Avenue in Kensington,
And this was a busy street with a lot of traffic.
Day after day, he saw a certain car coming on pretty fast,
And there were a lot of people on this street.
So he thought to himself, “I’m going to test the brakes.”
Goomba Pippie waited until the car came close,
And then he went right up to it
With his crossing guard paddle.
The guy slammed on his brakes and yelled out,
“Why did you do this?”
Goomba Pippie said, “I’m testing the brakes.”
In my family, “Testing the Brakes” became shorthand for a well-intended but woefully misguided or reckless idea. This is all about playing with the edges, testing the limits of a situation, and clearly not thinking things through. Thank goodness this episode of “Testing the Brakes” did not turn out to be an actual “Goodbye, I go!”
You Hold It Tight, and I’ll Go Get the String…
Another such story of misunderstanding how the world actually works involves genuine childhood innocence. One day, Nannie’s brother and sister-in-law – Uncle Charlie and Aunt Bernie – went away and left their oldest daughter in charge. Dad said it was okay, even though the oldest girl had to work during the day, “The two other kids were old enough to be left alone during the daytime.” The youngest was Dad’s cousin, Donald, and he was somewhere between 10 and 12 at the time. On the day that Uncle Charlie and Aunt Bernie left, Donald went down to the cellar, and he saw that a water pipe had broken. Dad thinks it was actually the water main. Donald came back up the stairs and found his older sister, Elaine. Recognizing that there was a serious problem and wanting to address it, little Donald formulated a plan of action. He told his sister about the pipe, and he instructed her, “You go down there and hold it tight, and I’ll go get the string to tie it.” So the next time someone proposes a well-intentioned but totally inadequate response to a serious practical problem, you can think to yourself, “You hold it tight, and I’ll go get the string…”
Wait a Minute—I’ve Got to Put My Glasses On
On the subject of people meaning well but not knowing what they are doing – with this lack of knowledge in no way stopping them – we have what is known as a “Wait a minute – I’ve got to put my glasses on.”
One day, Grandpa’s friend had a broken fingernail. Another friend said that he could fix it, so he reached into his back pocket and took out a jackknife. The man cut away at the nail for quite a while. Then he stopped and said to his friend, “Wait a minute – I’ve got to put my glasses on.” This is a clear example of a person lacking clarity on what they should, and should not, be doing to another person. You may think you’re doing somebody a favor, but you could be doing them a serious harm. In this case, the blessing of wanting to be a blessing was overshadowed by the curse of incompetence.
If He Liked You, It Was Another Story
Just as so many blessings and curses in this world are known through the flesh, my dad’s first cousin, Mary Falvo, was a cugina carne – a blood relation, literally a cousin of the flesh. Mary was the daughter of Grandpa’s sister, Francesca. Both Mary and her husband, Paul, were wonderful to my family. Like Grandpa, Paul was a tailor who learned the trade in Italy. While he was always extremely sweet and generous with us, Dad told me that Paul liked to curse at people. If Paul didn’t like someone, he would call them strunzo. Dad always told me that this meant “someone who is not too swift,” but of course, it is really a slang term for a piece of excrement. Beyond this simple epithet, one of Paul’s favorite methods of cursing would be to wish unpleasant things on people he didn’t like.
Mary and Paul had an extensive back yard, with wonderful gardens. Their next-door neighbor had a tall maple tree. The leaves would always blow into my cousins’ yard, and Paul would have to rake them up. So, Paul wished a curse on the unsuspecting woman who lived next door: “I hope she grows taller than the tree!” Similarly, when the snowplow passed down the street and deposited snow in the apron of the driveway, which Paul then had to shovel out, he would see the snowplow coming and mutter, “I hope that guy chokes!” In retrospect, it seems that a lot of Paul’s curses had to do not only with knowledge of the flesh, but with the practical aspects of home maintenance.
Don’t All Small Children Get to Drink Black Coffee with Their Fresenes?
Personally, I have no memory of Paul’s curses. When I told Dad how surprised I was to hear of Paul’s swearing, especially because he was always so kind and generous with us, Dad chuckled and replied, “If he liked you, it was another story.” The Falvos loved my father dearly, and they would give him all kinds of things to take home, especially produce from the garden, or homemade treats from Mary’s kitchen. Mary’s house was always immaculate, and she was an amazing cook. Dad told me that he didn’t want to take so much, but Mary insisted. As she said to him, “If we have it, you have it. We’re family.”
One of the specialties I particularly associate with Mary is her fresenes. Fresenes are crunchy round biscuits flavored with anise seeds, and Mary’s were heavenly. When we came to visit, Mary would serve fresh fresenes in the afternoon, along with fragrant, freshly percolated coffee. Even though I was only a child, I can remember sitting at her kitchen table having coffee and fresenes on a sunny afternoon. I always liked my coffee mild, mixed with a lot of milk, but my sister – who is almost two years younger than me – thought that the fresenes tasted better with black coffee. So, Mary allowed Camille to have this! All of which meant that, growing up, I thought all little kids were allowed to have black coffee with their afternoon fresenes, if they asked very nicely. No matter what age you were, Mary’s coffee and fresenes could only be a blessing, as known through the flesh.
5 lbs. flour
¾ to 1 cup Crisco
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1-2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons black anise seeds
A good-sized piece of yeast
Make like bread – when golden, take them out, split in half, round the edges to form circles, and re-bake on a cookie sheet.
The Infant of Prague
Like so many of my relatives, Mary was extremely religious. Yet unlike anyone else, Mary had a holy statue propped up against the pillows of her bed. To my child’s eyes, this statue looked very much like an elaborate doll. When I asked my mother about this, she told me it was the Infant of Prague – a holy statue of the child Jesus, dressed in a ceremonial gown, wearing a crown and holding a globe. As a little girl, I had some difficulty understanding why my middle-aged cousin would have such a special doll on her bed, especially one that she didn’t actually play with. As an adult, I recognize that Mary’s Infant of Prague was a particular type of sacred presence, a holy figure that could be seamlessly integrated within the intimate spaces of a domestic setting. Perhaps the Infant of Prague was particularly needed in that house, to offer blessings to offset the curses that were uttered in the back yard if Paul didn’t like you. But if he liked you, it was another story…
 For the definitions of cataplasma and ingessaturà, see Melzi, The Bantam New College Italian & English Dictionary, pp. 94, 236.