A Big Birthday

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Various kinds of pizza are needed to celebrate a birthday! – tangled pasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

Yesterday we honored my paternal uncle in celebrating his 98th birthday. He is the last of my father’s siblings, a family of three sisters and three brothers. My Italian immigrant father passed away just shy of 96, long after he had later brought his two younger brothers to the U.S. For various reasons, his three sisters remained in southern Italy. From 1933 onwards, my father’s family became geographically divided. Yet they always remained in touch throughout those many years.

Last night at the pizza party my cousins held for their father, I thought about how brave my father and his brothers were to come to a foreign country without having learned any English prior to their arrival, and with little money in their pockets. Granted, my father had a cousin who encouraged him to come to his newly adopted town, but to take that ship from Naples and sail to New York’s Ellis Island required a great leap of faith. Yet the three brothers all built new lives here, married, raised families, practiced their faith, and prospered in their own ways.

Last night my uncle looked on cheerfully as we circulated among one another, talking, laughing, and having a fine time. I thought about how much my late aunt, his wife, would have loved having the family together. Her good nature would have embraced the festivities. We all miss her very much, especially my uncle. Sometimes when I visit him, he says, “I don’t know why I’m here! For what?” I answer that he is now the patriarch of our family, that we need him to lead us. He tells me that I’m crazy, that no one needs him anymore. But he is wrong: he is the living link to our past, not that we think of him as a museum specimen, rather to know that we can turn to him for our family history and anecdotes. He reminds us from whence we came, of the struggles, the milestones, the essence of what makes us, for all intents and purposes, us.

Ciao for now.

A Novel, Not Mine

Books And Tea

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

The back book jacket of Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, has a quote from Publisher’s Weekly [starred review]: “[A] smashing debut…remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself.”

Okay. Before I read this blurb from Publisher’s Weekly, I read the novel. Throughout most of my reading, I kept wishing I were re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or his Tender Is The Night, or his short stories [“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is one of my favorites]. The nuances of Fitzgerald’s writing: his turn of phrase, his sophisticated narrative, and his poignant characters always tug at my heartstrings, as well as at my literary aesthete.

At first, I anticipated a fine read, one following the protagonist through the years 1937-1940, as Katey Kontent navigated the intricacies of New York society, the upper and the not so upper stradas of it. Narrated in first person, Katey [cue Lauren Bacall in an imagined movie version minus her husky voice and slinky prowess] offers a generally clear-eyed, somewhat astute assessment of those around her and the events that affect them all in some shape or form. The one character I found intriguing was that of Tinker Grey. At first glance, he seems like a roué, yet as the story progresses, we learn he is far more complicated than that. While Katey loved him and he her, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in this novel, not even at the end with an Epilogue. For me, an epilogue is the tidying up, the sweeping of the floor to fast-forward the reader to what happens down the proverbial road. In other words, I’m not always of fan of the epilogue, but that is more of a personal preference than a condemnation of this book’s one.

I had a hard time settling into this novel. I would read some chapters, and then put the book down for a day or so, pick it up again and forge ahead. I found I had to keep convincing myself to read the book. The reason I forced myself to return to it was that I had read laudatory reviews of it. Like quite a few new books that I read, I find myself less invested in what happens. Usually I return to a beloved book to feed my literary soul, or more often than not, I return to my own writing after reading a classic. Indeed, the details of the setting in The Rules of Civility, of the era, of the characters consuming the pages were well researched and drawn. My ambivalence had to do with the fact that I neither cared much about the characters, nor what happened to them. I had a modicum of interest in the outcome of  Tinker Grey. Frankly, I cared far more about Jay Gatsby and his self-absorbed love Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick, kept me wanting to read more and more of The Great Gatsby. A short novel, Gatsby weighs heavily and seems longer than it is because of the tightly woven narrative. I applaud Amor Towles and his novel, and I am going to read his latest one, in part because the storyline intrigues me. I’ll let you know how I fair with his second novel. Maybe I’ll even become a fan.

Ciao for now.

The Daughter of An Immigrant

The Pontifical Swiss Guards at Vatican City have been guarding Catholic Popes since 1506. - tangledpasta.net
The Pontifical Swiss Guards at Vatican City have been guarding Catholic Popes since 1506. – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The past days I have been following the visit of Pope Francis in the United States. Each day I watch the New York Times video footage and I read the articles chronicling this historic event. Hearing the Pope speak at the 9/11 Memorial moved me to tears. Hearing him address the United Nations and seeing Malala Yousafzai intently listen to him also brought a tear to my eye, as did the Pope’s service at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and the one at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Throughout it all, I have envisioned my father and my mother with me, knowing how much Pope Francis would have meant to them.

I well remember when my parents took my brother and me to Italy and we stood in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City on a Sunday morning. We were waiting for Pope Paul VI appear on is balcony and give us a blessing. The Square was packed with people. I recall getting pinched on my derriere by a handsome Italian man after the Pope had retreated from the balcony. As I turned to see who had had the impudence to violate my person, the Italian shot me a sartorial smile and disappeared in to the throng. Emblazoned too in my memory are the tears that streamed down the face of my father. He had immigrated to the United States when Mussolini was in power in Italy. This trip was his first back to Italy since he had left impoverished Calabria behind him. My mother too felt overwhelmed at the blessing of Pope Paul VI. Her paternal grandfather had immigrated from a village outside of Genoa, Italy. She too was conscious of her immigrant ancestors.

The media blathers about how Pope Francis refers often to being the son of an immigrant. Aretha Franklin, who will perform for the Pope in Philadelphia this weekend, said in an interview that she likes how he remembers his own immigrant roots. Well, as the daughter of an immigrant, I can say for certain that the immigrant and his family took little for granted. Aside from his wedding day, my father’s proudest day was when became a U.S. citizen. This was the country that gave him a new lease on life, one where he could realize his dreams of business, family, and college-educated children. Yet the pillar of these dreams was his Catholic faith. In spite of myriad obstacles thrown in his path, he never waivered from his belief that God would help guide him through these trials. That is why I shed tears over what Pope Francis means to me, and how my parents would have embraced him, how he too is part of a continuum of the immigrant experience.

Ciao for now.