Saturday, March 15, 2008

Patron of Pastries... of Parents... of a People

So -- true story -- the liturgical calendar almost got me exiled from my favorite bakery the other day.

As many of you know, this time of year's always the peak season for the zeppoli -- the hearty, cream-filled wonders made only during March as a tribute to St Joseph (who, according to the motherland lore, was born somewhere near Calabria, only being mystically transported to the Holy Land years later). Being addicted to the magic treat like no other, I'm just one of many for whom the first Zeppole Run of the year is a semi-sacred event, as evidenced by the standard queues out the doors of the rival family-owned bakeries at the heart of the old neighborhood.

Figuring that a weekday morning would be a relatively line-free time, I rode over to get my (first) fix, completely undisturbed -- glee-filled, actually -- about the reality that gorging on the powdered-sugar-covered goodies would leave me looking like I just trudged through a snowstorm.

For this, you see, it's worth it.

And for the record, the hometown zeppoli are a labor of love, with my cake-makers of choice keeping a particularly high level of devotion. Holy cards and photos of John Paul II (our last Italian Pope) decorate the store, and when the shopkeepers wanted the comforts of the Bel Paese close by, they ended up buying six rowhouse lots on a narrow side-street around the corner... and building one Tuscan villa on the space. 

(Lest anyone be surprised, there's a Padre Pio grotto in the front yard. And a St Francis shrine, too.... Six years after it was built, the house still gets gawkers -- it's become a tourist attraction, a shrine to South Philly at its unapologetic, overstated best.)

Anyway, making conversation with the woman at the counter, I asked if she knew that St Joseph's Day had been moved this year.

By her initial reaction, you would've thought I had just denied Revelation... or, for that matter, Padre Pio's stigmata.

"No! No!" she replied, with that loving-yet-dead-firm chiding manner known to Italian mothers (and their sons) everywhere. "He's always the 19th -- always on the 19th!"

Fearing that I had scandalized the kind, cheerful lady -- or, just as bad, would be sent away empty-handed -- I started to scramble, making a quick explanation of the calendar rules: since not even Holy Week could be paused to celebrate the foster-father of Jesus, patron of fathers, workers, your narrator's confirmation and the universal church, the feast had to be moved outside its space.

It took a minute or so, but she seemed to understand it. To sweeten the news in more ways than one, I offered a possible indult of sorts.

"How bout this?" I said. "Just let everyone know it's Saturday this year... and tell 'em they can still come back again on Wednesday."

And, well, she really seemed to get it after that.

So, indeed (so far as this year's concerned) this Ides of March is St Joe's Day. And while we think of the Lord's "Dad" as his protector, he was also his first teacher -- the one who gave his Son the tools, spiritual, mental, physical and material, to make His way in the world.

In that light, and thanks to an experience that lives on everyday in my mind, I used an earlier 19 March to write about one of my teachers, and to pay tribute to 'em all in the process.

So with eternal thanks to the Reg now up above, everyone who's guided me through the years -- and all of you who've taught me much with your notes over the past week and all through this ride -- here's a zeppole from the archives.....

* * *

One day, in sixth grade, I was sitting in class, doing whatever you do when you're in class in sixth grade, when my teacher -- known invariably as The Reg -- walked by my desk and said, "Come with me."

I was momentarily struck with fear, as I had no clue what on earth was going on, nor what she wanted. I just thought I was going to get reamed out about God knows what.

Amazingly loving and fierce and exuberant all at the same time, Reggie Rees -- who said that her mother named her Regina "because I'm a queen" -- had a brother each in the Augustinians and the Jesuits, went into teaching in her 40s because she loved kids so much (on top of leading her parish's confirmation classes by night) and routinely noted that "My husband says that when St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, he forgot about me."

I followed her outside. "Don't tell anyone," she said, "but I want you to have this," pressing a little something into my hand.

I've often said that, despite never having spent a day in a Catholic school -- I'm proudly-public through-and-through (something that's still cause for scandal here in Pharaohtown) -- my teachers were the best Catholic educators I've ever known. 

I'm biased, of course (and, surely, it's nothing against the heroic souls who sacrifice intensely to teach in parochial, religious and diocesan schools day in and day out), yet this is merely a reflection that these amazing folks made the choice and effort to live their faith not within the friendly confines of "the system," but let it shine instead in the rough-and-tumble of a wildly diverse inner-city community marked by contentious constituencies, activist students and an unusually hot place in the public spotlight.

In that vein, though it could've gotten her into all sorts of trouble, the simple gift was the prayer-card you see pictured above, on its reverse side an ancient prayer to St. Joseph -- say it for nine mornings for anything you need and, so it's said, you'll have it:
Oh St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God, I place in you all my interest and desires. Oh St. Joseph, do asssist me by your powerful intercession, and obtain for me from your divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So that, having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers. Oh St. Joseph, I never weary contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me, and ask him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls, pray for me.
(Note: the famous house-selling prayer is a bit more... er... assertive.)

After a battle with colon cancer, the Reg left us at 62, a week before I moved to Penn for my freshman year of college. And I still don't think I've gotten over it.

A few years earlier, she went wild when her beloved Augustinians gave up her home parish due to lack of staffing, and the place was entrusted to the care of the secular clergy. As ever, though, she got the last laugh -- her funeral was celebrated on Augustine's feast, and a priest of the order who was a family friend presided.

Many years have passed, but the hook of the homily has never once left my mind: "Go... and do what you want. Love... and do what you will."

She might've gone home, but she still gave me something. And, again per usual, she wasn't done, either.

As it was the end of August and people were on vacation or moving to school, I was her only alum who was able to make the liturgy. On the way to my car for the cortege to the cemetery, another of my shepherd-teachers -- who, no lie, revelled in the nickname "Dragonlady" -- was walking with me and said the most bittersweet thing at the most surreal moment: "I know she knows you're here. And if there was anyone she would've wanted to be here, it's you."

And those words have stuck with me forever since, too.

On the morning John Paul II died, some commentary I had taped in advance for the area's all-news station began airing; just the basics of the machinery that would kick into place on the Pope's death, the funeral, conclave, etc.

I'd been up all that night, as several nights before, keeping watch in the office and doing various bits of writing and radio for outlets here and there.

I tried to clock out for a bit in the late morning as I knew the phone would start ringing without end once the end had come. And no sooner had I collapsed on the couch did the landline ring. The closest phone by me was the only one which didn't have caller ID on it, and I came close to not answering it. Thank God I did.

I picked up and a familiar voice I couldn't immediately decipher asked, "Hello, is Rocco around?"

It was the Dragonlady, with a message. "Right now, Reggie is smiling down on you!" she said, "My God, she must be so proud."

It would be another three hours before Papa Wojtyla would return to the Father's house, where he probably found Reggie hamming it up at the head of the classroom. But the thought, and the sense of presence that came with it, was enough to get the tears rolling earlier than I'd expected.

I know none of this is news, and it's a bit of a divergence from the usual posts, but it's just what's on my mind on this feast of the Lord's protector and the universal patron of his church. For this unworthy scribe, it's a reminder of the people who've led, inspired and given me so much and, like St. Joseph, protected me in the journey -- people who've been, and who remain, gifts beyond all price in my life and in the lives of all those who've been lucky enough to cross their respective paths.

I can only pray I haven't let them down. And that's my prayer everyday.

* * *

Thanks so much for your patience this last week... and all the feedback, which has meant more than I could ever say... all of which I've been poring through slowly, gratefully, and with a lot of thought.

Buona festa a tutti -- it's good to be back. And to the many who asked for "no long posts" going forward, forgive me.