Friday, December 09, 2005

Writings in the Snow

A Happy Friday, and Happy Weekend, to one and all from a very cold, icy, icky Philadelphia. I really need to be in Florida right now. Or California. You get the idea: somewhere warm. (Actually, I'd rather be no place other than here, and will explain that in a second.)

Our first snowfall that stuck arrived overnight. Gratefully, the apocalyptic predictions of the weathercasters were unfounded, and the advance estimates of 5-7" were, in reality, more like 2-3". Oh well. The schools were still closed and the streets still making for rough driving, especially as everything that began to melt during the day has re-frozen in the cold of night.

It's all Mahony's fault. And Bryan Hehir's.

Once upon a time in this town, not all that long ago, everyone would huddle around radios early on snowy mornings, tune the dial to KYW 1060, our all-news station (which still runs a generic typewriter clicking in the background), and wait for the magic words: "All Philadelphia public and parochial schools are...." While that simple formula, repeated every six minutes, made listening easy for city-dwellers, suburban schools are identified by individual numbers which would take a good hour to cycle through, so if you tuned in a minute late for your school, you were out of luck for the next 59. But now, everything is posted on the station's website, no wait time necessary and you don't even have to tune in... another cherished communal exercise killed by the internet. And so it goes.

At long last, I've purchased my Christmas cards -- not holiday cards, as the White House would have it. (Are you conservatives sure they're Christian, or have you lot yet again been bait-and-switched?) By this late date, as I always like to get my little nuggets of year-end love out sometime around 10 December, and it was past time to order anything online, so I dropped into Barnes & Noble last night and picked up a box of beautiful religious cards (for the religious folk) and charming, funny, but still refined not-so-religious cards (for the not-so-religious folk). And everything was 20% off. Grazie Dio.

Just in case you're really curious, one tradition has been broken. My usual preference is for the annual Madonna & Child stamps, which always portray a different rendering of the cherished scene; I hate those anodyne reindeer stamps, they're cringe-worthy. But as the Postal Service didn't issue a 2005 M&C -- because first-class stamps are going up to $.39 (from $.37) shortly after the New Year -- it was time to live dangerously, so I bought special-edition Muppet stamps as, when it comes to joy and peace, not even the Madonna & Child can hold a candle to the Muppets.

Case in point: I've never seen Bunsen Honeydew's favor cited as cause to incite a holy war. Or, for that matter, a culture war.

However, even though I just realized that it's two weeks away, for some reason it still doesn't feel like Christmas is that close at hand. Whether that's part of getting older, and accepting the reality that it's not like it was when we were younger, or just that I haven't yet been to the legendary Wanamaker's (now Lord & Taylor) Christmas Light show, I've yet to find out.

For years, though, one of the cherished rituals of my youth was attending Midnight Mass at our Cathedral-Basilica here in Philadelphia. I was so blessed and honored to participate in several of these beautiful liturgies from the choir stall directly across from my Most Eminent mentor on his cathedra. It was thrilling, but simultaneously uncomfortable -- as the TV lights were on the whole time at two stops short of sunlight, I felt like a rotisserie chicken in my dress blacks.

In 2002, for Cardinal Bevilacqua's last Christmas as archbishop of Philadelphia, I opted to hang back in the congregation, because it was just too hot up there -- and if you can't stand the heat, then get out of the sanctuary.

The homily from that night still echoes with me, coming at the end of what was a wrenching year. It was Bevilacqua at his simple, extemporaneous best; starting with Dickens, into a reflection on Emmanuel as "God with us." Expanding on the etymology, Pharaoh Past listed all of the difficulties of life: loss, loneliness, deprivation, suffering, the lack of hope, etc. To those feeling burdened by each of these, he offered the simple refrain, "Remember, know, that God is with you and God loves you," and how that is the ultimate message and meaning of Christmas.

It was just lovely, and when I went to see him after Mass with my customary gift of pizzelles (Italian waffle cookies, for the uninitiated) and the girlfriend of the moment, he whispered his verdict: "Rocco, such good taste." (He wasn't referring to the pizzelles.) So when His Eminence's card arrived the other day, I couldn't help but remember how much I loved starting my Christmases with him and how wonderfully special they remain.

Sweetheart that he is, it must be said that Cardinal Rigali also enjoys his predecessor's gift for celebrating a marvellous Christmas Mass -- he actually celebrates three of them (two vigils and the Midnight) at the Cathedral so he can minister to as many of our people as possible, especially those families with young children who are well-asleep by the birthing hour. Pharaoh Present performs the task with great relish, and his serene joy really shines through at the sight of all the giddy faces. (That he wears an embroidered-to-the-hip Sorgenti alb in the process extends those giddy faces to the seminarians on ceremonies crew.) As for me, the sentimental lure is so great that I'll probably still end up there. It's the next best thing to Rome.

And lastly, an embarrassment of riches....

I sometimes have to keep from pinching myself with happiness that both my grandmothers are still around and going strong -- so strong that they'll quickly remind any doubters of the errors of their ways.

Nan (Dad's Mom) is 81, and Gram, the Big Boss (Mom's Mom) recently turned 89. They just don't make 'em like these two anymore.

It's been a tough couple days, and the reason I haven't been up to speed with my postings here is that Gram has been in the hospital, so most of my writing time has been given to spending whatever time I can with her and/or taking care of errands for my mother and her sisters, who are rotating nights sleeping (or trying to sleep) in the wooden chair at her bedside.

My maternal grandmother is the strongest person I know, and if you knew the stories, you might come to understand why. Standing tall at 4'9" in her 90th year, the Boss -- an orphan raised by Vincentian nuns -- remains uninhibited and fiercely independent, still a taskmaster with a strong intuition, acid tongue and blunt honesty always ready to fire off an opinion on everything under the sun. (In case you haven't noticed, the 21st of her 26 grandchildren has inherited these traits in earnest... some would say to excess.)

Because Gram lives nearby, I was born after she had attained a state of mellowness her children had never experienced and hers was my first home, we're particularly close among this huge family of ours. She always tells me: "You speak my language" -- not a reference to my Italian, or her broken English.

Admittedly, it's more than a little unsettling when the person who serves as one's embodiment of strength expresses something less than her usual superhuman steel. But I guess, at 89, this is to be expected. We've been spoilt. The Boss is usually given to fighting with St. Anthony when she loses something. She'll promise him money (to be handed over at his statue in church) and then, on finding the missing object, would promptly forget her part of the deal. If Anthony had a collection agency, she'd be its biggest debtor. But, still in all, she's good for it.

As I've told the relatives, "As long as she's cursing at everyone and in her element, she'll be fine." That said, as always, her spirits are holding up in direct proportion to the number of family members around her.

All I want, all we all want, is to have her home and at her place at the head of the table -- her table -- presiding over the Christmas Eve feast which is her crowning joy. Until two years ago, Gram cooked the seven fishes, which would feed 65 mouths, all on her own. Every 16 December, she'd start her own little conclave, locking herself in the house to bake, fry and filet straight through for the following eight days. She saw it as her gift to us and relinquished the task with great difficulty, telling her daughters that, at 87, "I can still do it better than you," with a couple F-bombs lobbed their way to make her point clear.

Prayers are much appreciated for the Boss' strength of will, quick recovery and return home. Grazie mille, as we say.