Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Our Endless Numbered Days

(Warning: Absolutely no church news whatsoever is contained in this post. Read on at your own risk....)

Forgive me -- as you see, I haven't been posting much of late, and the e.mails have been building up. I've always said that there's no better way to know your limitations than to blog, and for all my best efforts at trying to keep up, it just keeps beating me (to a pulp). This is all a long way of saying that if you've written and I haven't gotten back to you, all apologies.

It's been a heady couple weeks chock-full of family business. My mom's side -- tight-knit cast of thousands that it is -- is entering uncharted territory and, slowly, we're all doing our best to try and roll with it.

My aunt (Mom's sister) and uncle made a rare homecoming from down South last week. The unc's lately been battling cancer, which has been treated well to this point, but over breakfast before heading back to Lynchburg -- where his kids work for Jerry Falwell -- he told me that he felt noticeably weaker than he did on their arrival in town.

That said, however, you're probably asking yourself: "Rocco Palmo's cousins work for Jerry Falwell?" In a word, yes. And, yes, I've met the Rev, on several occasions -- and the world didn't explode.

Who knew?

Allow me to explain, though: my Mom has six siblings, two of whom left the church with their families and became committed Baptists.

As we're quite the old-school Italian bunch (you know, all the kids through Catholic school, a statesman-cardinal in the bloodline, my mother named for a nun), this was beyond a shock at the time. Add to it that my off-the-boat grandmother's only son became a preacher -- and quite the widely-sought one, at that.

Pastor's eight kids have good Italian names like Jeremiah, Josiah, and Nathaniel. Their dog, called Salvation, was put to sleep after it mistook my aunt Yolanda for lunch. And their cats were named "Obedience" and "Hypocrisy." (I'm not kidding.) My parents eventually took in the former, rechristened her "Obie," and one of my great dreams is to eventually get a picture of her in the arms of B16.

She doesn't hiss. And, as you know, neither does he. Not that all of you are happy about that, either.

Welcome to the family of a thousand stories. It'd make a killer reality show -- our Baptist wing would make some of you Catholic cons look like Ted Kennedy. But we all still get on raucously. The squabbles are long past as we've come to realize that, in the end, the love and unity of the clan is much more important than whatever Calvin had to say about anything.

May you all learn this one day, in case you already haven't.

Above it all, as always, is the Big Boss -- my maternal grandmother, our fearless leader, six months off her 90th birthday. Right now, however, we're just hoping she'll make it that long.

Suffice it to say, it hasn't been an easy time.

Veteran readers will remember that Gram spent most of December in hospital -- where, with her fierce independence ever about her, she drove everyone crazy -- and for the first time we held our traditional Christmas Eve extravaganza (with the customary seven fishes... and then some) at a place other than the house she's occupied, with nary a change of anything, for 62 years. She came home in time for New Year, but especially in these last few weeks, she's had a lot of difficulty breathing and other complications.

The word has gone out that it might not be long now. And for me, no reality has ever been harder to accept.

Interspersed with her gems of wisdom, Gram's story is one she's always told in bits and pieces, and it makes for captivating listening. Born on the Boot, she never really knew her mother, who died before her 2nd birthday. Her father remarried, and at her stepmother's urging, she was sent to live with her maternal grandmother. When that grandmother -- who, as it turned out, lived to 99 -- fell ill, Gram was then left at an orphanage run by Vincentian nuns, who she still credits for giving their all and teaching her everything she needed to know for the length of her days.

At 20, she came to America alone, where her sister had already arranged her marriage to a man 23 years her senior -- the grandfather I never knew. He left her a widow by 40, and she easily could've remarried but defied the pressures and chose not to, and so the Boss became both mother and father to her six daughters and son. The kids slept three each to a single bed, Gram worked three jobs and, as she says, "By hook or by crook, we made it."

I could go on and on with the chronicle, but I think that one reason I love this beat so much is that I've seen my grandmother's faith in action through the years, and her love and devotion to the church -- which, time and again, looked after her and sustained her when no one else would. (These sterling charitable works -- which continue Christ's presence in the world more than any self-righteous screaming or doctrinal pronouncements can -- continue in our own time, and we need to remember them, encourage them and support them and those who selflessly undertake them, always and in every place.)

The Boss wanted desperately to become a nun in imitation of the good sisters who took care of her, but was turned away as she was too poor. Instead, in the mystery of Providence, she became a mother superior in her own right, and the ethos imparted in that orphanage is still reflected in the life of a family which has lived with many trials, but even greater faith, and has reaped the rewards of that belief and trust.

To think that an orphan has lived to touch and shape the lives of seven children, 26 grandchildren and somewhere around 30 (and counting) great-grandchildren.... In many ways, however, I'm like her eighth child. While many of my aunts and uncles moved beyond the old neighborhood to have their families, hers was my first home, as my parents hadn't yet bought a place of their own. And when they did, as often happens in this town, we ended up right around the corner.

Thanks to the short walk, I spent most of my days growing up with the Boss, learning from the best. I know well that I'll never know a stronger person, a more devoted champion, a wiser counselor, a greater hero -- and all that in someone who, mind you, stands 4'10".

As my Mom went back to work not long after I was born, I've always been able to taunt my parents and boast that "Gram raised me." And, so it seems, her stubbornness, opinionated expressiveness, loyalty, vicious temper -- and, above all (as you've come to see), her wicked tongue -- all seem to be things I've inherited, almost in a direct line. My mother implies this when she tells me, as she does fairly often, "You remind me exactly of my mother."

She means it with disdain. But it's the greatest compliment I could ever wish to have.

A couple months ago, I bought a digital voice-recorder for an interview I was doing. The Boss, however, has always wanted to see her story written -- she keeps telling me, even now, "You'll write my book." So last night, in a brain-flash moment much like the one in which this outlet's name came to mind, I realized that I have to get the story on tape. I've been spending a lot of these days down at her house, and I've been putting the story-gathering off for years, but this is the time.

Ergo, you probably won't be seeing much (if anything) here for the next few days; however, I hope you'll understand. And that you'll keep the Boss and us all in your prayers.

Knowing her, Gram will talk for hours and hours -- and, while her short-term memory's faded, she'll still be able to recall vividly the slights of others from 70 years ago, and still curse out those responsible for them. (Che gioia.) And even if it never takes on book form, one day I want to be able to have my kids hear her voice, so that they'll know a bit better about where they came from and get to learn the same lessons about life, love and God in the same way as I have.

If you'll indulge me, however, three requests for the meantime.

First, I'm still taking words of wisdom for our ordinandi who will become priests in the coming weeks. Thanks to everyone, lay and ordained, who's written in so far; I've gotten some beautiful stuff and can't wait to compile it all. Keep it comin'.

Second, as none of us is as smart as all of us, I need your ideas on the future of Whispers. I noted some weeks back that these pages are living on borrowed time -- and, um, that's still the case, with the exception that the time is now shorter (and much more borrowed) than it was some weeks back. Much as your humble servant loves this and could do it forever, this poor scribe needs to pay his (horribly overdue) bills and have a somewhat more stable existence, and I've done my best to try and make that happen through this work. That said, barring a miracle, it's looking like I'll soon be back in the quiet, corporate life. And oh well -- it happens. Everything's in your hands, and I trust that whatever's meant to occur, will.

And lastly, most -- if not all -- of us have an elderly person in our lives who, even if not undergoing physical suffering, lives with the pain of loneliness: a friend, former teacher, colleague, relative, grandparent, parent. For what it's worth, I've noticed this is especially true in the case of many retired priests and religious, who have given so incredibly much through the years but now, particularly as they lack families, too often spend their days unappreciated and unthanked. No matter who these people are in our lives, chances are that a bit of companionship might just make their month -- such is life that it might be something we always try to do, but can't get into our schedules.

So, if you know one of these people and get a chance, please take some time to give 'em a call or visit. It might just be 10, 20 or 40 minutes -- but, however long or short it is, it'll mean more to them than you could possibly imagine. Not to mention that it's time better spent than reading this.

God love you all.