Saturday, July 08, 2006

They Got FOX News Upstairs?

As if things weren't crazy enough.

Not since the grandfather I never knew was laid to rest a half-century ago this month has my Mom's family -- all 150 of us, give or take a few -- been made to say goodbye to one of our own. It's been an incredible run and, we know, a blessing from God.

Well, nothing good lasts forever. And our good fortune met its end on Thursday morning in a picturesque corner of Virginia when, after a long battle with bladder cancer, my Uncle Gene was called home. Gratefully, it was peaceful as he'd been in a deep sleep for the hours leading up, and the kids and grandkids were at his side for the journey.

Though he married into the clan, to end up with an Italian has the effect of, over time, being born into their family, especially after 46 years. Hopefully you'll all forgive me for diverting from the usual business for a bit to say some words. I might just end up rambling, but besides my own catharsis, it seems that my family stories are enjoyed out there, so here goes.

To (briefly) bring the newbies up to speed, my Mom is one of seven kids born to Italian immigrants who were set up in an arranged marriage shortly after my grandmother arrived in the States off the boat. My grandfather was 23 years older than his bride (known simply as "The Boss"), and his death left Boss a widow before her 40th birthday, with six girls and a boy ranging in age from 18 to 5. The two eldest girls dropped out of school and stayed at home to help raise the family as my grandmother worked four jobs to keep the house running -- the kids slept three to a bed. Eventually, the kids married off, had families of their own, the grandchildren completed the assimilation cycle and, to use my grandmother's words, "By hook or by crook, we made it."

It's an amazing story, which will all be told more fully in The Book. Whenever I get around to actually writing it.

Back to our story, in the early '80s my uncle and Aunt Angie (mom's third-eldest sister) left the church after finding a spiritual home as Southern Baptists. (Mom's lone brother also left and was ordained a Baptist minister. Every time Pastor performs a wedding for one of his eight kids, he reminds me of Jerry Lewis during the MDA telethon. To the hilt. But I digress.) As you could imagine -- my grandmother being raised in an orphanage by Vincentians nuns and all -- this caused friction in the ranks which took years to heal over completely. Over time, however, we all came to learn from each other and, if anything, the experience made the bonds of faith and family even stronger.

I spent much of my high school summers down in Blue Ridge country with Unc and Aunt Ang, and the conversations about faith, politics and the state of the world would stretch long into the night. Now, these were particularly epic chats as my uncle (a Navy man who served in Korea) was so unabashedly conservative that he would make many of our Catholic right-wingers look, by comparison, like wimpy pinkos.

As the dog was trained to attack the screen every time Bill or Hillary would show up on the TV and to jump excitedly when W. appeared, hopefully you can see I'm not kidding.

The discussions would go on for hours at a time. As Unc lobbed his trademark verbal grenades, liberals would be defamed eight ways to Sunday, Clintons both were deemed the Antichrist, Reagan and Bush (43) praised, and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Cal Thomas, et al. adored and cited at length. Many points were conceded on both sides, but it always took place over a lot of laughs and good fun.

As it became a model of fruitful exchange for me, I guess it could be said that I've lost my favorite political conversation partner. Whenever we'd sit down or call to chew over the latest news, the facts, figures and opinions would just start flowing -- my phone calls were always received with the words "The Rock is on the phone!" As Unc's cancer spread and the treatments took so much of him, the latest commentaries would bring him a welcome distraction and, to an extent, get him back to himself.

Unc's other great love was soccer -- for almost 40 years, he coached the next generation in his own right and then, when my cousin began coaching, he became his son's assistant (or, as he called it, the "good cop"). One of his greatest boasts was that one son went semi-pro, another a great coach. Both were all-Catholic and rank among Philly's most distinguished players in their time. So if there's one bright spot in all this, besides the end of his suffering, it's that he's got a great seat for the World Cup final tomorrow.

Unc last got home for two weeks in early May, when he drove my aunt back to Philly for the annual dance card of First Communions and wedding showers. As he had been tiring easily, on the morning of their departure I carried his bags to the car and asked how he was feeling. "Not as well as when we got here," he told me, intimating that "I think it's come back."

With that, Mom's family being the ultimate bella figura proving ground, we put our game faces on and headed back inside for breakfast. For clan Gasparri, that's just the way it goes.

My trips South were the only time my aunt and uncle attended Sunday Mass after their conversion. (Of course, I returned the favor and would go with them to Morning Service.) Of the two Catholic churches in their town, neither could be called a winner -- one had the altar and ambo at equal prominence on opposite sides of the sanctuary with (get this) a glass tabernacle in a back chapel.

The (unfortunately unforgettable) sight of that tabernacle had me spinning for weeks. Not in a good way, either, as I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fathom how someone had forgotten that the Big Box's whole purpose of being is to, you know, protect the Host.

The other parish was richer still. I walked into its gymnasium-style church on Holy Thursday afternoon to find a pitcher of water and a painting of a baby which looked it had been painted by Munch next to the altar.

Leaving in horror, I saw a closet door slightly ajar with a bit of light streaming out of it. Inside, I found the tabernacle. Repeat: In a closet.

I didn't even allow myself to observe whether it was glass or not, choosing to just genuflect and bolt.

Suffice it to say, we didn't darken the door of that place again.

Out of curiosity, on one occasion one of my cousins came along for liturgy. As Baptists are (rightfully) renowned for beating Catholics to a pulp when it comes to knowing Scripture, she immediately picked up on the "Lord, I am not worthy..." before Communion. The pleasant shock of hearing it moved her so much that she still recalls it every so often.

Sitting in his living room one summer afternoon in my early teens, in the days when the priestly aspirations were still about me, I brought the topic up with Unc, knowing fully that it could possibly encite sectarian war, but wanting to hear his mind on it.

For all the difficulties of the years, as was his way, he surprised me royally, saying simply, "If that's what you're called to and if it happens, I want you to know that I'll call you 'Father.'"

Time (and girlfriends) may have dimmed those plans, but that moment was something I never forgot. It was a sign that, indeed, the clan's long-simmering religious tensions had passed, an ecumenical spirit of love, support and understanding risen in its place.

We've got a rough week ahead -- again, a family funeral is not something we're used to. As I'll be navigating the waters and spending time with the influx of arriving relatives, the posting policy for the week will be one of "Reader's Choice." So if you see something you find interesting out there, feel free to lend us all a hand and send it my way.

It'd mean the world if you could all keep my aunt, cousins and all of us in your prayers. Even in the midst of grief, we pray in the sure and certain hope that, after a life well-lived with much love and faith, Unc's preparing a place for us all at the championship field of Paradise.