Father D’Agostino stood, his shiny black shoes planted on the matted grass, praying as he sprinkled the casket, the holiness of the water mysteriously penetrating it to bless the body of my grandmother within. From somewhere beyond the field of granite gravestones the persistent howling of dogs added a mythical quality to the scene.
“…patri, et, filio,” the priest recited the blessing, “et Spititu Sancto…”
“Amen,” the canines seemed to reply.
My Dad was the oldest son, so he and mom were seated next to his older sister, Stella. My aunts, dressed in stylish black and some with veiled hats like Jackie Kennedy’s held the arms of their husbands who wore boring suits. My cousins were interspersed among their parents and those of us who were pallbearers were lined up nervously on one side of the casket.
My father’s aunts and uncles with wrinkled faces and names that began with “Zi” like Zi’Rosina, Zi’ Filippa, and Zi’Giuseppe sat stoically among the family. Tall men with blotched complexions and women with auburn hair who I could not imagine ever having set foot in Grandma’s house, stood around the edge of the crowd. “Amen.” they all answered on cue along with the dogs.
It was the howling that held my attention more than Father D’Agostino’s Latin prayers. I was thinking of Grandma’s front porch and the three-headed white ceramic dog with the philodendron that never grew trailing from the hole on its back. The planter was cleverly fashioned so that three dog-snouts could share just three eyes. The three-headed Cerberus sat on a wide ledge in front of the screened windows on the second floor porch of the two-family house, overlooking a quiet city street where the ethnic neighborhoods of Irish, French, Italian and Polish converged.
My memories of Grandma’s front porch had no particular chronology. Grandma and I would spend time together, mostly in summer, our two rocking chairs creaking, sometimes in unison, sometimes in turn. Together we would scoop frozen red Jell-o from old jelly glasses printed with Scottie dogs and a red-checkered background. We would watch the ebb and flow of activity on the street below. It was like a balcony at the opera. And some of the players even sang.
One of the regular characters on the stage was the rag-man, making his rounds, either collecting or selling rags, I never knew which, while repeating some unintelligible sing-song as he went from house to house with his canvas bag. He repeated his song, announcing his business up and down the street. I never actually saw him exchange rags or money with anyone and could never figure out whether he actually made a living. The ragman was a little bit scary.
Then there was the click-clack sound of metal horseshoes on the pavement announcing the arrival of the fruit and vegetable cart. The vendor, with his horse and carriage was, even then, an anachronism. He looked as though he chose his attire from a backstage theatrical wardrobe for a play set in the 1900’s. His tired horse would complain with loud snorts that made his lips flutter as the old man also sang his inventory: “p’tatoes, t’matoes, own-ions” – he was a poor excuse for a tenor. It was always a treat to see the horse go by, as I was not accustomed to seeing horses in town in the 1960’s.
“…et in saecula saeculorum.” The priest was ending the final benediction. “Amen,” we all responded. The perfume of chrysanthemums and roses lingered in the air.
After the internment I would dutifully return to Grandma’s gravesite, where she and my grandpa lay side by side. I would bring grandma flowers at every holiday and holyday: lilies at Easter, a spray of greens at Christmas, tulips or daffodils on Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, roses on her birthday…and of course on Palm Sunday I would offer her the palms from Sunday mass, woven into crosses as grandpa had taught my father to fashion and which he in turn, had taught me.
My trips to the graveyard continued into my twenties. Tradition, culture, religion, family – all are powerful forces shaping our behavior and beliefs – and I reaped the benefits of the internal rewards of conformity. I was, after all, the dutiful eldest son of the eldest son and I felt good about showing these signs of respect I had learned growing up.
Then I had this dream about Grandma. I don’t remember many details, but at the end we were talking, or more precisely, she was talking to me.
“Eh, Francesc’, what-a you do-a here? I am an old dead-a woman. You are young and alive; you have-a you’ whole life-a to live. Why do you come-a visit my grave? You should-a go live-a you’ life, eh not-a bring flowers to an old dead-a woman. Now go, figlio mio, va’ via, go live-a.”
Her message seemed so clear and made perfect sense. Her words immediately absolved me of my duties and self-imposed role as standard-bearer. Her words changed the way I would think about death and remembrance and tradition and the sacred. Her words changed me in some fundamental way and I never went back to her grave after that. The fragrance of flowers no longer lingers by her tomb, the dogs are silent and she can rest in peace, in saecula saeculorum.