Growing up Colella ~ Mr. Lilac Bush

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(These stories are part of a larger unpublished novel with the same name. It is a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in an Italian-American family in New Hampshire in the 1970s)

Mr. Lilac Bush

Carmen says, “Come and play The Partridge Family and I say, “I don’t know,” because I’m busy with my trucks. She has this great episode planned and she says she needs everyone’s ‘co-operation’ so it will be really good. She says she knows I’ll have fun once I ‘get into it.’ She says, “You know you’re always glad you joined in after you ‘get into it.’ So, come on, or else you’ll miss it.” She says, “You can play with your trucks anytime.”

But see, I don’t want to play with my trucks ‘anytime.’ I want to play with them now. I’ve got them all lined up on the dirt sidewalk out front of the house and I’m just getting ready to have them make that long trip down the highway. And she’s wrong about that—about playing with them anytime cause see I can’t play with them when it rains—not outside like I like to make them on the highway, and some days I go to the park and then there’s these days where I end up playing The Partridge Family. So, you see, I don’t get half the time with my trucks that I want to.

But then, there she is, standing there above me with her arms all on her hips and I know I’ve lost. Man, I don’t have a chance.

“Is Ted playing?”

“Yes. Ted is already down there, practicing his lines.”

“Can’t he say my lines?”

“Look, Peter, if you continue to not play, we’re going to have to give your part to someone else and I hate to do that because you’re so good in your part.”

“Can’t you just call me when my part’s on?”

“Peter—“

“Can I bring a truck then, for when I’m waiting?”

“Well…”

“Or else the answer’s ‘no’.”

“One truck.”

“Okay.”

“Good. Oh, great Peter. Great. This is going to be the best yet. You’ll see how much fun it is. We’ve been writing the script all day and it’s a good one.”

Yeah. Yeah. Nothing’s ever half as much fun as it seems in Carmen’s head. But I go around back anyway where this ‘great episode’ is going to happen and there’s Paula and Angela over by the swings already looking limp and bored and Ted on the teeter. The older girls are in the middle of the yard discussing the script.

“Get over by the teeter with Ted,” is what Carmen tells me, so of course, I hop on the other end and we start the old up and down. I give Ted a little bump and he gives a big one back then the pancakes start. I get Ted a good one so that even my butt stings.

“Stop that you guys! I didn’t say, ‘teeter,’ I said, wait over here by it until it’s your part. You need to keep quiet. You know that.”

“I don’t even know my part,” I say. “How’m I supposed to know?”

“Just a minute.”

“We don’t know our part either,” Angela says, “and I’m sick of waiting. I’m bored. Come on, Carmen.”

Carmen walks back over to the girls and discusses some more. Then she comes back.

“Now, this is what’s going to happen. First scene: Reuben comes to tell me that he got us a booking for another tour. We’ll have to be on the road for a while again. Then I go and tell Laurie and David and Laurie gets upset because she’s met this boy she likes. The boy will be played by Sophie because she has a small part in this one and because the boy and Reuben never appear in a scene together. So, Laurie’s upset. She doesn’t feel like going on the road because she knows she won’t see him for a long time. David helps her out and consoles her and, at the end, the whole family is on the bus again, like always, singing a song.

Ted and Peter, you have two parts. One is in the dinner table scene. We’re all sitting around the table having dinner and the two of you start teasing her about the boy. You know, stuff like, ‘Laurie’s got a boyfriend,’ so she cries and leaves the table. That’s when David follows her outside and consoles her. Then, you’re on the bus at the end with all of us—you know, over on the ladder.”

“When is this dinner?” I ask.

“I’ll tell you when. Paula and Angela, your part will be a scene where the two of you are discussing boys and what you’ll do when you get older, like Laurie. You’ll be on the bus at the end too. Got it?”

“Where?” Angela asks.

“Where what?”

“Where do we do our scene.”

“Right here by the swings.”

“When do we go, Carmen? I’m sick of waiting. I don’t want to be here all day.”

“Oh, Angela, it won’t be all day. Don’t be a grouch again. Now, keep quiet over here and watch. We’re starting. ACTION.”

Carmen goes and stands by the clothesline. She stands there. She’s still standing there and nothing happens. She slaps her arms on her sides, turns around and says to Sophie, “What are you doing?”

“Was that my cue? I forgot,” Sophie says and laughs.

“Come on. Start over. Places everyone. ACTION.”

This time after Carmen stands there, Sophie comes and knocks on the fake door and tells Carmen about the new tour and Carmen runs excited and tells Lisa and Julie and Julie looks all upset and runs away.

“Great job. Okay. Scene two,” Carmen yells. “PLACES.”

Julie goes and sits on the bench way on the other end of the yard and Sophie sits next to her, but now she’s the boyfriend and then Carmen yells again, “ACTION.”

Sophie and Julie are talking but we can’t hear them.

“Tomorrow is Arts and Crafts day at the park,” Angela says. “I don’t care what Carmen says, I’m going. They’re going to build pop sickle houses.” Angela starts to swing and the swing makes noise and I can just tell—

“Quiet over there, you guys! Do that scene over again, Julie and Sophie. That was bad. Stop Laughing.”

“Paula,” Angela says, “Come to the park with me tomorrow. Okay Paula?”

“I don’t know.”

They start the scene over but I still can’t hear them. Paula is twirling her swing around tight then letting it untwirl. Then she starts in with one of her made up songs about the Lilac bush behind her. Ted pops back on to the other end of the teeter. We’re seeing how slow and quiet we can make it go up and down.

Oh, the lilac bush, that lilac bush

It brushes on my back

That lilac bush, that lilac bush

When I swing it grabs my back

 We’re working on soft pancakes now.

“Knock it off you two. Why are you being so bad today?”

“We can’t even hear them, Carmen,” I say. ”It’s boring.”

“Just a minute will be your part. Please. Just a little longer. Do that one more time. Lisa get into it more.”

“Carmen,” Lisa says, “I’m not doing that scene again.”

“Yes one more time.”

“No.”

“Doesn’t anybody care today? All right, run through from the beginning again with no breaks.”

Angela gets off the swing and is walking away.

“Where are you going?” Carmen yells.

“I want to play with my dolls.”

“Angela!”

She keeps walking.

“Forget her then. Grouch. We’re going to run through the whole thing from the top with no stops. Boys, get ready. You’re in the scene after the bench.”

They start over again.

The lilac bush, the lilac bush

The purple flowers so pretty

When it’s blooming and I swing

It reaches for my feeties

“Paula! Quiet!”

Oh, Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

I sure don’t want to hurt you

But, Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

Why do you reach out for my shoe?

Paula’s pretty weird sometimes, but Mr. Lilac Bush? I make a face to her, like, quiet down!, because if Carmen makes them start over again I can’t take it. She looks at the ground and says it soft, moving her feet in the dirt.

When will you bloom again?

I miss your flowers

I’m afraid to swing

Don’t want to hurt you.

“Scene three. Dining room. Come on, everyone. Paula, you too. Over here at the table.”

Paula walks over, so slow I could kick her, still singing Mr. Lilac Bush. “Want to hear my song?” She says to Carmen.

“No, Paula. Later.”

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

“Quiet now, Paula.”

“I don’t want to forget.”

“You won’t forget. Quiet. Come on.”

She’s still singing it soft.

“Okay boys.”

They start a fake conversation and that means it’s our turn. Ted says, “Laurie loves Bobby,” and I say, “Yeah what a kootie machine,” and then we go:

Laurie and Bobby sitting in a tree

K-I-S-S-I-N-G

First comes love, then come marriage

Then comes Bobby in a baby carriage.

Julie has already left the table crying but we go on:

Laurie and Bobby sitting in a tree

K-I-S-S

“Enough, you guys. Good job.”

I-N-G

First comes love then comes marr—

“Enough already. We need to get on with the other scene.”

Then comes Bobby in a baby carriage

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

You know I like your kissing

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

It’s you who I’ve been missing.

“Ok, you guys, enough! Go wait on the bus now.”

I take my truck and go sit on the ladder. I sit up front so I can get away fast after the last song and run back up front to my trucks.

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

I know you like your bus

Will she ever stop that stupid song? Carmen always has the last scene on the bus which is the ladder. We each take a rung, sing a song, wave to Reuben.

“Do that scene again Lisa and Julie. I wish you’d stop laughing. This is serious. Get serious.”

“I can’t help it,” Julie says, “Her nostril keeps flaring when she sings to me and it’s funny.”

“Then don’t look at her nostril. Look at the ground or something. Come on.”

They start again but they laugh even before they start the scene.

“You guys!”

Julie and Lisa are rolling on the ground laughing. I take the chance and run back up front to where my trucks are right where I left them. Come on guys, I say, we’ve got a long way to travel.

“Is the skit done?” Angela asks me from the porch where she’s into it with her dolls.

“Yeah,” I say.

Let’s move, I’m running my trucks up and down the highway. When I stop to gas up, I hear it again

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

Your branches are so pretty

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

Please don’t let me kick you

She walks by me slow, like she doesn’t even see me. I don’t know how anyone can walk that slow. She’s got a leaf in her hand, from the bush. And she’s singing to it. She walks up onto the porch where Ang is.

“Want to hear my song, Ang?”

“Yeah, sure, Paul. Me and Annie will listen. Maybe you’ll sing her to sleep. It’s time for her nap now and I haven’t been able to get her to sleep.”

“Okay.”

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

I know you are so pretty

Mr. Lilac Bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, Paula. I do. It’s great.”

Why do you grab my feeties?

“Paula?”

Mr. Lilac Bush, “What?”

“Come to the park with me tomorrow.”

Mr. Lilac Bush.

“Okay Paula?”

Mr. Lilac bush. “Okay, I will.”

“Good. Go on now.”

Mr. Lilac bush, Mr. Lilac Bush

Tomorrow I’ll be gone…

 

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

 

 

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Growing up Colella ~ The Life Cycle

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(These stories are part of a larger unpublished novel with the same name. It is a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in an Italian-American family in New Hampshire in the 1970s)

The Life Cycle

Until Dad and I went fishing, I didn’t know. We went up to Granite Lake and borrowed Uncle Louie’s boat like he said we could.

It was early and we were tired on the way up, but we didn’t mind. We knew it would be worth it. The jeep was slow to start and rough riding because it was so cold. We stopped at Elm Street Market and bought sodas and sandwiches. I picked ham and cheese. Dad took an Italian grinder. We put them in the dark blue plastic cooler we use when we go fishing. We put our lunches in there with the bait. The bait was in the coffee can mom gave me the night before when dad and I went digging. It had holes punched in the top.

Uncle Louie and Aunt Babs were up when we got there. They get up early every morning. We didn’t talk long. Had to get out on the lake. Uncle Louie and Aunt Babs live on the lake year round. They have a rowboat, a canoe and a pontoon. We took the rowboat. I sat in it and buckled my life preserver while Dad untied and pushed us off. Dad doesn’t wear a life preserver but I know, if I want to go, I have to. It was sitting on the seat waiting for me when I got in. Uncle Louie got it out while we were talking to Aunt Babs who was talking to her cats. He left a cushion for each of us too.

Dad paddled because he knows how to do it quiet enough not to bother the fish who were sleeping. In a minute they’d get up for breakfast which we had brought in the cooler with ours. That’s why you go early, before they wake up. When they’re hungry, like everyone is in the morning, they’re sure to bite and you’re right there handy with the food. You have to keep quiet the whole time so they don’t catch on that it’s fake food.

When I cast out, Dad said to me, “Here, let me show you.”

He took my pole and cast it out himself a couple times. “Use your elbow more,” he said. “Not your whole body. It’s more from the arm.”

He cast out a few more times while I watched. I saw what he meant and nodded my head when he asked, “Do you see what I mean?”

“Here, you try,” he said. He handed the pole back to me. “See if you can feel the difference.”

I took it and practiced. It went farther when I used my arm more.

“There you go. You’ve got it now,” Dad said. “Did you feel the difference?”

I nodded.

“Less work for you this way, is all,” he said. He had his blue fishing hat on. I had mine on too, only mine’s denim and I don’t have tackle hanging off it like Dad does his. It dangled down onto his glasses.

I left my pole in and looked around. The lake was quiet. It seemed like everything was sleeping. I could see a couple other boats out, but nothing was moving, not even the water. And there was no sound.

We were near the island. The one we swim off and pick blueberries on in the summer. No one was on it. I tried to see the bottom but I couldn’t. We must have been in a deep part. When I dipped my fingers in to see, it was so cold, I pulled them back out again fast. Dad laughed. “Wouldn’t want to fall in that water today, would you Lees?” He said.

Then the bugs started. They were biting me everywhere, those buggers. Right through my sweatshirt and jeans. I tried not to brush them away. They were hanging around Dad’s neck. When I saw him swat some away, I swatted too. I could have kept swatting all day, but I didn’t.

“Can’t believe I forgot the bug dope,” Dad said. “Dummy. They eating you alive, Lees?”

“No. Not too bad. I’m Okay.”

“Should have brought that bug dope. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it. I can see it too. I could put my hand right on it. You sure you want to stay out?”

“Yes,” I said. And I meant it.

“Catch a good feed. Take it back to the gang.” Dad said. “Mom loves a good fish fry.”

I nodded my head. Then I thought, I don’t even care if we catch fish. That’s what started me wondering. There are certain things I like to do. I like to weed in the garden and watch plants grow. I like to climb the apple tree out back and I like to fish. But it doesn’t matter that much if we catch any fish or have food from the garden or apples from the tree.

I saw the ducks coming a long way off. They were out for their morning feed. The people who live on the lake give them food. When we stay up there in the summer, Mom saves the old cereal for us to give them. They got pretty close. Dad and I reeled our lines in so they wouldn’t get tangled in them. We watched them paddle by. It looked like a family. There were four big ones and some babies—one was pure white. They were being quiet. I think they knew it was morning. I wished I had some food for them. I thought about the sandwiches in the cooler but I couldn’t give them those. That was fresh bread. They nipped at something on top of the water. Maybe the plankton.

In school, my teacher told us about the life cycle and that little stuff you call plankton. I tried to look for it on the surface of the water. I saw some yellow stuff floating and thought that might be it. I couldn’t be sure though. I thought about asking Dad but I didn’t.

When they swam away, they left a current like a boat leaves, only smaller. It was the only time the water had moved. I watched the ripples come and meet the edge of the boat. The sun was trying to come out—breaking through the clouds behind us now and then—making streaks on the water.

When I cast back out, Dad said to me, “Look around you, Lees, and listen. It doesn’t get more beautiful than this.”

I touched my hand on my hat, looked around, then up at him. His hands were on his pole. His face was straight ahead. “Remember Lisa,” he said, “It never gets better than this.”

He cast his line back out. I heard it land.

Dad caught five and I caught three.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

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Tata’s Garden

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Because my grandfather could not speak proper English, he spoke to us in fragments. Most common of these were: “shut the piazza door,” “take that,” (followed by a thump on the head from thumb and forefinger) and “want a lollipop?” Other times he spoke his native tongue, Italian, over our heads. We called him “Tata,” a rather bastardized form of the word for grandfather in Italian.

Tata, Fiore Dintino, came to the United States from the village of Torre dei Passeri on the east coast of Italy at the age of seventeen. Forty years later, he had a wife, four children, one whom died in WWII, eleven grandchildren and a two story white house in the Italian section of the small New Hampshire town he had settled in. Not only had Tata managed to set himself up nicely, but many relatives as well, including those back in Italy. All this he did on a janitor’s salary, a job he worked for thirty years.

Tata was a small, thin man with skin dark from the sun and coarse from hard work. He was bald on the top of his head with a rim of white hair stretching from ear to ear that my father trimmed on occasional Sunday evenings. Tata sat on the high stool with a look of concentration on his face while my father moved the electric scissors in parallel movement along the thin rim of hair, the cutters buzzing sound echoing through the room.

The most outstanding feature of Tata however was the “edenlike” yard and garden that he had created to surround his house. His garden was an L shaped, three quarters of an acre full of brilliant colors. His manicured yard was a shade lover’s delight containing pear trees, three different kinds of apple trees, raspberry bushes and strawberry plants. Several cast iron benches were placed strategically between bushes and under trees. At the far end of the yard was a large, square trellis the size of a small garage entwined with Concord Grapevines. Inside was a statue of the Virgin Mary. Here we children would gather to organize games of hide and seek or gossip about what the adults had said at the dinner table.

Leading from the street to the back porch was a narrow, black tar path over which hung a trellis plump with more vines of Concord Grapes. In season, the fat fruit would fall down onto the path, splattering it purple-blue.

The garden, never touched by anything mechanical, was a product of only Tata’s hands. The small direct paths between rows of vegetables were always neatly defined and clear of any weed that might try to grow there. At the corner of the L shaped garden stood a small “hutlike” building that we called the “shanty.” In this, Tata stored his garden tools and ripe vegetables. He grew flowers of all colors and varieties that reached an average person’s shoulder by September. Pole beans, zucchini, summer squash, carrots, rows and rows of tomatoes to be canned, escarole, endive, chard, parsley, basil, mint, herbs of all different kinds and more.

Tata was not, however, the only one to reap the benefits of his hard work. At harvest time people would come from all over to collect vegetables from Tata’s garden. For those too shy to ask, he left a crate full of vegetables on the sidewalk in front of the house.

As children, whenever people approached this box we were tempted to run up and watch them. However, we heeded the stern words, “leave them alone,” uttered from Tata, and watched them from where we stood around the yard.

In Tata’s garden we ran and played like squirrels gathering nuts for the winter. Frantically. Freely. Run. Hop. Skip. Jump. Our light cotton dresses and trousers floated in the cool evening air. Flying. Twirling. Whipping in the wind. We pushed each other on the string swing hanging from the sturdiest branch of the apple tree, climbed and collected pears from the uppermost branches, filled sterilized milk cartons with raspberries.

After church every Sunday the whole family—four girls (myself fourth) two younger brothers, and mom and dad—crawled out of the Mercury station wagon onto the sidewalk outside of the house to be greeted by the delicate smell of freshly cooked homemade spaghetti sauce. We’d march single file down the black path (careful not to get purple stains on our white patent leather shoes) right up onto the back porch. The back porch housed an enormous green wooden armchair which Tata frequented in the summer months.

In these months there were three places you could always find Tata, besides bent over in the garden digging up weeds. Either in this armchair, or on one of his benches with his dog, Buttons, at his feet. If none of the above, check the shanty. It seemed that my father knew by instinct where he was because many times he would head straight to the shanty without even looking around. We kids piled into the kitchen where the rest of the family, aunts, uncles, cousins were assembled, preparing for Sunday dinner. We were not allowed to stay in the kitchen long, which we never minded. We bounced outside and ran down the small piece of earth leading to the shanty, flowers of all kinds and colors reaching for and caressing our bare shins. Delectable sweet scents rushed up our noses until we reached the shanty where Dad and Tata were seated across from each other at the small wooden table, two glasses of poured wine between them.

Always, when I barged in there, I felt as though I were interrupting something private. The low hum of serious voices stopped sharp with the sound of my hand on the unstable wooden door. Never did I have my share of snooping around in there either—there was so much to snoop at. The floors we covered with crates of pungently overripe vegetables. Not one inch of the walls was uncovered. On them hung yellowed newspaper sections, garden tools, old skate blades, drying herbs, shirts, old hats, and many other things. I could have stayed there observing all day if it weren’t so small and didn’t smell so bad.

In the winter months there were only two places to locate Tata. One was at the head of the dining room table, usually with a glass of poured homemade wine in front of him. We ran into the dining room after being shoved out of the kitchen and Tata was sitting there. We approached him hesitantly. He pointed to the glass cupboard beside him and signaled for us to remove a glass decanter full of “Dum-Dum” lollipops. Then he opened the jar himself and offered us each one individually. We could not take them ourselves. He had to offer them separately to each of us with, “Want a lollipop?” We grabbed one and ran away. Many times after he gave me the lollipop, before I ran away, he grabbed my arm with what felt like harshness and said something. Rarely I understood him and frequently it was that I just nodded my head and pulled away from him as fast as possible.

If he wasn’t in the dining room, he was in the living room, either just sitting or watching television. He often talked to the television—yelled at it in disgust. One time while babysitting us at our house, the opening of the “Here’s Lucy” show came on. A miniature Lucy doll appeared in front of the curtain and danced with a small spotlight focusing on her. Tata began yelling, “Get that mosquito off the screen,” over and over. All six of us bubbled over with laughter, completely unaware that he was going blind.

In these winter months we were confined to play on the piazza—the glassed in front porch. First we would run through the house until we drove everyone crazy. It was the best house to run in because there were doors on either side of the kitchen, therefore, you could run in one side of the kitchen and out the other. When the grown ups got tired of this (which didn’t take long) we were told to, “go play on the piazza.” It was at the far end of the house and was not the warmest place in the winter but we, sweaty little things that we were, didn’t notice.

Outside of the piazza door was a hallway that led directly to the living room and a staircase going up to the second floor. If left open, there would be a direct draft into the living room. This is why Tata would always yell, “shut the piazza door.” Frightened of him, we’d run back quickly and try not to slam it. Sometimes my brothers would respond with wise cracks and then he’d come after them with thumb and forefinger aimed and snap them on the head saying, “Take that.”

Although I was petrified of Tata in person, I spent many hours staring at the pictures of him on the piazza. One was a picture of him dressed in uniform for WWI. It was encompassed by a huge oval shaped wooden frame. In the picture, Tata wore a tall hat and a half serious, half smiling look. He was young and very handsome, his face free of any wrinkles.

There was another picture on that porch of Tata when he was about seventy-five years old. It was a picture of a long table with a lot of men seated around it smiling out at the camera. In it Tata smiled and displayed a plaque. It was an award given to him by members of the “Italian Society” in our city thanking him for his dedicated hard work in originating this club and lengthy membership thereafter. I stared not only at Tata but at the men around him as well and wondered how they talked to one another.

The third picture was a wedding picture of him and my grandmother, a large brave woman that Tata looked small next to.

There was another picture in that house that I spent half my time there staring at. It was a picture of Christ with his eyes closed, a crown of thorns on his head. It is commonly referred to as “Veronica’s Handkerchief.” I had been told that if I looked at the picture long enough, the eyes would open and look at me. “If you really believe,” I was told, “then it will happen. God knows who has faith and who doesn’t.”

I stared at that picture for hours. Sometimes, I swear that I saw those eyes open. I was never sure if they really did or if I had just imagined it because I wanted them to so badly. On these Sundays we’d amuse ourselves around the yard or in the house until dinner was ready, then we’d all gather around the table for the feast of the week.

Tata sat at the head of the table after going down cellar to draw wine from his barrel—Zinfandel or Muscatel—whichever grape he had chosen that year.

Grace.

Then first course was served: soup with plenty of bread for Tata.

Second course: pasta. “Don’t forget the bread, for Tata.”

Third course: meat and vegetables. “More bread, please, for Tata.”

Last and final: salad. “Enough! Enough! I’ve had enough bread.”

As a child I only wanted to be up and away from the table. I couldn’t understand how the adults could sit around the table for hours drinking and talking.

I looked at my sister, Maria’s, plate and if it was empty, kicked her under the table and out we’d run for more adventures in the glorious greenery awaiting us. It was near dusk and the cool evening air was initially shocking to our small bodies, having come from the warm, overheated, adult world. We played seven up, hop-scotch, chase, hide “n” seek—whatever the day felt like. When it was too dark to stay out, after the evening dew had settled and we were called inside, we fell asleep on the living room floor waiting for our mom and dad to be ready to leave. Another Sunday at Gram and Tata’s. I’d never known anything different.

 

#                       #                        #

The day that Tata went into the hospital was quiet. As a child I really didn’t think much of it. Having always seen people return from the hospital

“Never been to a hospital before in his life. Doctors don’t know what to do with him. Keeps getting up out of bed and walking around,” my dad said.

It was December and we’d just had his eightieth birthday party. He sat there quietly unwrapping his gifts. He never said much, smiled a lot though—especially while examining the minutely detailed jackknife that my cousin had given him.

I was ten at the time. A couple of nights later I woke up in a sweat. I had a dream and in it Tata died. I stayed there in the darkness of the room and knew I’d never see him again. I don’t even know him, was all that I could think as I stifled my tears for fear that my sisters with whom I shared the room would discover my grief.

The next day I stayed home sick and was surprised to hear that my brother, Carmine, a year younger than me, wasn’t feeling well either. One didn’t fake sick in my house. It just wasn’t done. If you felt sick in the morning you had to prove it by puking up your breakfast or swearing on a stack of bibles that you had no tests that day.

This day however, my mother didn’t even question it. Carmine and I remained quiet in our beds in separate rooms for the better part of the morning. I listened to my mother putter around downstairs until the five children she babysat for arrived. I loved to listen to the sounds of the morning radio show, my mother’s voice on the telephone, the soft sound the broom bristles whisking across the kitchen floor between thuds of chairs being moved, the iron moving steadily up and down the board – all the sounds of a weekday morning that school child never gets to hear.

At about eleven, Carmine came into my room and we headed down to the living room to watch a game show. The late morning sun shone into the living room making the television difficult to see. I loved that sunlight, the way it shone so strong, making everything seem dull and yellowed next to its power. The way it hit my face, my eyes—making me realize that I was inside and glad for it. Even now, when I see houses in the early afternoon that look like homes, a tinge of envy hits me at the thought of someone inside.

Carmine and I were sitting on separate couches when the phone rang. The five children were in the middle of the room in a circle with LEGO blocks, trucks and dolls strewn around them. My mother was at the ironing board. She moved from it slowly, hesitatingly to pick up the ringing phone.

“Yes. That’s too bad. Just gave out? That’s too bad. Yes, and you? I understand. Who should I call? That’s too bad.” Her voice trailed off into shakiness.

I looked at Carmine

“Tata,” he said.

We sat completely still in our blankets. Mom came in the doorway. “Tata died,” she said. “His heart gave out, just didn’t want to work anymore,” she said, and stepped away.

I felt a tight bubble form right below my Adam’s apple and my cheeks grew wet. Carmine began to cry as well. The children stared at us in wonder. One came up and hugged me. Another picked up a toy gun and began shooting it at Carmine whose face was red and eyes puffy.

“Stop that, now,” Carmine said. But the child continued shooting, this time adding his own sounds in to go with the chick of the gun.

“Get away and leave me alone,” Carmine screamed and began hitting him.”

I ran over and pushed them apart. We sat wrapped in separate blankets huddled in close together in fear, neither quite understanding why.

I realized that my mother suffered. I had seen her cry and show emotions. I knew that she felt things the same way that I did. What I did not realize was how strong she was until that day when I watched her patiently tell everyone who walked through our door what had happened. She stood in the kitchen so tall while people came in and out with condolences. To each child who came in she had to say, “Tata died this morning,” and then comfort them. Carmine and I sat at the table opposite each other with dropped chins watching her. Finally when she said, “Tata died this morning,” for the fifth time my head began to feel like a sore tooth so I left the room.

That night I sat at the dining room table doing homework with my sisters—more laughing and chatting about their days at school than homework. They were “drawing girls” or so they called it. They’d each draw a picture of a girl on her way to school each day of the week with a different outfit for each day. They’d let their voices take on the character’s personality and chat to each other in these voices. I didn’t like this game and so rarely played it with them.

My brothers were in the living room directly off the dining room wrestling in front of the turned on TV. They did that a lot, wrestled during commercials. Mom was cleaning up after dinner in the kitchen. My father came in. He’d been at my grandmother’s all day. I heard bits and pieces of the conversation.

“Eddie Mancini says he saw him, this morning. He was sitting up on the stretcher while they pushed him down the hall. Seemed happy as ever. No one expected it.”

He came into the dining room. He looked tired and serious. We girls stopped talking and stared at him but the boys kept wrestling. He stood in the doorway between the dining room and the living room watching them until suddenly he said, “Cut that out and shut off that damned Boob tube.” We all looked at him. I‘d never seen him this upset.

“I lost my father today,” he said. “I don’t want to hear that crap.”

The word father bounced around in my already sore head. His dad. Dad lost his dad, I thought.

Later that night we all sat around the living room with lights off and watched the Christmas tree. The house had never been so quiet and I had never seen my dad sit so still.

At the funeral, I cried uncontrollably. The kind of crying that makes you feel sick. We four youngest had been playing on the snow mountains piled high against the fences surrounding the school and church. They were beside each other, our school being a Catholic one. I remember standing on the highest snow mountain (where we weren’t allowed to be because a child had gotten killed when he fell from the snow mountain onto the fence’s jagged edge) and not caring that I was standing up there. I had always been so obedient but this day I felt as though I had some special right to be up there, especially with my brothers and sister.

The church bell rang ten times and that was our signal to go. None of us wanted to go.

In church the organ music played loud and my father carried in the casket with other men. Everyone was surprised to see my aunt come into the church. I couldn’t understand why. Why wouldn’t she come to her own father’s funeral? But them I remembered that I had never seen her in church before. I wondered why that was. My stomach ached and I sniffed all through it. My dad lost his dad. I’ll never see Tata again. I avoided Tata.

We were not allowed to go to the Cemetery. Carmine was furious. He stormed around Gram and Tata’s house in a tantrum screaming in rage and had to be sent outside. I walked down the thin, grape stained path with him. People were scattered around the yard already. People I’d never seen before who were related to me. The yard and garden were the same but my cotton dresses never felt so light nor the softest breezes so cool as they had been before that day.

Soon everyone returned from the cemetery. I’d never seen so many people or so much food in my life. Dad kept going to the cellar and emerging with more of Tata’s wine. “This is a party,” Carmine yelled, “Aren’t they supposed to feel sad?” I shrugged and looked around for a quiet place to retreat to but found none. There were people everywhere.

Two months later we had to move my aunt and grandmother out of that two story house and yard. The college needed the land and they had no choice but to move.

We all went down into the cellar, Tata’s domain, to help with the move. I was never before allowed down there. There was so much stuff, things that looked like junk to us, all neatly stacked or packed in boxes. Legs and arms of old dolls piled and organized neatly into little boxes, stacks of expired dog licenses, pieces of tools, milk cartons cleaned and tied together with a rope running through holes made by a paper punch in the top of them, bottle caps, coke bottles, old newspapers, anything you could imagine.

“What was he doing with all this stuff?”

“Nothing. Just saved it all.”

“But what in the world?”

“Just didn’t like to throw anything away. Look, all I want is this wine press and these barrels, that’s all. You can take whatever else you want. Just give me this,” my father said patting his hand firmly against the roundness of one of the barrels. I’m going to make the wine now.”

I stared at the cellar, thought of the yard and garden and couldn’t believe it would all be gone.

“Going to build dorms here,” my father said as we stood together outside later, his voice resonating into the glowing twilight of the yard.

I looked around and realized that whatever I’d missed had been something wonderful.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Designing Death

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When I was growing up, I heard many stories that made me believe our deaths are events we can choose and design.

Some were stories of relatives who, when they reached a certain age or state of declining health, went to bed one night with the deliberate intention to never awake. They were successful at this. Others were described as ‘dying of a broken heart.’ I was told that my great-grandmother willed herself to die due to despair over a tragic event that happened to a neighbor’s daughter. It took a couple of days, but she too was successful.

When my grandfather died I was told his heart had given out. “He was done,” my father said, “just done. There was no pain.” His funeral was a week long celebration.

From these stories I came to believe that when it was time to be done with life, a person found a way to be done with life. They had this option and ability.

Many of my great-uncles walked into the local river, the Ashuelot, after their wives died. They didn’t want to live without them. “They were very dependent on their wives,” my mother explained.

“Found Pete’s hat today downstream,” came my dad’s hushed voice from the kitchen as I sat coloring in the dining room. “Only a matter of time til they find his body.” A few days later the conversation changed to where they found him and where they guessed he had walked in.

Then funeral plans would be discussed. Though it was obviously suicide, the church buried these men like all the other congregants. “He slipped,” the funeral attendees rationalized, shaking their heads. “Got too close, of course. Don’t know what he was doing out there like that.”

The mile long walk to my local Catholic grammar school traversed the Ashuelot River twice. I had an odd fascination with those waters. As I stared over the green steel bridge railing into its brown murky depths, I often scared myself with the thought of suddenly seeing one of my great-uncles looking up at me. I imagined they would be all bloated and dead like a fish among the shopping carts lying on their sides, the old rusted tire rims and tall river weeds. When the river reached low points at certain times of the year, I never allowed myself to look down at it.

I wondered what it felt like to walk into cold river water with all your clothes on and continue walking as the water filled your lungs. I thought about how they walked in even after they could no longer breathe. It seemed very brave to me that they did not turn around and run away as I was so sure I would have done.

Reflecting on these stories makes me wonder now, is it indeed possible to choose when we are done and will it to be so? In this age of “medicalized death” I wonder, did my ancestors understand something important about the end of life that we have forgotten?

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

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Our Lives are Prequels and Sequels

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As I was growing up, I was told over and over again the story of how much my great-grandfather loved my great-grandmother. My relatives would say: “He loved her so much that he did all the housework. He loved her so much that once she came here, he took all the laundry to the Chinese Laundromat so she would not have to work so hard anymore. He loved her so much that when she arrived to the docks in New York after all those years of separation…” read the novel The Strega and the Dreamer for more. That event in the book really happened.

Hearing these stories made an impression on me. I not only heard them but was immersed in a field of energy where this story was held. It was the field of the story of a man’s deep love and devotion to his wife. What a woman she must have been!

Another story that was repeated to me was that my great-grandmother, this woman my great-grandfather loved so much, was a Strega. Eight years ago, I decided to figure out what that meant. So I researched and wrote the novel, The Strega and the Dreamer and recovered a lineage that was temporarily lost.

After my sister read the book, she called and asked when I was going to write the sequel. I replied, “I am living the sequel.”

We are all living sequels to the stories our ancestors lived. Another sequel I am living out is the sequel to the story of my great-grandfather who was born in a small village in Italy and had the ‘dream of America’.

The way we choose to live our lives is how we write the sequels and create the prequels for those who come after us.

Consciously understanding the sequels we are living out is a worthwhile inquiry. By being aware of them, we can then make the choice to more actively participate in them or redirect them. We are the link between the past and the future. Our chosen trajectory affects both.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

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Developing a Daily Shamanic Walk

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The most successful way for accessing the otherworld are long, repetitive walks with places like the chestnut tree enfolded into them. (see previous post) It takes a while to develop a shamanic walk. You must walk the same path with only some slight variation at least four times a week for a couple months before it becomes a timespace where you can begin to listen.

In walking the same path everyday for an extended time, the environment, the way, the rhythm, become second nature so that there is nothing unexpected to worry about, no unknowns to wonder about, allowing you to relax and be deeply present and therefore receptive to what is there, without and within.

Walking in your local environment every day allows you to become part of the ecosystem in a more integrated way. It allows you to develop an authentic relationship with the place in which you live. It becomes a meditation. You become observer of yourself, the thoughts that come and go, observer of the place. In this state of the observer, images take on extra meaning and potency. It becomes a ritual. You are by yourself but never alone.

The shamanic walk can work everywhere, not only in rural settings. I have engaged in shamanic walks for over twenty years, while living in a very rural setting in Vermont, a more populated town in California, and even on a busy street. It is the repetitive walking in the same place, the rhythm, even the same time everyday, and the intention that matters.

In walking the same path everyday, you begin to see and get to know the animals that live there. When there is suddenly a different animal showing up it may be a significant message. Walking the same place everyday allows you to become familiar with the shamanic realm—the simultaneous dimensions—of that same path. As it unveils itself to you, the beings and energies from these other dimensions begin to make themselves known. They in turn become accustomed to the human presence walking there everyday. The walk becomes interactive, participatory.

A conversation begins.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

 

 

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Finding Your Special Place

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Many people ask how to develop a deeper relationship with beings beyond the physical dimension – in what is often called the ‘otherworld.’ The first place I would recommend to go for this kind of interaction with the spirit realm is the natural world. Find a place that is special to you. Make it a regular practice to visit there often with the intention of developing a relationship with this place beyond its physical manifestation.

In the beloved chestnut tree of my local peace garden in a park that I walk in daily I found exactly such a place. There she stands, the elegant focal point of a space dedicated to peace on earth. She was there first; the garden of tranquility was designed around her.

Trees have long been associated with the Goddess and it was through this tree in particular that I came to have my own felt experience with this ancient and enduring belief. A groomed, gravel path spirals around the garden in approach to her. It is lined with lavender and rosemary bushes, and seasonal bulb flowers like iris and tulip. I walk to her as a daily meditation.

Through the year I am blessed to be able to watch her change with the seasons; in the winter a crone with no leaves, her stark branches outward reaching speaking of death and emptiness, in the spring blossoming with large unfurling fivefold leaves, in the summer full branches of green fruition offering shade from the bright Pacific sun, gentle nibs of catkins dangling, in the fall shedding her seedpods of chestnut fruit (which I was astounded to observe have openings in the shape of perfect vulvas), before releasing dried brown leaves, which crunch under foot, in preparation for yet another winter.

She is a tree whose trunk is hollow, almost dead except for the daughter tree winding up around out of the ground exactly within her, and twisting among her branches to look like a part of her. Mother and daughter tree stand together holding each other up. In the hollow space within her trunk one can stand. Here, on what remains of the trunk, there are small natural ledges and spaces upon which one can leave offerings. This is what I do, often, carrying flowers and herbs to place within her, to thank her, to honor her.

After a while of carrying out this daily ritual I began to be able to visit the chestnut tree in an imaginal way. In these journeys I found a doorway in her trunk leading to other dimensions. I began to call on her in mediations from other places and discover the places in the otherworld that this doorway leads to. Now I know the chestnut tree is a place I can retreat to no matter where I am on earth. And I do so often.

Most recently a wonderful thing happened at this place I visit everyday. As I approached the chestnut tree one day I saw that there was an art project in process. A local woman commissioned a local artist to create a sculpture of the mother and daughter in the tree.

Here is the image I came upon that is now a part of my daily walk and meditation.

 

 

 

 

Magical indeed!

The artist is Takayuki Zoshi.

 

~Theresa C. Dintino

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Mystical Monadnock

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In writing the book The Strega and the Dreamer, I was overwhelmed by all the mountain imagery and mystery of my Italian roots.

Wondering if this European tradition of mountain worship was carried to America, I realized many mystical writers have been in deep relationship to mountains. One of them being the beloved American Nature writer, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Thoreau had a special relationship to one of the specific mountains featured in The Strega and the Dreamer: Mt. Monadnock.

Mount Monadnock, (3,165 feet) located in the towns of Jaffery and Dublin, New Hampshire is, at current reports, the most climbed mountain in the world.

That is a lot of worship. This is a very special mountain.

Monadnock was named by the local Native American people, the Abenaki, “Monadnock, the mountain the stands alone or mountain island.”

In his short life, Thoreau climbed Mount Monadnock four times. He died at the age of 44 from tuberculosis. Though he lived in nearby Massachusetts, to get to this mountain was a long journey in Thoreau’s time. He traveled miles on foot from the train stop in Troy all the way to the base of the mountain and then walked up it. He brought a hatchet and axe in his pack and cut down black spruce saplings to build himself a base camp while exploring and communing with Monadnock. While there for four days in August of 1860, he kept rigorous notes about the flora and fauna. He focused on describing and appreciating the lichen and the blueberries that populate that place.

He likened the blueness of the mountain summit to the abundance of blueberries. He speaks about the morning and evenings on the mountain as “seasons” and describes them both in poetic detail.

“They who simply climb the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain,” he comments. “I came not to look off from it, but to look at it.” ( Where the Mountain Stands Alone. page 85)

In the novel, the main character, Eva, meets a New England doctor, Charles M. Chase. Chase, like Eva, has a deep relationship with the mountain. Being a well educated man, he is deeply influenced by Thoreau’s words and musings. Though Eva and Charles’ relationships to the mountain contain different philosophies and access points, both are fed and nourished by it. In this collective “Mountain Worship,” two strangers from different lands and traditions find commonality and mutual respect.

~Theresa C. Dintino

sources:

Where the mountain Stands Alone: Stories of Place in the  Monadnock Region, edited by Howard Mansfield

 

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Mountain Mysteries and the Wombs of Women

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One of the main things I learned in writing The Strega and the Dreamer is that the womb is the power center in a woman. Reconnecting with my great-grandmother taught me the womb is the “mountain within,” a place of strength, deep knowing and connection; a well of deep sustenance. I have written extensively about what I call the archetype of the womb in the following two articles.

The Archetype of the Womb: Part One

The Archetype of the Womb: Part 2 – Womb Ovens

In the novel The Strega and the Dreamer, Eva, the protagonist, has a mentor, Giuliana. In the following scene Giuliana reveals one of the deepest mysteries of the Streghe.

Giuliana reached across the table and grasped Eva’s hand within hers. “Now you shall learn the deepest mystery of the Strega,” she said. “You will see that so much that you know and have been taught is only half-truth. The mysteries are right beneath the surface, accessible to all. Some find them on their own, as you have with eating the mountain. Though they find them, they may not fully understand.

“The mountain, the grotto, the ocean, all bodies of water, these are all wombs of the earth. We can retreat to these earth wombs while we are alive for nurturing and sustenance, as you already have by eating the mountain. But Eva, women carry this nurturing sustenance within them always. Women have this power in their wombs for far more than creating children.”

Streghe are commissioned to care for the wombs of women. By caring for the wombs of women we are doing so much more. We are caring for all earth wombs.

Blessed be.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

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Eating the Mountain

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The novel The Strega and the Dreamer is set in the Village of Torre dei Passeri in the Abruzzi region of Italy, called La Tor’ by locals. Like many villages in the Abruzzi, La Tor’ is built on the top of a hill. From La Tor’ one has a view of the Apennine mountain range and many other villages sitting on summits of many other hills. Because the town is built on top of a hill, there are steep walkways and trails of long, winding, stone stairs. Walking around La Tor’ nurtures the illusion that the whole world exists on a slant. The Abruzzese develop enormous calf muscles from traveling these slopes daily.

The most prominent feature of the landscape is the Maiella. The Maiella protruds in the distant southeast as a looming and constant purple-blue shadow. Her peak ascends above the other hills and mountains in a way that makes it appear to be the most precious mountain that ever was and ever would be. Its shape is the perfect image of a woman’s breast, nipple and all.

Spiritual pilgrims travel to her many grottoes and caves in retreat. The pulse of the Maiella penetrates La Tor’. In my novel, a villager’s physical orientation is based on the location of the Maiella. When someone has lost their sanity, needs deep healing or is experiencing grief, it is said they need to go “eat the mountain” and remember to whom they belong.

In The Strega and the Dreamer, the main character Eva, the Strega, eats the mountain regularly. She finds herself in need of this ritual often when she moves to New England. In that place she begins to interact with the local mountain called Monadnock. When she is asked by a local of New England how to eat the mountain, she responds:

“First, you look at it. Do you see how it is a womb? Do you see how it is a woman? The womb is the center of power in a woman. That is the first thing, seeing that she is a woman and that she is magnificent.”

Secondly, “You feel yourself drinking from her. Being nourished by her.”

And thirdly, “You look at her. You see yourself as her. You see yourself as the mountain—strong, alive, alone. You feel yourself as her. Others are drinking from you—children, trees, flowers, birds. You see others nourishing themselves from you. You are not diminished in the giving.”

Eating the mountain is a Strega tradition that continues to be a nurturing ritual for us today.

~Theresa C. Dintino

 

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