We went to West Point last month to celebrate my nephew’s graduation; it was a wonderful time to be with family, and to see our son Jack, also a West Point grad, commission his younger cousin J.C. as we all called him growing up. This strong and smart young man had a rocky start in life, due to having a blood disorder that required regular transfusions for a few years. When my three were small every lunch time prayer would include a request for God to help “little J.C.” Watching these adult cousins in their West Point uniforms made me a bit misty-eyed; I’m not gonna lie. It was a moment in the circle of life that you don’t see coming, but never forget.
One of our children was especially fond of saying the circle of life after viewing the Lion King movie perhaps one time too many. He put extra emphasis on the f in life, and his distinctive pronunciation became part of our family lore. Often when in attendance at special events such as this graduation, Joe and I will look over at each other and say this phrase in that same way, and smile one of those sentimental parent smiles, no words necessary.
Since we were driving, we were able to bring home my Grandma Celento’s china, which had a good run in New York, and was now coming to Georgia. As with everything in our Italian-Irish family, it came with a story. As some of you may recall from other posts, my grandparents knew Perry Como in the little town of Canonsburg, Pa. In fact Perry used to come to their home and bounce my father on his knee. It seems that this china had been made for Perry Como, and they had made some extra sets. My grandparents, who happily had a last name that began with C, purchased some of the Perry Como china as it came to be known. Grandma never lived to see my family & I go to the actual country of China (which would have about killed her). She would often lament (and I use that word in its most literal sense here) that my father, whom she affectionately called Junie “moved away” even though we simply moved from Canonsburg to Houston, Pa, about three miles away from her. (She never really got over this.) This was the only china she knew, or wanted to know.
The human mind is an amazing thing–even if you are not ADHD (as I am). It allows you to travel to so many places in the past, complete with sounds & smells that take you somewhere else, while working in your Georgia dining room. It makes me feel sort of sad, and sort of far away, and it makes me miss all the old days and old people, even if time had to keep moving forward in order for me to grow up and meet my own family (the circle of life).
As I unwrapped all the pieces this afternoon, I forgot that there was an Internet, 9/11, cell phones, Google, Muslim terrorists that want to kill marathon runners, and all sad things in the world. I thought instead of Perry Como and his song, “It’s Impossible”, humming as I worked. I recalled my Italian grandmother, and how proud she was of this china, and how she would be surprised it had come to roost in the South, a foreign place where they still don’t sell brick cheese.
Georgia seems so very far away from the now defunct Canonsburg Pottery on South Central Ave. The pottery was not far from my grandparent’s department store, where I used to go after school some days. I would walk alone from school to their store, about one mile, without a cell phone or tracking device, in my ugly, wool plaid Catholic school uniform, loaded down with my green St. Patrick’s School book bag. I would spend an hour or two at the store doing homework, or just walking around, looking at all the inventory until my Dad came to pick me up.
Uncle Jimmy, my cool uncle who worked at the store, would be playing Sonny by Bobby Hebb on one of the department store stereos. He would play it over and over because he loved the bass line, and though at ten I did not really appreciate that, now I get it. Often I would wander over to the Barbie doll section and stare at all the outfits on the turnstyle display hoping my grandmother would see me and let me pick one (that never happened). If Grandma was busy, I would ride the metal cars (the kind that had pedals, not motors) until I got caught. Sometimes my grandmother would give me two shiny dimes to head over to the Tasty Delite, which was just across the railroad tracks, to get us a couple of soft serve cones, a weakness that I still have. We would eat our cones, and Grandma would grill me on topics of interest only to grownups such as how my studies were coming, and if I was doing my chores. If I could get Grandma off topic and talking about when she was a young girl or bride, then it was more fun, but often the tears would flow. I get that now too.
As I continued to unwrap platters, tea cups, and gravy boats, I recalled my grandmother lecturing me about how I had broken her heart and my father’s heart by leaving the Catholic church during college, and becoming a…gasp…Protestant. I wondered if she would mind her Perry Como china falling behind enemy lines. I hoped Grandma would let bygones be bygones, and smile at the thought of me using the Perry Como china at Thanksgiving. I used to cringe when I came home from college and mom would say ‘You better call your Grandma” to which I would say “Ok” in a dejected tone that teenagers use when having to do anything that smacks of duty. I would dial the Sherwood 5 number on our black wall phone and hope that she would be in a good mood. I thought about how Grandma never really seemed to smile much after she lost her beloved Jimmy to MS in 1977, and how I could not understand the deep, unrelenting grief of losing a child. I get that now too.
As I put the Perry Como china away by late afternoon, I felt that I would understand my grandmother more now, and she me. I think we would forgive each other our trespasses, and let go of our defenses and agendas. That’s the best part of the circle of life: making peace.
I pictured sharing about the china with my own three whenever we would finally be together, and how they would probably not find it too terribly interesting, and how someone would have to google Perry Como, and another would be texting during Thanksgiving dinner. Some days I would like to go back to 1965, where my biggest worry was how to get enough allowance to buy my very own grape soda that I would not have to share with any of my six siblings. But I can’t; the circle of life stops for no one. Therefore. it’s off the the Dairy Queen where I will purchase some soft serve chocolate to eat at home in a Perry Como china bowl, and raise a glass of Chianti… to the circle of life.