LIES AND SAINTS
I don’t know if my Grandmother ever read the books she gave me. They were beautifully bound in red or brown leather and trimmed in gold leaf, but The Lives of Catholic Saints was filled with the most gruesome and torturous illustrations and tales of martyred souls. Saints, like St. Agnes whose breasts were cut off by Roman soldiers or Saint Lucy, my namesake, who was blinded to avoid a terrible marriage to her rapist, and Saint Joan tortured by the Inquisition and then burned at the stake filled the pages. All were helpless victims of their torturers and sacrificed. Some were gruesomely drawn and quartered or fed to the lions. Yet, despite the evidence of obvious cruelty inflicted on these patient sufferers, none wore an expression of pain. In fact, there was usually an ecstatic glow that totally bewildered me.
Being the adventurous type, I found the idea of sainthood exciting. I tried one of the tamer methods the book suggested for humbling the flesh and crushing the ego, the rope burn. Of course, those concepts at age of 8 were somewhat ambiguous, but what was clear was the union of ecstasy and pain. So I chose an old frayed rope from my Grandfather’s tool shed and bound it tightly around my waist with all my strength to burn myself a little each day. This torture reminded me of the notorious “Indian” sunburns we gave each other as children in Brooklyn, a type of mini torture that came from locking our hands onto a friend’s wrist and turning them in opposing directions to cause a burning sensation. After a few days of burning and chaffing my skin, my mother discovered the marks of discoloration. I tried my best to explain, but she summed it up quite plainly.
“You must be crazy. Why would you ever think of trying something stupid like that? The Lives of the Saints, your Grandmother never quits! It wasn’t enough that she insisted you go to Catholic school and we remarry. I guess she’ll never get over me not being a Catholic!”
I had known my Grandfather was an agnostic and a freethinker, but I had no idea my mother was actually raised Protestant.
“Mom, you never told me this! You mean you were actually a practicing Protestant?”
“Yes, your Grandmother’s Father found the Catholic Church discriminated against Italians when he came to America in the 1870’s. In fact, they sent Italians to the basement to worship. So he joined The Salvation Army a charitable organization and the Protestant faith. Your father and I married in a Dutch Reform Church.”
“In a Protestant ceremony?” I echoed.
“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently.
“That makes me illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church!”
“Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone, especially your father. Besides, we’re all Catholic now and legitimate.”
“A few years after you were born, your Grandmother insisted I become a convert. She asked her relative, Father Frank to do the conversion. He was a lovely and intelligent man. He also did a second ceremony and baptized you.”
My mother had no idea how happy this news made me. I felt a little more protected from the ravishes of Catholicism and torments of parochial school and oddly proud that my father had been independent enough from his family to marry in a Protestant Church.
“Why would Grandma Katerina who rebelled against her family, demand that you conform?” I asked after I had a little time for reflection.
“Human nature. People are full of contradictions. Maybe she had second thoughts about her own rebellion and estrangement from her family after the years that passed since your Grandfather’s death. Your Aunt said she still refused to revisit her family in Sicily, although they had invited her back many times after they learned Giovanni died and left her without money. I guess she couldn’t forgive them for rejecting your Grandfather. Who knows? Sicilians are different. They rarely talk about their lives or feelings to outsiders. And besides Lucia, the second ceremony was just a formality. There was no reason to tell you.”
I felt the secrets in our family revealed hidden shame and an over concern about what others thought of us. Perhaps this was one of the worst curses of my middle class upbringing. Perhaps my patterns began long ago, somewhere in the land of my ancestors where one of my Grandmother’s, despite her appearance, had also been a rebel. I gradually gained a greater appreciation of my Grandmother Katerina and an increased interest in the mysterious family I had not grown up around who lived on an island with a smoldering volcano in the Mediterranean, an island where people still paid ritual homage to the Black Madonna.
Louise Calio is an internationally published, award winning author and photo artist. She won: 1st Prize for “Bhari” fr.City of Messina,Sicily (2013),1st Prize for “Signifyin Woman” Il Parnasso” Canicatti, Sicily (2017). Finalist for Poet Laureate, Nassau County, honored at Columbia Barnard as a Feminist Who Changed America( 19763-75), Director Poet’s Piazza at Hofstra University for 12 years, she was a founding member and first Executive Director of City Spirit Artists, Inc. New Haven, Ct. Her latest book, Journey to the Heart Waters was published by Legas Press( 2014).