Our Lady of the Neighborhood

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In the Catholic Church there seems to be as many names for Mary as there are days in the year. For example there’s Our Lady of Good Help, Our Lady of Consolation, and of course Our Lady of Mount Carmel which is the name of our parish church and school. But I prefer her to think of her as Our Lady of the Neighborhood because she was always there watching over us.

When I think back on it, there were lots of examples of how Our Lady interceded for her many children on a daily basis. I like to call them every day miracles. And I’ve written about some of them in my blog.

In addition to the everyday miracles there were times when the miracles were so incredible we could hardly believe our eyes or ears. They were truly a result of divine intervention and in our neighborhood there seemed to be one every decade for as far back as I can remember.

As children we often played in the street in front of our tightly packed houses. Since not many people had cars in those days most of the traffic was limited to the semi-trucks making their way to the factory at the bottom of the street. One day, Carmen who was about seven years old had dashed out between two parked cars without checking for oncoming traffic.

He didn’t see the semi-tractor trailer heading right for him. But my grandmother did. We all did. Powerless to do anything, she cried instinctively for help to the Mother of God as she exclaimed, “Santa Maria!” Holy Mary! Our Lady heard her because the truck stopped within inches of my brother. His life was spared thanks to Our Lady of the Semi’s.

The 1940s was a time of great hardship for everyone. I’m referring to the Second World War and all of the men and women we lost overseas in the fighting. Service Flags bearing a star hung in nearly all of the windows of the neighborhood. So many men and women were killed, taken as prisoners of war or just missing in action.

My husband Jimmy’s cousin was one of the missing. His aunt had a rose bush on the side of the house that failed to bloom the summer her son went missing. And every year after that, while her garden was a riot of flowers, the rose bush refused to bloom.

Until a year after the war ended suddenly one summer it bloomed much to everyone’s surprise. That was the year Jim’s cousin came home. That was thanks to Our Lady of the Roses.

Our son Vito was also a little miracle. He was born with a congenital heart defect that was not easily treated in the 1960s with surgery. In fact, there wasn’t much medicine could do at the time. But that didn’t stop his Aunt Mary Catherine, who thanks to her great faith and persistence, went every morning to 6:30 Mass and communion where she prayed away for a miracle which granted by our Lady, the Queen of Hearts. The hole in his heart closed without any medical intervention.  To this day the doctors cannot explain why.

In the 1970s, a young man from the neighborhood, Jimmy C undertook a very dangerous mission to smuggle in Bibles and Catechisms into communist Romania. His life was in danger every moment he was there.  He fought for religious and political freedoms we took for granted.  Our Lady was watching over him too. Jimmy returned home safely and was able to tell his amazing story thanks to the protection of Our Lady of the Warriors.

In the 1980s, my husband ran for public office. And he lost. And I can’t say that I was unhappy about that. His heart was in the right place but at the end of the day he was to plain spoken to be a good politician. And just between you and me, we had Our Lady of Unanswered Prayers to thank for that one.

In the last few decades it may have looked like all was lost and that our little Italian neighborhood was on the decline. It might have even looked like Our Lady of the Neighborhood was busy elsewhere. But she wasn’t. She was there quietly working behind the scenes. And just when you thought all was lost, a rose finally blooms and there’s an answer to a prayer.

All it took was a little parish of great faith, a parish priest with some foresight, and a dedicated civic association, the Vets Club, all of whom had faith in Our Lady of the Neighborhood who also had faith in us.

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Easy Money

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 Photo by J. Sibiga Photography on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

According to my son Guido easy money always comes at a price. He likes to reminisce about how back in the day when he was young and perhaps a little foolish he was always in search of fast cash with little effort. His favorite “get rich quick” scheme was the Ohio lottery.

Always the optimist, he ignored the odds of one in 14 million, to spend a portion of his weekly paycheck on lottery tickets. But my kids have always been lucky at games of chance and so he blissfully ignored the odds. Why not him, he thought. Why not, indeed. As once a long time ago, he came very close to winning it all – so close that to this day his heart still pounds in his chest just thinking about it.

That week he bought his ten tickets at a convenience store nearby his grandmother’s apartment. As was his usual habit on Friday night, he headed over there for dinner, a chat with Nonna, and to check his previous week’s tickets which he kept under a statue of St. Jude. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases.

He took the first ticket and laid it on the kitchen table and compared it to the winning numbers in the newspaper. The first number was a match. But one number means nothing. The second number was also a match. Close but no cigar. His finger running across the page, he sees that he has three numbers that match. Lucky him, he thought, that’s good for a free ticket. He’d been there before.

He continued and found his fourth number was also a match. Now there was some money to be had he figured. That could be worth about fifty dollars. Still, six matching numbers was impossible he thought until he found a fifth match. Even if he didn’t get all six numbers, five winning numbers would be a substantial amount of money.

He was afraid to continue. At that point he got up from the kitchen table and walked out on to the balcony. He looked at the sun setting over Lake Erie and he prayed. “God, he said, “If I win this money, I promise you I will do my best. And if I don’t win, it doesn’t matter.”

He went back into the apartment and resumed his task of checking for the final lottery number. Unfortunately he didn’t have all six winning numbers. Still he thought with excitement a five out of six streak would pay handsomely – or so he thought.

That night he went to sleep with visions of dollars signs dancing through his head. Sure he’d have to keep his day job, but in the meantime he could do some shopping. And so he bought me a new refrigerator, four new tires for his car, and took his girlfriend out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. All totaled he must of spent $1200.00 of his new found winnings.

In his excitement he never bothered to check the actual payout. And so he didn’t count on sharing the pot with several hundred other lucky winners. He won just $400.00. There was a big deficit that he’d have to make up. His luck had run out.

And so, he was back to making money the old fashioned way. He had to earn it.

All Roads Lead to Home

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Photo by fabulousphotosbybrittany on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

My niece recently said to me at a bridal shower, “Aunt Lou, I still have dreams about your house.”

She meant our century home in Cleveland. It was a grand old house that dominated the street. It accommodated me, Jimmy, my mother, seven children, a menagerie of animals, and various family and friends who came for a visit or sometimes to stay awhile. No matter how many people we had, there always seemed to be enough room.

I fell in love with that house the moment I set eyes on it. In fact, even though we weren’t looking for a house, it showed up at just the right time. Jimmy and I weren’t married long and we were living outside of the neighborhood. We were renting the lower half a double and it was fine. Except that it was far enough from the neighborhood that I couldn’t walk home. We had to drive.

One fine Saturday afternoon I was waiting for Jimmy to come home so we could take the children and go and visit my mother. And wait I did. Jimmy showed up four hours late. The kids had already fallen asleep. Needless to say I was not happy with him because he never called and I was worried. And if his breath was any indication, he had his fair share of beer, no doubt.

He explained he was out with his Godfather Ray and that they were looking at a house. It was a house he had no intention of buying. We couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have a down payment and we had three children. My guess is that they were at a “public house”, i.e. a local bar, having a few drinks.

Playing along, I said, “I didn’t know we’re in the market for a house. But now that you mention it, that’s a good idea.”

And much to Jimmy’s shock and amazement, I phoned his Godfather and asked Ray to take me to see the house. Much to my shock and amazement there really was a house to be seen. And Ray was only happy to take me. He knew the owners and he felt that he could help us seal the deal.

And such a deal it was. The house cost $10,000 in 1964. And since we had no deposit the owner agreed to sell it to us for $13,000.00. We used the extra money for the down payment. But we had one small problem; our rental agreement wasn’t up for many months. And we couldn’t afford both places.

It turned out that on the day we signed the loan our landlord asked us if we could move out of the double to accommodate his newly married son who was looking for a place to live. It looked like the stars were aligning in our favor. And from that day forward, although we had our ups and downs, that house was magical and filled with memories.

It withstood tornadoes, blizzards and meteorites that Jimmy mistook for aliens when they landed in the funeral home parking lot across the street. And he was stone cold sober when he saw them. But that’s another story for another time.

Guido recently reminded me of the many times our house gave shelter during some severe natural disasters.

The first time was during the tornado of 1969. Our house which was just south of Lake Erie, gave shelter to dozens of people fleeing the Lake after the July 4th fireworks. Total strangers and neighbors took shelter in our home and waited out the storm.

And in January 1978, a blizzard covered the city knocking out power and heat. Again, our house became a refuge for neighbors until the power came on. Our kids still refer to it as the neighborhood slumber party – the one they always wanted as kids but we never allowed.

Every once in a while, when I go to mass in the neighborhood I go back and visit our old house. The neighborhood has changed a lot since the days when we lived there. But there she sits atop the street, towering over the neighboring houses, like a mother hen watching her chicks.

And when I see her, because my house is definitely a “her”, I have this urge to ask the owners to rent it to me for just one night. One night where I’d have my own brood, just my children, come home and spend the night. My kids like to tease me about this. And on more than one occasion they have talked me out of knocking on the door to accost the poor unsuspecting owners.

And perhaps they’re right to do that. And while it saddens me that I can’t turn back the clock. I take comfort in the wise words of the Polish poet, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, who said, “You can close your eyes to reality but not to memories.”

Kids Say the Darndest Things

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Photo by SamwiseGamgee69 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Years ago there used to be a talk show program on TV hosted by Art Linkletter called Kids Say the Darndest Things.

And that’s true. You have only to talk or listen to a child to gain a fresh perspective on things.

I remember years ago, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, overhearing a conversation between my youngest son Danny and his best friend Tommy. They might have been about seven or eight years old at the time.

Danny and Tommy attended different schools. Danny went to the local Catholic school and Tommy to the local public school. In fact, that’s how my children identified themselves back then. You were either Catholic or “Public” which was a catchall term for anyone who was not Catholic. Catholicism colored their everyday lives.

Take for example the different perspectives shared by the two boys on a fine summer’s day.

Danny pointed to the sky as a large white bird lands on the garage roof, “Look Tommy, it’s the Holy Spirit!”

“No it’s not,” Tommy said. “It’s the Spirit of ’76!”

Either way, I said, “God Bless America!”

And God Bless, Mom!

 

Off To The Zoo

My husband Jimmy was known to tell a tall tale or two. He didn’t quite lie so much as stretch the truth. I was reminded of that recently when I happened to be going through a box of old photographs.

One Sunday he volunteered to take the three youngest children, then six, five and three years old to the zoo. I thought that was wonderful as it gave me an afternoon off and it was a learning experience for the children.

I was a bit concerned about how he would manage the three of them on his own but he reassured me everything would be fine. And so off they went to the zoo – or so he told me.

Naturally the children were too young to make the distinction between to the zoo and the racetrack, which was the real destination. To kids at that age, an animal was an animal was an animal.

Jimmy was pretty pleased with himself when he returned. The kids said they had a good time and that they liked the animals. And mom was none the wiser. That is until a large brown envelope arrived in the mail a week later. It was a photo from the racetrack. It was a souvenir of the horse, jockey, owner and his friends in the winner’s circle.

Of course Jimmy had a wide circle of friends, one of whom was the horse’s owner, so it was no surprise that he and the kids were invited to be part of the group shot. What was a surprise to him was that the picture was mailed to our house addressed to our family.

And so when he came home from work, I asked him about his recent trip to the zoo as I placed the photo in front of him.

Whereby he calmly explained the racetrack was just like the zoo – after all both places had animals!

The Zoo1

Far right: Jimmy holding Donna with Beth and Danny in front.  Ponchos were very fashionable at that time.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

April has always been the hardest month for me. It’s the end of winter and the beginning of spring. I find it ironic that in the month of rebirth, over the years I lost three of the people who were dearest to me: my mom for whom this blog is named, and my brothers Carmen and Tony. I considered myself  and orphan and the young me, the Louisa of the old neighborhood, was alone.

My husband Jimmy always knew this was a bad month for me and held his breath and my hand until the “sad season” passed. He was so conscious of my struggle that even when he was sick and dying at the end of April 2015 he hung on until May 1st before he decided to go home to God. And even though I was surrounded by loving family and friends I never felt more alone.

Since then my family has always made sure that April was a busy month. We started this blog in April 2016 and we acquired my beloved Luigi in April 2017.

Luigi sleeping

I also recently took a bus trip with my in-laws to a Casino in Toledo. I know that my mom, brothers and Jimmy would have approved.

On the bus ride, a family member by marriage, called Uncle Eamon, pulled me aside. “I have something for you,” he said.

“Is it money?” I joked.

It turned out to be even better. He took my hand placed a beautiful rosary in it. He told me that my mother had given him that rosary 40 years ago when she returned from a visit to Rome. I had no idea.

I was pleased and surprised. And now he wanted me to have it. I of course insisted that he keep it because mom had given it to him. But he persisted. And so I put it in my purse. I thought perhaps it would bring me luck. Little did I know that later that night it would bring me something much better than luck.

After having paid for another chandelier at the casino we made the long bus trip home. Once home, I had a light bite, put the rosary next to my mom’s picture on the dresser and then fell exhausted into bed. I was just on the edge of sleep when I felt someone looking at me. I thought perhaps it was my granddaughter who lives with me and had come in to check on me.

I opened one eye and waved her away. I was fine. But the figure didn’t budge. And so I opened both eyes and saw the flickering figure of my mother standing at the foot of my bed. And then I knew.

At that moment even though all of those people that I loved were no longer here somehow I wasn’t alone. My mother came back to remind me that we are body and soul. And although the body may be gone the soul is eternal.
She showed up at the moment I needed her most. And her message to me is to always remember you’ll never walk alone.

Really I'm half Italian

Child’s Play

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Photo credit: E>mar on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Some people are lucky enough to retain a childlike sense of play all their entire lives. And the person who embodied that most in our family was my husband Jimmy.
He was just a big kid at heart who enjoyed the company of his children, the neighborhood kids, and his nieces and nephews.

Whether he was teaching them how to ride a bike down our gravel driveway, playing catch in the backyard, or acting as official kickball pitcher, he always tried to instill teamwork, good sportsmanship and a sense of fun in these activities.

Sometimes he was silly and many times he wouldn’t quite play fair. But as he used to tell me, life isn’t always fair. Take for example the summer of the banana splits. Back in the day we used to treat all of the kids to a soft custard cone from the ice cream shop at the top of the street. At ten cents a cone we could afford to treat our children and the neighborhood kids.

One summer my husband took it into his head to offer everyone a banana split if each one could catch the softball he’d throw to them. That was a big IF. It took all summer before all of the kids figured out his wily ways. Every night after supper they all lined up in the backyard. Each one punched his or her baseball glove rhythmically in anticipation eyeing the official pitcher (Jimmy) warily. What was he going to do now they wondered?

He was a tricky one that Jimmy. If they scanned the trees for a pop up fly, he threw it at their knees. If they prepared for a fast ball, he threw a sinker or curve ball. It took all summer but they finally did it. They finally figured it out. One hot summer night every single one of them finally caught whatever Jimmy could throw at them – even five year old Guido.

That was it. Jimmy was on the hook for eight banana splits. And at 0.75 cents a piece that was quite a chunk of change for us to absorb. I was scrambling for loose change to try and cover Jimmy’s extravagant prize.

Jimmy of course was unfazed by the whole thing. He calmly marched the entire troop into the kitchen. Hot and sweaty, their dirt streaked faces bore witness to their herculean efforts as they waited for my husband. Waited for him to grab his wallet and pay up.

Jimmy did pay up but not in the way they expected. That was one thing you could always count on with him. Expect the unexpected. (More about that later).

He reached up to the top of the refrigerator and pulled down a bunch of bananas. What he did next stunned his young charges. He promptly took a banana and cut it in half for each of them – splitting one each between the players.

Cries of “Not fair! Not fair!” rang out through the kitchen.

“How so,” Jimmy wanted to know? “Isn’t this a banana split?”

Jimmy turned the experience into a teachable moment quoting the immortal Yogi Berra.

“Kids,” he said. “Remember that ‘baseball in ninety percent physical. The other half is mental.’”

They were tricked by a sly fox and they knew it. “Do over!” they yelled.

And “do over” they did but not before clearly outlining the terms and conditions of the prize.

“This time it had to be a real banana split, with three scoops of ice cream, toppings, nuts and whipped cream. And it had to be served in the plastic banana boat. And it had to be purchased at the custard store at the top of the street.”

“Done,” said Jimmy.

Lucky for me, it took another two weeks before they were all able to catch the softball. And during time I was able to find enough loose change cover Jimmy’s extravagant prize. One thing for sure, child’s play in our family was certainly enough to keep this adult busy!