The parish church that formed the nexus of my childhood life, and the center of my parents’ lives till they died, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall. St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church and Grade School in the Ducktown section of Atlantic City is throwing itself a big party and inviting the old neighborhood to reunite for an evening of reminiscences, laughter and, of course, food.
Unfortunately, because the affair is being held in a hotel, the food won’t be as good as it was when the women of the neighborhood would gather in the kitchen beneath the stage at Dante Hall to cook up vats of homemade meatballs and spaghetti while the temperature in the kitchen rose to 100 degrees.
The response to the centenary invitation from people who long ago left our Italian neighborhood to raise families and make lives sometimes thousands of miles away is surprising. Lea Catanese is coming from California. She’ll be sitting at the same table as Grace and me. We used to sit together a lot, the three of us playing cut out dolls on the stairs in the alley leading up to her apartment during those impossibly long summer days of childhood.
When Lea first said she’d love to come to the reunion, she commented on how much fun it would be to listen to all the old Italian ladies talking together again. Then she realized what she’d said and amended her statement. We are the old Italian ladies now. The originals are long gone and we are daunted at the prospect of trying to fill the shoes they left behind. We can’t speak Italian, we don’t have accents, and most of us refuse to wear black for the rest of our lives no matter how many of our relatives have died.
The Italians who lived in that neighborhood were unique, scary, entertaining, loving and somewhat scrambled, depending on your age and relationship to them. All their words ended in vowels and all their journeys ended at St. Michael’s.
A friend of mine here in Alaska, on hearing about this 100th anniversary, looked at me and said, “And just think, you’ve been a part of it for over half its one hundred years.” Let me quickly assure you she did not mean that as it initially sounds though I did laugh for a long time after she said it.
What she meant was how wonderful it must be to be part of something so special for so long. And she was right. I didn’t realize how nomadic many people’s childhoods were until I left my neighborhood and encountered the rest of the world. I took it for granted that you were born, raised, married and died in the same place because that was all I knew. People didn’t move away. The kids I started pre-kindergarten with are the same kids smiling with me in our 8th grade graduation picture.
And now we’re all going back – gathering together from all coasts and Alaska to sit in a big room, listen to a band play (inevitably) the Tarantella and bore our children with stories of how wonderful that long ago world was and how this church anchored our social, religious and civic lives with a dominance that no other organization has ever again achieved. And how that wasn’t confining but, in its time and place, actually freeing by giving us solid ground from which to launch our future, and a safe haven to return to if we needed to abort the launch.
Fr. Vincent won’t be there to walk up and down the room hugging children, laughing with the men and praising the women’s cooking. Neither will Sister Angelina, who taught 40 years of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in one classroom without ever taking a Valium or giving out a Ritalin. Sr. Beatrice, who gave you a candy each time you learned a new word in first grade, is long gone. And Sr. Gaetana, scourge of all who would walk outside the defined line on the way in from recess to class, is now in heaven herding the newly arrived into their proper places.
But in our hearts they’ll all be there – along with the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Petrillo’s, the DiLucca’s, the Panarelli’s, the Letizia’s, the DiNicolantonio’s and the Sereni’s. They’ll be looking over our shoulders and whispering in our ears. We’ll hear their Italian accents and the warmth of that special time in our special neighborhood will wash over us. And for just a little while, we’ll all know that you can go home again.