Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Feast of Saint Rocco

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Growing up in Fort Lee in the late ’60’s-70’s, The Feast of St. Rocco was to old Fort Lee what the San Gennarro Feast was to Little Italy, and the members of The St. Rocco Society continue to work hard to maintain the fundamental traditions of the Feast. I remember as a young child watching in amazement as the members hoisted the enormous statue of St. Rocco onto their aged and crooked backs and proudly marched through the streets of West Fort Lee stopping to pay respect before the homes of deceased members.

I remember the ordered procession that began with the sons who followed their fathers knowing that in a quarter century they would be charged with carrying on this tradition and bequeath the same inheritance to their yet unborn sons. Bearing the weight of all the generations were the Nona’s dressed in mourning black from the lace of their veils to the soft soles of their orthopedic shoes. Clasping fingers gnarled from years of scrubbing floors and wringing water from wet laundry; their stooped bodies distorted from the weight of carrying more babies to the grave than to the cradle. To them belonged the hearts that cannot break, but do not heal. Flanking them were the young women sharing the laughter of girls--unconscious of the pain that life had yet to deliver to them; hopeful for a future that may not be as kind to them as they imagined. Last came the mass of children dancing exuberantly to the music of their own mirth oblivious of the line of lives they trailed behind.

I remember my parents, aunts, and uncles sitting on their green and white nylon lawn chairs in front of the gas station that sat adjacent to the Yellow Front Saloon (now J.D.’s Steak Pit) meeting and greeting old friends who gathered their own lawn chairs around them; the earth beneath their feet conjuring memories of growing up poor on lower Main Street, evoking for me a fondness for a time I never knew. I remember my grandmother, Carrie Viola – mother of ten, grandmother of way-too-many-to-count—who lived on the second floor of the Gnasso house (now In Napoli) as she sat regally on her nylon throne like the female Godfather as people stopped to offer her respect. (Whenever I’m upstairs in Naps I can’t help but see my four-foot-nothing grandmother standing on her tip-toes stirring a humungous pot of meat sauce and yelling at my Uncle Joey to stop dipping pulled pieces of Italian bread into it. Every time Chef Sammy Gnasso walks through the upstairs kitchen doors I half expect to see my grandmother chasing him out with a wooden spoon dripping with her Sunday gravy.)

I remember my mother sending me into The Yellow Front Saloon to find my father who always found his way into the bar where men young and old would buy him drinks and beg him to tell a story from his life because he was the funniest man I ever knew and could make a room come alive with laughter. I remember the bartender handing me a Coca Cola with a cherry in it as I sat beside my dad watching while he made the world around him laugh from the pulpit of his stool. I remember my mother coming in and finding us both sitting on barstools having the time of our life. The less-than-pleased look upon her face made me feel what it was like to be married to an Italian woman…and I was scared.

This year, as I stand amidst the crowd at The Feast of St. Rocco, I can’t help but look back on those days and feel a deep homesickness for those ordinary moments. To hear my father’s laughter float from a barstool, to see my grandmother ladling sauce—those monumental moments taken for granted evoked by the annual tradition of a feast. Thank you to all the members of The St. Rocco Society, who keep the memory of those who came before us alive every year by carrying on the tradition of your fathers.

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