Sadly, I have been to too many funerals this year. Funerals are never funny... I take that back, when old Sicilian people are in attendance things get ridiculous. My dear Aunt Grace, my cousin Pino's mother recently passed away. She was 90 years old and one of the most awesome people I have ever known. I only have fond memories of her and Pino asked me to deliver the eulogy, which I was honored to do, but let's start at the wake.
If you are not familiar with wakes, let me explain: you go to the funeral home (either between 2-5 or 7-9) and basically hang out with your family while deceased is lying in a coffin on view. The Village Chapels is the funeral home of choice for our family, and is conveniently only steps away from my apartment. My cousin Paul always jokes when he comes over that he wants to go and have a few drinks over at the Village Chapels, maybe pick out his coffin.
The protocol at a wake is you walk in, approach the body, pay your respects and say a prayer, then you go to the closest family members of the deceased, who are usually sitting in the front row, and give your condolences. Easy enough. Then you hang around for a couple of hours and everyone comments on the "work" they do on the corpse. Fascinating. Our family wakes are as loud if not louder than our family parties. Sicilian people just can't keep it down, no matter what!
So I payed my respects and turned expecting to see Pino and his wife Roseanne, but who did I find instead? Nonna, Queen of the roost, sitting there with her leopard print cane looking fine and covered in more gold than Mr. T.
"Jane!" She always brightens up when she sees me.
"Nonna, I am so sorry about Aunt Grace."
"Oh Jane, don't worry. You see ova there," she said," pointing to the casket, "Imma be up there next."
She said it as nonchalantly as if she were telling me the weather. And she repeated this to every single person who came in. Nuts!
The charades didn't stop there. Maria Sabella, Uncle Jimmy's sister was visiting from Sicily. She is regarded as "La Discontenta" or the discontented one. She is actually one of the sharpest most hilarious old ladies you will ever meet. Nothing gets past her. I think she actually looked a little too excited to be attending a funeral. Afterall, in Sicily a funeral is as important as a wedding; doom and gloom is celebrated there.
If you are ever around old Sicilian women, take notice of their pocketbook. Even at family parties they hold their bags as tight as if they are riding on the F train to Coney Island at 4am. On Christmas, when I offer to take Nonna's jacket and purse, she gives me her jacket but will never hand over her purse. I am her granddaughter! She doesn't even trust me. Insanity!
The morning of the actual funeral mass, per protocol everyone met at the funeral parlor for one last prayer. Its was a sad solemn moment, everyone standing with their eyes closed in silence quietly paying their last respects. All of a sudden, we heard a rumble. Maria Sabella, who has punk rock purple permed hair, came flying into the chapel screaming, "Where's my bag? Where's my bag?" Her tone was of complete and utter panic. You would have thought someone died.
Everyone turned to look as she was manhandling my cousin Sally and myself, pushing us around to see if we were sitting on her bag, or better yet if we had stolen it. Sally, in an effort to calm her, gave her my purse, hoping it would shut her up. But she didn't buy it and continued to rustle through all the coats and purses until she found hers. Once she did, prayers resumed and Maria Sabella looked a little less discontented.
Everything went smoothly until it was time for me to deliver the eulogy. I was relieved to speak at the lunch following the burial, rather than in the church. We ate at Scopello and amazing Sicilian restaurant in Fort Green. My first line was an ice breaker "This is probably the first time I am speaking in front of our family without being interrupted." I spoke prematurely because Nonna, Maria Sabella and the rest of the old Sicilians bantered loudly about the bread. And they continued to talk throughout my entire speech.
Aside from the perpetual Sicilian chirping in the background, it was a great speech. I talked about how Aunt Grace came to this country after so many years in Genoa to start a new life and how my brothers would quiz her for her immigration exam.
"Aunt Grace, who was the first president of the United States?"
"Ronald Regan, very nice man."
I talked about her amazing Calamari Stew and her awesome Pesto Sauce, both which I intend to prepare as a tribute to my great aunt. My fondest memory of Aunt Grace was that she would always come over and give us candies with a conspiring wink.
When I asked other family members what they remembered about Aunt Grace they all said, "She was strong and tough." She basically didn't put up with a lot of crap; a lady after my own heart.
So I finished the speech with a quotation from Pino, "My mother, she had balls!"
Applause. Except from the elderly Sicilians. Apparently the octopus salad was more important than the eulogy. It was delicious!