Christmas Card 2021

A Story for a wintry afternoon…. As many of you know, my Christmas Card Story usually gets posted in the weeks following Christmas, sometime between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Easter Sunday. This year, this seems the perfect week for it. The temperatures are low and the daylight is short… perhaps a story about this little Bakery in the Italian Section of the Bronx a few years before the turn of the century will help remind us to appreciate how much Beauty and Value can be found in the simplicity of what we do. It is sprinkled with Miracles and Italian expletives!

It has been a wild ride these past two years. Perhaps Showing Up for our Lives is the Miracle!
The idea of sending this out after Christmas is in part to remind us all to celebrate Gratitude, Readiness, Openness and Willingness, and all the values of Christmas the whole year through… The other part is that it takes me a while to write it! 🙂
It is sent to you with Gratitude for our manifesting here upon this planet at the same time, for our paths crossing, for the Life that we share, and with Love…

The Course in Miracles says, “There is no such thing as coincidence and chance plays no part in God’s plan.” The poet, HAFIZ, says, “This place where you are now. God circled on a map for you.”

 And so, inspired by the idea of just how Lucky and Blessed we truly are, I offer the following story…
Perhaps you would like to make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, or bubbling herbal tea, or some delightful warm beverage, and take a little time to cozy up and enjoy this Story Adventure…

Un Fornaio Cuoce (A Baker Bakes)

By Arnold J. Mungioli

I. * * * * Mama * * * *

You would have thought her a crusty old lady. Pugnacious and confrontational, Mama was a tough First Generation Italian American Woman from the Bronx with a heart of gold! If you were a child and walked into her bakery, you would often be hit over the head with a breadstick just a little too hard, and then she would smile the warmest smile and hand it to you. It was an act of generosity, as she saw it. She had made the breadstick herself, so it was a heartfelt and handmade gift. Moreover, she never wanted to see any child go hungry. But no kid likes to be hit over the head with a breadstick. Often the children would cry just from the shock of it, not because they were hurt at all. And Mama would dismiss the child disparagingly and unsympathetically as “shpeel la beep’,” “mingherlino” or “affamato.” She didn’t trust skinny people. And she held firm the belief that to spare the rod was to spoil the child.

“Shpeel la beep’” in Mama’s Italian dialect meant literally, “pipe cleaner” and was used derogatorily to insult a skinny person. Growing up as her daughter — a Second Generation Italian American Girl — these dialect expressions would fly by when the families got together – sometimes you would get a translation. More often than not, you’d get slapped for asking because somehow you were supposed to know that it was a dirty word and not appropriate to ask about that one.

Eventually you would learn to just accept that some phrases get translated and others you just have to figure out for yourself – decipher from sequence context. As I tell you Mama’s story, you’ll learn to do that too.

: Christmas Card 2021

Mama had grown up in this country and she knew what it was to be hungry — both the physical pain of that as well as the shame that prevents a child from ever speaking about it to anyone.

She knew what it was to not have a slice of bread – to feel famished, to do without. That was why, as an adult, when she would mention having run into someone in the neighborhood, if she exclaimed, “Oh, they looked good!” I would clarify by asking, “Oh, she got fat, Mama?” and Mama would reply, nodding approvingly, “Oh, Yeeeaaah!” with a bob of her head and a plausive smile. It was a different time then and seeing someone comfortably corpulent was considered wildly attractive and desirable. In later times of plenty, those with the discipline to stay stoically thin came to be considered attractive, even amatory. But Mama never adapted to that fashion. And she used “shpeel la beep’” as a disparaging term. To have food, to have bread, to have security – these were pleasing and advantageous attributes — worthy of appreciation and worth the pursuit. As a big-boned girl, I learned early on that body shame is something one chooses, and beauty is a matter of one’s perspective.

II. * * * * Christmas Eve Morning * * * *

The Bakery was lively and bustling. It was Christmas Eve morning, snowing – picturesque, as if someone had superimposed the weather from a Currier & Ives painting onto our dingy Bronx Italian neighborhood. I had brought the wreath and fresh pine garlands and was up on the ladder hanging them over the outside doorway, as had become my annual charge, though this time not without help. I was back from law school — now about to graduate and knuckling down to study for the bar exam, yet here I stood hanging pine garlands atop a ladder in the snow! 

The larger department stores and businesses now commercialize the season by starting the festive holiday décor weeks before Christmas, decorating and playing Christmas Music as early as November – Mama would call this, sesso schifoso or “lousy sex.” She felt that it gave everything away way too early so that you were bored with it by the time the Season truly began. Don’t forget that in Italy, the Big Holiday was January 6th, Three Kings Day or the Feast of the Epiphany. Until the wealthy Kings arrived and bowed down to the Infant Child, there was nothing to truly celebrate. So, Christmas Day was the start of the Season, not the end, and you wanted to enjoy its pleasures throughout, building slowly to its climax. 

The wreath and the pine garlands around the bakery were simply adorned with little white steady-burning lights and some red bows and pinecones nestled in the garlands – same every year, along with the Neapolitan Créche on the counter inside. Mama liked the simple beauty of that. And she insisted upon it being just so, thus studying for the bar exam this morning would have to wait.

Nonno, my grandfather, had given up everything so that my mother could live her dream. And Mama was hell-bent that I should live mine. When I didn’t have one, she instilled in me the idea of a career in law. I took to it, which probably had mostly to do with Mama’s intimidating way of presenting a new idea, or perhaps more with the strong sense of fighting for justice that she had implanted in me. Life is never about what is presented or appears to us – it is all about how we respond to that. Law School never felt like a suggestion or something involving choice, but Mama really did know what was best for you. And I answered the call — that’s what mattered. Despite her having been in America for most of her life, life with Mama was not a democracy. “Un Fornaio Cuoce,” she would say – “A Baker Bakes.” Every morning, first thing, she came downstairs to the shop, mixed together the warm water and yeast, made a well of flour, and kneaded her dough for hours; everything else in our lives had to work around that – law school, even Christmas!

Mama had baked bread her whole life. This was her passion. She was not a businessperson by nature – more of a staff-of-life artist, if you will — kind of a cross between Anna Magnani & Beowulf, though she probably had just as much in common with Lidia Bastianich’s love of food as an art! Do you remember the story of when that Make-up Artist tried to camouflage Magnani’s wrinkles and she exclaimed in earnest, “Why would you do that? It took so many years to get those wrinkles!” Similarly, Mama had earned her stripes. Back in the day when Mama opened the Panetteria, owning one’s own business was a position that neither women nor immigrant types were offered too kindly in this country, and the hardships and misogyny in even the small business world made it prohibitive. So, back when Nonno died, Cousin Sal stepped in to “help” Mama run it. He wasn’t really a first cousin. It was one of those Italian relative things where, even as your third cousin twice-removed, you were a cousin, and entitled to certain family privileges – these were the people you hadn’t seen since you were a kid who showed up at your grandfather’s wake and raided your family’s china cabinet and your grandfather’s tool bench, taking whatever they could get their hands on. Cousin Sal did worse than that.

III. * * * * Ten Years Ago * * * *

Ten years ago, this very day, Christmas Eve, Cousin Sal phoned just before the usual rush began around 7am (Mama was in the Bakery every day from around five in the morning. Cousin Sal was not, although he had inserted himself as Mama’s “business partner,” “just to help out” for about five years at that point.) He delivered the most startling and unexpected news that he was parting ways with us, effective immediately, as he had arranged plans for something much bigger and it was to be “no place for women.” He had “helped us out,” as he put it, long enough and had now arranged to partner with some businessmen to create a corporate bread bakery which would industrialize bread-baking for the tristate area – the whole country, in fact. He told Mama that small bakeries like the Panetteria were a thing of the past and automated production was the wave of the future. He suggested that she close, advising her that a woman really couldn’t run a business by herself.

Mama managed to get in a few choice words before Cousin Sal hung up – among those I heard shouted were “Dito nel culo!” (which I suppose is the equivalent of the American expression, “pain in the ass”), “Prendila in culo da un ciuccio imbizzarrito,” (which has something to do with a runaway donkey, though I prefer not to say), and that old chestnut, “Malocchio!” (That one — cursing him with the “Evil Eye” — several times)! Then, quite winded from all the hollering, she put down the phone and took a deep breath. She straightened her shoulders back and lifted her chin; then she looked down at her hands, and declared with a kind of firm resolve in her voice, “Un Fornaio Cuoce!” (“A Baker Bakes!”) She walked to the back and began to mix together warm water and yeast with a simple table fork. She made a well of the flour on the large wood board tabletop and poured the water and yeast mixture into the center… That’s how she did it. Simple.

Soon after that, Cousin Sal controlled a completely automated bakery loaded with double convertible convection ovens, long corridors lined with gigantic electric 14-pan ovens and multiple 32-pan proofers, dough sheeters, gigantic mixers and bread slicers, and the most important element of all — Mama’s bread recipes! Mama would joke how it couldn’t possibly be any good when human hands never touched the dough! Mama believed strongly that a human being could see their own value when they paused a moment and looked at their hands. I didn’t understand this when I was a kid – but when I would come home from school feeling bullied and beaten, she would console me with her arms around me and her strong hands rubbing my back, and she would whisper, “Guarda le tue mani.” (“Look at your hands!”)

Cousin Sal thrived and prospered enough to live in a house in Scarsdale that was commonly referred to in my family as la dimora (“the mansion”), and it pretty much was. In my family, if you had a spare bedroom in your house, that was the definition of rich, and almost no one had that. Most of us grew up with at least two siblings sharing a bedroom – and sometimes, it was three or four to a room. If each of your kids had their own room, you were rich. And if you had a room to spare, you were obscenely rich; and if we visited you, we had to be on our very best behavior and wear the kinds of Sunday Church attire that kids hate to wear because you cannot really run around and play in clothes like that, so we concluded early on that rich people were no fun at all! And they weren’t – at least not the ones we knew. Cousin Sal was no fun!

But he was shrewd enough to figure out how to adapt Mama’s bread recipes to machinery and automation. He was the Henry Ford of the Bronx, although his assembly lines were mechanized. He had watched Mama very closely and, God Bless him because it is a skill I suppose, he figured out how to automate, dehumanize, and expedite the entire process; he synchronized the trucking, shipping, and inventory components to cost-effectively provide quality Italian Bread to restaurants all over New York and the tri-state area on a daily basis. He grew into quite the mogul, insisting upon personally supervising product manufacturing lines himself, and why would he live anywhere except la dimora? Men like him needed that space around them to avoid the intimacy of their family’s problems and to dwell in an aura of ongoing expansion. Cousin Sal was by all rights an American Success Story.

Now, ten years later, simply by showing up for her life, baking bread and continuing to find joy in it, and despite Cousin Sal’s success, Mama’s Panetteria is still open. Mama’s still baking bread – living her American Dream, as it were — and there is a line out the door withal. It was Albert Einstein who said it best: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” For Mama, each day, each loaf of bread, each person she encountered and the encounter itself… Life was a series of unending Miracles. And for all her bluster and crustiness and coarse language, she taught me to live the same way.

IV. * * * * Church * * * *

Mama had help – she liked to hire young Italian-American Girls from the neighborhood. They usually worked the front counter, running the cash register, selling the bread and dealing with customers. She also hired one boy who was referred to in the neighborhood as “touched.” This was a term that might be viewed as not very politically correct for someone with mental illness or somewhere on the autism spectrum (less was commonly known about such things back then), but Mama used the term very specifically, as she saw him as “touched by the angels” – a young sciamano (“a shaman”) who could commune between both worlds. She believed that his behavior had to do with his having second sight – one foot in heaven and one foot on earth. One of the girls complained once that he made her uncomfortable – she wasn’t a bad person, she was just brought up in a home in which she was taught to fear anything different than that which she already knew. Of the two of them, Mama saw her as the one with the mental limitation, but she held compassion for both. And here is how she expressed it to the girl: Vaffanculo! La Mia Panetteria, Le Mia Regole!” I will only partially translate: “My Bakery, My Rules!” The rest you can figure out. The girl acquiesced and chose to continue working. Eventually she and Sciamano worked together very well in the cramped little shop and over time grew to become really good friends.

If anyone Mama hired showed any interest in baking bread, and most of them did, Mama would bring them into the back, and teach them how. She would always say to them, “Guarda le tue mani.” (“Look at your hands!”) Mama believed in the value of every artist and she believed that everyone was an artist – not just the bakers, but the cobblers, the butchers, the pasta makers, the tailors and dressmakers, the masons, the sculptors, the singers and dancers, the nurses and doctors  and grocery clerks and waitresses in the cafe… she believed that whatever you did, it could only be done that sole and distinctive way by your own two hands – another person given the same task could in no way create it exactly the same. And you showing up for it — the “You” in the doing of it made all the difference. That was the art of it. That was the heart of it.

Mama’s own art was in the baking of bread, but I saw her hands do so much more than that. Mama would never have described herself as political. She would not have described herself as religious either, though she went to church every single Sunday morning, regardless of the weather or how she was feeling, and she never missed any of the seven Holy Days of Obligation – not once my whole life, at least that I ever saw. She was highly opinionated – forthright – and while she would not engage in political discussions per se, I would describe her more as living her politics with her body on the street, always in action. So, for example, while the Roman Catholic Church had very strict policies about such things, if one of Mama’s girls working in the bakery got herself into a situation and needed help, Mama would always have a few hundred dollars from money she had painstakingly scrimped and saved. She would take the girl aside after everyone else had left work, give it to her in an envelope and tell her that this was to remain just between them – it was “La Boost” for her wedding and Mama was choosing to give it to her early. Mama would make sure the girl understood that this was her wedding present, and that the girl would have to remember it because Mama had no intention of putting any money into “La Boost” when her wedding day came. This was it! None of those girls ever had any idea what a sacrifice this was for Mama. They only knew that the world was suddenly a safer place than they had experienced it to be of late, and it would begin to feel that way as they would look down at Mama’s aging hands placing the envelope into theirs. And they would never forget those helping hands – there for them when no one else was. A parental hand from an unlikely place caring for them in a situation about which they were often afraid to tell even their own mother.

As happens with such controversial acts of kindness – and the good ones always are – word does get around – not in a big way, but within families when occasionally a parent or a sibling insists on knowing how a girl comes into money like that to solve such an unsolvable crisis. Lots of Italian Women are raised to confide in their priest, of course. And so, came the day when the priest withheld the sacrament of Communion from Mama. She got on the Communion line one Sunday morning just as she always had, and when it came her turn, the priest held back the Host wafer in front of everyone. Mama stood tall. She knew that she was devoted to God and believed that she was helping others in need the way the Bible asked of her. She knew that only God could judge her and accepted that God would. But she would not accept the harsh judgment of this priest – a man who had known her her whole life. He had baptized her and me. She looked him directly in the eye and without causing a scene, briefly and softly rattled off in Italian, “You think I need your fake bread? I have bread! I don’t need this plastic wafer you call ‘bread’,” as she removed from her pocket a small piece of fresh savory bread she had baked that morning, placed it on her own tongue, and ate it standing right in front of him, then stepping aside and moving on. She would also mention in her unabashed whispered tirade something about having a daughter in law school, not that that would apply, but she used it in an attempt to intimidate. Mama has continued the ritual this way for many Sundays since and accepted this to be her own special Communion Sacrament. Some of the neighbors came to refer to her as disgraziana. Others had heard the gossip about how she saw Sciamano (as that became his nickname at the Bakery and how folks came to know him) as having second sight or being touched by the divine; they referred to Mama more severely as “eretica,” or “heretic”. Church people are funny, aren’t they? Fundamental to the law in this country is the separation of church and state. I think that was my favorite thing about studying law. It helped me to see that their opinions were just their opinions and not the word of God as they saw them to be. I would like to say that I helped Mama to see that too, but in truth she needed no help in that. Rather, she helped me to understand it all the more clearly. She raised me to know right from wrong, and this was the foundation of how I approached my law school studies, and the secret to my success.

Even at such a high cost to her, Mama always made sure that her girls had enough money for a good doctor if that was what they needed. As I had pieced together from conversations about my family history, her own mother, my grandmother, had died from a botched procedure in a time period in which such tragic endings were more common, and the risks to women inadmissibly dangerous. There were references to several women’s “miscarriages,” my grandmother’s among them, and as an adolescent, I commented, “Wow! There were a lot of miscarriages back then!” Mama looked sharply into my eyes with a bitter knowing, and chided me, “Oooooh, you are so naïve!” 

The dense cloud of sadness and anger that hung over any conversation alluding to my grandmother’s death from her “miscarriage” provided me with everything I would ever need to know about the dire and tragic circumstances during which such decisions for women are made – and how protecting a woman’s right to choose in no way implies that such choices are made lightly. My grandparents’ situation after my mother was born did not allow for another child. It is hard to know for sure if Mama’s mother died from the procedure or from a broken heart. But I came to understand profoundly the sacrifice involved in such choices – either way, there was a great cost to a woman. So, while I may not have felt like law school had been initially some calling or even a choice that came from deep within me, I understood the importance of why I was there. And my being here in this world at all – that too was the result of Mama’s right to choose, and the audacious choice she made to have me as an unmarried woman. 

It takes so much courage to be a woman!

I wasn’t in the very top of my class nor was I renowned as my Nonno had been in the villages before he left Naples. But I was good enough and better, and quite able to hold my own in law school; plus, I brought to it the strength of a Second Generation Italian American Woman growing up in the Bronx and believe me, there is just no one in the world like us! Still, I enjoyed coming back home. And being Italian, I came home often. But coming home for Christmas was something special. I loved the Panetteria. The wafting aroma of fresh baked bread throughout the air all morning long permeates one’s soul — and once you grow up with that, you can never really shake it. And of course, I loved to see Mama, this marvel of a woman in action, running her Bakery – a business she built out of little more than her love of baking bread and feeding people. She had help now, of course. But she still ran it with her fists. Baking bread was Mama’s dream. And back when my grandfather realized that he had lost the opportunity to realize his own dream, he devoted his life to his child’s. 

V. * * * * Nonno * * * *

“My father was the greatest surgeon in all of Naples.” Mama would pridefully tell the story of my grandfather in her heavily accented broken English. “He completed Medical School while still in his youth — revered as one of the smartest young men in Italy. People came to him, sick and suffering people from all over – Eboli, Bari, across the Abruzzi, even from as far as the Alto Adige! And he healed them. A practicing surgeon — still a young man, like whaddayacall, Your ‘Doogie Howser’ — but so skilled, renowned throughout all of Italy! It was a tragic day for so many when he left. He left behind a life — who knows what he would have been? …what I would have been? …what you would have been? We would be living in la dimora by now! But that man was stubborn! Amidst the turmoil of so much political and social unrest throughout Italy, he envisioned something even better for his family. For his children yet to be… for me and you, he came to America! ‘Il Sogno Americano!’ (‘The American Dream!’) 

The most skilled surgeon in all the world – his hands were from God! Yet here, he was forced to take work as a bricklayer! A Bricklayer!!! It was the only work he could get here to feed his family. And feed his family he did! Italians were not thought of much in those days, you know. We were the newest immigrants from Europe, and like anyone new to this country, we were reviled and scorned! Always the people who come to a place not long before you – the most recent arrivals — they determine that you are some evil criminal (Perhaps they see you as the very worst of themselves!) — here only to take what you can from it, to take from them, as they see it because of this ‘We were here first!’ idea they foster in their mind. And sure, some are like that. We’re not all saints, for sure. But if only they had let him practice and do what he was so good at, who knows what mighta’ been?” 

Mama would shed a bitter tear when she told this story, and she told it often. The same, over and over… Then she’d usually hit something or bang something or slap a nearby child – it was sometimes me, although it didn’t take long for me to figure out when she started to tell this story to get out of the way as quickly as possible. It was as if she wanted children to know, “Don’t get too comfortable!” “Don’t expect that life won’t be hard!” or “Life will slap you in the face! Wake up to that – the sooner the better!” It wasn’t a light slap either.

It was called, “The Great Arrival.” In the 1880’s, some three-hundred-thousand immigrants from Italy came to America. They stepped off boats onto Ellis Island, carrying weighty dreams and unknowingly walking into the jaws of disillusionment – six-hundred-thousand in the 1890’s; and by 1920, over four million Italians had arrived. Half of these were the ritornati, who labored for money and returned to Italy within their first five years. Nonno refused to be among those. Although so many Italians emigrated to the United States then to work as laborers and send money back home where so many years of political and social unrest had by now led to widespread poverty, as it always does, my Nonno arrived “con la testa piena di sogni” (“with a head full of dreams”), as Mama would say. He actually believed he would be accepted here as the most skilled surgeon in America, just as he had been renowned back in Italy. He had indeed proven himself, and were such things based only on skill and experience, he would no doubt have proven himself here, as well – if only he had been given that opportunity. But ahimè (“alas”), that is not how these things work. 

His hands were of a kind of value rarely seen the world over. He had the ability to heal others. He saved countless lives. Yet when he arrived at Ellis Island, the Immigration officer greeted him as “wretched refuse,” adding heartlessly, “just like the sign says!” Then he asked what he did for work. Nonno had learned some English back in Italy and more on the boat over. He explained with great enthusiasm that he was a highly skilled surgeon who had come to work in America. The Irish-American Immigration Officer stood up and, towering over him, demanded, “Show me your hands!” Nonno innocently offered his precious hands, palms up, exposed and vulnerable, and this formidable figure of a man in the US Immigration uniform grabbed his fingers and squeezed them as if to break them in one hold. He steadily increased his pressure firmly looking into Nonno’s eyes as if to test his threshold of pain. “And you’ll do whatever you have to here, just like my Daddy did! Welcome to America, WOP!” (“WOP” was a derogatory term for Italian Immigrants to America in this time period, meaning, “Without Papers.” It was for so many Italians only the beginning of a series of degradations and humiliations they would face in this new world.) Half of these new arrivals returned home because it was more than they could reasonably be expected to withstand. In the hope of providing a better life for your children and grandchildren, you had to surrender your dignity and learn to live without the very thing you were brought up to believe was the second most important thing that defined who you are as a man. Dignity was a very, very, very close second to the number one most important thing, “La Famiglia!” Those two profound values ran as corollaries to one another. And these people, beaten, poverty-stricken, “homeless, tempest-tossed,” as the statue says, and weary from a journey unimaginable to most Americans today, yet necessary to get most of us to the life of comfort and relative extravagance that we now take for granted… these people were forced to surrender their very dignity for the one value that only slightly superseded that, “La Famiglia!”

And the worst part was that there was no assurance. You might very well be surrendering your all for merely the hope of something better for your family – it might, in fact, never be realized. And the variable of who your children and grandchildren might turn out to be was to play a huge factor in whether or not the sacrifice of your very identity would ultimately be worth it. 

Ah, impermanenza –the impermanence of everything!

And then came Mama. And came the Christmas morning that as a little girl, she received a playset bakery – miniature toy bowls and tiny wooden spoons and a whole dollhouse kitchen. Nonno looked into his little girl’s eyes with the twinkling lights of the Christmas Tree reflected there – she was happy, and he knew in that moment that he believed. He believed, even though his surgeon’s hands were now tough-skinned, scarred, broken, and worn down and his fingers had grown thick and were deformed from an incident, that it was all worth it and that he had made the right choice. The fascinating thing, of course, was that what he believed in was really just hope. There was nothing concrete; there was no warrant for this belief. It was pure faith, and as nothing outside himself gave reason for it, it had to have come from within. 

Impermanenza! Yes. Nothing is forever, even if the structures Nonno helped to build came pretty close.

But there was this little girl he believed in and for whom had renewed hope… His hopes for himself had been completely dashed — beaten out of him, by hands stronger than his own. There was a legion of foremen who abused this man’s angelic and able hands following in the steps of the Immigration Officer. One time, fairly early on, a foreman, an immigrant himself from Northern Europe, slammed Nonno’sright hand between two bricks. Although permanent damage was done, and this disabled him for the rest of his life, he continued working all that afternoon to avoid being docked the day’s wages. Even more, he found solace and fulfillment in using his hands for good. So, to balance the excruciating physical pain, he continued to build. And Nonno built things to last. Even if it was far from the life he had planned for himself, he showed up for the life that he had. And in that, although he never came to see it this way himself, he was indeed able to fulfill his promise.

Pain and Suffering can be great teachers. They help us to focus. And they let us know we’re alive. “Un morto non sente dolore.” (“A dead man feels no pain.”), as the expression goes.

Such discrimination and violence against Italians in America was not unusual. Nonno labored under many supervisors and foremen who were only too happy to taunt their laborers with stories about the “New Orleans Lynchings” of some years earlier. A mob in Louisiana lynched 11 Sicilians for their alleged role in the murder of the city’s police chief, even though several of them had already been acquitted of this crime and proven their innocence. Italians worldwide were outraged, but here in America, Italian Immigrants were widely considered criminal or subhuman – the media praised the lynching, both reflecting and influencing the general sentiment of the population.

The Library of Congress records the event to this day as one of the largest single mass lynchings in U.S. history.

Faced with laying bricks for the rest of his life with a now-incapacitated hand, Nonno scoured the streets daily looking for work as he confronted a salvo of aspersions based in racialist theories which blamed Italian immigrants for “taking American jobs.” Day after Day he suffered a barrage of derogatory comments from coworkers and foremen alike about “Mediterranean” types being inherently inferior to Americans of Northern European heritage. But Nonno carried in his heart every day now the magic in his little figlia’s eyes with the twinkling lights of the Christmas Tree reflected there from that one Christmas morning, and the Joy he witnessed in that moment — Abbasta! It was enough. Nonno turned what was in his heart now into action, pouring all of his energy and passion into working and living for his little figlia’s dream. He could build it for her. He could create it for her. And maybe, just maybe, the life Mama would then construct from that for herself would be worth it. And he made it happen – he saved and lived like a miser for so many years until he could purchase a very small corner property in the Bronx. He procured the mortar and bricks, and designed and built the Panetteria himself. He showed up for the life that he had, and that was the Miracle of his life. May we all be as lucky as to show up, fully present, for the life that we have! That is the Miracle!

VI. * * * * The Panetteria * * * *

It’s intoxicating, that Christmas Morning Magic! It stays with you. It makes you believe in the Best of Us – in the Best of ourselves, in so much possibility …for Nonno. …for Mama. …for Me!

Who among us doesn’t have some kind of cherished Christmas Memory?

It all goes back to that verse in the Bible, Matthew 1:23, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us…”

And suddenly, acknowledging God with us – this power greater than ourselves, actually with us right now, right here — we become the very Best of ourselves!

And Christmas is the fulfillment of that idea – that promise that we do not have to go it alone! It feels so good to know that! So, we all can just believe that God is with us and somehow, we will make it through! God with us…That is the Miracle of Christmas!

Speaking of what’s in the Bible, for all of her slapping and bellicose language, Mama practiced what was in the Bible better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She pieced together from the Gospel Readings and Sunday Sermons that Jesus spoke Aramaic which is a dead language and never actually wrote anything down. And the Gospels were all written so many years after He died. She figured out that after so many translations – Greek, Hebrew, Latin — over so many centuries before English was even attempted, the only things we know for sure and that we all seem to agree upon that Jesus actually said were His directions to “Love thy Neighbor!” and “Feed the Hungry!” That’s It! Everything else was conjecture. And my Mama fed the hungry pretty much every day of her Life. So, from a legal point of view, she’ll be getting into Heaven before the priests who are saying that she won’t! Oh, and while these priests are taking issue and judging my family based on a set of values interpreted from things Jesus most likely never actually said, Vaffanculo! I’m a Lesbian with a Boss Ass Girlfriend! We’ve actually been together since I started law school, though we met in undergrad, and Mama has welcomed her as a second daughter. 

Pretty progressive, if you ask me!

We would help in the Panetteria when we could. It was all a labor of love. Mama made very little profit, though people came from miles around for her bread, and it was even still sold to a few of the finest restaurants in the city, in spite of Cousin Sal’s growing monopoly. And the neighborhood folks who mumbled, “disgraziana” and “eretica” under their breath at church came and stood in line at the bakery right afterward to get a loaf of Mama’s bread before heading home to their families. It’s not that I never heard the mumbled phrase “Soffocare cosí Santo Blaze non puó salvarti” (“Choke so that St. Blaze cannot save you!”) escape her lips under her breath, but generally, Mama considered the distribution of bread to be sacred, and so she treated everyone with dignity. It was a secular Sacrament of Communion of sorts, and whether they realized it or not, these people received sacred forgiveness when that bread was placed in their hands. It was Mama’s little joke to herself that the bakery sold only one pasta, Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”). Mama never envisioned the Panetteria as a profit-making venture. She managed to run it so that it was a self-supporting enterprise, and she saw so clearly that that was success enough. Abbasta! It provided small salaries for the workers, paid the rent and utilities as well as necessary maintenance on the store, and allowed her to provide for those in need. For Mama, the joy of baking bread was payment in itself. And each day she felt this. She radiated this. She lived this. She showed up for the life she had created, just like her father before her.

God, I admire her!

VII. * * * * Best Friends * * * *

One of Mama’s two best friends from High School was a Jewish Woman named Frenchie, so nick-named because her family had emigrated from France and had managed to get to America prior to the early days of World War II, and she never lost her French accent – this was by her own choice. 

The other was Johnnie, a Black Woman whose grandparents had been brought to America on the schooner Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship which arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, on Christmas Day 1859, or at least that’s the day her grandparents had told her it was. In any case, it was more than a half century after the US Act prohibiting the importation of slaves. The ship was burned and sunk by its own captain to destroy the evidence of their journey. But Johnnie’s grandparents directed their anger not at the White American slave ship captain, but at the King of Dahomey back in Africa who was at war with their tribe, imprisoned them, and sold them as slaves. When they first met back in High School and Johnnie told Mama that story, Mama so related to a culture in which people condemn their own that she took Johnnie’s hand and whispered, “You know, for all that, you could be Italian!” The two women laughed and knew that they had each found a friend. 

Frenchie and her parents also had come here by ship. After World War I the US Congress had set immigration quotas by country, enacting legislation “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity” by severely limiting what were termed “undesirable” immigrants, and by that they meant Asians, Africans, and Jews, among others. Frenchie’s family knew how lucky they were to have made it in against such strong odds, yet she lived with the guilt of knowing that her family had made it out of Europe when so many others did not. Though still merely a child, this was further exacerbated for her by 1939 when the 937 refugees from Nazi Germany on the MS St. Louis were denied asylum by the US, Canada, and Cuba, and sent back to Europe where so many of them died in the Holocaust. Among those were her father’s sister’s entire family. 

And so, all three of them, women who felt like outcasts of one kind or another, recognized immediately that they had so much more in common with one another than they had differences. Most notable was their lineage. They had all been raised by women who did not have the right to vote in this country and they had all been raised by women who, like most women of that time, were deemed property of their husbands. Yet, they had all been raised by progressive women who saw a better future for their daughters and granddaughters, and who taught them to stand tall in this country. They were all, as Maya Angelou described, “Phenomenal Women!” They were all single mothers in an era where that was widely considered some kind of disgraced status. And while each of them faced untold abuses and indignities in their day, to use Johnnie’s words, they didn’t “give a crap” what anybody else thought of them! They had learned from Frenchie the Yiddish term gonif for those who disparaged them. And for all the gruff manners of their exteriors, they were women of the utmost dignity! They had a toughness and grace which radiated in equal measure, yet were superseded by their sense of humor. And they knew how to have a good time with what they were given. From the moment they first met in their Freshman (Fresh “Man,” may I point out?) Year in High School, they supported one another through thick and thin!

VIII. * * * * News * * * *

Mama was so surprised to see Frenchie rush into the Bakery this morning. It was so busy and crowded, and yet their eyes met, and Mama lit up all smiles and came around the counter to embrace her friend and ask what in the world she was doing there on Christmas Eve morning! Frenchie’s eyes darted around the small, crowded shop. “Is Johnnie here yet?”

“Johnnie??? Whaddayou girls…” Mama was interrupted as Johnnie came pummeling into the shop. Johnnie could not help but smile seeing Mama and embraced her with the warmest hug, yet her eyes shot over to Frenchie right away, “Did you tell her yet?”

“Tell me?” Mama asked. “Tell me what?”

I was watching this from up on the ladder hanging the pine boughs with my girlfriend holding the ladder for me and we were equally surprised to see Mama’s friends arrive on Christmas Eve morning. They would have come over from Harlem and New Jersey and that’s a bit of a trip on what for many is a pretty full day of preparations. We could not hear what they were saying from outside but from my vantage point I could read the urgency.

Johnnie had a way of being very direct. “The Devil you know beats the Devil you don’t,” she would always say. And her two friends were of the same mind – facing life was the best way to deal with life.

“Your Cousin Sal,” Johnnie began, still somewhat out of breath.

“Gonif!” Frenchie exclaimed emphatically. “Shleger!” (Whereas “Gonif” was a Yiddish word for a disreputable person, “Shleger” was more of a bully – a more violent term.)

“What’s that?” Mama and Johnnie both asked her.

“It’s Yiddish for your Cousin Sal,” she told them, dismissing their curiosity.

“He’s purchased the empty lot across the street…” Johnnie continued.

We saw Johnnie pointing out the shop window toward the empty lot across the street. 

“…and he’s putting up his own bread bakery! A gargantuan shop, a whole building, several stories… They’re moving their entire operation there and opening a retail bread shop for customers at the street level!”

Mama’s face blanched as she seemed to lose her balance, and her two friends held her up. I hastily climbed down from the ladder and we headed inside to see what was going on, just in time to hear Mama exclaim over the din of the crowd, “Managgia Ameriga!” and Frenchie punctuate with “Paskudnyak!” (much worse than “Shleger!”)

I looked at Mama. I had only very rarely seen her fearful – pretty much, never, until this moment. She looked at us and bellowed, “Malocchio!” invoking the evil eye.

“Cousin Sal!” we exclaimed. 

(Looking back, Mama’s invocations may have been more potent than I realized at the time.)

We knew right away. Mama’s Best Friends looked at us nodding in compassionate agreement. 

“Let me tell you about your Cousin Sal,” Frenchie interrupted, “If I were walking down the street and I had to pee, and I saw him across the street and he were on fire, I would not so much as cross the street to pee on him to put the fire out!”

“Wow,” my girlfriend exclaimed, as Frenchie generally maintained a sophisticated, shy, and composed demeanor, and this comment kind of shocked her. But Mama’s friends were enraged.

Johnnie repeated the news for us in an equally emphatic and rushed pace, and there we stood in the midst of a cheerful crowd joyfully buying bread and calling to one another, “Merry Christmas!” on the happiest day of the year – five women in shock, all arriving at the same conclusion, that this room in which we stood — this bakery my Nonno had built with his own hands would likely not be here a year from now. We instinctively held one another in a group embrace of which my girlfriend and I had never before been a part. To feel the power — the electricity — of these Phenomenal Women and how they supported one another through every crisis… 

To experience their stalwart energy coursing through our beings – this ongoing lineage of Daring and Powerful Women…

To me, this was the ultimate realization of the American Dream!

This was Everything! 

And I felt myself come of age in that moment. I had never known a feeling like that, for my girlfriend and me to come into direct contact with the legacy of triumph over adversity that coursed through the veins of these three American Women; there was such power in how we could feel their courage and strength and how we related to it in our own struggles. We felt so emboldened and reinvigorated to know that we stand on the bones of hundreds, no thousands of years of Phenomenal Women who fought for their rights and freedoms from the beginning of time, and supported one another just as we were now! These three women in our embrace lived their lives in a way that worked tirelessly to ensure that we, their children, would never endure the stings and anguish they had known. Theirs were lives of sacrifice — they were perhaps less painful ransoms than the generation before them, and in that, theirs were lives of success! And ours would be too! This was their warrior goddess spirit and the power of it and the way they could pass it on – this was something stronger and more fierce than any phenomenon I had known in this world! Here, now, we knew that our lives were blessed and that we would be okay not because everything would work out on the outside, but because of what we were made of – because of who we were on the inside!

IX. * * * * Light * * * *

Sciamano was watching all of this, and he caught my eye, pointing just above our heads, as the cash register bell chimed ringing up another sale. 

“Luce” (“Light!”), he spoke so softly that only I could hear.

I thought I saw it too. Somehow, the energy of this circle of women seemed to be radiating a powerful light. Sciamano remained attuned to his witness of this transcendent spiritual experience, as he simultaneously wished customers a Merry Christmas, and distributed loaves of bread, his eyes darting back and forth from those he waited upon to our little circle. Mama had one of those old cash registers that didn’t have an electronic calculator built into it and every time a sale was rung up, it set off a chiming bell sound; Sciamano would smile and giggle with glee every time he heard it go off, exclaiming, “Wings!” many, many times over the course of a day, but especially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He was familiar to the customers by now and they had grown to like him very much. Early on, they would sometimes help him figure out the change and even enjoyed the teaching moment, although he had gotten so good at it over time that he didn’t need help anymore. He now was quite a well-loved presence in the neighborhood; although he was once someone who feared people, he grew to see their value and it filled his soul to be of service to others. There was joy amongst the customers and the ebullience of Christmas cheer emanated from people all around us. 

Although on the one hand, to experience first-hand the bravery of Mama and her formidable women friends invigorated me, at the same time I could feel Mama’s soul diminished under the dark cloud of this morning’s terrible news and the reality of what it meant for the immediate future. Was the life we had given everything to build slipping through our fingers at this very moment? My heart sank. 

I looked upward and it was as if this nebulous aura of light had taken shape and formed itself into a large ring of ghostly blue-white light hovering above our heads like a vapor. Sciamano caught my eye, pointed to it again, nodded, and declared, “Dio con noi!” (“God with us!”)

It was not a foreign idea to me that I might be taking care of and supporting my mother at some point later in life. In fact, this is considered a high honor in Italian American culture. But this was sooner than we had expected it, and in that, for my wonderful girlfriend it would be perhaps more of a sacrifice than she had anticipated making so early on. I began to ponder this. If the Bakery closed, Mama would be penniless, and the debt of my student loans from law school had accrued to a point where the reality we faced that Christmas Eve morning was heartbreakingly stark.

X. * * * * Stella Di Natale * * * *

The crowd dwindled, as the early morning rush began to hit a slight lull.

“Where’s everybody goin’?” Johnnie asked, tossing her arms up in the air and laughing in her usual uplifting jovial manner.

“Home to eat all the calories,” Frenchie speculated. We all chuckled. Frenchie was tall and thin but Mama didn’t mind at all.

Sciamano pointed to the creche, looking alarmed. The figures of Mary and the infant child were missing. Stolen? Knocked over and broken? Where were they? What happened? Mama began to tear up. Could this day get any worse!?

Just at that moment, Mama noticed that all the customers had departed except a young dark Israeli girl holding an infant child, standing in the middle of the room asking for bread. 

“Shalom,” she nodded.

“Shalom,” Frenchie responded, instinctively.

“Oh, C’mon!” Johnnie exclaimed in response to the obvious parallel in the room, it being Christmas Eve and all.

Mama squeezed the hands of her two friends and stepped back around behind the counter. She packed away the Pane de Casa into a paper bag and gave it to the girl who attempted to count out some coins from her small threadbare change purse, but Mama held up the palm of her hand and waved her away. Then, Mama took a few dollars out of the register as well and placed them in the girl’s hand. It’s a strange feeling – sort of disquieting and comforting at the same time — to see a young Jewish girl with a new infant baby on Christmas Eve, especially a poor one in need of food and maybe shelter for the baby, or for the night. One cannot help thinking about the point of it all — the lessons learned from the event that night celebrates. I could still see this faint yet tangible ring of blue-white light hovering in the space above our heads, and I am pretty sure that Sciamano was the only other person who could see it. Through the large glass front window of the bakery, you could see the morning sky over the empty lot across the street — well, at least for now you could. And there were a few stars still visible; one seemed brighter than all the others – unusually bright. And Mama nodded as if she expected to see such things in the ordinary course of events – and at this point, why not? She pointed to it and matter-of-factly stated, “stella di natale!” 

The young Israeli girl holding the infant accepted the bread and the money and lowered her eyes in thanks.

Todah,” she whispered, “SheElohim yevarach otha!” (“Thank You” and “May God Bless You!”)

“Non dirlo!” Mama told her softly, as she had gotten the gist and felt the Blessing. And the Israeli girl left with the bread, as Sciamano looked on and smiled. He radiated an ethereal peace. The entire room seemed to shimmer softly – calm and bright, as it were.

Johnnie broke the ensuing silence, “Yeah, that woman was the right color for the Blessed Virgin, and I think I know swaddling clothes when I see ‘em,” then adding, “I Love a good swaddle!”

“You think I know what you’re talking about?” Frenchie joked. “I’ll say this. It’s nice to not be the only Jew in this bakery for a change!”

“You’re still the only Frenchwoman,” Johnnie whispered to Frenchie, squeezing her hand as they laughed. Then she added, “I’ll tell you this,” indicating Sciamano, “You stick a shepherd’s staff in that boy’s hand and we got the whole damn pageant right here in this bakery! And we can be the Three Wise-Ass Women!”

Though they brought devastating news, these women accompanied it with a heartening humor and offered their unique brand of light laughter and bonhomie intended to uplift Mama’s spirit through it. Their very presence helped her. It reminded me that showing up in person to tell one another things and just to be there with one another is one of the most remarkable gifts we can give to one another and perhaps the most profound power we have as human beings – it is not to be taken for granted. It also occurred to me that perhaps they couldn’t see the Light because they were the Light! 

The bakery rather quickly filled up with customers again, just as suddenly as they had dwindled, and the brief lull was, as usual, thankfully short-lived. I noticed that the figures of Mary and the infant child were returned to the Creche which baffled me – Sciamano winked at me as he noticed my noticing that and gave me a thumbs up. Mama did not seem to be aware of the figures as she came back around the counter to her friends. She handed a Pane de Casa to Johnnie and another to Frenchie, and wished them a Merry Christmas, able to muster just enough volume with her voice to say it. 

Johnnie accepted the bread saying, “Now you know this is not as good as my cornbread!”

“I know this,” Mama replied, assuring her with a smile, “I have been to your home and I have had your cornbread!”

Frenchie looked at Mama, accepting the bread, and told her resignedly, “I’ll serve this tonight, along with the croissants and the Challah, both of which are better than this and her cornbread, though both of yours are also geshmak!”

“Is that good?” Johnnie asked. “That better be good!”

“Mama patted her hands, palms down in the air to calm them both. “I don’t pretend to compete.” Everyone smiled and laughed gently. These women had so much love for one another – they had been through so much together!

The three Phenomenal Women embraced once more and held it a while, and Mama thanked them for coming. “This too shall pass!” they whispered to Mama pretty much in unison, as they gently squeezed her hands. They waved to Sciamano and they each embraced my girlfriend and me and wishing us, “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays,” apologized for having to be the bearers of such terrible news. “She’ll be all right!” they whispered to me, “And you two will too!” It was the strangest Christmas Eve morning I had ever known. Lifelong Dreams dashed, and a pervading cloud of Hopelessness that seemed to just proof like dough throughout the day. And yet, this strange light – this blue-white Light like a mist of Hope continuing to hover above, and our souls lifted by what may have been a Miracle, though of course the mind insists not. Nevertheless, Mama seemed just broken by the news – inconsolable — and there was little I could do.

XI. * * * * The Future * * * *

It had been ten years to the day since Cousin Sal’s Phone Call announcing to Mama that he was departing her Panetteria to start his new corporate enterprise. Mama had been able to rise up and overcome that. Yet now, with today’s news of his opening his flagship bakery across the street, it looked like he would finally put us out of business. Of course, I reached out to him, and he explained that he had nothing to do with the decision; he even claimed that he’d voiced his displeasure about the location, but that his industrial bakery was an enterprise handled by businessmen who had calculated costs and sought out the best location – they had no regard for Mama’s Panetteria, one way or the other. He told me that it simply didn’t factor into the decision – they handled business the same whether they sold bread or bocce balls. It was only about money. “It’s business,” he told me with a smile in his voice – it seemed that was becoming some new American catch phrase that was used to excuse abominable behaviors and exonerate those who served the corporate gods. Better than crushing your hand with a brick, I suppose!

That was the last time I would ever speak to Cousin Sal. 

Easter would come only three and a half months later, and along with it the news that Cousin Sal died early that Easter morning. Ground would have already been broken across the street and building of the new flagship site for his industrial bakery would be underway. It would be only a few days later that the businessmen left to run Cousin Sal’s Bread Bakery would give us the shock of our lives by approaching Mama and offering her a position to run their baking operations. It appears that Cousin Sal had indeed partnered with all businessmen and though they were very successful at crunching numbers – let’s face it, they knew how to sell bread and make some real dough — none of them knew anything about the art of baking. Not one! Since every step of their process was automated and intentionally rendered human-proof, it only took some 72 hours before it became apparent to them that their enterprise was about to fold, as bread needed to meet a daily demand. Did they not know this about their product, I began to wonder. Their clients were on the warpath – restaurants for miles around found themselves going without the high-quality product they had come to depend upon. The taste and texture had altered enough to be noticeable, and the level of excellence dropped almost immediately. The people wanted their daily bread. You see, Cousin Sal’s mechanization turned out quite a good product. It was still Mama’s recipe, after all, and from working so closely with Mama, he had learned all the subtleties, tweaks and adjustments necessary to keep the dough just so. He understood what every bread baker knows — each loaf of bread has a completely individual birthing process. By automating the process, when something was slightly off with a given batch, as happens with temperature changes and variations in the density and gluten content of flour, he and only he knew what to do to adjust and correct it, thus maintaining its distinguished quality. It seems he had never shared any of those details with anyone else, and he built into the automation no allowance for those fluctuations; likely his intention was to render himself indispensable to the company’s process so they could never get rid of him — a mascalzone if there ever was one! Cousin Sal hired expert administrators, numbers guys, trucking foremen and marketers, all with the prerequisite that they knew nothing of baking. What he created was a goliath — a lucrative, booming business selling a product over which no man working there had any mastery or even any knowledge, except him. The businessmen left in charge figured that part out before his body was cold – I’ve got to hand it to them, they were smart enough to know what they didn’t know, and they were able to pinpoint in a moment the one person who would know. It seems that they had already invested greatly into long-range development and expansion, and they knew that if they didn’t work out a deal with this crusty old Italian woman, they would no longer have a product of the standard necessary to keep them at the top of an industry they were poised to dominate. And her daughter was now a full-fledged lawyer and member of the bar, licensed in the State of New York, even if I couldn’t keep her from flipping them the bird and bellowing, “AFanabala!” when they first approached her.

It all would happen very quickly. I would go with Mama to every meeting, and we were all quite surprised – I and Mama, and I think even they themselves – when they ran the numbers and agreed to Mama’s two conditions of employment. The first was to switch over from full automation to baking by hand, with robotics only ruling the packing, shipping, supply, inventory and delivery systems; the second was that she would hire all of her girls and Sciamano, who had become quite skilled at pretty much all aspects of the proicess, and bring them with her to work there. They would bake bread, made by their own hands.

It turned out to be ridiculously successful, and the money Mama got paid for doing what she loved was beyond what she or even Nonno ever could have dreamed they would find in America. My law school loans were completely paid off within two weeks of signing the deal. My girlfriend and I held our Civil Union Ceremony and I truly was living the American Dream that Nonno had hoped for himself: Love, Prosperity, Success, Ability to help others and especially those less fortunate, and La Famiglia!  

Over time, Mama would bring in Johnnie and Frenchie to expand the line with Johnnie’s Cornbread, Frenchie’s Challah Bread & Croissants, and a variety of other products — all made by uniquely human hands. 

In later years, Sciamano and I would take over running the company, and my family name would adorn the building, in honor of Nonno and Mama and all that they sacrificed. I would turn the old bakery building that Nonno built across the street into a family planning clinic, named after my Grandmother, and the window of my office would look out at young women receiving the help they needed to raise their families on their own terms, safely and with dignity. Sciamano, under Mama’s tutelage had grown from a boy who could barely count change to an adult business mind that would rival an MBA. It seems Mama was right – he was touched by the Angels! Through years of putting his mind to it, he would arrive at the place where he could figure out how to apply our automated trucking and delivery systems to supplying food to homeless shelters and food distribution programs for the hungry throughout the city — not just bread and pasta from our bakery; these vehicles would be picking up copious amounts of prepared food from restaurants and food service businesses at the end of each day which would otherwise go bad and getting all of it to those in need while it was still fresh. Sciamano had a slogan with the truckers which just happened to be the direct words of Jesus Christ that needed no translation: “Love thy neighbor. Feed the Hungry.”

And it came to pass that I often joined those making bread downstairs – at least a couple of hours every day. I came from a long lineage of people who worked with their hands. While I was fine to run the company, occasionally I would wonder if what I was doing in this corporate life was what I was really put on this earth to do. It was pretty far from whence I’d come. At these moments, I would hear Mama’s voice in my head, “Guarda le tue mani.” (“Look at your hands!”)

I would act on this and find solace, just like my mother and grandfather before me.

XII. * * * * The Present * * * *

So, on this Christmas Eve morning, what appears to be a hopeless tragedy that will likely soon put her out of business entirely will, in fact, soon evolve into the greatest success story and blessing of Mama’s life, and mine, as well – “Il Sogno Americano!” (“The American Dream!”), realized, across three generations!

But this is not the place to be going into all of that. Triumph and Transformation are not yet a part of this story. This Christmas Eve – today — things look bleak. There is Hope and there are Miracles, as there always are! But at the moment, as far as she can see, Mama has nothing to hold onto but her own faith.

And that is what makes this a Christmas Story.

That’s the point of the Christmas Story, isn’t it? 

 “…God with us.” — Matthew 1:23

Discouraged, Despairing, and Downhearted – yet God is with us!


“The Universe…”

“Good Orderly Direction…”

Whatever you may call it, there is some power greater than ourselves!

Mama had her faith.

We all get to have our own faith.

Believe in what you will. Only, Believe!

Whether it would work out or not – and it might not! Hell, at this point, it looked certain that it would not! But as long as we have faith that God is with us, we will be okay!

“This or something better,” as Johnnie would always say.

“God gives burdens, also shoulders,” as Frenchie would add.

Vaffanculo!” as Mama would conclude, addressing them both. Then they would all laugh.

All the things that would grow from that dark moment… Things we could not see yet…

Miracles, like seeds planted in the dark dank earth that grow the wheat that makes the bread…

Was there to be a Miracle for us?

Yes! There would be!

Would it have to do with that young Israeli Girl who spoke Hebrew standing in the bakery after everyone had cleared out as if to reveal her? …that woman carrying an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes under the Christmas Star?

Would it happen because Mama did the right thing, gave her bread and a couple of bucks?

Who knows?

Maybe that was just coincidence.

Just like maybe it was coincidence that the figures of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus disappeared from the Creche when this girl with the baby suddenly appeared in the center of Mama’s Panetteria, and then reappeared the moment they left.

The Course in Miracles says, “There is no such thing as coincidence and chance plays no part in God’s plan.”

I believe that. But to me it is clear that the appearance of the girl was not the real Miracle. 

The Miracle is not in what happens to us, but in how we respond. We are the Miracle!

Mama showed up for her Life. The girl appeared, poor and in need. Mama gave her bread and money – without even thinking about it — because that’s who Mama is!

The Miracle wasn’t the appearance of the girl. The Miracle was Mama, taking action!

Even greater was the Miracle of the Day — that day, as every day, Mama put her hands in dough, and she baked bread. 

Mama’s secret was that her hands were always lightly covered in Olive Oil whenever she handled the dough — not Extra Virgin Olive Oil which has a lower maximum heating temperature before it burns and a stronger flavor which would not be desired here (I have learned so much about baking bread!), but real Olive Oil. This provides slightly more crisp to the outside crust, a lighter inside, and a hint of irresistible barely identifiable, almost neutral flavor, resulting in a loaf somewhere between bread and focaccia, but much closer to bread – it was the difference of the human touch, with which no machine can ever compete.

That was one of the secrets that these businessmen paid so dearly to have Mama bring to the table – the other, more important, and unmatchable, was over fifty years of experience baking bread!

Mama showed up for her Life.

That’s what mattered.

Her Life was baking bread – so, even when all seemed lost, she showed up for her Life!

That was the true Miracle!

That is the Miracle that each of us has within our power at every moment of our Lives.

Just show up for the Life we have!

We need only Live the Miracle of our Life! …on Life’s Terms!

…Because our Life itself is the Miracle!

God With Us means Yes, We Can! And that Miracle is always, always available to us!

Christmas Eve… Christmas Day… In the bleak midwinter… 

When the Priest refuses you Communion…

When the Foreman smashes your hand between two bricks and disables you!

When your family is sent back across the ocean to die in the Holocaust…

When the King of a Rival Tribe sells you and your spouse into Slavery…

When you are Different…

When you struggle with autism or mental illness…

When you care for someone who does…

When you are Gay growing up in the Bronx and it feels you are the only one…

When as a young girl you find yourself pregnant and ostracized and scared…

When you are faced with a choice that feels impossible to make…

When you live with the choices you’ve made…

When you feel you have no support…

When it all feels hopeless…

Even when it feels like you can’t go on one more day…

Your Life is a Miracle!

Live the Miracle Now!

This Christmas Eve, early in the morning, it appeared that Mama’s greatest Love and her lifelong enterprise would fail. She would likely lose the very building her father had constructed with his own broken hands to make her dream come true, and it looked as if we would lose our home (We’re Italian. We live upstairs!) It was a dark moment, and anyone would have thought it reasonable to just give up at that point, and stop believing. But not Mama. 

After she said goodbye to her friends, Mama walked into the back, took a moment, and looked at her hands. Then, she dipped her hands lightly in olive oil, put her hands into a sizeable mound of dough; she slammed it onto the large wood board tabletop. She kneaded into it the passion, rage, struggle, broken-heartedness, faith, hope, history, and all the feelings that swirled around within and through her. She went right back to work, showing up for her life, as she proclaimed, “Un Fornaio Cuoce!” (“A Baker Bakes!”)

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  1. Every year I look forward to receiving your wonderful Christmas card, which often also acts as a great Happy New Years card. Best wishes to you for a fantastic 2022!

  2. Ann Masotti

     /  February 15, 2022

    Arnold, thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Stay well safe and most of all healthy. With love and blessings, Annie:)


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