An essay by Donna Frietas in which she discusses her first novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood.
Italians never tell a story in a straight line. Its because they like to talk so much. Digressions are the hallmarkWait, youre telling me I never told you about the time your grandmothers brother Geista showed up in a long black limo to the wedding and your aunt thought he was in the Mafia? Before I can go any further Ive gotta tell you that one
The longer the story, the more reason to keep sipping that glass of wine or cup of espresso and eating more of that yummy sfogliatelle. And hands, always big, dramatic gestures with the hands.
If you could see Antonia Lucia Labella talkshed be gesticulating wildly. Always.
Growing up, my favorite stories of all were the ones that my mother, Concetta Lucia, and my grandmother, Amalia, used to tell about the two enormous fig trees behind the familys Italian marketGoglias (its still open, in Bristol, RI)where my mother spent her youth in the tiny apartment above the store. I never tired of her stories about how she got in trouble for plucking the biggest, juiciest figs for herself, and especially about how difficult it was to keep those trees alive during the harsh Rhode Island winters, when the whole neighborhood would come together to help my great-grandfather with the fig-tree burying.
Thats why I couldnt help but begin Antonias story with figs and fig trees.
In my house, growing up, everything was always a drama. You didnt just laugh, you laughed until tears poured down your face. A joke always went so far that it became ridiculous, and so at least one person in the house, usually Grandma, stormed off to her room muttering a string of Italian swear words under her breath. You didnt yell, you screamed. (Dont worry, youd make up later) If you wanted something, you dug in your heels until you got it. Stubbornness was a sign of character. Food, food was personal. Serious business. Eating was how you showed love, and cooking was a statement of faith. And speaking of faith, if you lost somethingbecause you always did at some point or anotheryou prayed to St. Anthony and he would find it. He would. That was his job.
We were a pretty typical, Italian Catholic family, I think. (Yes, my last name is Portuguesethats from my dads side, but believe you me, my Italian grandmother made a big stink over my mother not marrying an Italian boy. She eventually got over itthen Grandma moved in with us.)
In many ways The Possibilities of Sainthood is an ode to growing up Roman Catholic in an Italian household, and how praying for the saints to intercede on one matter or another is as regularly a part of life as eating pasta. When I embarked on pursuing a Ph.D. in religion at Catholic University, not only did I study the history of the saints in the Catholic tradition, but I learned to appreciate and love the significance the saints always had in my own familys humble, everyday Catholicism. And especially how the saints seemed ripe for comedy. How can you not see the humor in the fact that the Patron Saint of Headaches, St. Denis, died by beheading, and is always portrayed holding his head in his hands?
To me, becoming the first ever living saint in Catholic history was simply the epitome of how a nice Italian Catholic girl like Antonia would imagine royaltyher own unique way of being a princess.
Some people dont like melodrama. Or taking something so far it seems over the top. For me, thats just life as Ive always known it. Thats what family is about. Thats how I could imagine a girl named Antonia Lucia Labella writing the Vatican every month of her life since she was seven, questing after living sainthood. Its grandiose, stubborn, a tad ridiculous, and oh so hilariously Catholic. You cant get more Italian than that.