The Rites (Wrongs) of Spring

Isabel and Dave. Isabel Bearman Bucher
© Copyright 2000 by Isabel Bearman Bucher

It was the Forties, the war years. Small town Connecticut. We were the children of immigrants - Old Country Italians.

It happened every spring. The ritual. I seriously contemplated running away.


Zia Irma would appear in our yards. The harbinger of the rites(wrongs), dressed in her usual black crepe dress, strewn with cabbage roses, covered by a cotton apron. White socks were rolled down below the ankles. She'd be shod in burgundy slippers, because they had leather soles, which made them sturdy for the holy deed. I'd run over and throw my arms around her ample middle. Zia Irma - oregano, fried egg plant and faultless starch.

She'd be smiling down at me, holding that unmistakable object of extraction - that unmitigated horrific tool - a serrated grapefruit knife, curled up at the end. Torture device of La Famiglia DeBernardi Women's Torture Corp. Time to gather the tender spring dandelions, pushing up in the Branford, Connecticut sun.

"Oh no!" David, my brother, would howl from a safe distance, over by the chicken coop.

"Oh Deo!" I'd brave, out of any adult earshot, changing to "God, " adding "Lousy, Oh, crummy."

Stage I: The Holy Inquisition.

Now herded into the kitchen, in front of us stood the solid line of war tanks; Zia Mimi, Momma and Nonna, my grandmother. Totally in control. Their heads would be bent slightly, assuming the inquisitor squint. "Stick out-a you tongue," Nonna would demand. "Ez-a got coats," she would diagnose. Mimi would pull down our eyelids. "Anemic," she'd adjudicate. Momma would be pinching our cheeks. "No color. Pale," she'd attest.

On the wood burning stove was the death potion. Boiled dandelions, all cowflop green, looking like wilted spiders crawling in the large pot. They told us we had to keep our blood strong.

"Pink Blood! Pink Blood! Pink Blood!" It blinked on and off like Vegas neon.

David would have his crocodile tears brimmed-up, collecting like raindrops on his thick, fringed lashes.

"Sissy!" I'd hiss sideways, sotto voce. "Hold your breath!"

Stage II: Torture, Part I.

Two grape jelly glasses, red stained from Nonno's vino roso would be filled. "Now! Drink! Beve tuto!" Nonna would bellow.

By then, David had collapsed into a heap, bawling, until his nose was running down his face onto his shirt.

"You wanna have no iron in-a-da blood, faint and die!" chorused the terror tacticians, quoting from their corpus of the spring rite (wrong.) "Boom! Finito! Drink!

Drink! Presto!"

I plugged my nose, attacked the glass and drank. I knew that if I kept holding my breath, it would only be a two gagger. But, David started, which caused a chain reaction. First Momma, then Mimi gagged. Nonna, holding firm, was tisk-tisking, all starchy perfect and holy.

"Done!" I'd howl, gasping for air, barreling through the kitchen screen, which flew open on its hinges. "Get it over, you sissy!" I'd hiss, looking in the pantry window.

Finally, weaving and gagging, David would join me.. "Good! Now you gonna be full of energy, with red blood." Nonna would bellow, giving Zia Irma the high five.

The women would turn. "You love-a you Nonna?" my grandmother would question, holding our her arms. Two other pairs extended.

And because we did, so much, we flew into them. Then, they would all sit down, absolved by kisses and hugs, to a nice, sweet cup of caffe robusto, and tell their war stories about anemia, pat each other on the back for being such good mothers, or gossip behind people's backs.

Every Italian woman had a gruesome story about somebody who'd croaked, from something, and there wasn't one around who didn't assess the quality of mothering as poor, if any kid got anemia. But it went farther than pink blood. God help us if we got a cold, or pin worms, a rash, or anything. It drummed across the Pisano tribal sky - to every ear, to every home. And, whatever IT was, IT was always the mother's fault While Penicillin had been out for 40 years, it was rarely given, because doctors and people believed that mother remedies and the body's own defenses were the best medicines. Mustarole was slathered on the chest for colds gone to the lungs, and then covered over with a huge plaster. A few days later, entombed in the bed, Momma or Mimi would grab a corner, and rip the whole thing off, starting fresh. You'd get steaming hot red wine, loaded with squeezed lemon and oranges, laced with honey, which made you umbriaco. Sweat poured off you, and royally drunk, you slept IT off. You had to get better. The cures were killing you.

Torture, Part II. Clean-out phase. Fletcher's Castoria

It was administered, deeply brown liquid, in a huge spoon, by Momma's Betty Grable red nails. If you protested, you got thrown on the floor, sat on, legs thrown over your arms. The nose was pinched, and in she went. The women formed a toidy cheerleading squad, and were present for the daily matinee, early performance, and sunrise surprise.

Torture, Part III. Rebuild. This-hurts-me-more-than-you-Cod Liver Oil.

We'd gag- swallow-gag-gag, dash for the blessed hose, blasting our mouths, while sinus, ears, nose, and for all we cared, eyeballs, filled up with water. We even ate dirt and leaves to kill the taste. If we let-er- rip, then came the red nails and spoon again.

Torture, Part IV. The lethal death assult protein hit.

Gathered daily from Nonna's hens, came the raw egg yolk in the shell. We'd be instructed to throw the whole thing into the mouth, and swallow quick. Finally in desperation, because David and I were heaving them back, quick as the crack, Momma filled the half shells with Sweet Vermouth.

"How!" I shrieked once, when I saw Momma weakening. "How are these things good for me! I'm dying! You're killing me!"

She only said she wouldn't do this unless she loved us, adding that someday I'd thank her, because the family was giving us a healthy, beautiful childhood. She ended with, " if you keep talking back, God is going to get you, and waituntilyourfathergetshome."

When I discovered that my daughters had thrown all their Flintstone vitamins under the house through a crack in the hall furnace floor, and also into the stereo speaker, I took it with a grain of salt. No pun intended. I just threatened them with dandelions, Fletcher's, Cod Liver Oil, and raw egg yolks, and told them God was going to get them, and waituntilyourfathergetshome.

How David and I didn't die of salmonella, develop hernias, become alcoholics, or have our throats permanently damaged from the gags and up-chucks, remains a miracle.

We never got anemic, or sick very much. We still don't.

We wouldn't dare.

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