Saint Joseph’s Day in Providence


Today is Saint Joseph’s Day.  Yes, Saint Patrick was two days ago, we know, believe me; there are lots of Irish-Americans in Rhode Island / Massachusetts.  But Italians revere Saint Joseph, and today – March 19 – is a special day here.  Mostly you celebrate by eating sweet Italian cream puffs called zeppole (which can be translated as “little Joes”).  In my office (under the auspices of the almighty Apollonia), we celebrate Patrick and Joseph together, with a buffet of Irish soda bread and zeppole from a reputable local Italian bakery.



Rhode Island has a proud and richly diverse Italian-American community.  I’m only a quarter-Italian myself, but I speak the language – badly, nowadays – and that’s the magic key into any ethnic community.



My Sicilian-American boss back in the 1980s had six sisters; he was the only boy.  I was adopted into the family, as I had no local family (which is automatically grounds for being adopted into a traditional Italian family).  Also, since I spoke Italian, I could converse with Mamma (then in her nineties), and was often seated next to her at family events.



This was a big mistake.



She used the opportunity for all it was worth.  “All those little girls,” she told me in trembling old-lady Italian.  “And finally I had my little boy, my Severinuccio.  He is my jewel.  He still is.”



I look up at the family sitting around the table – mind you, these are people in their fifties and sixties and seventies – and the girls, Annunziata and Costantina and Preziosa, are all praying that I’m not understanding what Mamma is saying.  And Severino, my boss, is glowing, knowing (one more time) that he’s his mother’s jewel.



Then Mamma begins with the torture. 



“That one,” she says (in Italian), pointing to Costantina, a dignified retired schoolteacher, “peed her pants all the time.  And that one – ” (this time pointing at Preziosa) “ – wouldn’t go to school.  I had to beat her.”  (Preziosa had recently retired from a teaching post at a local university.)



On and on it went.  Mamma was enjoying this: it was her revenge on her daughters, for whatever reason.  Horribly enough, my boss, Severino, didn’t seem to notice that his sisters were made uncomfortable by this.  After all, he knew that he was his mother’s jewel.



One sister never appeared at these dinners: Susanna.  Finally one of the sisters told me: “Her husband’s on the lam.  They have to lay low.  Besides, you’d be shocked by Susanna. She’s very vulgar.”



Susanna (AKA Susie) showed up at Easter one year, and I finally met her.  She was draped in a fur coat, and she was wonderful.  She told me dirty jokes all night, and I told her a few, and we had a wonderful time. 



And the family was scandalized by both of us.



(This was many years ago.  I’ve fallen out of touch with the family.  I’m sure Mamma has left us.  Probably some of the sisters too.)



(But what a wonderful family.)



Now: zeppole for everybody!



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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