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Easter Mass Mania, Miracles, and Garbage Blobs

When it came to their theology, my Roman Catholic Italian-American stepfamily was conspicuously pious, especially during the Holy Week that preceded Easter Sunday.

My Nonna Kate would pray each Holy Day to her frozen Holy Zucchini, on which only she saw an image of the Madonna. She would sit at her kitchen table, fingering her rosary beads while tearfully chanting the Rosary’s various mysteries. All this bogus piety was belied by the Kent cigarette dangling from her lips and the tumbler full of Carlo Rossi Hearty Burgundy—her “nectar of life”—within easy reach. It also didn’t help that most of the time she acted decidedly unChristian, loving ostentation and practicing bigotry towards most non-Italians.

Alameda Post - a large zucchini

Nonna Kate was greatly disturbed by my unwillingness to embrace her religion. One of the worst arguments we had was after I described my intentionally superficial understanding of Christianity. In as snarky a tone as a 16-year-old could muster, I began my descent into deliberate heresy.



“Nonna, my understanding of Christianity is that the mythical, slave-driving, murderous and hateful God of the Old Testament decided that Its creation was out of control, so It incarnated as the mythical Jesus, then sacrificed Itself to Itself for sins committed against Itself. It’s mythology!”

Nonna Kate glared at me. “OK, you little smartass,” she said, “you’re coming with me and the rest of the family to Easter Mass at Saint Joseph Basilica. Then you can tell a priest about your stupid theory.”

I responded to her with my inherent cynicism. “Nonna, I’ve never known you or anybody else in this family to pray or go to church unless something was wrong, and they figured that pleading to God would fix it. So, what’s up?”

Alameda Post - a bottle of burgundy and a smoking sign

Nonna glared at me more intensely, and then barked, “All right, piccolo (wise guy). You think you’re so smart. We’re all going to Mass to pray to God for your Uncle Dante to find his false teeth. He was drunk, took them out and left them somewhere. We’ve called all the bars he goes to, with no luck. He can’t remember where he went that night. New dentures cost around $2,000, so we need to find those teeth!”

After I stopped laughing, I asked, “Is that why he sounds like he has a bad cold? No teeth? How does he eat?”

Nonna shook her head. “The poor old wreck makes his own dinner out of eggs and any soft leftovers he finds in the fridge,” she explained. “It’s kind of a gooey, mushy frittata he calls a ‘garbage blob.’”

Alameda Post - a baking dish with an unidentifiable yellow blob in it

I was laughing again, then agreed to temporarily cease my outspoken atheism and attend Easter Mass with Nonna Kate, Aunt Margaret, Uncle Dante, and Cousin Donna and her new boyfriend, a very handsome, tanned, blonde kid she called “Joey Six-Pack.”

On Easter Sunday, as the family gathered outside the ornate and imposing St. Joseph’s Basilica, I spotted a strikingly beautiful couple, 17-year-old long-haired, brunette Cousin Donna and the tall, broad-shouldered and muscular Joey Six-Pack. I really wanted to find out why the kid was called Joey Six-Pack, hoping to score some beer.

Cousin Donna was entering her senior year at St. Joseph’s high school, and she and her female friends practiced the annoying affectation of referring to themselves in the third person. As I approached, she lashed out at me with her usual animosity. “What is the Fat Wonder doing here? He’s not even Catholic! Donna wants to know!”

I ignored her meanness and headed for Joey Six-Pack, who was laughing and smiling. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and I asked “Why Joey Six-Pack?”

Alameda Post - Water polo players
Wikipedia photo.

He blushed, then responded, “That’s from Donna. She and her ditzy friends went to watch a water polo match at Alameda High, and when I got out of the pool, she saw my six-pack abs and went wild. My name’s Joe Bertolucci, but she calls me Joey Six-Pack. She’s nuts, like the rest of her family.”

I agreed, and when Donna walked over to join us, I couldn’t resist saying, “Donna, you’re so lucky. Today at church you get to sit between Joey Six-Pack and Beer-Belly Gil.” Joey roared with laughter as Donna glared at me and snarked, “Donna hates every cell of you!”

When we entered the church, the six of us sat in a center pew, with Nonna Kate in the aisle seat. I sat between a drunken, sleepy Uncle Dante and a happy Cousin Donna, who was blissfully cooing at Joey.

Aunt Margaret looked at me and Uncle Dante, and then said, “Isn’t Dante funny? He can fall asleep anywhere.”

Just as I was about to respond, “He’s always plastered,” we heard Nonna Kate yell “Strega! Diavolo!” (Witch! Devil!)

Alameda Post - a silhouette of a witch on a broomstick

I turned to her as Aunt Margaret yelped, “Oh dear God, Rose Fanucci just walked in. She married my Uncle Johnny, mom’s brother, and he died three months later. She got his house and all his money, and now mom despises her.”

Rose stood, pointed at Nonna Kate, and bellowed in discordant Italian, “Pettagolezzo! Idiota! Che il diavolo ti dia la stitichezza!”

Joey was wide-eyed from the sudden nasty dispute between two old Italian ladies at church when he asked me, “What the hell did they say?”

Aunt Margaret was flushed with embarrassment and responded, “Mom called her a witch and a devil, and Rose called her a gossip and an idiot and said that she hopes the devil gives mom diarrhea!”

Joey and I burst out laughing. Nonna Kate, not to be outdone, continued her attack in English.

“That witch Rose Fanucci poisoned my brother! One time he went to the kitchen to stir the spaghetti sauce, and there was something swimming in it! Another time the witch served him a piece of lasagna, and when he stuck his fork in it, it ran off his plate!”

Alameda Post - a piece of lasagne

The congregation was mesmerized as Nonna continued. “Pagano’s Hardware delivers new brooms to the witch every month. One night, I was sleeping, and heard something on the roof. I got a flashlight, went outside and there was Rose and her broom. I asked her nicely ‘Rose, since you’re up there, can you sweep the gutters and tweak my TV antenna? Channel 5 is kind of fuzzy.’ She cackled, flew off and landed on top of the train bridge. She’s a devil, a witch. She wears her hair like that to hide her devil horns. On Halloween, she’s so scary that the kids give her candy!’”

Finally, a well-coiffed parishioner behind us yelled, “Basta! Enough! It’s Easter, for Christ’s sake!”

Nonna Kate, still bombastic, turned to her and bellowed, “Mind your own business, big nose!”

The parishioner’s husband then became irate. “How dare you talk to my wife like that?” he bellowed.

Nonna Kate laughed, then barked, “I’m not talking to her, I’m talking to you.”

Alameda Post - the outside of St. Joe's and church pews

At that point, a well-dressed man approached the pew from behind, and said softly, “Folks, this behavior is intolerable and disgraceful. You must leave now.” The six of us filed out, silently and quickly, as the congregation applauded.

Nonna Kate was still animated, fuming and unapologetic. Cousin Donna was whimpering and weeping as Joey Six-Pack walked off, humiliated by Nonna Kate’s outrageous display. I was bemused and stunned and waited for the next unfoldment of this strange event.

I didn’t have to wait long. Uncle Dante sidled up to me and said, “Gil, it’s a miracle! I remember where I left my teeth. They’re at the Bombay Bicycle Room bar on Broadway in Oakland near Jack London Square. I was laughing so hard at the bartender’s jokes that my teeth fell out, and I wrapped them in a napkin. So, here’s the plan. I’ll tell the rest of the gang to go to the Elegant Farmer restaurant in Jack London Square. I’m too bombed to drive, so you can drive my van to the bar, then I’ll grab my teeth, and we’ll get to the restaurant before they do. Your Aunt Margaret will think it’s a miracle! Her prayers worked on Easter!”

The miracle of the missing teeth didn’t curb my atheism, but I did try praying for six-pack abs.

Alameda Post - a model of teeth

Gil Michaels knows the Easter Bunny personally at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gil-Michaels.

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