Requiem for a Lady

It was a Tuesday, December 4, 2012, when members of the Whittier community came together to honor Dorothea Boyd, a gracious lady who had given so much of herself and who filled every day with life. My wife and I and some friends filed into the Ruth B. Shannon Center and went toward a section of seats located close to the stage. There seemed to be a number of seats available in the first row and I think we would have preferred to sit there, but for some unknown reason, we didn’t. Instead, we settled for the third row. People continued filing into the auditorium, but no one approached those choice seats. They were not roped off nor was there a sign indicating that they were reserved. I personally felt a sense of foreboding and consequently, avoided them. Perhaps others felt as I did, because they remained unoccupied throughout the evening.
The program began with a welcome and introductions by various speakers as well as a greeting from Dorothea’s family. There were eulogies and anecdotes and with each speaker I learned more about this woman with the delightful Australian accent. Many people spoke of how determined she was to get things done and how she was known as the go-to person who made things happen. And her wish to have her memorial at the Ruth B. Shannon Center did not escape the notice of those who knew her and eulogized her and who were obviously pleased that her wish was coming to pass even as they spoke.
As I sat in the auditorium, I thought back on my first meeting with Dorothea. It was at First Friends Church when I became a member of the writing group which met there each week. Dorothea and I had spoken several times and I think at least twice, the subject centered on the song, Waltzing Matilda. I had always been fond of that song and after meeting Dorothea and speaking with her it became a matter of the song reminding me of the lady and the lady reminding me of the song. I found Waltzing Matilda to be a pleasingly haunting song, which one should avoid hearing first thing in the morning if one does not plan to spend the day with it.
The memorial’s program progressed from one segment to another, interspersed with eulogies and anecdotes and accolades on Dorothea’s behalf by so many: And there were, as well, offerings by musicians who filled the hall with their gifts.
As I sat there in the auditorium reviewing the memorial’s program, I was pleased to see that Waltzing Matilda would be part of it: And I thought, how could it not?
Then finally, near the end of the program, came the members of Chorale BelCanto who were about to leave with me an indelible memory of a very fine lady whom I wished I had known better.
They sang a rendition of Waltzing Matilda which far surpassed any that I had heard previously. Sung in a style of an a cappella four-part harmony, their voices filled the hall with aesthetic brilliance. This simple Australian folk song of rustic elegance was sung with such harmonic precision and balance as to have a disarming effect on at least one member of the audience who was moved to tearful pleasure.
It was then that I came to realize what was happening: She was there! Dorothea was there with us in the auditorium. After all I had heard of the things this lady was capable of accomplishing, I wouldn’t put it past her. She was somehow able to keep those five front-row seats unoccupied and there she was, in the center of them, not alone of course, because true to her gracious character, she had also invited several of her old friends to join her.
Now I realize that the weight of evidence in the case I present leans heavily towards faith; so those of an agnostic temperament might assert the uncertainty of my claim. And I cannot say that I actually saw her because I didn’t. But I knew! In my heart of hearts, I just knew that the Ruth B. Shannon Center was filled with more than a mere tangible audience. It was a memorial both temporal and spiritual, which may have gone unnoticed by those unaware of the presence of the guest of honor and her friends seated in five seemingly unoccupied front-row seats, in an otherwise packed house. It had to have been just as I claim. From what I have learned of Dorothea’s personality, she would not have missed it for the world and true to form, she went out with grace and with dignity and with style.

[Article by Salvatore DiVita  -  all rights reserved. This essay first appeared in Once Upon a Time: With or Without Classic Rhyme, the 2013 publication of the Memoir Writing Group, Whittier, California.]

[Photo of cover of memorial program in the author's collection]

The Philco Radio

It was September of 1939, when my family moved from the tenements of the lower east side of Manhattan to an apartment in Brooklyn.  Shortly after the move, we experienced a milestone in our lives.  My father had purchased a Philco radio. It was a console which stood about four feet high and built entirely of wood with a glossy finish which emphasized the beauty of its natural rich grain.  I’m not sure how much money my father paid for it, probably sixty or seventy dollars which, to me, seemed like all the money in the world. 
There were six buttons lined up under the dial.  The buttons illuminated the most popular New York City radio stations.  If I wanted to change stations, I could do it by simply pressing a button and not bother with having to turn the knob.  It was wonderful. It was the future. 

The stories I heard from the radio were like reading without having to read. It was like watching a movie in my head as I listened.  Sounds turned into pictures. There was drama with music and narration and dialogue and sounds of things happening, placing me in the midst of it all.  Everything that came through the speaker directed my mind to see all that needed to be seen.  

There were sounds of storms and howling winds and footsteps and doors opening and closing.  Sometimes I heard voices of characters and decided what they looked like and how they were dressed.  I saw them get into cars and start them up and drive off away from me, the sounds of engines fading into the distance.  Other times I saw cop cars with blaring sirens, chasing robbers and I would get caught up in the excitement with their shouts and screams and the screeching of tires and a narrator warning me of a sharp turn ahead on a dangerous curve near the edge of a cliff and ending it all with a crash.  

There were stories of mystery and suspense which terrified me with sounds of the creaking door of a house, old, dark, dusty and dreary with ominous eerie organ music coming from nowhere. There were cobwebs and the feel of bone-chilling puffs of wind on the back of my neck and a sudden clap of thunder which caused me to imagine lightning as well.  Sometimes, the sounds I heard placed me in a frontier town of the old west, where an approaching stage coach and neighing horses came to a slow clip-clop, blending sounds with a myriad of voices of town folks, welcoming travelers.  

I was sometimes on horseback with cowboys who rode in from the range and got off their horses and I heard boots on wooden boards walking toward the sound of a clinking piano which got louder as we entered the saloon. I recognized all the characters by voice, the cowboys and the gun slinger, the old prospector, the town marshal and the bar keep.
There were stories upon stories, narrating pictures, seemingly without limit. These were but a few of the sounds which came through the speaker of the Philco radio to prod our imaginations and transport us from Brooklyn to other places.

My brothers and I loved comedy as well and liked listening to programs such as Abbott and Costello, Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Baby Snooks, Blondie and Fibber McGee and Molly.  The Philco brought us the big bands playing tunes like Chattanooga Choo Choo and String of Pearls and I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire and Elmer’s Tune and Amapola, but my all-time favorite was Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love, sung by Bonnie Baker.  Never having seen Bonnie Baker, I could only imagine what she looked like and even at my young age, my image of her could set the pituitary gland working overtime. 

The year 1941 was drawing to a close and we had been living in Brooklyn for two years. My mother had prepared an outstanding Thanksgiving turkey feast, but my thoughts were on Christmas.  Christmas meant a Christmas tree with a nativity scene including a manger and presents.  Just the mere anticipation of Christmas made the Christmas season seem that much longer and more enjoyable.  We were looking forward to a splendid Christmas with a house full of relatives.  And, of course, we looked forward to welcoming the New Year as well, but then something happened. 

On the first Sunday in December, about two or two-thirty in the afternoon, there seemed to be some kind of commotion outside our building and in the hallways: the neighbors sounded excited about something.  They shouted words I had never heard before, words like “Pearl Harbor” and “Japanese.”  We were barely able to understand it all, but apparently something bad had happened at a place called Pearl Harbor.  We immediately turned on the Philco and listened to the news bulletin announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor by planes from Japan.  

The very next day we listened to what became known as the Day of Infamy Speech, delivered to Congress by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he described the deliberate attack on Pearl Harbor by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.  Needless to say, our up-coming Christmas season was less merry and less happy than we had anticipated.  Our Philco, credited with bringing so much joy and entertainment to us in the form of drama, laughter and music, now delivered a bitter taste of reality as well and we entered the year 1942 immersed in a state of war.

The declaration of war by the United States against Japan, in a sense, turned the page to a new chapter in our lives and radio stations began focusing their programs on the war effort.  Our Philco now began filling the house with songs such as, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There, We Did it Before and We Can Do it Again, There’ll be Blue Birds Over the White Cliffs of Dover, When the Lights go on Again All Over the World, and I’ll be Home for Christmas, and that was just a fewAmerica loved a song with a message, so when the song, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,  hit the airwaves, the nation heard it as a call to duty as did my two oldest brothers who left home for Europe and the South Pacific.   

[Article by Salvatore DiVita --  all rights reserved]  

[Philco radio photo By Joe Haupt from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

[FDR speech photo By United States Government. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Who was Antonio Salieri?

My most recent article is about Antonio Salieri.  It has just been published by L'Italo-Americano.  

You can read Part One of Who Was Antonio Salieri?  now at


The Story of Maewyn Succat

In the 4th century AD, a man called Calpornius and his wife Conchessa were sent by Rome to Britain to serve as deacon, civil official, town councilor and generally to oversee Roman interests. Information about this couple is very sparse, but the year is believed to have been around 380 AD, a time when Great Britain wasn’t so great since it was under the rule of the Roman Empire. After several years, the couple produced a son whom they named Maewyn. Now, it was the law decreed by Rome that any child born of a Roman citizen anywhere in the world was also a Roman citizen. So, Maewyn, the Roman citizen, being the son of well-to-do parents, enjoyed the good life, but lived a pagan lifestyle which was far from the church’s teachings his father represented. God was not a part of his life.

When Maewyn was about 16 years old, his village was invaded by a gang of Irish marauders who abducted him and sold him into slavery. He served as a slave, tending the sheep of an Irish chieftain. It was during these years of enslavement that Maewyn had placed the blame for his present situation squarely on himself, viewing it as a punishment for turning away from God. Sometime during the years he tended the chieftain’s livestock, he experienced an epiphany of faith. The once carefree pagan boy had gradually become a deeply religious man who possessed a steadfast faith in God. He prayed often and his reverence for God grew even stronger. One night, in response to a voice that came to him in his sleep, he escaped from bondage and traveled hundreds of miles to a ship which brought him to France. From there he made his way back to Britain, but was ever mindful of the voice he heard in his sleep. Maewyn spoke also of a dream in which he described the first few words of a letter he received which read, “The voice of the Irish…” He said, “They shouted with one voice,” ‘We ask you boy, come and walk once more among us.’ In his dream he was devastated and could read no more. When he awoke from the dream, he felt a calling which burned in his soul. He would become a missionary to the pagan Irish who had enslaved him for six years. To prepare for the mission, Maewyn went to Auxerre, France where after much study, was ordained a deacon. He continued his studies under Bishop Germanus (St. Germain) and eventually expressed his desire for a mission to Ireland. Bishop Germanus recommended Maewyn to the pope. Pope Celestine granted that Maewyn return to Ireland to preach God’s word. It was at this time Pope Celestine gave Maewyn the name Patritius (Patrick), meaning “father of his people” and elevated him to the office of bishop.

Little is known of the hardships which he endured in Ireland, but among his writings was found evidence that he had been insulted and abused and bound in chains but that he endured these hardships for the good of others. He found that the pagan Irish had strange beliefs and seemed unable to grasp the concept of the Blessed Trinity. In Ireland, a small plant called the shamrock abounds to this day. It is a plant similar to a three-leafed clover. Patrick would pick them and use them to illustrate by example that each of the three leaves represents a person of the Holy Trinity, yet all three, attached to one stem, are but one entity just as there are three divine persons in one God. Much of the account of Patrick’s life which you read is gleaned from his Confession, a document he wrote entirely in Latin, shortly before his death. The Confession has been studied and debated endlessly by historians and scholars.

Finally, it seems that the controversy regarding Saint Patrick’s national origin has raged on for several centuries with no foreseeable end. Saint Patrick, a very great saint, is truly loved by many around the world, but simply loving someone does not automatically change their nationality. Historical documentation indicates that Saint Patrick originated from outside of Ireland, and that he entered Ireland twice in his lifetime, once as a slave and the other as a missionary. These historical facts, backed by documentation, speak for themselves. However, in addition to the law in effect at the time of his birth, the fact remains that Patrick was born of parents who were native to Rome, Italy. On that simple truth alone, he would be Italian by hereditary lineage and that fact, by its very nature, is not subject to controversynor is it likely to change. Therefore, Saint Patrick was indeed Italian by birth.


A Game of Chess

There is no love story like an Italian love story. Among the narratives of Italian folklore recounted over the years is one of a bloodless duel fought between two knights seeking the hand of the same lady. The story takes place over five centuries ago, in the town of Marostica, located in the foothills of the Asiago plateau of Vicenza province in the Veneto region of Northeastern Italy. It was here that Taddeo Parisio, lord of the castle ruled. It seems that Lord Parisio had two daughters: Lionora, who was said to possess such beauty as to make angels envious, and Oldrada, who was not beautiful, just extremely pretty.

The knights in question were Rinaldo D’Angarano and Vieri da Vallonara who could not repress their declarations of love for Lionora. So intense was the rivalry between the two that there was talk of an impending duel between them to win Lionora’s hand in marriage.

Now it was said that Lord Parisio, who was known for his wisdom, frugality and good business sense, felt that to lose a warrior in a duel would be counterproductive. These were two of his most valued knights. Knights function best as warriors, he reasoned, and should not be engaged in peacetime squabbles. Consequently, he decreed that to avoid the spilling of blood and to preserve the honor of both knights the conflict between the two would be settled in a game of chess. The contest would test their reasoning abilities, talents and strategies as well as their ability to perform under the mental and emotional strain of adverse and demanding circumstances.

In keeping with his decree, Lord Parisio invoked an edict that the contest would involve a gigantic chessboard with human chess pieces, the grandeur of which would allow thousands of spectators to attend. The victor of the match would win the hand of the beautiful lady Lionora while the vanquished would be offered the hand of Oldrada. In that way, both the knights would enjoy the additional reward of becoming members of the royal family. Since there could be only one winner, both knights agreed to accept the outcome of the contest, win or lose.

Many foreign dignitaries, such as the Lords of Angarano and Vallarona, were invited along with the nobles of nearby cities and members of other royal families. Lord Parisio also ordered a parade of armed infantrymen, knights on horseback, heralds, nobleman, falconers, standard bearers, musicians, acrobats, fire eaters, farmhands and villagers: all in honor of this historic event.

The staging of a full scale chess board was organized in the piazza below the castle with a gigantic chess board consisting of sixty-four squares, each measuring approximately four feet by four feet. On opposite ends of the chess board were human chess “pieces” representing competing armies—an army in black consisting of a king, a queen, two bishops, two knights and two castles with their pawns to the front, all facing the army in white at the other end of the piazza.

On a high pedestal, overlooking the giant chess board below, sat the Knights Rinaldo and Vieri with a chess table between them. To one side stood Lord Parisio who would observe the moves between the knights and direct the identical movements of each human chess piece below. Those overtaken by an opponent’s piece would retire to the opponent’s side, captured and out of the match. Most importantly, each player would have to prevent the capture of his king: the loss of the king meant the loss of the match.

The human chess pieces moved from one square to another in a manner particular to its character. The king, of course moved on his own, unassisted, as did the bishop. But when the queen moved, it was with the assistance of two pages following dutifully behind keeping the train of her royal robe from touching the ground. The knight, on horseback, moved with the assistance of his squire whose job it was to lead the horse by the halter to the designated square and to keep the horse calm. The only non-human piece was the castle, a seven foot cylindrically-shaped object topped with a turret, moved from square to square by two pages. To the front of the royal entourage were eight pawns, also moving about unassisted.

As the two knights pitted their skills, one against the other, each was careful to protect his king from being captured. The Ladies Lionora and Oldrada watched the movements of the match intensely from high above. Both ladies hoped that Rinaldo would lose the match, but for different reasons, because each was harboring her own secret.

As the match progressed, chess pieces from both sides were captured and retired to the enemy’s camp. Rinaldo’s moves were ingenious, capturing many of Vieri’s pieces. Vieri retaliated as best he could by taking many of Rinaldo’s pieces. Then suddenly, Vieri began to move his pieces with such strategic skill as to place Rinaldo’s king in the tenuous position of being captured. Then, after several more moves, Vieri announced, “Check mate.” Rinaldo’s king had been captured and the match was over with Vieri declared the victor.

Unknown to anyone were the secrets harbored by each of the lord’s daughters. Oldrada, the younger of the two had been in love with Knight Rinaldo from the time she was a little girl but she was too shy to mention a word of it to anyone. She was a gracious, warmhearted and kindly young lady devoid of pride. So in love with Rinaldo was she that she would willingly accept him as her husband unconditionally.

Conveniently, Lionora’s secret serves to tie up any loose ends to this story. You see, long before the chess match, she and Vieri had been deeply involved in an ongoing love affair. So it was important to Lionora, as well as to her sister Oldrada, that Knight Vieri emerge victoriously.

Over five centuries have passed since the first human chess match. In memory of this ancient event, the people of Marostica prepare this special game with all its pomp and pageantry. The event lasts two hours with more than 500 characters including clowns, acrobats, townspeople and the like all dressed in renaissance costumes. It takes place during the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday in September during even numbered years.

Now's the time to plan for 2014, so what are you waiting for?   Buon viaggio!

[Image at the Marostica website ] 

La Befana: An Italian After-Christmas Story

The celebration of Christmas in Italy begins on December 25th and lasts for twelve days, ending on Epiphany, January 6th. This concept is an absolute delight for Italian children who look forward to the secret visits of both gift givers: Babbo Natale for Natale and La Befana for Epifania.  As a matter of fact, the mere mention of the word Epifania goes hand in hand with the concept of La Befana and visions of an old witch riding around on a broom.  
La Befana, was a senior citizen who was never without her broom.  At first, she was thought to be an evil witch, but no one actually knew why.  It was no secret that Befana spent much of her time cooking and cleaning in her little house.  And as she worked she sang, but when she sang her vocal cords released the most hideous screech ever heard by the human ear.  So terrible was the sound of her voice that the townspeople shuttered their doors and windows at the mere hint of being entertained by Befana.   However, no one could remember Befana doing anything wrong, except singing, so it seemed unfair to say that she was evil just because she sang.  Besides, she was Italian, and that’s what Italians do.  Eventually, society had undergone a change of attitude and rethought the concept of Befana from one of evil to one of good.  While this was happening, the story of Befana also acquired different versions.  Her story had changed over the years, having been told and retold by so many different story tellers.   Each story teller had his or her own personal way of telling it.    And so, the legend grew with diverse regional word-of-mouth interpretations from one generation to another resulting in variations on a theme.  
All versions, however, seemed to narrate a basic account of a simple woman who, on a clear evening, observed an unusually brilliant star in the heavens.  So bright, in fact, was the star, that Befana felt almost troubled by the sight of it and a bit concerned about its possible meaning.   She, of course, went back to her housework and tried not to think about the star, unaware that momentarily, she would encounter three wise men.  Suddenly, there came a knock. Upon answering the door, there on her door step stood an imposing trio complete with a procession of camels loaded down with gifts.   
The wise men, quite radiant in appearance but humble in manner, asked for food and lodging for the night and told how the great star was guiding them in their journey toward the town of Bethlehem where it was foretold that they would find the Christ Child. Befana obliged the travelers by sharing her food and humble home with them, but admitted that she had never heard of a place called Bethlehem.  
The next day, as the wise men prepared to depart they spoke again of their quest to pay homage to the Christ Child and invited Befana to accompany them.   Befana, somewhat embarrassed, declined the invitation, saying that she had no gift to offer the child, but her regal guests assured her that no gift was necessary and told her that the newly born king simply came into the world to make it a better place.  Befana was undecided and for the longest time, could not make up her mind.  Alas, the wise men could wait no longer. They finally took their leave and resumed their journey. 
Before too long, Befana had misgivings about declining the invitation. She decided to make a doll and bake some biscotti to take as gifts.  Then she followed the path taken by the wise men in hopes of catching up with them.  She ran and ran but could not find the way.  She ran so fast that she took flight on her broom. She flew all night but could find neither the journeymen nor the Christ Child. When she returned to her little house, she vowed never to give up trying to find the Christ Child and every year she flies around looking for the spirit of Christ in every child and leaves something for the children of Italy on the twelfth day of Christmas.  It is said that Befana forgets no one for she brings toys and treats for good little boys and girls and a shiny lump of coal for the questionable ones.
Merry Belated Christmas!    Buon Natale in Ritardo!

[image from Wikipedia at this link]

Il Presepio

The date is December 24, 1223.  Those in the cave are members of the village of Greccio, in the region of Lazio, Italy, brought together for the first re-creation of the birth of Jesus Christ by a monk known as Francis from the town of Assisi.    On a clear cold night, shepherds could be seen keeping vigil over their flocks, while in a nearby cave a man and woman gaze upon a tiny figure lying in a manger.  In the cave with them are several townspeople who have come to pay homage to the new king.  A small shepherd boy, trying not to be a bother, stands on tipped toes and stretches his neck to look over Joseph’s shoulder in hopes of getting a glimpse. There are also a flute player, an artisan and blacksmith to name a few.   And there within plain view of the manger can be seen three great figures in royal attire, kings, all three on their knees bearing gifts. 
The idea first came to him on the grassy hills outside of Greccio where it was quite common to see shepherds tending their flocks.  Francis often walked these hills watching this almost biblical scene and what he saw inspired him.  He would re-create a scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ as a way of conveying the ideas of Christmas as well as promoting the Christmas spirit to an illiterate congregation. To do this, he recruited townspeople and had them dress in biblical garments and he placed them in and around the cave on the outskirts of the village. He also added farm animals for authenticity.  In the manger was a true-to-life wax figure of the infant Jesus.  It was truly a sight to behold, and the event stirred much curiosity and interest across the land.
As the years passed, word of the nativity scene began to spread.  On Christmas Eve, families traveled far and wide to witness the spectacle. Over time, the nativity scene, or il presepio, as it is called in Italy, grew in popularity.  Other towns began featuring them and soon, people had individual nativity scenes in their homes by using wood-carved figurines.  Before long the Christmas nativity scene had spread throughout Western Europe.  As Catholicism flourished worldwide, so did the concept of the nativity.
Today in practically every country in the world, the nativity scene is used in the celebration of Christmas by Catholics and Protestants alike.  Children from one generation to the next attach themselves to these toy-like figurines and take pride in knowing the names of each character assembled around the manger.  
And it all happened because a Franciscan Friar, by this simple act and a desire to teach, had set into motion a chain of events which created a phenomenon that even he would probably never have imagined.    BUON NATALE!

[Nativity scene: Library of Congress Digital Prints and Photographs Online at this link.

Painting image: Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), Basilique Assise, Legend of St Francis, Institution of the Crib at Greccio. From
Wikipedia at this link.]