I am from a large Irish-Italian Catholic family. My Grandpa Red was the youngest boy in his rangy Scotch-Irish-American family, and he was doted upon by his older sisters. I can still picture them all, sitting around the green Formica table in my Nonna's kitchen. Aunt Ella, Aunt Babs and Aunt Alice, with their wide shoulders, heavy bosoms, white hair, red cheeks, flashing eyes and lilting voices.
I can hear them still — their voices thick with laughter, saying, "Not at'tall. Not at'tall" — and I was like a magnet drawn toward that cooing clutch of ladies … until I had to sneeze.
When I felt the first itch of a sneeze coming on, I ran straight to the bathroom, or hid behind Nonna's big L-shaped couch. Because a sneeze in that kitchen elicited an Irish blessing that seemed to my 6-year-old ears to last about 20 minutes.
It went something like "May Jesus and St. Bridget and St. Patrick, and the seven sacred saints, and all the angels in Heaven, protect you from the devil, and all of his minions, and may God always guard you and keep you from the dark of the night to the light of the morning." And that is a short version.
Heaven forbid if I had more than one sneeze. An hour of my life could be gone, used up in standing silent and respectful — and mostly trying not to sneeze again — so the angels and saints could be evoked to protect my hay-fever-itchy nose.
I thought a nice "God bless you" would have more than sufficed. But I was an all-American kid, and the saints were faraway icons to me, the heroes of grotesque stories of men suffering horrible deaths, and pitiful girls who had seen Mary and then had miserable lives because of it.
But the saints were real flesh and blood to my Irish aunts. The lives and examples and protection offered by each saint was personal. I remember Aunt Alice talking about namesake St. Alice's feast day as if it were her own birthday.
It seemed to me that in that generation, each person had an older, scarier, more pious version of themselves, after whom to model their lives, and to whom to appeal for very detailed intervention.
From my late baby boomer perspective, saints were unfortunate people from long ago about whom I mostly learned from movies.
I credit the 1943 movie "The Song of Bernadette" for my choice of my confirmation name. Jennifer Jones played poor Bernadette with such intelligence and innocence — and Vincent Price was such a pompous and easily hateable bad guy — it was easy to want to be like her.