Years before I became Celeste Behe, CatholicMom.com Contributor, I was Celeste LaTassa, Kid-From-The-Bronx. At the time, I lived in a dumpy row home next door to a crazy opera singer, and a few lots down from a gutted social club.
It wasn’t easy being a LaTassa. A LaTassa kid got bullied on the neighborhood playground. A LaTassa kid got trainsick from riding in city subways. Worst of all, a LaTassa kid got weird birthday presents.
Now, my friends got good stuff for their birthdays. Joanne got a revolving lamp that cast peace signs on the bedroom wall. Stacey got a record case with bright blue fur and googly eyes.
But I always got jewelry. Gold jewelry. A gold cross. A gold heart. A gold horn (which, although worn by some of my fellow Italians to "keep away the evil eye," was still a really cool piece of jewelry for those of us who weren't superstitious). A gold "13" the size of a Kennedy half dollar. A gold charm with an etching of Raphael’s angel from the Sistine Chapel. And to put all this stuff on, a gold charm bracelet.
"Celeste, you need a bracelet or you'll lose the charms."
That's what my mom said, and she was right. I should know, because I tried to lose the charms. I especially tried to lose the Raphael’s angel charm, and when that failed, I tried bartering with my friends.
“Hey Marie, I have something to show you. Just look at this heart charm! 24 karat! I’ll trade it to you for your Tiger Beat magazines. C’mon, how 'bout it?"
"Hey Tony, I gotta offer you can't refuse. Your Godfather poster for my gold horn charm. Keep away the evil eye, whaddaya say?”
There’s only one reason I can think of that my parents bought me so much gold jewelry. They didn’t want me to be a writer. They wanted me to grow up to be the first Italian rapper. Just call me Soul Z Wiz Pastafazool.
It wasn’t easy being a LaTassa. LaTassa kids didn’t have individual birthday cakes. You see, my brother Joe is six years older than I am, but his birth date is only two days after mine. Joe’s birthday is May 21st, my birthday is May 23rd. So, we LaTassa kids got one birthday cake...on May 22nd. Two kids, one cake. I know what you’re thinking: Who blew out the candles? Well, there were no candles. There was no ice cream, either. There was only The Cake, or what we called the "cassata." Layers of rum-soaked sponge cake filled with cannoli cream and covered with whipped cream, and with sliced almonds pressed into the sides.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Great, you can have it.
The fact is, I was sick and tired of cassata. Every year, Mom would go to Gino the baker and say, “Gino, I need you to make me a cassata, a nice cassata. And don’t skimp on the almonds like you did last time.”
Last time? Hah, every year I wished was the last time I'd see that cake. I was desperate for a normal birthday cake like the ones my friends had. My neighbor Angie got a flower power cake with edible daisies. My friend Richie got a chocolate cake with little Batman and Robin figurines on top, and yellow icing that said "Pow" and "Wham" and "Happy Birthday Richie."
You know what I got on my cake? The same thing year after year. My name and age, and my brother’s name and age: "Celeste 2, Joe 8"; "Celeste 5, Joe 11"; "Celeste 10, Joe 16". Every year my birthday cake looked like a scoreboard. And every year, my brother won the game.
It wasn’t easy being a LaTassa. A LaTassa kid got weird birthday parties. There were usually two guests. Both of them were about 100 years old, and both of them were named "Nonna." The two Nonnas and the rest of the family would sit around a table on which were the cassata and a bottle of Rosolio, a red Italian cordial with a 22% alcohol content. Joe and I were each allowed one half ounce of Rosolio. But the grownups could drink as much as they wanted. So it wasn't long before my mom - who was quite fond of Rosolio - would put down her glass, squint at the cassata, and exclaim that Gino had "skimped on the almonds again."
"Where's the telephone?" Mom would ask excitedly, a little louder than was necessary. (Hers was an odd question, considering that our rotary telephone was five feet away and attached to the kitchen wall.) "Where's that phone? I'm going to call Gino and demand my money back!"
Young as I was, it occurred to me that my mom would not have had to fret about getting her money's worth of sliced almonds if she hadn't spent so much money on gold jewelry.
That was then. But do you know what? These days, my very best birthdays include a slice of cassata, a few ounces of Rosolio, and a nice gift of gold jewelry.
It isn't too surprising, really. The fact is that, as we age, we tend to develop an appreciation for the things that we once took for granted, or for which we once had little regard. Faith can be one of those things.
Many baptized Catholics who have fallen away will gradually be drawn to return to what the organization Catholics Come Home calls "the treasures of the Catholic faith." An outreach designed especially for lapsed Catholics, Catholics Come Home employs mass media to evangelize those "feeling a tug at their hearts."
The organization's website features a variety of resources to facilitate the journey home, including catechetical "evangomercials" and compelling answers to dozens of common questions about the Faith. The group's latest project, a television series called “Catholics Come Home,” recently debuted on EWTN. The program consists of interviews with former atheists, agnostics, Protestant Christians, and fallen-away Catholics who came home as a result of the Catholics Come Home ministry.
With the help of outreaches like Catholics Come Home, Catholic "reverts" experience a newfound appreciation for the Faith, which is "of greater worth than gold." (1 Peter 1:7)
Even if the gold is 24 karat.
Copyright 2014 Celeste Behe
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