Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome But Mostly Creepy Childhood

Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome But Mostly Creepy Childhood

by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

ISBN: 9781937818326

Publisher Sand Hill Review Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/Coming of Age, Literature & Fiction/Humor, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description

At St Michael’s Catholic school in the 6os-70s, Bridget Flagherty’s musings on sadistic nuns, domestic violence, and emerging sexuality will have you in stitches. She creates glorious supernatural worlds—with exorcisms, bird relics, Virgin Martyrs, time travel, Biblical plagues, even the ‘holy’ in holy water—to cope with family tensions. Navigating gender in domestic and celestial spheres with raging men and subjugated women, Bridget finds evidence that God-the-F supports abusive husbands. As her religious world dissolves, ‘practice boyfriends,’ lesbian aunts, and the Virgin Mary all aid her.

Sample Chapter

Why Is God in Daddy’s Slippers?

The Italian and Irish sides of our family can argue about almost anything—the thickness of porridge, how much people can drink before they’re officially alcoholics, and which side acts more like “bloody foreigners.” But they all agree on the sacredness of the crucifix. An uncle on each side survived an attack in WWII that killed the rest of their platoons—all because they were wearing their crucifixes.

I volunteer to tell the story of the miracle of my uncles’ salvation to my second grade class. The bombs were bursting in air. My uncles, years before my birth, were staring at the rockets’ red glare. The rockets were about to come down on them when they touched their crosses around their necks, and God touched them back. A heavenly host of angels singing alleluia held up American flags against our enemies who didn’t believe in God. And all of this to save my two uncles, Johnny Flaherty and Tony Alonzo. God is Italian. Or Irish. Either way, He was on our side. That’s why we won.

Sister Helen Mary directs me back to my desk. She won’t allow my classmates to ask me any questions, even though their hands are waving frantically, and many are calling out “Ssst! Ssst!” half-standing up. It’s a great story. And it’s true. But Sister Helen Mary says it’s time for phonics.

My mother is summoned to the principal’s office soon after I’ve revealed what are, after all, truths about my uncles. She’s commanded to return again later in the month when I illustrate my Easter alphabet book with our family’s signs of war and redemption. A is for angels (and Alleluia). B is for bombs. C is for crucifix. D is for dead. Sister Helen Mary warns that I can’t mention my uncles or crucifixes any more in school. I reassure her that we have a lot of family secrets, but the story of my uncles and the war isn’t one of them. She won’t listen. My uncles’ salvation becomes a new kind of secret, a school secret. Catholic school is so disillusioning. The crucifix is clearly more sacred to my family than to the nuns, who’re supposed to be God’s brides, aren’t they?

Sister Helen Mary wants our alphabet books to be about Easter food and Jesus and the resurrection and eternal salvation and flowers. So I take on the challenge of Easter food, but my mother prohibits me from drawing that A is for artichokes or antipasto, even though my grandmother makes the best artichokes on Easter, and they’re one of my absolutely favorite foods. She says most of the nuns, like the families in the parish, are Irish and like my father, probably disapprove of Italian food. But I feel that saying A is for “apples,” while true alphabetically, is also kind of a lie—it isn’t what A means to me. Lying is a sin. And since I’m seven and will receive my First Holy Communion in a month, I want my soul to be particularly spotless.

My mother says I’m not sinning, that I’m just learning to keep quiet and say something diplomatic, which you have to do a lot in life if you’re going to get along with people, and that God only knows how she’s had to. But it just seems like more secrets and more pretending, which I hate. As I practice drawing apples, with tears streaming down my cheeks, my mother confides that she has a story about something a lot more important than artichokes. I know this means a new family secret.

She moves my drawings off the table, gets me some milk, and in her most q.t. voice whispers that war isn’t glorious, that it’s actually really horrible. I’ve never heard that before. “C’n I’ve a straw, please?” This doesn’t seem like it’ll be a very interesting story after all.

“War is a terrible thing, Bridey, and not many people realize I only became devoted to God after your father’s draft deferment.” I’ve got no idea what she’s talking about and start to blow bubbles into my milk. My mother grabs the straw away and tells me to concentrate. “It means he didn’t have to go to war.” I’m stunned. Everyone in our family—on both sides—is so patriotic. How could my father not have been a soldier when he was young? And why was my mother happy about it, you know? “Why didn’t he go to war?” I try to hide my disappointment.

“Because of his flat feet.”

Feet? Feet! My father missed World War II because of his feet? I shake my foot out of my slipper and put it up on my chair so we can both see it. “Look, Mom, everyone’s feet are kind of flat. It hardly seems—”

“Stop it!” she shouts. Her lip is trembling. Turns out that my father’s feet are such a family secret that we can’t talk about them in front of anyone. Even each other. “It embarrasses your father even though the money he earned working while everyone else was at war still supports Grandpa and Uncle Johnny downstairs.”

I agree to keep my father’s flat feet on the q.t., which is easy enough cuz people don’t really talk much about feet. But I know my mother’s wrong about war. The war not only proved to our families how special Johnny and Tony were in the eyes of God but how important the crucifix is to salvation.

And it looks like the rest of the family agrees with me. Hence the presence of the crucifix in all our households and in so many styles and sizes. Above the mantel here. Nearly always over the beds. In the kitchen above the spices. Sometimes even in the bathroom. I know as well as anyone that God works in mysterious ways, but in my opinion He and the angels could have done a better job saving my Uncle Johnny. Because of the shrapnel in Johnny’s head, he gets wicked bad seizures and can’t ever hold a job. He’s also begun to drink enough for everyone to agree that he’s an alcoholic. “Still fighting the war, always fighting the war,” Grandpa says, shaking his head whenever they carry a sweating, shaking, and bluish Johnny into his room.

Why did my Uncle Tony, who lives in New York with most of my other Italian relatives, do so much better than Johnny? He has a blonde Italian wife and three big sons—all too old to seem like my cousins. Tony runs a successful grocery store on Staten Island and says you can buy corn on the cob from him that tastes like it’s just come off the farm. “More like just off the boat,” my Irish Grandpa jeers. My father joins in, pointing out that Tony isn’t my “real uncle” and his sons aren’t my “real cousins” at all cuz Tony isn’t my mother’s brother. But who cares? I call all our Staten Island relations uncles or aunts or cousins even if they’re my mother’s or grandmother’s cousins or second cousins or twice removed.

It doesn’t matter, you know what I mean? What’s important is we’re all part of the same family. And Tony doesn’t mind what grandpa or my father says. He survived foreigners attacking him all during the war and isn’t about to let an Irishman bother him now. And he still always wears his crucifix.

One Saturday at breakfast, about a month before my First Holy Communion, trying not to gag over my diluted porridge, my mother announces that we’re redecorating my room. I set my sights on a quite expensive ruffled bedspread. I pray to Mother Mary that one will show up in Filene’s Basement in her favorite colors, blue and white. I implore St. Anthony to find matching curtains. I try my guardian angel for new lace dresser scarves. Their responses are mixed. I get a purple and pink bedspread that had been my Aunt Anna’s. There are no ruffles. The new curtains are white. I have to keep the old dresser scarves.

But the greatest redecorating excitement for me is the anticipation of receiving my crucifix for my Holy Communion present. I’ve imagined the kind of cross I might be given for a long time. Whenever we go the Catholic store, even though we’re never shopping for one, I head right for the crucifix aisle. Lying in bed at night or swinging on the swing set in the evening when the mosquitoes are biting, I can picture all the different styles of crucifixes and their descriptions.

There’s the plain ten-inch cross, made of gold or silver—pretty, but there’s no Jesus hanging on it. The mother-of-pearl crucifix has a multi-toned Jesus with most of his bones really sticking out, but at sixteen inches, it’s probably too big for my bedroom. Uncle Johnny’s and Uncle Tony’s crucifixes are the popular soldiers’ style: small, metal, and worn on a chain around the neck because you have no walls to hang a cross on in a war. Their crucifixes aren’t appropriate for a young lady’s bedroom.

My preference runs to a medium-sized, “authentic-detailed” heavy wooden crucifix. The crown of thorns on this cross is actually pointy and sharp, and deep-red blood drips down Christ’s head. You can see exactly where the long nails enter his hands and feet. Just looking at it gives you the feeling that you went through the whole fourteen Stations of the Cross. That you witnessed Saint Veronica wiping the blood and sweat from Christ’s face. That you were there with Mary Mother Most Sorrowful on Calvary, desperate and helpless, as she watched the soldiers kill her son.

Some people we know think that a young girl might be afraid of realistic crucifixes, but I don’t see why. It’s one thing to be frightened by the Devil, you know? But how can an accurate depiction of Christ’s blood bother anyone because we all understand that every wound of his, every bit of his suffering, helps to lessen ours here on earth. To give my mother subtle hints about my crucifix style preference, I endlessly draw images of a splintery wooden cross with a bleeding Jesus on scraps of paper while she paints and repapers my room. But she always throws my drawings away with the old pieces of wallpaper at the end of the day.

When the room is finished, my mother and father present me with an elaborately decorated gift. “This is to celebrate your First Holy Communion, Bridget,” says my father, sounding official, but with a glint of pleasure in his eyes. “And at the same time as your room redecoration so that it can have a rightful place,” adds my mother. It’s got to be my crucifix, but I’m surprised the box is so small and light. Still, I unwrap it with reverence. This will be my Jesus, my own sacrificial lamb.

I can’t believe it. Inside the box is a thin, almost transparent, white plastic crucifix on a tiny matching round stand—it couldn’t even hang—with a puny silver Jesus on it. It’s only about six inches high. The whole thing is smooth. No signs of blood, thorns, or nails. No sense of pain or torture. This is a baby’s version of a cross. They don’t even sell these in the Catholic store. I look at my parents, my face hot, my stomach clenched, and feel betrayed that they don’t think I’m old enough for a real crucifix after all. But they’re smiling.

“We’re so proud of you, Bridget, growing up to be such a young lady now.” They each hug me. Then my mother tells me I can go set up my crucifix on my new bedside table.

Only after my mother gets me into bed that night and turns out the light do I discover that the crucifix has magic powers. How could I have doubted my parents? In the dark the cross casts a Godly glow. It’s as if Johnny and Tony’s bombs bursting in air have been captured inside my Christ. The bright lights of war at night are shining through my crucifix, reminding me that God can appear to anyone He chooses, and I now see, in any way He wants.

This cross is giving me a vision of how He must have revealed Himself to my uncles when He intervened on their behalf against the enemy infidels. God shone in the darkness, His mighty hand reaching out to protect Uncle Johnny and Uncle Tony, as He’s protecting me now. But very gradually there begins to creep over me an uncertainty as to whether I exactly like this form of protection, know what I mean?

“Bring light to soldiers in foreign lands who need you more than I do, since I’m already safe in my bed,” I pray softly to my silver Jesus. The cross keeps shining. “Dear God, I thank you for your gift of light. Goodnight now.” He glows on.

My hands begin to sweat. I feel like I have to go to the bathroom. In a fit of wild, irreverent passion that’s perhaps like Johnny’s seizures, I wish I wasn’t Catholic, that my family were pagans and worshipped the sun, which leaves you alone at night to get some sleep. These sacrilegious thoughts still don’t make the light of the cross go out. Finally I cover the crucifix with one of my pillows. I sleep fitfully, but in the morning the light has gone out. I’m so relieved. But the glow comes on again every night once it gets dark, and every night I put a pillow over the crucifix.

As my father’s birthday nears, and the days get longer and warmer, God’s shining out at me through my crucifix bothers me less. My mother is so excited about her special birthday present for him that it seems like he’ll never get home from work to open it. Finally we gather in the living room as he unwraps his secret gift.


The whole family, even Grandpa, who doesn’t go in much for presents anyway, is disappointed, given the fuss my mother’s been making.

“Wait,” she cries, seeing our expressions. “They’re the latest!” pointing to the inner soles. “Dad will never lose these slippers getting out of bed at night, but you have to wait ’til it’s dark to see how they work.” That’ll be at least another hour.

The instant the sun goes down, my mother takes the slippers from the box and tells us to have a good look inside them. They’re glowing. Just like the crucifix. I think I’m going to be sick. God is in my daddy’s slippers.

The more my father wears those slippers, the more I despise them cuz God, in a sneaky sort of way, can now move all around the house. If my father sits down at the kitchen table with me to have a piece of toast in the morning, God is right under the table, possibly looking up my nightie, so I have to make extra sure to keep my ankles crossed. Or watching TV.

We’re eating popcorn, enjoying the Red Sox, even though they’re always losing, when my father falls asleep and off comes a slipper, and there’s God staring straight at me. Then I get the German measles. My father’s reading to me in my room— Cinderella or Diana and the Golden Apples, two of my favorites. He crosses one leg over the other and slaps a slipper up and down, and God peeks out again and again. I can’t believe that God is such a Nosey Parker.

But the more I think, the odder it seems that God’s in those slippers. I know Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, but He didn’t move into their shoes. Sometimes my father’s feet smell like Asiago. My mother says they reek more in his slippers. Would God want to be with stinky feet? Though just as I’m having these doubts, the Gospel at Mass is about God’s humility. Seems he was always going among the least of His servants. And I think of how God chose to have His angels save Johnny and Tony and how my father didn’t get to go to war because of his flat feet. Could these slippers be God’s way—on the q.t. of course—of telling my father it’s okay he didn’t fight in the war, that his feet, though flat, are still special?

I stop putting the pillow over my crucifix at night. I praise Jesus for loving my father and his feet. I thank Him for my mother, who literally makes His light shine among us. For Father’s Day, my mother and I buy my dad a metal crucifix that looks just like Johnny’s and Tony’s, and he puts it on because I ask him to, even though he doesn’t like things around his neck. I even tell my guardian angel it’s okay about not getting the dresser scarves.

It was at least a year before I found out that phosphorus is a chemical that makes things glow in the dark and probably has nothing whatsoever to do with God, salvation, the rockets’ red glare, or anything holy at all. That it’s used in all sorts of things, from crucifixes to slipper liners to Halloween decorations. It was a number of years before I realized that some of those foreigners my uncles fought in the war were Italian. Real Italians. From Italy. That God doesn’t have a nationality. That in some other people’s eyes, we were the enemy.

But this year, my second grade class wins the school prize for buying the most pagan babies: seventy-two! I start going to morning Mass with my mother in the summer. Before swimming lessons. Tony’s store continues to prosper. Uncle Johnny gets a new medicine that reduces his seizures a bit. My mother redecorates the dining room to cover up a stain on the wallpaper where she’d thrown a freshly made, hot blueberry pie at my father. And missed. My father wears his slippers every night and on the weekends. God is in our apartment this year, and all is right with the world. And no one was to know that, within a decade, two of Tony’s sons, my cousins Alberto and Domenico, would come home in body bags from Vietnam—still wearing their crucifixes.


Excerpted from "Dodging Satan: My Irish/Italian Sometimes Awesome But Mostly Creepy Childhood" by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick. Copyright © 2015 by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

Kathleen Zamboni McCormick is a writer who lives in Purchase, New York with her husband Gary Waller, and their demanding cat Katerina Puck. She is the mother of one boy, step-mother of two, and loves all her guys whose roles in the arts deeply inspire her.

View full Profile of Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

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