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
“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
“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
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
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.