By Jill Gugino
St. Joseph’s Day is a big day for Sicilians and Italians alike. When we emigrated to the New Country from the Old, we brought with us some very beautiful and sacred traditions. Some were steeped in faith, and some were steeped in superstition, but all were brought forth from the foundation of giving and helping those in need.
As the legend goes, Sicily was suffering a tremendous drought and the people were starving: there was no water, no crops, and no food. Prayers were abundant and promises were made to St Joseph. Please bring forth rain, and when the crops are harvested, a feast will be shared and all will be welcome. We will feed the poor, the rich, the lonely, the young and old. There will never be a fee, for it will be a meal of thanksgiving for blessings bestowed.
St. Joseph was a unique man in that he adopted a child who was not born of his blood. He loved and cared for a child who was owned by the world. His wife was the mother to all humanity and the awesome responsibility of cultivating a blended family and keeping secure the gift of salvation sat on his shoulders alone. St. Joseph became the patron saint of families and, because he died with Jesus and the blessed mother at his side, he is also the patron saint of a happy and peaceful death.
My father was born 86 years ago to Sicilian immigrants older than most, given the time frame. At 30 years old, my grandmother, Rose, prayed to St. Anne, patron saint of pregnancy and mothers who hoped to have a child. On July 26, 1930 – ironically, the feast of St. Anne – she had what was to be her only child, John Joseph Gugino. They blended into American culture, but kept their traditions from the Old Country.
Our St. Joseph's table was bigger than Christmas! No gifts were expected or exchanged, no promises were made, and there was no loss of the true meaning of the celebration to commercialism. It was a meal extended to all, strangers and friends alike. The doors of Italian households were open, and if you happened to be hungry, we fed you. What a simple concept: kindness.
Last year as we anticipated our St. Joseph's Day feast, my father's health was failing. The Parkinson’s that he was fighting was advancing rapidly and we were losing hope that he would make it to his special day. I will never forget whispering in his ear on March 17, "Daddy you had better not die on me on St. Patrick’s Day, don’t you dare leave me on St. Patrick’s Day, we are so close." He looked up at me and told me to pack his clothes. I was somewhat confused and asked him if he was planning on going somewhere. He told me to take them out of the house so my mom wouldn’t have to see them.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I packed all of my dad's clothes and put them in the trunk of my car as he had asked me to do. On March 18, my mother and two siblings listened to Glen Miller songs, talked of days gone by, and kept vigil next to Dad. I told him that it was just the five of us, all under the same roof, as it had not been in some 25 years. We were there and it was OK. We were OK. He slipped away in the wee hours of the morning of March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, with all of us at his side praying for his journey.
I like to think that at the moment the door on this side closed, he opened the kitchen door of his mother's house and she was busy making food for the St. Joseph's Day table. He was welcomed in, on his favorite holiday, to his favorite food. No expectations, just a hearty appetite and a thankful smile.
This year in keeping with our heritage and rooted in tradition, we will set a table of thanksgiving for a life well lived and a peaceful and beautiful passing. All are welcome at our St. Joseph's table. We will live to be thankful for the blessing and honor of our father and St. Joseph. From immigrants in a new world to Italian-Americans, with pride in both lands, we open our doors with humble but most thankful hearts. Viva San Giuseppe!
Since this beautiful story by Jill Gugino was published on March 7, 2018 as My View in The Buffalo News, the saga has continued to unfold. Here is an e-mail she received from someone whom she had never before met:
As I read the "My View" column in today's paper, the words reminded me of the St. Joseph's tables I witnessed at my Foster parents house growing up. I thought that the writer was a courageous witness to our faith. Then, I looked at the picture and the name of the author.
I lived with Rose and Frank Gugino in the 1950s--I believe you may be their Granddaughter? You provided a profound and loving tribute to your family. Traditions give us joy and they connect us to our roots. I will say a prayer on St. Joseph's Day for you and your family. God bless you and peace be with you.
This message came to Jill from one of the two foster children her Grandparents took in during the Korean War. This woman reached out to her after reading the article and was promptly invited to share the Feast. "She will be the guest of honor at our St. Joseph's table this year," says Jill. "I look to her to gain a new perspective, and to share stories that have been packed away in her heart for 60 years."