From The Sky...



We made a lot of mumps jokes when I got sick this past winter. Thirty-three years old, a picture of health, and I go and get the mumps. I was miserably sick. My jaw hurt, and there was swelling all the way up the side of my face. The kids called me Queen Mumpus. Ten days into her reign, the queen went to bed one night sore and feverish, ice packs up against each side of her head. When the queen woke up the next morning the fever was gone. So was her hearing.

The doctor told Joe it was an extremely rare and most likely permanent complication. Well, lucky, lucky, lucky me. I won the effin mumps lottery. The doctor asked Joe what I did for a living. Joe told him, and the doctor shook his head softly and offered me a look of sympathy. I had no idea what they were talking about at the time; Joe had to jot it down on a small notepad he'd brought. I read it later. I tried not to cry that night, but I just couldn't help it. It all just crashed down on me at once, the finality of it; the reality of it. I'd never hear my children's voices again. I'd never hear Joe tell me he loved me again. And my job…well, what was I going to do now? There's not much call for deaf music teachers in these parts.

Dad made a poor joke that it happened because of the parakeet we bought a week before I got sick. A bird in the house brings bad luck. He can rattle off these Italian superstitions by the dozens: No birds in the house. No peacock feathers (they have an evil eye). No upside down bread on the table!

I hope bread in the pantry doesn't count. If it does, I'm likely doomed. I've always got a couple loaves on the shelf in there, and god only knows if they're upside-down, downside-up, sideways or inside out.

My Uncle Gio knew all the superstitions, too. Unlike Dad, who blurts them out by rote in a great rush of words but believes in none of them, Uncle Gio recited them slowly, gently, reverently…there was no doubt they were very real to him. His voice would soften as he spoke, his mint-green eyes widening under his bushy gray eyebrows and his head tilted ever so slightly toward me as he shared one of these nuggets. Each word was followed by a palpable pause, as if he was releasing them one at a time from some kind of complicated trap. Uncle Gio also believed in curses…not cussing, though he could swear quite effortlessly in Italian…but actual curses . He allowed his life to be ruled by one, after all. Me? I was just like my Dad in those days, I guess. I found the family's old customs and superstitions fascinating but I remained agnostic.

Uncle Giovanni, my grandfather's only brother, was ninety-seven on the day he finally stepped out of his yard. He looked like a man in his early sixties. He still worked his own garden, spending hours on his knees turning the earth and planting, oblivious to the elements. He shoveled snow from his sidewalk in the winter, and cut his own grass in the spring. Just two years ago he was up on the roof of his house replacing shingles after a spring thunderstorm. He seemed ageless.

All the work of the curse, according to my aunts. "It protects him and dooms him. It's very, very powerful. Pray he doesn't it pass it to you somehow, Renata," they warn.

Well, Dad and I thought we knew better. Uncle Gio, like so many in my family, simply had great genes. My people live a long time you see, barring accidents, of course. Uncle Gio was a spectacular example of sturdy genes. He might have lived another five years, maybe more…but there are limits to human existence. Genetics count for little when a jet engine falls on your house.

What hand guides our fate?...

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