Upfront: A way of life on Barataria Boulevard (Part 6)

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.

My mother, Joy Marie Palermo Leco, was raised by my French grandmother, Dolores Delaune Palermo, and by my Sicilian grandfather, Librorio Raymond Palermo. She is a petite woman. Her skin is a light, olive complexion. She has small, dark brown eyes. They are so dark that sometimes I can’t see her pupils. Her hair was once very curly, but after years of flat-ironing it tends to remain consistently straight. I admire her short hair. Mine is short now, and I wonder what she would look like today if she kept her natural curls, since she praises mine.

My grandfather, Librorio Raymond Palermo, told me that my family from in Italy left their homes to come to America. His grandfather, Joseph, and his brothers came to America from a small town in Itlay where they had an orchid. Green thumbs that have been passed down through the generations. My grandfather has his own orange and satsuma trees. The satsuma is my favorite because the fruit is the sweetest. He taught me everything about them, from what seasons they bloom in and how to pick them correctly.

In March, we prepare for the Feast of St. Joseph in churches and people’s homes. Each year, my grandfather grows his own fennel and brings them to the altar.

Shelbey’s grandfather, Librorio Palermo, in front of a St. Joseph’s altar on the Westbank. Photograph courtesy of the Leco family.

My mom and aunts get together to make anise cookies and the Easter cookie, pupa cu l’ovas. Nobody ever wants to make the pupa cu l’ova because they require a lot of work. You have to make sweet bread dough to create a base for the dyed Easter egg to rest in. After, you have to braid the dough and make a cross over the egg. Once the cookies are finished baking, you’ve got to make a bunch of different colored icings. Lastly, you have to decorate the cookie in bright colored icing and sprinkles. I have taken on the tradition of making them every year. It brings me great joy when I bring them to the altar to hear, “Oh, I haven’t had a pupa cu l’ova since I was a kid on Easter morning.” Or my favorite, “God bless you, I’ve been refrigerating the same pupa cu l’ova for four years now! I have these fresh ones to display.”

Every year my mom, along with all the little old Italian ladies who never seem to die, tell me that I need to steal a lemon from the altar. First of all, stealing is a big no-no, and they want me to commit such a crime in a church on the most important day for Sicilian Roman Catholics. Secondly, I’m supposed to steal the lemon IN SECRET and NOBODY is supposed to see me stealing it because if they do, it won’t work. The ladies tell me that if I am successful, by the time of the next St. Joseph’s day, I’ll have a husband. I’ve been stealing the blessed lemon from the altar for years now, and I still have no husband. At this rate it’ll never happen.

Still, I follow all the Italian traditions. Like carrying a fava bean, my “lucky bean,” in my wallet at all times. It’s supposed to bring good luck and fortune in my life. If you look at my grandfather’s wallet, you’ll see the fava bean from the outside of his wallet. If you took the bean out, you could still see the impression.

Just like the fava bean, my grandfather has created a lasting impression of Sicilian culture on to me. He told me a story once about a man who religiously carried his fava bean in his front t-shirt pocket. One day, when he entered a gas station store, there was a robbery. The armed man met his eye and aimed his gun at the Italian man’s chest. The man closed his eyes and prayed, for he had accepted his death. When he opened his eyes, the bullet ricocheted off of his fava bean, and he lived to see another day. My grandfather swears on his life that the story is true. He is very adamant about my brother and I carrying our fava beans.

Another big Italian tradition is having a prayer card of St. Joseph stashed away in your car somewhere so that you don’t die a sudden death, but a happy one. St. Joseph is the patron saint of departed souls. My grandmother, Dolores Palermo, was a devoted Christian, and it was comforting to know she died on his feast day. St.Joseph is also the patron saint of immigrants. All of my ancestors left their homes to come to America. I am an established townie, a Sicilian, Cajun French, Filipina woman from the Westbank, and my ancestors wouldn’t want it any other way.


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