This day, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church, was the day we took old women in black dresses — or sometimes nice blue-and-white polka dot dresses — to the beach.
This is the day when the BVM went sky. Translation: It’s the day the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have ascended into Heaven. I always thought that’s why they called it the Feast of the Assumption — because everyone assumed she went to the good place.
Anyway, on Earth, we took our grandmothers to the beach: My larger-than-life Italian grandmother, Mary Mangino Popolo, also known as “Nana,” mother of 10; and my diminutive Portuguese grandmother, Justina Gomes Rodrigues Ortenzi, also known as “Vovo,” from the Portuguese for grandmother, Avó. They were both long-widowed and neither had a driver’s license.
I loved these two ladies. But taking them to the beach in my adolescent years … well, it made me a little self-conscious, especially when there were girls around, and there always were girls around.
May I be forgiven that admission? I mean, as a grandson I accepted the assignment, escorting Nana and Vovo in their dresses to the shoreline, but I didn’t want to leave out that part about being a mildly embarrassed teenager on a beach because it’s honest, and, as Hemingway said, “You will write well and authentically if you write honestly and it will be good.”
On the Feast of the Assumption, tradition has coastal Catholics going to the ocean and blessing ourselves with seawater. There is supposed to be healing power in that, but how the tradition got started — what going to the beach has to do with the BVM going sky — there are too many explanations to go into here.
The date caught my eye this morning, and the sweet, old-world grandmas came to me in sudden reveries.
I hope you don’t mind me sharing this memory of the annual trip to Wareham, Massachusetts, to Lizabee & Gene’s Cottage — that is the cottage owned and operated as a summer funhouse for the entire family by Aunt Elizabeth “Lizabee” Popolo Voci and Uncle Gene Voci of Brockton, Mass. — and then to Parkwood Beach. And then we set out folding chairs for the grandmas, helped them remove their thick-heeled black shoes while avoiding eye contact with girls sunbathing on nearby blankets, and then, dutiful grandsons, we escorted Nana and Vovo to the water’s edge so they could wet their hands in the surf and make the sign of the cross. They felt refreshed. They felt healed. They felt blessed for another year. At least, that’s always been my assumption.