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.

Mary Mangino Popolo, her husband Vito and children, circa 1916. My mother Rose is at left standing on chair.

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.

Justina Gomes Rodrigues Ortenzi

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 Voci cottage

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.

6 thoughts on “Feast of the Assumption: Sun, surf, girls in bathing suits, old ladies in black dresses

  1. The dreaded Holy day of Obligation that came in the summer to remind us that summer vacation was just about over. We didn’t go to the beach. Mass in the morning and entertaining grandma on the patio was our excitement. August 15 reminds me of my dearly departed sisters who never missed attending mass on that day. I haven’t attended mass on August 15 since I was 17.

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  2. How nice to “meet” your two dear grandmothers. Of course you are forgiven for being a little embarrassed taking them to the beach as a teenager. Totally understandable. What a dear story Dan. Thank you!

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  3. Danny!
    You are blessed to have the wonderful memories of your “ Vovo” and you “Nonna”! Two beautiful grandmothers who gave you a sense of “ Famiglia!”
    Your memories are priceless!
    Grazie for sharing ! I’m sure they are smiling down on you!
    Always a pleasure, always a lift to my spirits!
    Ida

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  4. I am Dan’s cousin, Eddie Voci, son of Gino and Lisabee Voci who built with their carpenter (Nino DiNunno), plumber (Joe DiNunno), and electrician (Dino Cappeletti) friends the Voci cottage at Parkwood Beach, Wareham MA in 1951, the year of my birth. I remember when the roads in Parkwood (and a lot of Cape Cod) were still dirt and our beloved dog Dion (named after Dion DiMucci of Dion & The Belmonts) could run and swim around without a leash. I, too, escorted Vovo and our Nana (also tagged as “Grammie” by Aunt Sadie, née Serafina, who insisted we all talk like Americans). But it was not just those two women, there were also their friends, including Mrs. Collulla and Mrs. Moss (“Mossie”), who with their dresses flapping in the wind, all holding hands, and loud voices inched to the gentle and warm bay water. All the ladies were hard of hearing and Grammie was virtually cataract—blind. “Mossie! How much further to the water?” We always waited for high tide so the distance to the water was the shortest, but that also meant a crowded beach and a sea of eyes watching this unique procession. Of course, I shared Dan’s girl-fetish discomfort, but now also relish the memory of that bevy of beauties bathing ankle deep in the holy waters of Parkwood Beach. I’m convinced the horseshoe and fiddler crabs intentionally went deep those days. P.S. Dan, great seeing you at the family reunion this weekend. You should post the family photo, all 50 of us on the shore of Quincy Bay. Not a single black dress to be seen. 🙂

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