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Authors: Roland Merullo

Vatican Waltz

BOOK: Vatican Waltz
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Lunch with Buddha

The Talk-Funny Girl

Fidel's Last Days

American Savior

Breakfast with Buddha

Golfing with God

A Little Love Story

In Revere, in Those Days

Revere Beach Boulevard

A Russian Requiem

Leaving Losapas


The Italian Summer

Revere Beach Elegy

Passion for Golf

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Roland Merullo

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Merullo, Roland.

Vatican waltz / Roland Merullo.—First Edition.

pages cm

1. Women—Religious life—Fiction. 2. Vatican City—Fiction. 3. Boston (Mass.)—Fiction. 4. Religious fiction. I. Title.

PS3563.E748V38 2013

813'.54—dc23 2013003075

ISBN 9780307452955

eBook ISBN: 9780307452979

Cover design by

Cover photograph © Irene Lamprakou/Arcangel Images


For my mother,

Eileen Merullo

And for my mother-in-law,

Judy Stearns

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.


An important fruit of contemplative prayer is to be purified of our childish ideas about God. As our idea of God expands, there is no word, no way, no gesture, that can articulate it anymore. Hence we fall into silence, the place we should have been in the first place.


Some who have been called to grace may wrestle for years with their fearfulness before they are able to transcend it so as to accept their own godliness.



My name is Cynthia Clare Piantedosi—a big mouthful of a name, I know—and the story I have to tell is a story about God and faith and prayer.

I grew up in an unsophisticated way, in a place half insulated from modern America by a blanket of Old World traditions and beliefs, but I'm not naive. I know very well that many people are put off by the words “God,” “faith,” and “prayer.” Who can blame them? For untold generations those words have been used like clubs; people have been beaten over the head with them, sometimes tortured or killed because of them, or left unharmed but made to feel they were nothing more than sinners. They were labeled, locked up in titles—atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist—while their full, wonderful, quirky humanity was taken away from them like a prisoner's street clothes and never given back. My question is this: If there is some kind of Divine Spirit organizing this impossibly complicated universe, does that spirit really worry about what we call ourselves?

The God I imagine and worship, the Being I give thanks to for every breath and pulse, doesn't care as much about labels as about love; and my style of prayer isn't so much about asking for things (though I sometimes ask) as it is about searching, in an interior silence, for my truest self, my reason for being here, in this place, in this body, at this particular point in the endless sweep of time. I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and to this day I hold a good deal of reverence for those rituals and beliefs, but my story is really about what happened as that label fell away, as I found the courage to un-name God, as I came, so slowly, to understand who I really am.

this story right, I should begin with the great sadness in my life: I have no memory of my mother. She died when I was an infant—“heart trouble,” relatives said, but for years no one offered anything more specific than that. I was raised by my father, an older man, gruff but not unkind, and my mother's mother, who moved in with us after her daughter's death. My father, mother, and grandmother grew up in Italy, not far from one another, in fact, and they left that country soon after the end of the Second World War. My parents were married in America, far apart in age but linked by heritage and language and the strong twine of fate.

I should say, too, here at the start, that I have always been a strange soul. I am mellow and quieter now, more sure of my destiny and purpose, but as a child I was feisty and sometimes troublesome, the kind of girl who fought with boys and argued with teachers. I had a few close friends, but also a natural inclination toward solitude—not exactly an Italian American tradition. We're a gregarious people, fond of social clubs and the hairdresser, card games, big families, meals with cousins and aunts. Not me. In high school and college I never even had a boyfriend, not a real boyfriend, in any case. Part of that was because of an intense shyness about romantic relationships that for many years fit over my head and shoulders, tight as upholstery. And part of it was simply the fact that I considered myself unattractive. Though I hoped one day to have a husband, and though I always wanted very badly to bear and raise a child, I was sure, for a long time, that those things would never happen.

I grew up on Tapley Avenue in the small city of Revere, Massachusetts, which sits along the shore at the northern end of the subway line from Boston. Revere has a nice beach—fine gray sand and smooth stones—but the rest of the city is a modest territory of close-set houses and crowded streets. It has always been a place that welcomed new Americans, and when my parents first settled in Revere as newlyweds there were a lot of Italian, Irish, and Jewish families there. Later, those families were replaced by waves of newer immigrants, people from Cambodia and Somalia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Brazil. But we stayed on, my father and grandmother and I. Our new neighbors watched the soccer channel in Portuguese or wired money to Mogadishu. There were halal stores on the corner where once you could buy mortadella and real Genoa salami. Friends' families fled to the suburbs. We stayed on.

From the time I was a little girl, living a ten-minute walk from St. Anthony's Church, I started to have what I thought of, at first, as “spells.”
would be another word for them, though that sounds pretentious, and to me, those experiences were as familiar and ordinary as the peeling paint on the house across the street. Whenever those spells or visions came over me, I'd feel like I was being carried away on an internal wind, a kite lifting up, rocking and tilting and sailing happily there out of reach of the everyday world. It was like traveling, inside my mind, to another planet. Maybe that's why I was so content for so long with my plain exterior life, with our simple routine—no trips, no adventure, no romance.

We had a small backyard—a swing set there when I was very young and then, later, an oval swimming pool, above ground. My father—fifty-three years and one month old on the day I was born—worked as a mechanic in the garage where the MBTA buses were repaired, and my grandmother worked at home, cooking and cleaning, gardening and praying. She was—or seemed to be—an unspectacular soul: not particularly beautiful, not rich or famous, not well educated, no one who would stand out in a crowd. But I always felt that she and I were linked at the heart, that God had spun us out of the same dust and blood and set us down together for some good purpose.

Nana, I used to call her (though the Italian word for “grandmother” is actually
), and as a young girl I spent hours and hours with her, conversing in two languages at the kitchen table, watching her prepare meals; eventually, like all Old World girls, learning to sew, clean, and cook. She was short and round, with a bun of gray hair and beautiful green eyes, an unselfish woman who denied herself many pleasures. But she loved coffee, and when I was only six and seven she'd serve me cups of it with a lot of milk and sugar and we'd sit at that table with its plastic tablecloth and bowl of plastic fruit in the center and we'd drink and eat and talk. She was the first person I told about the spells—the only person for a long time—and when I described them to her she said, “
Cinzia, ho visto queste cose dalla tua giovanezza.
Cynthia, I've seen those things since you were very young. They are God's gift to you. I know what they mean.”

“What, Nana? Tell me.”

“Someday I'll tell you. Later. Not now.”

Naturally, after a nonexplanation like that, I would assault her with a hundred questions. But she would close up, a pot with a tight lid, and, though in later years she made a few comments about the spells, the promised explanation never materialized.

When she died, the saddest day of my life, I was nine and a half years old. I remember it was an unusually hot July night, with boys setting off firecrackers in the street and a radio tuned to a Red Sox game in the house next door. Nana had been ill for several weeks, at home, and every day I took her soup or water, or tore out the soft insides of loaves of Italian bread and fed them to her. I sat with her for long stretches or knelt next to the sofa bed she lay on in the small TV room and recited the rosary while she moved her lips to the Hail Marys. When the prayers and the food were finished, we would sometimes talk for a few minutes, but by the end, she didn't have much energy for conversation. After a couple of sentences she'd clasp my wrist in her right hand and just hold on to me, not in a fearful way—there was no panic in her and no complaint—just as an expression of her love, a way of reassuring me, maybe, that death wasn't some terrifying monster. The last time I spoke to her she could barely open her eyes, but when she heard my voice she tried to smile and she said, so quietly I could barely hear the words, “You'll have a child…to make up…remember.”

“Remember what, Nana? Make up for what?” I wanted to ask, but my throat was closed up with a choking, full-body sadness and all I could do was put my other hand over hers and beg God to let her live a little longer. An hour or so after those last words she fell into a deep, quiet stillness, and a little while later she died.

For months and months after her death I wandered the hot streets of the neighborhood like a lost child. It felt as though God had ripped all the love out of the air, transformed the bones of my face into lead weights, turned down the light of the sun. Make up for what? I asked again and again. Make up for what? The fact that she was leaving this world? Could a child ever take her place? Remember what? The time we'd spent together? Her love? Her strength and warmth and her unshakable faith that all things both good and bad had a purpose? I'd sit in the shade on the back steps and stare at the ceramic statue of the Virgin Mother, not praying, not asking for anything in particular, just sinking down into a sad trance. Sorrow, yes, a deep, piercing sorrow that nothing and no one could soften, but the main emotion I felt then was confusion. Once or twice, before I realized it was hopeless, I turned that confusion on my father in a fusillade of impossible questions. “Why do people die, Papa? Where do they go when they die? Why can't we see them and talk to them? Why does God make this happen?”

The answers he gave were the predictable ones I imagine a local priest had given him after my mother died: that God was mysterious; that we couldn't ever know why He did what He did; that we had to accept what He wanted for us and not complain too much. That Mama and Nana were in Heaven, we'd see them there after we died.

Explanations like that didn't work very well for me. I spent hours on my knees in St. Anthony's, praying for my grandmother's soul, asking her to visit me, hoping I'd dream of her in my hot bedroom on the second floor of the house on Tapley Avenue, hoping I'd at last be given some explanation for the mysteries that seemed to wrap themselves around me like vines around a thin young tree. But there were no visits, no messages or answers, nothing more than the fleeting sense of her in a few brief dreams, and a thousand scraps of memory.

As time went on, the wound of her absence grew slightly less painful, but it never stopped aching. My devotion to the Church and to prayer survived and grew stronger, sometimes even to the point where it tried my father's patience. He was a good Catholic, but for him, as for so many of the other Catholics we knew, Mass on Sunday and holy days, the occasional confession—that was enough. And for me, as had been the case with my grandmother, God asked something more of people, a consistent devotion that bled into the daily run of minutes like colors in a plain white wash. God was there for us in every breath, not encased within the walls and rules of the Church but right there, in the kitchen, at the beach, as I pulled the quilt up over my shoulders on a cold winter night.

After my grandmother died and before I was old enough to cook well, my father, a capable cook himself, prepared our meals. Many times, dozens of times, having lost myself in prayer in the half dark of St. Anthony's nave, I'd come home late for supper. He wouldn't be angry, exactly, but he'd question me in a way that made me feel abnormal. Why couldn't I be out playing with friends? At the beach with my cousins? Why was I spending so much time in the church? What was I really doing there?

“Praying, Papa,” I always said, but that didn't change his mood. He grumbled, shook his head, grabbed my plate from the table, and, instead of just heating it up as most people would have done, made a fresh portion. That was perfectly typical of him: he believed the human world should run like a bus or train engine, according to fixed rules. You did not reheat pasta. You did not miss Mass. The father was the undisputed head of the family, and it was his job to earn the money and make all the important decisions.

Beneath all that was a tender side, though, and after he'd taken the time to make me a hot meal, and after we'd endured a little stretch of uncomfortable silence, he'd always say something to break the bad air. “The gravy she came out good today.” Or “You should bring over your friend, Lisa, for the pool.” Or “Tomorrow she's gonna snow, the TV says.” I could see the shyness in him then, the urge toward love and warmth, and the confusion about how to show or ask for it.

was assigned to St. Anthony's. His name was Father Alberto Ghirardelli (like the chocolates, he used to say), and he was the only priest I'd ever met who made jokes. Sometimes even during Mass he'd joke. If an altar boy accidentally rang the bell a few seconds before the host was elevated, he'd glance over at him and in a hoarse whisper say, “Mikey, can't you wait?” Once he tripped on the altar step, and my friends and I thought we heard him let out an exasperated “Oh, shit!”

He spent much of his time visiting the sick, going to wakes, playing cards at the nursing home with men who were too old to drive or walk to Mass. Father Alberto, as everyone called him, had a tremendous sweet tooth and loved to eat, and he said—even sometimes hinting from the pulpit—that the best part of being a priest was the invitations to local homes for dinner. Whenever my father invited him—for squid stuffed with ricotta, for peas and pasta, for wine and fried peppers and
he'd eat with great gusto and compliment him a thousand times, and when he said hello and good-bye, he'd always hug me the way an uncle would, a strong, real hug, nothing timid or wrong in it.

I began to go to Father Alberto for Saturday-afternoon confession. Even there his gentle humor surfaced and sparked. “What big sins do we have this week, Cynthia?” he'd ask. “What heavy sack of guilt are we carrying around the city on our back?” Or “What did your father make for supper last night, anything good?”

After a while I came to enjoy those brief exchanges so much that I'd always try to be the last one in line in the pew so I could spend a bit of extra time with him. As the weeks went by, I began to have the feeling that Father Alberto enjoyed the conversations as much as I did. Eventually I told him about the spells, and he asked me in detail about what I saw and what I felt and went to great lengths to assure me that there was nothing wrong or sinful about the experiences. I wasn't crazy, I wasn't weird. “Well, maybe a little weird, Cynthia, but that's okay. I'm weird, too. We can start a club. No normal people allowed.… For your penance, bring me a slice of
next time. Wrap it up nice, okay?”

BOOK: Vatican Waltz
11.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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