“You not can to eat Chicken a Sea tuna fish in a Friday,” I heard Nona say to my mother in the kitchen. Nona is the Italian word for grandmother. My Nona lived on the other side of our double house in Springfield, Ohio, back in the days when Catholics observed a strict abstinence from meat on all Fridays. I heard Nona explain to my mother, in her combination of broken English and the Italian dialect of the Abruzzi region, that Chicken of the Sea brand tuna contained chicken. The word chicken was right there on the label.
“Where did you get that?” my mother asked, knowing full well that Nona couldn’t read.
Nona answered, “Zi Marie.”
My mother rolled her eyes and muttered, “I should have known.” Zi Marie was Mrs. Galuppo, Zi Marie or Zi’ Mari’ being the Abruzzese dialect for Zia Maria (Aunt Mary). I never knew exactly whose aunt she was, if anyone’s, yet the entire neighborhood called her Zi Marie. Zi Marie’s late husband had taught school in the old country and, unlike most of the older Italian women in the neighborhood, she could read and write. Therefore they considered her ben educat’ (well educated) and, in their minds, a font of wisdom.
Mother tried to explain to Nona that Chicken of the Sea was just a metaphor. The word metaphor might as well have been Hindi to Nona. She replied, “Don’t know mezzafor, but Zi Marie say!” She said it as if the Pope himself had proclaimed a dogma.
“I don’t care what Zi Marie says,” my mother countered. “It doesn’t contain meat and I am not going to throw out the cans of Chicken of the Sea I have.” Nona threw up her arms as if she were surrendering us to Lucifer.
When my father came home from work, of course, my mother told him about her encounter with Nona. He grumbled, “Zi Marie is una piantagran’ (a troublemaker).”
The following Friday my mother made rigatoni with tuna and tomato sauce, one of my favorites. I spotted, however, the empty Chicken of the Sea cans in the trash basket. At dinner I had a crisis of faith. What if Zi Marie was right? What if eating Chicken of the Sea would break the Friday abstinence? To be on the safe side of Purgatory I decided to scrape the tuna off the rigatoni with my fork and eat only the pasta. Unfortunately, my mother noticed and asked, “I thought tuna and tomato sauce is one of your favorites?”
I sat in silence.
“I know what’s going on here,” my father yelled. He gave me his grizzly bear look and growled, “Eat the damned tuna!”
“But Papa,” I asked, “what if Zi Marie is right?”
“Zi Mari is full of shit,” my father said. Spurious tuna and now bad language! I descended into moral agitation. My father slid his big, hairy hand across the table toward me and said in a low, but menacing voice, “Eat the tuna or I’ll shove you into a little tin can!” Did I have the courage to suffer like the early Christian martyrs, I asked myself. But God dwelt a long, long way off and my father’s hand threatened from only inches away. I ate the tuna. I felt like an apostate to the faith.
Only when Father Pacenti assured me that Chicken of the Sea brand tuna contains no meat could I enjoy my rigatoni with tuna sauce once again.
As I have grown older I have become much less scrupulous about religious strictures. Maybe it’s residual guilt, however, but to this day I buy only Starkist.
Matthew Powell, O.P. is a Catholic priest and associate professor emeritus of theater and English at Providence College (RI). He has had more than a dozen short stories published in Catholic magazines in the United States, Canada and Ireland.