May 14, 1960, Ramacca Sicily: it all began on that sunny afternoon. Two weeks earlier, my mother had given birth to my brother, Santo. Santo means Saint in Italian. It was a very difficult birth as he was born at home with the aid of a mammana, and to complicate things a bit, he was born breech (feet first). Something happened during my brother's birth that created a legacy for our family for many years to come! I recall being very excited to have a baby brother and, like all other children, was a bit jealous.
Santo had this very soft baby blanket that I was fascinated with. I was always trying to take it away from him. On that blessed sunny afternoon, while Santo was sleeping, once again I attempted to steal his blanket. Thankfully for all of us, I was caught in the act. While my mother was scolding me, she noticed Santo's color was off. His skin was blueish and his breathing was off as well.
In those days, there were no ambulances and the hospital was 35 minutes away. Immediately, my parents rushed my brother to the town's only doctor. The doctor advised my parents to get him to the hospital as fast as possible. After renting a car and before heading to the hospital, my parents stopped by the church where the priest quickly baptized Santo. Upon arriving to the hospital, Santo was pronounced dead. My mother became hysterical, as did my father. They were both crying and hugging Santo in disbelief that their son was dead; when all at once Santo let out the most wonderful cry! The doctors then admitted him. My mother spent 30 days in the hospital sitting next to my brother every moment. She prayed to our Patron Saint, Saint Joseph. She promised Saint Joseph that if he spared her son's life, she would set la Tavola or L'Altaro di San Giuseppe, the table of Saint Joseph, every year for the rest of her life. And this we have done!
The Altaro is a big table that we put together to symbolize an Altar. Every inch of the table is filled with endless trays of Biscotti; big cookies, little cookies, round cookies, and square cookies. Big cookies are formed into different shapes that symbolize certain things; an S shape for San Giuseppe, braided cookies for Mary's hair, round-shaped for the sun and/or the host. Through the years, we have made this Feast our own by adding our own traditions like shaping the cookies into what we want healed or wish for! We bake an endless assortment of Italian biscotti, mastazzoli, zeppole di San Giuseppe, sfingi, fig cookies, cream puff, baba', cannoli, and pasticcini, just to name a few.
As a family, we come together to set it all up! We all have certain tasks as we prepare and assemble the table. This all takes place at my parents' home. Furniture is moved in order to set the table, cookies are filled and frosted, trays are filled with the cookies then carefully arranged on the table, and the big cookies that tell our stories are included. Once L'Altaro is put together, it comes to life! The room is filled with peace and it smells divine. More than 150 friends join us as we celebrate the Feast of San Giuseppe. First, Mass is served and once the cookies are blessed the feasting begins!
What I love the most is how all of us, young and old, come together as a family and contribute in our own way. Even the little ones help! So, each and every year we all get together to make this happen in order to keep the promise our mother made many years ago, sitting next to her baby while praying for his life!