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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Pope's Nose

Atlanta Constitution, November 24, 1919

It’s funny the memories that the holidays bring.

The Thanksgiving tradition and menu at my childhood home were as predictable as the conversation, each intensified by liberal amounts of alcohol.

I don’t have horrible memories of explosive arguments or slimy uncles to stay away from.  I do remember that the women gathered in the kitchen and the men stayed pretty much in the garage where my grandfather had his own kitchen. The men played cards around the table and smoked cigarettes and cigars and talked sports and the war and cars. The women talked food and recipes and shared stories about what was happening with other women or relatives and their kids.

At our table - as happened, I'm sure at hundreds of thousands of tables around the country - the kids fought over the wishbone; precisely, who would get to break it after it had dried out on the kitchen window sill. But the real prize of the day – coveted by the adults as well as the adolescent children who were eligible for the competition – was The Pope’s Nose.

If you don’t know about The Pope’s Nose, let me correct that immediately. 

The common narrative is that Protestants called it The Pope's Nose and Catholics called it The Parson's Nose, but we were devout Roman Catholics and it was, for us "The Pope's Nose". 

To be honest, I have always suspected it had something to do with the heated conversations I overheard some of my older cousins having about birth control.  I should note that my grandmother had 20 pregnancies and 22 children, 15 of whom made it to adulthood. I should also note that while my grandmother loved all her kids, she never made it a secret that she would have preferred a smaller family brood. And, my grandfather often talked about how difficult it was "with all you kids".

So, here's what I'm talking about: The Pope’s nose is the fatty end of the turkey’s .... um .... end. It’s the round, bulbous, fatty piece from which the turkey’s tail feathers emerge. 

Indeed, when you cut or bite into it, you'll find several strong, quills there, in and among the gelatinous fat and the few strands of dark meat. 

It's gross, actually, but I was always told that it was a "delicacy". 

I came to understand that, for the most part, 'delicacy' is what adults of my youth called food when they didn't want kids to eat it, mostly because it was expensive.

For example, in my house, you were not allowed to eat lobster until you made your First Communion. And then, you got a lobster roll for your First Communion lunch. 

But, The Pope's Nose? Ummm . . . yeah, but no. 

I came to understand that the real reward for getting The Pope's Nose was that you got to be a clown at the dinner table, without any adult reprimanding you to "behave". 

The deal was that my grandfather, who always carved the turkey, got to determine that year's recipient of The Pope's Nose. I'm not sure how that determination was made. Or if, in fact, it was any kind of logical, reasoned 'determination'. 

At that point in the day, he and my father and uncles had already consumed many beers, some of which were "boilermakers" (with a shot of whiskey at the end), so any semblance to an informed choice was strictly coincidental.

But, if you were chosen, well, that was cause for much celebration, accompanied by great, loud laughter and back-slapping among the men.

And, oh, by the way, it was always the boys or men who got awarded The Pope's Nose.  Sometime after my grandfather died, girls got to share the award, too.

You got to put the slippery blob in front of your nose and pretend to be the Pope. You might repeat part of the Thanksgiving grace in "pontifical tones". Or, put a napkin on your head in a point, stand up and bless the table the way the Pope stands at the widow of the Vatican and blesses the crowds below at St. Peter's Square. 

I do remember the time my cousin "Junie" - his real name is Al but he was named after his father so this was a short term of affection for "Junior" - was favored by my grandfather as that year's recipient of The Pope's Nose. 

I remember that, after the prerequisite prayer parody and mimic of the pontifical blessing of the Thanksgiving table, he held it up, pointed it and said, "And, this is what the Pope's "galo"  - a play on the Portuguese word for a male rooster or 'cock' - looks like after all those years of celibacy."

Well! I mean, he was 15 or 16 years old at the time. He had "made his Confirmation" as was said in my family. He was eligible to have The Pope's Nose. But, while the men laughed and slapped their thighs, for most of the women at the table, he had crossed an invisible line of table manners.  

I'm pretty sure it was not an original thought. Indeed, I'm sure he had heard the men in the garage speak of it for years. What was fairly new and bold and daring is that he said it out loud - in public - in front of the men and the women and the children. 

What I do remember is that my grandmother shot an angry look at my grandfather and then gave the "olho mau" - the evil eye - to each and every son and grandson around the table. There was a dramatic silence as she rose from her place and slowly and gracefully but deliberately made her way over to my cousin, whose smile had fled his face along with the color.

She looked him in the eye for a few unbearably long seconds and then smacked him right upside the head. "Oh!" "Owh" and "Hey" came the male voices around the table, as if they, too had been hit.

She leveled them all into silence with a glance before looking back at my cousin and said one word - in English - which underscored and punctuated the meaning.

"Respect!" she said, pointing her finger at him and then around the table. 

She slowly returned to her seat - back straight, head high - and sat down again to silence until she took a few deep breaths, picked up her fork and knife and said, "Eat!". 

The clatter of silverware and dishes slowly rolled into a few indiscernible words here and there, then, sentences, then laughter, and then it sounded, once again, like a family holiday meal.

I hadn't thought of this incident in years. I suppose, given the present cultural #MeToo climate, it's really no surprise that it popped up again after all these years. 

I'm thinking that's what's really wrong with the world today. We don't have strong grandmothers who are able to silence a holiday meal with a glance or stand up to an offender who had violated a societal boundary and smack him soundly upside the head.

What I do know is that it is when memories like that make a holiday appearance, it's probably no coincidence. 

"Respect!" said my grandmother. It wasn't a request. It was a demand. 

Sometimes, holiday memories bring warm memories.

And, sometimes, even warm memories bring important lessons.

Consequence - of some measure - can be a powerful deterrent.

It's not that we didn't know that. Sometimes, we just have to re-learn it.

Funny how that happens.

4 comments:

Jerry said...


Thank you for sharing this!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My pleasure, Jerry.

Linda McMillan said...

I had no idea! Fifty-four years I've gone without knowledge of The Pope's Nose. I feel so informed now. Thank you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cue the TV commercial music: "The More You Know . . . . ."