The Feast (from 2013)
Posted by wendiwendy
I’m re-posting this entry today because this is Feast time in Melrose Park, Illinois and it brings back great memories. I wrote this in 2013:
There was one constant in the summers of my childhood, a family tradition that carried through until my very late teens. Every year, in mid-July, we made the trek to Melrose Park for the Italian Feast. We actually just called it The Feast; everyone knew what we meant. I only just recently found out that the full name of this festival is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in its 120th year in 2013.
You know how you can take a kid on some amazing outing and they come home and just remember things like the water fountains or the revolving doors in the building? That might be how my memories of the Feast are now, since it’s been over 20 years since I’ve gone. But for what it’s worth, these are the things I remember.
Melrose Park is not that far from where we lived, in the western suburbs of Chicago, but as a kid the drive there felt like it took forever. In reality, we probably got there in 30 to 40 minutes. I remember going on Sunday, the day of the procession, but we may have gone more than once during the week as well. We always parked by my Aunt Emily’s house, one of my dad’s sisters; she lived right on the route of the procession. The biggest anticipation, by far, was guessing when the procession would come into view. My cousins and I would all sit on the curb in front of my aunt’s house, and we would watch it unfold just inches from our faces.
This parade celebrated the Madonna, and the statue was carried all through the streets. I always looked for my Grandma Tirabassi, who walked in the parade along with other ladies from the church. I remember them carrying their rosaries and reciting the Hail Mary. It used to just blow my mind to see my grandma in the parade; she felt like a celebrity to me, and I was always so proud when I saw her.
When the parade ended, people from along the route would join in and walk along at the end. I did this quite a few times; it was the only time I was ever in a parade, even though I wasn’t an official participant. This was such a huge, big deal to me as a kid.
My aunt’s house is etched in my memory, but vaguely. I actually lived in the lower level with my parents for the first couple years of my life. I remember she usually had a spread of food set out in the garage; there were tables and chairs set up, and people would wander in and out. There was a big stone or cement porch on the front of her house, and we kids made a big deal out of jumping off the side of the porch onto the grass below. When I was young, I considered this to be very risqué and dangerous; my boy cousins (and there were many of them) liked to play Evel Knievel and do daredevil jumps.
I had quite a few cousins either my age or within a year or two of me, as well as my brother who was two years younger than me. We were all usually there at the same time. I was the only girl in this age range; my other girl cousins were all older than me, old enough to not be hanging out with a little kid like me (I don’t blame them). I loved being around my cousins, who were all boisterous and laughing and happy kids. They all treated me kindly, even if I didn’t always join in with their shenanigans. There were always tons of people around, people I called ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ even if that wasn’t really their relation to me. It was just what you called the adults back then. I would see familiar faces, faces I saw every year at the Feast, people I was happy to see even if I couldn’t remember their names. There was just such a feeling of comfort and tradition.
I don’t remember any fights or bickering on Feast day. The adults all seemed to be happy; the kids were all beyond excited. My aunt lived within walking distance of the actual festival so people would walk down to the Feast area and then back to her house all throughout the day. Sometimes my cousins would come back with gifts or treats from a stall, and I would beg my parents to get me the same thing. There were usually balloons there, and I always got a balloon. Sometimes I’d get the kind that had a shape inside, which I thought were just the best balloons ever. I think sometimes they were on a stick instead of a string.
When I was very young, I always walked with my parents to the festival area. We’d walk along the streets, some of which were actually brick and looked like cobblestone streets. I always loved those and thought they looked so pretty and old-fashioned. A lot of people had nativity sets and Madonna statues set up in their front yards, and we would admire these decorations as we walked. Often my parents would know the people who lived along the route to the Feast, so we would stop and chat. Most people had a set-up like my aunt’s, with food set out in the garage and tables and chairs filled with relatives and friends.
There was a big sign that signified the start of the festival area; when it came into view, my heart would beat faster and I knew we were almost there. Even now, looking at a picture of that sign brings back those old childhood feelings of excitement and anticipation.
Once we got there, it was a crush of people. People everywhere, getting food or talking in groups or buying trinkets. Many people had red, white and green t-shirts and Italia jackets on. Most people were Italian, and I’d hear a mixture of Italian and accented English. My dad always bought us Italian ice, my absolute favorite treat. It wasn’t ice like a sno-cone, or really ice at all; it was creamy, bright white and bursting with lemon flavor. It was sold in a little fluted white paper cup; I would finish it and then push up the bottom of the cup, trying to make sure I didn’t miss any of the sweet, tart delicacy. I’ve never been able to find Italian ice quite like the kind I had at the Feast; what they sell in grocery stores is not the same thing at all. Gelato comes close and, oddly enough, so does the Italian ice that Culver’s sells in the summer.
I remember my dad buying these flat, yellow beans; he would squeeze the outer skin and pop the bean into his mouth. They were sold in little wax bags, and until I did an online search the other day, I never realized they were lupini beans. Of course, the smell of grilled Italian sausage was everywhere; that and Italian beef were the two main things I remember besides the Italian ice and my dad’s beans.
There was a carnival as well, and we always went on the rides. As I got older, the carnival became the main attraction for me (well, that and the Italian ice). As a teenager, it was easy to flirt with the carnival workers and get them to give us free rides; one time my friend and I got 15 free rides in a row on the Zipper. (Never underestimate the power of flirting!)
Since we had to cross a busy road to get to the actual festival, it was a big deal when my parents finally allowed us to go to the Feast by ourselves. Sometimes all the cousins would go as a pack; as I got older, I’d sometimes go with whatever friend I’d brought along to keep me company. (Once I hit junior high and high school, I almost always brought a friend along.) We would pass a place that sold soft-serve ice cream and that was another big treat, especially getting to go there by ourselves and order whatever we wanted.
In the alleys of the side streets, people would set off huge, massive packs of firecrackers that would pop and bang for long, noisy minutes at a time. When I was very young, I was terrified of firecrackers so I would hide in my aunt’s house along with her dog, who was as scared as I was.
Once I moved out and then got married and was living on my own, I stopped going to the Feast. My father actually discouraged me from going in the late 80s and early 90s because there were fights breaking out – I’m not sure if it was actually gangs or just rowdy guys, sometimes with guns. The last time I went was in 1990, when Eric was just a month or so old. I didn’t fear for my life or anything, but it just wasn’t the same. The magical feeling I used to get from the Feast was gone, and I didn’t want to replace my good memories with something else. I haven’t been back since.
Part of what made it so special for me was just family, having everyone gathered at my aunt’s, eating and talking and laughing. Part of it was the novelty of getting to go to a carnival, get yummy treats and little gifts I normally wouldn’t get. (I still have a rosary my grandmother bought me one year.) Part of it was being trusted to walk there with my cousins and/or my friends, that first exhilarating taste of freedom from adult supervision.
In my mind, memories of the Feast are mixed up with warm sunshine, laughter, wafts of smoke from Italian sausages on the grill, waiting waiting waiting for the procession to start, and sweet, tart, cold lemon.