“So … he’s a wizard?”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret them. Not only because I realize how naïve I sound, but because a part of me is afraid of the answer. Uncle Rocco has always been like a grandfather to me, but perhaps I don’t know him as well as I thought.
As Toto Cutugno sings to me from the car radio, my mother keeps her eyes on the road and answers, “Nooo, Uncle Rocco isn’t a wizard. Don’t be silly, Daniela! He’s just going to help with your migraines.”
I am still suspicious. At 13, I am suspicious of most things my mother tells me.
“Like a doctor?” I wipe away the sweat forming on my upper lip.
“No, not like a doctor. He doesn’t have any medicine. He is just going to pray and try to see the cause of your headaches. It may be the malocchio … the evil eye.”
At the words pray and evil, my head spins; I should never have let Julie convince me to watch “The Exorcist.” I try to keep my voice steady, “So, it’s a religious thing?”
Her answer is not at all reassuring, and my brain chants, “the power of Christ compels you” for the rest of the short ride through Stoneham.
Within a few minutes, we arrive at Uncle Rocco’s house and walk in without ringing or knocking; we are family. As always, he is waiting for us in the kitchen. I greet him with a kiss on the cheek and can’t help but think that he looks like an old Rhett Butler; if Clark Gable had lived to the age of 75, he and Uncle Rocco could be twins. Or at least distant cousins. I look around and notice that everything looks … normal. But then, what was I expecting? Ancient religious scrolls? Black candles? I push these thoughts aside and look at my uncle. Skepticism is oozing off of me and I still don’t know what to expect, so I ask, “Where did you learn how to do this?”
“My mother taught me on Christmas Eve a long time ago. And years before that, she learned in Anzano — also on Christmas Eve.” I nod, accepting his mysterious qualifications, and take a seat.
The kitchen table is bare, save for a white bowl filled with water, and a small glass holding what looks like olive oil. Uncle Rocco holds the bowl of water over my head and starts whispering in dialect. I don’t know where to look, so I shut my eyes. And since I cannot understand a single word he is saying, I let my mind drift.
I think about the rules of my Italian household. What some may refer to as superstitions are ancient guidelines in my family. I never place a box of new shoes on the kitchen table for fear I may inadvertently invite death into our house. I toss salt over my shoulder like it’s my job. Unfortunately, I can never remember if it’s the right or left shoulder, so I usually throw over both for good measure, hoping they don’t cancel each other out. Of course, this is all unmatched by the panic I experience if my umbrella accidentally opens indoors.
As I am pondering the mysterious ties to our Pugliese past, Uncle Rocco places the bowl on the table, and dips his pinky into the oil, letting the golden liquid drip off his finger into the bowl of water. He watches as the oil slowly spreads, making its way throughout the bowl, and frowns.
“What?!? Is it bad?!?” I am sweating again. I lean close and look into the bowl, squinting my eyes and turning my head. I blink a few times, but I don’t see anything. Sensing my confusion, my uncle explains.
“Look at the oil … it isn’t separating from the water quite like it should. The lines of each drop are blurred. You are off balance, and it is causing your headaches. See?”
His explanation makes sense and I look again. And this time I do see. Whether it is love for my Uncle, my faith in God, or my Italian inclination to adhere to superstition, I don’t know. But the oil doesn’t look right anymore.
Uncle Rocco grabs a small butter knife from the counter, mutters in dialect again, and runs the knife through the mixture — effectively cutting my curse. When he’s done, he opens the front door and throws the mixture outside. Before we leave, I hug my Uncle and promise him that I will wear my corno charm to school everyday in order to ward off future attacks of the malocchio.
As we get into the car, I feel unusually relaxed and balanced. I smile at my mother and ask, “so, that was a religious thing … right?”
“Well,” she pauses, “I’d say it was more of an Italian thing.”