Bohemian Rhapsody for a Barefoot Queen

At sixteen I wore purple Chuck Taylors with blue-and-white striped overalls;  my dark hair long and wavy, and I’d finally stopped hating my Roman nose and the apostrophe in my last name.  I’d been kissed for the first time, recently, and shed my adolescent chrysalis for love’s silky second skin.  My best friend Dani and I would go for long walks after school on the street where I lived. We’d walk to the Mall of New Hampshire and back and we’d sing as we walked “Going to the Chapel” or “And Then He Kissed Me” and laugh and talk about the boys we loved who were also best friends.  After of years hiding behind books and my poetry, I felt I’d finally arrived.    

Those summers were so long and luxurious.  Thunderstorms would creep in often in the afternoons and the streets would fill up with water and Dani and I would take off our shoes, roll up our jeans and splash along past some boys house who we’d once had a crush on.  And we’d throw back our faces, let the rain soak our hair and we’d sing and we’d laugh.  Gone were the red glasses I’d worn since junior high and gone was the shy girl writing notes to her secret crush.  Those summer rains opened me up and spilled me out onto the sidewalk. I discovered my feet came alive without shoes. They delighted in the feeling of the road’s warm pavement, the rain swishing around my ankles.  Dani and I began walking barefoot in the summer any chance we got.  We walked down my street barefoot and through Dani’s south end neighborhood.  One day, when my father took us back to school shopping in Boston, we even walked down Newberry Street barefoot past all the ladies with their boutique shopping bags.  The pavement under our feet, warm and familiar, gave us a boost so we didn’t just walk past Newbury Comics, we sauntered. New Hampshire girls loose in the big city, we moved through shops gathering up Urban Outfitters’ grunge fashions, delighting in spending our parents’ money. (Later I found I preferred my father’s beat-up flannels to baby-doll dresses, but that’s another story.)

When I was eighteen I got my first tattoo—a crescent-shaped man-in-the-moon– and, barefoot queen that I was, I chose to put it on the top of my foot right beneath my big toe.  It felt like a symbol of freedom and originality (never mind that Drew Barrymore had the exact same tattoo in the same spot; I’d first spotted it on the cover of Seventeen magazine). After that, I loved wearing sandals and toe rings to show off my toes and I guess my fetish rubbed off because I remember my first boyfriend, once, sucking my toes, taking them into his mouth one-by-one like oysters as I lay stretched out on the couch. It was a strange sensation, soft and gentle, so unlike the rough pavement of summer and yet somehow completely natural to be kissed in this most sensitive overlooked place. 

Recently, I got stuck in the rain unexpectedly after work and came outside to find my car had been towed from the busy city street where I’d left it.  Fighting back tears at the thought of the hefty ticket and cab ride that laid ahead, I set out on the twenty minute walk home through the pouring rain.  I had on sandals that day—red Italian sandals—and my tattoo peeked through as the rain washed over them reminding me of those long ago summer walks with Dani.  Stopping, I slipped off my sandals,  slowed my pace down to a saunter and let the rain wash down to kiss my toes. Once a barefoot queen, always a barefoot queen.

Winter Island, Salem

It is February and every wild thing is hungry.
The earth is tipped in white snow
caught like a jellyfish in a net of shadow.
The bay is cold as Jupiter,
ducks drifting like orphans
in a galaxy of ice.
But, today a sun, golden
as a loaf of bread
rises from the fire of the hearth.
Gulls scoop hooked beaks
into the sea in search of fish.
Like them, I sink in my teeth.
I tilt my face toward heaven
and fill the empty basket
of my heart with light.

Witch’s Brew- A Living Strega Who Mixes her Own Brand of Folk Magic

I first met Lori Bruno fifteen years ago while working as a reporter in Salem, Massachusetts’s, covering the so-called Witch City’s mix of art, maritime history along with its vibrant pagan community. At the time Bruno, 68, was introduced to me as a true Italian strega, one who practiced Sicilian witchcraft. Bruno, had just opened a new shop in town and I was asked to cover it for a story. Having grown up in a religious home where even the Smurfs were forbidden for their mystical influence, I had some negative preconceived ideas about witchcraft. But, during a sit-down visit to her home, Bruno quickly won me over.  With her broad smile and Boston accent, she felt instantly familiar, like a long-lost Italian relative I’d never met.  She called me, “Bella”, made me tea and we chatted for hours in her kitchen about our common southern Italian roots and strange Italian superstitions.

When my editor at Italian America recently assigned me a story on La Befana I joked that I knew the real-life Befana and offered to call her up. An online search yielded Bruno’s phone number, and soon we were chatting like no time had passed. These days- after a covid-induced hiatus- the eighty one year old witch is back to giving psychic readings and running her Salem shop Magika that sells books, candles, and other new age merchandise.

It’s no surprise the long-time witch is thriving. Bruno’s combination of grandmotherly warmth, Italian folk magic and psychic ability has garnered her much attention through the past five decades including a spread in The Wall Street Journal ten years ago during the housing crisis, when she was hired by new home-owners to perform cleansing rituals on foreclosed homes believed to hold bad vibes.

A second-generation Italian whose parents hailed from Sicily and Naples, Bruno grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s in a neighborhood rich in cultural diversity. Immigrant neighbors, many of them Italian, would regularly come to her house to visit her mother who was known for her healing powers.   “She would take away headaches and say prayers for the Evil Eye,” Bruno recalls. “She would do readings and tell people about the dead.”

Bruno’s own first supernatural experience came at age 12 when she looked over at a classmate in school and suddenly experienced a vision accompanied by a cold chill.

“Her lower back looked gray,” Bruno recalls. “I went home and told my mom and she said that little girl had cancer of the kidneys.”

Over the years, Bruno has built up her psychic albitites, using them to help the community. After working for NASA for nearly ten years in the 1960’s creating technical drawings, she gave up her career and devoted herself fulltime to psychic service.  Since then, she has worked with police to find missing people, counseled married couples and cast fertility spells for barren women.

Several years ago, a woman came to her unable to conceive and asked for help having a baby boy. Bruno accompanied her to a fertility treatment. “The doctor came in and I was giving her unsalted cashews,” Bruno remembers, adding, “have you noticed cashews look like a fetus?”  While the doctor performed treatment, Bruno casts a spell she believes helped the woman conceive.

“She had a boy,” She concludes. “I am the child’s godmother. [The couple] is Christian but they have a Strega Nona.”

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Bruno’s healing practices are a witch’s brew of cultural beliefs; Roman, Egyptian and Catholic statues all fill her Salem home. A typical work day may include prayers to Michael the Archangel, the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the Black Madonna, a dark-skinned version of the virgin Mary that many believe holds unique healing powers.  Bruno keeps a lit candle in front of the Black Madonna at all times and prays regularly to “the great mother”, before performing healing rituals.       

Bruno attributes her healing powers to her Sicilian roots. The island’s cultural diversity through the centuries, she says, has made it fertile ground for magic.  “At one time Sicily was a mix of Jews and Italians,” she reflects. “The Jews know all about bad magic, good magic.  On the kabbalistic tree of light witchcraft exists in the first three triads. Low magic works with earth currents and herbs. When you want to learn more, you climb the ladder. My family learned more.”

According to Bruno, two kinds of magic were practiced in Italy with the earliest recorded references to witchcraft dating to the sixteenth century when many -mostly peasants-were put to death for their beliefs.  Benandanti, Bruno says, is magicfocused on healing and blessing people; historically, those who practiced it blessed crops, marriages, babies being born. Melandante, on the other hand, focuses on inflicting harm on others.  One of the most well-known Italian superstitions, malocchio, or the Evil Eye is believed to be brought on by an insincere compliment when someone secretly envies another’s qualities or possessions. It reveals itself in the form of a headache and can only be cured by someone gifted with healing abilities, usually a woman who whispers a secret prayer.

As a healer, Bruno has often helped relieve people of malocchio. The process she says involves pouring three drops of olive oil into a bowl along with a sprinkle of salt.  She then punctures the drops of oil with a lit match and waits for the oil to form a line or a circle, which indicates the gender of the person who brought on the bad luck. The person is then blessed with a secret prayer.  In Italy, Bruno says, the most superstitious have learned to ward off the evil eye before it happens, wearing talismans or making the symbol of horns with their hand.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Evil Eye, but I know I carry superstitions of my own.  The last time I saw Lori Bruno for our kitchen interview, I remember being surprised when at the end, she took down a painted Italian pitcher from a shelf and handed it to me as a parting gift.  Convinced the vessel may hold some secret spell, I left it on the “free” table in the newspaper’s employee break room.

These days, I like to think I’m a little more open-minded. Having never experienced a psychic reading, I decided recently to give it a try and asked Bruno for a phone consult.

The results were amazingly right-on.  After giving a creepily good read of my love life, she honed in on other things, saying “You will always be creative.  I see things growing all around you.”  Then, at the end, in typical Strega Nona style, she added, “I love you, Honey. God Bless.”

La Befana, Italy’s Witch of Winter

Who needs Santa Claus, the stodgy old man on the sleigh when there’s an Italian witch on a broomstick to brings presents to the bambini?  La Befana, according to age-old Italian legend and tradition, makes her appearance on January 6, the day the Wise Men are believed to have arrived at baby Jesus’ manger.  This day, known as The Feast of the Epiphany, is a national holiday and marks the end of twelve days of Christmas and New Years’ festivities.  

The Night of La Befana was mentioned as early as 1549 in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola where she was portrayed as an ugly old woman flying over houses on a broomstick, entering through the chimneys and leaving sweets for good children, or garlic and coal for bad ones.

La Befana’s roots are a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs. Some scholars believe her story originated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a pagan celebration starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans went to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes read by an old crone.

Others point to her Christian roots. “Her name derives from the word for epiphany, Epifania,” says Art History professor Rocky Ruggiero. “Legend has it that she showed the three magi hospitality on their way to Bethlehem.”­

According to folklore, La Befana was invited to join the Wise Men on their journey to find the Christ child, but declined their invitation, choosing to stay home and attend to her housework.  Later, when she realized the child’s importance, she regretted her decision. Legend has it that ever since she’s roamed the earth searching for the Wise Men, rewarding good children and gently admonishing the bad.

Unlike Santa Claus (Or Babbo Natale as he’s called in Italy) La Befana has been a holiday tradition in Italy since the 13th century. Though some Italians embrace the American tradition of Santa Claus, Christmas in Italy is far less commercialized, and La Befana remains a more popular figure. Her arrival on January 6th is celebrated with traditional Italian foods such as panettone and special cakes and cookies called befani. In honor of the Three Wise Men, Italians go to church and enjoy spending the day with family. Children who have been good receive candy, and those who’ve misbehaved get lumps of coal – or these days, more likely, black rock candy.

La Befana is most associated with Rome and central Italy but the custom spread to the rest of the country during the 20th century. Today there are festivals throughout Italy, including a four day festival from January 2-6 in in Urbania in Le Marche region, and a large Befana Christmas market in Rome’s Piazza Navona.

Salem strega Lori Bruno feels a special kinship to La Befana, reaching out to her when she encounters a mother or child in need. “Now that I’m a grandmother I talk to her; I say Befana we need you to help the children.”

Shelter in Place

Am I the only one who finds this phrase liberating? A tyranny of choices reduced to the lowest common denominator, a frosted cake cut in half, then in half again, and again until all that’s left is one manageable slice.

My body, a restless cat always pacing, is forced to rest for the first time, an epitaph floating like a silent film caption over my head: She did not find, she created her own happy place.

For me it’s like someone just gave me one square of an endless rolling lawn and asked me to plant on it a vineyard, winding clusters of plum and gold that call me up, up like Jack’s beanstalk closer toward dreams, showing me my ideas don’t need acres to grow, only inches, not weeks of sunlight or exotic soil, just the dim glow of a 75 watt light bulb in a familiar room.

Shelter in place to me is a challenge: If I can’t leave my country, my state, my house, what world can I create for myself? Like Aslan breathing life into Narnia, I conjure up an oak tree for shade, a lemonade to cool, a book to comfort with words touching in paragraphs, that defy social distance, that step in line together without fear even as supermarket clerks count bodies like apples, placing them in cleanly spaced rows.

Shelter in place. To me it’s a call to root, and root I do, using my Covid check to buy a new couch, the first couch I’ve ever bought for the first place of my own in half a decade. It’s a teal couch, a vintage Chesterfield with silver pins along the arms that sparkle like marquesite, a couch that invites a body not just to shelter, but to lounge like Rita Hayworth in a red dress on her belly, high heels kicked up, the way starlets lounged on the screen before women traded in livelihoods for careers. Before Instagram and instant messages captured everyone’s deliciously idle moments and families started spreading out across the country, leaving each other in search of what? Adventure? Change? The American Dream?

Shelter in place. Another way to say build a nest. Gather up bits of colored string, all the precious things of past and present, weave them together, then crawl inside, button down the hatches and hunker down.

Shelter in Place. To me it’s a license to stretch out like a cat in a pool of sunlight, eyes closed. Not an order so much as a wish whispered between lovers in darkness God bless. Sleep tight. Sweet dreams.

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Winter Prayer

That first winter in Vermont,
how dark and quiet the streets were
in the small town. How unkind.
Winding off without sidewalks
into desolate fields of snow, coyotes wailing
just beyond the widow’s lonely backyard grave.
One night, cloaked in solitude like a traveler
from another land, I followed one small sidewalk
through the town center, past the general store,
the toy shop, the B and B,
sliding my boots into the crisp footprints of others,
past houses with sleeping children
tucked behind closed doors
like angels in an advent calendar
until I came to a church lit up in the night,
a creche of painted figures beckoning.
Mary’s face beneath the blue veil was so inviting.
I stood there along with the shepherds
for nearly a half hour, watching
the baby with arms outstretched
as if to receive my winter prayer.