My mother was a Sicilian Catholic with leanings toward Christian Science, and my father was an agnostic Baptist. My father was a comedy writer, and he had to become a Catholic in order to marry my Sicilian Catholic mother. So he'd met with the young priest and they traded jokes and theology, until the priest finally said, "Well, Jack, you're just a natural-born pagan. I'm going to give you a learner's permit, so you can get married. But any kid comes along, you have to send him to Catholic school. My father said, "Sure, sure, sure."
The year I was five, my father was kicked off the Bob Hope Show, for the excess of high spirits. He probably played a practical joke on Hope; he was given to those things.
So I was sent to Catholic school and [with more time on his hands] my father gave me these interesting questions to ask the nun every morning. And she was getting more and more shocked and finally, when I asked if Jesus ever had to go to the bathroom, she began to scream at me. I remember she lisped very badly and she yelled, "Sacrilish, sacrilish, blashphlemy and sacrilish!" She wrote on this great big sheet of cardboard "Jean Houston's Years in Purgatory" and every time I asked a question, "Sacrilish!" and out came another 100,000 years. By the time I turned six I had 300 million years of purgatory.
So I went home and I told my father who got hysterical laughing. And he threw me on his shoulders and he ran past the Sicilian neighbors who were all throwing up their windows saying (Italian accent) "There goes a-crazy Jack! Watch out you'll kill a-bambino!"
My father starts going, "Purgatory, purgatory, purgatory." I said, "Where we going Daddy?" He says, "To the movie, honey. If you've think you've had troubles wait till you see how they hog-tied a real saint. See what they did to poor old Bernadette."
And he took me to this picture called "The Song of Bernadette." Everybody was watching with this rapture because the theater was filled with hordes of Sicilian Catholics who were courting this picture with a worthiness due the Pope. Sitting next to me -- I'll never forget -- was an old lady in black with many holy metals on her chest and every time Jennifer Jones, who was Bernadette, would show up she would cross herself and say, "Oh, what a beautiful saint!"
And then comes the great moment where the Virgin Mary appears, this vision in luminous white -- and my father goes into uncontrollable hysterics. And I said, "Daddy, shhh! This is the holy part!" And he said, "Yeah, but do you know who that is up on the screen playing the Virgin Mary?!" And he got hysterical and he says, "Linda! Linda Darnell! I met her at that party last year in Beverly Hills. Hot damn! I told her she'd go far." And he just went into utter hysterics. And the Sicilian Catholics all turned around and made an evil gesture at him and kept repeating "Diabolo, diabolo." And I said, "Daddy, Daddy, get out of here, go to the bathroom!" So he went and he came back about a half hour later -- being pretty good, you know, a few snorts reminding us of his true feelings.
Heady with purpose I start going home and my father says "Hey kid, come on, take my hand, are you mad at me?" I say, "Yes!" And he said "Where are you going?" I said, "Daddy I don't want to tell you where I'm going!" And he says "Well, why not?" and I said "Daddy, you would just laugh at me." and he said, "No I promise, I won't laugh." I said "Daddy, you can't help yourself." He said "No, I promise, where are you going?" I said, "Well, I'm going to go see the Virgin Mary. He said, "Really? I'll go with you."
And he grabs my hand, pulls me into this horrible Dorothy and the Tin Man routine, and he starts to sing as he skips down the street, "We're off to see the Virgin, the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes. We'll join the hordes and hordes and hordes--"
"Daddy, go away! And don't you follow me. This is the most important thing in my whole life!"
And I ran home and I ran upstairs to a guest room that had this very deep closet with a wall safe and I thought, "Boy, it really looks like a grotto." There was Chickie with her eight puppies and I said, "Oh Chickie please, please, please, I'm sorry I have to move you, but I don't want the Virgin Mary to step on you."
And she looked at me very kindly, [and after moving the puppies out of the closet], I fell on my knees and thought, "Boy it really looks like a grotto."
I crossed myself and I said, "Oh, Virgin Mary, please, please, please, show up for me. I want so much to see you I'll give up candy for a week -- two weeks, ok? Now I'm going to close my eyes and count to ten and then you be there, ok?"
So I close my eyes and count to ten. No Virgin Mary. And Chickie brings two pups back to the closet.
I say, "Chickie, please understand, I've really got to see the Virgin Mary." So I help her take the pups away again. And I start to count to higher numbers and I give up all kinds of things -- you know, stuffed artichokes, things I really love -- chicken with garlic and lemon sauce -- [still] there was no Virgin Mary. And finally I got up to a very high number, sure she'd make it. But, no Virgin Mary.I open my eyes -- and there's every pup back in the closet.
And poor Chickie's looking at me benignly, and she seems to understand. And I had a sense that I was being told something profound, and that in a sense the Madonna had
shown up in the closet! [laughs]
And I looked down and there was my grandfather, Prospero Todaro putting smudge pots around the fig tree. And there was a plane in the sky. And there were my Mary Jane shoes, and the Dick and Jane reader on the floor. And suddenly it was all one great reality; it was a universe of sympathy and fellow feeling. And suddenly everything that I ever even thought of -- the dogs in the closet, everything -- new wheat in Kansas and the old ladies dying in Shoreroad Hospital and new babies being born -- it was all one great reality and it was moving together. And it was very, very good.
This went on forever. It was probably only a couple of seconds, because the plane only moved a few inches in the sky, but it seemed to be forever; the categories of time were strained by the tensions of eternity. And then I heard my father downstairs laughing as he always was, and this whole universe began to laugh and laugh. That great line from Dante, "the joy that spins the universe" seemed to be true.
I was aware at that time that Chickie was essential to the whole process. She seemed to be aware of what I was going through -- sort of the matrix, the mother matrix that was sustaining this. And childhood kept this alive and adolescence gave it passion, and then I got stupid because I went on to graduate school [laughs]. But then of course, then it all began to come back again. It is the single most essential, most important experience of my whole life.