At the end of the classic movie “The Godfather II”, the final scene takes place in the family Corleone’s dining room. It’s December 7, 1941 and the family is awaiting Don Vito Corleone’s return; it’s his birthday and they’re going to surprise him with a cake. The eldest son, “Sonny” (James Caan), remarks, “The nerve of them Japs, attacking on Pop’s birthday”. The middle son, Fredo—played by the greatest actor of his generation, John Cazale, says, “They didn’t know it was Pop’s birthday.”
They also didn’t know that it was my grandma Agnes’s birthday either.
Of the many days that 20th-century historians tell us we will always remember, the very fewest events truly are ingrained in our collective mind: November 22, 1963 (the death of JFK), September 11, 2001 (of course), June 6, 1944 (the Normandy landings), and the “date which will live in infamy” — December 7, 1941.
Perhaps because December 7 was my maternal grandmother’s birthday, I was taught early and often why that was such an important date. For one thing, my grandma was our primary caregiver. She always picked us up from Sacred Heart Villa school, did the laundry and made dinner so that both my folks could work to pay for our private Catholic education. So forgetting grandma Ag’s birthday was an impossibility.
However, for that poor woman, her birth-date would be inextricably linked to the closest thing the United States had had as a foreign attack on native soil since the War of 1812. True, Hawaii wasn’t then a state, and there’s the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government ignored advance warnings that we’d be attacked there (though I find this difficult to believe) so that we’d have to join the Allies and forget our isolationism. But still: a surprise attack by the Asian part of the Fascist Axis was a pretty unforgettable—and horribly regrettable—event whose enormity is still tough to grasp.
So although the attack on Pearl Harbor predated my own birth by a solid thirty years, every year I was reminded of it not just by the nightly news (in such times when one still watched the 6:30 p.m. news), but due to the fact that it was Grandma Ag’s birthday and therefore a time for cake and ice-cream.
This weird dichotomy of life and death, somber remembrance and unabashed celebration, made for a strange birthday party chatter. For one thing, those members of the family who were old enough to remember Pearl Harbor felt obliged to impart to neophytes like me and my younger brother and sister what, exactly, had happened on that date. But that’s hard to do, even for a grammar school teacher. Unlike November 22, 1963 (“President Kennedy Has Been Shot!”) or D-Day (“The Allies Have Landed”) or even 9/11 (“The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been hit!”), “Pearl Harbor Was Attacked” didn’t quite sink in with the same sort of visceral imagery of planes-flying-into-buildings or JFK-being-shot-on-the-Zapruder-film level.
Sometimes aunts and uncles would abbreviate it, between bites of our family’s bakery’s cake, to “we were attacked by the Japanese”. This is true, of course, but since as a kid I’d only known that we’d won the war, it didn’t make much sense why we’d remember losing an opening and surprising battle to an enemy we’d obliterate in less than four years.
Grandma Ag, who’d lived through enough suffering in her life—only to have it end in pancreatic cancer at age 85—seemed honored to share such an important date. And, if nothing else, she was guaranteed that none of her seven children or twenty-one grandchildren would ever forget her birthday.
So on this unforgettable date I do remember the U.S. sailors who were caught unawares by the Japanese planes and died without recourse to the sacraments—or even having had the chance to say goodbye. And I remember my Grandma Ag, who made all those dinners, folded all that laundry, drove us home from school so many times it would be impossible to count. But we never, ever forgot her birthday. Nor did we ever forget her death-day: Grandma Ag died on January 17, 1995. However, she was buried on her feast day, Saint Agnes the Martyr on January 21. Not for nothing is my only daughter named after her.
So in closing may I recall the immortal words of John Keats from his mini-epic poem “The Eve of Saint Agnes”:
St. Agnes! Ah! It is St. Agnes’ Eve—
Yet men will murder upon Holy Days.
And men murdered en masse on December 7, 1941.