JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, MY DAD, & PEACH POUND CAKE: Spiritual Journey Book Review
When I was young, I lived to read fiction. My favorite book to repeatedly check out from the school library was JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Roald Dahl – a five-star classic chapter book. I highly recommend it, especially as a rollicking read aloud to children.
I loved this book so much, when I had children of my own to read books to, I wanted the same hard cover library edition. (Not the paperback edition with a scene from the movie on the cover.) Found it on E-bay, of course. I have kept this book on display in my office for about twenty years. Something about the cover illustration, by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, never stopped appealing to me.
Perhaps it was nostalgia for when a kid had all the time in the world to read a book just for fun. Over and over again. In retrospect, perhaps also, on some level, I recognized on this delicious book cover a taste of my own destiny.
You see, much like young James in the beginning of the story, I have recently experienced the death of my father. In July. He was 80.
After my brother Tony called to tell me that our dad had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t doing well; I immediately went to my Blessed Mother Mary altar on my kitchen counter and began praying. As I recited the words to familiar prayers and spoke my petitions for her intercession, my eyes were drawn to a peach I happened to have sitting nearby for a later snack.
During this moment of utter panic, shock, and despair, Mary, ever my Muse, gave me a writing assignment. As unbelievable and inappropriate as that sounds. Book review James and Giant Peach, she whispered.
Do it. Not now. When you’re ready. It’ll help.
And so, I’m doing it. And, it helps.
ALBERT VINCENT NOLLETTI – December 3, 1938 – July 19, 2019
(This photo shows my dad’s favorite spot of our family tour of Italy in 2008. We were on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Something about it being a medieval bridge, something about its involvement in WWII. He said he had always wanted to go there. I remember being so glad he was happy.)
I did my father’s eulogy:
Hi. I’m Maria, Albert’s daughter. Thank you all for joining us.
I’ve been dreading this day my whole life, and now that it’s here I believe it to be the end of my five-year spiritual journey. Like maybe the purpose of the journey was to prepare me for the death of my father.
One of the things I learned along the way was that I was born with strong empathic abilities. Right now, I need y’all to send me vibes of love and encouragement to help me do this. If you could please send any negativity out to the parking lot, that would be great.
I mean, sadness and tears are okay. I can handle them. We all can, really. It’s best to relax into these emotions and let them wash over us because the reality is that the death of our loved ones is traumatic. Whatever we do to make it to the next hour is okay.
In these last years, my father and I were separate by circumstances. But love isn’t a matter of proximity, or even regular communication. Love is a much more powerful force than that. Miraculously, I had a wonderful conversation with my dad for Father’s Day. We reconnected, cleared up misunderstandings, and loved each other. I have no regrets, and I am exceedingly grateful for this blessing.
Granted, going into his heart valve replacement replacement surgery, Albert wanted and expected a full recovery – the golf course was waiting. So THAT miracle would have been more than nice.
But he was graced with six months of peace after he was appropriately treated for Geriatric Age Onset Psychosis. A blessed time when nostalgia and the traumatic memories of the deaths of his loved ones no longer plagued him. So many people he loved died before he did, and his heart ached with missing them.
In retrospect, it seems likely that Albert was an unrecognized empath who felt emotional pain at a higher level than regular folk and found solace in reliving happy memories and laughing. And, this is okay.
It’s okay for a four-year-old, not to know how to step onto the Sears escalator, and cry as she watches her whole family go up and away from her. It’s okay for her to wait for her laughing daddy to come down the other escalator so he can hold her hand and teach her how to take that first step UP.
It’s okay for a child to snuggle with her daddy whilst sucking her thumb, watching the Marx Brothers, and laughing.
It’s okay for an eight-year-old to climb up to the third level of the tree fort the neighborhood high school boys built in the woods for the gang, get scared, and refuse to allow anyone else to spot her down the ladder except her father. “Go get Daddy. I’ll wait.” It’s okay for her to watch her brother Larry escort her laughing dad diagonally across the lawn, over the street, into the woods, and up the ladder, “Ready, honeydripper? Put your foot here. I got you.”
My dad would to do this thing whenever Tony and I performed our latest after supper show, he’d start clapping LOUDLY as soon as we started our performance, and we’d go “Daaaaaaaaad.”
And he’d say, “Oh,” and stop. Then we’d start up again, and so would he. And, then we’d be laughing too hard to do our own comedy routine.
Speaking of routines, anyone who knows our dad knows he was very routine oriented, so he’d shock us once in a while with the unexpected. One summer day, Larry, Tony, and I were playing in the swimming pool and Dad came home from delivering cheesecakes. Fully clothed, he walked out of the sliding glass door, “How’s the water?” across the deck, down the steps, “Sounds good!” and jumped right into the pool. We almost couldn’t breathe we were laughing so hard. Even after we saw that he had planned it, taking off his shoes and belt and emptying his pockets beforehand, it was still hysterical.
Joy was my dad’s favorite. Anyone remember the Chris Chambliss Pennant winning home run that put the Yankees into the 1976 World Series after a 12-year drought? The crowd was so excited, they streamed onto the field and Chris Chambliss had to fight his way through them to home base, only to find that he couldn’t step on it because someone had taken it for a souvenir. Remember? They changed the rule after that game. I was 10 years old at the time, and I don’t remember watching the scene on the TV because I was too busy reacting to my dad jumping up and down in jubilation. I swear he almost hit the ceiling. For real, he was only about two inches away from it. I remember this distinctly.
We prayed so hard for the miracle of his full recovery, and I thank all of you who joined in with us because miracles are indeed prayer infused and there’s no naivete in hoping despite the odds. But here’s the thing, from my point of view, we got the miracle in our knowing that it’s okay for Albert to go. He’s okay to go. We’re all gonna be okay. It’s okay.
His destination makes it okay.
Albert Nolletti is rising into a glorious party. I can just see it. All the family and friends gathered and so happy to hug him, and tell stories, and laugh. Grandma definitely made ravioli and pizzelles – Albert’s home!
Tony explained his theory of Heaven to me the other day, “Time has no meaning there, right? So, we’re all gonna be there when Dad arrives. From Dad’s point of view, we’re already there.” Part of the scene, part of the welcome. Because it’s Heaven.
I wrote this piece about my experience at his burial:
So, we’re at the cemetery, the pallbearers had just awkwardly manhandled the coffin into its spot, and my mom invited me over to sit in one of the four chairs right there next to the coffin.
“No, I prefer to stand,” (and watch this scene from afar).
She waited about 30 seconds and said, “Come here, Maria. I can’t do this alone.”
“Oh. Okay then.” So, I went over and sat down. I heard one of my cousins say, “We’re all here, right behind you.” I didn’t need to turn around to verify that. I could feel them.
I lost it as soon as the priest splashed the first drops of Holy Water onto my daddy’s coffin.
That’s when the dragonflies descended. They homed in and began whirling atop the beautiful flowers surrounding the coffin. I hyper focused on their different sizes and colors. They helped me breathe.
After the prayers, we were supposed to place the yellow roses we had been handed onto the coffin. I sat there shaking my petulant head. I didn’t want to do mine until the end. No, I didn’t want to do mine at all because I knew it was the final act.
That’s when my brother Tony held his hand out to me and helped me up. Together, we placed our flowers on and palmed the coffin one last time.
Fifteen hugs later, when I found myself standing back in a “secure” spot listening to one of my cousins advising me that it was ok to cry and that I should let it all out, upon which I immediately stopped weeping (I’m reeeally allergic to grieving advice. Cause, ya know, I got it.), I focused in on the line of people placing their flowers on my dad’s coffin with dragonflies dancing all around them.
“So many dragonflies,” I mused to no one in particular, “that’s a really good sign.”
Dean, one of our childhood friends, and a known atheist (at least he was back in the day), turned around, looked me right in the eye, nodded, and said, “Yeah, it is.” (See dragonfly/heaven story here.)
About a half hour later, as the 35 of us were figuring out our seats at the restaurant ‘round the corner, my brother Larry didn’t want to face the “too sunny” window, so I switched with him because I didn’t want to face the people after my “display” at the cemetery. I sat down, looked out the window and started to say, “It’s not too bright, I can handle it without sunglasses,” when I saw a big dragonfly zip right up to the window, hover there like a spy helicopter peering in to take a count, and then fly off in satisfaction.
I haven’t yet deciphered the full message in this dragonfly sign. I don’t know if I law-of-attractioned them, if it was the Angels helping me through by delivering this “I’m good here,” message from my dad, or if it was Jesus speaking to me in my own language simply because He loves me. But, one thing I know fur sure, all of us got what we needed that day. The priest nailed it earlier that morning when he preached his prediction, “Today will be a blessing for all who loved Albert Nolletti.”
Fast forward to today, September 6, 2019, the day after Hurricane Dorian blew through my town of Wilmington, North Carolina, thankfully sparing most of us any serious damage. Dragonflies have been spotted everywhere. And, they’re mating.
This is a message to me, despite the need to clean up my yard of fallen branches, it’s time to do this post, in honor of my dad; with the help of James, his giant insect buddies, and their giant peach.
I’ve confirmed for myself that my five-year spiritual journey is over. It’s official. I’m healed. That being able to psychologically handle the death of my father was one of the biggest unknown reasons for taking that first step way back at the beginning.
Stop the presses, I hear you thinking. What’s the connection between your dad, your journey, and that book?
Well, when I recently read it again, I realized that JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Roald Dahl is a spiritual journey story — rowdy, uplifting, preposterous, delightful, funny, entertaining, creative, informative, and endearing.
Ha! I just described all the giant insects who traveled with James inside and on top of the giant peach. I think that was Roald Dahl’s goal in writing the story – to help children see how we journey through the world with different aspects of our own personality. They are all valuable, and we shouldn’t be afraid of expressing who we are:
You mustn’t be frightened,” the Ladybug said kindly. We wouldn’t dream of hurting you. You are one of us, didn’t you know that? You are one of the crew. We are all in the same boat.”
“We’ve been waiting for you all day long.” The Old Green Grasshopper said. We thought you were never going to turn up. I’m glad you made it.” – Page 28
Let yourself take charge of your own journey, no matter what existential angst your inner characters express:
The boy is quite right,” the Old Green Grasshopper said. “We are floating beautifully now. We must all sit down and keep perfectly calm. Everything will be all right in the end.”
“What absolute nonsense!” cried the Earthworm. Nothing is ever all right in the end, and well you know it!” – Page 48
And then, once you’ve helped your inner Centipede let go of his need to wear 26 pairs of boots he can’t tie by himself during an emergency, AND let him do a song and dance routine about it, then it’s time to take charge. Because you were the one in charge all along anyway:
Action stations!” James shouted. “Jump to it! There’s not a moment to lose!” he was the captain now, and everyone knew it. They would do whatever he told them. — Page 61
Ahhhhhh. What a great book.
Meanwhile, back at my desk, I see outside my window the wind-tossed branches I still have to go out there to pick up. And dragonflies galore. Mating.
Some of my local friends are talking about it on social media – how they are seeing dragonfly pairs, too, and how the hurricane must have sparked such behavior. I see hope in action. I mean, this is how life finds a way.
I can’t see everything. But, something about getting through the “hurricane” of my father’s death during which I reconnected with old friends and made new friends, helped me grow way beyond my expectations.
Plus, getting back into my own home where my cats live, cleaning, unpacking, gardening, and working on home improvement projects is a positive and forward moving living condition. I also spent precious time with my adult children helping us to heal from the traumas we were subjected to and recreating our new healthy relationships.
Also, and this has a tremendous amount to do with my new healthy sense of self, I’ve graduated from EMDR therapy which I began in mid-June. I’ve been healed from Complex – PTSD due to narcissistic marital psychological abuse and maternal physical and psychological abuse. Again, I highly recommend EMDR therapy, check out my post about it.
Here’s an accounting of where I am now psychologically:
My self-esteem is at a healthy level.
My confidence is high.
My voice (written or verbal) is strong.
I’m comfortable with allowing my natural sexuality to express itself.
I feel worthy of attention and belonging.
I’m courageous, responsible, and practical about making financial decisions.
I trust my empathic abilities and intuition.
I understand just because I can pick up on other people’s emotions doesn’t mean I’m responsible for them.
I understand there’s a strong connection between sexuality and spirituality and am excited to explore more about this in the future.
Yeah. I’ve been working on getting to this place for five years, I had a well-trained therapist, and EMDR therapy works. But, there’s more to my newfound and sustained peace and joy-filled beingness – it’s like I’ve been carefully guided through these final steps. Led by a multitude of dragonfly sightings along my path – repeated angelic or saintly messages sent by my Father, “Ready, honeydripper? Put your foot here. I got you.”
In honor of my dad, Albert Nolletti, in whose Yankee hat and tee-shirt I will always wear when I bake in solidarity with his saintly spirit,
PEACH POUND CAKE
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking POWDER
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest, to taste
1 cup sour cream
2 cups fresh peaches, peeled, pitted, diced
2 cups powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice (from the lemon you zested for the batter)
1 Tablespoon hot water
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 Tablespoon buttermilk, milk, or water
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F and lightly grease a standard Bundt pan. (I used an angel food cake pan. Use what ya got. Ring-shaped, if you can. Alternatively, use two standard loaf pans, and adjust for less bake time.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking POWDER until thoroughly mixed together.
In a mixing bowl, cream butter on medium until fluffy about 4 minutes. Add sugar and cream together for another 4 minutes.
Add eggs one at a time until blended. Mix in vanilla and lemon zest.
Alternate between adding flour mixture and sour cream to batter, mixing until just blended. Gently fold in peaches.
Pour batter into greased pan, smooth top with spatula.
Place in oven and bake for about 90 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean or with only a few crumbs.
Remove from oven and let cool.
Carefully flip cake upside down onto serving plate.
Mix glaze by combining all ingredients in mixing bowl. Pour over cake and let set.