Author Archives: Francesca Ressa

The Piano Box Burial: Family Legend

Family legend of the piano box burial as told verbatim by informant (C. stands for a name to be kept confidential):

“My Great Grandpa C., who before people were really morbidly obese, Grandpa C. was morbidly obese. It’s like nowadays you see people that are three and four-hundred pounds all the time. But supposedly Grandpa C. was about 300 pounds, 350 pounds. (wife interjects and he answers) Yeah he was only about 5 foot tall. And uh he also, I’m pretty sure, also had congestive heart failure which means his body retained water. So not only was he obese but he retained a lot of water and you know at the end of his life he really could only sit in a chair and he could hardly walk and his legs would get massively swollen because of his bad heart. And uh the legend is that you know when he finally died, of course, he died sitting in a chair cause he couldn’t walk and he couldn’t lie down because he would get too short of breath when he would try to lie flat, um and so they had to lift him up, you know a bunch of guys lifted him up and he was way too big for any kind of casket so they had to bury him in a piano box.

My father told me that story. Usually when he took us out to dinner, to an Italian Restaurant of course. (chuckles) It’s it’s a family legend, you know. ‘We’re gonna eat a lot of food tonight but you know don’t make it a habit to eat or you’re gonna end up like Grandpa C.’ (laughs)”

Despite the fact that this family legend has an element of humor, the warning is very real. Since the informant’s family is Italian, a culture known for its obsession with food, by telling the story of the family member so sick and so fat that he had to be buried in a box meant for a piano, the pleasure of eating becomes an affliction—something to be wary of. Of course, that the informants father told this to his 8 children before dinner-out is a clever way of controlling their intake, and thus the bill. However, coming from the informant, who is a surgeon, the story took on a slow, somber note as his understanding of the poor health his great grandfather was in likely made it much more vivid. So, his telling had a naturally health-conscious air to it.

Kit Kat Bar Hand-Game

Kit Kat Bar Hand-Game

^^^KIT KAT BAR HAND-GAME VIDEO LINK

Lyrics to the jingle:

Verse 1:
Gimme a break
Gimme a break
Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat Bar

Verse 2:
The chocolate-y taste
Makes my day
Walkin down the street
Hear the people say

“I probably learned that in middle school with all the other hand game things, like waiting in line for recess or something. I originally played it cuz it wasted time, and even now if you’re like waiting around for something or there’s literally nothing else to do. Whoever did it the fastest was the coolest, you know. It became like a competition or whatever. (laughs) The boys probably thought we were so stupid. I mean, the first verse, isn’t that the real jingle? I dunno about the second verse, some girl probably made it up.”

My informant was laughing the entire time she showed me how to play this hand-game. We have two classes together that are back to back twice a week, and one day we got out very early in the first class and sat in the hallway with nothing to do, just waiting for our next class to start. Because we were together, the dumb games on her smartphone got boring quickly and we found ourselves talking about how we’d play hand-games in middle school and high school to pass the time. A hand-game that I knew about McDonald’s prompted her to teach me the Kit Kat Bar hand-game which I had never heard of. She then taught me and we tried to get faster and faster at it, and it prompted a lot of laughs and the time passed very quickly. Two college students, playing hand-games in our University hallway. Our teacher even passed by us and asked us what we were doing, but she thought it was funny and we clearly were having fun with it, singing about a chocolate candy bar and playing a game typically played by kids 10 years younger than us. That we did this reflects not just our absolute boredom, but the integration of consumer products into everyday lives. After so many years I still remembered the song to a number of hand games, many of which refer to food and restaurants, and my informant obviously remembered the jingle from the Kit Kat Bar commercial. It’s very American, and we probably will never forget these games, those that sucked us into the world of advertising and friendly competition, but also promoted camaraderie 10 years later. The power of boredom and nostalgia should not be underestimated.

“After a lot of laughing always comes some crying.”

A Persian saying described verbatim by informant:

“I can’t remember the Persian translation of it but in English its becomes like ‘After a lot of laughing always comes crying.’ They would say that to me when I was a kid. Say I was like laughing a lot at a joke cuz in the culture you’re supposed to be like very modest conservative, like kids are supposed to be quiet I had a really loud personality so if a kid was every misbehaving and being really hyper and laughing they’re like ‘Okay your laughing your laughing your laughing’ but soon like you’re gonna get smacked in the face and you’ll start crying cuz you’re being obnoxious. And that’s a thing they always say to little kids. My parents definitely said that to me, all the time. I would definitely say it to my cousins, I would say it to my cousins, but I would joke I wouldn’t actually like smack them but its like after a lot of laughing be prepared to experience the opposite of that.”

I find it interesting that my informant has turned this oppressive proverb into a joke she can share between her cousins, who are also first generation Iranian-American. The Persian culture from her description basically suppresses joy in the name of obedience and conservatism, which in her personal experience has been one of the biggest points of contention with her Iranian parents. The fact that this is a commonly said to children points to subjugation and authority which is core to the clan and family dominated culture. By turning the proverb on its head and saying it to her grown cousins in a joking manner she can softly criticize the strictness she struggles with.

Protection Ritual for Travel using the Qur’an

Protection custom for travel using the Qur’an described verbatim by informant:

“So every time I go on a trip, you have to walk outside someone has to bring a Qur’an and someone brings a glass of water and they say a certain prayer and they rush the Qur’an over you head in circles saying this prayer and then when you get in your car as your pulling out of your driveway to like go to the airport they throw that glass of water behind your car. It’s like protection, yeah. My parents do that every time, even though they’re not that religious. It’s like a religious thing. It’s like praying to Allah, it’s just like it’s a certain line of the Qur’an that my dad knows in Arabic and he just like does that around my head and I go. And every time I go on a trip, cuz my parents never travel, so it’s me that has to do it.”

My informant couldn’t remember the prayer since she cannot speak or read Arabic. She knows it to be a religious practice in terms of Islam, so the use of their holy book the Qur’an and a glass of water, which is often viewed as a purifying substance is not surprising. I am unfamiliar with Islamic practices, but the circling of the Qur’an around her head seems like a familiar ritual movement, like it’s a spotlight, calling upon Allah to watch over her, especially since the prayer is recited as this is done. I suppose the water may be purifying or may be like a sacrificial thing since it is thrown. This could make sense too because water is a precious substance all over the world. I’m the first to admit my knowledge of the Qur’an and Islam is limited, but I do believe there is some mention of Allah’s throne being over water in the Islam’s story of creation.

Jinn de

Jinn de (phonetically pronounced jenn deh) described verbatim by informant:

“A jinn de can be like a demon. Jahan is hell, jahanam is hell. A jin de can just be like a little shit. Like that’s literally it translates to like ‘Oh he’s being just a little jinn de’; ‘You’re being just a little shit’ like to a like little kid, ‘You’re being such a jinn de’ like you’re being such a devil, like a little devil.”

This nickname or folk metaphor relating misbehaved children to little devils or demons as my informant described jinn de to be. She says it’s said to children mostly when they’re acting out. Jinn has different manifestations in Arabic and Islamic cultures, one of which is like a genie, though I have only heard it spoken about in demonic terms. I don’t believe my informant think of the jinn de in a literal sense but more as a cultural label when a child is being bad.