Mr. Celli: In Honor of Veterans Day

If you have ever been a member of a Catholic parish in the United States, dollars to donuts you have met a Mr. Celli.  You’ll recognize your Mr. Celli from church, because a Mr. Celli is always an usher.

At the front of the line, directing people which way to go around the casket, were two ushers. One was a white-haired, stooped old man in a navy blazer, black pants, and scuffed oxblood loafers. I didn’t even need to see his face to know it was Mr. Celli, our widower neighbor two doors down when I was growing up, and head usher at Seven Dolors. Still. Wow. It would be true to say he hadn’t aged a day since I’d last seen him twenty years ago, but even then he had been old enough to have seen the first fish sprout legs and walk out of the primordial lake.

Don’t You Forget About Me, Chapter 3, “Small Town”

 Mr. Celli was that usher who always seemed just a bit on the overbearing side.

Honestly, I wasn’t all that fond of Mr. Celli, though he’d always been fond of me. Not in a threatening way, mind you, just in that, “You Irish don’t eat enough! Here, take these meatballs home. My Nonna would call you a vampire!” way.

Don’t You Forget About Me, Chapter 3, “Small Town”

 You still don’t recognize your Mr. Celli?  Well, he dresses something like this:

Mr. Celli was wearing a blood-red Hawaiian shirt covered with a sailboat print, green polyester shorts, and, yes, brown socks with black sandals. He doffed his white straw fedora to peck me on the cheek.

Don’t You Forget About Me, Chapter 12, “Danger Zone”

When I had this character show up in Don’t You Forget About Me, I had no idea what he was doing there until the very, very end.  I had no idea what kind of hero he would end up being.  I guess I had a feeling, though, because I named him after someone I had met at work.  There was a gentleman in his 60s who habitually wore a US Navy cap, referencing the boat on which he served (I’ve since forgotten which).  When he walked in on Veterans Day one year, I thanked him for having served.  He then told me the story of why he joined the Navy.  He remembered being a very small boy when the American soldiers came to liberate his village in Italy.  He said he never forgot them, and from that moment he wanted to grow up to be just like them.  His family moved to the US not too much later (his accent was as Philadelphian as mine), and he joined the Navy as soon as he could, because he wanted to be just like those soldiers who had risked their lives to liberate him and his family.  Every year since, I’ve thought of that Mr. Celli (so different from the Mr. Celli of Don’t You Forget About Me), and his story reminded me of why we need to value and appreciate our armed service members for all they have done, still do, and will continue to do for us in the future.

I think of all the characters I met in the writing of this book, I am perhaps the most fond of Mr. Celli.  I saw in him that daily faith of a bygone era, the era lived by The Greatest Generation.  We may be inclined now to wrinkle our noses at their fashion sense, but we cannot be anything but amazed by their courage.

So, for all our Mr. Cellis… we will never forget you.

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3 comments

  1. Sigh…o.k., after that description, I have to buy the book, partly because your parish sounds like my childhood parish, partly because of Mr. Celli. And partly because you are right on target about our past, present, and future armed service folks.

    1. Thanks! Just so there’s no shock, Mr.Celli in DYFAM was named after, not modeled after, the Mr. Celli I met in real life. DYFAM’s Mr. Celli just showed up at the funeral of Sr. Thomas Marie and I had to name him something. He was too busy doing his usher thing for me to ask his name! 🙂

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