I Remember (IL) Papa
Shortly after his election in 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Boston and celebrated a televised Mass on the Common. The ceremonies caught the eye of my cousin's two-year-old daughter, Lauren, who had not turned off the TV after watching "Sesame Street." She was thunderstruck. She ran breathlessly into the kitchen exclaiming, "Mommy! Mommy! Uncle Jimmie's on TV in fancy clothes!"
It was a common mistake. For Lauren's Uncle Jimmie -- my dad -- was a ringer for the Pope. Except for the fancy clothes. A retired barber who had worked as a sulfur miner in Sicily when he was only eight to help support his family, he could never have afforded such a sumptuous wardrobe. Besides, red pointed-toe slippers just weren't his style.
Nevertheless, the physical resemblance was uncanny -- in spite of the fact that at the time, my dad was 85-old enough to be the Holy Father's father.
Though more than twenty years have passed since John Paul II assumed the Papacy and his picture appeared on the world's front pages, magazine covers and television screens, I still clearly remember how my parents' phone rang continuously. Friends and relatives from coast to coast called to report the "news" -- "Jimmie looks exactly like the Pope!" they declared. "You've got it wrong," my mother corrected. "The Pope looks exactly like Jimmie."
Whatever. My dad thoroughly enjoyed his celebrity status. Wherever he went, people asked for his blessing -- and he gave it. He had the hand movements down pat. He was sure God didn't mind.
Once a month he used to visit a local rest home (to give haircuts to the 'old folks' he said, even though most of them were younger than he). They loved to see him come. "Here's the Pope!" they'd announce. He smiled his beatific smile, blessing and snipping as he went.
On the street, strangers stopped him and said, "Oh, my God...!" "No, only Jimmie," said my father.
At one point, he was in the hospital for minor surgery. One afternoon, people passing by to visit other patients were startled to hear a nurse call out to an orderly, "The Pope needs a bedpan-Room 316." As soon as he was out of bed, he made rounds with the hospital chaplain and reportedly boosted morale 100 percent.
Shortly thereafter, I entered my dad in a Boston television station's celebrity look-alike contest. "Be sure he comes in costume," they said. Those fancy clothes? There was no way we could duplicate them. So we settled for a long white alb borrowed from his parish pastor, and a white yarmulke donated by a Jewish neighbor. A nice ecumenical touch. My mom supplied a four-inch crucifix to hang around his neck and I gave him a hefty costume-jeweled ring for his followers to kiss. We stood back to appraise him. Damned -- I mean, darned -- if he didn't look even more like the Pope than the Pope himself! And darned if he didn't tie for first place with Alan Alda and Colonel Sanders (or reasonable facsimiles).
The prize was a contract with Ron Smith's Celebrity Look-Alikes, a Los Angeles agency that supplies celebrity doubles for work in movies, television commercials and as models for print ads. My father was ready to pack his bags and hit the road. A whole new career! Fame! Fortune! He was ecstatic.
Unfortunately, he was still waiting for his first assignment when he died three years later. I wasn't surprised. Let's face it. The commercial opportunities for a Pope look-alike were rather limited. I mean they couldn't have him sipping a Beefeater martini in front of a blazing fire with a gorgeous blonde, kicking up his Doc Martins at a singles disco, or riding the range with a Marlboro dangling from his lips. (Though the Marlboro man hadn't yet been banned from ads, he would not have been an appropriate role model for His Holiness.)
But there were other possibilities. How about ice cream? What could be more wholesome than ice cream? Picture this: My father, in full Papal regalia (compliments of Baskin Robbins) licking an ice cream cone, smacking his lips, and saying, "It's heavenly!" (So he would have said it in broken English; who was to know it wasn't a Polish accent?)
He could have been shown christening a Cabbage Patch Kid, which were ubiquitous in the '70s, or officiating at Ken and Barbie's wedding. (Those two still haven't legalized their relationship. Back then, it was scandalous. Today, no one cares.)
Unfortunately, Ron Smith apparently wasn't able to sell any of these brilliant ideas, so Dad had to be satisfied with local personal appearance requests that came his way. The most memorable was from my friend Carol who was, and still is, famous for her extravagant parties. She called me when she was planning a wing-ding for her husband's fiftieth birthday. "Would your father like to play Pope at my party?" she asked. "Is the Pope Catholic?" I replied.
The big night arrived. Dad donned his alb, yarmulke, and "Papal" ring. Mom and I drove him to the party and sneaked him into a back room. The extravaganza reached a fever pitch (when this woman throws a party, she throws a party). Finally, the guests were all seated for dinner. Suddenly there was a roll on the drums. The MC grabbed the microphone. "I'm sorry to delay your dinner, Folks," he said, "but we've just received word that a very important dignitary has arrived! We all know that Carol usually manages to do the impossible, but this is truly incredible -- even for her!"
During this speech, Carol and a priest friend ostentatiously rushed out of the room. The drum roll continued...grew to a crescendo. The MC boomed, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please rise and greet our distinguished guest!"
Everyone stood, the band started playing "Pomp and Circumstance." All eyes turned to the doorway. There, between Carol and the priest, stood my father, his hand upraised in the familiar Papal blessing.
There were gasps of astonishment. For three full minutes, many of the guests actually believed John Paul himself had come to the party. Sure, it was impossible. But, as the MC had stated, Carol often did the impossible. Gradually, however, they began to realize that even she couldn't have pulled this one off. This smiling, waving figure wasn't really the Pope.
Of course not. It was someone even more important -- at least to me.
I can't help but smile when I picture what will happen when John Paul II joins my father in Paradise. They're going to confuse the hell -- I mean the heck -- out of God.
Meanwhile, my dad is carrying the standard alone. I am certain he is looking down from Heaven right now and blessing us all.
Long may he wave.
Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.