Of Wooden Spoons and Comfort
I know I’m not the only woman who loved her grandmother. But I am the only woman who loved my grandmother as I did. She was to me, the essence of love. Not in a demonstrative, outpouring of words of affection, it wasn’t that way, in fact, she barely spoke. She emigrated from Southern Italy as a young woman and her English was broken at best. My favorite words, thickly coated with her accent, were spoken at her front door every time I arrived there, “Are you hungry? I make you spaghetti.” That was who my grandmother was to me, the provider of care and comfort; a compact, round edged woman, seldom without an apron encircling her full figure; her gray hair, thin from age by the time I was a small child, braided and wrapped around the back of her head with the same seed pearl earrings dangling from her ears everyday of her life, always in a dress and stockings with sensible shoes; who gave me what I needed, selflessly and lovingly.
Every summer, until she died at 86, when I was 12 years old, my parents would deliver me to her doorstep in Mill Valley California, the house in which my mother grew up, the house where we all grew up, and I would revel in her attention for two whole weeks.
My grandparent’s story is remarkable, the stuff of legends, quite frankly. They were married in a small village outside Caserta, Italy, an hour’s train ride north of Naples. My grandfather knew their life would be better in America, so he convinced my grandmother to leave her home, her country and her family. She loved him more than life itself, so she followed him. They settled in San Francisco in 1902, among thousands of fellow Italian immigrants and struggled to make a life for themselves; my grandfather shining shoes outside the Ferry building never realizing how fortuitous that choice would prove to be. He soon landed a job as a mail handler at the train station within the Ferry Building. The security of that position gave them the life for which they had left their homeland.
The earthquake of 1904, forced them from San Francisco. They relocated with their new born daughter to Mill Valley, where friends put them up for a time. Eventually, they found a small apartment over a store and saved their money for several years, until they found a house that they could barely afford to buy on what my grandfather made each month. But owning a house was one of the reasons my grandfather brought his wife to America and life was good for them for a long while. My grandmother settled in and was happy in her new life in this new country.
But news from Italy of her mother’s critical illness shattered the scene. Knowing his wife needed to see her mother again and say goodbye, Carmino purchased passage for he, Cecelia and their daughter, Rose. He knew it was a gamble that his job would still be there when he returned but he had to go.
It was good to be in Italy once again, with family who loved them as my grandmother did her best to care for her ailing and aged mother.
When they learned that Cecelia was again pregnant, Carmino was overjoyed. But he knew they should leave soon, the situation in Europe was becoming volatile and with his pregnant wife and young daughter to care for, he would be more comfortable in America. But Cecelia would not leave her mother. She felt a duty to stay and care for her. So, they stayed, for another month.
Eventually, my grandfather had to return to his job, or risk losing it, so they parted. Tearfully, he left his wife and daughter with their family in Italy and returned to Mill Valley. It was terribly hard for them, but they both had responsibilities. They planned for Cecelia to stay until the baby was born and was old enough to travel. But Cecelia knew she would stay as long as her mother needed her, which turned into more than two years. Her mother passed away the night before a fateful day for the entire world. Tears still in her eyes over her loss, she read the news that would change their lives. The heir to the throne of Austria- Hungary had been assassinated, setting into motion the forthcoming world war.
My grandfather had applied for citizenship in the US and if he did not serve in the armed forces, he would be denied. He did his patriotic duty and served, as his wife and two daughters hunkered down to wait out the war in Italy.
Finally, years later, with World War I over, Cecelia was free to return to her husband and her life in California. She embarked on a valiant journey for a young woman who barely spoke English and had only been outside her village once in her life.
With her two daughters in tow, along with her mother in law, who had decided to come to live with her son’s family, she boarded a ship bound for New York, navigated them through immigration and onto the train that would carry them to California; all without the ability to read or write English and limited resources. It must have been a daunting task, and a frightening one. But she mustered her courage and determination to return to her beloved and they arrived safely in Mill Valley to introduce Carmino to his youngest daughter.
Over the following 5 years, they had three more children, the next being my mother, and my Nana devoted her every day to making a loving home for them.
For her, a large part of making a home involved food. It meant growing nutritious, traditional ingredients in their large yard; peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, everything an Italian woman needs to feed her family. She grew nearly all their food and nothing went to waste. I can still see in my mind’s eye the stores of food that surrounded me as a child. Her basement, rickety lean tos and her kitchen were all laden with ingredients that produced the most amazing aromas. Braided cluster of garlic hung drying in the window of the woodshed, bay leaf garlands dangled from the rafters of the basement, a large ceramic crock filled with lard and handmade sausage sat in a dark corner of the basement behind my grandfather’s wine barrels, extra tomatoes were scattered on screens to dry in the autumn sun. And my favorite, fresh pasta was rolled out and hung up in the basement to dry. Her giant Wedgewood stove transformed mountains of tomatoes into a spicy spaghetti sauce that I have yet to perfect. Life with my Nana was a wondrous journey through sight, scent and tastes of the unfamiliar and the irresistible.
She had learned to cook simple dishes that ignited the taste buds and fortified the soul from her mother as a young girl in Caserta. Her family farmed a plot of land for sustenance and to sell what they grew and her mother trained her at 14 to take over the responsibility of cooking for the farm hands. She accepted the role with gusto and became a creative and proficient cook at a very young age. If she had eggs, flour, cheese, onions, tomatoes and a few herbs, she could feed a table full with hungry workers.
I remember watching with anticipation from my place at the large, worn, wooden table that filled most of the kitchen and admiring her graceful, relaxed movement as she prepared my pasta. Behind me, a narrow door led into a pantry that emitted tantalizing aromas of salami, parmigiana Reggiano and dry herbs collected from her garden. It was at once mysterious and wonderful to me. This was a world in which I was anxious to immerse myself.
Unfortunately, my Nana died too early for me to take more than a pedestrian interest in the foods of our heritage. I regret never writing out detailed recipes or at least asking the questions to the answers I now long to know. I have had to rely on my sensory memories and research into the cuisine of that relatively undiscovered region to piece together the dishes I remember so fondly.
Her life revolved around food and I knew, even as a very young girl, I would follow in her footsteps. I absorbed all the sights, scents and pleasure that she offered and now I cook as she did. When she died, the only thing I asked to have was the wooden spoon with which she stirred the sauce for my spaghetti. I knew somehow holding that spoon in my hands I would be guided by her. And I am.