Normally I would post a sarcastic someecard about turning a year older given that today is my birthday, however today’s post is a bit on the sad side since my 92 year old grandmother Gina passed away this past Thursday. Tomorrow’s regularly scheduled someecard will be post-poned until Tuesday, I promise it will be worth the wait.
Born in 1921, my nonna’s life is one for the history books. She first hand witnessed the tragedies of World War 2 and the Nazi retreat from Italy which claimed the lives of many in the Italian countryside. My mom and uncle were born during the aftermath of a depressed post-war Italy, which unfortunately claimed the life of their oldest brother and my nonna’s eldest son from a land mine that the Germans planted around Italy to stop the progress of Allied forces during the war. Emigrating to the United States and leaving behind the world she knew at nearly 40 years old was tough on my grandmother. I can’t begin to imagine the pain and heartache she must have lived with for the rest of her life, a feeling I’ve only glimpsed through the eyes of my mother on the occasions when we’ve returned to Italy. It’s a sorrow and a longing for a life that could have been but never was, in my opinion, a distinctly Italian feeling of loss for what never existed in the first place. If there’s a positive side, it’s that the experience served to harden her a bit and offered her the promise of a new life in America, one that has been filled with weddings, grandchildren and great grandchildren, good times and grand memories.
Like most Italian families, my grandfather was clearly the king of the castle and the one who wore the pants in the family, yet my nonna clearly picked out the pants – but I’m pretty sure she also ironed them and decided which shirt and shoes my nonno would wear with them. My nonna’s soft exterior and gentleness with her grandchildren often masked a core hardened by life and a tongue that was both quick and sharp. My grandmother was not a woman to be messed with; get her riled up or on her wrong side – and you best watch out. The rules in my grandparents’ house were clear, and spoiled brats wouldn’t be tolerated.
As is probably true of most Italian families, my fondest memories of my grandmother all center around family and food. Nonna Gina’s house was the glue that bonded us with my cousins on my mom’s side. The house was her castle, and her kitchen entirely her domain. When I was very young, my parents both worked, and my nonna and nonno served as daycare. My parents also felt it was important to retain our Italian heritage, and spending time with nonno and nonna was critically important. My sisters and I picked up the occasional Italian phrase from them during those days at their house, and spent a lot of time with them during the summers when school was out. From an early age, my sisters, my cousins and I were brought up on “pane e burro” and “peacock” (raw egg yolks whipped with sugar to which toasted bread is dunked in. I know it sounds gross – but it’s actually delicious, so dont knock it until you try it). In my very biased opinion, her pasta sauce and meatballs rival that of any Italian restaurant. My grandmother’s kitchen was small and her food simple but satisfying. Lasagna, pasta e fagioli, and pasta “stufata” were the staples of my childhood.
When my grandparents emigrated to the United States from Italy, they tried to assimilate my mom and my uncle as much as possible into American traditions. In the spirit of Americanization, my nonna always made a full traditional Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes – the whole nine yards. Thanksgiving was almost always celebrated with my grandparents, and the tradition continued even after my nonno passed away from lung cancer. The controlled chaos of those Thanksgiving Thursdays is one of my fondest memories, and the smells emanating from nonna’s kitchen will linger in my memory for the rest of my life. Dessert included many of the American staples like apple, pecan and pumpkin pie, but my nonna always made “cheesecake” on holidays, and Thanksgiving was no exception. Her cheesecake was actually a more light and fluffy lemon-ricotta pie, a recipe my nonna closely guarded. My grandmother did not keep recipe cards, and measurements were always “a pinch of this” or “a little of that”. If you asked her to tell you how much flour or sugar to add, she would say “about a cup” – but my nonna never owned measuring cups or spoons. No matter how hard we try, nonna’s recipes are nearly impossible to recreate.
I will be forever indebted to my grandmother for the care and compassion that she showed for my father, especially while he was sick. The love she showed for a son that wasn’t her own flesh and blood amazes me to this day. During my dad’s last hospitalization, she stood watch in his hospital room with the rest of us, and the pain, sorrow, and anguish on her face when he died and during his funeral highlighted the depth of her love for him.
Throughout her life, my grandmother faced hardship and suffering and continually rose to the occasion, experiences that shaped her into the soft on the outside but tough on the inside woman that she was. She is fondly remembered by her son and daughter, her six grandchildren and her five great grandchildren.
To Nonna Gina, may she rest in peace.