Friday, December 5, 2008

Mi ricordo di nonna

Recently I found on a shelf in my office a book my nephew had given me a couple years ago. Written by a woman from "The Hill" in St. Louis, it is called, I Remember Nonna (Mi ricordo di nonna).

It may happen with other families as well, but I know from first-hand experience that Italians revere their grandmothers. In my case, it was a well-deserved respect and admiration. In many ways, our lives revolved around my Nonna, who was my father's mother. She certainly was a great influence for la mia famiglia.

Like many immigrants at the turn of the century, my Nonna left behind all of her family to come with her husband to the new world. Born Anna Lovato, she had three sisters and a brother who remained in northern Italy. Two sisters eventually came to visit, but she never saw her mother or other siblings again.

Nonna would tell us stories about her journey to America, including a sea voyage huddled in the belly of a boat with hundreds of fellow countrymen. With not much more than the clothes they wore and a few possessions in a small bag, they slept on top of their belongings to prevent them from being stolen.

I asked my Nonna why they had chosen to come to the Midwest and she said my grandfather had written on a piece of scrap paper the address of a factory in Alton, Illinois where he heard there were jobs available. Following that lead, they made their way from Ellis Island inland to a new life. I can't imagine how terrifying that must have been for a young woman who spoke no English and had only recently wed.

I never met my Nonno, Marcello, who died when my father was quite young. In his pictures he looks quite formidable. (That's him above, with Nonna, my dad, Armando, my aunt, Gloria. Later Tony and Guido came along.) For a poor immigrant family, I think they look amazingly dapper.

When my grandfather died, he left Nonna with four young kids and about three dollars in cash. Fortunately they had settled in a neighborhood filled with other Italians, and this community rallied to support my grandmother. They cared for the kids while Nonna did laundry and other housekeeping to put food on the table. The kids all went to work as soon as they were old enough. While they didn't prosper, they made a solid life for themselves. Thanks to Nonna's discipline, determination, and firm hand.

When I was growing up, Sunday's were always spent at my grandmother's home. Even if it was just a quick visit after church, it was a ritual not to be neglected. But it wasn't a hardship. Nonna's small house was a haven of warmth, and heritage, and great food.

Being from northern Italy, our meals were not the lasagna, meatballs and sausage everyone expects. Rather we devoured stewed chicken, risotto, polenta. She made delicate gnocchi that was practically airborne and could quickly slice the most fragile of noodles for homemade soup. Her roasted potatoes were slices of golden perfection.

From those meals I developed an Italian palette of exceedingly high standards. My admiration for a great meal was appropriately depicted in a scene from Seinfeld. George and his date are in a restaurant and they are both moaning over the rapture of a great risotto. Later you see George and date post coitus where she says, "Oh George, that was wonderful." When neurotic George asks, "Was it as good as the risotto?" her response is an awkward silence.

Nonna's strength guided our family for over 80 years. Then a series of small strokes left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. As she regained her speech, the English language had clogged up somewhere in her brain and she could only remember Italian. In many ways, I think that was preparation for her to return "home."

When Nonna passed away, my aunt gave me two pairs of her earrings. They were both from Italy, and one pair I'm pretty sure came with her from the old country because I've seen her wearing them in very early pictures. I guarded that jewelry fiercely, but the earrings from her picture disappeared. Poof. One day they were gone. I never wore them when I traveled. I always kept them in the same place. They didn't have a lot of dollar value to prompt a theft.

My theory is Nonna came back and retrieved them. They were a connection to her homeland. Her husband and family. Her heritage. They were a lifelong possession and she missed them in the afterworld. Wear them in peace, Nonna. I appreciate the loan.

I think of her a lot at the holidays. For the New Year she always made our favorite sweets - a thin fried pastry that was sprinkled in sugar and a thick sweet dumpling filled with raisins. Both of those recipes are too long to share, so I'm borrowing one from the book. It's a recipe for Baci - or Kisses. For this holiday season, I hope you will be thinking of your grandmother, and sharing Kisses with everyone dear to you.

Baci (by Eleanore Berra Marfisi)

2 egg whites
1 tsp. Vinegar
1/4 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Beat egg whites and add vanilla, vinegar, and salt. Beat until peaks rise. Add sugar until peaks are stiff. Drop teaspoonful 3 inches apart onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 300 for 15 minutes until cream colored.


Anonymous said...

I loved this! I enlarged the picture and saw a remarkable resemblance between you and your nonna! How wonderful that you have such vivid memories of the time you spent together.

Anonymous said...

Like your Nonna, mine followed the same path from Northern Italy (Casale Monferrato) to Ellis Island, but came out to California. She was accompanied by 17 cousins. They arrived in San Francisco just weeks after the 1906 earthquake. Imagine arriving at your destination and finding a big pile of rubble! I can't imagine what that was like. She lived to be 106, and when asked what she attributed to her longevity she said "I'm made of good stuff."

Pyzahn said...

Actually.....If you look at my zia sitting on nonna's lap, and then look at my Supreme Queen photo on my Pyzahn icon, you will see how much I look like my aunt.

Anonymous said...

Flashback AND a recipe-- awesome!