20071012 – Thoughts My Own Private Italy
What have I left behind for my child? What did my parents leave for me? I asked this question of Mark as we flew blindly over the Atlantic Ocean, awaiting the sleeping pill to take its effect. I was drifting off but still bothered by the oaf sitting next to me who huffed and puffed every time he changed his seating position as if it were someone else’s fault that he was here on this flight to Genoa or that he could control when dinner was served or the lights go out. I tried to keep my mind on other things.
What had my parents left for me? Did they really leave me the legacy of our Italian heritage or was that something I chose. I have four siblings. Did they remember being served baccala (smelt) at Christmastime? Does the scent of anise wafting in through their noses bring on a dance of joy?
My grandparents, Enrico and Stella, had both died before I turned 18. The same was true of my mother’s mother, Rafaella, who died before I was born, and her birth father, Vincenzo, her namesake, who died before she was born. I remember the Italian language spoken at various holiday meals, but don’t recall anyone specifically trying to teach us this language in order to help us absorb the culture.
We pronounced most Italian foods dropping the last vowel, prosciutto was proscuitt, in same way Americans drop the a in Roma and just call it Rome. We were told it was a dialect thing and shook our heads in agreement. I had a waitress once who corrected me with the pronunciation of a certain kind of pasta I had ordered. “I’ll have the gnocchi,” I asked.
And she corrected me while writing it down, “It’s gnocchi , with an e sound at the end.”
“Oh,” I said, embarrassed for her. Devin, my first husband, rapidly put his head down as if he could feel the confrontation at hand. He smirked into his empty plate.
“Well, I continued, “in the Italian language, there are many dialects, just like English and yes, I know how to spell gnocchi, but growing up in the my house, we always made gnocchi(i). So. I’ll have the gnocchi(i).”
Our service that night did not improve, but at least I had won the battle.
But there were other things that my family has left behind. Banquet tables filled with tradition were the backdrop for every family gathering that was captured via Polaroid or Kodak. Baptisms, Holy Communions, Graduations, Christmas and New Years. Every Christmas since I can remember, Mom has made her famous raviolis, filled with either meat or cheese. She has never veered from this, despite the new fusion which might call for vegetables or crab as filling.
Just as the interiors of the pasta remained the same, so did the exterior. The raviolis were always served in the same bowls, with a toile (twal) like scene around the bowls, the scene on one bowl depicted in red, which has now turned pink, and the scene on the other bowl depicted in blue. And so it become that the red bowl coddled the meat filled raviolis, while the blue bowl held the ones with cheese. I have begged my mother not to put those bowls on any garage sale because for me, they have held more than pasta over the years.
My mother’s birthday cakes were somewhat legendary at least in our own family. They ranged from an elephant and bunny to a fire engine cake with marshmallow wheels. The only store bought cake we ate was for graduation. When Davis was born and started having birthdays, my mother arrived with armed with cakes. In his eleven years, she has produced a puppy, Scooby doo Mystery Machine, fire engine cake, a golf course, a bowling alley, veggie tales, dinosaurs, trains, and baseball and some other cartoon character that is no longer in my memory or his.
This year, though visiting for his birthday, my mother arrived with a Kroger cake in hand. Davis is 11 now, and though we would have been hard pressed to come up with an appropriate theme for nana to bake his cake, secretly he was looking for one too.
My father has been an avid gardener. This summer of 2007 was the first time he had not planted a garden in the forty-one years I have spent with him mainly because my parents are encroaching upon their eighties and selling their home. Each summer, my father would fret about the rains and when could he rent a tiller to turn the garden. May 15 was too late, April 15th too early. My father staked the tomatoes – the romas, the beefsteaks, and as life progressed, he succumbed to our culinary whims or branched out by growing cherry tomatoes and grape-size ones too.
I was more of a homebody in my teenage years, and I would wander out to help my father water the garden and flowers. We would discuss nothing in particular, other than the size of the zucchini or how my mother would kill him this year because of the huge size of the crops or that the darn weatherman was wrong again about the rain and its arrival, because no where on the horizon did dark clouds appear and as a matter of fact, the sun was so red it prompted us to both repeat – red skies at night…
We picked apples from his miniature trees and swore at the bugs infecting his cherries and pears. They froze their own produce, unheard of at the time in our little burb of Amherst, and canned their tomatoes. The freezer still contains green beans from 1984. But my father stood side by side with my mother in the freezing, the canning, and the dishes. After every one of the banquets referred to above, my greatest memory is also of my father in the kitchen. He never cooked, but he is always there.
And each spring, I watched him carry out the scarlet pot containing the fig tree, which had hunkered down in the winter beneath a blanket of burlap, a tree handed down to him from his father. Funny all those years, until you start missing your own father you don’t realize how much he must miss his. The fig tree never produced more than a dozen figs in any year’s span, but we lauded them as each one was the prodigal son returning home. As the fig tree grew, dad’s strength waned, so much that he decided to put the pot on wheels, so he could roll it in during the harsh winter and then roll it back out. Spring came not when any crocuses bloomed, but when the fig tree appeared on the patio.
My parents drove us to all our sporting events, gave advice when we least wanted it, and yelled and grounded us for our many infractions against curfew, grades and general malaise. But when I take stock of all they offered to us, what they gave us mostly was not food filling our stomachs, ravioli filling out the meat and cheese bowls, tomatoes filling the sauce bowl. But passion to fill our hearts.
What to leave behind for Davis? I struggled with this too. He is part German, part Italian. He is part meatball, part saurkrautball, though I have to say he likes the meatball part better.
His father died when he four, fought cancer for the three years before that. Tradition was absent for fear we would take hold of something that wouldn’t stick. So we piggybacked on to everyone else’s, which is as good or the same as coming up with your own. Now with a few Irish in the household, there are other traditions to consider as well.
Davis’ father and I moved to Oregon with the notion, “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and we were right. After his diagnosis of cancer, we returned to Cincinnati, with the subconscious contract we had made with ourselves that we would return to Oregon in five years. But two years following that declaration, Devin would pass away. I have since returned to Oregon with and without Davis, but never with Devin and never permanently. It was, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Kaya, a writing peer, recently approached me to inform me “I was told to read your book, the way you describe the northwest and what you found there for yourself, your love for a place,’ Another writing peer had counseled her to do this. My book centered around not just love and loss but finding who you are in the midst of chaos and tragedy. The book boasted of the Oregon Coast and how its stark nature allowed me to strip down to the bare necessities to be the me I wanted to be. Kaya loves California, the northern redwoods, the southern sun in the same way I love the Douglas firs and northwest rain of Oregon Coast. The northwest is a gloomy beauty in some of the ways that I have often thought of myself.
Davis will surely recall those days that I cried, alone, and wiped tears from my eyes to shield him from pain and the days I wiped tears from his eyes, with me, as we missed his father’s presence and guidance and hugs. Those were certainly days that Davis will recall as gloomy beauties – there was something sorrowful in our days and yet something magical at the same time. We were becoming our hopes. He was growing up and was doing so in a fashion that even I could not imagine, wise beyond his years, having fun – “yep, that’s how I live my life,” he told my mother once when asked if he was off to find more fun.
He is proud of his birth in Oregon, because that makes him different. I gave him that, the ability to proclaim yourself separate. He returns each year to visit with his grandparents who still make the Oregon Coast their home though we had been first to call the coast ours. He calls Oregon home. Every walk on the beach is blazing a new trail, every agate he gathers up is another just recently let go from its mother rock needing a home. I will leave behind for him the western sunset, the bow to the day that had just been completed, a reward for a day well lived, a salute to a good life.
I have not left him any traditions of food. And instead of recalling me bending over my garden and digging with hands for summers on end, he will recall the steam from tea or coffee or whatever was hot as my fingers flew over the keyboard to capture a moment in the same way my father tried to capture the perfect tomato, or my mother roll the perfect ravioli.
Kaya, my writing friend said after reading my book, “I understand what you mean about finding yourself in a place.”
I replied, and yes, once you find that place that makes you who you are, no one can take that away from you. You can carry that (confidence and love of self) with you wherever you go.”
No matter how far away from Oregon I am, that I am still there, I go there in my mind in times of pain, I go there in my mind in times of confusion and I can feel the arctic winds from the north blow down and blow away the cobwebs of confusion. When I need to stand firm in my life, I picture the three arch rocks, standing erect in the open sea, no one allowed to come within 500 yards of their structure, letting only the sea lions rest and sing at the foot of these rocks. When I need strength, I reach back across the miles to the tiny town of Oceanside, its 200 some inhabitants clinging to a way of life that is eroding elsewhere. And when I feel a loss, it is the first place my mind travels to, the place of Devin and his blue-green eyes that were a reflections of the pines on the sea, the loss of dreams.
I travel to Italy in my mind when I need to feel life. When I need to conjure up joy, I recall a certain meal at La Stalla, being greeted with Prosecco. I let myself recall the stinging coolness of the Mediterranean when I want to be awakened, not in the morning, but to feel awake in life. When I am flabbergasted, in awe, in wonder at what surprises have been brought into my life. When I want to remember and celebrate my family, especially my parents, I think to the tiny towns clinging to a hillside that helped spawn this new generation. I travel to the Liguria sea when I want to remember Mark and how his eyes matched the color of the Ligurian sea, and yes, it is a blue different from the Mediterranean, which is so deep, it seems to block out the light. The Ligurian sea is blue, but light bounces off the waves all day long.
I have given Davis a sense of place in Oregon through my words in the same way my parents and their love of food gave me a sense of place in Italy. Someday when he makes his trek to his Mecca, he will be the beneficiary of my having given him the Oregon Coast to house his soul and Italy to light his fire.