17 Oct Coming Home: Memories and Recipes from Grandmom
If I envy anyone it must be
My grandmother in a long ago
Green summer, who hurried
Between kitchen and orchard on small
Uneducated feet, and took easily
All shining fruits into her eager hands.
That summer I hurried too, wakened
To books and music and circling philosophies.
I sat in the kitchen sorting through volumes of answers
That could not solve the mystery of the trees.
My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied- but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.
Answers -Mary Oliver
My grandmother Adalgisa Matteo was a constant presence in my home during my childhood.
Having raised all of her 8 children, and her husband Joseph (Guiseppe)–my stern Grandpop–long passed away, Adalgisa lived by herself in a home in a neighboring town. She was formerly a forewoman of a uniform manufacturing plant, and although she retired in the traditional sense, she never stopped mothering, and my family was fortunate to reap her devotion both tangibly and in matters of the heart.
My mom Rose Marie was the youngest of eight siblings, and her proximity to her mom Adalgisa made for a close relationship. With an abundance of time in her retirement, Grandmom lovingly showered our family with her attentions. Every morning Grandmom went to mass at the Italian church in her neighborhood, Saint Cosmas and Damian. Abutting her backyard garden and just behind her Virgin Mary statue was (and still is) the Conshohocken Italian Bakery, which is run by Italians from the “old country.” After church, Grandmom ritually walked to the bakery to get tomato pie (a regional Italian delicacy that is pizza-like and served cold), rolls or Italian cookies to bring to our home. She drove her Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme on the same roads to our home, day after day, with the white nondescript bakery bag tucked away on the passenger seat waiting to be savored with my mom at some point in the day. Sometimes on the way to our house, she would stop by the cemetery to bring fresh cut flowers from her garden to her husband’s grave.
In the summertime I would awaken long after Grandmom came over in the early morning to the sounds of her strongly accented voice, “Kreesta, waka upa” (that’s “Christa, wake up” lol). Except for road signs, Grandmom could not read English. She came to America from a small farming town outside of Rome named Ascoli Piceno when she was 24 years old, without knowing a soul, to care for 6 children, because her future husband had become a widower. My Grandpop having already lived in the US for nearly two decades, had sent word back to Italy about his challenging circumstances. A few months later, my intrepid Grandmom arrived at Ellis Island on March 4, 1937 to become a mother to her new children, the eldest daughter was just a few years younger than her at 18 years, and to eventually marry Joseph. Their union was an arranged marriage of sorts, as his family knew her family.
I can hear her voice as I type my keys. “Kreesta, there-a is work-a to do-a.” My god, she wasn’t exaggerating about work. She never stopped moving, and enlisted me, because back then you didn’t disrespect Grandmom. I did what I was asked without lip or the promise of money or toys. Pressing clothes was her regular pastime. On ironing days, she would hand press and starch 7 of my father’s dress shirts and suits and 10 uniform blouses that my sister and I wore to school. Oh, how can I forget the smell of freshly cleaned and pressed sheets and pillowcases that were ironed beyond the ability of any dry cleaner I have ever frequented. Once a week she would sit her strong body on the damp basement concrete floor and shine all of our shoes, not because we asked her (really, why would we?) but because she wanted to help. She taught me how to clean windows using vinegar and water, to sew buttons and hems, to make beds with precise hospital corners, how to use the sun to whiten clothes, and to cook simple meals with simple ingredients.
When I wasn’t sneaking away to swim at Plymouth Country Club, I often helped my grandmom tend to our garden. Even though our large garden space was in my family’s backyard, it was clearly Grandmom Matteo’s territory. It’s where she shined the brightest and delighted in playing with dirt, seeds and blossoms. It’s where I watched my Grandmom toil away in her handmade skirts and blouses, turning dirt and manure into a host for life-giving vegetables and herbs she would feed to my family. She taught me how to cultivate Swiss chard, tomatoes, dandelion greens, cucumbers, string beans, zucchini, basil, chives and onions. She would smile at the delight of picking carrots as if each green leafy stalk she pulled was a diamond. Bending over beside me, she showed me how to pull the carrots from the soil, and her feelings became contagious. We shared the symbolic experience of getting our hands dirty together. Today, those memories bring tears to my eyes.
Flowers were always a stunning part of her gardening and there was not a summer day with an empty vase. She liked to arrange simple cut flowers like marigolds, cosmos, and roses.
After dinner was prepped and the pots were left to simmer on the stove, Grandmom would finally stop working. She would call my mother to sit down and relax around the table in our sunlit kitchen that looked directly out to the garden. She would open up the white bakery bag with care and slowly unwrap her delicacies. Together they would sit and eat their treats and share conversation. Together. Mother and daughter. Every Day. I can still see them sitting there quietly talking, smiling and admiring all the hard work they accomplished, with maybe some laundry still hanging on the clothesline to dry. I can feel the sunshine on my face and the warmth that my grandmother’s constant presence provided me. Yes, they worked and I helped but at the end of the day, our “work” was about family, connection and nourishment of the soul. I feel so blessed to be a quiet witness to such a generous mother and daughter relationship. Upon reflection I realize Grandmom taught me what it meant to be a strong female and a caretaker to the earth and family.
My grandmother passed away in 2005 at the age of 92, and in honor of my Grandmom, I named my second son Matteo. (See Grandmom’s Italian Zucchini Recipe below)…
I have an abundance of zucchini and squash from my garden and I wanted to share with you one of the dishes that my Grandmom taught me how to make. It’s simple but tastes masterful.
From my heart to your home, cent’ anni!
Grandmom’s Italian Zucchini Recipe
- High grade Italian extra virgin olive oil, about two tablespoons
- one red onion, chopped
- two zucchini
- one yellow squash
- one cup cherry tomatoes
- 2 farm fresh eggs, beaten
- small bunch Italian parsley, chopped
- Basil, about two tablespoons, chopped
- Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- Heat olive oil in saute pan and add onions. Saute for about 4 minutes over medium heat until onions are translucent and soft.
- Peel the skin from zucchini and squash with vegetable peeler in stripes, leaving some of the skin on. Chop into half inch cubes and add to onion mixture.
- Let the veggies simmer for about 5 minutes on high heat. Lower heat and place lid on pan part way with a little air coming through the lid. Simmer on low for about 20 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Add water if there is not enough moisture so as not to burn the bottom of the mixture.
- Return to high heat and beat two eggs in bowl. Pour eggs over veggies and stir until eggs are absorbed. Let cook for two minutes.
- Turn off heat, cut the cherry tomatoes in half and add to veggies with chopped basil and parsley. Let sit for a few minutes and serve.
- Add cheese and salt and pepper