Grandpa Vito (Willie) and Grandma Bea (Mary) came to the United States (and apparently stole identities?) from Sicily when, I believe they were teenagers. They lived in Brooklyn, like most Italian immigrants did back then, met, married and raised 3 daughters, my mother being the youngest. In fact, my grandfather was engaged to another woman when he met my grandmother and the story he would tell us was that he saw my grandmother's "healthy breasts" and he left the other woman for her. My grandmother would nod in agreement when he told that to us. True story!
When my parents moved to Long Island, New York, and then after I was born - the last of 3 daughters as well, my grandparents moved a few blocks away to be closer to us. And the memories of them that make me smile and laugh today are plenty. My grandfather quietly "breaking into" our house every Sunday morning to leave us fresh rolls and pastries from the Italian bakery, to all the times I spent at their house. I was there, sometimes more than at my own house. My grandfather had a small vegetable garden, a grapevine (he made his own wine) and various fruit trees and flowers that surrounded the house. I would help pick the vegetables and fruit sometimes and I would sit with him while he killed flies and relaxed. Many times, I would get picked up from school (down the block) from my grandfather either by car or he would walk there and hold my hand the whole way back.
And then there was the food. First, were the lunches of egg sandwiches that were made for me - I won't dare repeat the botched up Sicilian pronunciation for what it was but my guess is that it was considered almost like an omelette - it was very basic - eggs, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese scrambled and fried and put in between some crusty Italian bread. That and a half of a banana was the main lunchtime meal for me.
But Sunday/holiday and special occasion dinners were the all-day "fêtes alimentaires" that began at 11am and ended around 3 or 4pm. We had the pasta dish, the salad dish, the meat dish with sides, the dessert and then the fruit and nuts. Yep, we ate until we burst and then sometimes, we would play cards after. It was my family, plus my two aunts with their husbands and children and it was a really fun time. There were several other parties during that time too, notably my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary where I had my first taste of really cheap beer and the holidays where I had shots of Anisette - a licorice-tasting liquor which I grew to hate but still have fond memories of.
And in the summer time was the all-mighty Meat Fest. My grandfather would fire up a pit and grill steaks, sweet and hot sausage, hot dogs, hamburgers and sometimes porkchops. Yes, my grandfather made it ALL and was served at the table in a big soup pot that we affectionately termed "The Pot of Meat". We had this with corn on the cob, baked beans and salads. It was seriously a wonder how we were able to eat so much but it was stretched out through the day, so we managed somehow.
But aside from the food, the thing I remember the most is that the aura was always that of love. My grandfather was my hero - he was the pillar of strength and the sweet loving man that I looked up to. He always hugged me and let me sit on his lap and the smell of his stinky cigar was one I cherished. My grandmother always gave me affection and told me how beautiful I was even as a teenager, when the braces, fat and frizzy hair were present. She always held my face, smiled and said "my bella". And when she said her 45-minute rosary in the mornings (well, it felt that long anyway) she would smile at me when I rudely interrupted.
I remember how religious they were. The house was decorated with photos and statues of Christ, Mary and various saints. And in the bedroom was the holy shrine, which honestly, scared the hell out of me, especially since I slept in there a lot when I spent the night. A huge photo of God adorned with plastic red roses and candles. They were Catholic (as my whole family is) and what I remember most though, was that they never preached religion. They just led good, honest and hard-working lives and enjoyed the good moments together.
Of course there were moments of fighting and cursing at each other but it never lasted and their love prevailed. As they got older and their health began to fail, they moved into our house. There were several really funny moments with the two of them then but the time was shortened when my grandfather was transferred to a nursing home. We would take my grandmother everyday to see him and I remember well, how they never let go of each others' hands during the entire visit.
My grandmother passed away when I was 13 years old and my grandfather when I was 16. Their memories stay so close to my heart and when I am in the middle of a difficult time, I think of them. I also create an homage to them when I cook certain foods - like the egg "omelette", swiss chard with garlic, olive oil and tomato, and escarole, olive oil and chick peas, I think of them and hope they are somewhere watching over me with love.