She would have been 107 on July 26th. I celebrated her by eating a delightful meal of everything soaked in vinegar and sugar.. Beets, tomatoes, and cabbage you name it, she put vinegar and sugar on it. And sometime in the evening, I made myself a commemorative Spanish Onion sandwich on white bread with mayo.
Where I grew up, there were pizzarias on every corner, and the mafia was real. It was a big deal to be invited to an Italian friend’s house for spaghetti on Sunday. We’d smell the sauce simmering on the stove for days and Mrs. Zapelli would be stirring and chopping and bustling around in the kitchen getting ready for the onslaught of relatives, Sunday afternoon. She relied on an ancient Sicilian recipe handed down over the years from mother to daughter. It never failed to exceed everyone’s expectations.
My mother had a story about an Italian immigrant in her home town, who taught her “the authentic way” to make sauce. It was a bit of a production because if I asked for spaghetti for my birthday dinner, she’d sigh, roll her eyes, and exhale her initial resistance to such an arduous task before she acquiesced. But, she always acquiesced.
Many years later I discovered Ragu jars in the trash as I was taking out the garbage. Ragu? I fished one out, “Mum, what’s this?” Her eyes got big and suddenly she started laughing and in no time we were both clutching the counter with tears running down our cheeks. .
At the age of five I was reading every word in the newspaper. Although my reading skills far exceeded my comprehension, reading kept me quiet. Every night, the three of us sat at the kitchen table, with the usual meat and potatoes.
“What’s communism?” I asked before I took another swig of my milk
“Um….Well….It’s a system where everyone has to share everything.” she said.
“Oh that’s a good idea!”She circled the wagons, “well it’s also a system where children turn their parents into the police!” The tone of her voice conveyed, beyond a doubt, what a terrible idea handing your parents over to the police really was. We moved on.
She was fierce about men. A man tried to lure me into his car, when I was in first grade and she had him arrested. A man exposed himself to me at age 10, she had him arrested, as well. She told me they were sick and were going to a hospital where someone would take care of them! I got caught shoplifting as a teen and was told if I didn’t come back later that night, I was going to jail…she had him fired and dealt with my shoplifting experiment by grounding me for a month
She had high hopes. Wanted me to be a model, sent me to “charm school” hoping I’d acquire some grace. I wasn’t interested in grace and didn’t want to be Miss America, although I did enjoy watching the pageant every year. What’s not to like about gorgeous women in bathing suits and high heels? “Look how nice and straight those girls stand.” I was struggling with being the tallest girl around. “Look how poised those girls are.” I was a hormone riddled, laughing, crying, screaming teenager. She tried her best, but I am who I am.
We had a lot of fun when I was young and although it got a bit rocky when I took off to find my own way, we circled back before she left the planet. I’ve been pretty happy with how I turned out, and I’m pretty sure I have her to thank for that. Thanks, Mum….and Happy Birthday wherever you are.