Today would have been my grandmother Christine's 90th birthday. Since moving to Italy I get asked quite a lot about my heritage: where I'm from, who my parents and grandparents are and were. It is a shorthand in small towns to know who a person is based on the knowledge one has of their family, and my foreignness here makes that genealogical measuring stick mostly inapplicable to me. However, when I tell people that my grandmother's family came to the United States from Campania in the South and my grandfather's family from Sicily, there is an instant recognition and understanding. My grandparents' heritage makes it logical that I should live here, that I should speak the language, that I should know how gesticulate with my hands and communicate dissatisfaction, jubilation and ennui all at the same time. At first I found this logic to be shaky, at best; after years of travelling in many different corners I have long since abandoned the notion that I should 'belong', strictly speaking, anywhere. But when I think about the last year and a half and then I think about my first 25 years spent with her, I wonder if perhaps there is something to it all.
My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression in the United States and used to tell us stories about waiting on lines for bread and broken macaroni and like most people who lived through that time and other such collective traumas, I don't think it ever left her. Happiness, security and love itself were things that could only be expressed through eating and more specifically, of her feeding you. I can still remember walking into their house: everyone entered through the back door, which led to the kitchen. She was always on the phone and the cord would form a limbo wire under which we had to snake in order to enter. In between talking, smoking a cigarette and stirring that ubiquitous pot of sauce that was on the stove she would stop, and with an embrace ask, “have you eaten yet?”
I don't remember how many times or even if ever I heard my grandmother tell me or any of us that she loved us. But every time she asked us, 'have you eaten yet?' it was her way of caring for us, for making sure that we never suffered. My grandmother watched me suffer through a particularly difficult adolescence brought on by too much too fast, and I think she suffered through it as much as any of us did. But she stayed there and until the very end of it all she kept that pot of sauce on the stove. I'd like to think that there is nothing that giant pot wouldn't have been able to cure. My brother bought my grandparents' house after my grandmother's death, and when I visited him I swore I could still hear it bubbling away.
In Tuscania there is still the time held tradition of Sunday dinner which really starts at lunch and lasts for most of the day. It is the sort of thing that defines the Italian family to most of us, because after all it's a scene in at least every one of the canonical mafia films. In our family it really existed and while it was not every Sunday it was many, and it did last for all those many hours. It always started with antipasti from the local deli spread on those flat platters with removable dishes and it was always cheese, salumi and olives. Then it was pasta, a gut busting combination of meatballs, spaghetti, and miles of bread. After a rather important and necessary pause there was a meat dish that would have seemed to any rational person to be overkill but was to us, quite a normal thing. And my grandmother hardly sat for any of it; when she did she took the chair closest to the kitchen so that she could dip in and out as she needed. Truth be told I have very few memories of her eating. She never let anyone wait for her to start and I think that sometimes people forgot she wasn't there, because her presence was felt on every inch of that laden table. But then she would appear, usually towards the end of the meal, and on the bigger holidays she would stand behind my grandfather's chair and put her hand on his back and ask him how everything was while he kept his eyes on the prize and continued to clean his plate. His muffled approval through mouthfuls was all she needed, and she would look at each of us and I think her eyes shone. Feeding us was how she loved us, and oh how she loved us.
It was clear towards the end that things were not right with her because on her last Christmas Eve, which would have been her finest hour and had always been, she couldn't seem to keep up with all of the dishes. Everything was a bit less spicy than it usually was, and there was a sense of labour in them that had never appeared before. It was clear that she had struggled to finish, and that she had been forced to cut corners by virtue of her failing strength. She leaned too heavily on my grandfather's shoulder at the end of the meal and when she asked how everything was, he held her hand in his and told her it was good. He knew what we couldn't have known, that she was going to be leaving soon and I can only imagine that they thought it best not to tell the rest of us. So they carried it together, and they made sure that we all ate together, that one last time.
I remember the last time I talked to my grandmother in 2004, in the earliest days of spring. I had, it seemed, finally calmed down enough and begun to grow up: I was in school, I had a boyfriend, I had a job that I liked. I was going to be studying in Central America later that year so that instead of wandering the planet aimlessly as I dad in the years before, there seemed to be a direction that I was moving in, and that direction was a fine one. She was proud of me, and we spoke like adults, like friends. I imagine that I must have been the person on the other end of the phone cord that stretched around the kitchen and that maybe someone else would have had to limbo underneath to pass through. We hung up the phone and I told her how much I loved her, because I had begun to see how important it was to say that, to anyone and any time it was true. She told me she loved me too, and I heard her raspy cough on the other end and knew she needed to sit down a while. I hope she ate something after that. Her death was too sudden for any of us to understand or make sense of, and I think that we all still ache about it in our own corners and in our own ways. And she wasn't perfect, by any means, but she was the axis around which our family turned. When she was gone, it felt a bit like we were all sort of spinning, alone.
I know that she would have loved Mark, and she would have loved to see him cooking, even though he is both skinny and also not Italian. I think sometimes about what it would be like if they had shared a kitchen and cooked together and how she would have teased him relentlessly and how he would have loved it. She would have laughed with him and given him that look she had, the one that I feel in myself sometimes which is the very faintest veil of sarcasm over the deepest feelings of love. She would have told him about how my grandfather was crazy but she married him anyway, and she would have passed that same look onto him as my grandfather sat over the day's racing forms or lottery tickets. I know that Mark understands, and would do so even more had they known each other, that though I find him to be one of the most talented people I have ever known my last meal on earth if I were lucky enough to choose would be her fluffy meatballs in sauce, a taste that only increases in flavour as it becomes a more distant memory.
So yes, I think that there is something to it all. Because though I am not from here, I look around Tuscania and I see faces that remind me of Christine DiGaetano and I know that she would be sitting on her porch in a housecoat battling the heat, as many of my neighbours do, while that pot of sauce simmered. And she would smile that smile, and she would be proud.