I grew up in my grandmother's kitchen: it was where I learned how to cook. It was also where I learned how to love. Maria (Riviezzo) D'Angelo was from Naples, Italy. She spoke very little English, never learned to read or write, and had many heartaches in her life. These things did not keep her down, for my grandmother was a survivor. I will always remember her fondly, and she will always be sadly missed.
My family was very large with many aunts, uncles, and cousins. We all lived in the same neighborhood except for my godparents who lived about nine blocks away.
Grandma's house was the center of our family, and grandma was the heart. Her kitchen was small and cozy with tall cupboards, two sunny windows, and a large table in the middle of the room. There was always a great big pot of sauce simmering on the stove or a cake, made from scratch, baking in the oven.
It seemed as though grandma was endlessly cooking. I could smell the herbs and spices wafting through the air, and I was always invited to taste whatever she she was creating. Anyone who's ever been to an Italian home could tell you nobody leaves without eating. For my grandmother, food was an expression of love.
I remember the hot Italian sausage we made in volume. It was my job to put the casings on the stainless steel machine that was clamped to the end of the table. Grandma would spice the meat with fennel, hot red pepper, and secret ingredients. Next my mom would fill the machine and turn the crank, filling up the casings with the best sausage in the world. Then my Aunt Anna would take the finished product to wrap in crisp white freezer paper. We always took a few links to cook while working. Grandma had to taste the sausage to make sure it was good. It was delicious!
In the summer, the whole family and half the neighborhood would come to our backyard for a wonderful picnic. All my cousins would play badminton in our large backyard while uncles George and Dee cooked the sausage on the grill. When it was time to eat, the star attraction — grandma's sausage — was gone almost before it could be placed on the table! Everyone would feast and be happy on those warm summer nights when I was young.
There were many other dishes created in grandma's kitchen. She made her own pasta, I could not pronounce or spell its Italian name; I always called them "little pillows" because that's what they looked like. When tomatoes were in season, bushels of them would be delivered to the house. There was another machine to crush the tomatoes; the basement pantry shelves were lined with rows and rows of tomato paste and puree.
Dinner would not be complete without a sweet dessert. There were rich and creamy cheese fillings for the cannoli, tube-shaped pastry shells that Aunt Anna and mom would spend hours rolling, shaping, and frying on top of the stove in a large cast-iron frying pan until golden brown.
There where also many mouthwatering cookies, each better than the one before, my favorite being a little white cookie rolled in seeds. "Noke," pronounced gnawkey, was the star attraction at Christmas time; these were pastries shaped like ribbons, dipped in warm honey, and then sprinkled with powdered sugar.
My favorite dessert was a cake made only at Easter. The batter was flavored with almond oil and fresh lemons, then baked in angel food cake pans. Grandma gave many of these cakes away, so she made them in volume.
On Easter Sunday everyone flocked to the house after mass for steaming hot cups of coffee and cake instead of toast, so we started calling this cake "Easter Bread." Unfortunately, my aunt and mother never wrote this recipe down; the cake is now with Grandma up in heaven.
In 1969, my grandmother became very ill, and after major surgery, she was brought back home, but it was never the same in our house. My mom and Aunt Anna took care of her until God came to take her back; they did not want her to die in the hospital with strangers.
She was very afraid and in so much pain. I can still hear her in my mind. She is lying on the couch saying over and over, "oy vay mama, oy vay!" I would sit on the floor next to her crying, and while holding her hand I would tell her she she was going to be all right. I felt so helpless; we all did.
Then one morning I woke up to a still and quiet house. I swear it looked like a fog was rolling around the bed and dressers; I could hardly see. My mom went downstairs to check on Grandma. A few minutes latter she came back upstairs crying. She woke my dad saying, "Oh, Nick, shes gone, oh my God, she's gone."
I had never experienced the pain of losing a loved one before; it cut through my soul like a knife. Every fiber of my being cried out, "no!" Then came the anger at the doctors for cutting her open, the anger at God for taking her away from me, and the anger at myself for not being able to do anything about it. Finally, after the funeral and the tears, I felt relief for Grandma; she was at peace. It was after losing my Grandma that my Aunt Margaret and I became closer; I think she might have taken her place for me.
As the years have passed, some memories of my grandmother stand out more clearly than others. I remember the good with a smile and the bad with a tear. I have memories of brushing her long silver hair as she sat in front of her vanity mirror in her bedroom early in the morning.
I remember watching the Lawrence Welk show with her, what she called "Jonsa-Wax," as she sat in her little sitting room with her stocking feet up on a small stool. I would rub her feet as she watched and tried to sing along with the beautiful ladies. Oh, I can almost smell her feet right now!
I'll never forget the time I sat on a bee and she put mud on my bare bottom in front of God and everyone, or the time I came home so proud the boys at school had taught me something to say in Italian – I can still taste the Fels-Naptha soap!
I remember watching her beat an egg so fast that it was lifted up in the air around the fork she held in her strong hand. I remember the way she never measured ingredients; it was always a splash of this, or a pinch of that.
Mostly I'll remember her warm smile and strong hugs. She could not talk to me very much, but she said plenty.