Emilia Papaccio Jan 20 1920 - Dec 20 2008

My grandmother used to live with us when I was a child. The downstairs bedroom was hers. Later, I would commandeer the room, but for the longest time the choice spot (with its own bath) was hers. She kept the house tidy and cooked for us. This food was really good. Traditional Italian as passed on to her from her immigrant parents. Spaghetti and meatballs were a staple, and while the pasta was not homemade, the meatballs always, always were made from fresh ground chuck and Grandma's secret blend of seasonings (Unreplicatable, unfortunately. She just *made* them).

Grandma was bi-coastal. Her other daughter lived in New Jersey, and Grandma always wanted to be close to her family, but we made it harder for her by living in different time zones. So for some years she would live in California, and others on the East Coast. When she wasn't with us, her presence was sorely missed. The house fell into disarray. TV dinners (and TV) replaced family dining.

When I was nine or ten, she rented an apartment downtown, next door to the Fairmont hotel. The hotel employed her to tailor their uniforms. She was much loved there. We would dine in the hotel restaurant, and every member of the staff would stop by to tell us all how much they loved her. She was in her element then, showing off her family. She was head of the family, she was loved, and she was proud.

This downtown San Jose apartment was my sanctuary, too. When I couldn't stand my sisters, or my parents, or my friends (or myself), I called Grandma on Friday and asked if I could spend the night. I cannot recall a time when she said no. I would then get on the bus, and it thankfully took me straight to her apartment (This bus line no longer exists, and all the worse for suburban children who need an escape). Grandma didn't care what I did--I usually read my books and watched hours of uninterrupted Saturday morning cartoons. I didn't care what she did--usually she sneaked cigarettes. When she moved East again, I missed her, even if it was selfish.

Grandma worked her whole life. During the Great Depression, she worked in a clothing factory. We'd probably call it a sweat shop today. But not only did she not complain, she was grateful for the money that employment brought her. She told me that she loved work and the sense of ownership that came with it. Long before my mother met my father, She went back to work not so much because the family needed money, but because she wanted her own coin to buy things without her husband's permission (Curtains, in this case, and who can blame her?).

When she moved West again, she lost some of her independence because she could no longer work. But by then my parents had given up trying to feed us. Grandma rose to the occasion and made sure that the cooking traditions that my parents were so inept at were at least passed onto us--and of course we ate well again too! Dinner at Grandma's became synonymous with dinnertime; We seldom ate at our own house anymore. Even when I could drive myself where I wanted to be, Grandma's house was where I wanted to be. I can still smell her house, and her perfume, and her kitchen.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. But I will make an exception, because I would be doing a disservice to my beloved Grandma if I didn't include this. She was an inveterate racist. Growing up I would endure the worst embarrassments as she would berate the Chinese butcher or the Mexican maid. But it didn't extend to individuals. I was pleased when she spoiled my Latino and Chinese friend as she would any child (food, unstructured playtime, extra TV privileges). I once asked her to not be a racist, and she said she wasn't going to change who she was--but she did tone it down in front of me :-) She had nice things to say about Duke Ellington, too: "He was a good-looking n****r." My shock was tempered by my jealousy: she had seen him perform in NYC.

Grandma was a seamstress. I dreaded shopping with her. I would have to try on numerous pairs of pants until we found the size just larger than what I was. Then we'd hem all the new pants and patch any older ones with holes. She was a product of the Great Depression--good clothing could be repaired before it needed to be replaced (skills that until recently seemed passé but are now vogue once again). When I grew larger, she'd take the hems out. Fortunately, patched jeans were somewhat stylish at the time, and my clothes *always* fit.

I never learned to sew--that was for girls. But cooking was egalitarian. Grandma's cheesecake is a perennial family favorite. Basta babul can still be made in my kitchen. (Pasta e Fagioli for those interested in looking it up. She learned Italian from poor, illiterate agrarians. Prozut is prosciutto, too.) Minestrone is made the real way: whatever vegetables I have are cooked with whatever pasta I have.

Grandma was not a gourmet. Her cuisine, like her politics and her religion, was practical. When canned tomatoes and dried pasta because available, she didn't lament the passing of fresh food: she bought them and thanked God that now she didn't have to waste time rolling out pasta or canning her own tomatoes. Yet her taste never suffered for it, and even now when I try to make the freshest food from the freshest ingredients, I want my food to taste like it came from her oven.

We are not perfect, but we strive for the good. Grandma could be a rascal and a thief and highly opinionated. And she loved us with all her heart. When she was the most intolerable, she was trying to get us to be our best. She worked for her family, she lived for her family, and she encouraged us to do the same.

Requiescat in pace, avia. Absens, sed non oblita.

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1 Comments:

At 12/24/08, 12:23 PM, Blogger marshlady said...

That was really lovely Vince and Beautifully written. I hope you are holding up with all of this. Hugs-

 

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