Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of her life. That quote has followed me around the past couple of days. [Serendipity? Perhaps, or perhaps it’s been following me around for years, and I’ve only paid attention these last few days.]
Waking up on Sundays, I always awoke with a big smile. Sundays meant dinner at Grammy’s house. Church first, usually the ten o’clock mass, and then off to Grammy’s. I’d think about what I would bring with me to Grammy’s house, as I prepared myself for church. Usually I would pack a bag, like I was staying for a week. Katie’s bag (my sister) would always have stuffed animals in it. My bag would usually have coloring books, notebooks, crayons, and the book in which I was currently engrossed. These treasures had to be safely tucked away while at church. At church, Katie and I would bicker, pinch and poke and prod. We had a typically antagonistic relationship at that young age. (I was 9 and she was 4.)
Church seemed endless! Sit, kneel, stand, sit, kneel, stand, shake hands, kneel, go to communion, kneel, stand, and finally we could go! We ran to the car. Grammy’s house felt hours away, even though it was only a ten-minute drive from church. Dad parked the car in the driveway and as the car door opened, the garlic smell enveloped me like a warm embrace. Katie and I dashed into the house, as fast at our little legs could carry us, through the old screen door, “Squeak, BANG!” The roosters on the wall of the green kitchen welcomed us. The counter ended in a soft curve and hidden underneath were two secret shelves. Katie and I were sure that the shelves were there just for us. At kid height, each contained an individual piece of fresh parmesan cheese, gently placed there by Grammy. A most cherished part of the day was discovering that piece of cheese. It was there each and every week, yet shock and surprise always spread across our faces when we saw it there waiting for us.
The kitchen table was a block of dark wood surrounded by at least eight chairs. Most of the chairs matched the table, with awful, shiny, green seats, but some chairs had to be commandeered from other parts of the house. That was always my job. The table was covered with a linen tablecloth, and so many dishes- I hardly knew the table was under there. The roosters watched over us as we ate. The immense, green rotary phone sat over my shoulder during dinner. It hardly ever rang when we were there. Sundays were different then, they were family days.
If we arrived early, Grammy would ask me to check the sauce. It was a very important job. She’d pour some on a piece of Italian bread. We’d eat it with a knife and fork. When we arrived at Grammy’s house, she would be the only one there. Well, my twin aunts would still be sleeping, as they were teenagers, still living at home. My grandfather, Papa, would be out playing golf. It was my favorite time of day. I was the one to sit with mom and Grammy in the kitchen and help. After I got the chairs, I would set the table. Grammy would also ask me to taste the macaroni and make sure that it was ready. [Thinking back on it now, she always treated me like an adult; with respect. She talked to me and listened to me.] I would listen to mom and Grammy exchange stories about old neighbors or what’s on sale at the Big Y this week. They would talk a lot about family. That’s how I learned about family. I listened. My grandmother’s life revolved around her family.
Dinner always began promptly at 2 pm. Papa would saunter in from the golf course smiling, sweaty, and always with some smart remark that would make me laugh. Aunties would roll out of bed and shower, but they’d always be ready by 2:00. Dinnertime is not something that is optional (especially for papa). I can still see the dinner table, papa is at the head of the table, and my dad is on the other end of the table. I sit on the side that is closest to the windows, next to mom, and papa. Aunties are both on the other side with my little sister, Katie. The vast amounts of food fill every square inch of the table. Salad and bread always are gently placed on a tray next to the table. Except for my salad, my salad is specially prepared. I have a bowl filled with cucumbers and doused with homemade dressing. My favorite!!! Grammy always knew everyone’s favorites and treated each and every one of us as an individual. Papa had his hot peppers. Auntie Jo usually had some kind of steak. Mom and Auntie Ann had artichokes or some kind of pasta pie. We all had something just for us. Except Grammy, she didn’t even have a chair. This woman spent hours and even days preparing a delicious, unparalleled meal (I haven’t even gotten to the main course yet) and she never sat down!
Now for the macaroni and meatballs…TA-DA! Gram made her own homemade sauce. [Years later, I asked gram for the recipe. She happily told me while we were all sitting around that same old table after dinner. As Katie and I were busily scribbling down each and ever word that fell from her mouth, we heard cries of disbelief from the other women in our family. My mom and aunts were lamenting because she was lying. Every time someone asked Grammy for her recipe, she happily obliged. She also happily LIED through her teeth.] Sitting here so many years later, I can still taste the garlicky, mouthwatering sauce that soaked each and every noodle. There was no escape. As I reminisce, I smile thinking about this meal.
The food created a comfortable atmosphere for all of us to lazily sit around that old wooden table. After the meal was gobbled, the men left to watch sports. The women sat around and talked. Grammy finally got an empty chair and ate. As we cleared the meal, we’d laugh and share and listen. We’d yell and argue and then connect. Grammy would tell stories about how papa almost married “Piano Legs”. Using bread and other food items as props, she told us the story of her prom. Those moments from childhood are etched into my soul.