Most people have memories from their childhood revolving around birthday parties with chocolate ice cream cakes and summer camps at the local YMCA. They remember standing in the front row at concerts with their friends, screaming out the lyrics to the songs of the most popular boy bands. They can recall spending hours on end playing video games with their siblings, determined not to stop until they had beaten the game, and watching Disney movies over and over again.
I guess I can say the same about my childhood, except my birthday cakes were known as ciambalone and my “summer camp” was spent in the kitchen making pizzas and gnocchi. I had been to a few concerts growing up, but my idea of music was set to the tune of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Sure, I watched Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast like all of the rest of my friends, but that was only after having watched The Godfather and Goodfellas enough to know not to sit with your back to the door at a restaurant.
At lunch in elementary school, I unpacked my lunchbox to reveal a ham and cheese sandwich and cookies like the rest of the kids. But my ham was prosciutto, dried and salted to perfection by my Uncle Tony, and my cookies were biscotti that my mom had made the day before.
So I guess it’s fair to say that I grew up a little differently than some of the other kids. But I wouldn’t change that for the world. The memories I have from my childhood are held near and dear to my heart, and though things were a bit different growing up, I am proud of the things that set me apart from the rest.
I never needed to learn about my heritage; reminders were there every hour of every day. I woke up not to the smell of the morning’s fresh brew of coffee, but to the fragrant aroma of a fresh marinara sauce boiling on the stove. I crawled out of bed at only 7:00 a.m., and like a hound dog hot on the trail of a scent, would make my way downstairs and into the kitchen. There I would find her, standing over the pot of fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil, stirring ever so carefully with a large wooden stick.
There she stood, my nonna, dressed in a black housecoat and a handmade apron, her knee-highs slouched down around her ankles. Noticing my arrival, she quickly halts her stirring and rushes over to greet me with a delightful, “Buon giorno, bella!” and a quick kiss on each cheek. “Sit down, I make you something,” she says with her thick Italian tongue. I knew better than to ignore her directions, so I took a seat like I was told.
My breakfast was served before I even had time to wipe the sand from my eyes, but judging from the amount of food in front of me, it seemed like Nonna had been awake for quite some time now.
“Aren’t your arms tired from stirring that so much, Nonna?” I would ask her, seeing that she had yet again returned to the stove.
“You’ve got to give it some love. That’s what makes it taste so good,” she replied, smiling as she turned to face me.
Well, then keep on stirring, I thought. No one made sauce like Nonna, and that was a fact. I finished my breakfast as I watched her turn that wooden stick incessantly around the pot and then occasionally pause to raise a spoonful up to her aged lips for a taste. She must have done this about five more times, adding a dash of ingredients after each tasting before she let out a little, “Ah, perfetto” and removed the pot from the stove.
My parents came in, already dressed for work, and grabbed a cup of cappuccino while I headed upstairs and got ready for school. After picking out the perfect outfit, I hurried back to the kitchen to pack my books and lunch in my bag before heading for the door.
But before I left the house, my dad made gave me a questioning look to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my most important item for the day. “I have it,” I said, pulling aside the shoulder of my shirt to reveal the little red ribbon pinned to my undershirt that was supposed to protect me from malocchio, the evil eye. “Good girl,” he said, giving me a wink. “Have a good day at school,” my mom said, and came over to give me a kiss. I looked over at Nonna who had now turned her attention to making meatballs. “Ciao, Nonna,” I said. She turned and gave me a little wave goodbye. I wished I were staying home to cook with her.
I arrived in my homeroom for school just ten minutes before classes were to begin, and I joined my friends at a table to color. We talked about the activities of our weekend and the new toys we had already planned to put on our list to Santa this year. I was already on my second picture when I noticed my friend’s little nose twitching like a bunny’s. “What’s that smell?” she asked, raising her nose a little higher in the air.
“What smell? I don’t smell anything,” I replied, trying to discreetly distance myself from their range of smell. I knew exactly what they smelled. Whenever Nonna started making her sauce as early in the morning as she had today, that mouth-watering aroma was sure to soak into any soft surface around the house, including my clothes.
“It’s kind of like, spaghetti or something,” my friend replied matter-of-factly.
“Oh, yeah, I think that’s what they’re making in the cafeteria today,” I said, trying to come up with a logical excuse to make up for my scent. “I like your shoes,” I told my friend in hopes she would take the bait for the change of subject. She did, of course, and I was off the hook.
As she rambled on about her shopping trip with her mom this past weekend, I couldn’t help but to start thinking about Nonna again. I so badly wanted to be back in the kitchen with her, and I just couldn’t understand why I had to be in school. I had tried to reason with my parents before, but it never worked. Even Nonna agreed with them on this one, and she was always on my side, so I knew I had to just stick it out.
I rushed home that day, anxious to help Nonna prepare the rest of the food for dinner. Turns out she had done most of the work, so all that was left were the cannoli. But I didn’t mind, making dessert was my favorite. As I helped put the dough and the filling together, Nonna eyed my technique carefully, making sure I had just the right touch, all the while instructing me in the Italian she was adamant on teaching me. She would guide me as I filled the airy tubes with the creamy white ricotta cheese filling, holding my hand to make sure I didn’t make a mess.
I loved when she laid her soft, olive toned hands on mine, and I would trace the blue veins from the back of her hand all the way up her arm. Those veins were a sign of her incredible strength, a strength that had been demonstrated on my little nose one too many times when she would twist it in greeting. I knew it was a sign of love, but I wish she could know the power in her grip.
Those hands, spotted now with signs of age, had traveled a long way across the ocean some thirty years prior and had brought with them the warm traditions and customs of the Italian life. Though it had been nearly two decades since she arrived in our country, she remained rooted in her heritage, and made sure that she passed this on to my mother and me.
This is what I loved about her. Not only did she always welcome us with open arms and plenty of kisses, she made sure to instill in us the roots of our family. We would sit together and talk about “the old days” when Nonna grew up in the small town of Perugia, Italy, and she would share stories with me about living in that beautiful country. I was enthralled with each story, even the ones I had heard from her before. I would sit back and close my eyes as she described the rolling hills, vineyards, and countryside of her small town, and I could even feel the heat of those scorching summer days she spoke so often about. I cozied up to her, anxious to hear more, and with each new story, I loved my Italian heritage more and more.
Though Nonna left us five years ago, I will never forget all the wonderful things she taught me. Every time I step up to the stove to prepare a pot of sauce or gather the ingredients to make a pizza, I can feel her warm hands around mine, holding tight to make sure I wouldn’t dirty the kitchen. It is because of her that I can speak Italian with my parents, that I make a killer marinara sauce envied by all of my friends, and that I have a deep understanding of the meaning of family.
I won’t part with that old wooden stick that she used to stir the sauce or her apron that I wear whenever I’m in the kitchen. I was lucky to spend so many years with Nonna, and I am happy that I could hear her say that she had lived la vita bella. It is because of her and the rich traditions she instilled in my family that I am proud to say I’m “from the boot.”