Four years ago, one of the most important people in my life passed away. As I’d been blessed enough not to lose many close loved ones, I didn’t realize that the hole my grandmother left behind would never fully heal, and it would always feel a little bit empty.
My grandmother was a force of nature. And my mind and heart are filled with memories of her. Funny memories ~ like when she chased my brother and I around the house with a wooden spoon (those suckers sting!) or drove to the casino after putting us to bed, and returned home in time to make us breakfast before school the next day ~ comfortable memories, like climbing into bed with her at night and watching episodes of “Murder She Wrote,” and classic old black & white movies. Every time I watch “White Christmas” (which is my all-time favorite Christmas movie) and the scene between Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney about dreams and sandwiches comes on, it almost feels as though I’ve gone back in time and I’m in her room and we’re watching it together.
Jennie J (that’s my Grammy’s name) was also an amazing cook. My mother tells the best story about the first time she met Jennie and Bubski (my dad’s parents) ~ Jennie opened the door, and my mother thought my dad was having an affair. She’d expected a little Italian nonna, with white hair pulled back in a bun, but instead it was Jennie, with her hair and makeup done to perfection, dressed to the nines and wearing high-heeled shoes. My mother, an English emigrant, sat down to enjoy an Italian family meal the way my dad’s side of the family used to do it ~ course, after course, after course …. homemade wine and fresh fruit from the trees in the backyard. Jennie cooked in high heels, and the kids washed dishes between courses in order to serve the next spread.
At Christmas, Jennie would bake dozens and dozens of different Italian cookies ~ pizzelles, bow-ties, butter balls, apricot filled puff pastry, thumbprints with jam and nuts, Italian filled roll, nut roll … I can’t even remember all the kinds. She was one of twelve children (six boys and six girls) and when I was very young, and the family got together, it was always a crazy, animated party with more food that necessary, and cards played late into the night in a cloud of cigarette smoke. While her youngest sister was known for making the best pizzelles, Jennie was the best cook in general. We ate very well as I grew up, because my Mama is a dab hand as well ~ I have always been well-versed in the traditional foods of my mum’s heritage, and my dads.
When Jennie died, I toyed with the idea of going through her things and finding all her recipes (even though I knew that the true recipes really only existed in her head). But I was still raw from losing her, and in the early months of 2008, my life imploded in a major way ~ so any ambitions of figuring out how to continue her traditions fell by the wayside.
This past June, when the man and I had our fateful conversation, I thought about how I’ve been finding parts of her in me ~ when I cook a certain way, or vacuum with a ferociousness that is unnecessary (but I do anyway) … sometimes I even see a glimpse of her in the mirror … but mostly I look like my mother and aunt.
I should have asked her a lot more questions ~ and I should have written down the answers. There were so many things that she was that no one will be able to remember soon. She didn’t have a daughter, only my father, and he’s a very quiet person. But the things I do remember make me so proud to have been her granddaughter.
I believe she was the first one of her sisters to learn to drive. She told Bubski matter-of-factly that she wanted to learn and she wanted her own car. I never knew my grandfather, but I’ve been told he was a gentle soul, who would have done anything to help his family, or make someone happy. In other words, Jennie was the alpha to his beta. She liked her independence. She worked as a hostess at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh and served people like Luciano Pavarotti. She was an immaculate dresser and gave me a few sage words of wisdom on this subject when I was youngster. “Gwyneth, ” she said, her finger pointing at me as she cooked dinner (her hands were never idle, be it cooking, cleaning or crocheting). “You never leave the house looking a mess. You take pride in how you look. You never know who may see you. It’s better to look put-together.” She paused. “And you never wear navy blue and black together.” Another thoughtful moment. “And always polish your shoes. Never wear scuffed shoes out of the house. People can tell a lot about you from your shoes.”
She was stubborn -like, really really stubborn – but she had a huge heart of gold. She spoiled my brother and I at every opportunity. And since she moved in with our family when I was about five, there were a lot of opportunities. One time, when she said no to me, I just took the packet of tic-tacs from the grocery store check-out line. When she found out, we went back to the store and I had to return the tic-tacs, and apologize. Needless to say, I never had a shop-lifting phase in my adolescence or teenage years. That completely cured me. I still burn with shame when I think about it.
She’s been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve been immersed in old music ~ Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby …. I’ve been craving an evening of watching an old, crackly movie and remembering our nights together, when she was still crocheting and I was learning and we would watch TV and she would tell me stories. During the war, my Grammy worked in a factory putting plane wings together. The girl next to her stole her engagement ring one day, and never came back to work. Bubski replaced it (he was originally from New York City, and his family were jewelers), but her second ring wasn’t as nice as the first (she always reminded me of that with a laugh, saying her new ring was her penance for losing the first one). Today, I wear it, along with the diamonds from her wedding band, that she had made into a pinky ring for my 21st birthday. I wear it every day. It’s a pretty ring, but for me, it’s more about having a piece of my grandmother with me every day.
My mother mentioned a few weeks ago that she has all of Jennie’s cookie recipes, so I think that this Christmas will be the one that I try to continue the Italian-American tradition. If I ever pass down anything to anyone, I’ll be glad that I made the effort. I’ll be glad I wrote all these things down on this blog ~ so that if one day there is anyone who feels like I do now about Jennie J, the stories and thoughts and recipes are all here to read and remember.