Just a year ago, my grandmother died at almost 98 years old. In addition to being a beautiful woman, my grandmother was the most generous of women, and affected so many people in her long life. To her grandchildren, she was Grandma, to her precious great-grandchildren (22 of them!), she was Nonna, the Italian word for grandmother. She taught me to cook, and taught me to see food as a way of taking care of those we love; to feed them, body and soul. I would like to share a piece I wrote right after she died. I shared it at her funeral, but I reread it myself every so often, as a way of remembering my Gram, and all the lessons she taught me. I hope this gives you a sense of who my Gram was.
"We cannot do great things; we can only do small things with great love."
These are the words of Mother Theresa.
"We cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."
In my life, no person has embodied this sentiment more than my Gram. She was from such a different world that the one she came into when she came to America. Her mother died when she was very young, and perhaps because of this, her life's work was to create a strong and loving family. My grandmother's devotion to us was a constant in all of our lives. She knew only one way to love: completely. For Gram, family was everything, and everything was family. To be her grandchild was to know that no matter what mistakes you made, no matter how far from home you went, you were always loved, you always belonged, and you were always welcome back home. She was quick to let you know if you had done something wrong in her eyes, but just as quick to pull you close to her and love you anyway. For her, 'love' was a verb. It was not so much about how she felt, but what she did to show us how precious we were to her. She showed her great love for us everyday in the many things she did for us - the cooking, of course, but also the clothes she made for us (all those matching outfits for Christmas and Easter so that we wouldn't look shipala-shopala), the mending of clothes; in short, her complete engagement in our day to day lives.
She was the kind of grandmother who, when she was babysitting, would get us out of bed after our parents had left so that we could watch 'a program' on TV with her before she told us to go 'nee-naw' (how many of us can still sing the nee-naw song?).
I have vivid memories of Gram sending us cousins out into summer rainstorms to dance in the backyard, splash in the puddles, much to our mothers' dismay. She overruled our mothers, and we were often happy for it.
Growing up, we did not carry pop tarts or twinkies as the treat in our lunch boxes. We had a baggie full of crispelles, or a couple of Gram's homemade machine cookies. We did not call the pizza place on a Friday night for pizza, we walked upstairs and sat at Gram's kitchen table.
I will always be grateful for her strong presence in my life. After the death of our father when we were very young, my mother, my sister and I could not have had the life we had without the help of my grandmother. She was with us after school when my mother was working or in college, she cooked for us, took care of us when we were sick, listened to us when we were sad. I am who I am in large part because of the guiding presence of Gram in my life. And this story is not unique. Probably every one of my cousins has a similar story, and that is the most amazing thing about my grandmother. Her capacity for love, for generosity was boundless.
My Gram was quick to develop relationships with all those around her; she connected with people, and used her many gifts to help her to do that. When she heard someone was sick, whether it was a family member or one of many friends and acquaintances in her community, she always sent a loaf of bread, and a jar of her famous chicken soup with pastina.
She suffered terrible losses and great hurt over the course of her lifetime; she nursed her children and grandchildren through illnesses, buried both of her parents, all of her brothers and sisters, her son-in-law, her husband, her granddaughter and her son, and she did not become bitter or ever once doubt the faith in God that sustained her. With every loss her love grew. With each sadness her faith in God, in her family, in her friends and in herself strengthened, deepened. She had confidence in God's plan for her, and because of this, through the many difficult times in her life, she lived with great love and generosity towards others.
It is hard to imagine a world without the presence of my grandmother, but the small acts of great love with which she blessed each of us remain, and this world is far better because she lived. Now it is up to us to continue her work.
We should continue loving each other, forgiving each other, helping each other. We should follow her example of love in action, not just within our own families, but with everyone we encounter.
When my sister Betsy and I were little girls, my grandmother came down each night at bedtime to say goodnight to us. It was always a three part goodnight, in Italian, and now I say goodbye to my sweet grandmother the same way:
Buona serra, buon repose, e buona notte.
One of the types of pasta Grandma used to make was cavatelli. When I was a little girl, I would go up and help her to form the shaped pasta, then to drop them in the boiling salted water for just a couple of minutes while they cooked. While this is not my Gram's recipe, I am making these in honor of her today, to feed my family. We will be together, and we will talk about her, remembering the many gifts she gave us.
16 ounces ricotta cheese
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
In a wide bowl, place flour and salt, creating a well in the center. Add the eggs and ricotta to the well, and using your hands, begin to incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients little by little, pulling in the flour as you go. Continue until you have a smooth dough that is not too sticky, adding more flour if necessary. When the dough is done, knead about 20 times to make it smooth, and then let it rest in a cool place for about a half hour.
Pasta can be cooked immediately, or can be placed in the refrigerator covered for use in the near future.
To cook, place the cavatelli in a pot of salted boiling water for 2-3 minutes until they float to the surface. Serve with your favorite sauce and lots of good grated cheese. Enjoy the pasta with people you love, because Nonna taught me that every meal tastes better this way.