When I was a kid and would climb the stairs to my grandmother’s apartment, the smell of coffee would greet me before she could. She wore high heels in the house and would stand in front of her full-length mirror and announce in broken English that she looked “poo-ty good”. She and a friend watched soap operas and they made up the details for which there was no translation. Their version was more interesting. She kept lemon drops in the cupboard and a box of Russell Stover candy in the freezer, the chocolate white from excessive cold, and the caramels broke in half when I bit down on them. But to a kid, candy is candy.
She’d often pull eggs out from her refrigerator, dig her hands into a sack of flour and dump it on the kitchen table. She’d crack the eggs into the center and with her arthritic fingers quickly work the ingredients into a huge ball of dough. Later as the sheets stretched through the hand-powered roller (my job), an iron kettle sat on the floor and caught them. That the spaghetti strands that eventually ended up on everyone’s plate were each three feet long didn’t seem to bother anyone.
Just two basic ingredients transformed into a comforting food. Magic usually is simple when its elements are broken down. The magical is usually born from what happens when elements are combined.
In my kitchen is framed the Federico Fellini quote “life is a combination of magic and pasta”. From my perspective, there weren’t many magical moments in my grandmother’s hard life. She dreamed of marrying a tall man who played the mandolin, but my grandfather was 5’2” and the only thing he played was the shovel at the local steel mill. Then he went home on sweltering summer days and shoveled the garden in order to feed his large family. Was there magic in their lives?
They lost a child to a misdiagnosed illness in the 1940’s. During the war they were told they lost another, but were later informed he had arrived at a hospital. That he was mistakenly alive was probably a magical moment, but I don’t think that’s what Fellini meant.
Two grandchildren were born out of wedlock, but all the grandchildren were equally loved. Is that what he meant?
Fellini also said that you exist only in what you do. My grandparents worked and raised a family, but I want to believe that they existed in more than that.
One Christmas Eve day my grandmother took me by the hand to walk to the fish market to buy the seven different types of fish for the vigilia. My peripheral vision was temporarily suspended by the scarf she had wrapped around my face to shield me from the cold. We first walked to the bank and then to the fish market and waited in a long line, but at least the sound of oil spattering from the haddock that was being dipped and fried made me feel warm.
Upon arriving home and emptying our arms of various raw fish wrapped in paper, my grandmother counted her change. Before I removed my coat she said “we have to go back”. The fish clerk had given her too much change. Even at my young age I knew she had probably spent more than she could afford so why didn’t she just keep the extra? Off we went. The fish clerk was impressed, but my grandmother didn’t stick around for praise. We trekked back home, and by now I could barely feel my hands as I removed them from my pockets. My grandmother asked where my other mitten was. I didn’t know. I told her it was okay, it would turn up. She told me to “think”. She told me I had the brains of one of those fish. I told her my brains were bigger than any fish, and I had left my mitten at the bank.
Once again she took me by the hand and slip sliding, we journeyed to the bank. I wondered if she was squeezing my hand to prevent me from falling or because she was angry at my forgetfulness. When we got to the bank she told me to sit down on one of the vinyl benches. She waited in line, talked to a teller, and came back to me waving my soggy mitten. Her grip was a little looser on the walk home, but as we waited to cross a busy street, she sternly said to me “everything means something. It’s just a mitten, but it’s important. It doesn’t cost much money to buy another, but why should your mother have to buy another?” “But it’s so cold today. Why did we have to go get it now,” I asked.“There’s a time for everything. The fish we’re eating tonight means something tonight. We could eat the same thing tomorrow but it wouldn’t mean the same thing. You have to do things when it’s time, you don’t wait.”
Subsequent generations feel sorry for the price their ancestors paid for our chance to grow and prosper, but that was the moment I stopped feeling sorry for my grandmother and her simply defined life because that’s when I began to take a more focused view of everything, and that’s a complex legacy. There was wisdom in her message that each set of circumstances presents opportunities that may never come again.I don’t buy seven types of fish during the holidays and I have store bought pasta in my pantry, but the combination of my grandmother’s genes, determination and her admonition absorbed into my life and has steered me over the years. In some instances it has literally saved me, it has let people know they’re loved, and it has lent stability during life’s rocky moments. Is this what Fellini meant? I’m not sure, but that’s why his quote hangs in my kitchen.