The way Mimi lived

Rosalia D'Ippolito, my great grandmother, came to the United States from Sicily in 1921 at the age of eighteen, all alone. She was the last of twelve siblings in her village of Mussomeli caring for her mother and father. After her parents passed away she made the long journey across the Atlantic to be with her brothers and sisters. She moved in with her oldest brother Joe, never having met him. Twenty six years her senior he left Sicily before she was born to open restaurants in the states. Despite being a stranger to this country, she was optimistic. 

John Ricci emigrated to Pittson, Pennsylvania to work in the mines when he was only thirteen years old. After working tirelessly for a few years in dangerous conditions, he moved to Passaic, NJ in search of safer opportunities. He began working for Forstmann Mills, a producer of fabric and materials for jackets and peacoats. At seventeen years old he lied about his age and joined the Army to fight when World War I broke out.  When he returned from the war, John and Rosalia met as they were living in the same tenement house, and two of their siblings happened to be married. It was a small world back then. Mimi's dear Uncle Joe who became a father figure to both of them welcomed my great grandpa into his family and gave his blessing for John to marry my Mimi. 

Together they had a son, born a sturdy fourteen pounds, who tragically passed away shortly after his birth. Fortunately they became pregnant again and Mimi gave birth to my grandma, Rose Marie. She was the center of Mimi's universe. Nana tells me that the adoration was mutual, and each day was special as she beheld the world with wonderment, embracing its abundant gifts. She instilled that outlook in everyone she met, her smile infectious. 

Nana gave me Mimi's marble pastry board and I broke it in making anginetti, Italian Christmas cookies.  

Nana gave me Mimi's marble pastry board and I broke it in making anginetti, Italian Christmas cookies.  

Mimi awoke every morning and put the radio on immediately. She loved music and it played the entire day. Her favorites were the Italian stations and WNEW. The voice of host William B. Williams echoed through the house.

Her longevity, in my opinion, had little to do with what she ate and everything to do with how she ate, surrounded by the people she loved, everything having been prepared with her two humble hands. The pantry was stocked every morning with fresh produce: eggplant, escarole, chicory, tomatoes, swiss chard, artichokes, lentils, and cardune. Assorted fruits and lean proteins too. Good olive oil was required and everything was homemade. Fig cakes, sfingi (pastries), bread, and pasta. She would knead the dough, let it rise, roll it out and cut accordingly. She stretched a bar across two chairs to make a sort of drying rack, where the cut pasta would set. At Christmas there was struffoli, which she assembled in the shape of a tree using cone shaped glass. I'll attempt to make it this year with my Nana.  Mimi used every morsel of food in her kitchen so as not to waste anything, the aroma of garlic or lemons never far.

While learning to drive, Mimi backed up into a pole. She decided driving was unnecessary from that day forward and never drove again; she walked everywhere. She held a job briefly as well. For three days she worked on the conveyor belt at Shilton's, a perfume and powder company. Because she was left-handed, she was assembling the items backwards and was reprimanded. That too was the end of work. She made a home instead.  

Mimi lived for her family and adored her daughter. My Nana performed in the Christmas show in elementary school and Mimi, bursting with pride, invited everyone she knew to see and support her darling daughter. She took Nana on outings near and far. They would board the 74 bus together to Newark, NJ and shop on Broad Street. They also frequented Paterson and Passaic which were at the time epicenters of industry.

On one occasion, Mimi read in the newspaper that the fleet was docked at the Navy Yard. With her daughter in tow, she hopped a train to New York and asked a policeman for directions to see the fleet. Mimi and Nana boarded the USS Enterprise, a massive battle ship, for an afternoon to remember. She had great courage for a woman small in stature. 

She diligently upheld a beauty routine. She moisturized her face and body with olive oil based cream every evening before putting on silk pajamas, always matching. She dressed elegantly each day and wore blush, bright lipstick and perfume. She loved nail polish, especially reds and pinks. Accessories were a critical part of her wardrobe. Consistently worn were gloves, hats, pretty shoes, and costume jewelry. Mimi decided she wanted to purchase a fur coat. Although she had no middle name, she had the initials RLR embroidered into the collar. Rosa Lia Ricci. She reasoned that everyone had a middle name, so why not she?

Mimi spoiled her grandchildren, and thankfully for me, her great grandchildren. My sister and I were very fortunate to have had the blessing of great grandparents. While aging cannot be easy, as your body changes more quickly than your mind, aging is also a great privilege not everyone receives. Mimi was one of the lucky ones. 

She was gracious and generous. A devout patriot, she diligently recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her delicate hand in a salute over her eyebrow, almost daily. Mimi said that the United States gave her life, and filled her mind and heart with possibilities. She learned English within the first year of her arrival because she desperately wanted to belong.  

Into her nineties she still had all her teeth, and never developed any cavities. There were no signs of medical problems or declining health although she reportedly had high blood pressure.  One afternoon I entered my Nana's house to find Mimi in the kitchen, her mouth and face covered in chocolate cake. She told me the cat was hungry, and they split a piece. 

She lived until the ripe old age of 98, after a fall limited her mobility. Every day was a miracle in the making because Mimi chose to make it so, celebrating the simple, nourishing her body and loving others deeply. i try every day to live the way Mimi lived. 

Strawberry Rhubarb

Some may believe Memorial Day marks the beginning of the barbecue season or the first weekend it is warm enough to go to the beach. Admittedly, we indulged during the long weekend. We got together with friends and family, spent time in the sunshine, waded in the lagoon and had too many hot dogs, but more importantly we paid tribute to our troops. Selfless men and women who have sacrificed their own freedom and even lives to ensure people they have never even met might enjoy those very things. It was a weekend laden with emotion and ceremony. My boyfriend James, former active duty United States Marine, shared a tribute with my family on Monday afternoon. He bought an extra six pack of beer. We opened each can, one by one, pouring them over the grass to honor the fallen. He cried which is rare; I cried which is not rare. Everyone cried grateful tears, appreciative tears for lives lost and the lives still entangled in conflicts around the world. 

fruit-pie.jpeg

Someone in the digital sphere had said we can give thanks by living a life worthy of their sacrifice. While I can't save lives in the same way, I can endeavor to make the world a tad more kind, even sweeter. I took to my large pile of magazines and found a Strawberry Rhubarb Pie recipe from the Food Network. I found rhubarb at the market, an ingredient I have never worked with, and I got acquainted with its raw bitterness. I spent hours alone in my kitchen, following every step and assembling my very first pie, entirely from scratch. Berries were washed, butter cubed, and dough kneaded. 

While the dough was chilling we got a great rain and I listened to the calming melody of falling drops on the window sill. I rolled out the crusts and mixed the filling with sugar and the juice of just one lemon. The pie was arranged on a soaked picnic table as the drops made a lovely pattern. 

My crust strips may have been uneven, but the pie was bursting with character. It made me very proud to make something, every component, from start to finish. In to the oven it went, the aroma bewitching. Butter and fruit filled my home. We enjoyed the pie on Memorial Day with fresh whipped cream and touch of vanilla, silently giving thanks to the men and women away from their families. God willing most will return home, but the bitter reality dictates otherwise. May we never forgot them and strive to live lives worthy of their sacrifice. 

Although no sculptured marble should rise to their memory, nor engraved stone bear record of their deeds, yet will their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored.
— Daniel Webster
heavens.jpeg

Scenes from Sunday (3)

Our family makes a habit of getting together in between the major holidays. While we gather and feast on Thanksgiving, at Easter, and Christmas, the months in between require their own kind of celebration. We convene for cold cuts and pizza served on paper plates. No preparation is required; we just show up and break bread.  My late grandfather used to sit at the head of the table, and my grandmother would make him a plate. My grandmother replaced him at the head of the table and my father would make her a plate. Although they have both gone home, together, they're never really that far. We still eat our cold cuts and think of them fondly. 

My grandparents used to store their vehicles in the garage,  as a garage is intended. They took extra special care of all their possessions, likely a product of their humble beginnings. When James and I moved in, we opted to park the cars in the driveway and use the garage for gatherings. A dart board, mismatching chairs, antique bar, hotdog and popcorn machines are the only provisions. With the arrival of spring, the garage is opened and James has been cooking more than usual; his favorite method of preparation is barbecue. We took our dear cold cut night outside and served up an assortment of salads, grilled meats, and vegetables.

Assorted antipasti.

Assorted antipasti.

Charred London Broil drizzled with melted butter and grilled chicken with garlic/olive oil over crostini.

Charred London Broil drizzled with melted butter and grilled chicken with garlic/olive oil over crostini.

Grilled corn.

Grilled corn.

I woke to the smell of smoke as James began his pork ribs and beef brisket at 7am. He had already been to the grocery store to pick up more ingredients by the time I wandered in to the kitchen for a coffee. We cleaned and prepared all day in anticipation for the grand reveal of Nonny and Homer's garage.  First we had antipasti: olives, prosciutto, capicola, artichokes, and provolone. Every half hour thereafter, we had another course. James has an issue with moderation when it comes to mealtime. Grilled chicken with garlic and oil as well as London broil drizzled with melted butter were served on Italian bread, beefsteak style. Few folks outside of New Jersey have such a thing, but we relish in the wonder of grilled meat atop crusty bread. 

He made mussels two ways, first with a traditional marinara and second in white wine, lemon and garlic. Once the slurping subsided and all that remained were shells, we had grilled corn, pulled pork, brisket, and ribs. I can not help but hope Nonny and Homer are smiling affectionately on their little garage filled with family, laughing together and overcome by nostalgia. As the sun went down we had fruit crumbles, apple, pear and blueberry, with ice cream. And cannoli. There were so many leftovers, we got together the day following and did it all over again.    

A blueberry tart with vanilla ice cream. Beautiful sweets like these will be available this June at  2Sweet . 

A blueberry tart with vanilla ice cream. Beautiful sweets like these will be available this June at 2Sweet

And rain will make the flowers grow

Theater buffs among you will know those lyrics are from Les Miserables, and sung during Eponine's heart wrenching last moments. If you could care less about theater, that is certainly fine as well. The message is one of hope and I think it is relevant most days, but especially today, twelve years after many innocent lives were taken from us.

The song is called "A Little Fall of Rain" and as earlier mentioned, it marks the last breathes for a young woman, who led a life far from what she had dreamt. She doesn't receive the affection of the man she adores, as he is madly in love with someone else. He still comes to her side to comfort her before she departs,  and their exchange is so poignant. "If I could heal your wounds with words of love."  If only...

All the while, rain falls. Eponine musters the courage to be brave, speaking of the cathartic nature of the rain, falling upon the Earth and making flowers bloom anew. She is undeniably afraid but continues to find solace in this motif of rain. "This rain will wash away what's past."  I don't necessarily agree that anything painful will ever be completely past us, but I suppose life and all its demands propel us to find the strength to continue. 

I am guilty, and I am sure most of us are, of sometimes focusing my energies on frivolous things I cannot control. Irrational fears about the future, or hell, about the present for that matter. Am I doing enough to build a future I can be proud of? What is my purpose and what does it all mean? Then there is the really insignificant stuff. Does this dress make me look fat or is my hair a hot mess? Why did that random stranger just cut me off and scream obscenities. Ugh, the line at the super market is so very long and I am hungry... The list goes on. It takes a conscious effort to try and quiet these nagging voices in my head. They don't help in any way, if anything they deter from any sort of productive action and motivation to better myself. 

Yet, life is not all daisies and butterflies. Not even close.  We cannot will all the bad things to go away. Periods of loss and sadness we have to face. Broken hearts. Even expectations that are deflated and plans that do not come to fruition deliver a crushing blow.  I don't think everything happens for the best, or else young parents would never abandon their babies all because they went to work on an average, sunny day.  Parents wouldn't bury their children. People would live to old age with the ones they love. Still, I have to believe in a place where we can learn from what hurts us. We cannot bring loved ones back, but maybe they never leave us in the first place if they reside in our heart. 

It is worthwhile and necessary to be brave, and just try. To put our best foot forward, or even just  foot forward, and do what we can, where we are. Life is fragile and we should smell the flowers more often. Breathe in some fresh air. And remember not to curse the rain as it serves its purpose too in this grand, confusing scheme. 

May God watch over the fallen and their families, today and always. As well as anyone who ails in their heart, whatever the reason.