Last Friday, my grandma Lucille would have turned 95 years old. I lost three grandparents in one year, and when I actually stop and reflect on this, I'm overwhelmed by what their loss means in my life.
I've always enjoyed talking with older adults, starting with my grandparents. Now that they're gone, I've become obsessed by the idea that what they've told me over the years hasn't been recorded anywhere. Throughout my life, I've heard some of the same stories over and over again — and yet every now and then, my grandma or grandpa or even one of my parents would shock me with something I'd never heard before. I wonder what percentage of their stories I've actually heard.
One day, I hope to write down the stories of my grandparents in detail, digging into the boxes of photos, letters, diplomas, and other ephemera that my family has saved over the years. In the meantime, I wanted to share a few scraps that have bubbled to the surface lately.
The act of making spaghetti and meatballs, for example, has become about more than just pasta. The picture below aptly represents each of the grandparents I lost in the past year. The recipe came from Grandma (Lucille). The flame-colored dutch oven came from my other grandmother, Patsy. Not featured in the photo is the Andrea Bocelli playlist that I always have on in the background when I cook Italian food. That part would have made my grandfather Ron proud. Not the least bit Italian, but 100 percent opera aficionado.
Grandma Lucille and Grandpa Charles
Grandma and Grandpa (Lou and Charles, to most) left behind many legacies, not the least of which was my father. Thanks to my dad, I am 50 percent Italian, and very proudly so — even though my knowledge of all things Italian begins and ends with New Jersey Italians. I've only been to the homeland several times, but I've visited the New Jersey contingent plenty.
Lucille and Charles were both born and raised in America, with their parents having immigrated from Sicily. They lived in the Garden State their whole lives, near my grandmother's three sisters and their families. Judging on what I knew of them as older ladies, I can only imagine what the four Lecaro sisters were like growing up. They must have been a force to be reckoned with.
Among my Muscato grandparents' legacies was a love of good Italian food. My grandma passed the famous meatball recipe onto my mother before her wedding, worried that no one could feed "her boys" like she could. I think passing down the recipe was, in many ways, her way of letting go of her youngest son (though you could argue it was hard to keep hold of him — we always laugh about how he's squirming out of my grandpa's hands in the photo above).
My mom handed the recipe along to me with no strings attached (I don't think), and I've been making it faithfully ever since. Everyone from college roommates to my husband to our wedding guests (yes, the meatballs made an appearance there!) rave about them. I take no credit; it's an easy recipe, and I follow it dutifully every time.
I think what makes them so good is that the meatballs do most of their cooking in the sauce itself. This is also why you have to start cooking relatively early if you want to eat meatballs that night: The photo shows 4:50 on the clock because you have to cook them for a good hour and a half in the sauce. First, you brown them — sorry, you fry them, per Mario Puzo's critique of The Godfather — very lightly, then scrape them off the pan and plop them into your already-simmering red sauce (or gravy, as my grandma would call it).
Sidenote: You may remember Clemenza cooking tomato sauce ("You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday") in The Godfather. Apparently, when Mario Puzo (author of the book the iconic film series was based on) read the script for this scene, he told director Francis Ford Coppola "Francis. Gangsters don't brown. Gangsters fry." I always think about that now when I make the meatballs.
This side of the family took cooking and eating seriously. Recently, after the funeral of the youngest Lecaro sister, my aunt told me a story (over a meal, of course). She was getting her fortune told by a psychic, hoping to hear something from relatives who had passed on. To her surprise, the only thing he could "retrieve" from beyond was the voice of a woman wondering why she hadn't made the walnut crescent cookies that Christmas. It was the first year my aunt hadn't made them, and my great-aunt wasn't happy about it.
I think something my sister said at my grandmother's wake sums up her life well:
In this day and age, where many of us live apart from our families and find value in the number of friends we have and the exotic vacations we take, it's refreshing to refocus ourselves on what matters most. There's nothing wrong with living in the same state your whole life, or having your best friends be your sisters. When I stop and think about it, I find something very beautiful, almost sacred, in its simplicity.
Tiggy and Pop Pop
Tiggy and Pop Pop, or Patsy and Ron, as they were more formally known, lived in many places, but they never felt too far away. They showed up at our surprise family trip to Disney World, they came to grandparents' day at school. I'll never forget Tiggy sitting with me in math class. It was — and always will be — my worst subject, but on grandparents' day I realized that this was something I shared with Tiggy!
"Give me Poe, or Frost, but this ..." I heard her say as it became clearer that we were not going to win many points in the math game the class was playing.
In addition to a love for American literature, Tiggy passed a love of painting to me. My interest in art history came from Pop Pop, who majored in the subject at college, but the actual act of painting was all Tiggy. I don't think she ever thought herself very good, but I hung up some of her watercolors in my old office and everyone who came by commented on them without fail.
Pop Pop passed on one of the things that would be most formative in my life: my Scottish heritage. Unlike with my Italian heritage, I actually have spent some time in this homeland, having attended the University of St. Andrews for undergrad. I was engrossed in British literature at the time, obsessed with the notion of rolling countrysides, and I knew I couldn't resist a good kilt. But ultimately, it was Tiggy who helped me make the decision to hop the pond. I still remember her sitting at our kitchen table at tea time (the time of day I most associate her with), saying:
"Four years will pass by so quickly, so wouldn't you want to spend it in the most exciting place possible?"
Those years did pass by quickly, and I still think of that small wee country every day. I was always proud to announce that despite my undeniable American-ness, I was of the Clan Fraser. I think it scored me some brownie points with the more skeptical Scots who weren't sure what Americans were doing that side of the pond.
Some days, I have to remind myself that these beautiful souls have gone on because when I hear the old stories, they still feel so close. The stories we cling onto are only a small piece of the person, but I hope that one day I can bring enough of these pieces together to form a cohesive memory for those who never got to meet my grandparents. I think the process may take awhile, but it'll be worth it in the end. Like making meatballs.
Have you ever written a life's legacy? Share tips with me in the comments below!