Touched by an Angel: a New Jersey Memory

Touched by an Angel: a New Jersey Memory

Blame it on the local Italian place Chris and I went to the other night. Blame it on the old scribblings from my journal that I've been digging up and writing about. Blame it on the approaching Christmas season, and the holiday decorations I've been meaning to unearth from the attic. 

But I keep coming back to a particular moment in time. 

The place was Glendale Pizzeria. It's a small, family-owned Italian restaurant in Union, New Jersey, right near where my grandparents lived, but for some reason, we didn't discover it until after Grandpa died. Once we found it, we fell for it hard. It was our place. 

The time was a few years back — I can't even remember what year it would've been. But it was definitely around Christmas time. We took Grandma there for dinner one night when we were up visiting for Christmas. The place was lightly decorated for the season. 

Even though the restaurant’s one waiter couldn’t give Grandma “her special seat,” he was nice about it and still acted like she was somebody worth giving a special seat to. The staff are always kind there. I remember the other family sitting at Grandma's usual table. The dad wore a denim jacket and jeans, and the family didn't look up from their pizzas the whole meal. I imagine we were much less quiet. 

At the table the waiter chose for us was an angel that rotated its head slowly from side to side and held one of those vintage electric candles. I'm not sure if the rotating head was meant to look like the angel was singing, but the result was definitely a little creepy. It wore a yellowed dress with lace on it that looked at least 10 Christmases old. Once Grandma saw the angel, she forgot all about the change in seating. She wanted to take it home with her. “They won’t need it the rest of the year!” she assured the waiter. Again, he was very kind and respectful. But no angel. 

And then the scene ends. I'm sure I ordered my usual “chicken a la Nina” — a glorious dish featuring a generous helping of mozzarella-encrusted chicken AND eggplant laying atop a bed of linguine, covered in a rosy looking "pink sauce" — but I don't remember. 

 Me at Glendale's, with my chicken a la Nina

Me at Glendale's, with my chicken a la Nina

All I know is that little snippet in time encapsulates so much of Grandma, of her personality, her interests; and so much of my perception of New Jersey growing up. 

Grandma filled her life with plastic angels and other Precious Moments-type knickknacks that had meaning to her, even if they were just dollar store trinkets. Even though I laugh at the memory of her suggesting that she take the angel home with her for the remaining 11 months out of the year, I have filled my own home with Grandma's mementos (a few favorites below). She was loathe to part with anything, as we learned when we tried to hold a garage sale for her one year. I'm pretty sure she talked every potential customer out of buying whatever it was they were looking at. 

"You don't want those shoes," she said to one woman who dared try a pair on without using the disposable socks provided. 

Garage sale customers aside, however, Grandma truly liked people, and the Glendale's memory reminds me of that. She always chatted with servers and asked their names. My uncle tells a story of how she once cheered up a table of sullen police officers out to lunch by telling them sternly that she hoped they had a nice day, because "we need you out there." This tiny Italian woman could talk to anyone, and she did. This caused us some embarrassment growing up, but now I see it as a strength of hers. 

Plastic and Old Lace

My perceptions of New Jersey are unfairly biased, as I still see it through the eyes of my younger self, tired from the 4-hour car trips that these visits entailed. For a while, I assumed New Jersey was only made up of old people, since it's where my Grandma and Grandpa and great-aunts and uncles lived. The strip malls always seemed like they were behind on the latest coat of paint, and even their names seemed a decade behind. In Maryland, we had "Made by You," a place where you could paint your own ceramic teacup and give it to your mom as a present. The New Jersey equivalent of this, our cousin once informed us, was "Plaster Funhouse." 

This somewhat dated vibe was reinforced with family, who gave us Barbies with the best of intentions, even though we'd outgrown them years before, or lacy camisoles that they made us open at the dinner table to our mortal shame. Those visits were all filtered through sepia tones, and they still are when I think back to Grandma and Grandpa's home and the things we treasured in it. The comforting, musty smell of the attic, which housed the same old toys we played with every visit. A grandkid-size table and chair set. Pilled yellow couches with 70’s-style florals all over them. A rotting rocking horse in the corner of the garden, behind the shed. Plastic garden statues that we would run and look for as soon as we arrived at the house, wondering if they had moved since the last time (they never did). Nothing ever changed, and that's just how we liked it. 

Back to Glendale's

When I journal, I like to home in on a specific person, place or thing, as this helps me focus my thoughts. I'm often surprised by all the details that start to surface once I delve into a particular memory.

This snapshot, for instance, was a simple thing — a plastic angel, a Christmas decoration. And yet for me, it evokes a particular place, and people. It makes me feel like a kid again, safely shielded from the world with two generations of grown-ups sitting in front of me at the dinner table.

The older I got, I think I appreciated the New Jersey visits more, though they came with more responsibility. I joined my dad on a trip to scope out senior living options for Grandma, and more and more, we went up for funerals and the corresponding repast (also known as an "after pass"). Often, we would stop at Glendale’s. Now that the Union contingent of the family are all gone, I'm not sure I'll be back to Glendale’s any time soon. I hate even typing that. 

 My grandma and me on one of these visits, circa 2015. I love the look on her face. 

My grandma and me on one of these visits, circa 2015. I love the look on her face. 

Postscript

In planning the catering for our wedding, Chris and I threw around the idea of Italian. We loved the idea of a pasta bar, but it kind of sounded like a logistical nightmare. I wondered what a traditional Italian caterer would be like. I called Glendale’s to see if they would cater a Maryland wedding. I wasn’t surprised to learn that they couldn’t, as they’re a small, family-run operation whose idea of catering is hosting the local Little League team party (in New Jersey, that’s saying something). They seemed surprised by the request, but were very characteristically kind in their refusal. 

Instead, we asked our caterers if they could make and serve meatballs using my Grandma’s recipe. I think Grandma would have been proud with the result. I think she would have been even more proud of the fact that I called Glendale's with my request. "It's not that far to drive," she would have assured them. "And it's the least you could do, since I'll be looking after this angel for you."