Take a moment to think about someone in your family who has touched your heart. Maybe you need to change some of your plans and make time to think about your important family stories and traditions. This is a portion of the story, "Italian-American Orchid", from my book, Slices of Life: Italian-American Stories.
Sometimes we have the pleasure of meeting a person who touches our heart or who opens up our minds about the important things in life. I remember talking to one of my closest friends, Linda Martino. I asked her, "Do you think your mom would want to talk to me about her special memories so that I can include it in my book?" Linda said, "Of course she would love to talk to you about her traditions and memories."
One chilly, autumn afternoon, I sat on my front porch and adored the gold, scarlet, and tangerine colored foliage which surrounded the lake near my house. I still remember the sound of the autumn breeze and the scent of the lemon cake that was baking in the oven that day. A few moments later, I began to talk to Linda's mom, Elizabeth. Sunday is my favorite day of the week, so my heart was warmed when I heard about how Elizabeth spent her Sunday afternoons.
Elizabeth told me that her mother, Lena, placed 10 pounds of flour, 24 eggs and about five pounds of sugar on the table next to the anisette and red wine. She would make a ‘well’ or hole in the center of the flour to place the eggs and the sugar. Her mother was making a traditional cookie called Crispie (pronounced crispay). Her mom would make the dough and roll each piece of dough into the shape of a small wreath with a hole in the center. Elizabeth futher explained that her mom would cut brown paper bags and place the bags on the counter. After deep frying each cookie she would lay them on brown paper bags to drain. Although Elizabeth has tried to make the cookies, they never come out the way her mom made them.
Stop and think about some of the things that your mom, aunt or grandmother has made for you and how it made you smile. Have you taken some time out of your busy schedule to cook or bake? I am sure you have a ton of family recipes or traditional foods to share with your family. It's not just about cooking and baking, but it is about filling your home with the scent of food which triggers the special memories. It is also about keeping your family together and keeping the traditions alive. Just think of all the special memories that are attached to those recipe cards!
Elizabeth said that her father, Francesco, made homemade wine and vinegar. Let's face it, there is nothing better than homemade wine and vinegar in the cantina. (basement). A dad always does something special in the cantina or he has some other type of special talent that is often remembered, especially dads who know how to fix everything or who are simply protective of their family.
Elizabeth's heart opened up even more when she told me about New Year's Eve at her parents house. The sound of champagne bottles popping and noise makers entered my mind as I spoke with Elizabeth about New Year’s Eve. She said that one of the traditions that is engraved in her mind is the New Year’s Eve Benedizione (benediction), or blessing. Each child in Elizabeth’s family, from oldest to youngest, kneeled on the living room floor. They kissed their father’s and mother’s hand and then kissed each cheek. The parents then would give Elizabeth and all of the children in the family a special blessing for the New Year. Elizabeth said, "The blessing was for each child to be blessed with a good life.” This memory had a profound affect on Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was able to bring me into her living room as I traveled with her in my mind. I envisioned her dimly lit living room as her mother sat on her favorite chair while wearing her fancy apron. Elizabeth’s mother loved saying the rosary and was often in prayer as she got older. Elizabeth remembered peeking into the living room and watching her mother say the rosary.
Back then, dating was completely different than modern times. Elizabeth’s father, Francesco, was like an investigative reporter when Elizabeth introduced a man named Pat. When Pat arrived at the house, within a few minutes, Elizabeth's father wanted to know about Pat’s family, his background, where he worked, who his friends were, and he wanted to know all about Pat's future plans. Back then, although Elizabeth's father had approved of Pat, he had to leave his car keys in the house. Elizabeth's father said that she was not allowed to go into Pat's car for any reason.n Pat earned bonus points with Elizabeth's parents because he called them "mom" and "pop", was respectful and worked long hours at a grocery store. Also, they liked Pat's gentle ways and good manners.
Her parents knew that Pat did not seem like the type of man who would take advantage of a woman. Elizabeth's dad reminded her that it was important for her to marry a good man and that she did not do anything to disgrace the family. That is how it was back then.
Pat joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. He was asked to join the FBI, but he turned it down because he wanted to settle down and marry Elizabeth. He did not want to wait four years to marry her.
As Elizabeth continued to tell me about her memories, the scent of flowers and orchids filled the room. Elizabeth told me about the hot and humid night of Aug. 30, 1957, which was the night before Elizabeth and Pat’s wedding.
Elizabeth’s mother placed orchids and fresh greenery on the stairwell inside of their house. Hundreds of people were sitting on her front steps on Catherine Street and filled the house. Pat had asked people that he knew to serenade Elizabeth under her window. Pat stood under the window, but he could not sing. It was much easier for Pat to hire someone who knew how to sing. Everyone from the close-knit Italian community was at the serenade that night. The heart piercing words of Jerry Vale’s songs echoed up and down Catherine Street. Everyone gathered on their front steps and walked in and out of their house eating pastries and drinking liquore. Elizabeth mentioned that her mom lined up the bottles of liquore and the pastry trays as the men serenaded Elizabeth. The table was clad with more orchids and a purple bow. The men who were serenading her sang songs from the Temptations and Jerry Vale. They were married the next day.
Elizabeth took her handkerchief and cried as she left home to go on her honeymoon. Her father looked at her and said in Italian, “Thank you for closing the banner of honor in my family.”
This was the Calabrese way of saying, “Thank you for marrying a good man, and for not bringing disgrace into the family.” These words of joy and comfort healed Elizabeth’s heart as she and Pat went to a romantic cabin in the Catskills for their honeymoon.
Elizabeth and Pat were married for 54 years. They had moved to Hamden, Conn., for a few years while Pat worked for GE in Connecticut. Pat and Elizabeth eventually moved from Hamden to the outskirts of Philadelphia, Penn.
“What would you tell your own daughter?” I asked Elizabeth.
Elizabeth said, “Above all, be a good person and I hope your future is as bright as mine was. I had old fashioned parents but I would not trade them for anyone else in the world.”
Elizabeth Martino passed away just a few weeks ago. As a writer, I was blessed to write her story, but as a person, I am honored to have met her, especially since I learned a valuable lesson from Elizabeth. She will always be in her family's heart as well as mine.