Nana’s Altar

I promised I’d tell about Nana’s altar. Well, here goes.

Our house on Keap Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a four-story brownstone. Nana, Uncle Steve, Mother, Daddy, Jeffrey and I lived on the first two floors. Aunt Liz, Uncle Johnny, cousins Valarie, Steve and Jodi lived on the top two floors. Aunt Liz is my mother’s sister-Nana’s second daughter. Uncle Steve is Nana’s youngest son.

Growing up with my cousins was the best of times. We were together every day. We walked to and from school together, played together after school, and when our parents would go out, we stayed upstairs while Nana and Uncle Steve watched us. It was always the five of us. They were more like siblings than cousins. I still feel that way.

Nana and I shared a bed going back as far as I can remember; which is four years old. The bedrooms were on the second floor. Jeffrey had the middle room and Uncle Stevie had the front bedroom. Nana’s bedroom was huge! There were two closets, two windows that went from the ceiling down to about three-feet off the floor. She had big, dark-stained mahogeny furniture. I remember the tall chest of drawers and the vanity with the big mirror. Her clothes line was hooked to the frame outside of the left window. And then there was the fireplace, which she didn’t use. I think Papa Joe, my grandfather may have closed it up years ago. So, Nana made that her altar for her religious statues.

Nana was a devout Catholic. She went to church for mass every day, never missing a service. Back then the masses were said in Latin. She walked everywhere and in all kinds of weather. Through the years, she accumulated a collection of religious statues, some small and some more than two-feet tall and made out of plaster. Jesus, Mary (the Blessed Mother), St. Theresa, St. Anthony, St. Lucy; she had quite a collection!

Every morning Nana woke up before everyone and knelt before her altar and said her prayers. Any Catholic would know what I mean when I say she said the rosary every day. Rosary beads are beads to say prayers on. They are broken up into a series of prayers; the “Lord’s Prayer”, followed by the “Hail Mary”. Nana performed this devotional every morning when she woke up, and then repeated it every night just before she went to bed.

Every night Nana would come upstairs to our bedroom and light her candles, then she would kneel before her altar and pray. The light from the candles cast strange and big shadows on the walls. At four years old, they were unnerving. I was afraid of the shadows, and I wouldn’t go to sleep until she came in the bed. I remember telling her that I was afraid of them. She told me not to be afraid, because Jesus, Mary and all of the saints were watching over me at night to make sure I was safe. I have to admit, it did comfort me to know that I had all of this protection at night!

I remember when Nana would get into the bed, I’d snuggle up next to her and she say, “Your feet are cold”! Then she’d rub her feet against mine to warm them up, and I’d fall asleep knowing that Nana was next to me and all of the saints were watching over us.

I slept in the same bed with Nana until I was about 13 years old. When we left Brooklyn in 1969, and moved to Brentwood, Long Island we shared the same room again; but this time we had twin-beds. Mother wouldn’t let her take all of her statues, so she brought only the ones that weren’t plaster and less than two-feet tall. I think she may have donated her bigger ones to the church.

I slept in the same room with my grandmother. Jeffrey had the small room at the back of the house. Mother and Daddy had the front bedroom to the right of the stairs and Uncle Steve had the front bedroom above the garage. I slept in Nana’s room until I was 15 years old when Uncle Steve moved out in 1971 and then I took his room.

By the beginning of 1972, Mother and Daddy were back in St. Thomas. Jeffrey had just graduated from high school and moved to St. Thomas as well. Uncle Steve was living in Queens and it was just me and Nana in the house. Every day I’d come home from school and tell Nana about my day.  We’d eat dinner together, watch TV together; sometimes I’d rest my head on her lap while we were watching TV and she’d stroke my hair.

Suddenly, and without warning, I started to change. I turned 16 year old, and all I wanted by that time was to be an adult. I wanted to graduate and move on to the next phase of my life. I have to admit, I wasn’t the model grand-daughter then. I was trying her patience. Nana tried so hard to make me stop, but I wouldn’t listen. I pushed myself so hard, I graduated as a junior. I was so anxious to grow up and be on my own, I didn’t realize then how wonderfully secure it was.

I lived with my grandmother until I was 19, then I got my own apartment. I was working full-time during the day and going to college at night. I went back to the house every Monday and Wednesday before my night classes at the college to have dinner with Nana. Every Saturday I took her food shopping and sometimes to see her brother; my great-uncle John and his wife, my great-aunt Fanny.

Although I was out on my own, Nana remained the most important person in my life and we still looked forward to spending time with each other.

How I wish I could go back in time and relive those years. If I could, I wouldn’t be so anxious to grow up and move out. I’d stay and maybe even move back in Nana’s room. I’d watch the shadows of the saints on the wall and listen to her saying her rosary and feel safe again. Oh, how I wish.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

I returned to Georgia yesterday from Nana’s funeral in New York. I drove for more than 12 hours by myself and it gave me time to cry, reflect and remember. The drive up Thursday to Camden, New Jersey took 14 hours followed by another 8 hours Friday to Hauppauge, Long Island where the funeral was to be held. Here’s the crazy thing, I drove 823 miles from Georgia to New Jersey in 14 hours and then it took Andrew and me 8 hours to drive another 123 miles! Do the math.There was a terrible rainstorm on Friday and all of the roads were flooded. All I wanted, all I needed was to get there to see Nana one last time, and this storm was standing in my way.

As I was driving alone both ways, I was flooded with so many wonderful memories and images of my years with Nana. The message is clear; the blog must continue as a way to honor her and all that she was, and all that she meant to her loved ones.

My brother Jeffrey, who died December 6, 2009 factors in this blog as well, as he is a very big part of these memories. Jeffrey was the ringleader. All of the adventures Val, Steve, Jodi and I had are because of him. Guest appearances will be made by my cousins, aunts and uncles along with assorted friends. I’m not promising the memories will be in chronological order. They’ll be told as they “swirl around” in my head. Whichever one comes to the forefront, will be told.

Today I’m remembering Nana and school. She was always interested to know what I learned in school and was genuinely interested in all that I told her. One memory that is pushing its way to the forefront centers on a spelling bee when I was in the 6th grade. When we lived in Brooklyn we attended Transfiguration Catholic School on Hooper Street. The “we” were Jeffrey, me, and cousins Val, Steve and Jodi. Jodi was the youngest and in first grade.

Each morning we’d walk to school with our friends who lived on our block; Paul, Lori, Cathy, Lupe, Frankie and Stevie. We were our own posse in our Catholic School uniforms!

As I mentioned before, I participated in a 6th grade spelling bee. I studied for days and was more than ready. I was one of the best spellers in my grade and was sure I’d win. The spelling bee progressed until it came down to me and a boy from one of the other 6th grade rooms. The word was “recognize”. It was my turn. The nun, Sister Margaret said “reco-nize”. So, I spelled the word she said; r-e-c-o-n-i-z-e. Wrong! Then the boy spelled it correctly and won. I was mortified! How could this happen? I was confused. I was so upset, I started to cry. I don’t remember what he won. I do however, remember what I won as a second-place prize. It was a plastic statue of Jesus and I put it in my book bag.

After school I went home, and still stinging from my horrific loss, I told Nana that I lost the spelling bee. Her words were not only comforting, but encouraging. She said in her beautiful, thick Italian accent; “No you worry about it, baby. You’re a smart girl, you’ll win next time”. Then I showed her my second-place prize. Her face lit up and she hugged
me and told me it was beautiful. She put it on her mantle; actually her altar (that’s another story) in her bedroom.

That statue is still around. It’s in her bedroom in St. Thomas. She kept it all of these years! I remember seeing it when I was visiting in April. I gave a cheap plastic statue of Jesus to my grandmother who treasured it some 45 years! So, in actuality, I was the winner that day and still am. For 55 years I was the recipient of unconditional love and boundless support from the most amazing woman ever put on this earth. As my cousin Steve said, when it came to family and close friends, Nana was the most loyal person, ever! I am so thankful for her.

Nana often made her own home-made pretzels. They were made without yeast. Here is a recipe for yeast-less pretzels similar to Nana’s. What can I say; some kids came home from school to cookies and milk; I came home to her home-made pretzels!  Enjoy.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups flour, all-purpose
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
2/3 cup milk
1 large egg beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

Directions
Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl; add margarine and mix until it resembles
coarse meal.
Add milk, stirring until dry ingredients are just moistened.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead about 12 times.
Divide dough in half and roll each half into a 12×8-inch rectangle.
Cut dough lengthwise into eight 1-inch strips.
Twist each into a pretzel shape; brush with beaten egg.
Place on lightly greased baking sheets and bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool pretzels for a few minutes on wire racks.
Makes about 16 soft pretzels.

Coming Home

Nana’s coming home. Tomorrow a cargo plane will bring the vessel (her body) that contained her spirit back to New York, and on Saturday we place it in the ground.

I had a dream about Nana last night. I could see Nana so clearly, and she looked the
way she did when she was in her 50’s. Funny; a few months passed before I dreamt of my brother Jeffrey after he died, and it was a week after my dad died when I dreamt of him.  But I dreamt of Nana a day after her death. Maybe since Nana was 101, we kind of expected it would happen sooner than later. With my dad and my brother’s passing it wasn’t expected.

I dreamt that Nana was sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her cup of coffee. This time it was the table on Clarke Street in Brentwood rather than the one in Brooklyn.  My mother brought over her cup. Nana excitedly picked up the cup and was about to take a sip when she stopped. She put the cup down on the table and turned to look at my mother with a disappointed look on her face. She said to my mother, “What’s this, why’d you give me only half-a-cup?”

My mother replied, “Drink it, that’s all you get.” To which Nana said, “I don’t have to
worry about nothing no more. I want a full cup.” I woke up and looked at the clock to see what time it was and I looked around the room; not sure if I was in my bed or at the house on Clarke Street. The dream was so real.

So, since Nana is now enjoying a full cup of coffee in Heaven; I think I should post a cookie recipe to go along with that cup of coffee.

Nana waiting for her cup of coffee

Nana at Aunt Liz’ table waiting for her cup of coffee

And now, for your enjoyment; Nana’s wine cookies.

Ingredients:
1 cup oil
1 cup dark red wine
2 cups of flour
1 egg
Cinnamon
Oil for deep frying
12 oz. Honey

Directions:
Combine all ingredients and roll into long round strips.
Cut the strips into 1 inch sections
Heat oil in a deep pot
Drop the cut wine cookies into hot oil and fry
until they rise to the top.
Heat the honey in a separate pot to warm enough so it’s not thick
Pour the warm honey over the cooked wine cakes
Sprinkle with candy nonpareils

Sad Day

My beautiful grandmother died today, September 18, 2011.

Just yesterday I posted a memory and a recipe.  I hadn’t posted anything in a month, yet I felt an urge to post something yesterday. Last night after speaking to my mother, I turned to Randy and said that I had a bad feeling about Nana.

And now she’s gone. Yes, she lived to be 101 years old. How remarkable! Although logically I knew it was a matter of time, emotionally I wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

Although I’m now forced to say goodbye to her earthly form, I’ll never say goodbye to all of the wonderful memories I have.

I started this blog as a way to honor her through memories and the recipes she taught me. It was started while she was still alive, and now it will continue as a way to honor her memory.  I’ll make sure to post more frequently a memory and/or a recipe of my beloved grandmother.

Anyone who has a memory of Nana and wishes to have it posted, please send it to me. I will post it.

And now, buona sera mi bella Nonna. Ti Amo.

Eggplant Parmigiana

Some people call it Eggplant Parmesano – not so for Italians. It’s Par-mee-gee-ah-no! With the accent over the “ah”!

Nana made the most delicious eggplant parmigiano. Watching and learning was most special. She put so much love into everything she made, especially this dish.

When we lived in Brooklyn, I would accompany Nana on her food-shopping trips. We’d start out around ten o’clock in the morning with an empty shopping wagon; you know, the old collapsible kind that was common in every household.

Nana would lead the way from our house on Keap Street to Grand Street to begin her quest for the freshest ground beef, the most perfect panella bread and the tastiest Cannoli. We’d start at Key Food for all of her canned-goods. Next we’d move over to the Salumeria; the Italian meat store where she’d pick out the best ground beef,
pork and veal for her meatballs, sausage, etc., for her special Sunday
gravy. She’d also buy all of the cold-cuts; salami, proscuitto, provolone cheese and cappicola for sandwiches.

From there, it was a quick run across the street to the pasta store where all of the best pasta from Italy could be found. A stop in the pizzeria for lunch, and then on to the bread store for fresh semolina bread, and then rounding it off at the Pasticerria for cannoli, sfogiatelle and other assorted pastries.

Jeffrey and I were supposed to take turns shopping with Nana, but he’d be off with his friends and I’d end up going. After a few Saturday’s in a row of going shopping with Nana, she’d buy me spumoni as a treat for helping her. After a while, I stopped fussing with Jeffrey and went shopping with Nana because I knew I would get spumoni. I never told him about it.

We’d load each and every bag into the shopping wagon; Nana carrying two bags and me pulling the wagon. Nana could out-walk the fastest marathon walker in those days and she’d leave me in her dust as we made our way back to the house with our treasures.

Once we unloaded all of the groceries, it was time to head back out to go to Myrtle Avenue to buy fruit and vegetables. She selected only the best grapes, apples and
bananas. The eggplant had to be firm; not too fat (we don’t want too many seeds in it) and the flesh had to be the darkest purple. We’d go to visit my great-aunts and uncles and of course, my great-grandparents. Next, she’d make a quick stop at St. Lucy’s church on Kent Avenue for confession. I don’t know what sins Nana would have to confess, but that was her in a nutshell. Even the most minor thing, like losing her patience would make her feel guilty and she’d confess her “sin” to the priest.

Once she completed her mission we’d head back home. By this time, it was now five-o’clock and the day was done. The next morning was Sunday, and Nana would start assembling her masterpiece we called Sunday dinner.

For your cooking pleasure: Nana’s Eggplant Parmigiano!

Ingredients:
2 firm eggplants; skinned and sliced thin (about 1/2-1”)
1 lb. fresh mozzarella grated
2 lbs. ricotta
1/2 cup grated Locatelli-Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano
mixed (Nana always mixed the two)
Fresh basil chopped
1/2 cup Italian style breadcrumbs
2 eggs lightly beaten
2 additional eggs
1/4 cup flour
Italian seasonings to taste (parsley, oregano, basil, etc.)
1-2 cups gravy (tomato sauce)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying

Assembly:
Preheat oven to 350º
Heat olive oil in skillet
Dredge the eggplant in the flour, then
dip in the beaten egg, then in the breadcrumbs
Place in skillet and lightly fry on each
side for about a minute or until golden brown
Place on a pan lined with brown paper to
absorb the oil
In a large mixing bowl mix together the
mozzarella, ricotta and Locatelli-Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Add in two beaten eggs, Italian seasonings.
Mix well

Lay the cooled eggplant in a 9×12 baking pan.
Pour two tablespoons of tomato sauce over the eggplant.
Drop one or two tablespoons of the cheese mix on top.
Place another eggplant slice on top of that.
Continue until you have about 3 or four stacks.
Pour tomato sauce over the top and sprinkle
some grated mozzarella cheese on top of the sauce.

Bake 20-30 minutes – or until all of the cheese melts.

Serve with warm Italian bread and a nice side salad