Time Flies

I went to St. Thomas on October 16th to spend a week with my mother. Her birthday was October 18th, and although I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy birthday for her I still wanted to be there to honor her. The hardest part about Mother’s birthday was the fact that it was one month to the day that Nana died. My goodness, how time flies!

I started to think about all of the people in my family who’ve died and how many years have passed since then. Papa Joe, 41 years; Daddy, 21 years; Uncle Johnny, 11 years; Jeffrey will be 2 years this coming December 6th and now Nana.

You know how you can remember where you were when JFK, RFK and MLK were assassinated, or where you were on 911? Well, I clearly remember those events, and I also remember where I was and how it felt to hear the news when each of my beloved family members died. I was there when my dad died; holding his hand as he tookhis last breath. I remember it like it was yesterday. Each event plays in my memory like some kind of old movie. The missing them part hasn’t abated; in fact, I miss them more now than before.

The anniversary of my dad’s death is coming up on November 9th and memories of him are beginning to flood my memory banks. This happens to me every year. I remember how he read the New York Times every day and could do the NY Times puzzle in ink without making any mistakes. How he loved classical music and would move his hand back and forth to the music, almost like he was conducting the orchestra. I remember how he and I shared a love of reading and would share our books so we could discuss them with together. I especially remember how he absolutely hated chicken. Every time a whole roasted chicken was put on the table for him to carve he’d mutter under his breath, “disgusting dirty bird”.

I remember when we first moved to St. Thomas, Mother and Daddy worked at Sebastian’s restaurant on the waterfront, which they eventually owned. Every Saturday, Jeffrey and I carried this huge bag of laundry the seven city-long blocks to the Westinghouse Laundromat near Palm Passage to do the laundry. We didn’t have a washer and dryer at our apartment, and since my parents were working, that was one of our chores. We’d stuff as much laundry into the washing machines as we could fit so we wouldn’t have to use all the quarters Mother gave us.

While the laundry was being washed, Jeffrey and I would explore around town and use the extra quarters to get ice cream or some treat. We were only allowed to put the sheets and towels in the dryer; the rest had to be hung up to dry. So there we were; two Brooklyn kids, not much taller than the kitchen table carrying this heavy sack loaded with wet laundry back to our aparment. Jeffrey was in front and I brought up the rear. We looked like two of Santa’s misfit elves with this big sack. I’d bet dollars to donuts it weighed more than the two of us put together!

Everyone on the island knew us, and when they’d spot us walking with the sack they would point and laugh, and in their thick Calypso accent would say, “Eh, Eh! There go the Black children, carrying their sack. Me-son, that sack be bigger than dem”!

We’d get home and hang up the wet clothes, and put the dry sheets and towels away and straighten up the apartment. Daddy would sometimes get home before Mother and would talk to us.

I remember one particular Saturday, Daddy came home early. It was around carnival time and Jeffrey had a bamboo cane that he’d gotten from one of the carnival vendors. Daddy noticed the cane and proceeded to tell us about how he used to dance the “soft-shoe” with a straw hat and a cane when he was in college. He then proceeded to dance for us. He was a very good dancer, my mom would attest to that. My dad 34 years old at the time. He was six-feet tall, skinny, graceful and bore a resemblance to Henry Fonda. In movie “On Golden Pond” Henry Fonda wears this fishing hat with hooks on it. My dad had one like it without the hooks. Whenever Daddy wore that hat, I saw Henry Fonda and vice-versa.

That Saturday is burned into my memory banks and I remember it like it was yesterday. Forty-eight years later, and that image is a clear as if it happened yesterday!  I really enjoyed his dancing and he danced some more. That was the first time my dad ever told us about his youth and his college days. It was just a small glimpse into who he really was. I wanted to know more about his youth and over time he did tell me a lot of things.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of my becoming not daddy’s little girl, but daddy’s little pal. He introduced me to Mozart, and I introduced him to Neil Diamond. He even liked the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”! He fueled my passion for reading by introducing me to the works of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Shakespeare. I got him to re-read Poe and Capote. My favorite section of the Sunday New York Times was the Book Review, and I would tell him about new books that were just published. We’d both get excited when the reviewer liked it. I’d even go out to the backyard and toss the football or play catch with him. But it was our mutual love of reading helped me to forge a bond with him. It was the love of books and reading that helped me to understand why I felt so different from my other family members.

A couple of years after Daddy died, I was watching an old Fred Astaire movie entitled “Top Hat”. Fred was dancing the “soft-shoe” while wearing a tuxedo and top hat. I was completely engrossed in the movie. As I was watching, Fred suddenly disappeared and there in his place was my dad. He literally moved out of the TV screen and was dancing right in front of me. That image wasn’t of the 62 year old man who suffered and died from throat cancer; it was the image of a 34 years young man who was graceful, skinny and handsome! It was the man who danced the “soft-shoe” for us that Saturday afternoon in our apartment in St. Thomas.

Me and Dad-1981

This upcoming anniversary; like the others before it will not be a happy one because it reminds me of what my children and I lost 21 years ago; time with this wonderful man. I have missed him so much all of these years because I’ve had no one to discuss books with. This anniversary brings to the fore-front bitter-sweet memories of a laid-back, quiet, intelligent, gentle and complex man who loved his family, good music, good books, the New York Times newspaper and crossword puzzle, who looked like Henry Fonda and danced the “soft-shoe”.

Fred Astaire-Top Hat

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Lead Sinkers

As I’ve mentioned many times before, Nana taught me how to cook. My mother, however, never had an interest in cooking and avoided it like the plague.

In the summer of ’63, my mother and dad moved to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and in October sent for Jeffrey and me. Uncle Johnny took us to the airport and put us on a plane to Puerto Rico, where my parents were waiting for us. We spent a couple of days in Condado and then hopped on a little propeller “puddle jumper” over to St. Thomas. Initially, we stayed at Miller Manor, which was up the hill from St. Peter and Paul Catholic School and Cathedral. After a short time, we then moved to an apartment on Norre Gade (pronounced gah-dah), which was eight or nine blocks away.

So now we were living on an island paradise. Mother and Daddy worked all day and didn’t come home until about six o’clock. Jeffrey and I were released from school at two-thirty, so we had a good three hours to explore before we had to be in the house and have our home-work completed before our parents got home.

Shortly after we moved to the apartment on Norre Gade, Uncle Steve was released from his stint in the Army and moved in with us. That means we were going to have
some fun with Uncle Steve again! Oh Joy!!

Since my mother didn’t cook, she’d leave easy recipes for me to follow, and Jeffrey and I would have dinner ready by the time everyone got home. One weekend however, my mother got it in her head to make ravioli. Back then you couldn’t buy ricotta or mozzarella cheese on the island, so she had the idea to make meat ravioli. She tried to make the dough herself and fried the ground beef in a pan to fill the dough. Uncle Steve was very skeptical about this project and teased her the whole time.

As you may know, when you cook ravioli in a pot of water, they’re supposed to rise to the top. Well, that didn’t happen to Mother’s ravioli. They sank to the bottom of the pot and stayed there. Uncle Steve called them lead sinkers. He took one of them out of the pot and threw it against the wall to see if it would stick; it did! Mother got so upset, but since she hadn’t thought of anything else to eat, we had to eat them for dinner.

Daddy said they were “God-awful” (his favorite expression), and left the table. Uncle Steve did the same, as did my mother. Jeffrey and I were left at the table to eat. We weren’t allowed to leave the table until we’d eaten our dinner. Poor Jeffrey; he was born a vegetarian; he wouldn’t eat meat from the time he was a baby. He’d get so sick every time he ate meat. Back then I wasn’t too keen on vegetables, so I was in the same
predicament as Jeffrey.

After that fiasco, my mother never tried to make ravioli again. I, on the other-hand learned how to make them from Nana. Every year for New Year’s Eve, the whole family (aunts, uncles and cousins) got together for New Year’s Eve dinner and Nana made enough ravioli to feed an army! She made them early in the morning, and placed white linen tablecloths and towels on every flat surface she could find so the ravioli could dry before cooking. The whole downstairs looked like a hospital for ravioli!

We cousins sat at the children’s table, while all of the adults sat at the big table. One year, my cousins Joe and Steve had a ravioli eating contest and Joe won. He ate 20 of them! We were suitably impressed.

And now, Nana’s Ravioli!

Ingredients:
For the Dough:
1 cup of flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon of olive oil
Pinch of salt

For the Filling:
1 lb. fresh mozzarella grated
2 lbs. ricotta
1/2 cup grated Locatelli-Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano mixed
2 eggs, beaten
Fresh basil chopped (about 1/2 cup)
Italianseasonings to taste (parsley, oregano, basil, etc.)

Fill a 10 or 12 quart pot with water and place on medium heat to boil

Assembly:
Place flour on flour board (or on counter) and make a well in the center
In the center of the well, add beaten eggs, oil and salt
Slowly pull flour into the center until all of the dough is mixed
Knead until dough is elastic

Cover with a linen towel and let it rest for about half-an-hour

While the dough is resting, in a large mixing bowl, mix together all of the ingredients
for the filling
Once that’s done, it’s time to roll out the dough to make the ravioli

Roll dough with a rolling pin to about 1/8” thickness
Spoon a row of cheese (1 tablespoon) mixtureon the dough, spacing about five inches apart
Fold dough over to cover the cheese mixture
With a small glass, cut the ravioli (they’ll look like little pillows)
* Some people like to use a pastry wheel and make square ones- that’s your option
Using a fork, press down around the edges to seal
Dust ravioli with flour

Let the ravioli rest again for about 10 minutes before dropping in a pot of boiling water

Once the water is boiling, gently drop ravioli in the pot and let cook about 5 minutes
* Don’t put too many ravioli in the pot, otherwise they’ll stick together and won’t rise to the top

Using a large slotted spoon gently scoop out the ravioli and place on dinner plates, spoon on some marinara sauce and sprinkle on some grated romano orparmesano cheese

Enjoy~

Make Mine Marinara!

Nana made the most delicious gravy, also known as marinara sauce! It was her base for all of her Italian cooking. During Lent when we couldn’t eat meat on Wednesday or Friday, Nana would make fish. Sometimes she made her delicious gravy (marinara sauce) and we had spaghetti with garlic bread.

Sunday just wasn’t Sunday without it. It’s one of the first recipes I learned from her and one of my favorites. Nana would get up before everyone and go to early mass, this way she could start her pot of gravy and make the meatballs, roll the bragioli and fry the sausage.

I remember one time; I was about six years old and in the first grade at Transfiguration. I had long red hair, and sometimes Nana would give me hot oil treatments; but not with the kind of oil you’d get from a salon! Nana used olive oil! That’s right, I not only had olive oil coursing through my veins, but it was on my scalp as well! I had the base of a salad right on my head!

Anyway, this one Sunday Jeffrey and I were watching Wonderama with Sonny Fox. It was a children’s show; like Howdy Doody and Sonny was the emcee. He’d play Simon Says with the kids on the show and also introduce the cartoons.

This one Sunday, Jeffrey suggested that my bangs needed to be cut and he offered to do it for me. I of course, agreed. He cut my bangs crooked and then we tried to cover it up by putting a towel on my head. Nana found it out, and in her Italian accent told us  that “it’s-a no nice” and we should be ashamed of ourselves. My mother wasn’t too happy with us either and she gave us more than a tongue lashing.

I had a picture of me in my school uniform with my crooked bangs, but I’m not sure where it is now. It may be packed away with all of my old pictures. I can still see me clearly in mymind’s eye with my crooked red bangs!

That afternoon at 1:00, we all sat down in the kitchen to Nana’s delicious Sunday meal.

And now, Marinara!

Ingredients:
1 large 15 oz. can tomato puree
1 large 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 small 6 oz. can tomato paste
3 cloves garlic minced or 3 tablespoons of garlic powder
1/4 cup fresh chopped basil
1/4 cup oregano
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano or locatelli-romano cheese (I
personally use both and more)
Add more to your taste; these are just estimates (I cook by sight)Optional:
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sugar to cut the acid
Directions:
Pour 2 tbsp olive oil into a 10 quart sauce pan and place on the stove over medium
heat. Allow the oil to heat for a minute.Add the garlic & lightly sauté.
Add 1 can of puree (careful, it may splatter!)
Add 1 can of crushed tomatoes.
Add 1 can of water (from one of the large cans)
Add 1can of paste
Add the basil and the bay leaves and oregano.
Stir.

Add the grated cheese.
Simmer on low flame, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking to the bottom of
the pot.
Add meatballs, sausage, and bragioli; whatever you like

* * I then add a 1/4 cup of red wine to the sauce; it’s not necessary, but it’s what Nana
used to do.

Let it simmer on low about 3 hours.

REMEMBER: You can add more cheese, garlic and oregano to taste

 

Questo e’ Mio Fratello Jeffrey (This is my brother Jeffrey)

Jeffrey was born August 30, 1953 in Brooklyn, NY. He died too young on December 6, 2009 at 56 years old. I have so many memories of him that need to be told as well. Jeffrey was my best friend, my confidant, my partner in crime and my only sibling. I miss him more than words can express.

He was the cousin ring-leader. I mentioned in a prior post that we cousins were always together. Anything Jeff suggested to do, we agreed to without question. Whether it was taking a ride on the trains, or getting falafels at the Jewish pizza place (what an oxymoron!) on Lee Avenue, we knew we’d always have an adventure with him. He was our Pied Piper! The getting punished part when we got home was well worth it for the fun and laughter we had together.

From the time he was a youngster, Jeff knew all of the train lines in New York and all of the stops on each line. When we’d ride the trains with him, he would call out the stops before the conductor did. It was amazing! We knew we would never get lost with him. He loved riding the trains so much, I was sure he was going to grow up to be a train conductor. Traveling was his passion, and it was only fitting that the last 10 years of his life were spent working in a travel agency. It was a job he loved and he was so good at
it. I always admired him for the fact that if he wanted go somewhere; he did it and worried about how to pay for it later. He backpacked through Europe so many times; he knew it like the back of his hand. He had the courage to just go.

One of our (all of us cousins) favorite games to play when we were growing up on Keap Street in Brooklyn was “rush hour”, also called “subway”; a game Jeffrey made up. Figures; it was a train-game! He’d close the door at the bottom of the steps so it would be dark like in the subway. These wooden steps were narrow; only two of us could sit together, and there was a wall on either side of the steps. We’d start at the top of the steps, sitting and rocking from side to side like we were on a train. Then Jeffrey would stand up from the back. He’d call out a train stop, and start to climb over us – “pardon me” “excuse me”, until he’d climbed over all of us to the next step. Then the next cousin would do it, and the next, and the next until all eight of us made it to the bottom step. And then we’d push the door open and all fall out on top of each other; laughing the whole time! Then we’d get up, close the door, run to the top of the stairs and start all
over again! We’d play this game for hours!

Even as teenagers, we did a lot of things together. Yes, we sometimes fought. Like the time when I was 14 and he was 16; he took my gray pull-over sweater and wore it to school. I got mad at him because it had a “boy” smell on it. So I got even; I took his black turtle neck and wore it. And he got mad at me because I put “bumps” on it and stretched it out. It was a petty argument that upset Nana. Anytime Jeffrey and I would start to argue, she’d get upset and tell us in her thick Italian accent “You should-a be-a shame-a yourself. Fighting like-a cats and-a dogs”! Then we’d look at each other, laugh and make up.

I’ll never forget how excited Jeffrey was when Joseph and Andrew were born. Jeffrey and Valarie are Joseph’s godparents, and Jodi and Steve are Andrew’s. It wasn’t done consciously, but I chose the right godparents for each of my boys. Their personalities match my sons’ perfectly.

The boys didn’t want for anything thanks to Uncle Jeffrey! He showered them with lots of gifts, not only on special occasions. He was so proud of them; showing their pictures to all of his friends and telling anyone who’d listen how smart they were!

In July of ’99, Mother and I went to Europe and they stayed with their Uncle Jeffrey for 2 weeks. He took them all over his beloved Manhattan; up to the top of the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers (aka World Trade Center), to the Chelsea Piers, to Chinatown and Little Italy. New York was their oyster with their uncle. He gave his nephews memories to last a lifetime.

Nana taught us well. Leading by example, she taught us to be kind, caring and considerate individuals. Jeffrey was the most generous, kind and caring person you’d ever want to know. He’d give you the shirt off his back if he saw you needed it more than him. Jeffrey was a good man with a heart of gold. I am so proud of him and the life he led. He was a hard working and honest man, and I am honored to be his sister.

Like Nana, Jeffrey also was a terrific cook. From all of his years working in restaurants, he’d acquired some amazing culinary skills! Along with his Pesto Sauce, one of his best recipes was Puttanesca Sauce. I never asked him for his recipe, but I have one that I found years ago. It’s pretty good; not as good as Jeffrey’s, but good nonetheless.

So, in honor of my brother Jeffrey, I give you Puttanesca Sauce; a recipe from Nana’s hometown of Naples, Italy

Andrew, Jeffrey and Joseph

        Andrew, Jeffrey and Joseph-2008

Ingredients:
¼ cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1-1 oz can of anchovies – drained and sliced
5 or 6 ripe plum tomatoes chopped with seeds removed
¼ cup black olives (drained and rinsed)
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley-chopped
5 or 6 fresh basil leaves – chopped
2-3 tablespoons capers (make sure you drain and rinse them)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 lb. Pasta (spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, etc.)

In a 10 qt pot – fill with water and heat on high until the water starts to boil.

In the meantime, in a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic, stirring until the garlic is golden brown.

Slowly add the red pepper flakes and then the sliced anchovies. When the anchovies look like they’re melting, add the chopped tomatoes and stir it all together.

Next add the tomato paste, capers and olives, lowering the heat to let it simmer.

Once the water starts to boil, add the pasta; stirring to make sure the pasta doesn’t stick, about 8-10 minutes.

Once the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the sauce.

Add the parsley and basil and cook for a few more minutes, making sure all of the pasta is mixed.

Serve with warm Italian bread