Thursday, October 30, 2014

Italian Bread Slathered in Red Gravy

“When I was in my country, I was like this,” Beppa cupped one hand atop the other like a cage for a small bird. “When I come from the other side, I was like this,” and she opened her hands. I could see the imaginary bird leaping from her upturned palms. And then she reached into the low hanging branches above and picked one ripe fig for me, and one ripe fig for herself.

Beppa and me before Confirmation
“Beppa” is an Italian, female derivative of Josephine. Our Beppa’s name at birth was Guiseppa Ragolino. In America, she became Josephine Pratico. In our family legacy, the memories of our “Beppa” live on through Italian food and a fig tree.

Beppa left Italy for America on a steamship in 1927. In her mid-twenties, Beppa said goodbye to her parents, a sister, the family farm, a region still limping from the 1908 earthquake, and a country licking its wounds from World War I. She could not know this at the time, but Beppa would see her father and sister only once throughout the rest of her long, loving life.

While Beppa’s memories travelled with her across the sea, our memories of Beppa continue to travel across time through our stories. We tell stories because we can no longer ask her questions. So, as a family, we share the stories so that we can know her better and begin to understand her joy and tenderness, her kindness and toughness, just a little bit deeper.

My aunt Joanne writes, “Could you believe this small, Italian woman who had nothing could leave such an impression on all of our lives?”  We miss her like so many others in our family tree. Over the aroma of fresh, green basil and warm Italian bread slathered with red gravy, I wish everyone in our family could sit side by side again. I wish I could ask Beppa questions and pass my aunts, uncles, and grandparents her heavy plates of homemade raviolis, melting like butter by the forkful. I wish I could see the traces of soft, white flour on her apron again, and the bits of kneaded, fresh dough left behind on a wooden rolling pin. I would memorize her smile.

Because Beppa never learned to drive, and never owned a car, she walked to church and the vegetable stand. Trolleys clattered and trundled her off to work. My cousin, Marybeth, remembers Beppa walking home from the trolley--holding a black handbag close to herself--the white and blue uniform--the apron and cap that she wore every day until retiring at 65. In spite of living almost another 40 years after retirement--another lifetime for some-- Beppa’s lifetime never seems long enough.

Beppa & Gregorio
Born three years after her retirement, I knew Beppa as a grandmotherly figure surrounded by simmering red gravy, crusty Italian bread, and sweet, warm apple pies. She spoke broken English between steady streams of Italian--but when I stole fried meatballs from her kitchen--meatballs frying in oil--meatballs she turned over to brown and crisp with bare fingers--Beppa’s English fell swift and precise upon her little thief, “Hey! get the hell out of my kitchen!”

Used to doing goodness for others, Beppa growled and complained in Italian when the family threw a surprise party for her 80th birthday. But she overcame her Italian blood, and even allowed a tear of appreciation to well-up on her lashes. For once, she didn’t have to cook.

Each New Year’s Day, family and friends streamed through her kitchen. We followed the scent of homemade pizzas--the baked and charred crusts--the sweet, piney, and warm basil--the gooey, fresh mozzarella--and ladles of red tomato gravy spooned into the center of the shell and swirled in red concentric circles towards the edges of the crust. It was only day of the year I ever remember her making pizza. Cut into geometric shapes with a pair of red scissors, it disappeared faster than Beppa could bake them--the oven worked all day.

Some afternoons I found Beppa resting alone in a reclining chair by the front window. While the easy guess is that she watched people passing through the neighborhood, I imagine the farm girl noticed the bristling pigeons on the overhead wires or learned to trace time by the way long, black shadows crept across the red brick neighborhood.

Surviving a long fall down a fight of hardwood stairs in her mid-80s,  Beppa walked away with a set of stitches in her soft, white hair and the early hints of dementia creeping into her life. For example, Beppa would eat and drink coffee all morning if family did not monitor her breakfast. Beppa would forget that she already had a cup of coffee and a piece of rye toast as she prepared breakfast a second time, and then a third time. When my aunt discovered that Beppa had eaten a half a loaf of rye bread one morning, Beppa shrugged and smiled--so cute and innocent.

For as long as I knew her, Beppa did not pay her own bills. My aunt, who lived next door, helped Beppa manage everything. Because Beppa's primary language remained Italian, my aunt read bills and letters written in English, and checked out books in Italian from the public library. Ever since Beppa first came to America, my family tried to teach her English.

Aunt Connie would say, “Beppa, say ‘one.’

And Beppa replied, “Say one.”

Another time, my aunt asked Beppa to show her how to make fried dough like the old Italians. My aunt laid all of the ingredients on the kitchen table: flour, eggs, oil, cold water, and powdered sugar. She scrubbed her hands with hot, soapy water, dried them on a clean towel, and said, “Ok, I’m ready.”
Beppa and one of her sons, my Uncle Carmen

Beppa said, “First, get a big pot and put it on a chair.”

Pulling a pot from a cabinet, my aunt paused, “Why put it on a chair?”

Beppa said, “Because I’m short.”

Although Beppa needed more help as the years passed, she cooked three meals a day well into her 90s. The black knobs on her stove no longer showed numbers or lines as the markings had been worn away with use. That oven produced decades of hearty peasant food to fill our plates: creamy pasta fagioli (beans and pasta); green beans and potatoes coated in red gravy; and bowls of buttery shellfish and garlic. Dinners came with a cold salad of tomato, red onion, vinegar, and oil. She dipped crusty bread into the salad, into her red gravy, into her morning coffee. Softening the food made chewing easier.

Today, in several yards behind several family homes across several states several fig trees grow. All of the trees are family. They sprang from cuttings from the original fig tree that grew in the back corner of Beppa’s yard. That initial fig tree did not grow on its own. Fig trees are not native to Philadephia. Beppa and Gregorio planted the cutting they kept alive for thirty days on a steamship--a tree suspended in metal cups of water to keep its roots soft --a tree they took turns holding open above deck to drink in the sun--a tree that survived the journey from Beppa’s family farm in Calabria, Italy--a tree that has carried her memories across the sea--a tree that carries her memories across time.