four aunts, an uncle, mom and......
my mom is one of 10 children, born to italian immigrants. she grew up in newark, during the depression. once she married my father and moved to the midwest, she didn't often make it back east to see her family.
one fall about 15 years ago, mom and her sisters arranged a trip to go visit my uncle gerry down in mobile, alabama. i decided to go along. due to distance and other factors, i didn't know my mom's family well and they could be riotous fun. we planned four fun-filled days in mobile.
gerry was the favorite sibling. he had a great sense of humor, cooked better than his sisters (he owned a restaurant in mobile) and could keep the sisters from arguing too much (an amazing feat for one man).
mom and i were the first to arrive and gerry picked us up at the airport. the others arrived a few hours later. gerry made another trip to the airport while mom and i spent time with sylvia (gerry's wife).
dinner that night was my uncle's chicken cacciatore, family stories and wine. i sat back and listened to the family lore......my grandmother's legendary temper, only to be outdown by my grandfather's.
the one story that stands out from that evening was grandpa getting so angry during dinner. now, imagine 12 people sitting at a long dining table, eating spaghetti with red sauce, steak, wine....grandpa gets angry and upends the table, sending children flying back from the table and food flying. seems this was a semi-regular occurance. they must have gone through a great many dishes. however, the tale as told by the aunts was pure hilarity.
after a long time at the dinner table, wine flowing, espresso with anisette finished, every one was pretty much ready for bed. it had been a long day.
the next morning started a 4 day tradition: the sisters arguing over how exactly to make the best pot of coffee. i clearly remember walking out of the bedroom to my aunts marie, kitty, lee, anne and my mom surrounding the coffee maker:
no, no......you need to use cold water.
that's too much coffee for the amount of water!
no it isn't! you want coffee or dark water?
that's not the right coffee filter!
well, it's the only coffee filter they have!
it took them an hour to make the coffee. five adult women who have been taking care of their own families and making coffee for years. they couldn't agree on exactly how to make a lousy pot of coffee. gerry sat and laughed as i begged him to just take over.
geez jerry, it's the only way we're ever going to get a cup of coffee.
ah rose, this is vaudville at it's best. relax and enjoy the show.
he was right....but i wanted my damn cup of coffee. the funny thing was, they went through this every bloody morning! they all seemed to think they knew best. an obvious family trait (inherited by my brother and me).
the other thing my mom's family had a penchant for (besides food, wine and talking) was playing poker. it was a nightly occurance during our visit.
before i continue the poker story, there are two things you must know. my mom didn't smoke....well, unless she had too much to drink and others were smoking, and she can't hold her liquor well. we always tease her........one sniff of the cork and she's already tipsy.
on friday evening, after a dinner of spaghetti with marinara sauce and shrimp, we sat down to play penny ante poker. there was plenty of wine (actually uncle gerry and i had to make a wine run, also picking up cigarettes for my aunt marie and me).
my aunts were sharks at the poker table, as was my uncle. mom and i were the odd men out. neither of us played poker well. my aunts made regular visits to atlantic city, getting in plenty of practice. marie and kitty always did the best....they each had a stash of money from their trips down to a.c. surprisingly, they often left a.c. with more cash then they went with. good poker faces, both of them. another surprise for such an emotive family.
so, we're playing poker, drinking wine, marie and i smoking. as the wine flows, the talk gets louder. i never figured out exactly how my aunts and uncle managed to play cards and speak. none of them can talk without using their hands (another inherited trait....i express myself much better with my hands).
all of a sudden mom turns to me:
rose, let me have a cigarette.
you heard me.....light me a cigarette.
i light a cigarette and pass it to my mom, staring in disbelief. i have a great pic of my mother, cigarette in one hand, glass of wine in the other, smiling at the camera. of course, after that she took a drag and turned a lovely shade of green.....coughing like mad. we teased, so she made herself smoke the whole darn thing. i refused to give her any more that night. needless to say, mom was the loser that night.....i actually did pretty well, finishing with more money than i started, but that evening's real shark was kitty. i think she left the table with 20 bucks. pretty good for a couple hours of penny ante poker.
saturday was "family" day. gerry's daughters were all coming for dinner, bringing their respective families. there would be 17 of us for dinner. i hadn't seen gerry's girls for about 10 years. i couldn't wait to see them again. we were a great deal alike and had many things in common.
the menu: homemade manicotta, stuffed pork roast, fried zucchini, fresh green salad and for dessert, a homemade cheesecake. now, the cheesecake recipe was courtesy of marie. back in the 40's, she'd made a trip into new york city. she stopped in a jewish deli to grab some lunch and ordered a piece of cheesecake. as she tells it, that piece of cheesecake was the best darn cheesecake she'd ever eaten.
my aunt marie was a beautiful woman and a bit of a flirt. she managed to cajole the recipe out of the deli owner. it's been passed along in our family since then. and i'll tell you....it is the best darn cheesecake i've ever had.
in preparation for saturday's meal, friday afternoon was grocery shopping day. gerry took his sisters and me shopping for the needed ingredients. i went along purely for the entertainment value. mom and her sisters did not disappoint. actually it was gerry that added the amusement.
as we went through the store, mom and her sisters each had their own opinions about what ingredients, brands were best. there was a friendly argument in almost every aisle.
we need to use contadina!
parmesean cheese with the riccota!
and on it went..........as we walked through the store, watching the sisiters argue, gerry would (with a smile on his face, laughing and speaking in his southern over jersey accent) apologize for the "girls".
sorry for the noise. i have no idea who these women are. just picked them up along the way to the store.
and one of the girls would turn and correct the story.
what a site that must have been. 5 women arguing over everything that went into the shopping cart, being trailed by gerry and me, laughing at the spectacle.
dinner preparations started that afternoon. they were making the manicotta shells from scratch. that went off without a hitch. it was the next day the friendly arguments started again.
first it was how to flavor the ricotta cheese mixture that would fill the manicotta shells. then it was the cheesecake recipe. the atmosphere was almost carnivale like as the sisters argued, cooked and tasted the fruits of their labors.
dinner was a success though. there was more food then i think i've ever seen in one place. my family doesn't know the meaning of cooking small........the stories flowed as the food disappeared along with the wine. jerry kept us in stitches with stories about his restaurant and teasing us all. we also watched some college football that day......bama playing ole miss. oh the loudness while we all rooted for bama.
that was the last time all the sisters and jerry were together. marie died a couple years later of lung cancer and jerry a couple years after that from prostate cancer.
today, mom and kitty are the only two left out of that family of 10 kids. and mom's facing the darkness of alzheimer's.
i love thinking about that trip. the memories make me laugh, and be very grateful for the time we all had together.