My Italian Grandmother– A Key to Me


If you assign alpha-numeric values to each letter in the word “blog,” you come up with the number 36… add 3 and 6 and you get 9…  and “I” is the ninth letter of the alphabet. And blogs are about “me,” aren’t they? 

 In our house, we’re obsessed with genetics and patterning and how and why we do things; “that’s so Norwegian of you” I’ll tell Kirk when the dishwasher overflows and he assesses the situation impassively while I holler and blame the world and all its ills. “That’s so Italian of YOU,” he’ll respond after I’ve pointed out his Nordicness. While we’re both aware that we’re regarding our reactions stereotypically, we both know that stereotypes are based in fact. 

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.


I personally am aware that much of my behavior has been copied / patterned / inherited from my maternal grandmother, Giorgia. There are some things I do that have doubtlessly come to be part of me because I saw her doing them, and liked what I saw; other things were either genetic or behaviorally imprinted… who can say? I’d have to stay in a clinic long enough for scientists to poke and prod and examine me, but who has that kind of time these days? I’ll just have to come to my own conclusions, and so here are the things she passed down to me… 

Gardening— She would take cuttings from rose bushes, stick them in the ground, and soon we would have more rose bushes than ever. So many times I’d come home from school to see her rear end facing the street as she knelt in the soil, her knees wrapped in old rags. The shame! In the front yard was an arbor that stretched over the garden gate and all Summer and Fall it was covered with dark pink blooms. My bedroom window overlooked this paradise and, if I had had any imagination back then, I would have pretended that I was someone in a Bronte novel surveying my domain before settling into my carriage, heading to The High Street, and causing Anglo mayhem. Did this impress me? I think so; as an adult, I do have a way with orchids, group-2-02-04-09and can keep the yards here at the house looking swell so long as I have the time and energy. (Kirk has a deep knowledge of tropicals and palms, which helps, and he is able to grow just about anything from seed.) And here are some orchids, blooming as of February 7th. 




Two projects, 95 years apart.


Giorgia's Bedspread, c.1913

Giorgia's bedspread, crocheted c.1913


String– She could do amazing things with string; I’d watch her flash metal rods and twist colorful balls of yarn and thread into intricate patterns that ended up as bedspreads, blankets, dolls’ dresses, doilies, and cunning toilet paper covers. I’d make her slow down so that I could see exactly what was going on, and until she was compelled to show me how it was done. Days that I was home sick from school with asthma– there were many– found me in bed wrestling with her hooks and yarn as she patiently taught me what she had learned. One day she told me that the crocheted bedspread she used was something she’d made when she was about 14 years old– and that would have been in around 1913, because she was born in 1899. I have it now, as well as a recently-discovered affinity for needlework. The pictures show my grandmother’s crocheted 1913 bedspread, and my latest piece of “string art;” it’s 20 x 13 inches, and the bedspread is 8 x 7 feet– 56 square feet of tiny, crocheted string. The  second picture shows part of the bedspread alone; amazing. She slept with that for probably eighty-three years, almost up to the day she died. 

Elitism. I can be a snob, albeit theatrically and for effect, but never really to put anybody down. If tradesmen appear at the front door, I gently but firmly direct them to the back , where a little plaque that says “Servants’ Entrance” directs them to wait with their eggs and bread and milk. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s easy for me to indulge in these flights of superior fancy, and I blame my grandmother. When I was very little, I pretended that I had a pair of butlers standing by my bed, making sure I fell safely to sleep; their names were Jonathan and Sebastian. My grandmother never had butlers, but manufactured her own little snobbish rite of passage. She and her husband married in 1920 in Italy, and came over here on the Dante Alighieri. I once asked her to describe their immigrant experience: the thousands of souls coopped up in steerage… the watery soup… the rolling hull… the endless vomiting… the humiliation of Ellis Island!  “What do you think?” she chastised. “We came over Second Class, and we took the boat to Boston, not Ellis Island with all those people. I had a fur coat!” I believed every word, until just a few years ago when I looked up her passage on the manifest for that ship– it’s all online, and there they were– Second Class, yes, but they went through Ellis Island just like everybody else. She may have been wearing a fur coat, but the health officials probably chalked a big “L” on it to signify “Liar.” And her brand of spoken Italian, as she reminded me many times, was the best. She was from Tuscany, born in a tiny village in the hills above Lucca, and so she spoke a particularly beautiful Italian– just like they teach in college courses, but with a slightly softer accent. “We speak Italian like Dante wrote,” she’d say. “No dialect.”  She basically looked down on people who came from Southern Italy– Neapolitans and Sicilians– because their Italian wasn’t “up to par.” And that included my father’s family, who were Neapolitans and spoke a dialect. How she listened askance to them! “Those people” was how she she would refer to them, though she was always very nice when she had them over the house and put on the dog.  It reminds me how my dear friend John and I refer to certain people as DNOC… “definitely not our class.” 





 Ravioli. This dish is something that every Italian woman, at birth, was contracted to learn how to make– all except for my mother, who could never compete with the Tuscan Presence upstairs. My grandmother’s ravioli recipe was incredible, especially to a child– me– who would never eat anything that might contain hidden tastes, colors, and textures. It was all hand-made: everything from the dough to the filling was created right there on her red formica kitchen table with the silvery deco trim. I watched her do it all– I was amazed at the little hill of flour and eggs that became sticky pasta which magically turned into floury, pizza-sized circles. The ingredients for filling were fed into a grinder: meats and vegetables and spices, all measured by hand and feel, were transformed into a wonderful spinachy paste that would be placed at intervals on the sheets of dough. Another sheet was placed on top, and then she used the rim of a drinking glass to press the dough over the dollops of filling. Those circular ravioli would then be sealed by “forking” them shut around the edges. Hundreds would be made; so they could dry before cooking, she covered all the beds with linen sheets, sprinked them heavily with flour, and then lined up the ravioli in rows. By the time we got home from Mass, they were firm enough to be placed in boiling water. Her tomato sauce was unmatched– not for her the thick pastes that come out of jars, that Protestants then add sugar to. Scandalosa! Her sauce was light and herbal, with little meat and lots of olive oil– it clung to the ravioli without smothering it. I have a recipe that she got my mother to write down. It begins, in her Italian hand,  “finally your mother has managed to write down the recipe for you from me.” I haven’t yet tried to make them, but I’m growing the herbs that go into the mix. Thanks to the recent lousy cold weather here in Florida– don’t get me started!!– I need to plant some restarts; though the tomatoes survived well, the spinach is gone, and this morning a squirrel tore up my borage. But I’ll get there… 

manhattan-cocktail Manhattans. No matter what the occasion– a Christening, an anniversary, a post-funeral lunch– Giorgia would disappear into her apartment and then reappear with a cocktail shaker filled with Manhattans. It was very old, that shaker; the screw-on stopper had been lost for years, so she substituted a wad of aluminum foil which also turned into an heirloom. Like a life raft, that shaker saved many a Christmas morning… down she would come from upstairs, her slippers clopping on the squeaking stairs. The youngest of us at the time would take the Baby Jesus from its hiding place under the sink and place Him in the tiny manger, and then the Manhattans would be poured. Well-oiled, we would then be able to watch The March of the Wooden Soldiers before sitting down to an enormous meal. Giorgia used a less-strong recipe in making what they call a Perfect Manhattan: equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth, and dry vermouth. When I was set loose and started ordeing Manhattans in bars and restaurants, they provided the most common standard recipe– two parts whisky to one part sweet vermouth, which is what I tell inexperienced bartenders when they ask me how to make them. (Yes, it happens.) One of my most treasured Manhattan memories has Giorgia visiting us in Florida when she was close to ninety. A bunch of our friends came to meet her, and she mixed Manhattans for everyone, rendering us cross-eyed and hopelessly looped. “I’m gonna go inside and watch Falcona Cresta,” she then said as we sat there chortling helplessly. Those Manhattans appeared everywhere, even at the base of the Statue of Liberty when a batallion of grandchildren, two mothers, and two grandmothers paid a visit to the park. While Giorgia and her paisana Maria remained at sea level, we all trooped up to the Lady’s head; we came back down to find them laughing happily in the sun, a flask of cocktails sitting in full view on the picnic table in front of them.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. She loved nothing better than to cook for her friends and family; she never mentioned her ills (she had a bad heart); and she treated her grandchildren like gold. As a babysitter, she was matchless: while she watched black and white Italian movies on the television, we were free to explore and snoop. Everyone thought she was perfect and, if she wasn’t, we didn’t know it. This woman dragged her charges to the New York World’s Fair numerous times (she loved the Mormon pavillion), to Coney Island after a bus trip that seemed to involve fifteen transfers, and on Christmas week shopping trips to downtown Brooklyn. (“Look,” she said once on the bus. “That Puerto Rican lady doesn’t shave her legs but she’s wearing stockings.”) As an adult, I was able to take her to Sea World here in Orlando; after a very long day, I asked her “so what did you think?”  “Ehh… it’s all fish,” she replied.  And she was always there for me, with her advice and warnings: “If I hear you’re taking drugs when you go to high school, I’ll kill you.”  I hope I learn to handle life with her generosity and Tuscan equanimity as I age, though I seem to favor my emotional Neapolitan grandmother in that respect. We’ll see; I’ve still got thirty or forty years left to figure it all out.  


Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.

Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.

15 responses

  1. Oh Jim, this was absolutely beautiful. It made me laugh out loud and cry. I hope you publish a huge book of your stories and Oprah has the damned good sense to tell the world about them. Reading them will make us all a good bit more human.

  2. OMG! That picture of you with the mustache is hysterical! And could those jeans be ANY TIGHTER?

    Love the spread she crocheted. Never had her ravioli (I don’t think) but LOVED her pizza. Yum.

  3. I’ve always loved the stories about your grandmother, and having met her and her friends on lots of occasions, I can say that they’re all true and the best subjects you’ve ever written about. She was so beautiful in that first photo, Jimmy. And when I saw the shot of her at the 1939 World’s Fair, it made me remember that my mother sang with her classmates at the Italian Pavilion at the same fair. What a nice world you grew up in.

  4. Sadly, I no longer have the opportunity to fork my mother’s wonderful ravioli. For me, a first generation American with one manhattan-drinking parent from the north of Italy and one from the south, so much of this resonates. Thanks for all of it. Keep writing, please.

    P.S. My mother about Rome: ” That’s where the south begins.”

  5. Oh,Jim–this is beautiful. and Italian grandmas are not so different from southern ones like my Granny T (except substitute an Old Fashioned for the Manhattans). Love it. She’s fabulous.

  6. That was Fabulous! I still have a pillow Zia Georgia crotched a cover for, I think since 1988 My wedding shower..I can still remember too the sound of her voice alittle higher then most ladies and so soft..Oh, and Yes I have heard many many times how their Italian language is the CORRECT one!! LOL and I tell people that today too!..I Believe we are so fortunate to have learned so much from our Grandparents/Parents who were born In Italy. I still sometimes make homemade rav’s too! and Not with cheese filling, like most americans eat, but with that faboulous meat filling that every eats right from the bowl! Keep writing I love these stories!

  7. After having used a lot of different size beds along with a number of of people in the family,a fewthings worth considering whengetting sheets and comforters is to 1. check the darn size! 2. Get something that you can stick in the washer machine so not having to go to the dry cleaner. 3. Do spend a bit extra to get better quality. You spend a lot of time in bed, and it should feel good, plus it adds up when you have to purchase new sheets and comforters all the time.

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