The relationship between caffé and the city of Naples can only be called love. La tazzulella di caffé is the way Neapolitans welcome the day,...
Mothers are wonder people ... all of them. Of course, almost everyone thinks that their own mother is the best, which is as it should be. Mothers are special people who nurtured us from the moment of conception.
I miss my mother . . . a lot. I’m pushing eighty, and I still miss her. . . more so on Mother’s Day. There are times when I think about the funny, every-day anecdotes which were part of my life growing up: They were the dynamics in which my mother played a central role and which still remain in my heart and mind as precious, indelible memories.
To this day, I picture her in the kitchen holding that wooden spoon she used to stir tomato sauce or pasta. She was always cooking something. Often, when I came in the house after playing, there was an aroma of good things to eat. It was like a warm embrace which set the salivary glands working overtime. I would have known I was home, even if I were blindfolded.
And the wooden spoon she wielded was not only used to stir pots. It served as a peace-keeping instrument. In many ways it was like a magic wand, because it had the power to make us behave.
Often when I came home to that welcoming aroma of pasta sauce, I was compelled to grab the Italian bread and break off a piece from the end. You know the piece I’m talking about? It’s the pointy end which everybody likes. Well, I would break off the end of the bread and dip it in the sauce. God, that was so good! I almost get tears in my eyes just thinking about it.
But I wasn’t the only one. All my brothers did it whenever they could get away with it. The trick was to get home first because the first to dip the bread alerted my mother that the other four boys were close at hand.
Anyway, when I dipped the bread in the sauce, I had to act fast, because I knew that any second my mother would appear with the magic wand ready to enforce the law. It wasn’t anything to worry about, because she was a loving person and she never really hit us with it. The spoon just kind of made contact with us on the arm and this she did just to let us know that she was in command.
She was the best at making polpette (meat balls). Nobody could make polpette like my mother. She also madebraciola di Maiale, a stuffed roll of pork, which the old timers pronounced as bru-shah-loh-nee or brah-jyohl. However it was pronounced, my mother’s braciola had no equal. And long before pizza became a popular fast-food item, my mother made a Sicilian thick-crust pizza. She would cut me a large slice of pizza and send me outside to eat it. Where we lived in Brooklyn, there were some non-Italians. Some of my friends asked what I was eating and I said, “Pizza. What’s the matter, you never heard of pizza?” Actually, they hadn’t. It’s hard to believe that at one time, in the USA, pizza was practically unknown, but it’s true.
It’s difficult to talk about my mother without including Saint Anthony. On the dresser in my parents’ bedroom, there was a statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child. Next to Saint Anthony was a statue of the Blessed Mother. I was just a little guy when I first noticed them. I was so small, in fact, that I would have to drag a chair across the room and climb up to get a better look. And when I did, I said, “It’s nice of her to let him hold the Kid for a while.” I was not being sacrilegious, but simply expressing my thoughts in words I used as a child.
My mother had faith. She believed that Saint Anthony could help you locate anything that was lost or misplaced. I didn’t: at least not at first. As far as I was concerned, Saint Anthony was simply the statue on my mother’s dresser. But as I grew older I began to appreciate the saint.
There was the time when I could not find my keys. My mother suggested, “Pray to Saint Anthony.”
I said, “Ma, Saint Anthony is not going to do anything for me.”
Again she said, “Pray to Saint Anthony.”
Of course I responded with, “That’s not going to help me, Ma.”
Then again like a broken record, “Pray to Saint Anthony.”
I was becoming very frustrated. “Okay, Ma,” I said, “If it will make you happy, I’ll pray to Saint Anthony.” So I looked up and said to the ceiling in mocking fashion, “Oh, Saint Anthony, please help me find my ...” and before I could finish my prayer, there they were, right under my nose.
My mother didn’t say anything. She just smiled, but it was a smile that said, “I told you so.” Why shouldn’t she smile? She was right and she proved it.
Every once in a while my mother would remind me that when I was born, she paid ten dollars for me. That was seventy-nine years ago in the middle of the Great Depression. I was born at Bellevue Hospital, located on First Avenue and Twenty-Third Street in New York City. From its inception, Bellevue was open to patients of all backgrounds irrespective of their ability to pay. And that’s where we came in because, when I was born, we were dirt poor. Jobs and money were practically non-existent.
So Mom would say, “I paid ten dollars for you.” And I would say, “Okay Ma, you keep reminding me of that. Did you want me to give you back the ten dollars?”
And she would say, “No.” Timing was everything. When you thought she was finished she would say, “Besides, ten dollars of long ago is worth more today.”
And I’d say, “That’s good Ma. You don’t know how good it makes me feel, knowing that I’m worth more than ten bucks.”
And there I was walking away, foolishly believing that I had had the last word. I should have known better because the sound of her voice once again filled the air, “Don’t forget the interest.”
But of all the memories of my mother, I think what I love best are her lessons on Saint Anthony. Very recently, I happened to be in a restaurant. Two waitresses were busy looking for a check which had somehow disappeared and they seemed very upset. I suggested they pray to Saint Anthony. One of them, obviously void of humor, turned to me and said, “I don’t believe in that stuff.”
I said, “Okay, I’ll pray to Saint Anthony for you.” Before we left the restaurant, she had found the check.
I just smiled at her. You know, it was the kind of smile my mother would have delivered.