Last week, I took a walk to Boston’s North End with a colleague. As he pointed out his cousins’ home and talked about growing up Italian, I recalled my own growing up at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Just as the North End was a safe place for young boys to play stick ball in the streets—watched over by grandfathers with cigars sitting on steps—our community was guarded by women with knitting needles rocking on their porches. If we ventured too far from the neighborhood, Grandma would receive a call about her wandering grandchildren: “I bambini vagano.”
A visit to the North End is always nostalgic. With my sister, we visit shops that brought memories to our parents, memories that they treasured.Then we would reminisce about our mother as a young girl. Lois gathered a pictorial history in a leather album of black photograph pages. Looking through it again on a balmy fall day we came across photos of our Mother’s beach parties with her coworkers from the telephone company. Grandma called those events “a time.”
Some 14 years ago Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson at the University of Minnesota pointed out the emergence of the memoir as a distinct field of study. Researchers have also pointed to the value of memoir writing as therapy for individuals.
Grandma often talked about those gatherings. She said the girls would create “a time” to take her mind off her worries about the boys at war. “And what did I do all day?" she both pouted and smiled. "I cooked for them all.”
Technically “a time” was a term associated with a significant event. When our Mother talked about creating “a time” at the Water House, she said they would find any possible excuse: letters from fiancés, a promotion for one of the women, or just an impromptu, "Let's make Momma happy day."
Italian American heritage in the North End
Perhaps the best description of “a time” is portrayed by Ed Iannuccilli of Ed Writes in his book, “What Ever Happened to Sunday Dinner and Other Stories."
In Boston, people can find many descriptions of "a time" and stories about their Italian heritage at the newly opened I AM Books, the first American Italian Bookstore in the Country.
And for the full flavor of Italian community life, the North End Waterfront Newsletter is a gift of love from editor and photographer Matt Conti. Today we saw that Ben Affleck will be filming “Live By Night” scenes in the North End next week. A good excuse for "a time."
Our Mother's Party Time
The Water House was a perfect place to gather because its front lawn stretched to the beach. And there was never a need for a rain date. With a wrap-around porch and the entry foyer of window seats, 30 to 40 people could comfortably party and enjoy Grandma’s cooking.
Grandma liked to reminisce saying, “I would make my fried pizzelles, pour fresh-cooked tomato sauce over them and then add shredded mozzarella. You should see how those girls gobbled them up. And my stuffed artichokes—they couldn’t get their fill.”
Apparently these were just snacks. No gathering would be complete without Grandma’s fried sausage and peppers, homemade ravioli, and eggplant Parmesan. I can just hear her say, “Mangia. Mangia. This will put some meat on your bones.”
Then, as she did with us always, after heaping seconds of ravioli onto our plates, she would remind us: “Save some room. Papa will be home soon with the Italian pastry.”
As we learned from our aunts, Grandma liked to say to her partying daughters, their girlfriends, and a few men who did not make it into the Army: “Until Papa gets here with the cannolis—Mangia. It will take your mind off your worries. And trust the good God to bring our boys home. Then you just wait and see what a time we will have here.”
As we look through the albums of black, white, and sepia photos, it is more than just a remembrance, it is embracing family history.
And research has shown that couples who share memories and plan events to treasure oftentimes find that they are generating new bonds between themselves. Through re-living memories of grandparents and parents, shared meals and friendship, we create a new cycle of reverence, respect, and gratitude.
For our parents, it was always "a time." Even at their 69 years of marriage celebration, they relived memories and danced to the tune: "As Time Goes By."
(The Fiorentina Pear and a Bridal Bag is at www.ritawatson.com)
Copyright 2015 Rita Watson
Reading Autobiography – A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives / U of Minnesota Press, 2001
The Personal Memoir - Purdue Online Writing Lab / Purdue University
The Walking Story Book: A Talk With Dr. Linda Joy Myers, Mark Matousek / Psychology Today