Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding Eggs and Shelling Beans

I was eight and my brother was four when we were introduced to our grandparents.  It was the first summer of many we spent in the mountainous region of Southern Lazio, Italy where our father is from.  It was a long, stuffy journey for us but the air got progressively cleaner and thinner as we got closer to our destination.  By the last fifteen minutes of the journey, we were riding in a car circling higher and higher up mountains.  Birds were our traveling companions.  My father became more animated as what looked like a birthmark on the mountain grew to be recognized as a cluster of stone residences that was his town.  A far cry from Yonkers.

My father had told me that my grandparents kept chickens, picked fruit off of trees and harvested olives with the help of their neighbors from their own olive groves.  My fourth grade textbook education translated that to 'They live on a farm.'  Rural to the average American eight year old is a ranch style house and rolling acres of land around it, like in a picture book called "Where Does Our Milk Come From?". When we pulled up to the large wooden doors of a stone facade that seemed to be attached to every other stone facade in the town, I thought we could not possibly be in the right place.

"Why are we stopping here?  When do we get to Nonna and Nonno's house?"
My father laughed in a way that was both amused and excited, and exclaimed, "We are here!"

Here we were.  In the midst of a reunion, my brother and I are presented with pride to our grandparents.  There were big exclamations, gesticulations, tears, smiles and checks pinched purple.  My grandmother had a cloud of snow white hair, a fixed demure smile with chin tilted inward, and broad palms that cupped our faces in a basket embrace.  If the barrior of her dialect had not existed, one would still have to lean in close to hear the soft, high pitch bell of her voice.  My grandfather was short and stout with a chest that puffed out like a pigeon.  His shoulders were broad as was his upward, tilted smile.  In contrast, one would never have to lean in to hear him.

Fascinated and timid, I was determined to be on my best behavior.  Yet, I felt idle and mute in this new place were I struggled to understand and be understood.  I shadowed my new grandmother around her home.  I found her at the sink in the mornings. "Cosa vuoi mangiare? L'uova?" What would you like to eat? Eggs?  She asked me to retrieve them.  There were no eggs in the refridgerater.  My father is chuckling in the doorway.  "The eggs are outside in the yard."  Down the marble stairs and out the back door is a small yard with a chicken coup to the right.  I stepped inside to loud squawking and feathers flapping around my feet. I walked gingerly through my egg hunt.  I held up a smooth, brown globe.  Triumphant and beaming I ran back to the kitchen.

In the afternoon, we sat on folding chairs with a bucket of bean pods between us.  She taught me to split the pods with my thumb to reveal the beans inside.  They were glossy white speckled with purple patches like artisan beads. Her rounded hands worked nimbly leaving a pile of empty pods in her apron while my small fingers worked clumsily, barely making a dent in her afternoons work.

Without words but with shared activity I got to know my grandmother, her lifestyle and routine.  The routine that made her matriarch and care taker of all those who entered her home, friends, family and neighbors.  During that first summer away from the familiarities of suburban New York, I never asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an oreo cookie.

No recipe today.  Just a  photo that triggered a memory to remind me why I cooked today and will cook again tomorrow.

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