“Promise me that when I die, you will go to church.” My grandma made me promise this every day near the end of her life. My grandma Yannascoli was the stereotypical short, round, large-breasted Italian woman you see in all the movies. She insisted on kissing and hugging everyone she met. She always used her hands when speaking to you, but if she was biting her one hand and shaking the other at you while screaming “BUCALA” you better RUN, because she wasn’t asking for a fish! Grandma never missed Sunday Mass either. A good Catholic never misses Sunday Mass; and she was, above all, a good Catholic. I can still smell grandma’s homemade gravy simmering on the stove when we would come home from church. Waiting for the rigatoni and meatball dinner was almost painful.
As a child there were certain traits that were thrust upon me whether I liked it or not, such as hugging and kissing everyone I met. “Kiss your Aunt Lena,” grandma would say through gritted teeth. Eventually it just became second nature, an urge I have learned to control. Do I talk with my hands? Mamma Mia, I even bite my right pointer finger while raising my left fist into the air when my kids get out of line. Some things are just unavoidable.
Of all the traits, mannerisms, and beliefs taught me by my grandma, the one thing she cared about most escaped me when she passed away. I broke my promise to her and stopped going to church when she died. There was no one to force me to go to Mass anymore, and there was no rigatoni dinner waiting for me when I came home. I didn’t want or know how to cook anyway, so what was the point? You can imagine how surprised I was to discover that lurking inside my skinny body was a short, round, large-breasted, meatball cookin’ Italian woman who loved to go to church.
I was twenty two when my grandma died, and the next few years it was painfully apparent that she was gone. There were no more rigatoni dinners unless it was topped with Prego, and no one really went to church unless it was a holiday. Eventually I met and married Paul, a wonderful, (you guessed it) Polish, Irish, Italian, Catholic man. After our first child was born, I began to feel a deep pull inside me. My daughter had to be raised with a strong faith in God. In August of 1996, three months after my daughter Siera was born, she was baptized. I was still not attending mass on a regular basis but I wanted to. Every time I did miss church I could hear my grandma’s voice saying, “Oh Dio, Oh Dio, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, why do you not go to church?” I kept hearing that voice when my son Sebastian was born. Naturally, I had him baptized but not until he was one year old. Again I heard Grandma’s voice. “Stunod!” she would say. “How can you wait so long for such an important sacrament?” It wasn’t long before I was dragging my kids off to Mass every Sunday, and I knew grandma wasn’t rolling over in her grave anymore, as my mother used to say.
Although church was fast becoming a priority every Sunday, there was still no rigatoni and meatball dinner waiting for us when we came home. I always chastised myself for not paying better attention to my grandma when she was in the kitchen. I missed real, good Italian food. My children were getting older, and my husband was missing his mom’s home cooking too. Take-out and processed foods weren’t going to cut it anymore. I experimented quite a bit with different recipes, but whenever I would try grandma’s recipes, it always ended badly. I soon learned from my mother that grandma did not follow recipes. It was always a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Well, when I finally stopped trying to measure everything, it was like the gates of heaven opened and St. Christopher himself showed me how an Italian woman cooks.
I still follow recipes but never with my grandma’s specialties. My marinara is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. My meatballs will knock your socks off, and don’t even think of coming to my house unless you plan on eating…a lot! I’m at my best when I’m cooking for a crowd. I love to feed people.
The person I am today I attribute to my Grandma, Jennie Yannascoli. She was a woman with a deep faith in God who loved her family and showed it everyday by all the things she so lovingly did. She has instilled in me that same deep faith in God, a tremendous love for my family, and a desire to pass on these same traditions to my children. I can’t imagine not going to mass on Sunday morning or not having a rigatoni dinner afterwards. It would be a sacrilege! I have come to love the short, round, large-breasted Italian woman inside me. I hope my husband realizes that eventually she will show herself on the outside too.