When I was 15, skinny, shy, and somewhat lost, my grandmother scooped me up one summer and brought me to Boston, Mass. where she grew up. I was a California girl meeting my gritty East Coast family for the first time. Where I lived, in Sonoma County, California, I had brothers, parents and maternal grandparents. Yet, when I met dozens of Italian cousins, aunts, and uncles in Boston, I felt grounded and at home for the first time. My grandmother gave me an enduring gift.
During the visit, my relatives took me to the North End, Boston’s little Italy, where my great-grandparents settled after arriving from southern Italy. We went to Saint Anthony’s Feast, created in 1919 by Italian immigrants in Boston. It is now considered the largest Italian religious festivals in New England. I ate zeppole (deep fried Italian pastry) from an Italian pushcart. The Italians have that endearing habit of creating a special food to a commemorate saint or a special holy day. I just love that.
Out of all the cousins and family I met during the trip, the one I connected with the most was Jimmy, a cousin-once-removed, but like the uncle I never had. He doted on me and took me sightseeing around Boston. By profession, he is a magician and a clown. He taught me magic tricks that I still use to this day to amaze friends and family.
Jimmy and his magic tricks
At a big Italian dinner with all of the relatives, my grandmother’s older brother, Uncle Nick (also known as “The Godfather”) sat at the head of the table with a bottle of Galliano at his side. No one ate or drank until Nick poured and took the first sip. The table overflowed with southern Italian dishes, including Eggplant Parmesan, cannoli tubes stuffed with ricotta cheese, and spaghetti with ragu sauce. The plethora of reds, greens, and whites looked like the Italian flag.
My Aunt Millie had cooked for days. I remember seeing fresh pasta noodles and sheets hanging from the kitchen chairs, Aunt Millie sweating in her flowered apron and yelling out instructions as she stirred sauces on the stove.
Recently, 40 years later, I boarded a plane for Boston to visit the long lost relatives of my youthful trip. I wanted to contact them because of my upcoming trip to Italy to hunt for my great grandparents’ roots. Jimmy picked me up from the airport and, even though four decades of life had passed, we picked up right where we left off. We joked and reminisced about the big Italian meal from all those years ago.
He told me stories about my grandmother’s siblings and took me back to the neighborhood where my grandmother’s family had lived. Wherever I went, my grandmother’s presence was there, around every corner and down every street. I heard many family stories and learned what happened when her parents fell ill and died. I pictured her as a little girl, playing in narrow streets lined with brick houses. She often talked about this time in her life, after her father died and doctors placed her mother in Holy Ghost Hospital for the Incurable. My grandmother and her siblings went to live with various relatives.
This trauma left such a mark on her that she changed her first name, married a sailor, and moved to California. She passed away 25 years ago, and I still have many unanswered questions.
Thanks to my grandmother, I carry on the Italian cooking tradition. I became Italian during that trip to Boston and those experiences left an indelible mark on my heart. In their warm, openhearted way, my Italian relatives embraced me, loved me and accepted me. As a result, the passion and love for everything Italian is alive and growing in me.
Fifteen year old me in Boston Commons