Sunday dinners were sacred. Family congregated to Grandma’s Brooklyn house on East 5th Street after church. Her brother’s family lived downstairs, and she lived in the upstairs flat. Grandma already had the sauce simmering, vegetables sliced and meat seasoned. I believed women got special dispensation from the burden of mortal sin by missing Sunday’s Mass. Sunday dinner was that sacred. Arriving from Long Island, my family stomped up Grandma’s stairs. The stairwell was warm with the smell of lovingly tended foods. We knocked on Uncle Tony’s and Aunt Rosy’s door on our way up another flight of stairs. Grandma greeted us at the door with big-arm hugs. She could tackle two kids at once with vigorous kisses and exclamations over how much we grew in one week.
Cousins, aunts, and uncles arrived. Once changed from Sunday dress to play clothes, we kids were free to play. We chased each other through the flat and under the tables. Aunt Rosy banged a broomstick on her ceiling cueing Grandma to suggest a game of charades. Charades quickly morphed into a racket, so we told to play in the alley. Little kids followed the big kids playing Monkey-in-the-Middle or jump rope. It was loud, joyous fun.
The antipasto course continued for hours. The adults nibbled on olives, pickled vegetables, and cheese. Pieces of Italian bread were dipped into the sauce until the loaf disappeared. If a child needed a bit of sustenance before dinner, he/she was given a meatball on a fork. Card games, piano playing, and women in aprons stirring and talking filled the apartment. By mid-afternoon, kids were called inside for dinner.
Kids ate in the kitchen. The white Formica table held plates of macaroni with a meatball or sausage on top. Our shirts were stripped off. Eating in our undershirts saved a good deal of laundry. Little kids sat on big kids’ laps since there were not enough chairs. An aunt sprinkled snow tops of grated cheese on each plate, while another lead us in grace. We talked, boasted and joked with food in our mouths. Inevitably, milked leaked through someone’s nose, triggering hilarious laughter.
The adults sat in the adjoining dining room. The women kept their aprons tied, and the men did not retrieve their jackets for dinner. Each diner had their own set of flatware, a wine glass, and chair. Platters of meat, macaroni, vegetables, bread, a dish of grated cheese, and a bottle wine were passed.
After dinner, women washed dishes, dried and put everything away. The kids played board games on the floor or looked over the shoulders of the men playing cards. Stuffed artichokes were put out on the table and nuts were cracked and fed to wandering children. Finally, coffee was served, and the bakery boxes of cannoli and cake opened. I collected the bakery string to play cat’s cradles with my sisters and cousins.
Holidays at Grandma’s was a little more formal than Sunday dinner. We kids stayed dressed in our holiday clothes. It didn’t stop us from racing up and down the stairs or hiding behind a dusty couch. Grandma set the dining room table with a festive tablecloth, holiday platters, and a seasonal centerpiece. Women hung up their aprons before they sat down to dinner and the men put on their jackets. We all chanted grace together. Kids still ate in their undershirts and slips, and little kids still sat on big kids’ laps. And yes, milk exploded out of someone’s nose.
When my 12th birthday arrived in October, Grandma said I could sit at the adults’ table for Thanksgiving. I was the eldest grandchild of 12-13 kids (at the time), ranging in ages from 12 years to a few months. Graduating to the adults’ table held more honor than Confirmation. I wanted to sit at the table fully dressed, with an empty lap and liquid swallowed properly.
But on that 12-year-old Thanksgiving, another guest was added to the adult table which meant I was banished with the kids. I negotiated to keep my dress on and chose the least sloppy little kid to sit on my lap. Christmas and the following Easter included additional aunts and uncles who journeyed to Grandma’s adult table. Even on regular Sundays, the family seemed to increase exponentially.
I tried to be grown-up. I watched Grandma roll braciole and helped stir the pot. I gave up hiding behind couches and was satisfied to direct safe play practices. I sat on the front stoop with Joann, Uncle Tony’s daughter. Joann was a year older than me and so pretty and sophisticated in her Go-Go boots and perfect hairstyles. She was allowed to wear makeup and listen to The Monkees. I still wore little girl dresses and had an overgrown pixie haircut no one could tame. Make-up and rock-n-roll were not allowed in my house.
Finally, when I was 13, there was room for me at the adult table on Thanksgiving. My younger cousins laughed at the way Joann tried to style my hair. I didn’t care. They were jealous.
I sat squeezed between Uncle Tony and Joann. Aunt Mary, with fire red lipstick overdrawn on her face, sat across from me. Uncle Tony announced several times that he was sitting next to his favorite niece. His laugh drowned out the kitchen’s ruckus. Manicotti, meatballs, and vegetables were served before the turkey and all the trimmings. Food passed from hand to hand, and the walls reverberated from the roars of laughter and voices trying to out-do each other. Joann quickly ate, took her plate to the sink, and slipped out the door. She probably went to her room to listen to records. I was trapped passing food and nodding to Aunt Mary, who was trying to tell me something, but I was so distracted watching her huge red lips. Uncle Tony continued to claim that I was his favorite niece as was my mother, aunts, and my wandering little sister who climbed on Dad’s lap. Finally, I got half a meatball on my fork, then PLOP! It fell on my dress and rolled onto the floor. This prompted a chorus of uncles to sing “On Top of Spaghetti.” At least milk was not blasting out of a nose.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with cancer.
Don’t forget to enter in the Five Fridays of Festive Fun Giveaway. You could win a festive Hug Pack that includes a signed copy of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The first drawing is on November 24th.