Great Grandma was a reckoning force. She held a firm grasp on her matriarchal status through her long adult life. She left Sicily as a young mother, raised her family— five daughters, in a Mott Street tenement. She had a controlling hand in managing her home, her daughter’s homes, and some neighbors as well. She was a short sinewy woman with deep- set dark eyes and a long nose. I had known her as a strong grandma always in motion with few teeth and no English words.
She demanded and argued in Sicilian with her daughters. My parents understood her perfectly. Sicilian was their first language, but they always replied in English. Great Grandma understood perfectly. My siblings and I knew very few Sicilian words and phrases. We did understand her gestures and expressions perfectly.
Throughout Great Grandma’s life she demanded things to be done right and wouldn’t you know it, her way was always the right. Crochet stitches had to be even, windows washed without streaks, plants trimmed a certain way. The criterion for everything was endless. Everyone wanted to make her happy, or, more likely, did not want to face her wrath.
There are volumes of Great Grandma stories, but for today, there is the veal cutlet story.
When Great Grandma was 95, she suffered a stroke. It left her weak and essentially speechless. Her home in Brooklyn had to be sold. She moved into her daughter’s home, Aunt Lil, who lived in the same town as my family. Great Grandma walked the backyard holding onto Aunt Lil’s arm, tsking at the poor flowers and tomato plants. She re-learned cleaning the Formica top of the kitchen table and folding towels perfectly square with one hand. Although she could not speak, she communicated by slapping tables with her good hand and directing her eyes to what she wanted to be done. Uncharacteristically, Great Grandma spent a good many hours in a tall wingback chair. It made her look small and frail.
One night, I, at seventeen, was asked to Great Grandma-sit. All I had to do was keep her company while she watched her show, make her dinner—fried veal cutlet and peas, and help her to bed at eight o’clock. She sat in the wingback chair, tapping her good hand on the armrest. I brought my crocheting bag. Perhaps Great Grandma would like to see me crochet stitches she had taught me years before. Big mistake. Nothing was right. Great Grandma tsked at my twisted stitches and had me pull the rows out. I couldn’t even roll the yarn back into a ball right. I also couldn’t find the right program for her to watch, so she got up and shut the TV off. It was time to make dinner.
Great Grandma sat at the kitchen table. Her tapping cut into the uneasy silence. There was no radio to play music. I tried to talk about anything, but I was a lousy rambler. She did want to be engaged. Great Grandma was mad.
Aunt Lil left me two veal cutlets. I dredged them in egg then bread crumbs and fried them in a pan with olive oil. Frozen peas gently boiled in a little pot. I brought Great Grandma cup of coffee—black no sugar, and set it in front of her. She took a Stella D’oro cookie and dipped the end in the coffee. She put the cookie down on the saucer and push the coffee away. Even a cookie and coffee could not make her happy.
Once the veal cutlets were cooked, I realized she could not cut it into small pieces. She had three teeth and a hand that would not cooperate. I made another mistake by cutting the cutlet into very small pieces right in front of her. She growled and pushed the dish towards me.
“You have to eat, Grandma,” I pleaded.
She slapped her hand on the table. Her strong eyes told me she would do as she pleased. She got up to wash the pan. I had to help her pick it up. She gave an exasperated sigh and went back to the living room. I washed the dishes, put the plastic wrap over the meal, and made sure the kitchen table was clear of crumbs.
When I returned to the living room, Great Grandma had my crochet bag at the front door. She took my hand and led me to the door.
“I have to stay, Grandma,” I said, “I can’t leave you alone.”
“No!” she blurted and pushed me out the door. For a sick old lady, she was strong and determined.
I sat in my car. Great Grandma turned out the lights including the front porch. I supposed she went to bed. My mom assured me same when I arrived home two hours early. She was not surprised. The next day Aunt Lil called to say all was well. When she got home, Great Grandma was sitting in the wingback chair, in the dark, wide awake.
Welcome to my Blogging A-Z April 2018 Challenge. My theme is Food Stories Remembered because there is always a story when food is involved. I consider myself a good home cook with a great appetite for hearty food. I have witnessed the creation of favorite recipes in friends’ kitchens and have learned from the best—my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law. Recipes may be included. I am remaining uncommitted on this because when I cook, I seldom measure. If you try any of my recipes, you are cooking at your own risk. Grab a glass of wine. Hope you’re hungry!
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 of breast cancer treatment.