“Italia Famiglia,” a Memoir

by Joann Piccozzi

    I sit down and drift back to my Italy — the Italy where I grew up; specifically, the aroma from the kitchen. The voices begin to call me back.

    It was early on a Sunday. A voice called from downstairs, more akin to a bell than a voice, and it always called three times. It was time to wake. There was no sleeping late on Sunday. It would take time for everyone to put themselves together. The garter belts, the stockings, Sunday’s best dress, the search for the lost Sunday shoes and discovery of yet another hiding place. Once our Sunday uniforms were in place, it was time to accessorize with Sunday missal, veil, and gloves. What about the rosary beads? A quick look in the mirror prevented Mom’s licked finger from attempting to contain any wandering hair.

    Everyone in the family was ready; it was time to get into the family car. If anyone was missing any of the above items, a small family feud would ensue. This ritual always played out at 9 a.m. on Sunday at our house.

    Breakfast would wait until later. As Catholics, we didn’t eat breakfast before receiving the host — the body of Christ. There was no deviation from this “law.”

    Money for collection was handed out in the car. The church car was the new Mercury paneled station wagon with a back seat and a “back-back” seat. Mom drove, with Dad in the front and the four children in the back. Age dictated seating position. The old gray Packard was for everyday driving.

    My father was Italian; his family’s first language was Italian. In our house, everyone went to church — there was not an option. We followed the same procedure every Sunday. We would park down the road (always on the right side) and walk up to the church as a family unit. Dad would open the door, and Mom would go in, followed by the children.

     The procession walked down to the front pew; this was not to be missed. Again, age dictated position. Mother was in the lead, with the children still following, genuflect, holy water, proceed down the aisle. If there was a deviation in the procedure it was due to sibling rivalry, which then resulted in one child’s being placed on the left side of the matriarch — a display to the world, (and more importantly, to God), of disobedience. Mom did not hesitate to exercise this power.

     After church, we Sunday-best-dressed children climbed back into the paneled wagon. The best part of Sunday was about to begin. The ferryboat was the next hurdle. If we missed the scheduled boat or if it was full, it would be half an hour before the ferry returned to take us to the mainland.

     In my mind, we were basically going home — “home” in the sense that we were going to my father’s family home to be with his brothers, sisters, and a pod of their children. We would be all together, all living life.

     Our arrival was incredible. The car doors flew open all at once and we dashed to the door. Aunt Lena seemed to have a sixth sense and knew exactly the moment the car pulled up. She would be standing with the door open and a gentle smile on her face. The greeting process was simple: Everyone had to pinch everyone’s cheeks twice. This process could take up to 10 minutes, depending on the exact number of individuals already at Uncle Nick and Aunt Lena’s. Uncle Nick and Aunt Lena cooked all morning, and I always silently asked myself, didn’t they have to go to Mass? The aromas of their morning labors filled the air both inside and outside their home.

     Close to me, someone says “Prego.” I look up, and Antonio is standing by my table. My pasta has arrived, and of course, a little more water and wine will complete the entree. The wind and water finally have called a truce. The whitecaps have turned into gentle, rolling waves, and the seabirds return to flight. It is a perfect spring day. The symphony of voices, with hands conducting, continues. There is beauty and love here, but most important, there are the vibrancies of life. It is time to be grateful, to be thankful, and to enjoy the gifts that have been shared.

    Antonio presents my dolce options, and I choose tiramisu. He smiles. I take a bite of tiramisu and look out at the lake. My eyes fill with tears. That lake that danced with the wind is now a pool of my tears. Each tear falls slowly. 

    Rinny was the queen of tiramisu; she made the best tiramisu in the world. She made pans of it, and she could devour a whole pan by herself. I think of Lena and Rinny. They both could make magic in the kitchen, though they never met each other. Aunt Lena passed away just before Rinny was born. As Rinny grew, her love for life and cooking would remind me of Lena. She shared the same physical stature, but it was truly their love for laughter, cooking, and life that married them together. They each had a need to make sure everyone was taken care of, well fed, and well protected. Now, they are both gone — cooking the family Sunday lunch for everyone in heaven.

    I imagine everyone who was sitting at Uncle Nick and Aunt Lena’s kitchen table is together and they are now with my Rinny, and the table is filled with laughter and the spirit of kindness. Eventually, we will all end up there.

    Italy, I realize, swaddles me. It provides me with heart, soul, and family, the seeds of my grandparents and the soil and soul that built my life. This is my childhood, and I relive it with relish. The past now carries me to my future.

    I sit overlooking this farm I call home, and I am welcomed. Friends and family have walked on these sacred grounds, and now they welcome my return.

    Joann Piccozzi spends her summers on Shelter Island with her husband, Robert, and their children, and heads to Italy in the fall to harvest olives with friends and family from the East End. This story is an excerpt from her memoir, “Umbrian Twilight.”