A Big Birthday

Various kinds of pizza are needed to celebrate a birthday! – tangled pasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

Yesterday we honored my paternal uncle in celebrating his 98th birthday. He is the last of my father’s siblings, a family of three sisters and three brothers. My Italian immigrant father passed away just shy of 96, long after he had later brought his two younger brothers to the U.S. For various reasons, his three sisters remained in southern Italy. From 1933 onwards, my father’s family became geographically divided. Yet they always remained in touch throughout those many years.

Last night at the pizza party my cousins held for their father, I thought about how brave my father and his brothers were to come to a foreign country without having learned any English prior to their arrival, and with little money in their pockets. Granted, my father had a cousin who encouraged him to come to his newly adopted town, but to take that ship from Naples and sail to New York’s Ellis Island required a great leap of faith. Yet the three brothers all built new lives here, married, raised families, practiced their faith, and prospered in their own ways.

Last night my uncle looked on cheerfully as we circulated among one another, talking, laughing, and having a fine time. I thought about how much my late aunt, his wife, would have loved having the family together. Her good nature would have embraced the festivities. We all miss her very much, especially my uncle. Sometimes when I visit him, he says, “I don’t know why I’m here! For what?” I answer that he is now the patriarch of our family, that we need him to lead us. He tells me that I’m crazy, that no one needs him anymore. But he is wrong: he is the living link to our past, not that we think of him as a museum specimen, rather to know that we can turn to him for our family history and anecdotes. He reminds us from whence we came, of the struggles, the milestones, the essence of what makes us, for all intents and purposes, us.

Ciao for now.

Che sara`, sara`

Dining al fresco - tangledpasta.net
Dining al fresco – tangledpasta.net











When I was a young sprig, my parents were the harbingers our Italian community’s news.  They knew who was ailing, in the hospital, had died, was visiting from of town or country, or was traveling, to name areas that incited Italian interest.  My father, who owned his own shoe business, kept me abreast of these and other Italian news breaking events.   My mother, whose community service and Catholic Church work brought her in touch almost daily with cutting edge events, also kept me informed.   From my earliest years, whether or not I believed myself to have a vested interest in the day-to-day hot-off-the-press-informal-Italian-Gazette news flashes, I as made aware.

And then a funny thing happened:  As I matured, the elders in my family began to die off, like great Roman gods.  With my own mother’s death and my father’s increasing dementia, I became the point person for hot-off-the-wire family updates.  There was a problem with this role suddenly thrust upon me:  Not only was I working full-time, I was divorced and raising my daughter without any help, financial or otherwise, from my ex-husband, in addition to overseeing my father’s care.  On most days I functioned on autopilot.  The immediate needs of my child and my father were in the forefront, as they should have been. Well-intentioned family phoned me constantly in the evenings after I returned from work, and on the weekends.  Finally, I had Caller ID installed to screen calls as a survival mechanism.

As the months and years rolled by, it became more challenging to know what was going on among Italian families, beyond my own, for my friends were also experiencing the deaths of their Italian shamans.  My full-time working friends became increasingly engaged in elder care while attempting to juggle complex lives.  We all coped, not always in exemplary fashion, but always honoring our parents, keeping them at the forefront of our efforts as we also attended to our children.

A dear cousin of my father’s died last Saturday.  His funeral was held on Ash Wednesday, an odd day for a funeral among Roman Catholics.  I did not even know of his death until late Wednesday afternoon.  I grieved alone, for not one of my local relatives called to notify me prior to our cousin’s funeral.  What I used to jokingly refer to as “The Italian Twilight Bark” has perished.  Yet I prefer to contemplate our late cousin dining sumptuously above with my parents on a hearty repast of Italian food.

Ciao for now.

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Festa del papa [Father’s Day]

When Father’s Day rolled around, Mama used to bake a cake.  She and I would then create a “cut up cake”.  Mama had saved up enough coupons to purchase a Betty Crocker Cut Up Cake book.  The Festa di papa cake for Daddy entailed baking the cake in a 9” x 13” pan, and after it had cooled, cutting one-third of the cake off in order to cut out four square pieces.  These squares adorned the top of the remaining two-thirds of the cake.  We frosted the cake, arranging the four squares at angles across the top.  Finally, we spelled the word in colored icing, writing one letter in each square:  K  I  N  G.  My sentiments included writing Il re in the squares, but my brother preferred the Anglicized version.  In spite of squelching my linguistic ardor, Mama assured me there were plenty of other cakes upon which to write Italian phrases.   We decorated the Fest del papa cake with slices of gumdrops and bright little edible silver balls, swirls of colored icing piped around the cake as an outline.  While one would imagine us to dine on only tiramisu for dessert, Mama had taken cake-decorating lessons from a French woman; henceforth, all birthday cakes, and other family event cakes were as breathtakingly beautiful as they were delicious.

Naturally, our Festa del papa included pasta, meatballs, salad, olives, roasted peppers, and crusty bread.  A bottle of olive oil and a decorative bottle of crushed red pepper were placed next to Daddy’s wine glass.

“Va bene,” Daddy proclaimed.  “Avete fatto bene!  Mangia!”

He really was our KING, our Fearless Leader, our Beloved Papa.

Ciao for now.