Monthly Archives: May 2018

Flowers & Stories

Welcome to the gentle time of year. It is Memorial Day Weekend, our unofficial start to summer. It was the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 1949, that my mom and dad got married––two good looking kids from Brooklyn, tying the knot in the company of their family and friends at St. Blaise Church, with a football reception afterward at the Livingston in Downtown Brooklyn: piles and piles of sandwiches, “football” referring to the idea that folks would toss the waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches across the room. “Hey,” someone would shout, “send me a capocolla!” and indeed, someone would toss a capocolla sandwich his or her way. How great is that? Sandwiches flying across the room, mountains of homemade cream puffs, and trays and trays of Italian cookies, mounded in pyramids, wrapped in cellophane. The Roy Rogers Orchestra was playing live and certainly there were at least one or two tarantella dances. No wedding planners, no destinations, no fondant on their cake. There was a big fight between Mom and Dad the night before over mustard, but all was smoothed out by morning and the rest, as they say, is history. Now that’s a wedding.

They chose Memorial Day rather roundaboutly… and so here comes one of my family’s legendary stories. Mom and Dad were engaged in February, 1948, and Mom wanted to get married at her birthday that next October. But at some point that spring, Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone sat them down and asked them to hold off for a year. “If you do, we’ll give you a nice present,” they said. Mom and Dad gave it some thought, and said ok, they would. And so the date was set for Memorial Day Weekend, 1949. Just before the wedding––like, that morning––Grandma pulled my dad aside. “Johnny,” she said, “I only have $100 for your present.” At this point, it is helpful to understand how Italian weddings work. We don’t give toasters and towels at weddings. We give cash. At some point during the reception, the groom and the bride, holding a white satin bag, have a seat at a table. A line of guests forms from there, the guests holding envelopes––the busta. The cash. Each guest approaches, kisses the bride and groom, bestowing their congratulations on the couple and into the white satin bag, their busta. Next morning, the bride and groom will gather with the family and someone will have a pen and paper and while the happy couple open the envelopes, the person with the pen and paper records, for posterity, what each guest gave. It’s a very matter of fact process, something you might associate more with accounting departments than with newly-married lovebirds.

Now my dad, he knew already what my mom’s parents were giving for their wedding present. Grandma and Grandpa DeLuca were giving them $1,000. Not too shabby a present back then (nor now, for that matter). So there was going to be quite a disparity between the gifts of the two sets of parents. So Dad, in that thirteenth hour, pulled out his wallet, took three $100 bills out of it, and shoved them into his mother’s hands so she could add them to her busta. The next morning, Mom and Dad opened Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone’s envelope, and their gift was recorded at $400––which was also not so shabby in those days. All was well and face was saved and my dad––who also somehow paid for the wedding reception––got his own 300 bucks back. Which could be the end of the story, but it’s not.

The secret remained a secret for years and years until one of many spirited and exuberant dinner table disagreements amongst my extended family. Things became more and more heated and eventually the matter of Millie and Johnny’s wedding gift came up. It seems all of my other aunts and uncles had received $100 from my grandparents, and the $400 gift that my parents got was a sore point. The shouting built and the accusations built and finally my dad stood up and above all this cackling, yelled, “OK, enough!” I like to think he slammed his hand on the table, too, and maybe he did. He turned to his mother. “Ma, how much did you give for my wedding?” Grandma looked at him blankly and wasn’t sure exactly what to say. “Eh, $400,” she finally uttered. Dad looked at her again, raising his eyebrows. At that, she sighed and she came clean. Dad and Grandma explained to everyone at the table that day what had transpired in the hour before his wedding years before. My mother’s mouth fell. All these years, and she had no idea.

And so these are the stories we tell and the things we think about at Memorial Day. And it is another day to miss Dad more since he’s left us. Dad hits us with lots of memory days this time of year: His birthday on the 18th of May, their anniversary on the 29th… oh and then soon after comes Father’s Day, the day he called Jack Ass Day. Last year, on their first anniversary apart, Memorial Day Weekend found Mom in the hospital with shortness of breath. What they told us would be an overnight stay turned into a week or more. Cardiologists couldn’t quite figure out what was what, even after she was sent home. Finally, she went to Dr. Molly, the doctor Mom and Dad had gone to for years and years. Dr. Molly put Mom on a water pill and also observed what none of the hospital doctors seemed to care about, even though we had told them about Dad’s recent passing: “You’re heartbroken.” Perhaps that needed to be acknowledged. Mom has been in good health since.

The day is special to my family, but it is special to many. As a nation, it is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. But it is one more day where we just remember, plain and simple. Memorial Day (or some version of it) is celebrated not just here in the United States, but in other countries, as well, and usually at this particular time of year. It is a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. The day was earlier on known as Decoration Day, and the Memorial/Decoration Day traditions in this country go back to the Civil War era. The original date, May 30, was chosen for it was believed that flowers for decorating graves would be in bloom in every state of the Union on that date. It’s since been moved to the last Monday of May. This year it falls on the 28th. It is our unofficial start of summer here in the US, but a somber one if we honor the day in its proper tradition. And so we decorate, and we remember. And we tell stories. Flowers and stories for remembrance, flowers and stories beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.


Image: Johnny & Millie. This their engagement photo, not all that long before that sit down with Grandma and Grandpa Cutrone that led to the decision to be married on Memorial Day Weekend, 1949.


The Pinky Ring Club

Sunday brings Pentecost, a day that I associate with a most fleeting thing: air. Invisible life force, we breathe in, breathe out: respiration. A word so close to “inspiration” and indeed they share the same Latin root, spirare: breath. Pentecost has to do with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Earth and it is this that brings about my airy thoughts each year for this day, as one word links to another: spirit to ghost, ghost to gust, gust to wind, wind to breath, breath to respiration, and breath to inspiration, too.

With Pentecost, we are 50 days past Easter, and with it, we transition further beyond spring and closer to summer. Though red is the color of Pentecost in the Church, the day in some places is known as White Sunday: Whitsunday. Special Whitsun Ales are brewed at this time of year, in some places drunk on Whitsunday, in other places brewed on Whitsunday.

Ah, but that is Sunday. Today, the 18th of May, it’s another celebration, one of my family’s own. My dad would have been 92 today. Approaching his birthday this year is not as bad as it was last year. Some of the sadness over his passing has been replaced by something different. I still miss him something awful, but more often when we talk about him or when he pops into my head the feelings are bathed in warmth, which is a slight change from last year. I still sigh a lot, but I smile a lot, too.

Mom does not want to do anything in particular for Dad’s birthday and so we are honoring her wishes. I’m not sure what Seth and I will do. It’s not like we can just make Dad’s favorite meal in honor of his birthday. He didn’t really have a favorite meal. He would sometimes say how much he loved a good Porterhouse steak… but once you put one on a plate for him, he would eat it and when he was done, always proclaim that he’d rather have a nice dish of pasta. And there was the custard-filled crumb cake he would talk about, too––the one that came from a bakery in Brooklyn called Hummel’s when he was younger. When you got right down to it, though, Dad was always just plain happy to eat whatever was put in front of him.

Honoring Dad’s memory with a favorite meal may be out, but I will wear his ring for his birthday. It was his pinky ring, one that he had from the time I was a boy. His initials, which happen to be the same as mine, in diamonds. It is so not something I would wear, but I do wear it when I want to keep him closer in spirit. It’s too big for my pinky so I wear it on my ring finger. It’s flashy, sparkly, a bit like my Dad, who, though he did not like to call attention to himself, did love himself some bling on his fingers. When he bought himself that pinky ring, Dad drove a 1960s Cadillac and he liked the finer things in life, as he always did––things he worked hard to attain. He was of the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra age, and he would have fit in nicely shooting pool with them wearing this ring. I wore it at his funeral last year. I wish I could remember which New York cousin it was of mine who I think was wearing his own dad’s pinky ring then, too, and who said we were all members of the Pinky Ring Club now. I’ll take that as inspiration, too, in this time of holy spirit, ghost, gust, and breath. Happy birthday, Dad.


Image: Dad’s JC ring. Dad would sometimes try to teach me boxing moves when I was a kid. He’d have both dukes up and tell me, “Watch the left,” and then surprise me with the right. I was too busy trying to figure out which left he meant: mine or his. Needless to say, I didn’t do very well at boxing. Things like that always made me think we were very different, until we were both older, and I realized how much we are the same. That, too, is something that I can smile about now. If I am wearing my dad’s pinky ring, though, watch out: That ring can do some serious damage to your kisser.


Ramadan & the Ice Saints

With tonight’s new moon this 15th of May, the holy month of Ramadan begins. For those of the Muslim faith, it is a month of prayer, almsgiving, and most especially fasting. During the daylight hours, not even water is taken. But this daily period of deprivation is rewarded once the sun has set with good nighttime meals. A common food to break the fast each night is Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup made from chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes, and onions in a broth spiced with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, chiles, and cumin. Harira is served all year long, but it is especially plentiful at Ramadan. I plan on making some this week, and maybe you’d like to, as well. There are many variations, some with meat, some vegetarian, some with egg and some with noodles, and all manner of spices. But here’s the recipe I’ll be using:

1 onion, chopped finely
Olive oil
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
8 cups chicken broth
1 cup dried red lentils
2 cans chopped tomatoes
Dried chiles, for a little heat (or 1 teaspoon chili powder)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt & Pepper
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
Lemon wedges

In a large pot, cook the onion in some olive oil until it is translucent. Add the chickpeas and the broth. Bring to a boil, then add the lentils, tomatoes, and spices. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Bring to a boil again and simmer for a half hour or so, until the lentils are mushy and the soup has thickened. Ladle into bowls, finishing off each serving with a bit of fresh olive oil, chopped parsley, and a lemon wedge for squeezing. This recipe makes about 6 to 8 servings.

In places like Morocco, this simple yet hearty soup is often the first thing folks take to break their fast with the setting sun. It is a bit of spiritual and physical nourishment. Other wonderful things follow, and often the feasting goes on well into the night. And then to bed… until the tabbal, the drummer, wends his way through the dark and empty streets to awaken everyone for the final meal before sunrise, usually bread with mint tea. And so each day goes in this month of fasting until the next new moon.

This year, the start of Ramadan coincides with the arrival of Cold Sophie, who, according to German legend, brings a blast of cold weather, winter’s last hurrah. But they say it’s been such a long and cold winter that I’m not going to give Sophie any attention at all. She and her fellow Ice Saints have had a ball of it this year, so enough of that. She can have some Harira with us if she wants, but that’s it. We’ve got our sights set on summer.

Image: My husband may be a potter, but I still can’t help buying bowls I like from other potters, too. These porcelain bowls are brand new additions to our collection. They’re by local potter Nena Escobar. I found them just last week, and I suspect we’ll be eating Harira out of them this week. Oh and if you do want to read more about Cold Sophie and the Ice Saints, well… here’s an earlier Book of Days chapter about them.