The Last Sicilian, and the Gift of Tradition

She worked in a kitchen that was small by modern standards. To see it, you would think it was the size of a walk-in closet in some homes.

She worked her magic on a tiny stove that had very little room to waste. How she managed to squeeze coffee pots, saute’ pans, and giant sauce pots on it without a major catastrophe still remains a mystery.

Old school boxing trainer Angelo Dundee once said that heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali could train his body for a bout in a space the size of a phone booth. My great aunt, Nicolina Carucci, did the comparable with her masterwork in her kitchen.

My “Aunt Nicky,” as most of my family members called her, was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she was my godmother as well. She helped welcome me here by bathing my little infant head in holy water, and it was the start of a beautiful relationship.

She passed away a few years ago, like her sister living well into her 90’s. It’s still strange without either one of them here to boss me around.

I grew up in a world where consistency was the name of the game. The sound of the Italian language, the smells of food always cooking, the ritual of the coffee, and all the holiday and family traditions. Steady as they come. Always present.

That world is nearly gone. For our kids to be reminded of tradition and experience how I grew up, we have to take that ball and run with it. So traditions don’t disappear from view.

If my wife or myself don’t make those wonderful meatballs with onions and bacon that was Nicky’s recipe, or set a pot of simmering sauce on the stove on Sundays, disappear they will.

Aunt Nicky spent her last few months of life in a nursing home, and my father and I would visit on Sundays. We’d wheel her out to the cafeteria, and talk about the swill she was about to eat. I would joke with her, telling her it was time to get out of the chair and go to work on the homemade manicotti so we could all have a good meal.

I hope someday, somewhere, I can find something remotely close to that manicotti again.

I’d also joke with her about how she was “the last in line” or “the last Sicilian.” She was not the last Sicilian of course, but she was the last of a long line of very influential people on my grandmother’s side of the family. Influential to me. The men and women who are now part of my history book, traditions needing to be chronicled before my mind slips again, and I forget all details.

My great aunt and my grandmother were my mentors for almost five decades of my life. That is a lot of remembering to do.

My wife and I loved going to Aunt Nicky’s house just about every Friday for lunch. At times she would do just a cheese omelet with toast,  or a small pot roast on top of the stove. Or a stuffed meatloaf that she called “Italian Style.” A very simple meal, but one with great taste. The meal would always be accompanied by a glass of red wine in a tumbler glass. Or two.

She always fascinated my wife and I with stories of her younger days: living in the seaside town of Terracina in Italy, making it sound like the perfect vacation spot.  Of surviving bombing raids that were a little too close for comfort during World War II; and ducking German soldiers looking to loot through the properties that they had just destroyed.

Life wasn’t easy here in America, either. She did a lifetime of very physical work while she lived here, and she had more than her share of troubles and heartache. But like the rest of her family, she was a fighter that always moved forward and did what she could to live her best life possible.

My wife had thanked me on more than a couple of occasions for giving her the gift of a relationship with my godmother. I understand how she feels. She was a gift to me too.

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