When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.
You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.
Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.
When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.
I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.
Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).
When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.
The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”
Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom
That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.
I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.
Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.
Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.
When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.
The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.
Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.
Nowhere to Be But Home
Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.
My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.
Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.
The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.
And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.
My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.
Just like any good Italian grandmother.
It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:
“Want some coffee?”
“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”
“You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”
You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.
The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.
My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.
Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio
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