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Personal Foodstory: Remembering Nanny through Madonnas and tomato sauce

In my grandmother’s Brooklyn kitchen, my cousin Julie and I counted 87 Madonnas.

Little prayer cards tucked in behind plates on display. Small plaques on the wall. Statues next to the salt and pepper shakers. And, on the windowsill, over the sink – so she could see the Mother of God when she washed the dishes.

Which was constantly.

We called our grandmother Nanny. Her name was Marie Cefalu, neé Cirri, and she was from Sicily. She came through Ellis Island twice, the first time when she was 2, and the second when she was 9. We didn’t know why they sent her back in between because, as my mother said, as the oldest girl, she would have been a help around the house.

I am the oldest child and only daughter of Marie’s youngest son Richard. In 1973, my dad got a job teaching religious studies at Gonzaga University, so we moved to Spokane. It was such a strange place to my grandparents that they used to ask us on the phone about what it was like living “out West.” My father died in 1976, and a few years later, my mother sent me and my brother back to Brooklyn to visit Nanny and Grandpa. This is how I learned what Nanny’s life was like.

Her day started with 8 a.m. Mass at the Church of the Holy Ghost across the street. I was expected to go with her while my brother got to keep sleeping. I had to dress up, too – but I’d only brought one skirt, and it was white so it got dirty easily. Every night, Nanny made me wash it in the sink, then hang it up in the shower and run an old toothbrush up and down it to make sure it didn’t wrinkle.

After church, Nanny took up residence in her kitchen. My mother told me that she used to take my father and his two brothers’ orders at breakfast for what they each wanted for lunch and dinner, and then she would spend her days fixing their individual requests. She always had sauce simmering on the stove. George liked meatballs, but Bob preferred sausages. Sometimes dinner was served in courses.

The most famous story about Nanny is this one: Once she and Grandpa took us somewhere on the subway, and I guess I said I was cold because Nanny took a roll of Saran Wrap out of her giant purse, unfurled a long piece and wrapped it around my shoulders. My brother Tom’s eyes got wide and I could tell he was thinking he was so glad it was me, not him, that this had happened to. I couldn’t take it off because it would have hurt her feelings, so I just had to sit there, wrapped in plastic, until we got to wherever we were going. I knew this was a story my family would be telling for years whenever we talked about Marie. It still makes my mom laugh so hard she cries.

A few years before she died, my brother and I visited Nanny in her nursing home, but she didn’t recognize us. We didn’t know her at first either. The nurse just motioned us down the hall, and we walked past many patients. Tom whispered to me, “Which one is she?” And I wasn’t sure I would know, but then I did. We bent down to tell her who we were, but we didn’t see any change in her face. She was wearing a housedress, the kind she used to pad around in while waiting for the sauce.

I went in her room to look around, and on the bedside table, I found a picture of me and Tom and Julie and all our other cousins: Regina, Carla, Stephen, Perry and Maria. We were in our swimsuits by the pool down the street from our Uncle Bob and Aunt Paulann’s house in Bernardsville, New Jersey. I remembered that day. Carla was wearing a blue suit with ruffles, and she wasn’t sick yet. We went back to the house for dinner, and that was the first night Tom and I saw fireflies. Our cousins laughed at us because we were from some crazy place called “The West.”

That was the last time I saw Nanny. Except in the mirror – my mother says I look like her. And I feel her with me when I’m making her sauce. She taught my mother, and my mother taught me.

She’s like a little prayer card, or a thin piece of plastic around my shoulders.


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