This video is a couple months old, and while it’s been up on YouTube, I haven’t posted it on my blog for a few reasons. Number One, because I feel I should say something about it. I pride myself in keeping my ramblings about life and my recipes in separate tabs (see About) because the traditional food blog format generally annoys the crap out of me. My iPhone 4 doesn’t like it either. Scroll scroll scroll through someone’s only mildly amusing (if you’re lucky) daily life, but where is the recipe? There it is, waaaaay at the bottom. Not on this site, if I can help it. Except for this particular recipe. It deserves a story. Which brings me to Number Two…it’s too hard to write.
This recipe is a simultaneous tribute to two of my grandparents, using a joke my dad always made to weave the two together. At the time of making this video, I was between the deaths of those two grandparents. Two weeks apart. The pain of losing one person is bad enough, and I’ve been lucky in my life to not lose many people close to me. But I knew it would happen one day. I’m 33 and, until that point, still had 3 living grandparents. It was gonna happen. But two weeks apart? My family never, ever thought we would have back-to-back losses like that. To spend so much time, and before the holidays no less, in a constant state of grief, going through the motions of wake and funeral and burial, all while trying to process what has happened and going back and forth from Cleveland to Chicago while still trying to work…I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
But time gives perspective, doesn’t it? And my perspective is that I’m ready to share about these two wonderful people, people I was lucky to grow up with, be influenced by, learn life lessons from. Some children never meet or never remember their grandparents. I knew all 4 of mine, and knew them well. That is truly a blessing. This is a tribute to both sides of my family – my dad’s dad and my mom’s mom.
My Grandpa Ted was one-of-a-kind, if ever the term had a definition. He could be crotchety and stubborn, yet simultaneously hilarious and extremely artistic. For a poor Polish kid who didn’t graduate high school until he was 67 years old, he was incredibly bright, talented, and had a unique way with words. He was the Studniarz Family poet laureate, writing poems for every birthday, graduation, wedding, you name it. As a member of the Greatest Generation and having spent time in the Merchant Marines, he wrote a memoir called But We Won It Anyway. I still laugh out loud when I read it, not simply because I know the main “character” in the book, but because he was such a comedian. Probably best known as a one-man band, I wonder if there was an instrument he couldn’t play. He left behind multiple keyboards, harmonicas, books of music he’d both played and written, even a gig he’d lined up. At 89 years old, he was still playing gigs! Man, how it used to annoy my dad when he’d find out Grandpa had gone down to Arrowhead Music to buy a new keyboard…not because of the expense but because that meant he drove there himself. And if there was one instrument he couldn’t play well, it was a car. He was a terrible driver. Grandpa, I’m sorry if you’re reading this from heaven, but now you know! While I was never quite the natural musician he was, I will always cherish the keyboard lessons he gave me as a kid. He happily let me choose Billy Joel over his 1940s favorites even though it probably sounded like noise, especially the way I played. The sheets of music I kept with his notes in them are now more precious than gold.
As poetry goes, on paper and in life, he passed peacefully, right where he would have wanted — in his music room. We had all seen him just two days before, and everyone commented on how great he looked, especially since he was about to turn 90 in January. But there wasn’t a person who came to pay their respects that didn’t agree it was the absolute best way to leave this earth. To be that age and yet still surprise people that you’ve passed. To be in the middle of your daily routine, doing everything you love to do, and just sort of…stop.
The priest at his Mass gave an analogy I will always carry with me. When someone gives you a gift, let’s say a shirt, you might wear that shirt if you know they are coming over. But if that person stops by unannounced and you happen to be wearing the shirt, imagine how happy it makes them to see you enjoying the gift they gave you. Not because you had to, but because you wanted to. And life is like that. God stopped by for my Grandpa Ted in October and caught him using the gift he’d given him — life. Shouldn’t we all be like that? Shouldn’t we all enjoy this gift of life every single day and not let it go to waste?
While I was one of her only two actual grandchildren (always relishing that she called me her Number One because I was born first), my grandma was somehow everyone’s “Grandma B”. My friends, my sister’s friends, our cousins on the opposite side of the family, everyone called her Grandma. And she treated them all as family.
Let me tell you though, from the insider’s perspective, there is nothing in this world like an Italian grandma. I’m not sure if she ever reached 5 feet tall without shoes on, but she could put you in a headlock and cover you with kisses till you couldn’t breathe. Her strength was impressive.
As with so many in the Fifties, she was a post-World War II immigrant, a pioneer for our family. The love story between her and my Grandpa Al would make a really cute romantic comedy, actually. The two of them coming to America to start a life together, but never quite losing what made them who they were. I grew up listening to both languages, but never learned Italian the way I should have. The accent though, I’ve got that down pat. My grandma had that sweet little bird voice that just made everything sound more beautiful…or more funny. Some words and phrases I’ll always say wrong on purpose because of her. For example, a cell phone is a “cellar phone”. When you make a wish, you “say the pray”. And when the phone rings or the door knocks, the correct question is, “Who it could be?”
If there is one word that is synonymous with Italian grandparents, it’s “food”. So many of my memories, thoughts that comfort me, and the Happy Place I go to when life gets stressful come from her kitchen. Sunday pasta dinners were always at 2pm. The only thing that changed was the type of noodle. Sometimes rigatoni, sometimes spaghetti, sometimes cavatelli. Pasta will always be one of my favorite dishes, but it will never taste quite right without Pecorino Romano on top because that’s what she always served. And the meatballs, oh man the meatballs!
She kept cookies and zucchini bread in the freezer at all times because you never knew when someone would need baked goods. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were still a few loaves down in the basement with her handwriting on them. Since her passing I have tried to emulate this quality, and while I can say I did a bang-up job on Christmas cookies this past year, I simply can’t keep them in the freezer. Because I will eat them. She must have had willpower far beyond my own.
And her gifts. My sister and I were always thankful we were the only two grandchildren because we were constantly showered with presents. Add just one more grandkid and we would’ve had to split everything in thirds? No thank you! She would slip us money under the table, telling us it was our secret…and then call attention to her own slyness by telling everyone at the table what she just did! And we never left her house empty-handed. Not just homemade goods, but all kinds of little things here and there, and staples to stock our own kitchens once we got older. It all adds up to a lot of love. I still have one serving left of coffee in my freezer and a box of spaghetti she gave me. I feel like once I consume these things she’ll truly be gone. So I let them sit there a little longer.
I don’t think there are really any words to express how much I’ll miss her. With our family so small on that side, we were so close. Her chair is noticeably empty. Her presence is obviously missing. I still listen to old messages just to hear her voice. Today is the first day in my entire life I won’t get to hear her wish me a happy birthday.
With the loss of both of these inspirational people, I look forward to those unexpected moments yet to come – a song that reminds me of Grandpa’s singing, a smell that reminds me of Grandma’s kitchen, a dream where one of them appears.
So here is “Pasteech”. The best way I could think to pay tribute to each side of my family. The heritage, the jokes, the food, and always making the best of what you’ve got to work with, whether in the kitchen or in life.