My grandmother came to America as a girl of 15. She married at 17 and had 11 children. Her husband died when her youngest child, my father, was just a boy. She herself lived to be 100.
But that's just the barest of bones. It surely doesn't tell you who my grandmother was. And while she was alive, I never asked her to flesh out her story -- never asked how she came to America, why, with whom.
That was all buried with her.
She was a remarkable woman, my grandmother. Like many immigrants, she led a hard life in America, raising her children with very little money at a time when Italian Americans were looked down on by the rest of America. Just one look at her hands -- gnarled, knotted and strong -- would tell you of this woman's hard life, her hard work. Every day she cooked, she cleaned, she went to church, and she never stopped to look for more than she'd already been given.
She used to visit us for a few weeks in the summertime, and while she was there, the house was in an uproar. She made meatballs. She cooked spaghetti sauce. She pulled dandelion weeds in the back yard and cooked them for dinner. My mother bought pounds and pounds of flour, and my grandmother stood at the kitchen counter all day long, kneading bread and making pasta noodles.
We called her Nona, and we kids loved to watch her at work in the kitchen. She made dozens of loaves of crusty Italian bread at a time. She always saved the leftover dough and twisted it until somehow, miraculously, it seemed to me, the dough took the shape of puppies and people in her hands. She fried them in oil, sprinkled them with sugar and watched us gobble them down. She made pounds of pasta noodles and "poison macaroni" -- that's what we called her green spinach pasta. Sometimes we helped her run the dough through the metal rollers of the pasta machine to make long, silky noodles.
My favorite times, though, were when she made gnocchi -- potato dumplings. She boiled a stewpot full of potatoes and peeled them while they were steaming hot, never once burning her hands. She pressed the potatoes through a ricer and into a waiting mountain of flour, deftly cracked an egg or two over the top and began to knead this huge mass into a sticky dough.
When the dough was ready, she'd break off a small bit and roll it into a long string. She cut the string into tiny pieces and ran a fork across each piece, creating an indentation that would allow the dumplings to float once cooked. We tried to help, rolling a bit of dough under a fork. Oh, it was so hard to do! But her hands flew. The seemingly endless mound of dough steadily turned into a sea of dumplings, spread across the table as far as my eye could see.
When we got bored with helping, we'd hide under the table and sneak pieces of raw dough, our hands groping above the table, searching out the prize. And we were so clever -- Nona never caught us stealing the gnocchi.
Only years later did I realize she was probably laughing silently above us, watching our tiny hands paw the table.
A few days before my first wedding anniversary, my dad called with the news: Nona was dead. I stood in my back yard, phone to ear, searching the darkening sky above me. But I couldn't find her. And a great grief overtook me, not only for my grandmother's death, but for all the questions I had never asked, for all of my history that died that day.
I couldn't afford to fly to the funeral and my first anniversary was approaching. I was torn.
Should I find a way to go to the funeral and miss my anniversary? Or should I stay with my husband and miss the funeral? "Funerals are for the living," Dad reminded me. "If Nona were alive, she'd tell you your most important duty is to your husband. She'd tell you to stay with him." A quaint idea, perhaps. But I understood, and I stayed behind.
While my parents flew east, I pulled out my cookbooks.
I boiled potatoes; I measured flour. Soon I was elbow-deep in dough, kneading my way through my sadness. My arms ached with the effort. After a while, though, I got into a rhythm, and it went from awkward to easy. I rolled and cut and pressed a fork across each little dumpling, and in the movement of my hands, I saw my Nona. My hands, sticky with dough, moved swiftly, just like hers had all those years ago.
I rolled, cut and pressed. Rolled, cut, pressed.
Before long, my table was covered with tiny dumplings. Maybe not as many as Nona could've made. But no matter. I'd found her in myself.
My grief was gone. I had my Nona's hands.