Grandma Doesn't Remember Lasagna Anymore

This is a picture of my grandma on her wedding
day....she looks SO happy and excited; I love
this picture. 
It was a normal session of canning in the kitchen between my mother and I. My mother in law was out of town, so it was just the two of us that day. She was feeding the tomatoes into the boiling water and as she brought them to the cold bath waiting in the sink, I reached in, peeled them, sliced them, and placed them into the stock pot. Canning tomatoes is something that we do together all the time, but something was different that day.

“I talked to grandma yesterday” my mom said cautiously, referring to her mother as ‘grandma’ for my sake, “and she asked me something really funny.” I slowed my tomato processing to listen. “She asked me if she ever made lasagna before.” This gripped my attention because, of course, lasagna had been something my grandma has always made. And she didn’t remember.

Not only did she not remember, but she had to ask. I knew in that moment that something with my grandma had changed and gone in a direction that she wouldn’t be able to recover. We had been suspecting this for a while now...she had been forgetting things for years and though they were small at first, they were beginning to grow in significance. I can only describe what I felt in that moment of realization as heartbreak.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t already know. There had been signs. When I visited her in the spring of 2012, I mentioned writing her and she asked what I meant. I explained to her that we exchanged letters at least once a month, sometimes more. She replied, “We do? I didn’t know that.” We had been pen pals for a number of years. As 2012 melted into 2013, the letters became more scarce. I would send two letters and not hear back. And in January they stopped completely.

My grandmother is a proud woman and she always has been. Her lasagna was one of her claims to fame in our family history of food. My grandmother, for so much of her life  was synonymous with cooking, and the fact that she was forgetting left me with a sense of urgency. I wanted to make lasagna.

I had been pondering the thought for weeks when I was awoken by my phone ringing. It was my mom. It was eight o’clock and I knew if she was calling that early, it couldn’t be good. My grandmother was in pain and refusing to go to the hospital. I called her immediately and learned that she had finally caved and called 911. Tests determined that she had tumors on her lungs and kidneys.

When my mother and I arrived in Buffalo a week later, grandma was still in the hospital and we were no closer to a diagnosis. She was in good spirits and happy to see us, and we did the small things that we could to keep her happy; we painted her nails, brushed her hair, and sat and talked about small, everyday things. She lamented about all the things she no longer remembered...the memories she knew she wanted to keep with her but couldn’t grasp.

In a lot of ways, I felt nervous about all of it. Because she was sick, yes, but also because I wondered if this was what was in store for me in the future. Would I forget the things, experiences and other details that make me who I am?

The second day we were there, I brought my grandmother some chai panna cotta I had made. As she ate, she asked me what it was, and I told her. I had to explain to her what chai was and what panna cotta was and when she was finished she said, “That was really good. You know Billie, you are a great cook.” I told her thank you casually....because what she said meant so much to me that had I taken the time to tell her that then, I would have burst into tears. My grandmother isn’t the sort of woman who doles out such compliments lightly, and I knew that.

I had spent years pining for her angel hair pasta with homemade sauce, or recalling fondly the smell of her cooking.  My grandmother’s cooking is really something to live up to. She may not remember that she made the best lasagna ever, but in those moments, I realized it doesn’t matter anymore because I have the recipe. More importantly than that, I have her seal of approval that I am a great cook.

When the people we love and the things we cherish about them start to slip into the abyss of time, the most important thing we can do is carry their memories with us. I will do it for my grandmother, becoming the keeper of her memories, and hope that someday someone will be there to do it for me. In the moments where my future, fragile memory fails me, I hope someone will be there to keep it for me, and carry it forward. That is the nature of tradition, and the opposite of being forgotten.

How do you want to be remembered? Do you have a special moment where a family member gave you a gift that you didn't know you needed desperately? Share your memories with me in the comments section below.

6 comments:

  1. I love your blog. I can relate to some of your stories, even if I am a first generation, 100% Italian living in the States...
    I just recently lost my favorite Aunt, Zia Giovanna, and she made the bestest Ravioli in the world. Sadly nobody in my family could make her ravioli, even if we tried under her supervision.
    She was a great cook, along with my Mum and they both are missed a lot.
    Luckily I can make her ciambelle and some other recipes that she shared with me.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I am sorry about the loss of your Aunt Zia. (cool name!!) Ravioli is such an art!! I make my own but I am the first in my family to make them since my great grandmother, so (luckily or unluckily, depending) I've nothing to compare it to.

      There is a great book about that you may enjoy: The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. The author searched for her grandmother's recipe, and it leads her in all sorts of interesting directions!

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  2. Hi Billie, that was absolutely beautiful what you wrote and brought tears to my eyes. Your mom and me are friends from Lackawanna. You are a beautiful amazing woman like your mom. I remember your grandma and I pray for her health and that she will be around for many more years for you and your family. My father also was a good cook and before he passed away he was also gave me the compliment that I was a very good cook. I can totally relate to your blog. It is very difficult to watch a family member slip away but you are correct about keeping their memories alive within us. This encounter was touching and beautiful and thank you for sharing. Regards to your mom from Debbie Rivera

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    1. Hi Debbie!! Thanks for commenting in with such kind and wonderful words! I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your father, but I am so happy you got that compliment from him. It just means so much to get those sorts of validations from those that we love and respect.

      I will certainly give my mother your regards! I am sure she'll be so happy to hear from you!

      Thanks again for reading my blog. <3

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  3. My Italian grandmother came to this country in 1898 as a 13 year old. She was one of thirteen children who grow up in a small peasant village, she was Baptized and Confirm when she as about 2 in Italy. The man she was to married had come to the USA a couple of years before her. When she was 18 she married him and had five children, my father being the oldest. My grandparents were totally in love with each other. Every Sunday she stayed home while the others went off to Mass. While they were gone, she would prepare the Sunday dinner always homemade pasta and the greatest sauces. One day as my grandfather got off the streetcar he was struck by a drunk truck drive and died shortly after. Grandma went into a deep depression and did not speak or cook for 2 years. My father had left Chicago and moved to Burbank, Ca to work at Lockheed. The rest of his family followed him to Burbank when I was just a couple of months old. I can remember going to her house each Sunday and every bed in the house was covered in pasta. She would take a very small piece of dough and roll it on a metal rod (I still have the rods) and pull it out to make what we call stove pipes. Later, she came to live in a small apartment my father build for her behind our house. I can still remember the smell of fresh baked bread. She always saved a little dough to fry. YUMMY When I came home from work I would check to smell from her kitchen and the smell from my mother's kitchen to decide where I would have dinner. (It did not please my Mom when Grandma won out because she was also a great Italian cook.) Grandma never used a recipe or a measuring cup. She had a great sense of the feel of the dough and the taste of the sauce. She could not read or write, all her knowledge has been lost, only what I saw her do is with me today. One day she asked my mother to take her to the priest to receive her First Confession and her First Communion; she was in her 50's. After that she never missed daily or Sunday Mass, her rosary was always near her. She had a Kitchen Madonna on the wall of her small kitchen. It is now on the wall in my kitchen watching over me as I cook. As she entered her mid 70's, she began to lose her memory, she lived for nearly 24 years with no memory of anything or anyone but my grandfather. She stopped speaking English and returned to Italian. The last thing my grandmother said to me in English was "Is Jesus mad at me because I cannot receive Him anymore." I assured her that he loved her and would always love her. Grandma may have lost her memory of recipes and faces but she never lost her faith in God or the Eucharist. She taught me to cook but more importantly she taught me the love of the Mass, the Rosary and the joy of short visits to the Blessed Sacrament. She died at the age of 94 and after her funeral Mass in Burbank; her body was return to Chicago to lie down, once again beside my Grandfather. May they rest in peace.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story here. Nothing is truly ever lost when someone is there to remember it, and you are that person for your grandmother. xoxo BIW

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