Editor’s Note: ‘The Anarchist Bastard: Growing up Italian in America’ (SUNY Press), Joanna Clapps Herman’s latest memoir, evokes the intense drama, glory, trials, tribulations, and the totally existential role of food (and coffee) in the day-to-day life of a typical Italian-American family a generation (or two) ago.
Joanna stumbled across Allison Robicelli’s previous posts on Nona, and liked them so much that she graciously offered to share an excerpt from her book with us for Mother’s Day.
‘Coffee And…’ is an awesome tribute to mothers past, present and future. Enjoy, and if you love this piece as much as we do, pass it along.
Cheers to the moms! Don’t let them down, people!
by Joanna Clapps Herman
Coffee and sugar were the narcotics that stimulated the days and nights where I learned about intimacy in that great and terrible school, the Italian American family. We pressed up against one another as if our very breathing depended on our merciless connections.
The adults in my family drank pot after pot of coffee throughout the day, from when they woke early in the morning, until very late at night when they fell into bed exhausted from their caffeine fueled, furious days.
With the coffee always came the “and.” A couple of times a week we baked so that there would always be “and,” that little bit of something sweet that inevitably accompanied the many cups of coffee they drank to keep themselves bound to their relentless routines. We used recipes my illiterate grandmother carried in her head from Tolve when she followed her husband to America; mastachiole, pizza dolce, torta di ricotta, cartadade. We added to this abundance other recipes our mothers clipped from Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping, learned on the assembly line at Scovill’s Factory, or got from their neighbors: Russian Wedding cookies, jam cookies, brownies. Intimacy and coffee “and” were inextricably connected in my family.
The chemistry of the caffeine, the sugar, the connection with one another (so intense as to make us vibrate) combining as they did with a rage for perfection, made for standards of behavior so exacting, so naturally inevitable, that we threw ourselves at every task, work or play, ferociously, with a blind certainty that this was reality. Nothing was relative. Everything was absolute. Must and should was the air we breathed.
Our mothers had been raised in America but with 15th Century customs; on the pig farm where they lived as children, they had drawn their own water from the well and baked their weekly bread in the brick oven my grandfather built down by the road. They had risen at dawn to milk the cows and collect the eggs. After school they weeded the garden, cleaned the chicken coops, helped with all the endless chores of farm life. One summer they spent hours in intense heat picking bones out of the pig manure, because my grandfather had heard he could earn money for bags of bones. They grew most of their food. In addition to everyday cooking, they made their own sausage, prosciutto, many kinds of cheese, and of course, their own wine. They grew up with screaming and violence as an ordinary response to even minor deviations from these 15th Century mores.
This drove them to heights of great accomplishment: Whatever they undertook they did flawlessly. They were accomplished seamstresses, amazing cooks, wonderful hostesses, extraordinary gardeners. They were beautiful, immensely strong, extremely hard working and had no idea that they were allowed to take note of this. That was the family standard.
For most of my generation the violence had diminished, but fury still raced along our currents. “Get over, here. Who broke this cup? How did this happen? Come here. Right now! I’m going to kill you.” The hand hung in the air, swinging, a cupped threat, the twist of skin tight between your mother’s fingers. For some of my cousins, real beatings.
In my time too, the children were expected to work at their parents’ side. Our fathers painted and wallpapered the rooms and redid our kitchens after long days of physical work. The kids helped. Our mothers and fathers grew the vegetables and the flowers. The boys were in charge of all yard work, garage work and basement work. The mothers and daughters did the housecleaning, the laundry, the ironing, the sewing and the shopping. We canned the tomatoes, the peaches, the pears, pickled the eggplant, made the jam.
When we were little our mothers made our communion dresses, when we were in high school we sewed our own prom dresses. As soon as my generation was able, we sewed most of our clothes, shopping for the best quality fabric, spending hours in Fishman’s Fabric Shop on Bank Street, fingering the wool, cotton, satin, considering it, matching it to the Butterick Patterns we spent more hours choosing. But we wouldn’t buy it unless the fabric was on sale.
For fun we made our own liqueurs, fresh pasta, baked panetone, pizza, (‘abizz‘) bread, focaccia, (fucazz‘ we called it) made ricotta, scamozza, and provolone.
It wasn’t as if we didn’t play. We did, ferociously. When we swam we swam to the farthest shores and learned to do the most complicated dives, elaborate ice skating tricks. When we climbed trees we raced each other to the highest limbs. When we gathered for our annual Memorial Day picnic there was first an homage to America, bowls of chips, trays of nuts, dips. Bowls of macaroni salad, potato salad, trays of cold cuts. Our food followed: trays of manicotta, lasagna, meatballs, sausage, roast chicken with potatoes, sausage, onions and peppers.
Coffee carried in jars wrapped in mappines to keep it warm. Gallons of lemonade, orangeade, ice tea, the bottom of each jar coated with a thick syrupy layer of sugar. There were platters of desserts.
If ferocity was our code, oblivion to the code was our commandment. Making any comment on how the family operated was a sin. Calling attention to yourself was another. “Can you imagine she had to go and brag about her sauce. We all make sauce. Who does she think she is? So conceited.”
It was the hidden price of silence that was the most exacting. Fueling this illusion of ordinary and easy perfection meant you weren’t allowed to get credit for what you naturally worked so hard to accomplish. Instead, there was only blame for trivial failures. Perhaps we thought that if we were silent maybe someday we would be declared good. But, to my knowledge, no one ever was.
Often deep in our night’s sleep my sister and I were shaken loose from our dreams by my mother’s caffeinated screams, “Peter, Peter, Peter,” she’d cry out for my father to protect her. “There’s a man, a man, he’s coming in the window.” That murderous man came to get her so many nights. He was there to tell her she hadn’t done enough. She should rise from her sleep and wash the kitchen floor again. Her father had repeatedly condemned all his daughters, in his Tolovese dialect, “Quest’ non mai ess’ femin’ della cas’” (You’ll never make good housewives.) In Italian it would be, Questa non devono essere femine della casa, but in any language it’s the ethnic father’s controlling insult.
My mother cut back her coffee intake a little, when Dr. Lombardi, our family doctor, explained that unlimited amounts of coffee might be contributing to those nightmares. But never enough to stop her real nightmare. She would never be sufficient. No one could. Basta cosi.
Weekday afternoons after school the girls helped their mothers start dinner. Then the kids all went outside to play while the mothers had their coffee and… Pretty typically the only time these women sat still was when they served each other coffee.
“Papa had no business leaving everything to Rocky.” They are sitting at one of the formica tables that dominated our kitchens. It’s four o’clock, four thirty. A chambotte’ or pizzaola is simmering on the stove while we’re waiting for our fathers to come home, dirty, sweaty and hungry from their jobs on construction sites, or at the factories.
“We worked on the farm just as hard as Rocky did when we were kids. Didn’t we get up at six o’clock in the morning to milk the cows and feed the chickens before we went to school? Those freezing cold mornings. The fire in the stove out.” My Aunt Vicky, the youngest daughter starts the conversation. She has combed her hair and put on bright red lipstick, just after my mother called her to say the coffee was on. My mother, too, keeps a comb and lipstick just inside the cupboard by the kitchen door, in case she hears someone coming up the driveway.
“After Mama got her arthritis I had to get up before everyone and light the stove to make Papa’s coffee. Some mornings I had to break the ice on the top of the water jug to make the coffee. Oh, it was bad. Papa forgot all that.” This is from my mother.
“We all worked hard. I was always the one that had to carry up all the wood for the stove the night before. And carry in all the water. God how I used to worry about how I was going to smell going to school after I milked the cows. I’d scrub my hands until they were raw.” My Aunt Tony who works in the factory has stopped on the way home to pick up her kids, Nicky and Diane, who’d get off the school bus with us.
“What are you going to do? That’s the way it is in Italian families.” My Auntie Ag, the oldest, the one who accepts her fate. She raised these sisters and their only brother Rocky.
“I know, Ag.” Aunt Vicky says, “The boys are everything. The girls are nothing. But that’s not right.”
The girls, my mother and her sisters, nursed that conversation, nudged it along the same road for twenty years after my grandfather died. Leaving everything to Rocky, he had declared their work null and void. “Do you know in Italy, I read this somewhere it’s illegal to do that? You can’t do that in Italy. How’s that?” One would remind the others again.
“And Mama too. She could change it now if she wanted to. It’s not right.”
“You know Rocky’s her favorite. ‘Attsa’ the way you fadder want it.’ That’s what she says every time. I told her. Mamma that’s not right to leave it like that. You have five children. Not one.”
“Here try these cookies. Marie gave me the recipe. Her mother, Donna Paola, used to make them, she said. I don’t remember Mama making these. They must be Sicilian.”
“I shouldn’t. We have to have dinner soon. Just a little piece.”
“Wait I’ll heat you up.” The half empty cup would be filled.
The coffee, the sweet and the talk got them through. It never changed anything. It never mitigated the unchangeable ferocity with which every job was engaged, it never released their furies, it never changed the fact that no amount of work would ever be enough to appease the beasts that had been reared within.
Sometimes the fathers arrived home at the end of these “gab sessions.” They’d sit and have a cup before they went to take a nap, or went out to their gardens. “You girls have nothing to do, but sit and have coffee,” in their greasy and ripped work clothes they’d stand in the doorways, teasing their wives and sisters in law.
“You should have our ‘nothing to do,’” the women would turn their heads away in mock and real fury. “At least your day is finished. We’re not even half way through. I don’t go to bed sometimes until two, three in the morning.”
More often though, before the men started pulling their trucks into the driveways one or another aunt would say, “I have to get home. I haven’t even started dinner. Joe hates it if I’m not there when he walks in the door. Men are such babies.”
“I know,” my mother chimes in. “You know what Peter asked me the other day? Where did I keep the toilet paper. He doesn’t know how to find the toilet paper in his own house.”
“Men! Such a bunch of babies.” All the aunts agree on that.
The rich confines of each other’s lives enveloped and imprisoned us and held us safe against any worry, sickness or misery. The whole of it encapsulated us and within it we would live and thrive on whatever roared down our roads. We barely knocked on the door as we ran in and out of each other’s kitchens. We knew the damp smell of each other’s cellars, where tables of dusty tools rested near shelves full of jarred tomatoes, pickled eggplant, canned peaches. When one of our aunt’s or uncle’s hands began swinging like a small scythe, threatening one of their kids, we knew enough to make ourselves scarce, slipping off into the yard, whispering to the victim’s sibling, “What’d she do? Why’s your mom so mad?” Someone was going to get a palliade.
We formed the populace of our own claustrophobic nation, gulping each other’s air. Sometimes only our depleted exhalations were left in the room.
But on weekends and summer nights, when there was usually another round of coffee “and”, another kind of air filled our lungs. After the dinner dishes were washed, the stove was cleaned, the floor swept, the ironing done, when the relentless appetites of the beasty gods of duty had been appeased and they dozed briefly, most nights someone would suggest, as if it were a brand new idea, “Let’s have company.” While our angry gods slept we could crawl away. Phone calls would be made, “Come over,” even though only an hour before my mother might well have said, “You can’t believe what your Aunt Tony told me on the phone today.” Her full complaint would follow. “She said that she and that other one, your other prized aunt, went to the movies last Thursday. They didn’t even call me. After all the rides to New York your father has given those girls.” This slight would have been cultivated through the day, nurtured into full insult, given room and time to bloom into noxious anger.
But it was evening now. What were we going to do with this brief respite if not bind ourselves to one another more tightly?
“You can’t call Auntie Ag and not call the others. They’ll be hurt. I don’t want to be like them. Call them too. Tell them the pot’s already on. To come over.” This time period straddled the pre-TV and the early TV years so evenings were still open ended, waiting to be filled with talk and coffee “and.”
Sometimes the men joined us, and we laughed and talked in one kind of way. All the old stories came out and were repeated. All the sweet things the little kids had said were passed around the table again and reminded us of other family stories. But the men got tired earlier than we did. My father went down the street to play cards at the Italian Social club. By the end of the evening it was always the women and the kids. That was when the deepest intimacies curled up around our ears: in the world of women, kids, coffee “and” and talk. At night. As the dutiful day faded and left us free.
These visits stretched deep into the late hours. Whatever bitterness rocked and roared between these women, when they gathered, they naturally fell to alliances with each other again, murmuring assents and assurances, righting each other’s worlds with simple certainties, “Cripes she had no right to say that to you,” nursing each other’s miseries, “Peter and I will drive up with you and Gilda to the hospital in Boston. Don’t worry. I’ll stay with you through the operation,” swelling each other’s pride, “He looked so beautiful in his first communion suit. His hair slicked back like that. You should have seen the little smile when he spotted me walking out of church. How I wished I had my camera ready.” Or gossiped. My great grandmother would be quoted, “A che murmurade? Who shall we murmur about?”
We invariably sat at each other’s kitchen tables. At the end of these attenuated nights, long after the men had left to go home or had gone to bed, with cup after cup poured out for each woman, with plates of cookies and cakes emptied, refilled, reluctantly one of the aunts would say, “It’s late. I have to get home.” That aunt would rise from the table and begin to carry the cups and saucers to the sink to be washed. That was the signal for everyone to get up and help. Although siblings might fight after dinner, “It’s your turn to do the dishes,” when there was “company,” even our aunts, each of us wanted to show, almost ostentatiously that she had been brought up, “right.” We’d push the grownups away from the sink, “I’ll do them. Don’t worry about that Auntie Ag.”
Although coffee “and” was officially over for that night the real “and” wasn’t. The mothers might pick up the conversation, while their girls did the dishes. Then we’d walk each other to the door and pause just inside, not quite ready to let go. There the talk might well continue for another half hour. Whatever the main topic for the evening had been, the talk would go deeper now. “You know what I think it is about her?” A piece of information that had been hidden through the whole extended discussion would be revealed now. “You know what she did one time to me?” And the murmurred one’s horrendous act, having lain dormant under the normal rules of discretion, would now be fully exposed. Everyone would add new cluckings and comments. “I always thought it was just me she did those things to. So, you too?”
“Well you know maybe it’s because she never was that pretty. Even when we were girls. She was kind of chunky. Remember?” Then another addendum, “Well her father was so mean to her. I hear he beat her terrible. I remember her even in high school. She always had like this scared look. Once I saw some marks on her back when she was changing her blouse, all bruised, red and blue. It was terrible. Like she had been hit with, I don’t know what, who knows….”
“Well we all were scared of Papa too. Don’t you remember the beatings he gave us?”
“Yeah Tony, but her father was even worse than Papa. At least Papa laughed and sang too.”
“Yeah. When he wasn’t whacking us.”
“Yeah, but not like that. That was terrible.”
“I gotta get home. Joe must be wondering where I’ve gotten to.”
Then we’d leave our posts around the door frame and walk our company down the driveway to the sidewalk, really a dirt path at the side of the road, and kiss each other good night again. We were at the edge of the visit now, under the clear stars, the cool of darkness. A couple of the younger boys would be playing tag on the lawn, the rest of the kids were hanging onto their mothers, but not saying a word. We didn’t want to break the spell. The grownups were saying things. One of my aunts would quickly dart a look around at the kids upturned faces, asking herself, should I say it in front of them? before she turned her gaze back to her sisters. But the night would beckon, restraint was loosened a bit more, “But I feel sorry for her. You know what I heard about her husband. He’s stepping out on her.”
The pleasure of that moment. Being let into the adult world. The women and kids gathered, the talking, the quick intake of small gulps of air at news of the scandal. Maybe my mother’s hand would be stroking my hair–a brief recess from our daily fights. “I gotta go. It’s late. I don’t know what we’re doing standing here.” We’d all laugh.
Then, “We’ll walk you home. It’s dark.” We’d walk them home just up the street. Another excuse to extend the visit, the talk. Sometimes the night continued this way for another hour. There would be more talk, “You think that’s true what they’re saying about Toosie’s husband?” Then my aunts and cousins would have to walk us back down the street. Two of my aunts lived side by side. We lived two houses away. “It’s dark. We’d better walk you back.”
Finally, at maybe one, one thirty in the morning, just between Mrs. Goodenough’s and Miss Simpkin’s houses, the houses that lay between us and them, we’d tear ourselves away and say goodnight. “Common girls we really have to get home,” my mother’s arms around each of us shepherding us home.
Each of those almost goodbye moments allowed discretion and defenses to loosen and fall. Each time we declared the night at an end the conversation was free to go in a little deeper, to allow more to rise up. Out there in the safety of the late dark night, the rules slipped and what my mother and aunts had held in their hearts was allowed to emerge. This caffeinated intimacy, had about it love born of the animal grouping, life lived in clusters, the connection of house to house, body to body , breath to breath, whispered secrets in the dark. Our own nation, tribe and state.
Coffee was the elixir, the fuel, sugar sweetened the bitter, the talk and being together was the “and.” If it never made the furies abate, still we had each other in a way that has spoiled me for the thin and ordinary connections in currency now. I escaped my family in a rage, needing to loosen their claustrophobic bonds, but I miss the “and.”
Joanna Clapps Herman, author of ‘The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America’ (SUNY Press) has co-edited two previous anthologies Wild Dreams and Our Roots Are Deep with Passion. She is on the Graduate Writing Faculty of Manhattanville College. www.joannaclappsherman.com