When I was six years old my mother started to write me a cookbook. Growing up, I had no idea that she had started this for me but it made sense that she would. I grew up on Staten Island, in a very Italian house where food was everything. I was very lucky to have a mom who could cook, and I mean like, really cook. Some of my earliest memories of being a kid were waking up on Sunday morning, running down the stairs to my grandma’s apartment, getting onto a step ladder and dunking a ripped of piece of Italian bread into a pot of gravy, that had about 5 or 6 more hours before anyone would consider it “done”. My house smelled like garlic and everyone was yelling. It was perfect.
About four months after my mother very unexpectedly passed away in early 2014, I went home to help pack up her things. Under a pile of papers in a dusty garage, was a old yellow book with two renaissance style angels on the cover (very Staten Island). I opened it.
The first page reads: January 16th 1997
“ To Mommy’s Little Angel “Dayna”,
This book is for - when you’re all grown up (and please - take your time!) So, you’ll never have to say “ I wonder how my mother made that?” Now you’ll always know. I love you more than you’ll ever know - Mommy
Dayna - age 6
Mommy - age 33 “
I couldn’t believe it. In the most beautiful catholic school handwriting, was a message from my mom. Just for context at this point in the story I am crying, VERY hard. I started to turn the pages. Chocolate chip cookies.. okay Ma, I’m sure we are working our way to the good stuff. My Italian mother left me with not one but two brownie recipes, something called chocolate marshmallow slices and “Mommy’s Apple Pie.” Those of you that also grew up with Italian mothers are probably way ahead of me but I NEVER REMEMBER HER MAKING ANY OF THESE THINGS. And just as quickly as it came, twelve recipes later, four of which I have a vague recollection of, it ended. There was nothing else in the book. At this point of the story I am laugh crying, VERY hard. I know this wasn’t her intention. If the timeline in my head is correct she had recently become a single mother and seemed to be going through a real American mom pastry phase.
Now five years later, I spend a considerable amount of time wondering “how my mother made that”. Sometimes the instinct to pick up the phone and call her to ask is so real it knocks the wind out of me.
I’ve made several attempts over the years to complete this book with the things I remember and the things that we both loved. I wasn’t completely starting from scratch, I would tell myself, I knew how to make some things right? It would usually go like this. I would wake up on a Sunday, maybe a Monday as those tend to be my days off. I realize I have 2 out of 83938 ingredients to make something my mother used to make. The cookbook! I think to myself, sometimes out loud, grieving can make a real weirdo. I hit the grocery store in my yoga pants, usually armed with no more than 60 dollars. Now - sometimes this is where the story stops. There is a grocery chain in the valley I no longer show my face at because I had a very self indulgent cry in front of the chicken, and then a second time while looking for breadcrumbs. I have turned around, gone home and ordered a pizza more times then I care to admit, however; sometimes I can pull it together enough to get all of the things I think I need and even make it home to start cooking. Seven hours later cut to me on the kitchen floor, sitting with my back against the cabinets, holding a spoon, balling my sad little eyes out. I’ve gotten really angry at myself for not being able to remember, so I tend to stop. I’ve stuck to the few things I know how to make a left it at that for the past few years.
After years of trying and failing I realized I was leaving out the most important thing I would need to be able to finish this project. My mom was so great at what she did because she was cooking for people she loved. It’s the thing everyone remembers about her. She poured her heart and soul into the kitchen because yes, she loved food, but more importantly she loved people. She loved the chaotic kitchen that brought so much joy to the people around her. I knew deep down the whole time that I would never be able to replicate everything exactly, but I was too concerned about producing a finished product that I missed the thing that had been right in front of my face the entire time. If I am going to do this, I am going to need people. For context, I am crying.
So, I am going to spend the next year, trying, failing and documenting my attempt to make as many things as I can remember for the people who are in my life now. I don’t know if this strategy will work, but I know for a fact the other way won’t.
If you got this far, I thank you kindly for reading. Sunday will always have special place in my heart.