Now the cue for this parable: the crusty hot Cuban bread is placed to the left of every guest . . .
During the 1950s most Italian families from Chambersburg in Trenton, New Jersey, were related to the food industry in one way or another; pizza houses were on every corner. Our family, exception to none, stands out specifically. Now 90, Pop is still around to tell his story. For the most part, Mom kept us away from the restaurant, not wanting that we should get “that taste” in our mouths, so to speak. Dad’s third-grade education helped him scribble an X on a document at 17, when he turned the key to his business for the first time.
Mom graduated valedictorian, yet she was forced to give up her passion, opera, and go to work for Dad to help support the household while her brother, in the Marine Corps, was lost in Korea. Shortly before Dad’s 30th birthday they married and lived in the second-story apartment of her family’s home. I was born in that apartment, so these grandparents were my true role models. Our three-bedroom Rancher was purchased five years later, just one mile away—charting the course for the future of four children.
Dad worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, while Mom grew increasingly ill during our childhood. While she would combat depression and loneliness with alcohol, her high C soprano voice gave way to screaming fits as well as bouts of physical violence, and we found our refuge at Grandma’s.
Nearly blind and in constant pain, Grandma led us through our healing, asking for our direction up staircases and down, teaching us about herbs grown along the walkway under her kitchen window, giving us the appreciation for air-fresh sheets, which we would help her hang on the clothesline. Side by side, we two sisters learned the secrets of her many gifts, picking vegetables from the gardens and putting our hands on hers as she created fresh baked goods, delicate pastas, and bread without a recipe. Rising early, we started our day with the soft, yeasty aroma wafting through the neighborhood.
The scent of coffee still reminds me of those mornings when, after breakfast, we would take the crusts left over from the night before and, regardless of the weather, follow Grandma outside to the familiar area where we would break the bread with her.
The scent of coffee still reminds me of those mornings when, after breakfast, we would take the crusts left over from the night before and, regardless of the weather, follow Grandma outside to the familiar area where we would break the bread with her. “If you feed the birds, you will never go hungry . . .” became the sacred message, and so it was.
We never knew we were poor. We wore shoes until they wore out. Dresses were hand-me-downs. The trees in the backyard were our jungle gym, while the rhododendrons, roses, and azaleas were our aromatherapy. We ate spaghetti three times a week—beans and greens filled in the rest. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, roasted red peppers in olive oil and red chile flakes, prosciutto, and provolone were the main accompaniments. Bread was always on Grandma’s table.
Mom’s passing 18 years ago leaves Dad sitting in his rocker at the front window watching the birds surround the feeder early in the morning. He recalls my mother’s illness, reiterating how she was “a sick girl,” and remembering the years we were kept away from him and the opportunity to learn his trade. His body is on its sixth pacemaker, and he stoops over his walker as he prepares his coffee and oatmeal, living independently in the home he paid for with his sweat and blood. Although he stressed education, we chose to get ours from his real-life example.
The hospitality industry is our lifeline, and despite Mom’s desperate attempt to shield us from this life, it is in our blood. We can’t resist. A while ago, three women came for lunch at the Balcony at the Columbia, an open-air establishment where birds fly in and out freely. Now the cue for this parable: The crusty hot Cuban bread is placed to the left of every guest. In the jargon of the day, “gluten-free” folks request that it be returned.
“Italian people believe if you feed the birds you will never go hungry . . .” the parable begins. Our eyes connect; there is a short pause, then it continues. “Every time a piece of bread is thrown out, the words Forgive me, God slip off my tongue. I think it makes God cry.” The guests’ hands reach for their bread to unwrap it. The opulence of the guests is their poverty—a far stretch from what defines my purpose. I just hate making God cry.
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