The task I have given myself today is to write about someone I never met, but want to pay homage to. The main reason I feel deeply inclined is because she was my close friend Shawn’s, grandmother. He is here with me in Cortona, Italy, and we have been talking about her, and reflecting on her long and wonderful life since the sad news March 8th. Did I mention she was 102!
When Shawn visits his relatives (about twice yearly) he comes to our house for a few days on either end of his trip. We have always done this, and know that part of his “rounds” include lunch with his grandmother.
Losing his grandmother broke the connection to part of his past. I know this sounds very morbid, but I am not trying to be.
I am fascinated by family, and how they are linked to the past through blood. Shawn could talk to his grandmother about her grandfather, which would give him an oral history linking him to the mid 19th century. When that thread is physically lost, it can feel like you lost so much more than a grandmother.
When I talk to someone (especially when they have lived a long time) I feel I am talking to multiple members of their family. I can hear their ancestors echoing through the words, and it rounds out the person so to speak. We are part of all those people who went before us, and that is why I am hungry for anything anyone can tell me. It can go a long way to explaining who they are.
I had gotten to know Shawn’s grandmother because of Shawn himself. There was such affection between them; what was he going to do with all of those feelings?
So, we began with a walk to the breathtaking San Franciscan convent of Le Celle which St. Francis founded in the first half of the 13th century. Religious or not, it was the place to be right at that moment. The walk from Cortona (we were six strong) was happy, with lots of quiet laughter and pats on the back. The sun followed us all the way there, and we were glad of its warmth on our backs as we marched along.
As we walked, I chatted with Shawn and asked him to tell me some good food memories relating to his grandmother (this is after all a food blog!). There were so many things to tell. She was a 1940’s and 50’s housewife in the United States. The heyday of the gin martini, and cheese fondue. She was apparently an excellent cook and Shawn remembered lots of great meat dishes as well as a delicious dessert called an “ice-box cake” He also laughed when he remembered her going through an “aspic period” and recalled the worst one; a tomato aspic, (why was aspic such a craze? Probably something to do with Julia Child and her french culinary experience. Who didn’t want to be fancy and french in those days!).
He also told me if I wanted more details I should ask his mother Sharon, and when I did, to make sure she related the “cat story” Sharon was only too pleased to be part of this memory gathering, and gave me lots of jewels.
I have also known Sharon for many years (as you may have gathered, I need to know everyone’s whole clan!), and she went a long way to giving me more of a complete picture of Nana. She thought her best dish was (among many) a sumptuous leg of lamb. (She also thinks she is the reason Shawn likes lamb so much).
She also mentioned that she made a “wicked” standing rib roast. She talked about the Ice-Box Cake, but added that it was rounded out with lady fingers and chocolate. Sharon still makes this cake on special occasions, and I am definitely getting the recipe and trying it for myself.
She told me about the infamous tomato aspic, but added that she LOVED it! (really Sharon; yuck!)
She went on about her Macaroni and Cheese, and all sorts of other things, but, I wanted to know the Cat Story.
When she and their son would come to dinner, the table was always formally set; china, sterling silverware, crystal, the lot. One day while eating a soup appetizer, their Siamese cat jumped straight into her father-in-law’s soup. He was so horrified (and probably got the fright of his life), that he flung the cat from one end of the dining room table to the other! Sharon was way too intimidated by her surroundings to make an utterance. It is something she will never forget. Oh yes, and the cat survived the trauma (maybe with one less life).
Le Celle instills awe right from the beginning. One moment you are walking down a hill, the next you are standing by the outer wall, which literally hurdles you towards a deep valley on the slopes of Monte Sant’ Edigio. This valley is filled with the convent’s many very stark buildings, a gorge which has been manipulated to hone their water supply, and a lovely garden, outer gardens, and walkways that lead into the forest.
The moment you enter there is a sign asking you to respect the peace of the place by being quiet and reverent. There was no need for the sign, we became naturally silent as we wound our way down to the little chapel where St. Francis retreated.
When we walked by the church there was a mass being said, and we sat on the wall just outside and listened for a while.
As we walked back we stopped at a little place for warm coffee to give us energy to get up that last hill. It was a great day.
Since then Shawn has fondly read her obituary in her town’s paper to me, and I found out her funeral is this Friday. I suspect we will take our friend to a nice spot to remember her, and say a sweet goodbye.