LOVE AND IRONY IN A SICILIAN KITCHEN
Sunday morning, Flushing, NYC, 1959
The scent of frying meatballs fills the air and my young olfactory system kicks into gear.
As I approach the stove, my mother gingerly pops a golden brown meatball out of the padedda and puts it on a plate, just for me. This is my moment, my favorite way to enjoy meatballs, freshly fried and so hot I juggle the pieces between my tongue and cheeks, breathing through my mouth to cool the luscious morsel before swallowing it, to save my throat the pain of a hot-meatball burn.
The onions are next, sautéing to a limp sweetness in the juices left by the meatballs. Salivary glands take over and I long for another meatball with a few strands of caramelized deliciousness but, no, I must get ready for church.
On the burner next to the padedda is something to which I never give a second thought. It is there every morning and evening– white, shiny, long enough to fit a glass syringe and its accompanying needle, which are sterilized twice a day. It is for my sister’s daily ritual. My mother continues frying and cooking, cooking and frying while the syringe, lying in its shiny white casket surrounded by bubbling, boiling water, readies itself for the ritual.
I return from Sunday mass to the scent of my mother’s Sunday succo. The garlic has been lovingly sauteed, the onions too, and the tomatoes and seasoning are mingling in the large piniata along with the meatballs. My salivary glands respond in kind. My mother gives me a piece of fresh Italian bread that I dip, ever so gingerly, into the simmering succo. I burn my tongue a bit, but it’s definitely worth it. My sister, in our room listening to 45s on our record player, cannot partake in this bit of Sunday morning pleasure.
That evening, as every evening, in the only bathroom in our family home, an apartment in our grandparents’ two-family house, I brush my teeth and watch as my sister dips a test strip into her urine and waits for the color to emerge . My mother brings her the glass syringe, freshly sterilized with the needle inserted, and I watch as my sister plunges the needle into her thigh, her butt, her upper arm, always rotating to avoid injury or discomfort to her young muscles. She is ten, I am six. As the years pass the ritual remains the same until disposable syringes are available and she is old enough to complete the task totally on her own.
Seven days a week, mornings and evenings, I watch the scene play out. I suppose, as a child, I assume this is how all kids start and end their day, with an older sibling whose life depends on the contents of the syringe. Whatever food my mother makes for breakfast or dinner during these formative years emblazoned in my mind, there it is, the shiny, white casket on a burner aside the meal my mother prepares. As a young girl there is no realization that my sister often does not eat exactly the same as we other three and it is not unusual for my mother to prepare special meals, meals that will not adversely impact my sister’s insulin level.
As I grew older the irony of those two stovetop burners side by side, both cradling life-sustaining ingredients, was not lost on me. As I remember my beautiful sister, lost to diabetes at only 39 years old, the incongruity of that vision lingers.
When one is the fortunate sibling, how does she reconcile those two images?
Rituals and redemption,
Meatballs and needles, side by side.
Rosaria Caporrimo is of proud Sicilian heritage and was raised bilingual with the Sicilian language (not a dialect). Having taken back her Italian citizenship many years ago, she travels back to la patria each summer. Rosaria holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology and was a professor in the CUNY system for many years, but has always been a writer and an actor. She is also a proud mamma and a nonna to four beautiful grandchildren.