She is 10 and bored and wants to bake and I am trying to focus on work with an important conference call that I have to facilitate in a few minutes. I am half-listening as she reads off the list of ingredients, the recipe pulled from the kitchen drawer where she knew to look, and I point to this cabinet or that with little explanation while I review the agenda and while Skyping with one of the managers at the office for a status update on a scheduled deliverable.
When she asks whether I have a rolling pin—she has never seen me use one, but that doesn’t stop her—and I say yes, she is stunned to silence, for a nanosecond anyway. Then she asks where in that tone that 10-year-olds are so good at—and 11, 12, so forth and so on—that implies (and I am paraphrasing, of course) what the fuck are you doing with a rolling pin?
When she retrieves the rolling pin—which takes a stool, though for me it takes a chair—she studies it for a moment, then asks if it is old or new. Its large wooden sturdy construction impressive, even to me. It was my grandfather’s, I tell her, but do not add that it is probably 80 years old, maybe closer to 100, and I have never once used it, or thought much about it beyond the fact that it was his and so I kept it, along with his Purple Heart and few photos of him.
I hate sugar cookies, rarely make them, keep the recipe just for her, and never once in previous sugar-cookie adventures have I reached for the rolling pin, or even admitted I had one. While I am working, she makes the dough, unassisted, and she manages to get all the right stuff in the right amounts into a big enough bowl. After my meeting, I help out with some final kneading, and the dough goes into the fridge to chill. Two hours later, we clear the kitchen island, clean it, spread the flour, dig out my collection of cookie cutters, and begin.
When I take the rolling pin in my hands, run flour the length of it on all sides, I wonder how many times did he do this, the man who made everything from scratch, who came over on the boat from Naples when he was 17 with a 14-year-old brother in tow; the brother promptly got into trouble with the local police and my grandfather sent him back to Italy. I lived with my grandparents as a child, ate sun-warmed tomatoes out of my grandfather’s garden as I hung over the deck wall with a salt shaker in hand, shimmied up the pear tree and apple trees when fruit was ripe, watched my grandfather in the gardens and the kitchen year over year, and though he never thought to teach me, he taught me just the same.
None of us knew for certain what year he was born, nor whether his last name was changed when he entered this country, by mistake or intentionally, as happened with so many immigrants. He most likely arrived in this world in the late 1800s, born to whom no one knows, not any of his American descendants anyway, and, all these years later, it seems unlikely anyone in Italy remembers him. What motivates you to bring a few things with you, step onto a boat at 17, travel the ocean to a new country, then disown your family, as he did, and live apart where all you have is what you create yourself, a house you built, your American family, your stubborn refusal to speak Italian, to teach it? It is a self-exile of sorts, a trans-Atlantic go west, young man.
But he never lost touch with his ability to grow things, to cook, to bake, to do everything on his own, including plumbing, electrical, laying stone. The implication is that he must have come from a farm family, lived in the countryside where there was no one to call to fix something or other, to renovate your kitchen or add a sun room to the back of the house, and even at 17, he knew enough to go it alone. Well into his 80s, he would still can fruits and vegetables that we would retrieve from the second pantry in the root cellar and eat through the winter, along with homemade jams, wine, pickles, and he would gather dandelion greens from the front yard on any given summer day for the soup of the moment. But my favorite was always his homemade apple pies. How many crusts he must have made with this rolling pin, how many times he must have reached for a bit of flour and dusted the wood, this wood, readied it, then put it to work.
We will roll, cut, bake, repeat, my granddaughter and I, through the late afternoon. Though the sugar cookies are bland, a good five dozen or more of them, they are a gift just the same, the gift of memory, remembering, and how I took it all for granted as a child. What will my granddaughter remember about this day, I wonder, or will it be lost to her the way so much is these days in a world that moves too fast, where so much of what we do and think and make time for are more sound bite than meditation, where your grandmother holds a corporate job and would love to find a nice Italian guy to do the gardening and the cooking, and make the sugar cookies.
“If baking is any labor at all, it’s a labor of love. A love that gets passed from generation to generation.” – Regina Brett
Image: “Key West Butterfly #2,” Key West, Florida, May 2007. © Faith Vicinanza