My Italian-American family proudly embraces the food-centric stereotypes often attributed to our clan. Thirty- or forty-person meals were a common occurrence, and almost every family member at some point worked at Antonio's, my grandfather's Italian (what else?) restaurant. I loved being there and the absolute best part was hanging out with Grandma Jean.
She was a Ms. Pac-Man master. My sister and I would drink Shirley Temples and watch in amazement as Grandma would get to levels we’d never seen before, nonchalantly pass the controls over to us, knowing full well that we would immediately die. When I was a little older, I caught her smoking down the street from our house. She was supposed to have quit and it ultimately led to her passing, but she asked me to keep it a secret and I did. You don’t rat on Grandma. She was the matriarch and just a cool lady.
Our worldviews clashed often, leading to many wonderful debates. She was a devout Catholic while I struggled with religion, but she would listen closely to whatever I had to say and never judged me. She was also my biggest champion — constantly pushing me to greater achievements. Grandma Jean always had my back. When I wasn’t able to stand up for myself, or was fighting with my dad, I knew she would be there.
A few months before she died, I got to spend a week with her at her home. On our last night together, she taught me how to make gnocchi. Gnocchi is a cheese or potato dumpling and my grandmother’s were the absolute best (I know everyone says that, but in this case, it’s absolutely true). After years of wanting to learn her secret, I was finally getting my chance. Chained to an oxygen tank, she sat and called out instructions while I did the cooking.
“Don’t overwork the dough,” she firmly instructed.
“Sorry, Grandma. I won’t.”
She was a great teacher and the gnocchi turned out well. Not quite as good as hers, but not too shabby for a first-timer. We had a wonderful dinner that night.
When I got the call she had passed away, I was devastated. I was at home in Los Angeles with some roommates, and remember hiding in my closet and weeping. It was the first time anyone I loved so deeply died and, even though we knew it was coming, it still felt sudden. The next day I flew home to the Bay Area and helped carry her casket to the grave.
They released doves at the gravesite, but one of them wouldn’t fly away. It just stayed there throughout the entire ceremony, and I felt like that bird was me, that I was the only one there. The service was a celebration of this wonderful woman’s life, but I couldn't get past my own pain.
Weeks later, I decided to do the last thing we had done together and make her gnocchi. It didn’t turn out as well this time (of course, I overworked the dough), but to me, it was the best possible way to celebrate her life.
To this day, I still get teary-eyed when I think of my grandmother, but focusing on all the wonderful things she did brings me great joy. It saddens me that my son will never get to meet her, but one day I'll teach him how to make her gnocchi and pass along her love to another generation.