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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I married into a wonderful Italian American tradition.

Some Holiday Memories by Jim Smith

Nana in retirement in Florida

For Christmas, in our dreams we travel over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. At present it is across town and along I-10 over several state lines to our house in Tallahassee the family comes. 

Christmas holidays remind me of dinners long ago at my Nana's house. She set a table that groaned with the weight of traditional Italian and American dishes.

These Italian grandparents on my mother's side really spread the holiday bounty. In attendance were family, friends, children, grandchildren, cousins, brothers, sisters and spouses. If you were invited to my grandparent’s table for Christmas, for example, plan on arriving early and remaining late. Plan to slowly, slowly, slowly eat, eat, eat from mid-day to dark.

          The repast was served in courses. I cannot recall exact menu selections, but dishes served went something like this:

Before beginning, fill all glasses with red wine, usually homemade from grapes gathered among relatives’ backyard vineyards or from the cool wine cellar in the basement. No respectable Italian home in America was without a wine cellar. But that's another story.

First Course—Antipasti including an assorted bruschetta plate consisting of roasted butternut squash and prosciutto ham, goat cheese, tuna in olive oil, black olives, fresh tomatoes and basil, assorted deli cold cuts and cheeses, hard-crusted Italian bread.

Ladies arise from table, gather dirty dishes. Retreat to kitchen.

Men refill wine glasses.

Ladies return with:

Second Course—Caesar salad or spinach salad with nuts. Toss it with red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.

Ladies arise from table, gather dirty dishes. Retreat to kitchen.

Men refill wine glasses.

Ladies return with:

Third Course—Traditional roast turkey with giblet gravy, cranberry relish and focaccia, sausage stuffing, plus (for those who didn't like turkey) baked ham with mashed sweet potatoes.

Ladies arise from table. Gather dirty dishes, retreat to kitchen.

Men refill wine glasses.

Ladies return with:

Addition to third course—Creamed corn, mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach.

Ladies arise, gather dirty dishes. Retreat to kitchen.

Men refill wine.

Ladies return with:

Fourth Course—Four cheese ravioli with pesto alfredo sauce, chicken and spinach manicotti all garnished with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Ladies arise. Gather dirty dishes. Retreat to the kitchen.

Men pour wine.

Ladies return with:

Fifth Course—Toasted Nonna's (Italian for grandmother) pound cake, warm apple crostada, chocolate zuccotto cake, tiramisu profiteroles, pumpkin praline cheesecake.

Ladies remain seated after dessert, take a short rest, then clear table.

Men retreat to basement wine cellar.

            It's about four hours into the meal, and of course, everyone is beyond stuffed. Ladies finish clearing table, then bring out their pennies jars and everybody plays poker including lone male grandchild, who is still in elementary school at the time. And, oh, yes. I had my own glass of wine too, extremely watered down, of course.

After several hours of poker, desserts reappear along with coffee. Whiskey replaces wine to enhance flavor of coffee. About 11 p.m., the party is over. Everyone bids a fond farewell.

My Italian grandparents had two daughters. Each daughter delivered a grandchild. I was the only male grandchild. My aunt presented them with the only female grandchild, eight years my junior.

In composing this family history tidbit, it occurred to me that no matter how many people sat at my grandparents’ giant dining room holiday table, my grandfather sat at one end, and I sat at the other. Everybody else sat on the sidelines—daughters, spouses and female cousin, in secondary positions. I'm sure it represented some old-world tradition. Had there been an oldest son of my grandparents, no doubt I would have been bumped.

At least 60 years have passed. I can see it clearly today—the house on the hill, the bright sun-filled dining room, the long and extended table, food prepared on the giant kitchen table, the family seated, the poker, the desserts, my grandfather and I at the table ends in command positions.

May your Christmas holiday be filled with memories that go over the river and through the woods, with family and friends in the grandest of your traditions.


The Italian Grandparents
Vincenzo and Esterina Coppo Grande

Friday, December 16, 2016

"A book is a gift you can open again and again." Garrison Keillor

As many of you know, when I was growing up, there were always books for Christmas. My parents taught me the value of reading very early in my life. From my first memories, I recall being read to by one or the other of them. Books were always around the house, and Dad was a prolific reader.

When I entered first grade, no pre-k or kindergarten then, I quickly became an avid reader for myself. By fourth grade I had read every book in our elementary school library, mostly biographies of American heroes. (Yes, it was a fairly small library.) Thank goodness that after fourth grade the local library was on the bus route and even within walking distance when necessary.

But it was at Christmas that I received the seeds of a family tradition and added to my list of books read. I discovered early on that my Mother listened closely to my ramblings about books I wanted to read. She would then rush out and buy them for Christmas. They would quickly be hidden away, or so my folks thought.

I discovered the hiding places and would sneak the books out and read them. After putting them back I would casually say something to the fact that "Oh, Joanne's mother bought her such and such, and such and such, etc, and she let me read them." A little later I would mention other books I wanted to read, the list was as endless as it is now, and Mom would dispose of the read books and put more in their place. Some Christmases this pattern could be repeated 2,3 or even 4 times.

I was well into high school when it stopped. I never learned if she had a 'deal' with the local bookstore, or if those books went under someone else's tree through the church or work gift collections. I always felt that I had outsmarted my parents.

Years later, my Mother casually let it slip that she and Dad knew exactly what I was doing, and they helped perpetuate the myth. Perhaps that would explain why they started buying and hiding the books immediately after Thanksgiving.

They also helped start a family tradition, for everyone in my family knows they will have a book or books under the Christmas tree. When our daughter married, we were told that it wasn't necessary to buy our son-in-law a book because, well, you know. He received a book and has for the past 22 Christmases, and some birthdays! No complaints. The same story with our daughter-in-law. "Not that much of a reader," she said. Now, 13 years later, she feels free to give me lists of titles she wants to read. Our five grandchildren know to look for at least one book under the tree. They also feel free to offer pre-Christmas suggestions and I always think, "but what if you read them before the big day?"

This year some of the requests from the young folks in my family include:

In previous years, I offered gift giving suggestions with small blurbs. This year I'll shorten the blurb and offer more suggestions. So, here are some books that would make great Christmas and Hanukkah gifts. Most of these are not from the best seller list, but great reads just the same. In no particular order.

Happy Holidays to all.


Music, Art,  Love, and War
Wonderful Books

                                            Two book about the Paris apartment closed up for
                                            decades. Opened within the last few years, it was a
                                            treasure trove. Two lovely books about this apartment
                                           and the courtesan who owned it. Seen through the eyes                   
                                           of a modern woman.

Other recommendations in not particular order:


                                             Of course, don't forget mine and Jim's!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

75 Years Later, We Remember

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. There will be memorials and memories shared across the U.S. and beyond. In my WWII historical fiction, Twilight of Memory, the attack marked a major turning point for 22 year old Henry and his Japanese American girlfriend, Lilly. Here is the beginning of the chapter that describes some of the personal events of that day as it touched their lives in a peaceful western Colorado valley.

Chapter 3

December 7, 1941

After church services on December 7th, Henry and his family returned home from Sunday School, had an early mid-day meal, and were enjoying a quiet afternoon. Ginny was in her room writing to a friend in Denver; Mom and Dad were in the living room listening to the weekly broadcast of Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade from the University of Chicago, and Henry was in his room listening to the static-filled broadcast of the football game between the Giants and the Dodgers in New York. He would see Lilly later when they went for a late afternoon horseback ride in the foothills of the National Monument.
Henry, was leaning in to hear the description of the ‘hard hit’ by Bruiser Kinard on the 27th yard line. Suddenly, came a new voice through the static.

 “We interrupt to bring you this important bulletin from United Press. FLASH, Washington: The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”

While Henry’s mind tried to convince him that he had heard incorrectly, the game returned to the airwaves and the play continued. Henry stood and walked into the living room.

“Mom, Dad…,” he began.

“Shh,” both parents said as they too leaned closer to their radio. Henry could hear what they were trying so hard to hear.

 “…from the air. I’ll repeat that. President Roosevelt says that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii from the air. This bulletin came to you from the NBS news room in New York.”

As the music started once again, Henry’s Dad flipped off the radio and looked at his wife and son. For what seemed to Henry a very long time, no one said anything.

Finally, his father spoke. “God help us. We’re in it now.

Upon hearing the news a second time, Henry ran to Lilly's home. The curtains were closed. No lights were on. He could hear crying. They would not let him in.

The following day the United States' Congress declared war on Japan. Again Henry ran to Lilly's home. The curtains were closed. No lights were on. He could hear crying. Again, they would not let him in.

Suddenly America was grieving and vowing justice.

Japanese Americans were grieving and becoming fearful.  

Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The United States, in turn, immediately declared war on them. The entire world seemed to be at war."

Several years ago, I spent two weeks studying at the East-West Center through the U of Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. I walked every inch of Pearl Harbor that was walkable and boated to many others. I learned the history from 'backstage' so to speak. I found my mother's childhood friend's name on the USS Arizona memorial wall, and I had lunch or dinner every day with a Dec. 7, 1941 survivor. It was an amazing, humbling experience.

Today we all remember.

My favorite of the many ship memorials:
The USS Utah.
Many of the men are still inside that rusted hull you see.

The USS Arizona, still underwater.
The Memorial sits astride the sunken ship.
Oil from the ship continues to bubble to the surface forming
beautiful, but haunting, colors in the water.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rest in Peace Veteran

Today a member of our family, a cousin, is being buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Harry was a career member of the Navy who was proud of his country and proud to commit himself to serving for over 31 years. He was an active man, a lifelong athlete and sportsman who, just as he was about to reach that age when he could slow down with his wife, children, and grandchildren was cut down by that insidious disease ALZ.

Almost to the end, Harry was active. His wife, Audrey, would take him to the gym and other participants there would talk with him and marvel at his physical ability. But his mind was slipping. Slowly, like a combatant he could not conquer, ALS robbed him of most of his mental capacity. It was heartbreaking to watch from afar, to know what the family was going through, but through it all they were there with him, strong, loving, caring, and taking care of him.

Somewhere along the way, Harry decided that he wanted to write his own obituary. Here is a part of it.

"This has been a wonderful life! I have had the privilege to serve our great country for over 31 years from the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam to Desert Storm (First Gulf War); I have sailed in every sea and Ocean on the planet except the Antarctic; and have had the honor to serve with the best sailors and Marines in the world. To my shipmates, Fair Winds and Following my Marines, Semper Fi! A man is blessed to have a loving family and faithful friends, I have been such a man."

CAPTAIN HARRY E. BAILEY US NAVY, retired, died on March 9, 2016 from Alzheimer's.  The family has been waiting for his turn to be honored with burial in our nation's most revered military cemetery since that day. Today, December 1, 2016 is that day.

During the wait I have learned many things about burial in Arlington. The cemetery conducts funerals Monday through Saturday, conducting between 27 and 30 services each week day and between 6 and 8 services on Saturday. I have learned that the process is long and complex, for many deserve the honor. Arlington schedules services based upon available cemetery and military resources. It can take months, as in Harry's case March 9 to December 1.

 During each family's long wait others are being honored, and in the true manner of military, the family waits once more for their military loved one to come home and rest. So today is Harry's day.

With aching hearts, we were not able to make the trip, but the family knows and understands that the hearts of the Smith and Knox families are with them.

                 Rest in peace dear Harry. Now join your brothers in sisters in eternal peaceful slumber.