Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I finished most of my Thanksgiving preparations, a few minutes ago. The dressing, potatoes, and squash are done; the turkey is brining; the house is clean. In the middle of making the dressing, using my grandmother's secret recipe I realized what I am thankful for, in addition to God's loving providence, my husband, and my wonderful son: the woman who taught me how to cook.

I am thankful that I had such wonderful grandparents, who taught me about what really matters in life. I have written in the past about my maternal grandmother, but I have never written about my paternal grandmother. She went to her eternal reward 3 1/2 years ago. While my maternal grandmother taught me about spirituality, my paternal grandmother taught me about the Christian life.

Her grandfather was a Portuguese count, who banished his adulterous son for his indiscretions. He and his wife moved to the United States and my grandmother was born in the beginning of the 20th century, in a small apartment in Fall River. It was a long way from the comforts of the palace, but little changed. Her mother died when my grandmother was a toddler, and her father remarried quickly. Two more children were born and my grandmother was treated much like Cinderella is the old fairy-tale. When she became a teenager, she asked permission to move to Portugal to live with her grandparents and aunt. By this time, the Portuguese revolution had already taken place and her grandparents had lost the palace and their titles.

She loved her life in Portugal and met a young man, who was from a family of bakers. He was just one of several young men who would to serenade her from beneath her window, but he was different. He was a homebody. He went to work, went to church, and didn't hang out at the local cervejaria (bar). They married and had four children, the second of which was my father. Then WWII broke out and her husband urged her to return to America with their children. They left Portugal in 1944. It was a difficult decision because he would not be allowed to come with them. She would be on her own with four small children, one only an infant.

She waited in America until the end of the war. My grandfather arrived around 1947 and their family was finally reunited. Soon after, they had another child. Their youngest daughter was only a teenager when my grandfather passed away in 1963. After my grandfather's death, my grandmother moved into a housing project in New Bedford. She watched the neighborhood change many times, but she refused to leave. By the time I was born, it had become one of the worst projects in the city, but it was her home.

She was a firm believer that the way to a person's heart was through their stomach, and would spend many hours cooking for the neighborhood children. Many of these children did not have parents they could depend on and my grandmother's apartment was always filled with these kids. She fed their stomachs, minds, and spirits, and even when they were grown they never forgot it. I remember being at my grandmother's one evening when there was a gang fight outside her window. We ducked under the dining room table in a attempt to avoid getting hit by a stray bullet. I was shocked when after the fight, several of the gang bangers knocked on my grandmother's door. She opened the door without a care in the world. They wanted to make sure "Grandma" was ok. She assured them she was fine, gave them a stern tongue lashing, and gave them some food.

Sometimes I would visit her and find that she was playing dominoes with some of the neighborhood teens. They knew enough to keep their gang colors in their pockets when they visited her. For a long time I wondered why they had such a connection, but I think I understand it now. She cared; she understood. Although she was in her 80's she had grown up without the love of her parents, just like them.

Eventually she was unable to live on her own and moved into the suburbs with my aunt. It was a battle to get her to leave. When she left, it was like a piece of her essence had been left behind. A few years later she moved into a nursing home. Dementia robbed her from us in a slow, painful process, but she always asked if I was cooking her recipes. I always lied and told her that I was. She was thrilled when she found out that JP was coming, but sadly died four months before his birth.

I was shocked to see so many of the kids she fed, at her funeral. Some of them had risen from their childhood struggles to become successful adults, and others followed in their parent's footsteps. All of them remembered the love of a little old Portuguese lady, who made great food and had a place at the table for everyone.

I am thankful that I had that wonderful woman in my life. She didn't only teach me to cook, she taught me to look beneath the surface and see the child of God hidden "in a distressing disguise", as Cardinal O'Malley likes to call it. She taught me to be unafraid to give of myself to everyone I meet. She taught me to be strong and independent.

Vavo, thanks for the recipes, but even more thanks for the recipe of life.
God, thanks for giving me so many wonderful sources of wisdom, guidance, and inspiration.


Brian Michael Page said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Nice post!

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

What a wonderful, inspiring example she gave you! This was very timely for me personally ... I attended my grandmother's funeral this past week. Thanks so much for sharing this.


muddy mama said...

That was an amazing tribute to your grandmother. Truly a blessing to be grateful for.