by Maria Lagalante Schulz
Mother’s Day is here, and you know what? Just thinking about it makes me hungry.
Memories of Mother’s Day past are filled with images of my mother and father, grandmothers, assorted aunts and uncles, and of course my brothers. Mother’s Day when I was a kid was just another reason to get together and have a party. My grandmothers would come over and my mother would serve salad or sausage bread, baked ziti or lasagna, a ham or a turkey, and then tons of desserts.
My father’s mother, Lena, used to make the most amazing shortcake with pineapples rings and peaches and fresh whipped cream, or her legendary apple pie. Lemon Meringue might be on the menu too, since that was Uncle Don’s favorite. Flying saucers and nutter butter peanut butter cookies were also a sure-bet, along with Italian pastries or zeppolie if my Aunt Tessie stopped by.
It never occurred to me then, but it was the women who did all of the shopping, cooked all of the food, and created the Mother’s Day celebration. Then, when everyone was finished eating, my mother cleaned everything up. Happy Mother’s Day!
The mothers who shaped my world are now mostly gone, but my enthusiasm towards them still lives on. They were amazing women, facing challenges that I can hardly imagine, and I am grateful to all of them. That’s not to say that I didn’t have some pretty amazing father figures in my life—but hey, it’s Mother’s Day! I’ll get to them next month.
First there was Filomena Zaccara. Born in 1875 into extreme poverty, Filomena was married to a man twelve years older than her, Daniel Zaccara, when she was just 14 years old.
She had 13 children and lost 7 of them to childhood illnesses. She dealt with an alcoholic husband who hit her repeatedly. The last time he hit her, she became so enraged that she bent an iron bed post with her bare hands and told him, “Next time, that’s what I’m gonna do to your head.” The beatings stopped, and my great-grandfather soon went to an early grave (Filomena was not to blame).
Left to raise 6 children alone, Filomena worked as the janitor in her apartment building, and did whatever she could to feed her family. She sent the boys with a penny to buy black bread or anything that was stale. Her daughters would go to the butcher and buy a ham bone, and Filomena would make soup with it, giving flavor to a soup that really just had potatoes in it. Sometimes, her father would give her handfuls of vegetables that he managed to beg off the street vendors.
Meat was a luxury that they had to beg to get. If they had meat on a Sunday, it was a great week. Filomena made something called “Chicken in the Basket,” which was not chicken at all—but an egg in the middle of a slice of toast that’s had the center removed. Filomena tried to make her kids happy, but things didn’t always go smoothly. Enter Sal, and an Indian Head penny.
Salvatore was her late life “surprise” baby, born just a few years before her husband died. Money was non-existent, but remember, Sal was an Italian boy. His wish was my great-grandmother’s command. At some point, Filomena began putting an Indian Head penny on his plate whenever he had an egg and toast. Young Sal began to expect it, and Filomena often had to run all over the place to make sure she had the Indian Head penny to go with his egg.
One morning, Filomena couldn’t find an Indian head penny, so she put a regular penny on his plate. A whole penny was an absolute prize back then—she could’ve used it to buy bread, vegetables, or even a ham bone. But no, she didn’t want to see Sal upset. Instead of reacting with gratitude, Sal tossed the plate over and threw a five-alarm temper tantrum. Filomena tried to console him but he got more and more hysterical.
Finally, Filomena threw the whole plate in the garbage, put that penny in her pocket, and slapped Sal across the face. “Now you get nothing,” she said. And that was the end of my Uncle Sal’s Indian Head penny breakfasts.
Having shepherded her brood to adulthood with their fair share of trials and tribulations—but without any jail time for any of them—my great-grandmother considered herself a success. She moved in with my grandmother and her family, and helped raise my Uncle Don and my father while her daughter, Lena, worked.
Now, Lena was an outspoken and strong-willed woman who made things happen through the sheer force of her will. She wanted her dream house in Flushing more than anything, so she agreed to have her mother and two brothers move in to help pay the bills.
Living with her two younger brothers, Tony and Sal, was okay for the most part. My Uncle Sal worked in Vaudeville, and he made great money. He was very generous and always helped my grandparents.
Her brother Tony also worked hard and carried his weight. The only thing was, Italian men from my grandmother’s day could have certain ideas when it came to food, such as: you cook for me, you serve me, you clean up for me. And if I don’t like what you put in front of me, I won’t eat it, and then you gotta do it all over again until I do like what you put in front of me.
Now Lena was a great cook, but like any working woman knows, you don’t have all day to whip up breakfast or dinner for everybody (and you sure can’t do it twice without wanting to kill someone). But she took it in stride and did her best to accommodate her brothers, my grandfather, and my uncle and father. Most of the time, she made everyone happy. But sometimes, they drove her crazy. For instance, there was my Uncle Tony’s peculiar Fried Egg habit. He gave Lena very specific orders:
“I want my eggs perfectly fried. If you break one of the yolks, I won’t eat it and you’ll have to do it all over again.”
“Why does it have to be perfect?” Lena said. “The minute I put it down on the table you break the yolks and put ketchup all over it. What’s the difference if it’s broken?”
But Tony was adamant. “That’s the way I want it, it doesn’t matter what I do with it. I want it perfect or I won’t eat it.”
My grandmother laughed. For the most part, she presented him with two perfectly fried eggs.
But the day came when she was rushing to get breakfast on the table, and horror of all horrors—she put a plate of eggs in front of him that had one slightly broken yolk.
Tony pushed the plate aside and Lena looked at him.
“What?” she said.
“The yolk is broken.” Tony replied.
“So what? I don’t have time for this. Eat it already.”
“No,” Tony said.
Lena became infuriated. “Whaddya mean no?”
“If it’s not perfect, I won’t eat it.”
“YOU WANT PERFECT YOLKS?” my grandmother screamed. “HERE YOU GO.”
She cracked two eggs over his head and threw the eggs on the table. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
Tony sat there, dripping with egg yolk, and he started to laugh. “Thanks. But I think you broke one.”
Lucky for Tony, Lena didn’t have any knives handy. He wiped the egg off his face and skipped breakfast that day.
My grandmother had the opposite problem when it came to feeding my grandfather. No matter how much she slaved over his meals, he never said anything. Not, “this is great,” or “I don’t like this.” Nothing. It drove her crazy! So one day, she decided to trick him into giving her a compliment.
She placed her freshly baked apple pie in front of my grandfather and watched him dig in. She waited a moment for him to say something nice, but all she heard was the sound of him swallowing.
“Wasn’t it nice of Mrs. Scalia to bake that for us?” she said. “Isn’t that crust amazing?”
My grandfather nodded. “Wow, it’s Mrs. Scalia’s? It’s great!”
Lena banged her fist on the table. “How come when you think it’s from Mrs. Scalia, all of a sudden it’s ‘great,’ but when you think I made it, you don’t say anything?”
My grandfather got that confused look on his face that he often had when speaking to my grandmother. “What, I gotta tell you that I like your pie? Isn’t it enough that I eat it?”
“No, it’s not enough! Tell me I did a good job! Tell me you like it! Tell me it’s the best pie you ever ate! Don’t just sit there chomping away.”
“It’s okay,” my grandfather replied.
My grandmother was livid. “It was great a minute ago when Mrs. Scalia made it. Now that I made it, it’s only okay?”
My grandfather finished eating, wiped his mouth on the napkin and left the table. And he did the one thing my grandmother hated most of all: he didn’t talk to her for the rest of the night.
But he did have another slice of pie.
Then, there was my mother. Sarita was a good soul; kind, hard working, and patient to a fault. She never told any of us that we couldn’t have friends over to the house. If it was dinnertime and they were still there, they were always welcome to stay and eat with us.
Jude, Cindy, Gerry, Gary, Mike and all of the band’s groupies would steal meatballs from my mother’s Crockpot, dipping in slice after slice of Wonder bread and eating the gravy. My mother made believe she didn’t know why she was running out of meatballs for the rest of us and stood guard over the sauce so that we’d actually have dinner that night.
My mother often took me to visit her mother, Elvira, who lived in Flushing. The three of us would walk down the street, arms looped together and three across. Chris would walk behind us and laugh.
“You look like three monkeys in a barrel.” He said, mentioning one of his favorite toys.
With my mother on one side and my grandmother on the other, we would go in and out of the stores and get a whole day of shopping in. I didn’t always know what my Puerto Rican grandmother and my mother were talking about, but I enjoyed listening to the singsong quality of their Spanish. My grandmother’s great, booming laugh always made me laugh too.
My grandmother loved Alexander’s Department Store. She would rifle through the clearance racks, uncovering a beautiful handbag or snazzy blouse at bargain basement prices.
Next, we would walk over to Korvette’s, where I would gaze at the Barbie dolls. Meanwhile Chris ran to the record department and drooled over the latest Tom Jones or Rolling Stones albums.
My mother would usually say, “Put that stuff back.” But one pathetic look sideways at my grandmother, and Chris and I would be walking out with our latest prizes tucked under our arms. Or, if money was tight, we’d get just what we were longing for the next time my grandmother and grandfather jumped off the bus and stopped by our house for a visit.
One of my earliest memories is of Chris, Mom and I standing near the turntable in the living room, listening to Tom Jones sing “Delilah.” It made me cry every time. Why, why, why Delilah? My mother would rub my shoulder while Chris sang.
My mother was sensitive and kind, but she was no saint. She would get mad at us for the constant fighting and then the screaming would start. She reminded me of that picture called “The Scream” because she really did look like she was going to lose her mind most of the time.
Her screaming wasn’t all that scary though, because you knew you could push her to a certain decibel level before she’d reach her breaking point and come charging after you like an enraged bear at the circus. Since the bear was on a chain, it couldn’t harm you, so if you were wise you would stay just out of reach.
My mother was usually able to snap out of her desire to harm you before she got to the end of her, um, chain. While my father was known for his short temper and Muhammad Ali-like reflexes, my mother was not the type to hit. But one time, my brother Jude made her change her mind.
One day, for no particular reason, Jude was in the middle of hitting Tony. He kept punching Tony over and over again, while my mother tried to intervene.
“Jude,” she screamed, “leave your brother alone!”
Jude laughed over his shoulder. “Get lost old lady,” he replied, as he got in another body blow on Tony.
“JUDE!” my mother screamed, but it sounded more like “JJJJJJJJJUUUUUUUUUUDDDDDDDEEEEEEE.”
He continued to hit Tony. Jude was bigger than my mother now, and since she was so easygoing Jude rarely (if ever) paid any attention to her. My father could keep Jude in line, but my mother? Please, what could she do?
And then, something in my normally placid mother snapped. She lunged across the room like the lead character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, lifted Jude high over her head, and threw him across the room. He crashed into the nearby sofa and looked up at her.
Tony was shocked. My mother was shocked. And, I believe, even Jude was shocked.
My mother was a benevolent ruler. But even benevolent rulers have their limits.
When I was a teenager, my mother was the one who agreed to teach me how to drive. It was probably best; in four years of trumpet lessons with my father, all I remember is a lot of screaming and tears. I’m not sure who was screaming and who was crying, but it wasn’t a good combination.
My mother did not get upset by the stupid things that you do when you are learning how to drive. She didn’t yell when I tried to parallel park our lime green Buick station wagon into a spot meant for a Volkswagen Rabbit. She never yelled when I tried to make the car go 0-60 on the two-block hill near our house. She didn’t even yell when I pulled the wagon out and smashed it into the back of our other car, a blue Buick Skylark.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said.
“But Dad is going to kill me!” I replied.
“He won’t notice,” she assured me. “Now let’s go practice.”
And she was right. He didn’t notice! (Sorry, Dad).
I said earlier that Mother’s Day makes me hungry, but what I really mean is that it fills me with a kind of yearning. I miss sitting around my parents’ dining room table with both of my parents, all of my brothers, my uncles and my grandmother. I miss hearing stories of my great grandmother and the courageous way she faced life. I miss hearing my grandmother, Lena, tell the story of her little brother Sal and the Indian Head penny. I even miss hearing my grandmother Elvira saying “How sweet,” her great big booming laugh, and the way she and Lena used to fight over me, the only granddaughter. I miss walking down to Main Street, arms linked together like three monkeys in a barrel.
Most of all, I miss my mother. I miss the way she used to put out enough food for at least 15 people with an attitude of “the more the merrier.” I miss watching television next to her, listening to her shout “Watch out!” during the Psycho shower scene or “GET OUT OF THE WATER” during the opening scene of Jaws. I miss how she made me lunch every day for the year I was engaged because she was sad that I’d be moving away. Sure, my sandwiches tasted like her perfume a lot of the time, but I always knew she loved me.
I even miss how she used to sing all of the songs on the radio when we drove to get my father from the 7 train in Flushing. At the time, it really annoyed me. I could barely hear the lyrics with her singing and dancing while she drove. She especially loved singing “Eres tu” and “Dominque” to the top of her lungs with all of the windows open. We’d drive down Bell Boulevard, windows open, with my mother singing. I would hide when I saw Cindy waving at us and laughing. I thought I would die of embarrassment.
Now, I’m the one whose daughters think I’m embarrassing, and sometimes, I think I can hear my mother singing along with me while I belt out “Layla” or “Love Shack.”
So today, on Mother’s Day, I did all of the shopping, cooked all of the food, and created the Mother’s Day celebration. Then, when everyone was finished eating, I cleaned everything up, just like my mother before me.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Lena’s Pineapples, Peaches & Cream Cake
1 box yellow cake
1 tub cool whip
2 cans cling peaches
1 can chopped pineapples
Bake cake according to box directions. Once cool, slice in half lengthwise (if sheet cake) or use two 9 inch round cakes. Spread Cool Whip between the layers. Drain the peaches and the pineapples and layer them on top of the cool whip. Put the layers together, and use the Cool Whip on top. Use your knife to make swirls and designs in the cool whip frosting. This isn’t exactly the kind of secret recipe that families hoard for generations; it’s just a real quick, cheap and easy dessert when you want to make something tasty but you’re short on time and money.