By Rosalie Tirella
Green Island Grrrl: Rose, her Mom, her two kid sisters, “Daddy,” Bapy, Jaju and a plethora of dogs, cats, gold fish, turtles, hamsters plus a guinea pig and little grey and white mouse lived in this Lafayette Street third floor tenement 50 years ago.🙏 Photos: R.T.
I just made BEYOND BEEF vegan meatballs for lunch, over tomato sauce and pasta. The pasta was boxed, the tomato sauce was plain and out of a can. I seasoned the tomato sauce ok but focused on making the BEYOND BEEF meatballs as tasty as I could while trying to remember my late mother’s meatball recipe this Mother’s Day weekend … trying to remember “Ma” thru food and the way she cooked it.
BEYOND BEEF meatballs by Rose.
First, BEYOND BEEF is not as tasty as IMPOSSIBLE BURGER, another popular plant-based fake meat which I’ve cooked before – spaghetti and meatballs at my old Blackstone River Road apartment (came out primo!). Second, my mother’s relationship with cooking and baking was … fraught. Cooking for Ma was no fun. It was not a creative or relaxing endeavor for her. There were no beautiful, flowery aprons tied around her waist. No Perry Como albums playing softly in the background as she folded the cake batter. There was a small, tired, old half apron – more like a rag – tied around her lumpy waist. The apron that she wore year after year after year. It was sewed special for her by my kid sister at the Girls Club. “Jane” picked out the cute pattern – white bicycles and tricycles printed on orange fabric – at Woolworths on Front Street and sewed the apron for our mother in the Girls Club’s beginner’s sewing class, Jane’s first and last sewing project at the Clubhouse on Vernon Hill because, like me, she had no talent for sewing.
But I digress! Ma’s cooking! No food sampling allowed while Ma was in the middle of following her General Foods Kitchen Cookbook recipe, referring to her special cookbook’s page over and over again to ensure she was getting it all straight. If it was one of her sisters’ recipes, something she’d written down on a piece of notebook paper while talking on the phone with one of her sisters – my Aunt Mary or Aunt Ruth – Ma would run to the phone and call a sister in the middle of preheating the oven to ask: “Mary – 350 degrees or 375?” …”Ruth – 50 minutes in the oven or an hour?” We kids had to stay out of Ma’s way, give her a wide berth, as she walked to the pantry and to our old gas stove and then back to our ugly green kitchen table where all her cooking was done. We girls stayed away, too – our mother looked genuinely pissed off! It was like Ma was a serious scientist creating the neutron bomb and she was counting her atoms … One false move and planet earth could explode!
This was always true for my sweet, overwhelmed mother – SHE HAD TO DO EVERYTHING PERFECTLY. SHE COULD NOT – WOULD NOT – MAKE ONE MISTAKE! NOT ONE! Like getting all A’s at St. Mary’s Catholic School when she was a little girl – perfect. Seeing to it that I got all A’s at Lamartine Street School when I was a little girl – more perfection. Always working so hard cleaning house and washing dishes on Elliot Street for the Bishop of Springfield … at the rectory where she and her two sisters lived and worked during the Great Depression – sending the money they earned home to their parents in Green Island.
Elliot Street, Springfield: Ma as a young woman, with one of her pups. She and her sisters were housekeepers/cooks for the “Bishop” during the Great Depression.
Years later, Ma was wearing her three polyester vests – wine colored, navy blue, beige – to work at the dry cleaners on Millbury Street, a different colored vest for a different work day, because these vests, purchased at White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street, made her a more efficient counter girl. Each one had two big pockets on either side – perfect for holding her little scratch pad, pens, stray receipts and thick rubber bands for organizing customers dry cleaning. As a teen, visiting my mom at the cleaners after school, those rubber bands, sometimes 10 or so of them on her veiny wrists like ugly bracelets, made me feel sad. Ma worked a tall, old fashioned cash register at the cleaners but liked to brag that she could do all the addition and subtraction in her head, which she could. Ma was very smart and loved math!
Not so much cooking! If the recipe called for finely chopped onions, my mother was hovering over that kitchen table with a vengeance, hunched over her big cutting board (her Polish mother’s, my Bapy’s, who lived with us) maniacally chopping and re-chopping those poor onion slices. By the end they almost looked pulverized. If a recipe called for a 1/2 teaspoon salt, out came Ma’s White’s Five and Ten plastic measuring spoons and a butter knife: Morton’s salt was poured carefully into that 1/2 teaspoon, and then Ma swept the flat edge of that butter knife ever so slowly over that tiny mound of salt to make certain that it was a perfectly level, a flawless 1/2 teaspoon of salt, tiny white excess crystals falling to the kitchen table. Watching Ma cook you saw no “Joy of Cooking,” you saw joyless cooking. You witnessed no panache the way you see cooks turn it on on TV or YouTube channels. You only saw a youngish, exhausted, poor, single working mom, with bills and an abusive husband perpetually hanging over her head. A young woman just trying to get through her day. Making that birthday cake for her little girls – me and my two kid sisters – because her three little girls loved her Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cake. And she loved her three little girls. Making her spaghetti and meatballs because her daughters loved her spaghetti and meatballs and she loved her daughters. And those English muffin pizzas – hot out of the oven! Always so tasty! Beads of sweat glistened on Ma’s forehead while she sprinkled that shredded mozzarella cheese over our mini-pizzas, but she always made them, every Wednesday night, on those old baking sheets – just for us. Sprinkled with oregano flakes, big and fragrant.
Ma’s special cookbook – now in Rose’s kitchen.
Ma’s husband – our “Daddy,” our father – was a different story. He was a screamer, a shouter and emotional bully who took out his life disappointments on our mother. Ma could be feisty, but she was no match for our father who’d show her the back of his rough, red hand in a heartbeat. Still, Ma cooked for him – pulled out all the stops for abusive Daddy!
Being as solitary as an oyster, our father never ate supper with us kids, but in the bedroom, his plate set out on a metal TV tray next to their bed where Daddy could stretch out and relax and read the classifieds in the newspaper. Like he was a customer at a restaurant. Away from the fuss and hassles in the kitchen. When Ma finished making supper for us kids, we all sat around the kitchen table and ate together, like a family. When Daddy ate his supper it was a morose, gloomy affair, with his hot Italian temper waiting in the wings. He was still considered to be a handsome guy and often dragged the phone into the bedroom where he’d call his sister and talk to her in Italian about his girlfriends, I later learned. Ma cleaned up in the kitchen; never ate supper with Daddy. She cooked it and served it to him like a dutiful waitress who knew her tip would be paltry.
Dinner for Daddy: a glass of water and salad with Ma’s homemade salad dressing – vegetable oil, a pinch of salt, a shake or two of garlic powder. Twenty minutes later a big T bone steak, with a slice of Italian bread and some cooked spinach with oil and garlic salt. Dessert would be a plum or peach or some other fruit. But that steak… the steak that Ma had basted and broiled for him in our stove. Simple but deadly prep for the steak, the best “cut,” bought special, exclusively, for Daddy at Supreme Market on Millbury Street. Ma basted it with oil and sprinkled it with salt. She had this little paint brush – special for basting Daddy’s crumby steaks – and she used it skillfully, covering the entire slab of raw meat, even pulling out the steak when it was in the broiler to baste it some more. As my mother bent down to put the oiled and seasoned steak on the stove broiler for my father to enjoy all by himself all alone in his bedroom … I resented Daddy. A few years later, as a seventh grader, I would write an essay for him: “My Father’s Last Will and Testament.” It wasn’t a real English class assignment, but I had typed it up, and one afternoon I presented it to my father to read as he sat on our living room sofa staring into the distance. “Sign at the bottom!” I said. “SIGN! SIGN IT!” He looked up at me, his eldest daughter, standing over him, not so subtly wishing him death, and he laughed and laughed, red faced, but looking a little … scared. I was “the smart one” as Daddy used to say, and I had caught on to his game. From that day on I never feared my father, and he knew if he were ever to put a finger on my mother from that forward I would have to kill him. From then on Daddy lived with us as a joke. The adult who didn’t matter, the person whose opinions were quickly dismissed, the ghost whose presence was ignored …
My mother had fallen in love with my father while engaged to a sweet Italian guy who was a furniture mover at Millbury Furniture on Millbury Street. “Dino” was cute and absolutely smitten with Ma. He gave her an engagement ring, went to college to become a teacher and went into the army during World War II. Ma used to love to tell the story where they were walking in the rain together and there was a big puddle of rainwater and Dino took off his coat and placed it on the puddle so she could walk over it. Of course, she cheated on the noble, romantic Dino while he was in the army – with my father, a handsome bs artist who wore his thick wavy red hair in a pompodor and had biceps that bulged beneath the sleeves of his muscle shirts. Ma was swept her off her feet by the bad boy. Daddy eventually got Ma pregnant with me when they were doing it in his red truck one spring night. Years of Catholic school and Sunday mass and a decade working for a bishop and always reading all those prayer cards to St. Ann and all the saints … poof! Out the window! The perfect Catholic girl – practically an undercover nun! – gone to hell. The perfect girl who had bought herself the new GENERAL FOODS KITCHEN COOKBOOK in 1960 so she could learn to be the perfect wife, mother and hostess was now unmarried and prego living with her parents in the slums of Worcester. Bapy hated Daddy with a passion, almost to the end of her life, even after he had married Ma. She knew he had ruined her favorite daughter’s life. I remember how Ma would make Bapy her hard boiled egg sandwich in the afternoon and how Daddy would walk by Bapy as she sat in her lumpy big chair at the head of the kitchen table eating her sandwich and how she’d just get ENRAGED at the sight of Daddy and tear off a piece of her egg sandwich and whip it at Daddy’s face. “Dog’s blood!” she’d scream at him in Polish – a very bad curse phrase in Poland. “You red devil!” she’d scream at him.
Daddy holding Rose’s two kid sisters on Easter Day.
Yet Daddy’s T-bone steak would always smell so wonderful cooking under our gas stove’s long, horse-shoe-shaped flame … and we kids would get nothing, not a bit of it. My mother would get the tail end of the steak – two inches of seared fat.
A page from Ma’s cookbook – a culinary fairy tale …
I often leaf through my mother’s General Foods Kitchen Cookbook. She gave it to me when I was in my 20s, hoping I could find the culinary knowledge I needed to be a good cook. The chapters are filled with outmoded ideas, a Leave it to Beaver cookbook that always made Dad the strong, breadwinner of the family and the Wife the dutiful stay at home mom whose job was to create the perfect domestic life for her husband who paid all the bills and took care of the family. In a few years their two kids would some day go on to college. The illustrations in the cookbook are small and monochrome, the photos of the meals are lurid. Some of the references are racist. Yet those tiny houses. Those small picket fences. Those miniscule station wagons with the wood paneling on their sides … filled with a happy Dad (always at the wheel), contented Mom and carefree kiddos exert their pull. I sometimes read the chapters not so much for their recipes but for their fairytale quality. The seductive lies they so artfully tell, the beautiful lies that were written by ad men to sell General Foods products to women like my mom, created to hawk frozen peas and push canned corn and glorify sugar-laden Duncan Hines cake mixes … written to make corporate America rich but omitting the real stories of real American women like my mom. Women who forged ahead and worked crappy jobs and paid rent on slummy apartments in rough neighborhoods and lived with neglectful or even violent husbands and yet managed to believe in the dream. The dream of their children, their true masterpieces – not some bowl of Jello Chocolate Pudding.
Did I tell you that my mother made the best chocolate pudding?
Happy Mother’s Day 🌹💕
Bapy💕 and we kiddos. Bapy helped raise us.