My maternal grandparents, Sadie and Joe: Sicilian immigrants, they owned a Brooklyn produce store until 1955, then spent their golden years turning a bare suburban plot on Long Island into an oasis of fruit trees, grape vines, berry and rose bushes, vegetables, herbs, and flowers of every kind. They taught me to love figs, lamb, eggplant, Ritz crackers, Breyer's ice cream, éclairs and butterscotch pudding. I spent countless childhood afternoons with them and my aunt, playing Bingo and Canasta, and watching The Galloping Gourmet.
My cousin Little Nicki: Little, because she was the youngest of the three female Nicki cousins; ironically, she was the tallest, even without her ever-present high heels. Any meal at her home was an event, whether cold cuts [always Boar's Head], served on Melmac in the kitchen, or a sprawling Sunday dinner on cream and gold-rimmed Lenox china in the all-white dining room. Her New Jersey home included a peach orchard, garden rows as far as the eye could see, and a spit rotisserie for pig roasts. She owned a bridal gown boutique, looked like a movie star, and I wanted to be her when I grew up.
My Auntie Anne: Dad's youngest sister, who became a nurse, joined the army, and caused a stir by marrying a Jewish man considerably older than she. She was also Mom's cousin, childhood playmate, and best friend. They died only 2 months apart. Memorable meals at her home often included a walk to the garden to help fill the gigantic wooden salad bowl, and berry cobbler or pie from berries picked in the woods around her home. She had the coolest cat. Gordo ate by scooping up canned food with a paw and licking it off, much to my Dad's disgust, since his bowl sat on top of the dishwasher.
My Great Aunt Rose & Great Uncle Russell: From a tiny patch of dirt behind their Niagara Falls home, he filled enough cellar shelves with glass jars of canned and pickled vegetables to last all winter. For nearly 60 years, if he shot it, she cooked it, until she was nearly blind. Although I was a small child, the way they spoke to one another, with a combination of respect and playfulness, seemed so rare and made quite an impression on me. I cherish the handful of times I visited their home, or they came to stay at the farm [he was my grandma Carmela's half-brother]. And yes, squirrel does taste like chicken.
Sebastian and Carmela, the paternal grandparents I never knew: They emigrated from the same small village as Sadie and Joe, and grew Concord grapes on a 70 acre farm in Chautauqua County, New York, near Lake Erie. When she died at 38, giving birth to their 13th child, he became a widower with six kids aged 2 to 14. The Great Depression began one year later, but Carmela's preserved food stockpiled in the root cellar lasted a full three years, said my aunts. Skeleton in family closet: Grandpa Sebastian's sister Antoinette, was Grandpa Joe's mother, making my maternal grandfather my Dad's uncle, and my parents second cousins. Heh-heh-heh [in my best Sling Blade voice].
Oops, that's eight... two more chairs please. Then again, since they're an ethereal bunch, there should be plenty of room.