Sundays at 32 Juniper begin with the smell of fresh tomatoes, stewing in the pot, (hopefully not the one that sets the smoke alarm off), bubbling, absorbing all the spices from the prominent heat of the stove. A pool of chunky tomatoes wades in the small vessel, years and years of recipes meshed together to create the one that deems just right: not too salty, not too sweet—a hint of sugar usually does the trick. The basil, oregano, parsley, salt, pepper, garlic, and onion stirred into the depths of the bubbly lava emanate a smell that reminds me of home. The aroma engulfs my aunt’s small, windowless kitchen, creeping out into the dark living room. It wafts up my nostrils as soon as I walk in the door and even if I’ve been absent-minded enough to forget which day it is, as I often am, I immediately know that it’s Sunday.
Sundays are for pasta; whether it be rigatoni, penne, spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, elbows, or stuffed shells. Sundays are for family: the loud and rambunctious cousins who yell and spit at the table while grabbing the food with their hands; the endless eye-rolls and laughter not just at one another, but also with; the awkward silence after a political argument has ceased because everyone thinks they know what they’re talking about. It’s the Lord’s day, and every time Uncle Paulie leads grace every time to thank God for the food he has given us, I think: What about Aunt Mary? She’s the one who made the food. Sundays are for red wine: earthy, rustic Chianti, fruity, light Pinot Noir (my aunt’s favorite), soft, sultry Merlot, rancid-tasting red blends that we search on Google once it’s just us left in the living room and we can laugh about how cheap so-and-so is. On Sunday, we sit at the dining room table: the same dining room table that was gifted to my aunt and uncle when they moved into their home twenty-something years ago—the wicker backs of the chairs breaking and the legs creaking, the beige, wooden table in pristine condition underneath whichever table cloth covers it at that moment, whether it be a soft gold, flower-patterned, light violet, or solid red.
Aunt Mary hovers over the hot stove and oven that she often forgets to turn off, stirring the pot of gravy with my grandmother’s wooden spoon, which has been used to stir, scoop, and maybe sometimes “smack somebody on the ass.” Aunt Mary is much shorter than me, about 5 feet tall, with almost-black hair that is often wisped across her face or pulled back with a hair clip she will later misplace. She keeps her bronzer nearby, wears red or pink lipstick, and loves a smokey eye.
Just like any other day, the kitchen fan goes around and around, making a soft clicking noise as the pull-strings hit against one another, and there’s the faint sound of the radio coming from the dining room, probably playing 103.5, KTU. Uncle Paulie sits in his recliner in the living room, propped up in front of the television, (which I’m not sure is as large as it is later on after they finally decide to buy a flat screen), watching The Twilight Zone or The Andy Griffith Show.
“Who’s coming over tonight?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t even know anymore, Melissa. Christine and Vinny were supposed to come, but now they’re not sure, and Ginny was supposed to come, but she doesn’t know what time she’s getting out of work, and Grace, who knows anymore. –Lower that TV, Paul!– I’m just makin’ a couple pounds of pasta and whoever’s here to eat will eat. I ain’t gonna worry about it anymore. Are you gonna be here?”
She says this with the plastic white cordless phone tucked between her ear and shoulder while her hands are at work in the kitchen; peeling onions, chopping ground beef, stirring the gravy.
Gravy. Later on, when I submit a piece in which I talk about food to my nonfiction graduate workshop, everyone asks about the gravy. “Does it have meat in it?” “I was confused by the gravy; is brown gravy? Why would you be putting that on pasta?” “Is it the type of gravy you put on turkey?” Not necessarily. And no. Why do they call it gravy? I’m not sure. It’s marinara sauce. Sometimes it has chop meat in it. Other times it doesn’t.
“Why do you call it gravy?” I ask Aunt Mary, one day. “It doesn’t have meat in it. Gravy is what you put on turkey. This is sauce,” I say.
“What? Because it’s gravy. It’s just.. That’s what it is, Melissa. It’s gravy.” my aunt replies.
Aunt Mary is often on the phone, usually with one of her customers or friends. She has been a beautician for years, and all of her clients are older ladies with poofy, short hair, who were friends of my grandmother’s, who started coming to the house for their appointments after my aunt gives up her salon on West Side Avenue, where you could run into an old lady in her nightgown, and a thug with his pants sagged on the same block, at the same time.
Are you eating with us? I live with my aunt and uncle for seven years, throughout and after college. I wake up around lunchtime and the question rings like the small bell Aunt Mary keeps in the china closet: Are you eating with us?
“I don’t know; I just woke up!” I often exclaim.
My aunt likes to know who’s eating at home that evening so she can decide what she’ll cook. If I’m not going to be there, she’ll probably make something like chicken cutlets or pasta with gravy since I’m the only vegetarian. If I eat at the table, she’ll make dishes like stuffed bell peppers, vegetable lasagna or pasta fagioli. My uncle will eat anything that’s put in front of him, so it usually doesn’t matter to him. He is far from a picky eater, growing up in a house with six siblings. Whatever we don’t finish, he’ll eat, too.
Uncle Paul lowers the volume of the television. There is the usual battle between the radio and television and either someone wins or the sounds mix together in the house, reverberating off the walls, meshed with the endless chatter that comes from the kitchen. Aunt Mary continues to chop onions and garlic, the phone still resting on her shoulder.
“Paul, what do you wanna eat for dinner?” she asks.
I hadn’t realized the connection between the Sunday dinners until after writing this piece. This was a tradition passed, I suppose from Italy, although most of these women were second-generation immigrants and had never been to our motherland. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, invited tons of people into her home to eat spaghetti and meatballs on Sundays. Aunt Ca used to make Sunday dinners in Linden, and also make me cheese sandwiches at one in the morning. Aunt Rosie may have been too afraid to make Sunday dinners because she propped chairs against the doors at night, thinking she was going to get robbed on Cator Avenue by Danforth. Aunt Mary told me that her grandmother used to make Sunday dinner on Clinton Avenue, which she rightfully attended no matter what she had going on. It was her duty as a granddaughter. If you were in the family, it was your duty to attend. No matter who you were, how old you were, you went to the Sunday dinners. You just did.
Both sides of my family kept this tradition alive, these halves that were separate but grew up in the same neighborhoods. Aunt Mary tries to keep it going but sometimes it’s just too much for her to handle. I want to be there to help her set the table, drain the pasta, stir the pot. But for the past four years, on Sundays—I work.
“FRANCES INGOLIA- Frances Ingolia, 91 entered into eternal peace on June 6, 2014 at Newport Nursing Home in Jersey City. Born in the city of California, Pennsylvania on August 7, 1922, the daughter of the late Lena (Mancuso) and Salvatore Sanzere. She lived in Jersey City the last 60 years. She was a saleswoman at Schultz Department Store for twenty five years and adored and cherished her family. Her life and passion was for her family and enjoyed spending time with them. Frances enjoyed cooking Sunday dinners. She was a most kind and generous woman and always thought of others before herself. Everyone loved her for she had a way to make you smile and feel good, even if you had a bad day. She will be dearly missed. Frances Ingolia was well known in the Greenville section of Jersey City. Many people knew her as “Frannie” from Shultz’s Department store. Due to her popularity, many customers, neighbors, and such approached our family with beautiful stories about how open, honest, helpful, and loving she was. A neighbor once told us Frances made her dinner when she was sick and gave her things she needed without having to ask.”
When my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s really started to go downhill, you could find her at the local Walgreens just off of Seaview Avenue at odd hours like three in the morning. She’d sneak out of the house without my grandfather noticing and head over in her pink slippers. He’d have to call the police to search for her, or maybe she returned without a peep. I wonder what she felt the need to buy when she took those walks.
Before that, Nanny grew her own tomatoes in the garden. I wasn’t sure how later on because I remember most of the yard being concrete. The vines rose up toward the sky and tiny tomatoes began to form in the height of summer. Nanny harvested them as they came. She displayed them in a glass bowl on her kitchen counter. She boiled fresh tomatoes and made her own sauce.
My grandmother had everyone over for dinner. Friends, family, neighbors, kids from down the block. She spent most of her days in the kitchen, her long arms stirring a wooden spoon. Nanny was tall with moles on her face, and although she was caring, everyone learned not to mess with her: she had a no-nonsense attitude.
She opened her home on Seaview Avenue to anyone. It was a small, second-floor apartment that seemed to be covered in a layer of dust. Grandpa smoked Marlboro Reds all day while he worked on computers in the living room. Monitors, keyboards, motherboards, wires, and towers took over the room. As a little girl, I watched, fascinated. He was thick-skinned with salt and pepper hair and the hands of a worker.
The tomatoes sit in a bowl on the kitchen table, ripening in the afternoon sun. Nanny stirs with a wooden spoon, throwing handfuls of fresh basil into the pot. She hunches over the cauldron of gravy, like a true Sicilian witch, and I wonder if she ever considered casting a spell on anyone who misbehaved. Her slippers slide across the floor as she grabs more tomatoes from the table with her long fingers.
The windows are open in the living room and the sheer curtains blow with the breeze. There are children running and playing outside. Grandpa sits at the head of the table impatiently, waiting for his dinner. He pours another glass of Jack Daniels and listens to the ticking of the clock. At six years old, I wait on one of Grandpa’s computer chairs in the corner of the room while playing Sonic the Hedgehog on SEGA. My legs swing back and forth, jerking with my body that sways with each movement parallel to the video game. I collect coins as Sonic moves fast throughout an unknown world and the electronic sound of gaining a coin goes on and on. It’s the only thing one can hear; the rest is quiet.
Nanny sets three bowls on the table and piles the spaghetti up high. Grandpa is probably buzzed by then, but that might change when he has the warm pasta in his stomach. I twirl my fork around and the steam from the gravy rushes at my face.
I would just like to say I am honored to submit a piece influenced by Louise DeSalvo. She was one of the first authors I stumbled upon when I first discovered memoir. My beloved professor and mentor, Dr. Edvige Giunta presented the class with DeSalvo’s work and it has resonated with me ever since. Louise is one of the reasons I gravitated toward memoir when I had no idea what I wanted to write about (I just knew I wanted to write).
Before DeSalvo, I was always concerned that I spent too much time away from writing. I felt the need to write constantly, but the ideas wouldn’t flow. It was only after I read the quote from Vertigo that I still keep close to me to this day, the same quote I included at the beginning of my Senior Honors Thesis: “One must trust the times when no work is getting done, for it is in those fallow periods that the unconscious mind is working.” I thought about this over and over again and learned to let go of the idea that I had to constantly be working and leaned into the fact that my mind was forever germinating thoughts and ideas. This was the first step to any type of writing; preparing, planning, germinating– which I later came face-to-face with while reading another book of DeSalvo’s: Writing As A Way of Healing.
Melissa Sutaris is a current MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at The New School. She holds a BA in English/Creative Writing from New Jersey City University. Melissa specializes in non-fiction writing with a preference in Memoir and Personal Essay. She enjoys reading her work at various events and recently published one of her poems in Z Publishing’s 2018 anthology, New Jersey’s Best Emerging Poets.