Parents often tell their kids to clean their plate. When I was a kid, my parents used the old line about children starving in India, Asia or Africa. My dad said that when he was a kid his mom told him if he didn’t clean his plate he was feeding the Kaiser. In the case of my mother, she knew too well the value of food.
In the carefree days of her childhood, my mom lived with her grandparents, nona and nono, in Italian, in the countryside of Tuscany outside of Florence. It was the 1920’s, and that region of Italy was a cornucopia of food, it literally grew on the trees she climbed.
As a little girl, she was quite the ragamuffin, quite the little urchin, and her nona was hard-pressed to get her to sit still long enough to eat a meal. Why should she, when she could get all she wanted out in the fields? She’d climb fig trees and gorge herself on their fruit. She’d sneak into the family chicken coop and check the nests for eggs. When she found one, she’d just crack a hole in it, and suck it dry. The vegetables in the garden weren’t safe from her either; she’d stroll among the tall crops and snatch a huge tomato from a plant. It would take both of her tiny hands to hold the tomato as she chomped it down!
Then, the feast of childhood gave way to the hardship and famine, of her early youth. First, there was the Great Depression, which was very hard on her community. Yet, they still managed to have enough to meet there needs. Then there was the war, and initially things went well. Italy invaded Ethiopia and was part of the Axis Powers. My mom marched in the patriotic parades and sang the songs of triumph that proclaimed the glorious coming of the Second Roman Empire.
After the invasion of Sicily and then the Italian Peninsula, life grew hard. Shortages became commonplace, and soon their diet was reduced to cheese and raw potatoes, and maybe a bit of salami. The utilities disappeared off, no water, no gas and no electricity; at market, sellers diluted milk with water! Hunger, fatigue, and a sense of loss became part of her everyday life.
Finally, with the end to fighting in Italy and the arrival of the Allies, conditions improved, little by little. When my dad arrived on the scene and they started dating, he did all he could to help her and her parents. At every visit, he brought food and supplies that he’d “liberated” from his company’s storehouse and my mom’s mom cooked a meal. With food in short supply, she didn’t let my mother cook. They couldn’t risk her making a mistake and going hungry.
After they were married, my mom came to the U.S. and was amazed at the abundance of food. It fell to my dad’s mom to teach my mom how to cook. My mom became a very good cook, at least in my humble opinion.
These days, I try to be a good son and clean my plate at every meal, even if dear mother can no longer prepare my meal. All I have to do is think of the hardships she endured, and I find my appetite restored.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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