Saturday, July 7, 2007

"Strange Gift" -- Zia Paola

Photo: At work in the kitchen.

"Strange gift" is the term that a friend of mine used once to describe a blessing that came out of adversity. Tragically, his brother died when they were both in their early twenties. He had a terrible time coping with the loss, as did the family. However, later he recognized that it was the death of his brother that brought him back to the Church after several years of questioning his faith. The "strange gift" that came out of the great pain of losing his brother was his new commitment to the church and a faith that was stronger than ever.

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is something I hear asked often. Similarly, I have wondered why bad things happen in a world made by a God who is so good. Of course I don't know the answer to those questions, nor do I think that any human being is capable of fully understanding the answers to God's mysteries. I do believe that everything that happens -- even adversity and tragedy -- is a part of God's plan.

I have been blessed with many "strange gifts" in my life, and each of them has been a reassurance that God's goodness doesn't stop, even in the hardest moments of our lives. Each time I identify a "strange gift" it is like I have been given a small glimpse into God's dynamics, peacefully reassuring me that indeed He works in mysterious ways.

I rushed to Italy on Wednesday, July 4th (arriving Thursday July 5th) to be with Stefano and his family as we care for his mother Angela in the last phases of her fight with brain cancer. Immediately I sought an understanding of what I could do to help here. In the beginning I wasn't sure that Angela recognized me, much less how she felt about my presence. (Stefano told me that the night before I left he told her I was coming and she was moved to tears, so I have been holding on to the idea that she is glad I am here.) I am not as good at understanding her needs as Stefano or his sister Caterina. Even the housekeeper, Tina is better than me at this, as she has been present with Angela every day in the last six months through the decline.

Then I found myself in the kitchen with Zia Paola (Aunt Paula) as she prepared one of the meals for about 12. (All of Stefano's family, plus the friends and family that have been taking rotations here to help, plus Tina, her husband and daughter who live downstairs.) Preparing a meal for 12 is no sweat for Zia Paola, for she has catered for a group as large as 3,000! Paola gave me little tasks to do to help her in the meal preparation, tips on how to do things and the logic behind them.

I must admit that her friendliness toward me took me off guard. Paola is known to be a straight-shooter with a sarcastic sense of humor and very strong opinions. She is short in stature, has dark coloring, and cooks with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She is Francesco's youngest sister, possibly the youngest of all eight siblings, but one of the toughest, and as she proudly self-proclaims, the most rebellious.

It came as an even greater shock to me the next morning at breakfast when she asked Stefano what his favorite foods were and what kinds of things he requested for his birthday dinners. She turned to me and said that the next few meals would include those items so I would know how to prepare them for Stefano.

This is where the "strange gift" comes in. One would think that in all the time we lived here in Italy, and all the meals we ate with Angela, that I would have learned a few things from her in the kitchen. Angela always told me that she would teach me as soon as the big house was ready, because in the little house there wasn't hardly room for two people to be in the kitchen at the same time. Then, once the big house was ready, Angela was in the midst of her fight with breast cancer, and then after a few months of remission, she began a new battle against brain cancer.

I thought that all hope was lost for me learning the family recipes. (I write this fully heeding the warning that my best Italian guy friend from New York gave me after getting married: "No matter how good you cook meatballs, even using his mother's recipe, your meatballs will never be as good as hers. And you can't hold that against him.") It made me sad to think of my inability to prepare some of the "comfort foods" that Stefano was used to, and of not being able to share some of Stefano's family recipes with our children one day.

However, already in the last few days Zia Paola has taught me dozens of recipes, variations on each preparation, some cooking theory, etc. We also did all of the shopping together where she showed me how to select certain ingredients, which brands were best, etc. She even had me drive the car, for what was probably the first time (or one of the first times) in Italy! She proudly announced afterwards "the liberation of Jenny has begun!" I noted the beautiful irony that driving, shopping and cooking for her were acts of liberation, while in America they may have more of an air of bound domesticity.

She has told me hundreds of stories of her youth, traveling all over Europe by her self as a young woman, what life was like growing up in the home of a noble Neapolitan family just after the war, and many other tales of the best and worst of times. We have shared lamentation over cutting kilos of onions, burnt our fingers and tongues as we moved hot pans and taste-tested our boiling creations, we have sweat beaded droplets over frying bitter eggplant, and it is all part of what I consider to be an enormous blessing.

Amidst all of the angst, fret and pain that my family is facing caring for Angela in the hardest phase of this terminal disease, putting plates of comfort foods made with my own hands on the table before my loved ones is an even greater blessing.

Spending the last few days in the kitchen with Zia Paola has been a "strange gift" indeed.

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