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Shirtwaist Dresses and Bedroom Eyes

(by Phyllis Pastore)

As a kid, I thought my parents were Lucy and Desi. Seriously. My dad, whose family was from Sicily, wore his hair in a pompadour; my mom, always in shirtwaist dresses, had the fair skin and bright blue eyes of her northern Italian heritage. Bedroom eyes she called them, batting them with regularity when she needed to get her way. And she was a “character.” She seemed to be scatterbrained, as she demonstrated regularly by getting into the wrong car at the mall and then reprimanding the owner of the car for being there; by putting the ham in her purse and her wallet in the shopping cart, so that she was arrested for shoplifting; by “running away from home” and then being completely lost when she would get to the corner. A character–but one who kept our family together, body and soul.

My mother instilled in me the love of music and the movies. We’d don our best dresses, lacy anklets, white gloves and hats, then hop on the bus headed for the Chief Theater in downtown Pueblo, Colorado. We loved musicals and big romances, and always felt the most satisfied if we both cried our eyes out at the end. After the movie, we would go the S. H. Kress Five and Ten Cent Store, sit at the soda fountain and order banana splits. We never ordered banana splits anywhere else or at any other time except after the movies. That was a part of our special day.

Every Sunday morning, she’d get up early, have her coffee, turn on the radio, and “sit and stare” for a while before she started rattling around the kitchen, preparing the meatballs and sauce for Sunday spaghetti supper. My father would go to Zoelsmann’s Bakery, pick up a loaf or two of hot, crusty bread, and Sunday would begin by dividing up the newspaper, each of us taking our favorite section, and grabbing a few meatballs right out of the pot.

The kitchen was an important part of keeping the family close. I always knew when times were bad because my mother would go to the grocery store and stock the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards full of food. “I may be poor,” she’d say, “but I’m not going to starve.”

Once I left home, hers was the number that I would call every Sunday morning for our weekly chat. Her first question was always, “What are you eating today?” As I began cooking for myself, I would call and ask specific questions about cooking, but she did everything by taste or by feel. And that’s how I cook, too. Success comes when I have created something that tastes close to the memory of hers, and on Sundays I sometimes still reach for the newspaper, and for the phone to tell her.


Phyllis Pastore is a cabaret singer who performs regularly with the JT Wildman Jazz Band at Superfine in Brooklyn, New York. Her website is

Mom’s Meatballs

1 lb. 80% lean/20% fat ground beef 1 egg 1⁄2 c. Progresso Italian Style Bread Crumbs 1⁄2 c. grated Parmesan or Locatelli pecorino romano cheese

1⁄4 c. chopped fresh parsley 1 t. fresh garlic, minced, or 2 t. garlic powder salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together, being careful not to over work.

Roll into 1 1⁄2 inch balls.

Optional: Brown lightly on each side in olive oil before dropping into tomato sauce. (My mother rarely browned them; she just dropped them directly into the sauce.)


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