Updated: Mar 1
(by Marie Smalley)
Concetta Gloria Maria Rizzo. My mother. Upon hearing the name, some may envision the warm, caring, happy Italian mother, affectionate with her children, giving supportive advice, smiling throughout the day. My mother was not that; she had neither the temperament nor the time.
As the second of eight children she bore, and the eldest daughter, I was by her side through most of my upbringing. I was, in essence, a second mother to the younger children. I was tasked with caring for them, cooking and cleaning, and putting my needs behind those of the household. My mother treated me like an adult, rarely expressing interest or concern about what I was feeling, what I wanted, what I thought. There was only the necessity of getting everyone through the day, clothed, fed and put to bed.
My father was a teacher and worked after school hours as a piano teacher. My mother and I managed as best we could with an unruly brood. Four boys and four girls, born within nine years, left my mother no space to breathe. When a sister died suddenly of meningitis, my mother—pregnant with her sixth child--became more worried, more harried, and more fearful. That was imparted to me, always by her side.
The moments where she did relax, converse, and engage were while cooking dinner. She was not inclined to prepare anything that required much time; she referred to her life as “constant KP.” But we stood together at the stove, and for a few minutes, she was my mother. “Here’s how you smash garlic, here’s what you put in a cacciatore, it’s quick in the pan, don’t put lemon in the eggs, it’ll curdle them.” Beyond the daily dinner, there was, here and there, a dessert, which, while preparing, made her smile. Which she imparted to me. A sense of happiness. We got out the cookbook bible, the red and white checkered Betty Crocker. We flipped through the cake or pudding sections and went to work. When the finished dessert emerged from the oven, there were more smiles.
Connie, as she was called, had been a Carmelite nun for eight years, a path chosen to escape a harsh family life dictated by a stern Italian-immigrant father. She left her order because she had always wanted a family. And like a good Catholic, she created one. She was intellectual, favoring Joyce and Yeats, theological discussions, and The New York Times Sunday crossword. The quotidian bored her and me as well. As a teenager, I began to rebel against the constant servitude that I felt only I had to endure, and no doubt I added to her anxieties. I whined and complained, adopted a martyr’s stance at every chore, and even ran away several times, surely hard for her to bear. We spoke to each other more sharply, if at all; the smiles disappeared. When I look back, I realize that perhaps I was her only friend through those years, stuck in the house, with someone always needing something from her. And I try to forgive my young self.
As I grew into a woman, that is how the relationship was cemented. We regarded each other more as comrades. I did not seek motherly advice or confide much of anything about myself or my activities. I was merely there, as I had been when she needed me most. One day when I was in my 30s, at the end of a visit, she handed me the Betty Crocker cookbook. Scarred, burned, tattered, but complete. “This is for you,” she said. We looked at each other, a decade of early memories coursing through us both. My mother, my friend, showing her affection for me, recognizing the moments when we were happy together, side by side in the kitchen.
Marie Smalley is an actress, currently working in stage, television and film productions in New York City, as well as writing and developing a one-woman theatrical show and episodic series. She lives in Brooklyn and can be found at Backstage.
Bread Pudding with Lemon Sauce
(adapted from Better Homes & Garden New Cook Book, 1953)
2 c. dry bread cubes
4 c. milk, scalded
3/4 c. sugar
1 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
optional: 1/2 c. raisins
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Soak bread in milk for 5 minutes.
Add sugar, butter, and salt.
Pour slowly over eggs.
Add vanilla, the optional raisins, and mix well.
Pour into greased 1 1/2-quart baking dish.
Bake in pan of hot water until firm, about 1 hour.
1/2 c. sugar
1 T. cornstarch
dash of salt
dash of nutmeg
1 c. boiling water
2 T. butter or margarine
1 1/2 T. lemon juice
In a small pot, mix sugar, cornstarch, salt, and nutmeg.
Gradually add water, and cook over low heat until thick and clear.
Add butter and lemon juice, blending thoroughly.
Makes 1 1/3 cups.