New Year’s Eve, 1983. A warm ranch house in suburban Buffalo. Outside, the usual ice and snow of a Western New York winter. Frankie turns to me and says, “Ready?”
This is my first time as a bringing-you-home-to-meet-my-parents girlfriend. Previous beaus were more drive-by in nature when it came to the mom and dad thing. A child of the ‘70s, I was a Peanuts character—adults were wah-wah-wah-wah background noise. If my short-term boyfriends even had parents, they were tucked away somewhere, only emerging to bark out warnings regarding muddy shoes or reminders to take out the trash. My own parents had recently split, my father taking up with someone a few years older than myself, and my mother do-si-do-ing her way through her own serial array of fellas, while re-inventing herself as a professional woman hungry for adventure and fun. My parents were younger and wilder than most. I loved them for their outrageousness, their intelligence, their passionate flailings through life, but their split created for me, a vacuum. At 22, in my senior year of college, I felt adrift and yearned for an intact family.
Enter Evelyn and Frank Vitello. Bonafide ‘50s sit-com parents—the Italian-American, huge extended-family version, anyway.
Let’s return to that New Year’s Eve. I plunge my frozen hands into the pockets of my parka and follow the boy who would soon become my husband into a family room redolent of roast beef, pizza, finger food “pick-ons” and wings from an iconic bar called Duffs. Along the perimeter of the family room, perched upon puffy-seated folding chairs, sit the aunts. So many aunts. And a layer of young cousins. A couple of grandmothers. And a large, balding man who grabs me by the hand and pulls me into the center of the room. “Frankie,” the man bellows, “are you kidding me with this one?”
“Frank!” yells a bespectacled, middle-aged woman from the kitchen. “You’re scaring the poor girl.”
“Calm down, Jumbo,” says the man, his meaty hand still leading me into the nest of family. “I need to check her closely and figure out what’s wrong with her.”
Frankie the Younger stands there, grinning.
The aunts laugh. Or they don’t. But by the end of the night, the ranch house and aunts and the roast beef become my new family. Melt into my bones, despite the Buffalo snow. Nourishing me with love and stability and a lifeline.
I was the sort of kid that craved both autonomy and immersion in a clan. My first favorite “chapter books” were a series called All-of-a-Kind Family written by Sydney Taylor. The characters were five pinafored girls living in New York City at the turn of the century: Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. Oh, to have so many sisters! I had only one, two years younger, and I wished to be the middle girl, Sarah, with two older and two younger sisters, making me both untethered and immersed—a difficult paradox to be sure.
In Evelyn (“Ma” to her kids and, ironically, “Jumbo” to her husband, even though she was lithe as a fawn), I found a kindred spirit. A dichotomy of agency and benevolence. Where my own mother was brilliant and somewhat aloof, Evelyn was grounded in her no-nonsense compassion. My mother, navigating a new relationship of her own, seemed happy to pass the maternal torch.
The shadow matriarch of her married-into family, Evelyn was a high school math teacher universally beloved for her tough, caring presence throughout the Buffalo area. She smoked, gambled, and navigated the Vitellos through illnesses, tragedies and familial squabbles, while ensuring any and all occasions were marked with the appropriate notes, flowers and food. Especially food.
Frankie and I did not settle in Buffalo. We started our partnership in Phoenix, Arizona, of all places, returning back east to downstate New York after our first child, Sam, was born. Visits to Buffalo were planned, often timed with holidays, a christening or a bridal shower. But whatever the reason for our visit, the occasion demanded the production of Ma’s sauce. This sauce wasn’t part of the New Year’s Eve fare. It was for inner circle family. The ones who gathered around the boomerang Formica table that separated the kitchen from the swirly-iron banister that looked over the family room.
The early days of my marriage were full-on joyous occasions when we traveled to Buffalo: the simmering, spooning, tasting of the sauce while shuttling back-and-forth to a Pinochle game. Supper (NEVER call it dinner) was macaroni (NEVER call it spaghetti), iceberg salad with oil and vinegar, maybe some white bread. After supper and dishes, I’d sit at that boomerang table, Jeopardy on the TV in the family room below, and Ma (after sneaking outside for a smoke, her breath Chiclets-fresh) entertained me with stories of overcoming the obstacles she’d faced in young adulthood, confronting brash and sexist administrators and the audacious demands of her own cantankerous mother, whom we all called “The Coot.”
Oh, those happy days.
Three years into our newlywed life, a second baby on the way, Frankie was killed when a driver fell asleep at the wheel and plowed head-on into him.
The rip through the Vitello fabric left a huge scar. The unexpected senselessness of a 25-year-old new father suddenly dead. Mass cards poured in. Casseroles and pans of sustenance. Who could eat, though?
Eventually, Ma stirred and steered her family through grief. Her only son was dead; still, she had no choice but to keep living.
She made sauce. We ate the sauce.
We soldiered on, raised the babies. Made more sauce.
Evelyn passed away recently; her grandchildren flying in to Buffalo from all over the country to say good-bye.
Meanwhile, I’m here, in my kitchen, at the stove. Blessed with a new husband and our collective brood of five grown children, all partnered, some with their own kids. An extended family of nephews and nieces. I’m proud to host gatherings with this So-Many-Kinds family encompassing of a variety of races, nationalities, religions and sexual orientation. I am at last, Sarah. Immersed in love.
Suzy Vitello is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of The Moment Before, The Empress Chronicles, and The Keepsake. She can be found at http://suzyvitello.com.
Evelyn Vitello’s Sauce
2 1/2 lb. 80 - 85% lean ground beef
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 c. Progresso Italian Style breadcrumbs
1 T. dried parsley
1/4 c. grated Romano cheese
1 – 1 1/2 c. Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing mix
salt and pepper to taste
(Suzy’s addition: a few sprigs of fresh fennel, chopped into tiny bits)
Mix ingredients well with hands.
Add warm water to get desired consistency and form into balls.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake one meatball 18 – 20 minutes to test for seasoning.
(Ma did this to see if more cheese, parsley, or salt and pepper was needed.)
1 - 1 1/2 lb. country style pork, bone-in preferred
either two cans (29 oz. each) Hunt’s tomato sauce or 4 cans (15 oz. each) Contadina with Italian Herbs sauce
1 - 2 bay leaves
1/2 green pepper, left whole
pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 t. baking powder
water as needed
optional: tomato paste
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Bake the pork until browned, turning once.
In a large pot, mix tomato sauce, bay leaves, green pepper and red pepper flakes.
Bring to a boil and add meatballs (uncooked) and pork (browned).
Reduce to simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least an hour, but more is better.
Add water and/or tomato paste to arrive at desired consistency.
Add baking powder at the end to cut acidity.
Remove pork before serving over macaroni (the Vitellos’ name for pasta).