June memories of lilacs, brides and bocce

Posted on June 15, 2016
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Late-blooming lilacs, biscotti, bridal bags and bocce balls were signs of June at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Although Grandpa’s garden was filled with vegetables, he made certain that there were flowers blooming. Grandma believed that houses close to the water should have flowers to counter the salty air that settled into walls and carpets. “Too much salty air makes the house musty. Even my baking aromas can’t fill the rooms upstairs as the flowers do. “
Grandma liked the double white peonies because of their lily of the valley scent. For color she arranged them with dark pink peonies. To the side, there was often a small vase of roses. However, Grandma said our mother‘s room was like a lilac garden. “When your father was home on leave [during World War II], they went walking one day. He broke off a lilac sprig and put it in her hair. She held onto that lilac for days before pressing it into a memory book.”
In June, there was often a friend of our mother and her sisters getting married. Grandma would proudly say, “They always wanted me to make the tray of biscotti. They said mine were better than any pastry shop, even Papa’s. Of course mine were better. I used flavorings from the old country. These were too expensive to make to sell in a store. “
Our mother and her sisters decorated the large trays with Jordan almonds, Italian candies and strands of tinsel. At receptions, it was traditional for brides and grooms to pass a tray of cookies to their guests. The bride usually wore a satin drawstring bag on her arm. After guests took the biscotti, they would open the bag and add a card with a cash gift.
Because our mother’s friends knew that Grandma could sew beautifully, they often brought her fabric to match their gowns so that she could make their bridal bags adding lace, seed pearls, or even a crochet fringe.
Grandpa also loved June. After having spent May planting his gardens, which forever needed tending, he took time for his favorite sport — bocce ball. Grandpa made a court on natural soil on the side of the house and planted tiger lilies within view so Grandma could enjoy looking at flowers while the men played their games.
Grandpa had said to her, “Nancy, I don’t see you all day. At night, when I am home playing bocce, I like for you to be there to watch.”
As Grandma explained, “What was I going to say? He takes good care of this family. So I sit and watch and enjoy the flowers. He looks over, smiles at me, and sometimes throws a kiss.”

Rita Esposito Watson — www.ritawatson.com — is a Journal columnist writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Rita Watson’s Italian Kisses: Bartering biscotti for fabric kept us in styleRita Watson’s Italian Kisses: Grandma tried to avoid unkind wordsRita Watson’s Italian Kisses: From her zeppole to pizzagaina, Grandma reigned supremeRita Watson: When Grandpa’s pastry mixed with politics

Kind Commencement Words Counter Political Negativity

Posted on June 1, 2016
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During this month of graduations, in a nation inundated by political name-calling, I am reminded of two commencement speeches that resonated with words of kindness and justice.Former President Jimmy Carter spoke at Trinity College in 1998 at the graduation of one of my sons. He urged graduates to be mindful of the discrimination of “rich people against poor people.” The other memorable speech was by George Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University. His address to the 2013 graduating class there was released in a book called, “Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.”

President Carter’s address at Trinity was fitting in that the college is involved with Habitat for Humanity. He has taken part in fundraising and homebuilding since 1984. The nonprofit group views housing and shelter as a matter of conscience, which underscores its dedication to eliminating “poverty housing” and homelessness internationally. In speaking of breaking down barriers between the rich and the poor, Carter’s words struck a chord when he encouraged graduates to look beyond the world of their own social milieu. “There’s a vast world out there, not just in our country, but in other nations as well,” he said.

When his speech on kindness and justice ended, the graduates, their families, and friends gave him a rousing, standing ovation. Initially, video sales of the commencement seemed sluggish; after his words, sales soared.

At the Syracuse commencement, Saunders spoke of regret as well as kindness. He told of a seventh-grader at school often ignored or teased by others. And while he says he was moderately kind and might have been kinder in the future, he lost his chance. One day the young girl’s family moved away. Saunders’ message was a simple one. “As a goal in life … try to be kinder … What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

For some students, kindness and gratitude are taught long before graduation. Jeffrey J. Froh, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, said to me during an earlier interview, “Data indicate grateful teens have more self-control and, during a time when their identity is forming, gratitude correlates with fewer reports of antisocial and delinquent behaviors.” He also noted that “grateful children may be more community minded.”

Froh is co-author with Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., of “Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character.” He added: “A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or things our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them.”

Research seems to indicate that those who nurture an attitude of gratitude may foster a reservoir of kindness that enriches their own lives as well as the lives of others.

—Rita Watson, M.P.H., also writes “With Love and Gratitude” forPsychologyToday.com.

Italian Kisses: Biscotti for fabric, a fair trade

Posted on May 18, 2016
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Special to The Journal Posted May. 12, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

To Grandma, looking fashionable was as simple as taking off the white baker’s apron that usually hugged her pastel-colored house dress. It was only on Sunday, when she dressed for church in her navy blue gabardine dress with the lace collar, that we could see her sense of style.
When her daughters tried to take her shopping, she would say, “I’m not like Papa’s mother, your great a nonna, who was always out and about. I’m here cooking and baking.”

Nonetheless, Grandma appreciated fine cotton and linen and, to keep us looking fashionable, she became a barterer — her biscotti for the newest in fabric.

Our mother worked in the city at the telephone company, where she and her friends tried to dress according to fashion. They would shop on their lunch hour at Horowitz Bros., a fabric store with textiles, patterns, buttons and zippers. When our mother discovered that Angie, a saleswoman, lived near the Water House, she told her to simply knock on the door whenever she walked by and could smell Grandma’s freshly baked biscotti.

Every few weeks, Angie would catch the aroma of Grandma’s baking, and a predictable routine ensued. She would stand under the grape arbor and call out, “Nancy, are you in the kitchen? It’s me. Angie.”
Grandma would lift the window frame and call out, “Angie, I was just thinking about you. Come in. The back door is open. You are just in time for some biscotti and demitasse.”

On cue, Angie would say, “I don’t want to bother you, but I did want you to know that we had some new fabrics. I think that your granddaughters will look adorable if you and your daughter have time to sew them some new dresses.”

Then, seating herself at the table, she would say, “Now don’t fuss. Just sit with me and we can talk.” That was the sign that Angie was having company and wanted to bring home some biscotti.

Grandma kept Angie and her husband happy with sweets and, in exchange, Angie brought fabric swatches and sometimes even fabric remnants.

On some Saturdays, our mother and her sisters would invite Angie to their sewing bee. They transformed the front parlor overlooking the water into a sewing room. There they spent the afternoon designing their own patterns, cutting and basting dresses, and then waiting for Grandma to “run them up” on her old Singer sewing machine on the second-floor balcony overlooking the parlor.

Angie was never as much fun as our aunts, but Grandma said it was because she had a difficult husband. “That’s why I tell you all the time, be nice to everyone. You never know what troubles they carry in their hearts.”
—Rita Esposito Watson is writing “Italian Kisses: Grandma’s Wisdom.”

Grandma’s Rose-Colored Words

Posted on April 18, 2016
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Rita Watson’s Italian Kisses: Grandma tried to avoid unkind words

By Rita Watson Special to The Journal Posted Apr. 14, 2016 @ 9:00 pm

Grandma believed in clichés, euphemisms and kind words. “Bless instead of curse, because curses come home,” was a favorite saying.

Grandma may not have seen the world through rose-colored glasses, but she spoke as if she did, even though her body language sometimes betrayed her. Our philandering great uncle was never called a “Casanova.” Instead, Grandma talked about his “tendency,” shrugging her shoulders, lifting her hands upward and raising her eyes to heaven. Yet today, despite the golden rules from the “Baltimore Catechism” we learned preparing for our First Communion, it is her words that resonate.

My 94-year-old Aunt Rose recently explained: “Uncle was tall and handsome with thick, black, wavy hair. The twinkle in his blue eyes was his downfall. The girls were all in love with him. And he had the tendency to please. He didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Once he married, Aunt Georgia straightened him out, although the tendency sometimes returned.”

As family lore goes, one day Uncle entered the family pastry shop hugging a young, giggling bank teller. It seems that Aunt Georgia was helping in the back kitchen that day. When she heard his voice, she gasped, “the tendency.” Zia, the pastry shop matron, dashed from the kitchen waving her rolling pin. The young lady fled and, after that experience, Uncle began taking trips to Italy with his brothers. He claimed his doctors said that exercising in the old country was good for his heart.

Another uncle had what Grandma dubbed “the condition” — Grandma never used the word alcoholism. She said he developed “a condition” after his wife died. “It broke his heart,” Grandma would say, “and blackberry brandy is a healer.”

Apparently tendencies and conditions were not unique to our family. A colleague from a large Italian family remembers an older cousin, “Tony, the painter,” who missed family gatherings for three years. Whenever anyone asked “Where’s Tony?” the matriarch answered, “He’s painting a house.” No one dared mention that he was “doing time.”

Another euphemism we often heard was quietly spoken when a man jilted a relative, either by choice or because a father deemed that he was not suitable for his daughter. We never heard, “He stood her up.” The words used were “È scomparso,” meaning, “He disappeared.” Today we call that “ghosting.”

Although some relatives whispered, “She’s better off without him,” or “She deserves better,” no unkind words were spoken in our house.

“Watch your words,” Grandma warned. “What if he comes back again, the family reconciles, and the two want to marry? If you speak unkind words, and it gets back to the family, you won’t be invited to the wedding.” With that threat, everyone made the zip sign across their lips.

Rita Esposito Watson (ritawatson.com) is a Journal columnist writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”


Creating your gratitude story

Posted on April 7, 2016
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We all have a story to tell, even though sometimes our stories mingle between reality and what we choose to remember. However, what determines our destiny is oftentimes the way we fashion our stories. While it is always best to err on the side of truth, sometimes we are driven to reshape unhappy experiences to find a smidgen of the positive; doing so can be life preserving.

Memoir writing has soared in popularity in recent years. It is one avenue for recording life’s experiences. Viewing the memoir within the genre of creative non-fiction makes it easier to write a personal, family or love history from the perspective of gratitude. There is no longer the constraint of rigidly adhering to dates and history. With spring in the air, it might be time to buy a new journal, pen words on a card, or begin writing an uplifting memoir.

While at Yale’s department of psychology, Robert Sternberg, PhD, pointed out that a love relationship between two people follows a story, oftentimes a story we created as children. If we find that our stories do not turn out happily, he suggests rewriting them. Here is a twist on a love story for couples. Remind yourself as to why you fell in love and retell the story to each other. Embellish it. Fill it with romance. Add wishes that you can now make come true. Fashion your love story into a commitment to each other.

Take to heart what we learned from the research of Marcel Zentner, a professor of psychology at the University of Innsbruck. “Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them — in just about every way — remain content with each other,” he said to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is one of the secrets to lifelong love.

If you are seeing the love of your life, a family member or friends in a less than perfect light, Loretta Breuning says that you can wire your brain to see the good. Just spend three minutes a day for the next 45 days (or one minute intervals three time a day) building a pathway for gratitude. Oftentimes we focus on the negative because the positive has no place to flow until you build that new pathway. Author of “Habits of a Happy Brain,” Breuning told me, “If you miss a day, start over.” Then she added, “Make your energy available for gratitude. You’ll be so happy that you did.”

Deciding to write a gratitude memoir can bridge family relationships, capture the wisdom of older relatives and even enrich the love bond between couples. To begin, it simply takes treasuring one memory at a time.

Rita Watson, M.P.H., a Providence Journal relationship columnist, writes “With Love and Gratitude” for PsychologyToday.com. / http://www.providencejournal.com/entertainmentlife/20160331/rita-watson-creating-story-of-gratitude

From her Pizzagaina to Zeppole, Grandma Was Queen

Posted on April 7, 2016
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By Rita Watson

When both San Giuseppe Day and Easter would fall within weeks of each other — as with this year — Grandma would say, “I’m beside myself with all of the baking and cooking. I hope I still have the strength to stand on my feet for this.”

Despite complaints of her aches and pains, when Grandma was in her kitchen cooking, she smiled as if she was in a corner of heaven. Convinced that her Zeppole di San Giuseppe and her Easter-time pizzagaina were unrivaled in the family of cooks, she looked forward to hearing the words: “The taste of this is even better than it was last year.”

The zeppole was the first of the family bake-offs, and there was a discernible difference in taste and appearance. Unlike her in-laws, who made zeppole resembling a doughnut filled with cream in the center, Grandma’s looked like cream puffs. Then she would add swirls of extra custard cream on the top, highlighted by a dark Amarena cherry.

When the family gathered to celebrate San Giuseppe Day, which was Father’s Day in Italy, her in-laws would try to determine the ingredient that gave her pastry such zing. It was Limoncello, a liqueur that her brother brought her from the old country. Grandma never served it as an after-dinner drink because she was afraid the sight of the bottle would give away her secret. While her in-laws used lemon zest or orange zest with bits of candied fruit in their custard, Gram’s magic was hidden in back of the pantry cupboard.

At the end of the day, she and Grandpa would sit on a window seat overlooking the dock sipping their demitasse. Then he would pinch her cheek and say, “Nancy, even though my sisters make zeppole just like my mother, you are my Zeppole Princess, the best in America.”

The second March bake-off was with the pizzagaina, Napolitano Pizza Rustica. Gram believed that no one could compete with the texture, moisture and meats in her treasured recipe — baked ham, capicola and pepperoni. On the Saturday before Easter she held a women’s brunch for the exchange of hearty pies.

It was after the family left that Grandma’s blue eyes twinkled and she became the resident food critic. Tasting the leftovers on the dining room sideboard she would begin, “Zia still uses too much mozzarella. See how heavy this is. Concetta always makes hers too watery. This one is from Aunt Georgia. Just look how she skimps on the ham. And Antoinette, can you imagine she uses boiled ham instead of a fresh-baked ham?”

Looking at her face as she became “the taster,” it was apparent — Grandma was once again convinced that in the kitchen, she reigned supreme.

Rita Esposito Watson, a Journal columnist, adapted this from her “Italian kisses: Gram’s wisdom.”

The Pairing of Music and Art at Boston Athenaeum

Posted on April 7, 2016
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 At a recent concert, I had a taste of artistic pairings.

The jazz quartet Petite Feet, from the New England Conservatory of Music, highlighted the artwork of the late Allan Rohan Crite. For each musical composition, a different artwork was projected onto the screen.

In our love-addicted society, we like pairings. Yet, at the concert, relationship pairing was upstaged by creativity. The sounds of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Black and Tan Fantasy,” plus original works by the musician-composers, were met with applause and smiles.

Applause is always rewarding, but why are smiles important? In a review paper published in February 2016 in “Trends in Cognitive Science,” Adrienne Wood and colleagues presented scientific evidence that underscores what we intuitively believe: “Smiles generate smiles.”

It is called “mirroring.” The authors pointed out that “emotions are patterns of expressive, behavioral, physiological, and subjective feeling responses.”

If Crite had been looking at the faces of the audience during the concert, he would have been as pleased as his widow, Jackie Cox-Crite, who was at the Boston Athenaeum to support the event. Her husband was committed to portraying African-Americans living ordinary lives in the Boston community: A child skipping rope, a mother and child riding the bus, and men reading the newspaper.

Preserving one’s heritage is vital. Here in Rhode Island, Brown University is hosting a March 12 event called “Hacking Heritage.” It is designed to make connections among scholars, museums and community advocates and is open to everyone interested in cultural heritage, preservation and public history.

The beauty of a music and art pairing is music’s ability to activate one’s emotions. Researchers tell us there are “best” songs for lovers, for getting over a failed romance, and the best tunes for putting a smile on one’s face. The young men in the jazz quartet know how to smile. Perhaps the audience reacted not just to their music and photos of the artwork, but to the sheer sense of enjoyment on the faces of Travis Bliss, tenor saxophonist, pianist Shane Simpson, drummer Jon Starks and bassist Simón Willson.

Smiles and laughter are contagious, as we learned from studies by Robert R. Provine, neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. If you are feeling blue, change your mood. Play music that makes you want to dance. Look in the mirror and practice one of those “you light up my life” smiles. Take a walk and smile at strangers on the street. They will smile back.

Smiling at family, friends, lovers and strangers is similar to gratitude as an attitude, not a feeling. Express gratitude through kind words, thank-you notes, or visits — even in the absence of feeling. Whenever you smile and express gratitude, positive feelings will envelop you.

— Rita Watson is a Journal columnist who also writes “With Love and Gratitude” for PsychologyToday.com. / Rita Watson: Smiles and laughter are contagious 

Mixing Politics and Pastry

Posted on February 23, 2016
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Rita Watson’s grandmother was always suspicious of pastry shops that did not have windows filled with trays of cookies

Special to The Journal

Before moving to what we called “The Water House,” my mother lived briefly in New Haven, Connecticut, with my father’s parents. She was quite displeased by the arrangement. She said Grandpops spent too much time with his politics and drinking buddies in a neighborhood of Italian pastry shops and an Irish pub.

Grandma, on my mother’s side, was convinced that the pastry shops were a front for bookies involved in the numbers racket. We never quite understood what that meant and no one cared to explain it to us.

owever, Grandma said it was a great relief to our mother when the 14-room home on the water was renovated. Then she and her sisters, while waiting for the men to return from the war, moved in.
About the same time, my mother’s father and his family started a pastry business in the Italian neighborhood of the city. Much like Federal Hill in Providence, Boston’s North End and New York’s Little Italy, it was a cultural treasure. Nonetheless, Grandma did not like the city and so trips there were infrequent.

One rare day during election season fever, Grandpa drove us to the city. I was about 8. As we drove along, Grandma eyed the pastry shops and the men lined up posing for pictures with their new cars. She said, “Look closely. You won’t see any pastry in the windows of those shops. And inside, all that you’d see in the cases are trays of stale lemon drop cookies, the anginettes.

“Stale cookies. Stale politics,” Grandma sighed.

Grandpa piped up, “Nancy, stai zitta.” But instead of being quiet, Grandma said, “Don’t shush me, Anthony. You know it’s the truth.

By then we had arrived at a great white house overlooking a park, the funeral parlor. “We came to the city because I have to pay my respects. Tonight is family night,” said Grandpa.

Heavy drapes hung on all the windows. And when we peeked through a door, we saw a real casket with a real body inside. Grandpa joined the men.

Mrs. Undertaker brought us to a den for cookies and milk while she and Grandma shared tea. That’s when she said, “Nancy I know you don’t like your husband involved in politics, but this is a close election. The gentleman in the casket is Sonny’s uncle. We are hoping Sonny is the next mayor. Tomorrow the viewing is open to the public. There will be lines around the block. We need Anthony to bring us enough pastry to keep the men here talking and working together.”

Grandma rolled her eyes. She was not happy. But when she heard the words, “Your husband’s pastry will help us win this election,” Grandma just smiled.


— Rita Esposito Watson, a Journal columnist, is writing a family history called “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Finding the secret to lifelong love

Posted on February 23, 2016
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If you are lost in a lover’s world wondering if the love in your life is here to stay, some simple clues might give you the answer.

Based on separate studies, love researchers have found that kindness and generosity of spirit — as reflected in words and body language — can be powerful predictors of long-term happiness. Contempt is the great relationship destroyer. But what brings two people together initially is more than just Cupid; it is the hormone oxytocin.

Oxytocin is a bonding hormone said to be responsible for parent-infant bonding. Also called the “cuddling” hormone, a study published in January 2012 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported on love studies conducted in their labs. Researchers determined that “the people in new relationships had oxytocin levels that averaged nearly double those of singles. For couples who stayed together, oxytocin levels remained stable over a six-month period.”

Additionally, there was a similarity to what has been described in parent-infant bonding including: “Interactive reciprocity, including social focus, positive affect, [and] affectionate touch.” If we think of oxytocin as a bonding hormone, there will be no surprises from studies conducted in “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington in 1986 in which psychologists Robert Levenson and John Gottman observed couples interacting. After hooking them up to electrodes, they found that rapid heart rates, blood flow and sweating were predictors of a doomed relationship.

Later, at the University of Washington campus, researchers created a bed and breakfast retreat. In 1990, they invited 130 newlyweds to spend a day to observe them. The discovery was startling. As husband or wife made what researchers called “a bid” for connection, it was the spouse’s response that predicted the success or failure in the marriage.

For example, a husband may make a bid to his wife to share the experience of looking at a goldfinch in their yard. How his wife responds plays a crucial role in the relationship. If she reacts with kindness, she might accept her husband’s bid for connection. On the other hand, she might ignore him, or even retort with hostility, “You and those birds.” In a healthy, long-term marriage generosity of spirit and gratitude are predictors of life-long love.

Gratitude studies from the lab of psychologist Robert Emmons, of the University of California-Davis, found that if you practice acts of kindness — expressing gratitude that you do not necessarily feel — eventually you will find yourself becoming a more grateful person. Perhaps by smiling more often at your spouse or partner, even when you are angry, you might begin to mimic the gratitude concept. Think of the act of smiling as connecting the dots of attitude and emotion for the purpose of creating loving intimacy.

— Rita Watson, MPH, is a Journal relationship columnist who writes “With Love and Gratitude” for PsychologyToday.com.

All about Grandma’s candy drawer

Posted on February 23, 2016
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>Posted Jan. 24, 2016 @ 12:01 am

Grandma loved a good party. She thrived preparing for Sunday dinners. Because of the size of the family home, most birthdays were held at the house on the water. The one party that Grandma seemed to brush off was her own birthday

“I don’t even have a birth certificate,” she would say. “How do we know when I was born?”But every January, Grandpa planned a party highlighted by an Italian cream and rum layer cake topped with a dozen sugar roses and the delicately formed words, “Happy Birthday.”

In looking at family photos, I was reminded that when Grandma could no longer host the family gatherings, our mother and her sisters took turns. The joy Grandma missed in cooking, she experienced in opening her birthday gifts. While she always saved personal presents for herself, the candies she would request were for her gift drawer. Italian confetti candies, shaped like a dime with a sugar shell and chocolate inside, came in pastel shades. Another favorite were sugar-coated almonds, which at weddings, were often sprinkled within a tray of biscotti that the bride and groom would pass around to each guest.

And, of course, Grandma liked to have boxes of Torrone, honey nougat candy with almonds or pistachios. She liked the little boxes because each had an image of a historic Italian figure. She said that her two favorites were Ippolita, first wife of the Duke of Calabria, who later reigned as King Alfonso II of Naples, and Ferrante Gonzaga, who defended Naples — “considered the old country” — against an invasion in the 1500s.

More difficult to find, unless you looked into Grandma’s gift drawer, was a flavored sugar confection made in Italy. It was called “Leone. Violet. For Spring Lovers.” These were after-dinner mints.

For a few weeks after her birthday, she would pile all of the candies she’d been given into a large orange iridescent Tiffany bowl on the dining room table. Eventually, she would take them to the bottom drawer of a large mahogany bureau with a carved Stuart rose design.

The drawer was always filled with sweets and crocheted handkerchiefs in an array of colors tucked inside a silk pouch. Whenever you came to visit Grandma unexpectedly and she did not have fresh biscotti ready for you to take home, she led you to the bureau. “Help yourself,” she’d say. “These are gifts from my children for me to give to you to take home.”

Her often repeated words to us: “You never go to anyone’s house empty-handed. And you never let anyone leave your house empty-handed. Even if they do not bring you a gift, you give a gift to them. It’s what you are supposed to do, it’s a blessing.”

— Rita Esposito Watson (ritawatson.com) is a Journal columnist writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

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