A Memory: Sunday dinner with Grandma and Grandpa, ProJo

Posted on April 19, 2015
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Special to The Journal Posted Apr. 19, 2015 @ 12:01 am


Just as the cake was brought to the table and placed alongside a tray of cookies and chocolates, out came the old photographs.

We were at the home of one of my sisters, reminiscing about “the olden days” at Grandma and Grandpa’s for Sunday dinner at noon. Relatives and friends always joined us. One photo of our grandparents with our mother, her two sisters and brother perfectly portrays their Sunday best for church and then home again for a seriously food-filled day.

Meals were always sumptuous. But unlike Easter Sunday, there was no leg of lamb, nor a variety of pies. Instead, we often had roasts, tender veal cutlets, meatballs, and a dish of braciole. Thinly cut rolled steaks, braciole had centers of garlic, parsley, pine nuts, prosciutto, and Parmesan cheese. These were tied with string and cooked for hours in the tomato sauce that would cover the homemade ravioli or lasagna.

As I think of those days, I can see why Grandma and Grandpa had so many Saturday afternoon opera tiffs. When Grandma wasn’t standing in the kitchen cooking, she would sit by the radio and crochet.

But Saturdays were a challenge. Grandpa was hard of hearing and would not wear a hearing aid. So their arguments often had a familiar ring. When he came to arias that he loved, he would turn the volume up loud enough to scare away the seagulls and then start singing along.

“Anthony, turn that down. How can I think and cook at the same time?” Grandma would say.

Finally she would stop stirring the sauce and go to him with her arms waving in the air crying out, “Silenzio!”

He would counter with “Annunziata, appetto un minuto,” meaning that he expected her to wait until the aria ended. He only called her Annunziata when he was very serious about something.

Or he might wave her off with “Nancy, aspetta” at which point she would walk away shaking her head saying, “He never listens.” However, when he called her “Nancy” he was listening — just not immediately.

Gram would say, “I’ll be glad when the warm weather comes. He’ll be out in the garden and I will have some peace and quiet in here.”

Because every Sunday was a feast, for Grandma all the cooking on Friday and Saturday was both her passion and her mission. On Sunday, when people gathered round the table, she would be watching faces for signs of contentment.

Then just as we were about to take the last bite, she was there heaping a second helping onto your plate smiling and saying, “You see, I knew you were still hungry. Grandma always knows. Just save some room for dessert.”

Rita Esposito Watson, also a PsychologyToday.com columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Rita Watson: Remembering Sunday dinner with Grandma and Grandpa

Copyright 2015 Rita Watson


Resiliency: Thoughts on springing forward

Posted on April 6, 2015
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For many of us, the Easter season is time for a new beginning.  By now the winter doldrums should be giving way to sunshine happiness. Easter Sunday is characterized by the Pascal Lamb, resurrection, and rebirth. And in “The Passover Lamb,” by Linda Elovitz Marshall, we see a delightful reminder of a child’s creativity while honoring religious tradition. We all need to find ways to move forward after a snowy winter of interrupted routines, seasonal affective disorders, frazzled nerves, and strained relationships.

In addition to reminding ourselves of that, scientific gratitude research from Robert A. Emmons, PhD, and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, have regularly found that “a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Here are three other thoughts. Let’s reassess our priorities, make time to play, and embrace mindfulness.

Reassess Priorities: When we were overwhelmed by snow, it felt as if time stood still in terms of our routines. Look at what you let fall by the wayside during that time. Then ask yourself two questions: “How much of my ‘To Do’ list is all that important? What is most important for me today, for those whom I love?” Whenever you go through the unplanned, by making a list of what was expected of you and what you were able to accomplish reinforces your resiliency.

Make Time for Yourself: When time appears to stand still while we address an immediate need — handling a crisis, caring for someone who is ill, or even planning a happy event — we get through it, often without enough sleep. But what about starting now to think of ways you might make yourself a priority? How much time should you save for yourself for the arts, reading, pursuing a hobby, or exercising?

Even our ancestors, early settlers with difficult lives, knew the value of play time. Take a ride on the carousels in Rhode Island, which still bring laughter to children and adults alike, and be grateful to those who built them. The carousels are an example of resilience through folk art.

Embrace Mindfulness: Focus on the moment, not even the next hour. Take just one moment at a time and vow that it will be the best moment you can give to yourself. The Harvard Health Letter, in discussing mindfulness, pointed out that there were 47 well-designed studies whose findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The studies “suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.”

Resiliency means to spring back. In some ways it is a gift, but to those who can recover quickly from difficulties, it is also a blessing, one that we can all cultivate.

Rita Watson: Three thoughts for springing forward Published 4/4/2015 / Providence Journal

Copyright 2015 Rita Watson


Remembering Grandma and Grandpa on a Musical Afternoon

Posted on March 29, 2015
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Read the original in the newspaper to see the priceless photo of my grandparents.

Within a concert hall of oil portraits, overlooking a snow-covered cemetery, I saw myself frolicking through the water at Grandma and Grandpa’s beach house. Commentary in a program at the Boston Athenaeum was my cue to return to a time just before Easter when we were first allowed to dip our toes into the water.

The pianist for The Capital Trio, Duncan Cumming, dedicated a Schubert piece to his teacher, Frank Glazer. His teacher believed that an opening chord should say, “Listen, I am going to tell a story.” As the violin, cello, and piano conversed, my story began to unfold.

I am not certain that Schubert would have appreciated my wanderings during his Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90 No. 1. Nonetheless, there I was taking an ocean splash, returning to Grandma’s kitchen while she baked pies for Aunt Rose in Providence, and licking batter from the spatula for her Easter lamb cake.

The music began lightly, perfect for tiptoeing in the water before rushing back into a warm kitchen where I was greeted by Grandma preparing her rice pie, wheat pie, cheese and ham Pizza Rustica and, of course, seeing her mixing the cake batter. Grandma baked these before Palm Sunday so that we could bring them to her Providence sister.

As the musical notes glided from a frolicking march to sounds reminiscent of waves crashing against rocks, I remembered Grandma’s voice: “Anthony turn down that music. The opera is drowning out my thinking. I need to concentrate on my pies.”

Taking pies to Aunt Rose — and visiting Roger Williams Park — was special for our mother during her courtship days. Before they married, Providence was as far as she and our father were allowed to travel together.

Grandma’s Easter pies became legendary; however, because she never wrote a recipe, it is difficult to re-create her delights. Each time she baked she would try a different flavorful accent, from lemon or orange rind to hazelnut liquor. Grandpa and his brothers ran a pastry shop where all of the traditional pies were baked.

Yet Grandma was always reminding her sister-in-law, the pastry shop’s Grande Dame, that she could bake a heavenly dessert right in her own kitchen. Indeed, Grandma’s Easter lamb cake, made from her mother’s own mold, was like food for the gods.

At the end of their day of bickering about music being too loud, Grandma’s face would light up when Grandpa put his arm around her at dinner, took a second bite of cake and spoke words that were music to Grandma’s ears: “Nancy, this tastes even better than my mother’s; may she rest in peace.”

During times of change serenity comes through forgiveness and gratitude

Posted on March 29, 2015
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Stress and anxiety are serenity stealers that we often experience during times of change. Even for the better, change can send us into a panic. I was overwhelmed this week in the midst of downsizing. As treasures came out of hiding, I began second-guessing. I found two tiny sweaters worn by my children as infants. Then there appeared a box of drawings from my sons’ kindergarten days. And glistening in plain sight was our mother’s ornate crystal.

Could I leave all this behind? Serenity began slipping away.It is doubly challenging when you and your partner have different points of view as to how to manage change. As stress and anxiety build up, fighting words just seem to roll off tongues: “How could you?” Or “What made you think this was a good decision?” Or worse, “What’s wrong with you?”

In one of my earlier books, I describe serenity as the simple experience of absolute calm. And yet the dictionary meanings are far more expansive. Definitions of serenity range from the visual panorama of light, ocean, and sky to a quality known as regal, a demeanor called dignity, and a state free of storms or change.

When our comfort zone is interrupted by planned or unplanned circumstances, we oftentimes begin questioning ourselves. But in addition to change, there are other serenity stealers: Anger, betrayal of trust, the desire for retaliation, undermining, untruths told about us.

To gain control of ourselves, rather than fall prey to the serenity stealers, it is helpful to build up reserves of peace and spend some time alone in quiet. Here are four thoughts on creating a reservoir of calm and confidence:

Gratitude: Make a daily gratitude list even if you can just think of four things for which you might say, “Thank you.”

Praise and forgiveness: For the decisions you made that turned out well, applaud yourself. For decisions that did not turn out as well as you had hoped, forgive yourself and move on.

Create positive scenarios: For those situations in your past that did not have a positive outcome, rehearse how you might behave or react differently when something similar happens again in the future.

Appreciate heightened intuition: When you spend time “centering” each day, researchers say that you will discover a sense of “knowing, just knowing.” Trust these intuitive leanings.

Yes, change can be disruptive. Just look at how many of us reacted as the snow kept piling up on our streets. However, whether we chose to make a change or change is thrust upon us,  an appreciative and confident sense of self can help you attain a certain peace of mind.

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for the Providence Journal and PsychologyToday.com.

Visits with Grandma are delicious memories

Posted on March 29, 2015
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Memories of celebrations at Grandma and Grandpa’s big house on the water still bring a smile to my face. They lived at 221 Beach St., which had a large wraparound porch and a widow’s walk at the top. As I was going through our photo albums on a snowy weekend, I came across a photo of my second birthday. At the top of the stairs, there stood three Italian matriarchs with Grandma in the center. My mother, with her long black hair, was seated in front of her. And I was centered on the first step surrounded by seven mothers and eight children smiling.

The photo was framed by four white columns. And when I think of our life there, I can almost see the stories unfold as we walk up the stairs, past the columns and into the parlor from the double doors. However, when growing up, we never had to open the doors ourselves – Grandma was always there to greet us.

When our parents were traveling, I lived there. But when they were home, Dad would drive me to “The Water House” and the moment we rounded the bend along the ocean, he would toot the horn of his station wagon in rhythmic fashion to announce our arrival.

Grandma would open the doors and walk down the stairs, a vision in white. Over her flowered cotton housedresses she always wore a large baker’s apron. Her hair, face, and apron were often covered in flour. “Come to Grandma,” she sang. And as I hugged and kissed her, I still remember a flour cloud forming as I nestled into her arms.

As always, Grandma had been in the kitchen making pasta and cooking fresh tomatoes to smother her ravioli. Yet, her large pantry was always festive with an array of sweets from biscotti to miniature pastry. By the time I was a teen, she liked to bake my two favorites, Sfogliatelle, a clam- shaped phyllo dough pastry filled with sweet ricotta and Bocconoti, an oval shaped piecrust-type pastry filled with chocolate custard.

As March approaches, I am reminded of another favorite pastry, the zeppole. It was made just once a year for the Feast of San Giuseppe, March 19. That was the one day in the year that Grandma would leave her own kitchen to help Grandpa at his pastry shop. Because the zeppole was delicately fried, drained, and then filled with cream and a cherry, many hands were needed to make fresh batches and accommodate the lines of customers.

When asked why she would work so hard that day, Grandma always said: “In Italy today is also Father’s Day. I am here to honor my husband and St. Joseph.”

 Rita Esposito Watson, also a PsychologyToday.com columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Embracing Valentine’s Day with Love

Posted on March 29, 2015
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Each February, as Valentine’s Day approaches, we think of hearts, flowers and love gifts. We search for the perfect card depicting romance. But this year, the love day has a new twist, colored by gray — “50 Shades of Grey” to be precise. The film is set to open in theaters on Valentine’s Day. Even those cuddly love bears have become hooked by the “Grey” frenzy; you can order them holding handcuffs and blindfolds. While some may think that these look cute on the bear, somehow the message of love and gratitude for the special person in one’s life is lost.

Here are seven ways to embrace Valentine’s Day, whether you will be spending it alone or with the love of your life. If you are looking for “the one,” sometimes it helps to clear our heads and hearts and prepare the path for love.

Be aware that love has its risks. But as Dr. Leo Buscaglia, author of the book “Love,” once said: “Love is life. And if you miss love, you miss life.”

If you have been hurt by love, learn again how to embrace its mystery. Express love on Valentine’s Day to family, friends, children and to those who are lonely and need a smile from your heart.

For couples who are blessed to be in a love relationship — express gratitude. Write and mail a love note every day for seven days. Put a picture of the two of you when you met in a frame with a note that says, “This was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Or try filling a heart mug with small scrolls of paper tied in a red ribbon. On each paper write a love note as if it was a fortune cookie. However, be specific, such as:

“I am grateful for the days you lift my spirits when I’m sad.”

“I thank you for calling me when you are traveling.”

“I love when you send me an unexpected xoxo text.”

“I appreciate that you listen to me when I speak.”

Sometimes we assume that people in our lives know that we love them. But everyone likes to see how eyes brighten and smiles broaden when we look them straight in the eye and say, “I love you with my whole heart and soul.”

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for the Providence Journal and PsychologyToday.com

Italian Kisses: Sugar Roses on a Wintery Day, Projo

Posted on January 27, 2015
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Special to The Journal

While most of the little town on the water was sighing from the winter doldrums, Grandma had a January birthday and a smile on her face. Although she liked to say, “No fusses about this; it’s just another day,” she always looked forward to the Italian cream and rum cake decorated with a dozen pink frosting roses. The second reason for her happiness was that her niece would go back to the convent school for “girls on the wild side.”

Miss Mischief was usually there for the birthday celebration, except for the year the nuns threatened to expel her from school. She had to cut short her holiday to return there to study.

There was always drama and tears as Gram felt somewhat guilty that she had sent her brother’s only daughter to live with the good sisters of the Immaculate Heart of the Most Holy Mary. While she hoped that the nuns’ purity would rub off on Missy, instead some of the other girls there taught her to smoke and swear.

Although Grandma’s brother and his wife lived near the school and brought Missy to their home every weekend, Grandma lamented: “Family is supposed to take care of family. How could I send my brother’s only daughter away?”

But then with Missy home for the holidays, we could hear Grandpa whisper, “Annunizata, she will be the death of you.”

“But Anthony her mother died in that sanatorium. She only had us. What did we do wrong?”

Grandpa would smile: “God gave us a chance to watch over a little angel who lost her wings. Missy is a good girl with bad habits who likes to tease the nuns.”

Since the nuns were filled with faith and prayer, their hearts had little room left for humor. The day they wanted to expel her was the day she was asked, “What do we do to save our souls?” And instead of the Baltimore Catechism answer Missy said, “Walk on our heels.”

Soon after Missy’s shortened holiday, Grandma transformed herself. The plump woman who lived in flowered cotton house dresses became a grand lady on her birthday. Wearing a navy blue gabardine dress, with a white crocheted collar, earrings and a pearl necklace, she made her grand entrance down the winding staircase and into the dining room.

Then after a rousing song and before cutting the cake she said, “We celebrate my birthday so I can thank God for every year I share with all of you. And my brother took a cake like this to the convent today so that Missy can celebrate there with us. May all the sugar roses help her to become a little bit sweeter.”

Rita Esposito Watson, also a PsychologyToday.com columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Published on 25 January 2015  Rita Watson: Sugar roses sweeten a winter’s day.

Embrace the New Year with Gratitude and a New You, Projo

Posted on January 27, 2015
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We are less than two weeks into the New Year and for many of us those New Year resolutions are already wishful thinking.

With resolutions, people often make a pact with themselves to turn around bad habits. Instead, try embracing acceptance, gratitude, and happiness. In doing so you can turn 2015 into the year you became more loving of yourself and more gracious towards those you care about.

Embrace acceptance: If you are having trouble feeling good about yourself, chances are that you are focusing on those extra 10 pounds. In doing so you are ignoring the positive qualities that make you a good friend and a loving person.

Whenever I fall into that pattern, I think about Suzanne Sugarbaker of “Designing Women,” an early ’90s television show. Despite weight struggles, actress Delta Burke, both on-screen and in life, often dressed looking like the beauty queen that she was in high school when crowned Miss Florida. Accept yourself and work towards a healthy weight. Dress to feel beautiful.

Embrace gratitude: Becoming more loving of those we love can be glorious or a chore. Instead of being a complainer, express gratitude for all of the people in your life and become a listener.

First listen to your inner voice and ask yourself why it is that the habits of certain people exasperate you. Researchers tell us that we oftentimes see ourselves in the shadow side of others.

Part of a gratitude exercise is being grateful for yourself, including your shortcomings. When you begin expressing gratitude, you even become more tolerant of those who are thorns in your side.

Embrace happiness: Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” has a gift for putting challenges in perspective. When I spoke with her about relationship problems, she pointed out the need for “arguments that are productive and loving, not exhausting, unpleasant, and pointless.”

A few of her tips include: “Joke about the conflict. Take a 20 minute recess. Hug and kiss.”

Keep in mind that acceptance, gratitude, and happiness are attainable. Simply make the decision to do so even if it means reinventing yourself.

Rita Watson is a relationship columnist for The Providence Journal and PsychologyToday.com.

Published on 11 January 2015 Rita Watson: Show gratitude for a new year, a new you


An Italian Family Tradition: Struffoli Day

Posted on January 2, 2015
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On the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day we had a tradition that came to be called Struffoli Day. It was the Italian family Christmas for all of our relatives. No one asked what foods they should bring; they simply cooked a favorite recipe.

But one year, in addition to a main dish, everyone brought a bowl of struffoli. Made from bits of marble-sized dough, struffoli are deep fried, then drenched in honey and covered with colored sprinkles. Quite unexpectedly, this day of family love turned into a bit of rivalry.

Grandma explained, “My mother made a large bowl of these on Christmas Eve for sweetness after our traditional meal of the Seven Fishes. Papa always put too many salty anchovies into the puttanesca.”

Grandpa said his mother built them up on a platter into the shape of a Christmas tree, just as he had taught Grandma. “Then starting at the top, using our fingers, we popped them into our mouths one at a time,” he said with a smile.

Each year Gram’s struffoli tree seemed to get higher, and this year she considered it to be a work of art. With so many people bringing struffoli, she placed the bowls on a sideboard with little dishes for individual servings, since they were picked up and eaten like little pieces of candy. Then just before dinner Gram made a grand entrance with her struffoli tree sprinkled with multi-colored nonpareils and laced with silver tinsel. The family applauded.

Grandpa’s sister, Zia Agatha, said: “Annunziata, your struffoli — che belle dolce. We should keep it as the centerpiece and eat the others. You know that with a Christmas tree shape those delicate morsels will be dry as a bone by dessert time. I know this because our mother’s struffoli were always dry.”

Then turning to Grandpa she said, “Isn’t that right, Anthony?” He shrugged.

Gram turned away and simply said to all the women, “Let’s bring out the meal.” Almost like magic, an endless stream of food filled three dining room tables.

Once everyone sat to eat Grandpa said grace. Then expecting Gram’s words to be: “Now let us enjoy our family and this feast,” she added, “I’ve placed cellophane over the struffoli tree to keep it moist. And next to my tree there is a crystal bowl of honey and shot glasses filled with toothpicks. If you think my struffoli are too dry, you can stick them with a toothpick and dip them into the honey. Amen.”

And at that moment we were certain that not a single person in that room — except for Zia Agatha — would dare to put a toothpick into Gram’s crunchy Neapolitan delight.

Providence Journal link: Dec. 28, 2014 Rita Watson: Struffoli Day was a sweet family tradition.

Rita Esposito Watson, also a PsychologyToday.com columnist, is writing “Italian Kisses: Gram’s Wisdom.”

Spirituality: The body and soul of ballet, ProJo

Posted on December 20, 2014
Filed Under Providence Journal - Health | Leave a Comment

R.I. dancer explores the body and soul of spirituality

Published on 16 December 2013

n talking about the spirituality of ballet with Jennifer Ricci of Johnston, who has been dancing since age 4, she relates the story of two fellow members of Festival Ballet Providence.

In a recent performance of “The Pieta,” husband and wife Mindaugas Bauzys and Vilia Putrius portrayed the Michelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the lifeless Christ. As the mother held up her son’s arm, which flopped limply when she touched his face, the audience wept.

“It is that kind of spiritual connection between two bodies on stage that, to me, is so breathtaking,” Ricci said.

“Practicing in quiet or on stage — when you are working as one with your partner, even for me as a dancer to see how they move together as one soul, one person matching each other’s movements — it is unbelievable. They have a connection because they are married. You can feel the intensity through their emotion. For me, that is inspiration.”

Since she works with so many different partners, Ricci must find ways to connect with each of them.

“It pretty much happens while you are performing, even during a rehearsal before the actual stage production,” she said, “because by that point, you forget who is watching and you take cues from within.”

For Ricci, ballet happened almost by accident. She kept dislocating her shoulder and a physician suggested gymnastics to give her strength. She’s now been with Festival Ballet Providence for more than 20 years.

Until 10 years ago, Ricci danced with her sister Jaclyn, who had many health problems. Dancing always helped to heal her mind and soul, Ricci said.

“My sister was and always has been my inspiration and when she stopped dancing, I felt as if I had lost a part of my soul,” she said.

One of Ricci’s favorite roles is Arabian from “The Nutcracker,” because of the passion and emotions it brings out in her.

“Dancing that role is something I had dreamed of since age 17 and each time I dance, I bring different styles and different emotions to the part, and it just consumes me.”

Ricci, a graduate of Rhode IslandCollege, calls herself an actress who is also a dancer.

“The most difficult role that I ever performed was Giselle — it is a very controlled role with a lot of dancing. It is beautiful to watch and once you dance it you understand more about the character,” she said. “But for me, the most exciting role, which is my personality, is that of Princess Zobeide from the ‘Scheherazade’ — it is exotic, drama, and I love dramatic roles, whether it is passionate or you want to strangle someone — I like the acting as opposed to straight contemporary pieces that just show lines without telling a story.”

Once, when trying to perform a piece called “In Passing,” she got frustrated because she wanted to make the performance stand out.

Then her director said: “You do it with your eyes.”

“And whatever happened in the end, that feeling inside that I had to conjure up worked,” Ricci said. “He said it was the best he has ever seen performed. And I felt as if I had to perform as if I was almost angry inside so as not to be too melodramatic. But I am. That’s because I’m Italian.”

Ricci’s principal roles include Arabian, Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker”; Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Cinderella; Neopolitan, Pas de Trois and Big Swan in “SwanLake”; Snow White; Princess Elena in “Firebird”; Mina in “Dracula”; Prelude and Seventh Waltz in “Les Sylphides”; and Giselle.

FBP’s Artistic Director Mihailo “Misha” Djuric considers himself lucky — he can see the passion in the dancers as they perform and sense the emotions of audience members as they watch.

[It’s a] “genuine privilege to watch these talented dancers — they have an intensity of spirit which radiates, which we can feel.”

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Rita Watson (ritawatson.com), who has a master’s degree in public health, is a regular contributor to The Providence Journal

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