>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.”