So one of my best friend from high school’s Mom passed away this week. The wake and funeral are in New York, and I am in Florida, and I am so sorry I can’t be with my friend and her family at this time, to give her a hug, and tell her how much her Mom meant to me. I called and talked to our other friend Kim, and she’s going to try and make it at least to the church. We were both there when Joanne’s Dad died when we were 17 and in high school, and I am sorry to not be there to pay my last respects to her Mom.
We both had such fond memories of Joanne’s Mom. Mary Pagnotta was quite a character, an original, and I hope she knows what an impact she had on the people in her life. She wasn’t famous, she didn’t have a glamorous job, but she had a big heart, and you always knew you were welcome in her home and at her table. When you were friends with Joanne, you became like a part of the family. Spending time at her house was my first exposure to a true Italian American family. Similar in some ways to my own Irish Catholic family, yet different in many of their traditions.
Life in the Pagnotta house revolved around the kitchen. There was a formal living room that we weren’t allowed in, this was reserved in case the Pope showed up unannounced. The dining room was for celebrating the sacraments only- a baptism, communion, confirmation, wedding or funeral warranted anyone entering besides to dust weekly. There was plastic on the furniture in the family room, but the kitchen- the kitchen was clearly where she lived. At any time of day Mrs. Pagnotta was ready to whip up a feast on your behalf. She would offer food from the minute you took your coat off until you walked out the door. “Pasta? Veal? Debbie, have some chicken. Try a little cake. Have some eggplant, I just made it. Taste this. Just a little bite. Eat, you have to eat something!” Her grandmother would look at you and shrug, I can still see her now. She was missing half of one of her thumbs, and I can’t remember for the life of me what happened to it. She lived with them, and she used to sit at the kitchen table and cut up vegetables and watch soap operas while we were there. She was hard of hearing, and she always called me Betty on the phone. I can hear her voice now when I called: “Who is it? hello? hello? hello? ” I’d be shouting at the other end, IT’S DEBBIE! DEBBIE! can I speak to Joanne? “Who? Betty? Betty? I don’t know any Betty.” IT’S ME GRANDMA, DEBBIE WITH THE CURLY HAIR! CAN I SPEAK TO JOANNE??? “Oh, Betty with the curly hair!”
There were stories of relations to Lucky Luciano, the famous Mafia godfather. Aunt Chubby and Aunt Anna, Mrs. Pagnotta’s sisters. They reminded me of the three fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty- Fauna, Flora and Merriweather, little ladies with dark hair, kind of flittering around, with strong personalities and funny stories. Was there another sister who died, or am I thinking about my Grandmother’s sister Pat? The family history lines are a little blurry to me now. There were all sorts of special things made for different holidays- fish for Christmas Eve, the mountain of dough balls stuck together with honey – strufala?, Easter bread with whole colored eggs baked into it.
Mrs. Pagnotta had a job working at the rectory taking care of the priests at St. Barnabus. I’m sure she followed them around with plates of meatballs and sausages. I learned to never go to their house after a meal, always go hungry because inevitably you would have to eat something. And she was always trying to convince me to be on her side about something she was telling Joanne to do, or her opinion about some situation. “Am I right Debbie? How do I look? Am I too skinny?” and she’d lift up her dress and flash a little leg and laugh. She was probably only 5 feet tall, and she wore platform shoes or high heels on a daily basis, with stockings or knee highs, jewelry, makeup and her hair done. She always said she was going to write her memoirs- if she did, I’d love to read them.
When Joanne got married and moved to Pennsylvania, I used to pick her up and we’d drive together for a weekend visit. She’d get in the car and hand me a bagel with cream cheese, and show me the chocolate chip cookies she baked for later, and the eggplant parmigiana for dinner. For her, food was love.
Later on when I got engaged and married an Italian man and planned to move there, she was over the moon. She used to call me her other daughter. She made me the “borsa”, the satin bag you collect your gifts at the wedding in Italy.
Kim reminded me while we were talking that when we were younger she “ran away” to Joanne’s house. That was the kind of Mom she was, you knew you were welcome there. She was always interested in what you were doing, how you were, wanted to know your thoughts, and made sure you were full. You could feel the love at her table. I hope my table is like that for Carlitos and his friends someday.
Mary Pagnotta, I thank you.
With love from your other daughter, Debbie.