Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Familia--Part One--Side One

Part One-Side One:  (My mother's side) of my La  Familia is almost pure Sicilian (Palermo).  Yes, the Mafia capital of Italy--more on that another time.   My grandfather--Nanu...Jimmy Balzano, a feather-weight boxing champion in his day, reigned over his four daughters and their families.  We numbered: 24.  He reigned 'supreme' (the undisputed Godfather) at ALL Italian Feasts of La Familia. It goes without saying, that our Italian Feasts (which went on for hours) rivaled "Big Night" and I think whoever wrote "Like Water For Chocolate" must have, at some time, come under one of the frequent  'culinary spells' cast on guests at one of our over-the-top-dramatic and deliriously divine dinners.... My grandmother--Ma--Rose Balzano, was also Sicilian but with just enough of a dash of Romanian Gypsy, bequeathed us with a wonderful addition to  our already inherited, exotic and we would all agree (fortuitous), mixed-and hot-blooded veins.  Ma Balzano had the proverbial light black feathered mustache that always puzzled me as a child.  Her simmered and Mason jar-bottled italian plum  tomatoes (for homemade sauce at a  moment's notice) were carefully put on shelves in their downstairs cellar.  At any one time, there were enough jars to feed Mussolini's army or the Mafioso, if they dropped in.  

All Christmas Eve's (at Nanu's) have Ma and her four daughters cooking and preparing in every corner of the kitchen. The live lobsters and crab could be found swimming in the bathtub until they were ceremoniously thrown into a huge pot awaiting their demise. With the lobsters, once submerged, you could hear their high-pitched squealing "to death." Their plaintiff cries engulfed the kitchen.  My Irish friend recently told me that if you throw a lobster into boiling water (head-first), they die instantly....Nanu threw them in more like a 'hit' from the mafia (the full body plunge).  I never did hear the crabs make any death knoll sounds but, then again, I probably missed their immersion.  I always ran from the kitchen once the lobsters started their thrashing. Helplessly, in way over their heads, they roiled among the bay leaves.

Any time of day or night, you could walk into my grandparent's home and be hit with the very pungent smell of freshly grated (only the imported kind), very sharp Pecorino cheese.  I loved the way the scent of that cheese permeated everything in their home. The first time I was old enough to answer their telephone, I picked it up and even the mouth-piece had the strong lingering aroma of this same cheese...still, just to think about it, makes me want to consume a pound of linguine.  I always marveled as a child, when I was invited to a friend's home for dinner, for something they called: spaghetti.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  We only ate 'pasta.'  To my astonishment, the mother (especially if she was the scandinavian-looking type) would throw in about a quarter pound of 'spaghetti' to feed six people!!  Six people?  I didn't know any Italians that didn't eat at least a quarter of a pound of pasta by themselves....To be fair, my friends had their own surprises when coming to our home for dinner.  They had never eaten escargot with lots of garlic butter, octopus or raw oysters and all in copious amounts.  Most of them never returned a second time to try the mussels or soft-shell crabs.

Nana Tanina, Nanu's mother, from whom I inherited my name, (Tanina, not Gracie Garp) lived with my grandparents.  Always dressed in widow's black, she scared the bejesus out of anyone of my friends who had never seen a 'live' version of the 'black widow.'  I adored her and she me.  As her 'namesake', I always got preferential treatment.  When she died, I was 7 years old and my preferential treatment extended to her funeral.  Out of my fourteen cousins, I was the only child permitted at her funeral.  The only child that got to see her Italian aunts wailing; (each one competing with the other) to be the first to hurl themselves into the casket to show their devotion.  My mother, Tanina Rose, Nana's first namesake, seemed much more refined and contained.  I nervously wondered if she and I would be required to take a more regal and dignified stance (befitting a Tanina) before being entombed with my Nana. I wondered how we would both fit, especially with what seemed like a million red roses beside her and those gracefully laid over her crossed hands that held her favorite rosary.

The last notes of Ave Maria are being played.  The weeping and gnashing of teeth has escalated. (Really, if you have never attended an old-Italian style funeral, you haven't lived)...Something feels like it is nearing the end of the service.  My father moves comfortingly close to me.  The next thing I know, he has picked me up and is walking toward the open casket. Unbeknownst to me, it is tradition for me (as a namesake) to kiss my Nana goodbye.  Nothing is being said to me as we approach her casket.  My father, teary-eyed,  tenderly hoists me over her body.  He whispers, "kiss your Nana goodbye."  The only way Italians kiss is on the was considered very disrespectful to do otherwise.  I am now in mid-flight and in my father's strong arms hovering over her ( I feel like a butterfly).  It feels like forever as I am being lowered closer and closer to her mouth.  As I continue the descent, the aroma of roses is overpowering. When I kiss her, her lips are ice cold and I can smell the embalming chemicals.  The feel and smell of her lips is that of the red clay that I used in grade school for modeling my first sculptures.  I never again smell roses without the beatific butterfly memory floating back.
 Nanu, Ma, Nana Tanina and my mother, Tanina Rose,  are all now in some kind of heaven...hopefully a Sicilian heaven where they are perpetually in a state of eating.  Those deeply and natively cultural Italian
experiences have informed much of who I am today.  I can always be counted on to consume more pasta, at one sitting, than individuals twice my size.  I am frequently counted on to cast "Sicilian-Gypsy Spells" on any situation crying out for 'good outcomes.'  I do not throw myself into open caskets.  I do relish my good fortune of being born into this particular aromatic Tribe.

In closing, let me extend an open invitation to anyone wanting or (craving) a seat at my feasting pantry and kitchen are open 24 hours a day.  Laughter, screaming, over-abundant dishes of pasta and cheese always await your arrival.

(Gracie Garp)
Tanina III

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Albeit, I am her mother but, Taylor, my 32 year old daughter is, by no stretch of the imagination, an undisputed heavily female-laden, uncannily beautiful (inside and out) divinely-touched daughter of her father's and my delight....

Auspicious, could have been her middle name.  When I was nearly nine months pregnant, Taylor began her ascent into the world when my (her) water-bag breaks in the Cambridge, Massachusetts' Harvard Square Flower Shop!  No problem...I hop the express bus and head home with two red roses from the flower shop owner. Two hours later, I am 'squatting' on the delivery table with the very proper Wellesleyian bow-tied doctor shouting his threats of, "Lay back down, I cannot be responsible for this type of birthing."  I am thinking to myself: "Mr. Bowtie, women have for centuries been squatting in the bush to deliver perfectly healthy babies." I do not lay back down.

 As the very nervous doctor moves in closer to restrain my 'natural efforts', I raise my hand to stop him, deliberating putting him in his proper place with appropriate Sicilian verbage.  Instead,  I refrain from telling him to "stick his bow-tie up his ___." It is 40 minutes before midnight on October 7th.  If she is born before midnight she will have her own birthdate.  If she had been born the day before, October 6th, she would have had to share my father's birthdate. If she was born anytime after midnight, October 8th, she would have had to share my mother's birthdate.  At 20 minutes to midnight, she victoriously claims her own birthdate by arriving October 7th.  Breaking a four-generation tradition by not naming her Tanina, we instead name her: Taylor. In 1977, the name Taylor was not yet popularized.  When early on in my pregnancy, I was adamant that this child's name 'wants' to be Taylor whether it be a boy or a girl.  Her father is riding the fence on the 'name' until at 8 months pregnant and vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, we go to a movie.  Sitting directly behind us is James Taylor, Carly Simon, Sarah and their newborn, is 'obvious' that the name was pre-ordained.

Unplanned, precocious, well-versed beyond her years, at any age; she is a treasure trove of the "unexpected." Some time after our move to Santa Monica, California and at 4 years of age, she and I are in the waiting-room for my annual check-up.  Taylor had a natural predilection to engage all manner of strangers.  In walks Hank.  We know his name by the name-tag on his shirt... He casually takes a seat and begins to thumb through a magazine.  Taylor, of course, is almost immediately at his side. She takes it upon herself to comment on any page he thumbs through.  He is charmed by her articulate small-talk and comfortably at ease with her own running commentary on whatever she deems pictorially worthy of comment.

Minutes roll by.  Hank (a name-tagged plumber?) seems well entranced by her mere presence.  Two more pages get turned and she says to him: "I know what that is.  My mother has one in her vagina right now!"  I look up. Hank looks sheepishly into my eyes.  We feel instantly, prematurely bonded. He is immeasurably relieved as moments later my name is called to be the next in line for my doctor visit. Oh, if he only knew the half of it---the ordinary magic that accompanies this child wherever she goes.

The 'whole' of it is still unfolding in Taylor's life...I still watch her with awe.  She is profoundly undaunted by whatever life seems to throw her way--and it has thrown her a lot.  She is still incapable of not speaking her mind...a rare gift indeed.  She has the heart of a benevolent queen and the soul of a mystic gypsy.  Again, I am her mother.  You may believe I am highly biased...I am.  Well, as biased as anyone would be, when to encounter her, is likened to an unsuspecting manifestation of all the good karma you must have accumulated in your many past have met  her in this lifetime is...well, ask Hank.  She was Taylor-made to be unforgettable.

Gracie Garp

Friday, February 19, 2010


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

                                                                                                                                                           Traveling back  in time, I am driving my son, Justin, to his first day of first-grade in Newton, Massachusetts.  His  little bibb-overall blue-jeaned legs are dangling off the front passenger seat.  He is darling, sweet natured, innocent, affectionate and very excited to begin school.

We pull up to one of those magical looking New England elementary schools.  There are all manner of 'first timers' gathered with their mothers, clutching their shiny new lunch boxes.  Justin and I join the throng of some giddy and some distraught children saying good-bye to their mom's as they are heading for the steps of the 'magic kingdom' of education.    He and I stand amongst some of the happy-go-lucky boys his age.  I can tell he is excited to make new friends.

He gives me one of his precious hugs and begins to saunter off with the happy-go-luckies.  As he takes another few steps, he turns and shouts, "I love you, Mom."  The other boys stop in their tracks...he has made his first unsuspecting faux pas.  The boys near him laugh and give him the painfully obvious 'sissy look'... he looks undaunted by their jeers and truly confused.  As he moves along with the children and enters the school's front door, I am feeling painfully responsible for teaching him to love so freely, to express his love so openly. I was totally caught off-guard--oh, god, now what do I do to not disrupt his spontaneous voice of affection and still not feed him to the lion-cubs...

Before I return to pick Justin up after school, I put on my Sicilian Mother-Tiger Thinking Cap and come up with a plan to hopefully 'reframe' (therapist lingo) the experience into something new to our relationship: private codes of communication.

Justin alights at the school's exit and looks to be delighted after his first day.  He has drawings to show me and first day of school stories to tell me.  At bedtime, after I read him his beloved Frog and Toad book,  I venture into my own story-telling: "You know, Justin, I was thinking that if the biggest number there was for me to say how much I love you was the number 50, then, to say that you and I knew I loved you wayyyyyyy more than that, the number would have to be more like 80!  So, from now on, when you hear me say "80-50", its really my own way of telling you that I love you really Big.  Venturing out closer to where I was hoping this 'code' might land, I said, "I am going to practice it tomorrow morning when I drop you off at school and just see how it sounds."

The next morning, we pull back up to the school.  Some of the same lion-cubs are gathered and upon seeing Justin, already seem excited to see him or are they just waiting for another front row seat to prey on his sincere salutation.  I do sound a bit 'paranoid' here (more therapist lingo) but, then again, I am just shockingly learning that 'cruelty' can be meted out at any age.

We both jump out of the car and I am hanging back a bit to give him space to freely enter his domain of continuing to make new friends.  He turns and waves to me...and before he can say the 'inevitable,' I shout, "80-50" and he doesn't miss a beat:  "80-50 mom."  I don't know if I want to laugh or cry. He got it!  He did it!  He loved it! The happy-go-luckies look on with, this time, more of a sense of bewilderment.  One of them says to Justin, "what's 80-50?" I was not able to hear his response, but somehow the ground work had been laid for creative alternatives to speaking, in code, different languages for love.

Fast forward: Justin has loaded his truck for his driving excursion to Eugene, Oregon where he will attend college.  His most amazing of dogs, Marco, is along for the ride.  The two of them have their heads hanging out the window and as they pull away, Justin is waving and shouting, "80-50" mom!  This time, there is no confusion about if I want to laugh or cry---I just do both.

Gracie Garp

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Severe Mercy....

Monday, February 15, 2010

"The world breaks everyone.  And afterward many are strong in the broken places."   --Ernest Hemingway

After our divorce, our small family of four, hobbled along into the bedlam of confusion, sorrow, anger, heartbreak, grief and all the other countless emotions that find their way into lives shattered.  

The fortunate few get to the other side--stronger in the broken places.  We were one of the fortunate few...and it only took 25 years!  Considering it may have never happened, I consider the full-on healing of our family: A Severe Mercy.

It was not a miraculous event brought on by some outside mysterious forces. No, it was mended stitch by stitch, by the proverbial  blood sweat and tears two very flawed and devoted parents, by two very loving, patient and forgiving children.  We all travailed with the sputtering attempts to reach the healing place.  We fell down  936 times and got back up 937 times to try again....  The grace and mercy of not being able to 'predict' the 'when' of the healing, made way for a vibrant (albeit painful) practice of 'not knowing.'  

None of us could have 'known' that last July the unraveling of a long ago wounded family would begin to be woven back together...our scar tissue had become its own badge of honor---a tattoo of sorts, that had all of our brave  names indelibly written on it.  Embedded in all of our heart of hearts was the medallion emblazoned with  a healing Family's Crest that read: A Severe Mercy.

Gracie Garp

Friday, February 12, 2010

Computer Savvy....Not

Yesterday, I compose and complete my first entry for my (this) blog.  I dutifully go to "Preview" before I post it and in my attempt to change the word 'old-fashioned' to 'outdated', hit the wrong button and the whole thing is erased!  
I, of course, being sooo not techno-savvy, panic and wish there was a 911 key that I could press that would immediately connect me to a comforting and patient "voice" to walk me back through where I went wrong.
Instead, I do what any intelligent and resourced female would do: I immediately get in my 'milk-truck' (deemed and properly named for her very boxy shape and wonder-bread white color) and head for the Boulder County Police Department...
Fortunately, for me, my son has 25 days left before he leaves his job at the Police Dept (as a Records Specialist--as he would never think to carry a gun and become a full-on Policemen---although, I did tell him to be the first in line for a candidate to pose for the Boulder Police Dept Calendar of The Most Handsome Employee of the Year)--I saunter up to the Front Desk where they know me as: Justin's Mom and try to compose myself while I wait at the window for him to appear and walk me through getting my blog entry back.
He asks for a 15 minute break to help me do so and, who is going to deny him a break for his distraught mother?
He patiently helps his thoroughly right-brain and math-phobic mother rally her sanity and restore her to her original and, now, printable entry.
He walks me to the lobby and waves good-bye.  For a moment, I cringe remembering the day he looked up my Police Record (just out of curiosity) and announced to me: "Mom, I didn't know".......
I make yet another illegal U-Turn in front of the Police Dept and head home.

Gracie Garp

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Long before the laptop keyboard was born, there was the beloved keyboard to my now defunct old-fashioned typewriter.  I have always had a 'thing' for typewriters.

I learned how to type in high school when my mother had left a relationship with a Black-Foot Indian and had newly taken up with "Slim", a full-on cowboy with a ranch in Montana.  Writing was my only way to stay in communication with her and if nothing else, I wanted to stay abreast of whose side she was currently on: the cowboys or the indians?

My (adult) children have been beseeching me for years to start my own Blog.  Of course, there was first, the obstacle of my resisting laptops and becoming computer savvy.  I am nowhere near computer savvy but being that I love to write (letters, essays, prose, poems and general musings) it made sense for me to adjust to a too flat keyboard and indulge myself in the sheer joy I experience when 'hobnobbing' with myself or others through the written word.

So, let this then be my first foray into the complex and deep waters of my inner-life that may be of benefit to some (or at least a love-letter, of sorts, to my children) who, like yourselves, should feel free to take what you want from it and leave the rest behind....

(Gracie Garp)