Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Even After All These Years
Even after all these years,
a plate of spaghetti gives me
comfort, the food my mother made
three times a week
when I was a child in the 17th St. tenement,
that food we ate every day
the year my father was too sick to work,
so we had spaghetti and HO Cream Farina,
that food that fills some hollow place inside me.
Our mother made loaves of homemade bread,
stirred the tomato sauce that we called gravy
that was nothing like my mother-in-law’s gravy,
which was brown, that was made from cooking roasts.
We didn’t have meat. We couldn’t afford it
except meatballs and braciola.
I suppose I should remember with bitterness
how poor we were, but what I remember
is our mother working at the coal stove
her body turning toward us,
her quick hands scooping spaghetti onto our plates,
steam rising from the homemade gravy.
She’d add a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese
sent fresh in a block from Italy
that she grated to a fine powder on the tin grater.
Even today, when I am sad or lonely,
a plate of spaghetti makes me feel
my mother’s presence, soothing
and beckoning me home.
My mother had imitation lace curtains—
all the immigrant women in Riverside
had the same curtains.
My mother washed them by hand in the kitchen sink,
used curtain stretchers to dry them.
The stretchers were large rectangles of wood
with small nails sticking out of them
so the curtains could be pulled tight across the frame.
When they were dry, my mother would lift them off the nails
and hang them on the windows. We, with our washers
and dryers and cleaning ladies, can’t imagine the amount of time
the women of my childhood spent cleaning and washing,
all the time it took to wash each item by hand,
the time to stretch curtains before hanging them.
My mother worked in factories in Paterson,
but she still rose each day at 4 AM
to bake bread and get dinner ready for the evening.
In all that time as a child in cold-water flats,
I never heard my mother complain,
never heard regret in her voice, or shame, or rage.
She was always the stone platform on which we stood.
And only in the evening after dinner,
after washing dishes, after ironing clothes,
my mother would sit in the rocker
with the coal stove pumping heat
into the room, and tell stories in Italian,
her voice the stream we floated on
as we sailed toward sleep.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the Founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey, Editor of the Paterson Literary Review and Professor Emerita of English and creative writing at Binghamton University-SUNY. Her newest poetry collection is What Blooms in Winter (NYQ 2016).