Our Canada: tomatoes, red peppers and maple leaves
EDITOR’S NOTE: In conjunction with Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017, members of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle are crafting stories and poems to pay tribute to our country on this pivotal milestone birthday.
by Rosanna Battigelli
Of course we all eventually learned to speak English after immigrating, some more than others. At home, our parents spoke to us in our Calabrese dialect, and eventually we learned a new language: italiese, a mix of Italian and ‘Canadese’, the Canadian language. Usually this consisted of adding a vowel, an o, a, or u to the end of an English word, or a u. So the word cake, which is “torta” in Italian, became “cake-a”; truck, which is camion in Italian, became troccu. Ginger ale became gingerella. You get the idea.
Now spelling food was a different matter. When Ma couldn’t come grocery shopping for some reason, reading ma’s grocery list always took some time. She spelled the words phonetically, so I eventually figured out that the word that she had written musci rum—that I first read as mushy rum—was really mushy room, which translated to mushroom. At first I couldn’t understand why she’d want something mushy from the store. Then there was siroline. I’d pronounce it to myself in the way she would say it, seero-line, seero-line…then the lightbulb went on: sirloin!
Our mother could multi-task before the word became popular. She cooked, sewed, knit, and crocheted while the drama unfolded in Santa Barbara or Genoa City. Our mother learned these fine arts back in the old country. She could replicate a complicated sweater or dress pattern by looking at any picture. She never needed written instructions. With perfect stitching, she made dresses, pants, coats, and hats (with pompoms the size of meatballs. Big meatballs). While she watched Nikki and Victor get married for the seventh time, she managed to make stuffed peppers, or bistecca alla pizzaiola, or a pot of tomato sauce and meatballs. Most of the time, the aroma as we got home from school made our mouth water and we’d run to the kitchen. On occasion, when she decided to make trippa (tripe) or baccalà (codfish), we wanted to run away.
Ma had this thing about salt. In 2007, after having two heart attacks, her cardiologist warned her to stay away from it. He didn’t understand that telling that to an Italian was like saying: Never eat salami or pasta or tomato sauce. Ever…
Did ma salt her food? Of course she did. She always claimed that she used hardly enough to taste. But I guess the amount she did put into her cooking made her what she was: salt of the earth.
Ma wanted the best for her family in Canada. For her children and grandchildren. And although it sometimes saddened her that she and Dad didn’t have the means in those early years to provide us with what she would have liked, she always provided. And she was happy to give her grandchildren what she couldn’t give us at the time.
But Ma, you’ve given us more than enough. You’ve taught us how to provide for our children, how to celebrate our Italian heritage, how to make a great tomato sauce.
You occasionally cursed Christopher Columbus for having discovered America—the 40 below winters might have been the cause—but yours and Dad’s sacrifice to leave Italy and immigrate to Canada was a gift to us. A gift of two cultures. And two languages. We are all proud of our Italian heritage and we are certainly very proud of being Canadian. And for years, we noticed that you always placed the Canadian flag insert from the newspaper in your front window on Canada Day. We’re all proud of you, Ma.
Life was not easy for you at times. Life was tough; but you were tough too. Tough enough to keep on going eight years after two major heart attacks.
And so, when I was deciding what to wear for today, I chose a black dress and a red shawl. Black to respect our Italian tradition, and red to symbolize love, of course. The love you had for your family and our love for you. Red to represent our Canadian flag, and the beautiful maple leaves in the fall. Red to represent the glorious tomato and the hundreds, maybe thousands of pots of tomato sauce you made over your lifetime. And red for the red peppers you fried and left on the counter for us a few hours before you joined Pina and Dad in heaven.
Thank you, Ma. They were delicious.