“Bye, Mama!” Sofia scrambled out of her mother’s old pickup truck, struggling to keep from dropping her beloved camera.
“Have fun, sweetheart. And tell Grandma Franky hi from me.” Mrs. Camerota smiled at her daughter and drove away, the Ford’s wheels spitting out pebbles and dust.
Sofia stopped halfway up the stone path and glanced at the sky. The sun was just rising behind her grandmother’s cottage, and the clouds swam in a sea of pinky-orange. She swatted her thick, black hair aside and reached for her Canon. Sofia snapped a picture of the sky, then smiled, looking at the screen of her camera. The sky was gorgeous, the air was warm, and Niagara Falls roared in the distance. Everything was comforting and familiar.
“Sofia! Mia nipote, my granddaughter!”
Sofia looked up and grinned. Her Grandma Franky stood on the front porch wearing a floral sundress and curlers in her hair. Even after all these years living without Grandpa Carlo, Grandma Franky somehow had maintained her chipper personality and outlook on life. She was confident, level-headed, and quite a feminist.
“Hi, Grandma Franky,” Sofia said, chuckling under her breath. The sight of her flowery nonna among the lillies and roses in the garden, as well as the daisy printed porch chairs, was a comical sight. She boundedup the path and embraced her beaming grandmother.
“My Sofina, you look so beautiful. You are so grown up.” Grandma Franky shook her head. “Where does the time go?” Her soft Italian accent sounded like home.
Sofia shrugged. “I wonder that all the time. It seems like just yesterday I had to use a stool to help you make cookies!” she giggled.
Grandma Franky laughed with her. “Sí, you were a small child then. But enough of the small talk. You are here to make the tortellini, no?” She opened the creaky cottage door and motioned for Sofia to follow her inside. “Keep your shoes on, mia cara. The basement is a bit dusty.”
Sofia stopped. “The basement?” she asked, a little wary.
“Sí, that’s where I keep my special table that I use to roll out the pasta dough. I always say it is magic. It was my great-grandmother’s, and one day, I hope, it will belong to your granddaughter.”
Sofia sighed. Lately, her mother had been pushing her to become a cook, just like the rest of the family was and had been for generations. She would have loved to be at Grandma Franky’s cottage for the fun of it, not because her mother wanted her to learn to make tortellini. It seemed like her relatives were all hardwired to make food and not question what else there was to do in life. Meanwhile, Sofia was falling more and more in love with the art of photography and getting to be in nature all the time. She didn’t understand the fun of standing in sweltering kitchens all day with a bunch of loud Italians. And now, even her Grandma Franky was assuming that Sofia, her children and her grandchildren would follow the culinary path that had been paved by generations of Camerotas.
“Grandma?” Sofia asked as they wobbled down the clunky basement stairs. The light switch was poorly placed at the end of the staircase, which meant they had to find their way down in total darkness.
“Yes, mia nipote?”
Sofia took a breath. “Have there, um… Have there been any Camerotas who didn’t become cooks?”
“Well, no. Not that I know of.” Grandma Franky paused. “Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering.”
They finally reached the light, and Sofia flipped it on quickly. Embarrassingly enough, she was still slightly afraid of the dark at age 16. Then she spotted the pasta table.
“Oh!” Sofia said, surprised. “We have a bunch of pictures in our house of Mom making cookies and pasta at that table!”
“What did I tell you?” Grandma Franky smiled. “Generations old.” Sofia noticed that her grandmother looked at the table in a way that was almost longing, maybe for her husband, or for her youth. It wasn’t quite clear.
She stared for a few moments and then looked up suddenly. “Sofina, I forgot the pasta dough upstairs. I will be back in just a minute.”
Sofia nodded, then turned to study the table closer. There were dried splashes of what looked like tomato sauce and scratches from years of being cut on by various kitchen tools across the black diamonds painted on the white marble-looking surface. Sofia put a hand on the table and it shook slightly on unstable legs. The stories behind all of this must be incredible, she thought. That was one of the parts of cooking Sofia actually enjoyed - the history and the memories that were made.
“Ebbene, okay, I have the dough.” Sofia turned around to see her grandmother struggling to carry a huge sheet of uncooked dough and a bowl of filling down the stairs. She immediately rushed over to help.
“Thank you, mia nipote.” Grandma Franky breathed a sigh of relief mixed with exhaustion. Sofia could tell that her grandmother was aging physically, even if she didn’t make it noticeable. She slumped into a cushiony chair that was positioned close to the table. “Sofia, will you unwrap the dough for me, per favore?”
“Of course.” She paused to glance at her panting grandmother. “Are you all right?”
“Sí, I will be fine.” Grandma Franky let out a breathy laugh. “I am just not as young as I once was. If you don’t mind, I think I will sit while we make the pasta.”
“That’s fine, nonna.” Sofia smiled.
“Ebbene, I have already rolled out the dough, but we must make circles from it.” She handed Sofia a round cookie cutter and motioned to the flattened dough. “Go ahead. Make the cuts as close together as you can.”
Sofia pressed the cutter into the dough, noticing that each time she took a piece off, she had made a few scratches in the table’s surface. When she was finished, she took the extra dough and placed it at the edge of the table.
“Now we will fill the pasta,” said Grandma Franky. Sofia reached for the bowl of ricotta and herbs and began to put spoonfuls in the middle of each dough piece. “Mia Sofina, not that much filling. The tortellini will burst!”
Grandma Franky took the bowl from her granddaughter and carefully, methodically, dropped a little bit of cheese onto the circles. Then she handed the bowl back to Sofia, who mimicked her grandmother’s movements as best she could. Grandma Franky smiled at her proudly.
“Better,” she said.
When Sofia had finished with the ricotta, she placed the bowl with the dough scraps and looked at her grandmother.
Grandma Franky smiled approvingly, then said, “Next, we fold the dough.” She reached for a circle of dough, folded it over itself to form a half-moon shape, then brought the two corners together. Sofia stared. Her grandmother made the whole process seem so simple and effortless, while it had taken her 15 tries to get the right amount of filling.
Sofia’s first few tortellini looked gawky and crude compared to Grandma Franky’s perfectly round piece. After a while, though, she got the hang of it and was impressed by her own work. It was soothing in a way, folding little bits of dough while her grandmother looked on and the old air conditioner rattled in the background.
Grandma Franky pulled out a pot from a box under the pasta table and filled it with warm water. Sofia had always wondered why anyone would need a stove in their basement, but it made sense after seeing her grandma struggle to go up and down the stairs with all of the utensils.
Once the water boiled, Sofia plopped each tortellini into the pot and watched them fall slowly to the bottom. She then sat in a chair across from where Grandma Franky was seated to oversee the whole cooking process. The two of them sat in a strange silence for a few moments. Both could tell that the other wanted to say something, so neither talked. Sofia wanted to tell her grandmother about not wanting to cook, but she was afraid that the abrupt statement would insult her. Instead, she sat quietly, her eyes darting around the near empty room.
“What is it, mia nipote?” Grandma Franky asked kindly.
Sofia looked at her grandmother, surprised. Half of her wanted to make up something, or just say that she was tired. The other half of her won.
“I don’t want to be a cook.” She looked away, embarrassed.
“Ebbene, but why did you look away?” Grandma Franky didn’t look at all fazed by what Sofia had said.
“I thought that you might be mad,” Sofia said, looking down.
“Oh, mia cara, not at all! I would never be mad.”
“Oh,” Sofia said, relieved. “I want to keep photographing. As a job. But Mama wants me to be a cook.”
“Sofia, as long as it is what makes you happy, don’t hesitate to do so.” Grandma Franky walked over to the pot and scooped out the pasta. She set each tortellini a few centimeters apart on a tray. When she was done, she walked back over to her granddaughter and sat back down. “Did I ever tell you about how I wanted to be an actress?”
Sofia shook her head, surprised. She remembered hearing her grandmother sing once, but never a story of her wanting to act.
“When I was eighteen years old, I made the decision to move to the United States from Florence. I wanted to go alone, but my mother and father begged me so many times to take them with me that I couldn’t say no.” Grandma Franky sighed. “We rented an apartment in New York City. I told my mother that I was going to become an actress on Broadway, and she told me no, that they would never hire someone who only spoke a few words of English and had an accent as thick as French bread.
“We fought for a few days until my father put his foot down and told me that he would not help pay for our apartment unless I did the “smart” and “reasonable” thing and become a cook like the rest of our family. I couldn’t say no because I would end up without a place to live or food to eat. So I got a job at Antonia’s Kitchen in downtown New York, and lived in an apartment with my parents until I met your Grandpa Carlo.” Sofia smiled. She had heard this part of the story many times.
“Your grandfather was a famous Broadway actor when he came to eat at the restaurant where I worked. He was surrounded by people asking for his signature or a smile for a picture, and he asked me if he could come into the back of the kitchen to escape the mob. I said yes, of course.”
“We talked for hours, and he came back to Antonia’s kitchen for lunch almost every day after that, and every day, he came to the kitchen to run from his followers. We talked each time, and after a year or so, he asked me if I would marry him. I was elated. We moved into his summertime cottage, and I’ve lived here ever since. Sadly, he was the closest I got to Broadway.” Grandma Franky smiled wistfully.
“Nonna, I’m so sorry… I never knew that.” Sofia was shocked that her grandmother’s mother would ever keep her daughter from doing what she loved and wanted.
“É in passato. It is in the past. My life was just fine without being an actress,” Grandma Franky said. “Just remember that you should do what you want in life, not what someone else wants for you.”
“Thank you, grandma.” Sofia smiled.
There was a knock at the door. “Sofia! You’re going to be late for photography class! We need to leave!”
Sofia jumped up at the sound of her mother’s voice and began to gather her things. She dashed up the stairs with Grandma Franky close behind.
Mrs. Camerota stood on the porch, squinting into the sun. “Hello, sweetheart! Did you have a nice time?”
Her mother turned to Grandma Franky. “Is my Sofia all set to be a cook now?” She laughed.
Grandma Franky smiled politely. “Only if she wants to,” she said. She winked at her granddaughter and shut the door, sending a puff of dust up into the sky.
Mrs. Camerota stood on the porch steps, slightly confused. She looked to her daughter for an explanation, but Sofia was already racing towards the pickup truck with her camera in her hand and her head held high.