My grandmother’s 90th birthday is in a of couple of weeks. My Italian grandmother. My mother’s mother. The one from Sicily who taught me how to can tomatoes and make sausages and grow basil and parsley and green beans. My Italian grandmother who has never been to Italy—‘the old country’ as she calls it—but still drives 45 minutes to buy the only acceptable Parmaesan she’s found in upstate NY.
It’s the running joke of our family. This Cheese.
The only time you’ll see grated cheese on my family’s table is on a holiday. Christmas. Easter. The Fourth of July picnic (with the Bovees) at the Lake. Sure, cheese is served at almost every meal (and to clarify, when members of my family say ‘cheese’ they are referring to hard, Italian Parmaesan—everything else is given its proper name: mozzarella, cheddar, sandwich provolone) because there’s always an opportunity to put a dusting of it on something…soup, steamed vegetables, any variety of potato, scrambled eggs. But only on special occasions is it served grated. On most nights a greasy hunk of the stuff sits on the table in its more unspoiled form (on a plate next to an old metal grater) and folks are left to shred it on their own.
When my grandfather was alive (he was also Sicilian, also fond of cheese), he and my grandmother would to drive to Boston regularly so that my grandmother could visit her sisters who she’d left behind in Quincy, MA (a town just south of Boston, once heavily populated with Italian immigrants) and they always ferried back several pounds of ‘good’ cheese from their favorite shop in the North End. Once they got home, they’d divvy up the triangular wedges wrapped in white butcher paper and twine, among my mother and her two siblings. We had a special spot in the refrigerator for the haul, one that would become cavernous between those trips east, but could never be sullied with an inferior variety of a saran-wrapped American impostor from the grocery store. My uncle nicknamed the monthly voyage The Cheese Run and the name stuck, especially because of the time my grandparents drove back to Boston one night to exchange the cheese because my grandmother said it smelled bad.
Now that my brothers and cousins and I have made homes for ourselves in cities around the globe, we’re given care packages of cheese to take back with us whenever we come home. My brother, who lives in Colorado, tells the story of how once his luggage was inspected after he landed at Denver International Airport because the drug agents and their canine companions weren’t quite sure what to do with the plastic bag filled with aging goat milk curd they found packed neatly between his Christmas gifts. I have a spot in the dairy drawer of my own fridge that, when it’s empty, reminds me that it is time to plan a trip home.
Despite her allegiance to the highest quality cheese, my grandmother has no desire to visit Italy. Whenever I ask her why she never went back she says that she’s always been afraid to fly. That the trip was always too expensive. That the time was never right and then my grandfather got sick and now she’s too old. She says that, anyway, her family is her home, so wherever they are becomes her homeland and now that place is Johnstown, New York. A little city on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains that she moved to seventy years ago after she married my grandfather. She’s raised a family there. She’s buried a husband and his four brothers and her mother-in-law in a cemetery a mile away from the house she’s owned for six decades. It sounds like home to me.
Some days I think of her driving to a store 20 miles from that house so that she can replenish her family’s stash of Parmaesan and I wonder what keeps her going back. At her age, why not settle for the brand that they stock at the Price Chopper right in town? But then I imagine her mother as a young girl, roaming the dusty streets of a town right out of The Godfather (the only movie she and my grandfather ever owned on VHS) and I know that for her, this pilgrimage tethers her to an otherworld she can only dream about on nights she allows herself to sift through the stack of black and white photos she keeps in a box in the closet of her back room.
My grandmother’s family left Italy and came to America more than a hundred years ago. They stayed and made a life. And my Nonna is at peace with the lifetime she’s spent here, in the place she’s sprinkled with the very best fairy dust of her forefathers and mothers. The place that she calls home.