Sometimes life is all about the people and animals we adopt into our family. Such is the case with Lena, our dear family friend who lived to be 102 years-old, and encouraged this family writing project.
It was 1998, with a baby on my shoulder, when I called Lena Camaratta. She was 85 when she self-published 'La Cucina Italiana,' filled with recipes she grew up making with her grandmother. As a food journalist, my job was to call and request an interview. Mrs. Camaratta declined until my baby made a sound. In a heavy Italian accent she said, 'Is that a baby I hear? I will do the interview, but only if you bring the baby!' It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Interviews, I have learned, are not just about gathering facts. I shared that I had a grandmother named Lena who had died when I was an infant. I was blessed by her heavenly manicotti, and invited to return. The story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appeared the week of her birthday. Amazingly, Lena shared the same July 7 birthday as my own grandmother!
when my seven-month old daughter and I were in Children’s Hospital for a hand injury my spirits were lifted by calls from Lena during that same week. More than 2,000 people in Western Pennsylvania ordered the cookbook that she donated proceeds from to her favorite charities. Over the years my friend would say this success was because, 'Jane is such a good writer!' Oh, no, I could not claim credit for that one! It was the combination of her marvelous life and an editor who knew how to make both of our words sing. I was then, and still am, 'just a teacher' moonlighting as a reporter.
We shared many meals, visits, and phone calls. One special meal at The Christy House, in 2003, we saw a cookbook that looked like a scrapbook. While sipping on pink lemonade, my four-year-old Beth announced, 'Mommy has the most boring job. She sits at a computer and stares. Sometimes she types. She should do something for kids.' Lena had laughed in delight and said, 'Listen to her. She is wise.'
Almost the grandmother I had imagined, my friend listened to ideas that my family also discussed at the Miller family table. How could you get children to connect to the stories of their grandparents and their generations through mealtime conversation? Just like her cookbook idea, finding ways for families to teach children literacy as they connected had been in mine. But my friend always reminded me to make sure my priorities were straight. 'Take care of your family first,' she always said.
The times with our adopted 'Mimi,' as her family knew her were all the more special because we knew they could end suddenly. The call from her granddaughter, who is now a dear family friend herself, came as I prepared to introduce this project at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts 2014 annual conference.
As I take inventory of the ingredients of life learned from Lena, I see her willingness to adapt to whatever life brings, as we embrace the people who come alongside us and to take care of our families. I learned from Lena that life is all about our gifts to each other of listening and loving.
Thank you Lena for your gift of 102 years. Here is the link to my most recent story about you in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Share 'The Tale of a Traveling Cookbook' in your community. (The You Tube video will go here www.youtube.com/ruffwriterbooks.)
After someone has blessed you with the kindness of food in a 'travelling dish,' pass it on with food you prepare to brighten the day of someone else. Make a cookbook with the lined pages, record reflections, recipes, pictures, or poems. When the last page is filled, pass the book to the person who shared it with you. The original family will receive it as a gift. The dish may continue its travels forward to bless others.
Open the printable pages of 'The Tale of a Traveling Dish' in a new window.
Coming this summer: The first Scoop Stories with Dick and Jane. Connect with 'The Diary of a Worm' with words by Doreen Cronin and pictures by Harry Bliss.