If my grandmother was cremated, I could symbolize the shards of bone and dust as herbs and chopped stems, but she had a casket that was lowered down peacefully. She took the recipe with her, as we knew she would. She stored each tablespoon only in her memory—how it was mostly ruby with pulp, how sometimes the paste would glisten rainbows like car oil.
The bowl she used for gravy was the bronze of a Palermo cliffside, the bronze of my immigrant grandfather. He changed his name to Russell from something much more beautiful while my grandmother kept her name—Marie.
I heard my father say it once, the name his father carried through Sicily with him, but to me, the name sounded like a stranger's, because by the time my father was born, my grandfather was already Russell. Still, this secret name purred with Zs and Os, earthy, as if it came from underground, possibly from the same plot where my grandfather buried his native tongue and the deeply faded whisper of his bloodline. He and my grandmother were buried elsewhere though, in a veterans’ cemetery east of Philadelphia.
My grandmother’s accent was soft enough to be swept away in the breeze, but my grandfather’s was as dark as cherry-wood, and so he hid it like scars under long sleeves. Yet my parents, second- and third-generation Americans, still say pro-shoot, moot-zah-rel, they still order half a pound of gabagool at the deli counter. They speak of wine in tongues. And after all these years, I still can’t tell if my father says eye-tail-yen ironically, because sometimes he laughs after saying it, and other times, he doesn’t.
One thing I know for sure: gravy has always been gravy. Other terminology was forbidden in my home, and so I’ve corrected my friends from saying sauce, the string of letters strictly off limits, a slang most stubbornly unwelcome in the household, left at the door with pairs of our mud-stained shoes and winter coats.
Staring into the gravy bowl—my mother’s attempt at family tradition—I see my grandmother’s kind eyes, the almond-coated cookies she kept in the navy blue tin. I remember her cooking, stirring the gravy my mother has longed to perfect. I remember my grandfather’s swollen feet, his seven toes, how my father and I carried him to the bathroom when he dislocated his hip, stuck in that chair for days, not wanting to call my father on his week off from work.
From here, I see the dartboard in the cement basement of my grandparent’s house when they still lived in the city. I hear them both upstairs. I hear my grandfather’s real name, and this time, it doesn’t sound like a stranger's, because this time, I wasn’t supposed to hear it. It was thick and red, but it could also glisten rainbows. It was something he choked down each night like acid reflux, his stomach so full of secrets, always trying to sneak up on him.
About the author: Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out and children’s picture book Uma the Umbrella. His work can be found in Hippocampus Magazine, Maudlin House, The Los Angeles Review, Potluck, Sundog Lit, and others.