Uncategorized

Happy Thanksgiving: Italian Style

I wanted to share a recent Thanksgiving tradition in our family. During Thanksgiving week, my wife, Pamela, and I make Italian pizzelles—both anisette and chocolate flavored—according to the recipe of my late mother, Carmella DeCosty Ruane. This simple Italian cookie pairs well with a cup of coffee; it’s also one of the few things I can make from scratch, along with pasta fagioli (fazool), lentil soup with ditalini pasta (box version) and marinara sauce (pronounced madinad in Rome, New York). The pizzelle tradition is even more meaningful as this time of year always reminds me of my mother, since she passed away seven years ago on Nov. 22, 2011.

You will need a pizzelle maker in order to cook up a batch of your own.  Here’s a snapshot of our final product:

Chocolate and anisette flavored pizzelles.

And here are the instructions from Carmella’s original recipe, with some slight modification by Pamela and me:

Italian Pizzelles

3 Eggs
1 Tsp. Anise Flavoring
1 Tbsp. Vanilla Flavoring
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
2 Cups Flour
½ Cup of Butter or Margarine, melted
1 Cup Sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by teaspoon. Makes 30 Pizzelles.

Before the first pizzelles of the day only, use a pastry brush to carefully coat the entire surface of the both halves of the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil or melted shortening. Spray shortenings work very well for this purpose. Do this only at the start of each day that you bake pizzelles. Wipe excess shortening off the grids. The first pizzelles may not come out well. These directions are for my pizzelle maker. Your pizzelle maker may not require you to do this.

Pick up about one heaping teaspoon of batter and place in the center of each grid pattern. With some experimenting, you will learn that placing the batter slightly behind the center (that is, away from you) can produce full-size pizzelles. You may also prefer to use half as much batter to produce smaller pizzelles with a snowflake border. Baking will take approximately 30 seconds depending on your preference for browning, or the consistency of your batter. Remove pizzelles with spatula and place on a flat tin. Once pizzelles are completely cool, put in a plastic container or a plastic bag so the pizzelles stay crisp.

Chocolate Pizzelles

Use 1 ¾ cups of flour (not 2 cups), add 3 heaping tablespoons cocoa and add 3 tablespoons sugar to the basic pizzelle recipe. If desired, you can substitute chocolate flavoring instead of the vanilla. Do not add anise flavoring.

Writing

Something to Say

Gosh it’s been so long since I have posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my dormancy. Life has invaded my writing space, as family and work obligations have kept me preoccupied. I am still pecking away at some long-term creative projects—nothing worth mentioning at the moment, since the completion of my goals seems very far off. So this is just a brief dispatch, a few scattered words to let anyone who may be interested—very few people I’m sure—know that I am still here, I am still active, I am still writing. And since I feel compelled to leave you with something more valuable than my aimless sentences, here is a new photo of my toddler son Colin. Who doesn’t like cute kid pictures?

Colin Joseph DiClemente. Age 2 years, 8 months.

And here is an excerpt from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I have been reading via the Kindle app on my iPhone. A possible interpretation of the passage eludes me, but I found the words stirring nonetheless.

From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard …
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease …
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

Uncategorized

My Mother’s Tupperware

My late mother’s handwriting. Black Sharpie marks on masking tape stuck to an old Tupperware container.

She wrote this out on August 30, 2011, less than three months before she died from lung cancer. I claimed the Tupperware from my stepfather’s house after her passing and never had the heart or the desire to peel off the tape.

This summer I cooked my mother’s zucchini and green bean stew with onions, Italian seasonings and crushed tomatoes. I don’t have a recipe of hers to follow, but I winged it and it came out edible. For the full effect you need to dunk fresh Italian bread in the juice.

And it was fitting to dump the leftovers in my mother’s Tupperware and stick the container in my freezer. Marking this date, I thought I would defrost the Tupperware today to honor my mother’s memory and enjoy the last zucchini stew of summer.

Yet when I pulled out the container from the freezer this morning, I saw another one, filled with the same stew I made, with my mother’s handwriting on masking tape (also dated 8/30/11), tucked in the back of the freezer. I think I’ll save that one for a frigid night in the middle of winter.

Uncategorized

A Parental Poem

From time to time, I like to post some poems from my published collections. Here’s a longer narrative work with elements of fiction. It’s about my parents and how their absence has left a gulf in my life. For some reason I think about them more often during the gray days of winter, which are lingering this year.

Vestiges

My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.

With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember:
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.

I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around …
somewhere … over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.

A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.

In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.

Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.

And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time-
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Cover art by Donatas1205 (via Shutterstock).
Writing

Sunday Dinner essay published

I’ve been away for a long time, as I’ve been preoccupied with work-related video projects. But I wanted to mention that one of my essays, Sunday Dinner, has been published in the online magazine The Cook’s Cook. In the story I reflect on spending Sunday afternoons at my maternal grandmother’s house in Rome, New York.

Here’s a photo of my grandmother, Amelia.

My late grandmother, Amelia DiClemente.

And you can read the essay here.

 

Writing

Ten Years Without Dad

My father passed away from lung cancer at the age of 64 ten years ago today. In that time I’ve become a husband and a father. And while I know he would have enjoyed celebrating those life changes with me, it’s in the mundane, everyday moments that I miss my father most.

My late father, Francis DiClemente Sr.

I wish I could pick up the phone, call him and talk to him about the surface topics of conversation that most fathers and sons banter about—news, sports and the weather. I wish I could have coffee with him while watching him read the newspaper or pick his lottery numbers while sitting in the cramped kitchen of my grandmother’s small brick house in Rome, New York (now owned by someone else).

Dad, side angle.

I don’t have any profound words to offer about my dad today. I just want to honor his memory and tell him how much I miss him.

Over the years, I’ve written a few poems about my father. Here are a few:

The Galliano Club

From street-level sunlight to cavernous darkness,
then down a few steps and you enter The Galliano Club.
Cigar smoke wafts in the air above a cramped poker table.
Scoopy, Fat Pat and Jules are stationed there,
along with Dominic, who monitors it all,
pacing pensively with fingers clasped behind his back.

A pool of red wine spilled on the glossy cherry wood bar,
matches the hue of blood splattered on the bathroom wall.
A cracked crucifix and an Italian flag loom above,
as luck is coaxed into the club with a roll of dice and a sign of the cross.

Pepperoni and provolone are piled high for Tony’s boys,
who man the five phone lines and scrawl point spreads
on thick yellow legal pads.
Bocce balls collide as profanity whirls about . . .
and in between tosses, players brag about cooking calamari.

Each Sunday, after St. John’s noon Mass,
my father strolls across East Dominick Street and places his bets,
catapulting his hopes on the shoulder pads of
Bears, Bills, Packers and Giants.
His teams never cover and he’s grown accustomed to losing . . .
as everything in Rome, New York exacts a toll,
paid in working class weariness and three feet of snow.

But once inside The Galliano, he feels right at home,
recalling his heritage, playing cards with his friends.
And here he’s no longer alone, as all have stories of chronic defeat.
Blown parlays, slashed pensions and wives sleeping around,
constitute the cries of small-town men
who have long given up on their out-of-reach dreams.

For now, they savor the moment—
a winning over/under ticket, a sip of Sambuca
and Sunday afternoons shared in a place all their own.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Open Heart

My father was born
with a hole in his heart,
and although repaired,
nothing in his life,
ever filled it up.
The defect remained,
despite the surgeon’s work—
a void, a place I could never touch.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Dad in the kitchen. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Death Mask

Assume the death mask,
Put on your final face
Like those insolent characters
In that Twilight Zone episode—you know the one,
With their cruel faces contorted and fixed there for all time’s sake.

My father wore his death mask.
He kept it on even though I arrived after his passing
On that soft warm August evening.
I’ll never forget the way he looked,
With his mouth agape, eyes vacant, cheeks sunken,
Body withered and shriveled,
Curled up in the fetal position on his soiled deathbed
In my grandmother’s sweltering death house.

I allowed myself to look at him for just a moment.
I then turned around and left him alone in his small bedroom.
I did this for my benefit, since I wanted to remember him
As a father and a man and not as a corpse in a locked-up state.
This is because the death mask grips its lonely victim
And sucks out the life and extinguishes the person.

I shuffled into the living room,
Rejoining the Hospice nurse and the neighbors who came
Across the street to comfort my grandmother and express remorse.
And my grandmother—
Still acting as host despite the occasion and the heat—
Asked me to make a pot of coffee for her guests.
The neighbors sat on the old, out-of-style couches and chairs
In my grandmother’s ranch home off Turin Road in north Rome.
They conversed in hushed tones and sipped coffee
While we waited for the workers from the funeral parlor
To drive up to the house and wheel away my father.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Dad in his chair. It’s out of focus, but I love how he looks directly at the camera. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf in my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010)

Vestiges

My parents are gone.
They walk the earth no more,
both succumbing to lung cancer,
both cremated and turned to ash.

With each passing year,
their images become more turbid in my mind,
as if their faces are shielded
by expanding gray-black clouds.
I try to retain what I remember—
my father’s deep-set, dark eyes and aquiline nose,
my mother’s small head bowed in thought or prayer
while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.

I search for their eyes
in the constellations of the night sky.
I listen for their voices in the wind.
Is that Rite Aid plastic bag snapping in the breeze
the voice of my father whispering,
letting me know he’s still around . . .
somewhere . . . over there?
Does the squawking crow
perched in the leafless maple tree
carry the voice of my mother,
admonishing me for wearing a stained sweater?

Resorting to a dangerous habit,
I use people and objects as “stand-ins”
for my mother and father,
seeking in these replacements
some aspect of my parents’ identities.

A sloping, two-story duplex with cracked green paint
embodies the spirit of my father saddled with debt,
playing the lottery, hoping for one big payoff.
I want to climb up the porch steps and ring the doorbell,
if only to discover who resides there.

In a grocery store aisle on a Saturday night
I spot an older woman
standing in front of a row of Duncan Hines cake mixes.
With her short frame, dark hair, and glasses,
she casts a similar appearance to my mother.
She is scanning the labels,
perhaps looking for a new flavor,
maybe Apple Caramel, Red Velvet, or Lemon Supreme,
just something different to bake
as a surprise for her husband.
A feeling strikes me and
I wish to claim her as my “fill-in” mother.
I long to reach out to this stranger in the store,
fighting the compulsion
to place a hand on her shoulder
and tell her how much I miss her.

I fear that if my parents disappear
from my consciousness,
then I too will become invisible.
And the reality of a finite lifespan sets in,
as I calculate how many years I have left.
But I realize I am torturing myself
with this twisted personification game.
I must remember my parents are dead
and possess no spark of the living.
And I can no longer enslave them in my mind,
or try to resurrect them in other earthly forms.
I have to let them go.
I have to dismiss the need for physical ties,
while holding on to the memories they left behind.

And so on the night I see the woman
in the grocery store aisle,
I do not speak to her,
and she does not notice me lurking nearby.
But as I walk away from her,
I cannot resist the impulse to turn around
and look at her one last time—
just to make sure
my mother’s “double” is still standing there.
I want her to lift her head and smile at me,
but she never diverts her eyes
from the boxes of cake mixes lining the shelf.

Sidewalk Stories (Kelsay Books, 2017)

Writing

Fragments of the Living: A Short Film

I am excited to announce the completion of a short film, a personal project I tackled in my spare time.

Fragments of the Living is an experimental work composed of public domain home movie clips. The piece is a celebration of the American family, a nostalgic salute to the past and a meditation on the fleeting nature of life.

In researching stock footage libraries for a work project last year, I discovered several home movie files on the website Archive.org; most of the clips were dated from the 1940s to the 1960s. I became fascinated with the videos—the cinematic vestiges that originated from reels of old film stuffed in boxes and stored in dusty attics or garages.

I have always been enamored with the past, and the lure of nostalgia remains strong for me, with two examples being my love of Frank Sinatra songs and classic film noir movies. And I realized these Super 8 movies were the forerunners of today’s selfies and YouTube videos.

It’s worth noting I had no connection with the people seen on screen; the films were not my family’s home movies. As a result, I observed the images from an objective viewpoint.

I enjoyed watching the subjects’ reactions when they noticed the camera capturing their movements. Some of the people smiled and waved, while others acted coy and some girls even ran away from the lens.

One stretch of the film takes place on a street in the late 1930s or early 1940s. I’m not sure where the black and white scenes were recorded, but the place reminded me of a small town in Nebraska or Colorado, the type of community that could serve as the setting for a Kent Haruf novel.

And I wondered: were the people smiling in the frame really happy or were they just acting that way for the camera? Were they trying to present an image of a happy family because that’s what was expected of them? I wish I could have been there to see what happened when the camera turned away from them.

I also understood that many of the men and women on screen were now either dead or very old. Yet in the clips they are alive and joyous as they celebrate holidays, vacations and special occasions with their families and friends.

I wondered if the subjects realized at the time that they were experiencing the prime of their lives, that the events captured by the camera marked their happiest moments.

I wondered if it all went downhill from there? Did they watch their loved ones grow old, become sick and die? Did they suffer economic misfortune? No doubt some of the couples later divorced. Did the children in the videos grow up and leave their parents, severing family ties?

The snippets of film revealed the ephemeral nature of life. In editing the piece, I limited each clip to only a few seconds. So we see a bob of the head, a smile, a wave, a blink of the eye and then we cut to something else. And I guess that “cut to” serves as a reminder to me that time is slipping away for all of us living here in the present.

Writing

Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home

In visiting the Everson Museum in Syracuse, you could easily miss the exhibition Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home tucked in the small Robineau Gallery on the main floor. The exhibit, which closes Sept. 2, contains eight large-scale color photographs depicting family scenes. The images are a cross between common family snapshots and an artfully arranged tableau depicting the chaos of modern family life; and Blackmon seems comfortable straddling the line between reality and manipulation and taking the viewer along for the ride.

Blackmon fills the frame with so much information—in the form of kids, pets, food, plastic toys and other props—the viewer can linger in front of the works, as countless narrative connections spark the imagination. You also find yourself counting the number of kids and the different props in each scene.

Blackmon lives and works in Missouri. In her artist statement, found on her website, julieblackmon.com, she cites the lively narrative paintings of 17th century Dutch artist Jan Steen as an influence on her work. However, it may be Blackmon’s own family life that provides the most inspiration. She is the oldest of nine children and the mother of three, and she says, “These images are both fictional and auto-biographical, and reflect not only our lives today and as children growing up in a large family, but also move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives, both imagined and real.”

One of the most compelling aspects of her work is the care she takes in capturing children. The young subjects, whether they are her own children, her nieces and nephews or children from the neighborhood, reflect a sweet innocence in front of the camera. They play, pout, and cry, but cuteness is not the aim of the artist; these are not Facebook photos uploaded by proud parents. Instead, even though the scenes are staged, we get the sense these are kids acting like kids in a safe environment surrounded by family. In many cases, the subjects seem unaware of the camera’s presence. The result is Blackmon’s photos possess a timeless quality resembling the iconic American paintings of Norman Rockwell, but with an odd twist thrown in.

In Patio, for example, one of the works in the exhibit, we see what looks like a modern house in a sun-bleached California-type setting. There is a blue inflatable ball on the roof in the top right of the frame and a pink ball in the bottom left. A little girl in a white dress is looking at her reflection in the window, a toddler is scooting around on a blue stroller and a third child is crawling on the floor in the house, just inside the doorway.

A red charcoal grill stands in the middle of the frame with orange flames shooting out, and a large box of McDonald’s French fries rests on a circular table covered with a green tablecloth. A barefoot woman sits in a chair, her face buried in a large-scale glossy magazine called New You. A bag of Lay’s Classic potato chips has been placed near her feet. The viewer is left to wonder: does she know there are children playing close to the open fire? Does she care?  

And that’s the beauty of this exhibition. The images remain fertile in your mind, as you think about the families depicted in the scenes. You get the sense it would be fun to spend an evening with them, to take part in the chaos of their meals, games and merriment, while at the same time having the freedom—like an aunt or an uncle—of being able to leave the house at the end of the night.

It also seems Blackmon could revisit this work over and over again, dreaming up more scenarios for her family to act out without the images becoming repetitive. You can just imagine scenes of kids getting ready for school, a baby screaming after dropping its pacifier, toddlers sitting on the kitchen floor and struggling to tie their shoes, little boys chasing frogs or fireflies on the front lawn on a summer evening and little girls standing in front of a full-length mirror, modeling their mothers’ clothes and jewelry.

The one question I keep asking myself again and again in rethinking this exhibition is, for each photograph, how long did it take Blackmon to get the kids to pose exactly as she wanted? And did she have to bribe them with promises of ice cream sundaes or trips to a local water park?