Local Dispatch: Love for a mother has no difficulty passing smell test
May 8, 2013 4:00 AM
Anna Nina Pelino and her daughter Louise, around 1949.
By Louise Pelino McDonald
Mother's Day is fast approaching, and I already know what gift awaits me from my husband: perfume.
He has never disappointed me all these years with his choice of Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Versace, Donna Karan, Jessica McClintock, Gucci, J'adore, Estee Lauder, Oscar de la Renta and others.
I loved them all, but my absolute favorite perfume belongs to that of my mother, Nina Pelino. She's always had beautiful fragrances that will never be erased from my memory. Her perfumes cannot be found, however, in any department or specialty store.
They are the aromas of her wonderful homemade Italian food. Mom would always wake up early to clean and cook before she left the house with me. The smell of tomato sauce, veal Parmesan, stuffed peppers, breaded chicken or whatever she decided to make for that day clung to her clothes the way a baby clings to its mother or a leaf to the vine.
She never owned a cookbook or followed recipes. Homemade pizza was never a main course, it was an appetizer. Polenta with sauce and sausage on top was spread on a large wooden board, and we were all armed with forks, working our way to the middle or carving out the map of Italy.
Everything she ever made was mouthwatering. I never knew what a can of soup was. Vegetables were grown in our garden, harvested and put up in jars stored in our fruit cellar. Sausages, which she and my dad made, were hung with white deli string on a pole to dry and cure.
When I was young, I was a skinny child. My mother was worried I didn't eat enough so she invited all the neighborhood kids to eat with us, thinking they would entice me to eat more. This idea didn't work at the time, even though all my playmates smelled the aromas of my mother's cooking and couldn't wait to dig into the feast she had prepared.
When my son was small, he also wasn't interested in eating. Especially at parties. I can remember Mama chasing after him with a meatball, hoping he would take a bite. She was even known to bribe him with a dollar bill to entice him to eat.
My daughter, on the other hand, would immediately follow the beautiful aromas into Mama's kitchen with plate in hand. She loves to learn from the master. Working side by side, Mama taught my daughter to make gnocchis, her skilled hands showing how to ever-so-gently roll the dough and cut each piece with precision.
Today, both of my children have a deep appreciation of Mama's specialities and can never have enough of her food to eat.
My fondest memories are of waking up early on Sunday mornings to the smell of a big pot of homemade sauce and meatballs and homemade bread. Before church, I would slice the amazingly light-as-air bread, dip it in the sauce and sprinkle freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top.
My grandmother, Mama Virginia, used to send the cheese to us from Italy sewn up in a special cloth and sealed on the outside with a red wax stamp.
Although my mother and I immigrated from Italy together, my cooking aromas have never matched hers. How could they? I don't possess her meticulous touch and innate knowledge of food preparation and how to use just the right amount of homegrown spices.
But I am learning every day from her. I have learned that cooking is a form of love for family and friends and new and old neighbors and even strangers. I am a better person because of my mother.
She and my dad were models for these mottoes: "It is better to give than receive," "Always do good and never expect anything in return" and "Always be humble."
These words from the Italian song "Mamma" sum it all up: "Quanto ti voglio bene." ("How much I love you.")
Thank you, Mom, for all the loving aromas and perfume smells that money cannot buy. Thank you for always putting your family first and doing without, so we could all have more.
Happy Mother's Day always, from your loving daughter, Louise Pelino McDonald.
Louise Pelino McDonald of Hopewell, a retired Hopewell Area School District teacher, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.