“Ange-ja-line my Bella, remember if you do something, anything in life learn from it. Stay away from da boys— they’re no good, them boys. Eat spaghetti so you can get strong, and don’t take no crap from no one, you hear me? Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you. Be strong Bonacci.”
“Okay Grandpa,” I said sitting on his lap, staring up at him past his big Italian nose so that I could look into his big brown, almond-shaped eyes.
“Grandpa, what if I can’t eat spaghetti everyday? I want to be strong,” I asked with a quiver in my voice, wondering what I was going to do if I didn’t get strong. He took a moment to let the question sink in. His worn middle finger rose to his face to push back his falling glasses back up his droopy nose; then, I saw a spark, a dim glow, in his eyes as he opened his mouth and began to speak.
“Well, then you eat them peanut butter and jelly sangwiches. I use to eat them in the Army; that’s all we ate, those damn sangwiches.” Looking satisfied, he leaned back in his chair and smiled.
After that conservation, whenever a blissful afternoon would come around, I would hear my Grandpa’s deep, harsh voice reminding me to be strong. Right then, a surge of hunger consumed my body. When I was little, the craving would be so intense that my mind, now one-tracked with food as its goal, would summon my legs to move swiftly toward the nearest refrigerator to indulge myself in a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not only was the craving reminding me of my grandpa, it was reminding me to be strong. It was a lesson that I did not only listen to, but that I applied at a very young age.
Over twelve years ago, my sister and I would try to swim through the shallow waters of Burt Lake to sit on a huge yellow raft. One arm would push the choppy water to the side, and the other arm would straighten in the air, holding a PB&J in a death lock, trying to keep the sandwich from getting soaked. The whole time, I would think, “Be strong, you can do it.”
One thing better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a hot summer day in the midst of July, was knowing what I had achieved by staying strong. I could hear my grandpa now, “That’s my bella!” his laughter filling my heart.
When I was younger, I had no responsibilities. Not knowing any better, I started wanting a few things for which I would be held accountable for. I wanted to do everything by myself like a big girl. I can remember my Mom’s voice rattling in my ears, “Angela, you’re making a mess!” or “Angela, put that down!” I was always a mischievous little girl, but the one thing I was able to do alone was make a PB&J. I gained trust and confidence in myself. Now knowing that I was allowed to get the stool out from the pantry, to boost my little body up to the second shelf, to reach my “big girl hands” to grab the supplies needed, and to make myself lunch like any other big girl, I felt freedom.
My very favorite way to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was to get thick crunchy peanut butter. I would toast whole grain wheat bread to a fabulous marshmallow brown—the kind of brown that you sit in front of a camp fire for what seems like forever, holding your marshmallow just high enough to get that tan color of joy. After my toast was done, I put the sticky peanut butter on both pieces of the bread and then spread the jelly on top of the peanut butter. I know this sounds weird and one might ask, “Why peanut butter on both pieces?” I started doing this because when you’re five, the little white box that pops out bread products was off limits. As my Mom used to say, “Angela, if you put any metal objects near that toaster, it will shock you into next week!” Right then, I decided out of pure fear to stay away from the deadly toaster. After getting frustrated with my bread, now soggy and wet from the jelly, I had to take charge and use my creative five year old brain to whip up a plan. I stared at my soggy, unattractive PB&J and noticed that only one side was yucky— the jelly side. So, I thought to myself, if I put peanut butter on both sides, the jelly won’t leak through. And it worked! Not only did I have a dry sandwich, but I had also solved my problem like a big girl.
Looking back on all of events shows that a plain old, run of the mill peanut butter and jelly sandwich was a cover up, just a tool helping me along the way of becoming who I am. It was a symbol reminding me of that one blissful afternoon that I spent with my Grandpa. I learned not to be scared and to try new things like swimming with one hand. I learned to take care of myself by wanting to become more independent, even if it was only making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Life is all about becoming strong enough to handle things that come my way. I was not raised to back down or give up on something. I was not raised to be weak. I was raised to be strong and to speak up if I had something to say. I was raised not to take crap from anyone and to look after myself.
Growing up in a large Italian family, we are always eating. Or if were not eating, we’re asking people if they’re hungry. And if you aren’t hungry, my mom will make you a plate anyway. Growing up, we were told that spaghetti would make us strong— or in my case, when spaghetti wasn’t around, PB&J would do the trick. But now that I think about it, it wasn’t the food that I ate; it was the people around me showing me guidance and love.