(Rosalie Harrington)

Remembering Ray Ray

My Italian grandmother -- my Noni -- was a big figure in my life. With a mother who was divorced when I was quite young, Noni played a big role in my upbringing, and there were times when my brother and I would live with her. Looming large in those memories was Joe's Five and Ten, just down the street from Noni's Beachmont home. The store beckoned me whenever I went for a visit.

Around two in the afternoon on one particular February day, with my brother engrossed in playing marbles, I escaped to Joe's so I could fantasize about owning one of the beautiful dolls, and doll's clothes, that we could not afford. While browsing, I was distracted by the array of Valentine cards to celebrate Valentine's Day. They were so beautiful and their sweet words seemed to capture exactly the way I felt about Paul Kelley, a boy in my second grade class. They were two for a penny, but I had no money so I "took" one, just half a penny's worth. I would color it in myself to personalize it before I put it in the beautiful box that my teacher made with pink and red crepe paper. Paul Kelley sat in the front of the class and when he got my card he turned around and gave me the most beautiful smile ever. From that day on he walked me home from school and carried my books for a very long time. He was definitely my first love. Going to confession was not so easy. Telling the priest about the Valentine when he said back to me "You stole the card?" That was not so easy. I was living with Noni at the time, but I don't recall the incident ever being discussed.

If Noni had been born a century or so later, she might have been one of today's entrepreneurs, making it big in the sharing economy. Noni loved the practice of renting rooms, turning the extra room in her house into an extra five dollars a week long before anyone had a thought of computers or AirBnB. Her Beachmont house was a stone's throw from Suffolk Downs and the spare bedroom was almost always occupied by a trainer or a jockey. If she could have gotten away with it, she would have accommodated even a horse.

Noni had a great spirit. Those were hard times, and she worked endlessly running the house, but she had managed to have a laugh over everything and everyone. The wood burning stove in the basement was often simmering with a big pot of sauce or soup, and she was always excited when someone would drop over and they could be included for dinner or, at least, a cup of her wonderful coffee. Handfuls of just ground coffee beans were thrown, never measured, into boiling water, where they would settle just a minute before being strained into a cup. Between her friends and the horse crowd there was constant activity and I loved it.

One of the great joys of Noni's later life was her tenth and last born child, a daughter. Rachel, known as Ray Ray in the family, was adored by everyone, but she was extra special for me because, though she was my aunt, she was my best friend, my virtual twin. My mother and grandmother were pregnant at the same time and so my Aunt Rachel and I were born the same year and were in the same grade at Louis Pasteur School, a walking distance away. For my Noni, I suppose, the two of us were inextricably linked.

When Rachel and I were 14, she was diagnosed with Leukemia, and everything in the family changed. I didn't see much of Noni over the next two years as she spent her days with Rachel at Children's Hospital, and, of course, I'd lost my best friend. Even worse, when Rachel died, Noni could not bare to have me around, as I was too much of a reminder of her loss and so I was, along with cousin Marion, shipped off to a family friend for the summer in Somerville.

After the funeral, all evidence of Ray Ray was wiped away, and her name was not permitted to be spoken again. Noni's brooding face became a full-time replacement for the one that once had offered such a quick smile. The silence over the loss of Rachel included ignoring the repercussions of that loss - no one in the family thought about how it impacted me, for example - at least not enough to address the issue directly. Perhaps everyone in the family felt the same, privately mourning Rachel in their own way but not allowed to discuss it. Or, maybe, they had secret conversations that I was too young to be part of.

Over time, though, my brother and I would be allowed back in to her life, with Noni taking care of us while my mother worked. She started taking us to the movies, again, which she loved.

Noni had a sewing room that had a closet that no one could go near. For years I wondered about its contents and was told not to even touch the door. One day, just before I was married and preparing to leave to live in Chicago where my husband would finish his Masters, Noni and I were having coffee and she said she wanted to show me something. I climbed behind her up the stairs into the sewing room. She opened the closet door and out came what seemed like an avalanche of toys, dolls, doll clothes, stuffed animals, kids books and games. We sat on the cot in the room and she told me that these were the presents that Ray Ray received in the hospital before she died. We cried and hugged for several minutes. We discussed that the time was right for them to be given to the children's ward at the hospital. She asked me if there was something I wanted and I took the wicker basket with the doll and its clothes. It was meant to be mine.

My first restaurant sign was a heart. I have always loved the symbolism of the heart. For Valentine's Day I loved thinking about a menu that embraced hearts: hearts of palm salad or for dessert, coeur la creme - a heart shaped dish with holes filled with soft sweetened cheese and drained overnight and served with fresh raspberries. I loved the calls from guys who wanted to give their girlfriends a ring that night. "Did I have any suggestions?" And did I ever! Floating on top of the chocolate mousse or the cheesecake or how about the fruit tart, her favorite? I still run into people who like to tell me about their first date at Rosalie's and I never tire of the stories.


Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough to Go (a perfect Valentine present)

Who doesn't like chocolate chip cookies? Here are some tips for making them great!
We stayed in a very nice inn several years ago in Vermont. The decor was tasteful with antique furnishings, a fireplace in the room, and the property featured a creative restaurant kitchen, but what my husband really loved about it was the chocolate chip cookies delivered at bedtime, still warm from the oven.
If there is one person who should be canonized (according to my "N.Y. Times, The Essential Cookbook") it is the woman who invented chocolate chip cookies, Ruth Graves Wakefield. By taking an ordinary cookie and adding chocolate chips to the recipe she changed baking forever.

Some tips on making great ones:
Allowing the dough to rest makes for a more richly flavored cookie, according to the experts often quoted in my book. Also, making them on the larger size gives the cookie three textures from crisp to chewy to gooey. You must add a generous portion of salt to the recipe, too. I usually follow the recipe on the Ghirardelli chocolate chip package or the Nestle Toll House recipe is nice, too. I make a large batch of dough, remember the rested dough makes a more delicious result, and bake some off for us and place three quarters of it in a jar so my grandkids can experience them hot out of the oven, when Mom has the time.

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