Spaghetti Night at Grandma’s

January 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm 2 comments

It’s 52 miles between the small dairy farm outside of Luck, Wisconsin, where Irma Skow DeGidio grew up, and the Minneapolis suburb where she and husband Nick settled to raise their family. But frequent trips home to make huge batches of Christmas stew or to help out during the summer canning season have kept her rural connections robust over the years. 

With their five daughters mostly grown and starting families of their own, she and Nick relocated to Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and Irma decided it was time to weave a few more country customs into the fabric of their suburban life. Twenty-eight years later, Spaghetti Night at Grandma’s is still the sturdy thread that draws her extended clan together on a regular basis. Summer or winter, sunshine or sleet, up to 40 people gather in Irma’s immaculate garage or basement once a week to share the latest family news and swap vacation stories or ideas for recreation or dining out or home maintenance.   

“Keeping in touch is so important,” Irma explains. “The grandchildren learn so much from spending time with family, and open doors invite people to bring their concerns to those who love them.” She shares this sage advice by example; her collection of family recipes upon request; and the gift of these warm mini-reunions with friends, neighbors, and out-of-town visitors as well as in-town relatives. 

That universe of in-town relatives seems to be an ever-expanding one, with the current count at 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, most of whom show up for spaghetti night at least a percentage of the time, “Along with a few of the teenagers’ boyfriends and girlfriends,” Irma adds. That calls for buckets of pasta and all the trimmings, and of course a selection of Grandma’s homemade desserts. 

How does this soon-to-be-85-year-old, who takes two blood pressure medications and suffers from arthritis and peripheral edema, manage this weekly feat? She simply does what come naturally, building on her own country traditions to preserve the true meaning of “family values.” 

Irma was born at home the spring of 1926, one of five siblings with aunts, uncles, and 37 cousins living near enough to gather for every special occasion. As farm families, the children all shared in chores, and Irma and her sisters tended the large household vegetable garden in the summer. 

One of 25 seniors at Luck High School, she graduated in 1944 and headed for “The Cities” to work first in a small toy factory in Minneapolis and then at the North Side Bakery. But there were always reasons to make the drive back to the farm: annual reunions; sausage-making sessions; birthdays; weddings; baptisms. 

When she married in 1946, those trips continued. And that commitment to honoring her roots never wavered even as Irma had children of her own and took on a variety of casual work, such as babysitting or cleaning houses – mostly to stay busy and satisfy the rural work ethic that had become so much a part of her approach to life. 

As her daughters grew up, married, and had children of their own, the babysitting became entirely a family affair and the babysittees, her own grandchildren. Looking after her daughters’ children led to late afternoon “kid retrievals” by the dads, which led to an informal routine of occasional shared meals aside from the usual birthday and holiday celebrations that Irma had instituted early in her married life. Soon, the occasional became the routine, and the family settled on a night of the week that seemed to be the most convenient for everybody to be in one place at one time to get their fill of Grandma’s homemade spaghetti with meatballs, sausage, and spareribs. 

But that, of course, does not a full menu comprise, so there might be also, on a given Thursday evening, baked chicken breasts, salad, fresh green bean’s from a son-in-laws garden, garlic bread, fresh fruit, a relish tray, homemade angel food cake with strawberries and ice cream, and a large tray of cookies. And while it might take most of us a week of planning and preparation to pull this operation together, Irma has it down to a science. 

One Friday shopping trip yields a 10# package (or two) of ground beef, multiple loaves of bread, and milk, coffee, and pop. Add to that 10-15# of sausage from a homemade source in Cumberland, Wisconsin, and fresh produce from the local Farmer’s Market. Back at home, Irma might make several hundred meatballs one weekday morning, and freeze the extras for future use. 

She keeps her house company-ready with daily spot cleaning, and devotes her weekends to family activities, church, and lunch out with her second-oldest daughter, who lives across the street. She bakes her famous angel food cakes the day-of, but on one recent Monday morning, the smell of fresh-baked banana bread and a double-batch of chocolate chip cookies was filling the air by 7:30 a.m. The dessert tray would be ample this week. 

Irma’s given in to a few shortcuts over the last few years, things like discovering a very good brand of toasted bread crumbs and using a food processor to produce the required mountain of chopped onions for those two hundred meatballs. With pot-scrubbing help from her older grandchildren and the use of sturdy paper plates, cleanup has been streamlined, too. 

These efficiencies allow her to stay relaxed about her large weekly undertaking. So relaxed that she recently attended the State Fair on a Thursday morning, and returned home in the afternoon to cook pasta and heat meatballs in time for the 5:30 early arrivals. Setting up the serving area from 9-11:00 p.m the day before helped make that outing possible.               

Even a few winters ago, when she broke her hip sweeping the snow from her front walk in preparation for her guests to arrive, then crawled back up to her door and dragged herself into the house, the dinners didn’t stop. Granddaughter Andrea took over the making of the spaghetti sauce for a while, and her oldest daughter, Diana, stayed with her for the two months required to get back on her feet. Now Irma takes the stairs one at a time, sideways, like some of her youngest family members, but she takes those stairs multiple times each week and never even considered giving up her major project, the thing that “gets me out of bed every morning.” 

On one recent afternoon visit to Irma’s, her phone rang three times during our hour-and-a-half conversation, and these were not telemarketing attempts. They were daughters, checking in with personal concerns and updates on loved ones recuperating from illnesses, and a granddaughter in need of help with a school project. Proof positive that they may be scattered by their city lifestyle, but the farmhouse dinner tradition that Irma has lovingly preserved for her family is doing just what it was intended to do: Keeping the ties strong and the support network close to home, where it belongs.

Entry filed under: Advice For Life. Tags: , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Craig  |  January 12, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    What a Great Grandma. I hope to be as active & involved with my kids & grandkids as I get older.

    • 2. kirkhams  |  January 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Inspiring people Like Irma can go a long way to helping us define what is possible and positive in our own lives, but you are a pretty darned good example, yourself!


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