Center Square | Sharing pizza and the family connection

From our far-flung lives, we gather to celebrate the people and events that unite us.

Some voted for the gnocchi, others for the tortellini soup.

The black-bottom pie also got some play.

Me, I went for the sausage pizza, timed to come out of the oven at 12:01 Saturday morning. More on that in a moment.

Last weekend, the far-flung clan of Helen Zuccarini gathered on the banks of the St. Clair River in Michigan to hug and kiss her, to make her gasp, laugh and cry - and to tell her which dishes, of all the wonderful things she cooks, are their favorites.

The occasion was my Aunt Helen's 90th birthday.

Ninety years old. OK, whatever image that number conjures in your mind, forget it. Aunt Helen doesn't look anything like what your mind's eye just showed you. If you met her today, I could give you 18 guesses on her age, and none would be within hailing distance of the truth.

Her eyes remain bright, her skin more smooth than wrinkled, her hair full, frosted and coiffed. She looks, all four feet and 10 inches of her, far more like the spunky girl Gene Zuccarini married four major wars ago than like that stooped old lady you imagined. Her grandkids tease her now about going deaf, and I suppose she is. But when I mentioned to her that I'd stopped in Cleveland on the way to visit my oldest friend, she remembered not only his name, but also his wife's.

So we gathered at her older daughter's house on this brilliant Saturday to salute her, as the huge ore freighters steamed past on the glistening river. We gathered, her children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins and friends, to celebrate her nine decades of persevering in love, laughter and (can't forget this) worrying.

The clan pulled together a memory book for the occasion. In it, folks answered five questions about Helen Zuccarini, one of which was: What advice would you give her?

The predominant answer: "Stop worrying so much!" If worrying were an Olympic sport, my Aunt Helen would have as much gold on her mantel as Michael Phelps. She worries with a flair and a persistence few mortals can match.

That's what having the Mafia drive your family out of Sicily, arriving in a strange land young and impoverished, enduring Depression and world war, and raising three children (including one particularly rambunctious son) can do to a body.

Another question asked which advice people had received from Helen (she gives a lot of it) that they most treasured. Most often, the words they remembered had something to do with family - clinging to it fiercely, defending it loyally.

The fruits of that advice were visible all over the sunny riverbank, where dogs big and slobbery, or small and yappy, roamed a forest of human legs, seeking scraps of food dropped from overloaded paper plates. We had come, her family, from many points on the compass to toast this extraordinary woman, from California, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Canada.

We are a funny bunch, Americans, savoring as we do our eternal right to light out for the Territory, to make a new life. But inside our zest for mobility lingers a craving for connection, for heritage, for bonds that won't fade with time and fortune. So, far-flung as we are, we will travel long distances to confirm our grasp on old connections.

It's a funny word, too, family - too often in today's America a fighting word. So many people want to define for others whom they can count as family. Blood matters, of course; it can fashion an enduring bond where none might have grown were it up to personality or circumstance. But Americans have always gone well beyond blood ties in fashioning the circle of family. How many of us have loved a friend truly like a brother or sister? How many children have grown up calling someone "aunt" or "uncle," never knowing there was no blood connection, or never caring?

Truth told, Aunt Helen is not technically my aunt. She is my father's cousin; their mothers were sisters. But she has always been, in all the ways that count, my closest relative outside immediate family. This is in part because she and her husband, the impish, rock-solid Gene (the good Lord rest his soul) were my godparents, a role they always treated as the Christian vow it was, never more so than after my father died far too soon.

How best to explain what this tiny woman means to me? Let's talk about that pizza.

A half-dozen times a year, my family would pile into the car after work on Friday and trek from Ohio to the Zuccarini home, a tidy brick house with a fabulous vegetable garden on the northern edge of Detroit.

We'd roll in about 10, gather around the kitchen table. Gene would bring up from his basement trove some of his glorious experiments in home-made wine. Helen would have ready some of her famous pasta fritta - fried dough - a seductive compensation for meatless Fridays. The wine and conversation would flow, we kids munching dough, mining juicy nuggets from the adult talk, trying not to get noticed and sent to bed, hanging on for midnight.

Gene and my dad, hardworking men up before dawn each day, rarely made it. A couple of bottles in, their eyelids would droop. Sometimes, they'd just plop onto the air mattresses laid out for the kids in the living room, their snores serenading their wives' sprightly conversation.

At midnight, the Friday prohibitions over, Aunt Helen would stride across her spotless kitchen and pull the sausage pizza - that glorious reward for Catholic self-denial and patience - out of her oven. That first taste at 12:02 was communal bliss.

For me, the smell of that pizza was like the embrace of family. It was the smell of home. May it always linger in my senses.

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