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Jackie has lived her whole life in neighborhoods across Queens. She grew up on the border of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, an only child raised by her single mother. But Jackie was never lonely. Part of a big, loving Italian American family, she had uncles, aunts and many cousins – 21 to be exact. Every Sunday, they would all gather at her grandparents’ house in Astoria for lunch.
Her grandmother had a kitchen in the basement where she’d prepare the weekly meal. Jackie has fond memories of sneaking meatballs from the pot of sauce bubbling on the stovetop. Nothing was better than her grandma’s meatballs. Except, maybe, her fresh pasta. She’d mix, roll out and shape the dough herself, laying it out in rows on the dining room table to dry – a table big enough to seat everyone. “To a five-year-old, the table looked thirty feet long,” says Jackie.
Holidays were an even bigger production, especially Thanksgiving. Her grandmother made so many dishes that she needed all the help she could get. Little Jackie’s job was chopping the celery and onions for the stuffing. Since the kitchen was so crowded, Jackie would set up her workstation at the dining room table. She’d be diligently chopping as her family arrived. Dinner itself lasted several hours. After the plates were cleared and the pots and pans were washed, Jackie’s grandfather would gather her and her cousins to play scopa – an Italian card game. They’d play until it was time to go home.
In the 1980s, as a young career woman, Jackie worked for Estee Lauder. One of her tasks as an assistant was to stuff gift baskets provided by Estee Lauder for Citymeals’ first-ever Power Lunch. Over 30 years later, she remembers fluffing the tissue paper in each basket. She still has a handwritten thank you note from Gael Greene, Citymeals’ founder.
By the 1990s, Jackie had saved up enough to buy a small home in Maspeth for herself and her mother. But soon after moving in, her mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Jackie became her mother’s sole caregiver, on-call 24 hours a day. Doctors recommend that her mom begin receiving home-delivered meals, and Jackie reached out to Citymeals. She was grateful that the delivery always included two meals – one for her mom and one for herself as a caregiver. It eased some of the burden on Jackie. Even has her mom grew more confused and agitated, she always recognized her daughter. “The more she needed me, the more I loved her,” says Jackie. Her beloved mother passed away almost two decades ago.
Since then, Jackie has remained in the same home they shared. Though, she lives on the first floor and rents out the unit upstairs. At 73, she gets badly winded going up just one short flight of stairs. “I have trouble walking,” she says. “I have trouble with my heart.” Five years ago, Jackie collapsed at the drugstore and underwent emergency heart surgery to replace a leaky valve. While she was home recovering alone, Jackie reached out to Citymeals once again. She’s been receiving meals ever since.
I could always put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but to have that little friend that comes to see you every day. That’s worth a lot.
Due to her heart condition, Jackie still tires easily. Occasionally, she’ll walk to the corner store when the weather is good to shop for a few items. She only gets to the grocery store every few months, so she relies on the meals for consistent nutrition. What she really cherishes is the daily knock on the door. “I could always put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she says, “but to have that little friend that comes to see you every day. That’s worth a lot.”
Jackie looks forward to her daily chat with Veronica, who delivers her meals. Jackie always greets Veronica with an enthusiastic, “Hola!” – she likes to practice a few Spanish phrases with her each day. Veronica calls her “Jacquita.” Jackie’s once big family has gotten smaller over the years. Though she still talks to some of her cousins on the phone, no one lives close enough to visit regularly.
In her spare time, Jackie has been going through old family photo albums. She’s started to digitize them, so they can be preserved for generations to come. She’s posted some of her favorites to Facebook and loves seeing her cousins, their children and grandchildren comment. It’s almost like they’re still together, gathered around that huge table in her grandparents’ basement – it helps keep Jackie’s most precious memories alive.