Lafayette's Leonard and Norma Ratto celebrate 73rd anniversary
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Leonard and Norma Ratto know the secret to their 73-year marriage -- ravioli.
Wrapped up in Norma's handmade puffs of pasta and metaphorically equivalent to its spicy sauce, life's ups and downs, love, acceptance, curiosity and plain old hard work are the ingredients in their enduring union.
At 98 and 92 years of age, respectively, the Rattos represent not just relational, but individual longevity. That too, they attribute to the power of commonplace things -- home, heritage, family, children ... and ravioli.
"She's a good cook, a great cook," Leonard says, patting his stomach to emphasize his words.
"I make all the Italian dishes," Norma chips in. "Veal Scallopini, lasagna with ravioli filling -- I cook from recipes my aunt wrote down after I lost my mother."
Norma's Tuscany-born mother died when she was 11 years old, leaving her to grow up in a single-parent home in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. Leonard's parents arrived in Temescal via Ellis Island after arriving in the United States from Genova, Italy. Norma remembers the Depression, when her father would give sandwiches to hungry strangers begging at their door, despite his also being unemployed.
"I remember that, and I remember Prohibition, when people made liquor in their homes. And cars have changed," she says. "Old cars had less problems because they didn't have all the electronics."
Until recent eye problems interfered, Norma has been driving and providing most of their Lafayette home's maintenance and upkeep. She and Leonard moved into the cozy bungalow after the end of World War II in 1945 and did many of the renovations, including wood paneling, room additions and other features Leonard shows off with a wide-sweeping gesture and a proud statement: "We did all this."
The Rattos met at a barbecue in Lafayette. "I was with a girl and she was with another fella," Leonard recalls. "When I went home, I had Norma on my mind."
Norma instantly liked Leonard, but even so, theirs was "a rocky romance" spread over a six-year span. "That ring came off and on a few times, remember?" Norma asks her husband.
Leonard doesn't remember it the same way, recalling only that he "knew at first sight she was the one." And he's not forgotten a warning eventually issued by his wife's aunt.
"She told me, 'If you want Norma, you better come get her fast.' Norma likes to dance and I wasn't too good at that, so I had to fight to get her," he says.
Soon after marrying on Aug. 25, 1940, Leonard was drafted into the Army and worked his way up to sergeant while training newly inducted draftees. He was never called to active duty and after the war, they began life as civilian workers. Norma owned and operated a hair salon on Oakland's 17th Street, near Broadway and Webster: Leonard was a wholesale butcher for Tesio Meat.
The children they tried to have didn't come, but a nephew, Alan, became a surrogate son and partially satisfied their desire to have children. That is, until a day at the World's Fair changed everything.
"(Leonard) kept saying, 'We should have brought Alan, we should have brought Alan,' " Norma says. "When we got home, I told him we were adopting."
Twenty years after they were married, their son Mark was adopted, and in 1963, infant Judi made them a foursome.
"I liked kids, ever since I was one myself," Leonard says, leaving the distinct impression he'd enjoy nothing more than to toss a ball in the backyard or travel to Disneyland for a roller-coaster ride. "It was great to have them," Norma agrees. "They brought so much happiness in our lives."
The Rattos remember Lafayette as more country than city. Favorite memories include the log cabin where they met, traveling the tunnel road ("There was no tunnel then," Norma says) to Italian picnics in Lafayette's open fields and working on their home. Their nostalgia isn't mournful, perhaps due to their lifelong, shared enthusiasm for travel and change.
"We like seeing different ways people live. When we retired, we went to Italy, France, Norway, Alaska. I always wanted to see the world," Leonard says.
Norma says they've always agreed about "the big things," and their inconsequential arguments have long been forgotten. "She's bossy," Leonard says, laughing gently before continuing, saying, "but she's a good cook and to an Italian, that's the most important thing. Just being around her is what I like."
Other than a heart attack Norma suffered when she was 70 -- treated with an angioplasty -- Norma says she and Leonard have stayed healthy, by taking vitamins, avoiding unhealthy foods, enjoying their children and grandchildren and by "just being lucky."
Leonard wants the last word, which isn't "ravioli," but explains everything: "We just clicked -- and kept on clicking."