Dinner Music

I wrote this after a trip back east in 2009, but if I posted it then, it got lost in an archive save, because I don’t have it anywhere. I found it when I was looking for a piece of flash-fiction to edit into something else, and decided to post it anyway.  Aunt Molly, mentioned in the piece, died in 2015 at the age of 105.


The comforting burbling of a percolating coffee pot is the bass note to a symphony played by silver, ceramic, and porcelain softly clinking against each other. It’s the kind of sound most people would never notice, but in an Italian family, the dining table isn’t just where food is spread, but where all the good conversation happens, and conversations like that don’t exist without coffee and pastry – cheesecake is preferred, but a crumb cake will do.

Last month, I spent eight days on the east coast, first at my aunt’s wedding, which occurred in a rambling old, cold summer house in Amagansett, NY, and then in and around a small fishing village in New Jersey, which was once mainly populated by summer folk as well, though now most of the homes are occupied year-round.

In both places, while there was singing to be heard, and various forms of recorded music as well, the melodies that mattered were those created as we sipped endless cups of coffee, nibbled on a broad array of desserts (including crumb cake), and chattered into the wee hours of the morning, picking up threads of conversations that had been dropped decades before, or simply starting new ones.

In an Italian-American family, all the good stuff happens after dinner, when the food has been cleared away, and dessert has largely dwindled to a few crumbs. As a child, I would have been sent to bed before any of the really dishy conversation, but I have fond memories of hunkering down on the red-carpeted steps of my grandmother’s house, hiding behind the tall hutch that was set against the staircase, listening to the mix of English spoken in a New Jersey Neopolitan accent and Italian uttered in short phrases and single words, that nevertheless managed to convey images of sunny hillsides, deep red wine, and round, ripe tomatoes.

I remember my grandfather’s voice, belting from the diaphragm as he told a story, or corrected someone else’s version of a tale, or merely laughed. I remember my grandmother referring to my older cousins, as well as my mother and her siblings, as scooch (pest) or scocciamento (pain in the ass – pr. scooch-a-mende), or merely referring to someone as a “miserable wretch.” I remember laughter, always laughter, even on the saddest days. The concept of laughter through tears might have been mentioned in the movie Steel Magnolias, but Italian-American women live it on a daily basis.

As I grew older, I was allowed to have a seat at the after-dinner table – to play my part in the “Coffee Klatsch Cantata,” as it were. I remember rousing games of Canasta and Scrabble, and I also remember hearing stories about relatives who often were only names to me, or faces in faded photographs.

Being back in New Jersey wasn’t just visiting, it was, in many senses, going home. My grandparents may no longer be on this Earth, but my great-aunt Molly is ninety-nine and a half years old, and still remembers every story, every relative, every connection. Sure, she can’t walk any more, but she still smells of Taboo perfume and rice pudding, is always impeccably dressed, and if she falls asleep in her easy chair listening to the Italian-language news on TV that’s okay, because if you put her at the kitchen table and hand her a cup of coffee, she’ll instantly be bright-eyed, alert, and ready to trade memory for memory until the last crumb of cake is gone, and the percolator has grown cold.

As much as the folk music and show tunes I still sing, this is the music I grew up with. The harmonies made not by strings and percussion, but by the rise and fall of voices in conversation while food is being shared around a kitchen table.

It’s not you; It’s me.

I’ve hesitated to write anything that feels like a Holidailies wrap-up, because I sort of fizzled out of participation this year. While I laud Richard and JeniPurr for keeping the project and the community going, I just didn’t feel very connected to it this year, which is a shame, because it’s the decade of Holidailies writings that morphed into my book.

I don’t blame anyone but myself. I’m just feeling really hermit-ish this winter. I didn’t decorate my Christmas tree until I absolutely had to, and if I weren’t having guests – beloved guests – on Sunday, I’d be itching to take everything down, even though it’s not yet Epiphany.

I wrote a short story for a fan community I belong to, which seems silly, but I use it as a playground to stretch myself – write in different voices, experiment with with different points of view, different structures. It’s a good way to learn and grow without having to spend tons of time world-building.

But none of that has to do with the new year.

2015 was a challenging year for me. It’s the first year in which I’ve had hardly any paid gigs, but it’s also the first year in which I really focused on writing, so I think, in the end, it was a good year.

I mean, I published a book.
And I bought a guitar.
And made several new friends.
And made my marriage even stronger.

So, if I’m having issues with a favorite holiday project being unsatisfying this year, it’s all on me.
And actually, I’m okay with that.

Here’s to a new year. May it be full of wonder and joy.
And just a few surprises, to keep us all on our toes.

Holidailies 2015

New Years Eve at the AT&T Store

iPad Air 2 Jonathan at the AT&T Store in The Highlands of Arlington is awesome. I just thought I’d get that bit out of the way first.

Now to the real point:

I love my husband. Fuzzy adores me, supports my creative endeavors, still flirts with me after almost 21 years of marriage, and even remembers to recycle cans and boxes most of the time. he’s also Midwestern, which means “It’s okay,” is high praise, and making a decision is an agonizing experience.

It has taken him since September to figure out how to allocate his birthday money.  (He couldn’t figure out what he wanted, so we agreed that he could spend the equivalent of the cost of my guitar on something he wanted.)

When I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he told me that he’d like to combine his birthday money with his Christmas gift and get a new iPad. This was a perfectly valid request, as Fuzzy has never had a brand-new iPad. Usually, I get a new iPad and he inherits my old one, largely because I’m a power-user, and he just plays games. I was happy to agree to his suggestion.

However.

He couldn’t decide which iPad he wanted. The current version of the iPad Air would be an upgrade beyond my Air, but the Pro was launched earlier this summer, and it’s really pretty.

Finally, on Christmas Day, he said he needed to go look at them.

But we were both exhausted and spent Christmas weekend in blissful lassitude, reading and puttering and not leaving the house.

And then he had to work.

Today, when his half-day of work was over, we trekked to the closest AT&T store, where the salespeople, who  I will not name, included a woman who kept pushing us to buy DirecTV, even though we already have Uverse, and love it, and a man who was saturated with cologne. (And I do mean saturated. Seriously, it would take him a week to sweat away all the scent he was wearing.) It turned out that they didn’t have the make and model he wanted, so we left.

Then we went to Best Buy, where they told us there would be a 40-minute wait.

There are very few pieces of mobile technology that are worth waiting forty minutes for on New Year’s Eve.

But the time in both those stores wasn’t entirely wasted. He decided the Pro was too large to be used the way he likes to use tablets.

I went online and learned that the other AT&T store near us, the one in the shopping center that is also home to our favorite movie theater, had ONE  128 GB iPad Air 2, but it was gold. “Fuzzy,” I said, “they have what you want in gold. If you REALLY want silver we’re driving to SouthLake or  Frisco.”

“Gold is good,” he said. For him, that’s almost excitement.

The Highlands AT&T store is newer, and much more spacious than the one nearer to our home. It caters to a slightly more affluent clientele. While we still had to wait, there were tables and chairs, plush benches, and lots of other things to look at.

(I might have had a brief affair with a Microsoft Surface 3. Don’t judge. I liked the fact that the keyboard, while small (which is actually good for me – I have tiny hands) was satisfyingly clicky. )

I also had a conversation with a wild-haired customer who was ranting about how AT&T is changing all their plans to scam you out of more money and how if you cancel your service while you have an installment plan on a device, you have to PAY OFF THE BALANCE!!!!! (He said it in all caps, I swear.)

And seriously, is that news to anyone?

I mean, really??

Finally, Fuzzy got his iPad and we went to the grocery store to get napkins and recycling bags and a gazillion other things, including the ingredients to make empanadas, because YUM.

So we spent a good chunk of the afternoon in the AT&T store, but that’s okay, because even in the AT&T store you can find a touch of holiday romance, like the light in your beloved’s eyes when you tell him, “Yes, sweetie, you can buy whichever one you want.”

Holidailies 2015

Thoughts from the Bath

My usual Saturday evening ritual, at least in cool weather, is to soak in the tub while listening to Selected Shorts on NPR. (I know. I live a wild life.) I use the time to just relax, away from smartphones and computer screens. Sometimes one of the dogs will join me in the bathroom, splashed on the floor like a puddle of breathing fur, but most of the time the current pack all congregates on my bed, as if they’re guarding me from whatever might come through the bedroom and into my bathroom.

So far, their vigilance has paid off, and only my husband has ever come into the room. I’m sure they feel very smug about their track record.

Sometimes in the bath, I plot out the stories I’m working on.

Often, I read.

Last night, however, as I soaked in lavender-scented water and formed castles out of the mounds of bubbles, I let my mind wander and ended up with a stream-of-consciousness that was part life commentary and part idle musing.

It went something like this:

I really need a pedicure. It’s been over a month since I had my toenails done, and hey, this purple polish has pretty good staying power, but really, purple in December? I want to make that chocolate gingerbread again, the one we put the peppermint schnapps frosting on, and I can’t remember where I put the recipe. I just realized; it’s almost Christmas and I haven’t yet used my Christmas mugs. This weird warm weather is freaking me out. I’m so tired of mosquitoes. I promised Deb I’d shoot a picture of her book somewhere in my house. Is that a thing now? I didn’t ask any of my friends to take pictures with my book. Should I have done that. Oh, hey, that quantum relationship thing I wrote for Medium needs to be in the next book; everyone seemed to really like it. What day is tomorrow in MusicAdvent? Oh, right, it began on the first so tomorrow’s the 20th. What letter are we on? Oh, right T. We’re on T. T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t. Oh! that scene in Easy A just popped into my brain.

You get the idea.

Holidailies 2015

 

I Keep Writing Entries in My Head

Dinner, December 16I keep writing entries in my head, but somehow they never make it to the blog, which is a problem since I actually look forward to Holidailies every year, as a way to recharge my writing. I’m writing other things, of course… working on the collection of cafe vignettes I’m releasing in February, working on a chapter of a story for a private group of people, but mostly, I just feel tired this month, and that’s absurd because I have to real reason to feel tired.

I’ve been keeping up with #MusicAdvent, at least, but that’s a lot easier because I can do that from my phone. Interestingly, it’s been more difficult than I expected because I committed to only using songs that are either cello covers or feature the cello in their instrumentation, and trying to do that while also not resorting to only classical, and stay in alphabetical order, has been more of a challenge than I thought it would be.

But I can do that from my phone.

So, I keep having these ideas for posts, and then I forget to write them down, even in my head, and when I sit down to actually type, my mind goes blank.

I’ve been enjoying cooking up a storm, though. It’s been unseasonably warm, which means I’m trying to balance lighter foods with the seasonal flavors I’m craving. Tonight we roasted yams with herbed sea salt I brought home from Mexico, curry, and ginger, and baked salmon with Mediterranean Rub from Tom Thumb (it’s really good; I use it for everything) and mixed greens. I love the $5 tubs of herb salad or spring greens from the O! Organics line. Most nights we add dressing, but we don’t even bother adding other vegetables.

I baked a metric ass-load of chocolate chip cookies today, because I like to have them to give away. I don’t usually chill the dough, but I did this time because (see above) I was so tired that I napped from four til dinner-time (actually, that was also the hormone-induced lethargy that always hits me really hard at certain times of the month).

It’s 12:04, but technically this entry is for the 16th, because I started it at 11:43.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll actually write something real.

Holidailies 2015

 

Big Dogs and Big Storms

You know that line in A Visit from St. Nicholas? The one about dry leaves flying before a hurricane? I always thought it felt out of place in what was, otherwise, a sweet and fluffy poem, but today that line is echoing through my head, as leaves are being blown about outside my house.

There’s definitely a storm brewing, but whether my part of the DFW metroplex will get any measurable rain is still a toss-up. Most of the time, the fact that our little corridor of I-20 seems to live in a sort of weather-proof bubble is a good thing. A couple of years ago, when tornadoes were hitting all around us, my neighborhood didn’t even lose power.

Stalking Maximus

Be very quiet; Max is stalking something.

Sometimes though, like today, I want the storm. We had crisp, cold weather until about a week ago, and then everything crept back into the 70s, which is fine, I suppose, except that it’s  December, we’re twelve days from Christmas Eve, and we still have mosquitoes.

I actually have air conditioning turned on.

Also, rain and fog make all the Christmas lights look pretty – enhancing the sparkle factor. Not that I’ve finished decorating. In truth, I’ve barely begun, and the recent weather is a big part of that. (Finishing my first book, and getting it ready to put on Amazon is another part of that, but that post has already been written.)

I’m not the only one feeling a bit off-kilter because of the weather. Max and Teddy, my two biggest dogs, have been acting kind of spooked since last night. They’re asking for extra attention, being overly clingy (even for them) and then bouncing off to chase each other around the house and yard as if they have to burn off every ounce of energy that they have right this very minute.

Watching big dogs play can be kind of intense. They slam into each other with all the force of football players, and there is much gnashing of teeth and swiping of claws.

Curious Ted

Teddy is always a bit perplexed.

They growl and roooooo! They dance around each other like prize fighters looking for the perfect opportunity to jab or cross, and then they back off, tails wagging, as if to say, “Aww, shucks, I was only playing.”

After a heavy play session, Teddy, who is four years younger and 20 pounds heavier than Max, will go to his brother and lick his ears, as if to say, “I may have bigger paws and sharper teeth, but you’re still my big brother.”

Max turned seven a few days ago, and his age is starting to show a little. The black parts of his face are bearing more and more flecks of white hair, and his stamina is fading a little bit. Of course, he’s always been a bit of a couch potato, sprawling his spotted legs over the arms of chairs, or letting them dangle off the sofa. Ted is more a hunker-down-on-the-floor kind of dog, as if he knows his soft, black fur will pick up every single bit of dust.

One thing both of these big boys have in common is that they never go too long without coming to my side, poking a wet nose into my hand, offering a callow paw to shake, and then heading off to romp again.

The leaves are flying.

The dogs are rough-housing happily.

A storm is brewing.

And I can’t wait for it to come.

Holidailies 2015

Buy this Book: The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales From The (Holiday) Tub

The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the (Holiday) Tub

File this under shameless self promotion.

I haven’t posted an entry here in two days, because I’ve been busy editing my book.

MY BOOK

I’ve been part of Holidailies for over a decade now (this is my eleventh year), and I’ve amassed quite a lot of holiday-related content, many of which were designated ‘best of…’ in their years of publication.

You could cull through all of my archives (a decade of archives) to find the best ones, but why, when you can buy my book?

Just in time for Christmas (or Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, whatever – it’s kind of Christmassy though, because that’s my winter holiday of choice) comes The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales From the (Holiday) Tub, and it’s available from Amazon either in paperback or for your kindle.

Here, have a very brief excerpt.

I used to walk my dog, a poodle mix named Taffy, through the packed powder in Georgetown, CO, and then flagrantly disobey my mother’s rules (and common sense), by taking her down near the frigid waters of Clear Creek, to the place behind the post office where the bank was climbable and the sandbars that were islands in the summer became mini-glaciers in the winter.

It was in the curve of that creek that my friends and I would spend hours pretending to be arctic explorers, while Taffy played the alternate parts of either a sled dog or a polar bear.

Afterwards, we’d trudge home (because trudging is really the only way you walk through snow), and I’d de-mat her paws, and we’d cuddle by the fire, while I drank cocoa with tiny marshmallows.

(Somewhat ironically, while people can get the paperback by Monday with Prime shipping, I won’t receive my author copies til after Christmas.)

Holidailies 2015

Christmas at Mission City Coffee

I’m writing a book! Or actually, I’ve compiled and refined some of my favorite HOLIDAILIES posts from the ten years I’ve been participating, and created a book from them. Look for The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the (Holiday) Tub for Kindle and Paperback sometime in the next ten days. Meanwhile, today’s piece was written just for the book (and for Holidailies, of course).


There is a cold rain trying its best to soak us as my mother and I dash from the car to the back door of our favorite café, the Mission City Coffee Roasting Company. It is the week before Christmas and we are having a late lunch while we wrap up the last few loans scheduled to fund before the new year.

Boston, the owner’s son, is working the bar and he waves to us as we step inside. Mom heads off to use the restroom, and I go to order our food – artichoke penne, maybe or the vegetarian lasagna that is so deliciously spicy – and coffee, before I take a seat at my favorite table, the one in the window.

We were among the very first customers when the café had opened, and we remained loyal over the years, getting to know the baristas – the regulars who often hung their art on the brick walls, and the rotating collection of students from nearby Santa Clara University.

Because we both lived and worked in the neighborhood, we got to know a lot of the regular customers, as well, like the frail old man with the bushy white beard and the quiet, solid presence. He was a Quaker, my mother told me, and a deserter from World War II. He was strongly anti-war, and when Women Opposed to War held demonstrations, he would always be there, supporting the cause.

That old man always struck me as possessing both great wisdom and great sadness, but I never really knew him well enough to learn the truth.

It seems fitting that he should be there, spending the rainy December day surrounded by the familiar faces of people he recognizes doesn’t really know.

Imagine the scene: the café in its afternoon lull; most of the staff is finishing the cleanup from the lunch rush. Cold rain outside meeting the warm coffee and pastry-infused air inside has fogged all the windows, and in one corner, a young woman, one of that year’s crop of students, is singing to herself as she wipes down tables.

“You’re really good,” someone tells her. “Sing more?”

She glances to Boston, a combination of fear and delight on her face. He nods permission, and she opens her mouth, singing an a capella version of “O Holy Night” that has all of us moved nearly to tears.

“Sing more,” one of the other customers says, bringing his latte with him to the piano. “I can play for you, if you want.”

There is a murmur of encouragement from all of us. “Oh, yes, please do. Your voice is so lovely.”

He’s in a button-down shirt and khaki pants – the winter version of the Silicon Valley dress code.

She is wearing jeans and a t-shirt under her café-issued apron. She has blue eyes, strawberry-blonde hair in a choppy version of a pixie cut, and the round cheeks of a person who is both a singer, and not yet out of their late teens.

Boston slings his apron over the counter, then rests his elbows on top of it. “Go ahead,” he says. “It’s not busy.”

And so we are treated to an impromptu concert of holiday music, unrehearsed, but somehow perfect in its imperfection.

The piano playing is a bit uneven, but her voice compensates, soaring above the plunked keys in a pure, operatic soprano that fills the room.

Later we learn that she’s a music major, studying to be an opera singer. She sings pop and folk, as well, and she’ll be one of the acts at the next open mic night.
The piano player’s coffee and pastry are comped.

We all leave big tips in the jar, knowing that Boston will ensure that the singer gets the extra.

Mom and I finish lunch, and leave the café, facing the cold rain, and the busy streets, the drivers who can never seem to use turn signals, the clients who haven’t followed instructions, and the lenders who take forever to make decisions.

But somehow nothing seems quite as dire or urgent as it did before.
Somehow, despite the unrelenting rain, we leave the café with bubbles of sunlight in our hearts.

Holidailies 2015

Never Let Your Bath Water Get Too Cold

Mermaid in Tub Every Saturday night, once the days are cool enough and the sky gets dark early enough, I have an appointment with my bathtub.

I light candles, use scented bubbles, bring a glass of tea, or wine, or just cool water and a book, and I soak for about forty minutes. A self-described bathtub mermaid, I feel like my entire spirit is quenched by my ritual bubble baths. (In summer, I’m in the pool almost every day.)

I don’t exactly bathe alone.

I have  standing date, you see, with NPR’s show Selected Shorts, in which actors from stage and screen read short stories. Because I prefer fiction to non-fiction, I actually like Selected Shorts better than The Moth, even though I’ve always kind of wanted to be part of a storytelling group.

My bath habit is more than just something I enjoy. It’s a form of meditation for me. It’s a way for me to recharge my creative juices at the same time that I’m letting a clay masque rejuvenate my skin. It’s the one place where I feel like time can stop and my brain, which is constantly spinning, can rest.

I’m really bad at sleeping, but I’m great at taking baths.

I’ve missed my Saturday date for two weeks in a row now. Thanksgiving weekend, we had a guest-puppy with explosive poo issues, and his crate was in my bathroom. Then we had ants for a week, a result of a lot of rain, and over this weekend I was ill (I’m still dealing with this stupid cold/sinus thing) and too miserable to even consider soaking in the tub.

I’ve resolved that this coming Saturday, I’m having my bubble bath no matter who is in my house or what is going on in the world.

After all, even bathtub mermaids their limits.

Holidailies 2015

Flipping Latkes

My first introduction to latkes, those little patties of fried potato deliciousness, came soon after my mother and stepfather got married. I don’t remember if it was our very first December as a family, or if it was a couple of years later, but I know that Bubbie (my stepfather’s mother) spent all day making them – one of the rare times she ventured into our kitchen for anything more than hot water.

She peeled and shredded and fried for hours, and we got to eat the results.

Now, I’d thought I knew what potato pancakes were, because my grandfather, pancake guru that he was, used to make pancakes that were either part mashed potato, or part leftover baked potato (whatever was available) mixed with regular batter. I remember loving it when I bit into a chunk of potato.

But these were the real thing, the pure thing. Not just potato pancakes, but pancakes made entirely from potato (well, maybe a dash of milk, a bit of flour, seasonings, and an egg). The point is, I was expecting something more like the pancakes I’d grown up with, and less like a really tasty, far less oily (no, really) version of an Arby’s potato cake.

Bubbie never made latkes for us again – from scratch. All subsequent acknowledgements of Hanukkah involved help from the nice people at Manischewitz and their onion-flavored mix (it comes in gluten free, too). We still had applesauce and sour cream, but there was a lot less work.

Since then, I’ve made latkes from scratch exactly once, and let me assure you that once was absolutely enough. I cheated and used a food processor, but then, who wouldn’t? (I also had a minion who did a good portion of the peeling, showing off his skills with a paring knife in the process. Never, ever, try to make latkes for a couple of dozen people without the assistance of a minion. This is essential.

I’m not Jewish, but that doesn’t mean I can’t like Jewish foods (I’m not Thai, Lebanese, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, French or Cajun either, but I like all of those foods – I’m a polyglot when it comes to cuisine.), so last year I bought a couple of boxes of latke mix. I made some at home, and brought the rest with me when we went to visit my parents in Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Christmas night (because we’d had a huge brunch and weren’t hungry until pretty late at night), or one of the others, but we had a lovely late-night supper of latkes with applesauce, sour cream, and smoked salmon, while binge watching Call the Midwife on Netflix.

I haven’t bought any mix this year, but I might, because potato pancakes are a flavor I really love, and even though it’s unseasonably warm, it is December. Tonight, in fact, is the first night of Hanukkah, which is why I’m writing about flipping lattes. (It’s way easier to do than making crepes.). Maybe I’ll even serve them with smoked salmon again.

In the meantime, I’m nursing a cold, so I’m going to curl up in bed with tea and a good book.

 

Holidailies 2015