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.

Imprinted

bracelet

Last year, a family friend who is really an affectionate aunt, even though I’ve only ever addressed her by her first name (as far as I remember), sent me a hand-made fabric bowl (decorative, it sits on the side table in my living room) and a bracelet of prayer beads from Nepal.

I wear the bracelet a lot, sometimes because it fits my mood, sometimes because it fits my outfit, and sometimes because I want a connection, however tenuous, to the person who sent it. She’s a person who, often without knowing it, has provided me with a lot of guidance during my life, a person who (to borrow a phrase oft-used by Aaron Sorkin, who, I’m certain, found it elsewhere as well) causes me to pay more attention to the better angels of my nature.

I don’t generally sleep in it, but the other day I had company and was wearing it when they were here, and then I took it off and left it on the bathroom counter, where it doesn’t belong. Then, yesterday, I picked it up, intending to put it in my jewelry chest, but instead, I put it back on, and went about the rest of my day, eventually falling asleep.

Today was a day of no work (I should have been writing, but hormonal lethargy meant I had NO BRAIN), and much rest (with resultant weird dreams, but that’s another story) partly because of the horrific cramps I always get on Day One, and partly because the lateral muscle I strained was bothersome (I slept wrong last night, I think). When I woke up the first time, I noticed that the markings on the beads had imprinted themselves into the flesh of my wrist, much like the lines I used to get from cable-knit knee-socks when I was a little girl.

There’s nothing strange or unusual about this, of course, except that I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow right now – intentionally slowly – and so I’m thinking about what prayer is.

I find the notion of having prayers imprinted on my flesh oddly comforting, but I also like the fact that these are not indelible, but will fade within moments of the bracelet being removed for any length of time, or, you know, within five seconds of applying lotion.

Lost and Found

So, I have a new cousin.

Well, not a new cousin. She’s thirty-five.

A new-to-me cousin.

I don’t want to ‘out’ her by mentioning her name, and her story isn’t mine to tell, either, but we’ve exchanged texts and become Facebook friends, and hopefully in a few days when things are a bit less overwhelming, we’ll get to actually talk, because she seems like a neat person, and as someone who is (biologically) an ‘only’ child, I have a special fondness for finding family members.

So, my message to her was just to welcome her to my crazy, smart, diverse, stubborn, loving family.

Of course, our family is not without its share of angst.

Whose is?

But I’m not part of the angst in this case, merely an outside observer, but today that distance, that detachment put me in the position of offering comfort and advice from someone from whom I’ve often sought solace for myself.

It’s odd, this role-reversal that happens as we get older. I sat down intending to write about all the strong women – both in my family, and in the greater world – that I’m privileged to know, and instead I find myself marveling about my own inner strength, and musing about paths untaken that I’m still considering.

I love that I find new things about myself and about the world every day.

And I love that lost and found don’t have to be opposites, because both conditions share a similarity: they represent change.

Half-Remembered Names and Faces

He died when I was five, and to this day I’m not sure if I really remember my great-grandfather or if the stories I’ve heard are so powerful that they’ve created the illusion of memory. Sometimes it’s as if I was a ghost-child in my grandparents house in the months before I was born, because I seem to have vivid recollections of events I never could have witnessed.

And then there’s the dog. My grandparents had a dog named Misty, and I’m almost certain she died before I was born, but I remember her dog breath and her wagging tail, and somehow I think it’s those memories that set me on the path to being a Dog Person, and not a Cat Person, despite the fact that I’m a LEO (and I have the mane to prove it).

But when it comes to him, I remember him as impossibly old (though he was probably only in his eighties), impossibly tiny, with a small voice. He smelled like coffee and tobacco, and sadly, it wasn’t the sweet scent of pipe tobacco, or the heady aroma of la gloria cubana cigars, but the stale, old smell of cigarettes – and American cigarettes at that. Note to all half-remembered old men: if you want your descendants to have fond memories of you, and you can’t deal with a good pipe, at least choose a clove cigarette, or, failing that, smoke Gauloises. They still reek, but at least they have a literary cachet. Orwell and Fleming smoked them, and I think Fleming gave his own habit to that character he created…you might have heard of him…Bond, James Bond.

But anyway, I have this picture, scanned by my auntie, digitized and data-sampled and all that, and I love it, not because I have any close association with my great-grandfather (though, I see now that there’s a definite THERE there in his eyes…) but because it seems so iconic…the ultimate little old Italian-American man picture.

And it tells a story, but I haven’t yet figured out what the story is.

But I think it begins with, “We called him ‘Little Grandpop’ when we talked about him.”

Seven Days: a Lesson in Perspective


Click image to embiggen
Late last week, Chris and I received some devastating news: his brother-in-law, a man I know to be brilliant, vibrant, kind, and funny, who has been fighting brain cancer for about a year, was given a new prognosis: days to live instead of months. As soon as we heard, we began making plans to head north to Iowa, intending to say goodbye, which we prefer to attending a funeral. (I dislike seeing people I love looking like wax fruit, and prefer to see people when there’s still some there there.)

We’d barely had time to process the news, what with church on Sunday, a Valentine’s Day dinner that had been planned for a while, and various other ordinary distractions, when we received another call, this one early this morning, with even worse news: He’d slipped into a coma, and the estimate was now seven days.

Our car is in the shop, and won’t be ready til Friday, so we can’t really leave any sooner than we originally planned, but this means our plans for a nice vacation to Seattle for our anniversary next month (15 years! Woo!) may have to be scrapped, or at least tabled. I’m not complaining – family comes first, and it’s important that we go, and support Fuzzy’s sister and daughters, and help where we can, and make our own goodbyes.

But I can’t help but think about what seven days can mean.

For a person in a coma, seven days can mean the difference between an easy death, or one full of pain.
It can mean the difference between people holding your hand and saying goodbye, or people visiting your grave.

For an Olympic athlete, it can mean the difference between attempt and success, or the difference between being known in your own community, or throughout the entire world.

For a traveler, it can mean the difference between a room in a friend’s house, a cushy hotel, and their own bed.

For a dog in a shelter, it can be the difference between being a stray, and being rescued, or adoption and euthanasia.

Seven days can be merely a week, or an infinite amount of time. Or both.

Last October, we spent seven days in New York and New Jersey, celebrating a wedding, visiting old friends, reconnecting with family, and exploring old haunts. On Columbus Day, Fuzzy and I visited Fort Hancock, NJ, and climbed the Sandy Hook lighthouse. He took the picture at the top of the post.

Seven days before that, I’d had the flu.
Seven days after, I’d realized how much my New Jersey childhood still informs my being.

Seven days from tonight, we’ll probably be in Iowa.

One Blue Shoe

It’s weird the things we hold onto, both physically and mentally. On and off today, I’ve been haunted by the image of one blue shoe.

Many years ago, when I was moving from my parents’ house to my first solo apartment, a studio with an amazing wood stove that dominated the room, I ran out of space to hold my as-yet-unpacked boxes. I’d informed my stepfather that the last box would have to wait, but he didn’t listen, and donated the box to charity.

Whatever charity he picked ended up with several dresses, a few pairs of jeans, a really old pair of ice skates (so very useful in San Jose, CA), some books designed to teach adults how to draw, and half a pair of lovely navy pumps with French heels.

Me? I was left holding one blue shoe, and more than a little frustration.

“You told me you didn’t have any more room,” he said in an attempt to defend himself.

“I said I didn’t have room last night. I didn’t tell you to get rid of my stuff.”

“Do you want me to get it back?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, knowing such a request was absurd.

At some point we both laughed, but the really funny part is that it took me years to finally accept the fact that the other half of my pair of shoes was lost forever, and I’d never be able to wear them. Instead, I carried that single shoe with me into the first days of my marriage, into our first rental house, and into the first home that we owned.

It wasn’t until we moved from our condo to our first “real” house, seven years ago, that I finally pitched that shoe. I’m not sure why I kept it, and while it would be fitting to ascribe the act of throwing it away as the final goodbye to childhood, the reality is that I got tired of having a stray shoe among all the matched pairs.

Today, that single shoe has been clopping around my brain, pausing daintily on all sorts of shoe-related miscellany. I suspect it’s there because I was watching a sappy Christmas movie called, “The Christmas Shoes,” last night while lounging in bed. I suspect it will trot away to wherever half-pairs of shoes end up, in a day or so.

In the meanwhile, I’m thinking about how much my life has changed, mostly for the better, since I moved into that tiny apartment. At the time, I was crushing on a guy named Julian, and had just purchased my first computer. A year and a half later, I was living in South Dakota, married to Fuzzy.

Like that year, this year has been full of changes. My main writing gig ends for good at the end of the month, and while I know that will make our finances a bit tight, and finances for others even worse, there’s a part of me that feels oddly free. It’s time for the next phase of my life, and while I have no idea what it will bring I know that if I have to, I can hammer things together with the heel of one blue shoe.