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.

Autobiography in Pine

2004 Christmas Tree

My tree from 2004.

My autobiography will not be written on a computer, or disseminated in the form of a kindle file. It exists already in the collection of ornaments that have been lovingly cared for, some since before I was born.

My earliest Christmas memories are of decorating the tree with my mother. We would usually do this on a Friday or Saturday evening in December, with Christmas music playing in the background, and both of us singing along, my mother with… great enthusiasm.

As each ornament came out of the layers of tissue paper, my mother would tell me the story of where it came from. “This is the Santa Claus your grandfather brought home from Germany after the war,” she would say, or “this was attached to your very first Christmas present ever.”

Every year, our collection would increase by an ornament or two, usually as a souvenir of somewhere we went, or something we had done. As I grew older, the ornaments began to reflect my interests as well. The ice skates (both Mom and I love skating) were joined by books, hats, and an array of musical instruments. When Fuzzy proposed to me over my Christmas visit to South Dakota, my mother’s initial response was congratulatory, and then wistful: “I guess I’ll have to wrap your ornaments separately this year.”

Twenty Christmases later, my collection of ornaments has grown exponentially. Our first tree was barely full, and the tree we had in our condo was three feet tall and in a pot. This year, we have a pre-lit plastic tree with seven million tips (this may be an exaggeration) that is seven and a half feet tall (that is not an exaggeration), and I still feel like there aren’t enough branches.

Last year, my mother sent some of her collection to me; she was downsizing to accommodate her smaller house and slightly advanced age (she’ll be 66 in February), and it was a kind of virtual reunion, seeing some old favorites and meeting some new pieces from her life in Mexico.

I’ve never done a count of all my ornaments – there are more than a hundred and less than five thousand – but I know when one is missing, as if a paragraph or a chapter was accidentally deleted from a favorite novel.

My ornaments are my story, my autobiography, told in red and green, wood and glass, and set against a background of pine.

Holidailies 2015

Baby Grand

The piano came with the house.

They found it discarded in the basement, the soundboard cracked.

She’d always wanted a piano, so they hoisted it up, and put it back together, had it tuned and timed.

She didn’t know how to read music, but she could play by ear, her elegant fingers coaxing beautiful sounds from the cast-off instrument.

If anyone else had bought the house…
If they didn’t live in reasonably humid New Jersey…
If music wasn’t as much a part of his soul as it was hers…

But that did, and they do, and it is.
Baby grand.

It’s PEER not PI-ERRE

Pencil Case

I learned the state capitals from a pencil case. It was deep cherry red, with the map of the United States outlined in raised white lines, two windows on the sides, and wheels to adjust the text appearing within. Change the capital, and the state would flip, and vice versa.

I remember reading the combinations: Albany, New York; Dover, Delaware.

(My mother used to sing the song “What Did Della Ware?”)

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Tennessee; Pierre, South Dakota.

I found it very jarring when I moved to South Dakota to be with Fuzzy, and learned the locals pronounce it “Peer.”

Prompt: Pencil Case / Source @SSMindSchool

Fishing With Grandpop

Rod and Reel My friend Debra is hosting a project called Summer Love Notes (it started about ten days ago), and I’m one of the participants, which means I’ve been dwelling on memories of All Things Summer as I’ve tried to figure out what to write about.

One of my fondest childhood memories is fishing with my grandfather.

I’m not entirely certain when I became his fishing buddy, but I know I was no older than four the first time he took me to the pier. I remember the sweet scents of tar and wood, and the tang of salt in the air. I remember sitting on his tackle box, and wearing a fishing hat that would never be as weathered or as storied as his.

I remember stopping at the bait store on the way out to the fishing beach, and I remember stopping at Stewart’s for root beer ( in real glass mugs) and crinkle cut fries (in a paper boat) on the way home (served by carhops, delivered on a tray that clipped to the window).

I remember the squirmy, slippery fish flipping, flopping, and flailing on the dock once we reeled them out of the water, and I remember my grandfather knocking them out as quickly as possible.

Once we caught a dogfish (a small shark) and I remember seeing it’s teeth snapping at anything it thought it could reach. You couldn’t retrieve the hook from those and let it go, you had to dangle it from the line and snip the thread and let it fall, back into the ocean for a slow death, or into a handy trash bin for a faster one. Do fish feel pain? Do I really want to know?

Probably not.

I remember my grandfather cleaning the fish (Atlantic blue fish, most of the time) and my grandmother cooking it, serving it with fresh, steamed spinach and baked potatoes that had been wrapped in tin foil and cooked on the grill. “Watch for pins and needles,” she’d warn, referring to the bones in the fish.

What’s weird though, is that I don’t remember actually, you know, fishing. Only the activities around the actual baiting of hooks and casting of lines.

But I remember my grandfather’s hat, and his work shoes and his strong, brown hands, thick with callouses, and etched with history.

Fishing with my grandfather was one of my favorite parts of my childhood summers.

 

 

Photo Credit: juliasv / 123RF Stock Photo

SNL from Behind the Couch

SNL 40 Weekend Update

I was five when Saturday Night Live began its run. At that time, my favorite book was still Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, my ice skates still had two blades, my bike still had training wheels (and tassels), and there was a really good chance my hair would be in braids, mostly because it was the only way to keep it from tangling.

My mother watched SNL from the beginning. I don’t think she watched it religiously, but she watched it. And I watched it with her, though she didn’t know I was. You see, I watched it from behind the couch. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand a lot of the content back then, but I’m also pretty sure the rhythms and cadences of fast-paced sketch comedy were absorbed by my young brain and as-yet-invisible pores.

By the time I was ten, I sometimes dropped references to SNL in conversation with my mother and her friends, who would look at me with expressions that read, “Who is this child, and is she psychotic, or merely precocious?”

By the time I was fifteen, SNL had ceased to be my mother’s show, and had become mine. I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch the whole thing, usually alone in the living room, my mother and step-father long since asleep. Every so often, in an attempt to form order from the chaos that has always made up my sleep patterns, Ira would come out to the living room and point out the time.

“It’s late,” he would say. “You should be sleeping.”

I would grin and reply, “So should you.”

He would agree that yes, he should, and sometimes he would watch with me for a few minutes. Then he would ask if I understood something, or if I really thought it was funny. We’d analyze a sketch, and then he’d wander back to bed and leave me to enjoy the mystique of being the only person awake in the house at 12:45 in the morning.

I’m willing to confess that I harbored a secret crush for Dennis Miller, but that was before we knew he was bat-shit insane – and not in a comedic way, but in a politically skewed way that seems to imply some kind of traumatic brain injury.

I stopped watching SNL, for the most part, when I moved to Texas ten years ago. It’s not that I don’t still find it funny. When I do catch an episode, I laugh at it.

Partly, I stopped watching because when I’m awake at that hour, now, it’s because I’m caught in a story that I’m writing, and don’t want to stop.

Partly, I stopped watching because while it’s still entertaining, I watch it now with the perspective of having done improv on stage for a bunch of years, and having interviewed a lot of writers and actors who came through Second City (still the proving ground for comedy writers and actors, still the pool from which many SNL cast members emerge). I analyze it. I pick apart the sketches. “Why is that word funny, when another one wouldn’t be? How would I change it?” And when they go for an obvious joke, or make a poor word choice, I’m as upset as a sports fan would be when a baseball umpire calls SAFE when a player was clearly OUT.

Mostly, though, I stopped watching SNL because I live in the Central time zone, and that means it starts at 10:30, which is too early for SNL. True, it’s not prime-time, but it’s not late enough to be late-night, either, and without that 11:30 start time, it feels like just another mainstream comedy show.

The humor is still there.

But the mystique is lost.

Maybe this means I’m getting old.

But maybe, just maybe, it means that I prefer my comedy a little bit dangerous, a little bit edgy, and if it’s happening at 10:30…it’s not either. (I could DVR it, and watch when I want to, but the thing is…I wouldn’t. It would be wrong somehow, to DVR something that’s supposed to have the element of risk associated with live performance.)

Still, 40 years is an impressive run. There’ve been good casts, great casts, and a couple of truly awful casting choices that were quickly rectified, but on the whole it’s remained a good barometer of what’s going on in our world.

Even so, I think it was best viewed from behind my mother’s couch, when I still had the innocence of a five year old.

If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have embraced comedy in general, and improv specifically, much earlier in my life.

Ziti

Ziti

My grandmother used to sing to her African violets, pet their tender leaves, and encourage them to grow by calling them ‘pretty baby.’ She could pick up a pencil with her toes, and even after her fingers were gnarled with age and arthritis, she was a flawless knitter (though her taste in yarn was questionable).

By the time I was old enough to help in the kitchen, she did her best to avoid cooking, but I have fond memories of hamburgers cooked on the back yard grill, of sun-warmed tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, of Jersey corn, and of being asked – as everyone was – what kind of potato they wanted (white or sweet). Whenever she ate those summer vegetables, she would pronounce them ‘luscious.’

Sometimes, she made baked ziti. Ziti is easier than lasagna because you don’t have to keep the pasta intact, but it uses similar ingredients. Sauce that simmered all day. Meatballs served with it. A blend of Parmesan, Romano, mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Just the right combination of spices to make the flavors all pop in a complimentary fashion.

I never learned her recipe, but I remember the flavor, and over the years, my own version has come closer and closer. The cheese, I think, is what’s wrong, or maybe it’s that I usually just ‘doctor’ sauce from a jar. I remember her adding a dash of sugar to her sauce, but I think I also remember her squeezing lemon juice into it, and that memory confuses me because wouldn’t that just increase the acid?

I made Ziti tonight because the temperature was dropping and I wanted something that was comforting and would provide leftovers. As I served it, just for a moment, I thought I caught the scent of my grandmother’s perfume, just the way I sometimes wake in the night feeling certain that her cool hand was soothing my sweaty brow.

But it wasn’t really her perfume, of course.

It was just a sense memory triggered by making ziti.

Holidailies 2014

The (Nutcracker) Prince and Me

This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!

A Very Young Dancer

Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m addicted to The Nutcracker. Oh, not the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but the ballet based upon the story. You know the one – it has music composed by Tchaikovsky, and everyone trots it out in December.

I blame my Auntie Annette for this addiction. Of course, she wasn’t really my auntie at all, but a dear friend of the family, one who always seemed to waltz, rather than merely walking, wherever she was going, and who always smelled like the forest at Christmas, even though I’m pretty sure the most rural place she ever lived was Connecticut.

Every junkie has a gateway drug, and mine was a book called A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz. It’s not a story, so much as a captioned photo-essay about a young girl named Stephanie, a student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, who is cast as Marie in the annual production of – you guessed it – The Nutcracker.

It was Auntie Annette who gave me the book – a book I still have, by the way, the year I was six or seven. (Amazon says the publication date was October 1976, but I’m pretty sure I had it in August. Then again, Auntie Annette had connections so it’s very possible she gave me an advance copy. I have vivid memories of being the first of my friends to know anything about this book.)

Let’s assume my memories are correct, and I was six. I was still taking ballet lessons then, and I have an equally-vivid memory of another aunt’s dog eating my ballet slippers the following summer. But really, it doesn’t matter, that book got me hooked on The Nutcracker, and I remain loyal to it decades after I stopped taking ballet lessons, or, in fact, any kind of dance classes whatsoever.

But isn’t The Nutcracker the first ballet for almost every little girl? I mean, I guess some kids see Coppelia first, but it’s not quite as engaging, or as magical. (By the way, has anyone noticed how many ballets are based on some kind of doll coming to life? Not just ballets, actually, but children’s stories in general.)

My earliest memory of seeing The Nutcracker live is when I was nine and we lived in Arvada, Colorado. My best-friend-at-the-time and I had been in a fight for the weeks leading up to the performance, but our mothers had bought a row of seats for the four of us and her little sister. Each of us, independently, had worked out how our mothers would sit next to each other, with us on their far sides, so we wouldn’t have to talk.

Of course, by the time the actual day came, we’d started speaking again, which both good – because for weeks afterward we did our best to recreate the ballet in their basement bedroom – and bad – because my mother worked with one of the dancers, or knew her mother, and had arranged for us to go backstage, and that meant I had to share the experience.

My addiction was cemented at that point.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous productions, both live, and on video. San Francisco Ballet’s version is one of my favorites, but I grew up on PBS’s annual airing of the ABT version with Mikhail Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland, and that’s still the one I know best. I’ve seen the movie that was made out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (which features sets designed by Maurice Sendak. (Yes, that Maurice Sendak.) It’s a favorite as well, and just the other night I was watching a version of the NYC Ballet’s interpretation that was filmed years ago, and features a Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker/Prince.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see different things in the different versions of the story.
For example, Marie (who is sometimes Clara), is often played by a child, as is, in fact, the Nutcracker Prince. These interpretations usually have lots of children in the first act, and very few in the second (only those who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt), while Marie and the Prince pretty much just watch Act II from a throne all the way upstage.

Other interpretations use an adult dancer as Marie/Clara, or at least an older teenager, and play up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/Prince. Sometimes they even get an Act II pas de deux.

The Nutcracker/Prince is often introduced in the Act I party scene as Drosselmeier’s apprentice or nephew, which means that, if Drosselmeier isn’t merely an ‘affectionate’ uncle, Marie and the boy are kissing cousins.

A rare few interpretations (and Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of them) add a dash of unresolved sexual tension between Marie/Clara and Drosselmeier. (There’s a fanfic waiting to be written.)

I haven’t catalogued all the details of every production, obviously, but I do know this: during December there is a version of the Nutcracker playing somewhere almost every day. In the next two weeks, my DVR will be recording at least six different productions, only one of which I’ve seen before. There are at least seven local live productions of the ballet happening in the same time period, within 30 miles of my house. (I might drag Fuzzy to one. He’s never been.)

I prefer the live performance experience: the thrill when the overture starts to play, the way the audience always gasps when the Christmas tree starts to grow (which is really Marie/Clara shrinking, of course, but…it’s still cool), the little girls all dressed up for what is, for many, their first time in a real theater, and the obligatory trip to get hot chocolate (when I was a kid) or Irish Coffee (now) afterward. I love the pure dancing in Act II, when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier, and the Dew Drop Fairy dances with her flowers.

But even if we don’t make it to a live performance, I’m looking forward to having a few dates with my Nutcracker Prince over the weeks between now and Christmas. He’ll bring the great music and muscular thighs, and I’ll bring coffee, Danish butter cookies, and my appreciation of the arts.

And when Christmas comes, and the magic is over for a year (because a post-Christmas Nutcracker is just as sad as the early morning walk-of-shame after a poorly chosen one-night stand) I’ll put my Nutcracker, the one sent to me from Germany, back in its box, and focus once more on more contemporary stories.

But only until next year, of course.

I mean, you can only go so long until your next “fix.”


Holidailies 2014

Decoding

Ornamental 2013

When I was a very young child, one of my favorite record albums was the Marlo Thomas creation, “Free to Be…You and Me.”

I loved many of the songs and stories, and can still quote the version of “Atalanta” that she and Alan Alda performed, but the song that I’ve always really connected with is “Glad to Have a Friend Like You.”

There’s a lyric in that song that goes like this:

Pearl told Earl that they could do a secret code
Earl told Pearl there was free ice-cream when it snowed
So they sent funny letters that contained myst’ry messages
And nobody knew just how they made it
And they raised up the window and they scooped all the snow together
Put milk and sugar in and ate it

And except for the names, that could have been me and any number of my friends. The year we lived on 16th street in Golden, CO, Heather and Kerry and Ben and I would beg our parents to let us make maple syrup candy with the fresh snow, and we’d make up codes and ciphers, and we were in and out of each other’s houses and apartments, and shared beds the way six and seven year olds do.

The codes and ciphers were my favorite, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the children’s novel, Alvin’s Secret Code was a favorite, not just because the story (deciphering codes to find a lost treasure) was great fun, but because it actually taught you how to read the codes you found all around you. Of course, that was before bar codes on price tags, when SKU numbers actually meant things you could understand without a scanner, but still.

Later, when I encountered Sherlock Holmes for the first time, one of my favorite stories was “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” because a code (really a cipher) was integral to the plot.

Cut to tonight. Our friend Ben (a different Ben), and I have spent the evening making cookies and working on the code that came with the first envelope of the “12 Days of Holiday Bullshit” trinket from Cards Against Humanity. Well, really I’ve been baking, and Ben has been decoding/deciphering.

But, you see, I’m pretty good at codes and ciphers after all the practice I had as a kid…so he spent a few hours working on it, but I looked at it, figured out one of the keywords, and solved it in about five minutes.

Yeah, I’m annoying like that sometimes.

Solving the code to read the message was fun, but the walk down memory lane that I got in the process was even better.

And if that other Ben, Benjamin Simon, born 8/15/1970, is out there somewhere, I hope he remembers me as fondly as I remember him.

Happy Holidailies.

No Santa today. Instead, the entire spread of ornaments, which, in the picture, look like mass of junk until you start to decode the specific shapes.

Wax Paper

In my recent spate of pre-holiday baking, I’ve rediscovered wax paper.

I’ve had a couple of rolls in the back of the pantry for a while, purchased because some recipe I was going to make at some point required them, but I hadn’t actually begun to use it until wax-paper last Saturday when I baked a lemon pound cake. The instructions for that recommended lining the loaf pan with wax paper so that it was easy to pull the cake out after baking.

Removing that lemon pound cake (which was divine, by the way – DIVINE) was so easy, that not only did a friend and I actually have a conversation about wax paper yesterday (Well, not just about it, but still, we are not 1950s housewives. We both do paid work, you know?), but I used the same trick when I made banana bread this morning.

It’s weird, the way common objects can have so much meaning. I mean, yes, on one level wax paper is just a tool that makes baking a bit easier, but at the same time, the texture of it, the satisfying ripping sound it makes when I remove a length of it from the roll, those things are time portals that take me back to summers at the Jersey shore with my grandparents.

I remember picnic coolers lined with dry ice, holding a pitcher of iced tea, tuna or egg salad sandwiches wrapped in wax paper (or, if my grandmother had them available, wax paper sandwich bags), and paper napkins that went into the cooler with the food. Something magical happened to those napkins in the process. Before they went into the picnic cooler they were normal paper, slightly rough, but when they came out of it at the beach they felt like cool, soft tissue, and I used to love holding them up to my sun-warmed skin before using them as actual, you know, napkins.

Food tastes better, at least to me, when it’s wrapped in wax paper instead of plastic wrap. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t sweat, or maybe it’s just nostalgia, but if there’s beauty in ordinary things like dandelions and autumn leaves, there’s a kind of beauty in wax paper and fresh baked goods, and even in tuna fish sandwiches, whether they’re eaten in the sunlit kitchen or while sitting on a blanket in the sand.

Happy Holidailies