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.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Dinner Music by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.