A draft copy of my last post, “Arrivederci, Roma”, escaped my fingers and was published (because I’m still learning how to do things here) before edits and clean-up. For those of you with subscriptions, that means an immediate draft, links not working, typos and all, arrived in your mail boxes. Lucky you.
Many apologies. I ask, save me more embarrassment and delete the draft you received. You have my thanks! If you’re still interested in the story, please go directly to the WordPress website.
Hard leather soles make an unmistakable sound scuffling across an old wood floor. There’s a sharp clunk if the back slides off the heel and a little shuffling sound, because slippers are often extra roomy. My grandfather’s were.
In the morning he’d wrap himself in a red wool plaid Pendleton bathrobe, his long johns peeking from below the hem and ending to expose his ankles. Then the slippers. Always brown. He would drowsily make his way to the kitchen where my grandmother, cloaked in her housecoat, prepped the aluminum stove top percolator with morning coffee. Black coffee.
We didn’t get in Grandpa’s way in the morning. He plodded to the breakfast nook to read the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, drink his café, and smoke a morning, unfiltered Camel. Grandma would bring his breakfast. If we crossed his path we’d hear, “Scappa! Scappa via!” and we scurried away.
So familiar were those words, frequently the first of Grandpa’s day when my brothers and I spent the night, that over 60 years later the sound of slippers dragging across a floor, scraping and clomping to the kitchen, will elicit from my brother or me, “Scappa! Scappa!”
There was however, on occasion, a different kind of morning. One that began similarly with the robe and the long johns, the slippers and the sleepy trip to the kitchen. Then Grandpa bypassed the coffee and headed for the refrigerator. He removed the textured gray, molded cardboard egg carton from a shelf, grabbed a glass from the nearby cabinet, and proceeded to mix a concoction that was largely raw eggs swished around and slammed down in a single gulp.
Not until much later did a glance in the rear view mirror reveal what we didn’t know then – these mornings followed a late night of stubby, vile smelling Toscano cigars, shots of whiskey and espresso, and too many hands of Pinochle with the paisanos at the Italian American Social Club.
There might also have been flirting with the young women who served them. There were rumors…
Grandma Fanny wasn’t happy. When Fanny wasn’t happy there was no talking. No laughing. No smiling.
There was a stern, fixed expression. The silent treatment raised to an art form.
Grandpa had other plans.
After the raw egg fortification he’d walk up behind her as she stood at the white enamel, gas stove that still had a cubby for burning wood, and twirl her to him. He’d grab her in dance stance, and lead her around the kitchen floor while singing, Arrivederci, Roma. She resisted every step.
“Stop it, Pe-tah” with her Italian accent, and words in a language we didn’t understand. He did not stop.
“Basta!” she’d call out.
For him it was not enough. Around and around the kitchen floor he waltzed her, his robe flaps flying, scappa shoes scraping against the linoleum floor to the sound of his singing and the smell of perking coffee until she could resist no longer.
To the backdrop of his song came her laughter. The prize. The forgiveness. The real break of day.
Her steely silence ruptured, she’d smile and laugh with a knowing resignation that married life doesn’t always present exactly the way one might like. She lacked the will to carry on angrily.
Though Peter lived into his mid-80s, Fanny did not. By 70 she was gone. Four years older than I am now. Did she know what was to come and committed to using her time wisely, with love? I don’t know.
Around and around they go in her fragrant kitchen, to the sound of his slippers and her sweet laughter, his plea for forgiveness in the notes of Arrivederci, Roma, Fanny and “Pe-tah” dance forever in my memory. In my rear view mirror.
When I was 18 I dated a quiet, partly-nerdy, ever thoughtful, really bright guy. He read a lot.
He had a shock of red hair.
Later I found out he had red pubic hair, too, natch, when he visited our family home from out-of-state. My brother followed his shower in the white shower/tub combo and immediately reported, as only a 15-year-old little brother can, “His pubes are orange!”
It was a moment. But I digress.
Anyway, there was a time when within the context of a conversation long forgotten, the red-headed wonder uttered the words, “Situation ethics are like no ethics at all,’ with stony faced seriousness.
An 18-year-old boy-man said those words. Who says that? At that age? At any age.
In the rear view mirror it seems as impossibly outlandish now as it did at the time. Only for different reasons.
Because I was not nearly mature enough to hear that kind of wisdom and probably never had pondered the word ‘ethics’, I immediately reported his statement to my best friend with the closest impersonation of his oh-so-serious voice I could muster. We laughed uproariously restating the phrase often especially before embarking on any kind of shenanigan.
Close to 40 years later I reconnected with my barely-red and mostly-gray high school love. (Facebook, you’re a wonder. But I digress. Again.) I asked if he remembered.
Of course he didn’t, those days long left behind and buried under adult responsibilities. He said, “It sounds pompous enough to have been me.”
He was 18. Pompous? Quite remarkable.
Now I measure nearly every important decision I make, political stand I take, essay I write, lesson I teach my grandson and will teach his infant brother, vote I cast, and weary self-evaluation at the end of a day, by those words.
And I think a country fractured by identity politics and hypocrisy mourns Senator John McCain precisely because he practiced ethical congruency with a rigour most don’t know exists let alone understand.
In the rear view mirror, ‘situation ethics is like no ethics at all’ comes into keen focus.
Filed under “Words to Live By.”
Thanks, Andy. (I made you a red-headed hair model, okay? Sorry, I digress.)
Our grandson, Grady, spent time with us recently. Sitting on the living room floor next to windows overlooking a lush canyon below, he was engrossed in his toy cars. They talked, he talked back, jet planes landed in their midst and the Elmo phone babbled. As I padded silently barefoot behind him I said. “It’s just me, Grady,” so I wouldn’t startle him.
It was then I remembered a similar interaction with my dad toward the end of his life. I saw the episode play out in the rear view mirror.
After brain radiation there were numerous undesirable side effects. One was evident in Dad’s startle reflex; it became very sensitive. I could startle him even if he were looking right at me as I walked in a room. The knob turning, the sound of the door opening, the whoosh of air as one walked through might cause him to jump. Lost in his own world, emerging was sometimes a fright.
So I would say, “It’s just me, Dad,” in my most reassuring voice and settle my hands on his shoulders, trying to soften his landing into our world.
On this day, his voice strong and emphatic, he replied, “It’s never just you. Just as though it’s not someone special walking in. It’s you!” His crooked grin wide and satisfied. He’d made his point.
I knew as it happened I’d been given a gift. One that would last long after I lost him. An invaluable treasure I carefully wrapped and tucked in my heart.
From time to time I take it out and admire and touch it again, melt into my dad’s memory, and secret it back in its resting place, remembering it’s never just me. I’m special and so was he. Mostly we were special together.
I didn’t date very much in high school. Too nerdy. Spent more time with my best friend, working, shopping, listening to music, going to school. Day dreaming.
But there were occasions.
And on one such my mother stuffed a sawbuck in my pocket.
She said, “Never go on a date without money. Money means you don’t have to stay where you don’t want to be. Don’t have to rely on someone else. Don’t have to do what you don’t want. Leave.”
All these years later I always have a hidden Ben. And a credit card.
Because. It means I can leave.
Checking the rear view mirror I see Mom so serious about this. Where and how did she come to hold this so dearly? Given her generation and her Italian home with a mama who spoke broken English. Did Grandma Fanny do the same with her?
This morning’s baking adventure took me to a recipe, a flavor and texture, I haven’t experienced for years. Five for sure, because that’s how long Mom’s been gone, three before that because my folks were in assisted living, and probably three or four before that. When Mom declared she’d cook no more.
Her Meyer Lemon Mousse pie. Tangy to make your eyes water, smooth as my new grandson’s bum. Add a flaky crust and little dollop of sweetened whipped cream, a blackberry or blueberry garnish. Heaven. Silky heaven on a plate, served with a tart blink while taking in its beautiful, pale yellow hue.
I loved this pie and Mom would make it for my birthday and sometimes, just because.
It’s not hard to make but it’s a bit of a pain. A dozen juiced lemons. Meyers, of course, a cross between lemon and Mandarin orange. Two kinds of zests. The easy kind for the mousse and long curled threads for garnish.
A double boiler’s involved, constant stirring, an ice plunge and more stirring before folding in whipped cream. Then the pie hits the fridge for a nice little rest.
Not difficult. Not many ingredients. Time consuming. Plenty of clean-up. Doesn’t even include the pie dough flour and fuss.
As I was making it I was also noticing the mess in my wake — which I was okay with. Not normal for one with obsessive-compulsive personality traits. Messes not welcome.
Because it’s for my kids. Coming to dinner tonight. My kids. And after this mess will be the bigger one, fried chicken, followed by the chaos the kids bring. The noisy, loving chaos of diaper bags and baby bottles, crayons and toys, cell phones and keys, sweaters and shoes piled at the front door.
Mom must have felt that way, too. In the rear view mirror I see her standing at the stove stirring, wanting nary a lump to disrupt the velvety perfection of her lemon custard. Because it was for her daughter. She would want it just so. She would want to best her own record pie-baking prowess.
She would have made the pie not for pie prestige or baking kudos, or even a thank you but for my smile and the gleeful words, “Mom, my favorite pie!”
In truth all of her pies were my favorite pies.
A smile and a twinkle would have been her thanks.
In the rear view mirror I see I missed that. I smiled and I thanked but I missed her key ingredients. Love, joy, and the fun of creating a delicious, little surprise. All these she added. I missed appreciating those. Many times over.
I hope you knew, Mom, when we traveled our road together.
One night after a new boyfriend offered my father a floppy handshake, Dad had a talk with me about his handshake theory.
“Always offer a firm grip. Not a tight one. You aren’t arm wrestling. Just a firm one.” Then he demonstrated what he meant with a resolute clasp.
“You’re a female so men are apt to offer a softer hand. But you still grip firmly so they know you aren’t a pushover.”
In the rear view mirror this was a pretty enlightened stance for someone of his generation. Then again, his one daughter and two sons all took turns in the household rotation of dishes and lawn mowing. No one spared or given a gender specific task.
But I know he thought I’d be an English teacher, my first brother an engineer and my little brother a professional athlete.
Par for the 1950s course.
After we practiced a couple of solid handshakes Dad sealed his deal.
“A handshake is about character, not gender. Don’t offer a fish-hand even as a woman. Show ‘em what you’re made of.”
And that’s exactly what I do.
“If a man’s handshake is no good all the [legal] paper in the world won’t make it good.” ~ Mayor Richard J. Daley
In the rear view mirror the road traveled looks different. Bumps seem to disappear in the distance and become merely part of scenery left behind. Funny how in the moment a dip seemed to rattle the car, and me, significantly – only to be left behind as a dusty memory.
I try to stay in the moment, in my lane, eyes fixed on the road ahead. That’s where new experiences on this trip play out. But the truth is, there’s more road behind me than left in front and where I’ve been helps me put the where, whys and hows of my journey in perspective.
Sunday afternoon I remembered a funny thing my dad said years ago and needed to tell my brother. A little bit of nothing that had us laughing together in a shared moment of amusement.
I don’t take giggles for granted. Or the stories that spawn them. Especially not my brother.
Let’s face it, on the road some places are just worth revisiting. Linger in memory. For their lessons, blessings and anecdotes.