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 rearview mirror.