Beans were on offer, day after day. Only the white beans of Tuscany. If you didn’t eat them, you went hungry. It became too much for my Nonna, my grandmother, then a young and excitable girl who wanted something else, anything else. Bring on death, she announced, turning her bowl over on the table, refusing another ladle’s full of thick pasta e fagioli. Later that night an uncle, a favorite uncle with a dark beard, snuck into the house. He came through the kitchen door like a breeze in a flat cloth cap, bringing his small niece a secret egg. A precious item, rare in those days of pain and want. I dream that he wriggled loose a nail from a rich man’s coop and slid it, still warm, into his coat pocket. He put a finger to his lips when he gave the little girl her egg. She poked a hole in the bottom with her thumbnail and sucked out the insides. Raw.
[Photo: Small Piazza with Olive Tree in Bientina, the town where my grandmother grew up. Credit: Nina MacLaughlin aka the Carpentrix 2014.]
I cooked nothing for two days. I tore through cold, old pizza with my teeth or warmed up aging soup. I spent 26 hours – ten each Monday and Tuesday and six on Wednesday – scouring my computer. I went through badly labeled old files and folders, searching for half-edited versions of blog posts from the last two years. I accidentally deleted my tumblr account on Sunday night. I was doing too many things at once. I wasn’t paying attention and I clicked one too many times before the hot panic in my toes told me I’d gone too far. I typed eatdrinkdie.tumblr.com into the white of the URL hole and a huge colorful screen passed me a clear message. The work I’d done no longer exists. The stories I told were gone. Tears welled up in my eyes when I understood the damage I’d done was permanent. What I’d lost wasn’t coming back. The world I created had died and I killed it. I wasn’t deleted, but rather I deleted myself. I spent the next three days searching, capturing bits of this and scraps of that, photos and text, to revive my blog, to breathe old air into it and make new life. Like cleaning out the fridge and throwing together anything, old wilting lettuce and wobbly rubber celery to make a meal, to stretch things beyond their own limits, ignoring the mold and slime. Sometimes it works and sometimes you go too far and end up with something terrible, beyond endurance. Sometimes you make yourself sick. I lost nearly 70 pieces of original writing. What my blog was it is no longer. I have no followers and I follow no one. What was lush now feels thin and squalid. Images of my family and myself I’d created through anguish and sorrow were gone. Dreams and hopes turned like ash to the wind. I remember what they felt like, some of those pieces drifting up in the air over the oceans and jungles and mountains, in outer space. I remember sentences and sensations, some that drove me to tears and made me wonder where they’d come from. They no longer exist. I poured myself a whiskey and rattled with anger. I looked for someone to blame. I reached out to friends who might understand. I held hands with Nina and moved through the rises and falls that feel very much like grief.
[Painting: Death and the Maiden by Austrian painter Egon Schiele, 1915]
Romolo punched my grandfather in the face at the dinner table. I wasn’t there. It happened before I was born, but I often wonder why his brother-in-law stood up and socked my Nonno, knocking him out cold, surrounded by family. My mother never tells me what my grandfather said, but I can imagine he was breaking Romolo’s balls. He found a soft spot, some sensitive topic, and went right for it with his dirty scalpel. He liked to pick away at the soft parts. Usually it was all for laughs, with the ball-busted taking his pain with good humor, full in the knowledge that his time would come to be the ball-buster. But now and then tempers frayed and fires rose. Fists flew. It was the ultimate victory for the ball-buster when someone lost their cool, but it came at a cost – a bloody nose or a swollen eye.
[Painting: Brawling Peasants in the Tavern by Adriaen Brouwer, 1635]
My neighbor loves his flowers and the season that brings them. He’s in his eighties. We don’t see much of him in winter aside from when he blows the snow from his narrow driveway, covered in vibrant skiwear, pelting our wall and windows. I expect to see him soon, though, shuffling around the edges of his small yard, hands locked behind his back. He’ll uncover the areas he’s wrapped and caged, protected with wood and tape against the winter winds. He moves slower every year. He’s sick. His wife, Flora, has to help him. She calls out his name, worriedly, more and more. She frets. He has problems with his lungs, the kind that don’t get better. But when I see the tiny blue wild flowers pushing through the snow, when I dare to ponder the awakenings of Springtime, I think of this neighbor and how we might share figs with him once more, and how he gives Nina tools he no longer uses. How he asks us to water his flowers when he goes away. How he’s also gruff. He hasn’t many seasons left because you only get so many and he’s already had a lot. He says the things old and sick people say, like: every day is a gift, and he seems to mean them. Once, when small child neighbors made a terrible racket, he said something that will live forever in my heart, and hopefully even light the way for me. The sound of young people having fun. He said it out loud, and he smiled into his summer drink.
[Painting: Bulb Fields by Vincent Van Gogh, 1883]
Homemade pasta is for special occasions. For celebrations. My grandparents thought the same. We celebrate different things now – book deals instead of christenings and saint days – but the pasta is the same. I roll out yellow sheets and see my hand’s shadow behind the curtain of dough. I prepare for a celebration through centuries, with friends who’ve been dead for years, with men and women I’ve never met. Their bones have turned to dust and so have the tables where they ate and drank. When making long noodles, like linguine, the dough can become brittle. It can break. My grandfather’s cellar was often in chaos, pasta sheets strung over broom handles like laundry. He let the sheets dry before cutting them to shape. The last time I made pasta, I cut the noodles right away and kept them piled in serving-size nests, fluffing them every so often with flour in my hand. When they hit the roiling water, they came back to life. None broke. The nests spread out like blooming flowers or opening fists. I tossed them in butter and cheese, with a little of the salted water, and black pepper. We celebrated a birthday.
[Photo: Nina’s Birthday Pasta by Nina MacLaughlin, 2014]
There’s a ritual to feeding the fish. We’ve had a few: Mortimer, a magnificent and beautiful creature of gliding red. He could freeze stock-still in the middle of the bowl, suspended in time and space. Winston and Solomon Pico were less memorable. The fish we have now is called Hey Jude. He’s blue and swims like a big bird soars. If not for his small bowl, I’m sure he could drift for miles on one flap of his fluffy fins. Seven o’clock, or as near as we can manage, one of us clicks on the overhead light in the living room, slowly turning the dimmer switch to its brightest setting. Hey Jude knows what it means. Time for dinner. I pull out the drawer and remove a yellow canister of food. He goes wild, flaps and spins. He knows what it all means. Is it just the biological fact of food for the day, surviving a little longer? Or does he feel like I feel about ribs or Nina’s roast chicken? I talk to him: I ask if he’s hungry. How he’s been today and I sprinkle the tiniest pinch of yellow-red flakes on the surface of his home. He rises to the top, closing in on a flake. Snap. He snatches a gulp of food and air and water. I sit over him for two or three bites, turning the light from bright to dim and, finally, to off.
[Image 1: Example of Gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish printing, originally used by fishermen to record the size and types of their catches.]