The empty chair at our kitchen table for four screams at me now as I set places for a weekend meal. My eldest son has officially settled nearly eight hours south in a dorm room with a mini-fridge and Keurig. The percolator perks. The bacon snaps in grease. The Italian tomato sauce he helped make and jar just a few short weeks ago simmers on the stove. But as I set the table for breakfast or dinner, it’s three places I make. I’ve already forgotten at least twice as I’ve grabbed four drinking glasses to fill.
The trip to the farmer’s market with my mother was far more deliberate this time. My reflexive ordering of specific measurements for meat and cheese was tempered with a more thoughtful consideration for how much and how to package. A pound and a half seemed wasteful now. Better stick with the pound this time. I’d need fewer left overs. I’d need less plates.
When we finally were granted facetime access with my new university child, I cringed at the caricature I’d become of the aging mother or annoying old aunt: “Are you eating right?” Never mind the check we cut this summer included membership to an exceptional food plan accessible with the swipe of a university card and honored at some local eateries too. Because the truth, really, is that my discomfort with not preparing meals for him is about me and my inability to love him in that intimate way handed down by my family culture. While I commuted to college and still enjoyed meals cooked by my mother’s hand, my child, now a grown man, would count on the sustenance provided by a trained army of full-time food professionals.
Love on a plate
Love was spoken in countless ways by those who nurtured my siblings and I, from hugs and kisses to stories read before bedtime. But mostly, the meals planned and prepared and served on tables topped with ill-matched glasses and mismatched utensils with the paper napkin holder in the center, were bedrock proof that someone really cared enough to make our favorite dish. When my Nanny died at the heartbreakingly too soon age of 69, I effortlessly lost twenty pounds, in mourning, I guess, of the loss of the love she scooped out on weekends.
My earliest memories of familial love are around meal tables teaming with the aroma of homecooked dishes orchestrated with the sounds of chattering siblings, scraping spoons and clanking glasses. My mother was a homemaker who spent her endless days managing the needs of four children and a single home: laundry, cleaning, shopping, homework, sibling squabbles, broken hearts, skinned knees. Above all there were the countless meals made carefully and deliberately multiple times a day. Even my father got into the act, having experience as a short-order cook in his youth. If Mom was somehow incapacitated at a meal time, Dad took over. For breakfast there were scrambled, over easy or hard-boiled eggs, pancakes, cream of wheat, or oatmeal and hot chocolate with real milk on the stove–even on school days. It was on a weekend morning that we might be more likely to have a bowl of cereal mesmerized by our Saturday television lineup.
Dinner featured salads with home-made Russian dressing (ketchup, mayo and relish whisked in a bowl) and baked chicken and real mashed potatoes and green beans with butter (and later margarine when it was in vogue). There might be homemade pizzas on Friday night or broiled London Broil or roasted beef with gravy on a Sunday. Even though Dad worked regularly as a crane operator and foreman in various ship yards and steel yards, we still sat together for most dinners as long as I can remember. There was spilled milk and dropped spoons and food pushed around the plate. There was conversation and sometimes consternation and even arguing some nights. But mostly, our evening meals were a cherished opportunity for us to connect at a table prepared with care and love.
While my siblings and I had different interests and conflicting schedules as we grew (my sister and I were ten years apart), there was always certainty that Mom would be preparing something, anything to enjoy most evenings, even if it was an hour later cooled on the stove or before bed, eaten with a spoon cold from the fridge. I remember distinctly the anticipation my future husband and I felt after a long road trip, salivating for the beef stew that was promised when we returned. And then, the crushing disappointment when my mom accidently dropped a glass that shattered over the meal, essentially committing the simmering pot of joy to the garbage pail. Mom cried.
When we weren’t being treated with Jell-O pudding cooked on the stove and cooled in glass bowls in the fridge, or box cakes frosted carefully with sprinkles or nestle chocolate chip cookies warm on a plate at home, we knew that our Italian Nanny’s house promised even more goodies in spades. Here too we would find warm pots of tomato sauce dancing on a blue flame next to mounds of Italian rolls ready for submersion. There were freshly made meatballs formed with bread and milk and Italian spices and corn meal polenta baked with mozzarella cheese bubbling on top. There was roasted chicken in white wine and vegetables, fresh salads drowning in oil and vinegar and sometimes an Italian rum cake for good measure. Her husband was a bar owner, so her kitchen wall was lined with shelves featuring the darkened hues of chianti and aperitif bottles of golden brown. Her house always smelled like her Este Lauder perfume and something warm and earthy and ready to serve.
Even when we periodically ventured into the southwest part of the city to visit our other grandmother, we knew there would be something special to fill our bellies. Standing in wood shavings scattered on the floor in the Jewish butcher shop at the corner, we’d salivate while our grandmother detailed her list of frankfurters and specific cuts of beef. We’d help her carry the chicken salad and jarred pickles and creamy rice pudding with plump sweet raisins ordered for our lunch visit. Once home, I’d salivate while she carefully arranged the selections in cracked bowls nearly as old as her. I loved sitting at her tiny round kitchen table listening to her sweet laugh as the sun struggled to reach the windows between two houses on the alley. Mom and Grand mom and I would pile the luncheon salads on freshly seeded rye or onion rolls with tomato from pops garden and drink her sun brewed ice tea from the fridge. Then we’d scoop the tasty dessert pudding into tiny bowls and fill our tea spoons half way with the rice and plump glistening fruit to ensure it lasted as long as possible.
Love the next generation
When I married my husband, it was with the knowledge that he too worked as a boy in food service, shucking clams and doing pre-prep for the Italian American Club in his neighborhood. An immigrant himself, he was raised in a household with a city garden and annual jarring. While both his parents worked to survive in their new country, their meals were made with the traditions brought over an ocean. It was love at first dinner of his petite mother scooping lentils and potatoes into more cracked bowls. And when we back packed through Europe upon University graduation, our visits to his family in Abruzzo featured food love I’ll never forget.
My son has only been gone one week and I am already planning his next meal home. My husband and I are thrilled to know that he’s found a dorm mate that brought his own espresso machine and is willing to share morning shots. The new building my son was luckily assigned boasts a shiny new fully appointed kitchen on every floor, and my husband and I have already started putting a plan in place for a family food festival this winter to treat the 24 dormmates to a real Italian meal cooked fresh on the third floor. We were thrilled when our youngest son invited his best friend for a sleep over on Saturday. We were able to cook the entire pound of pasta and had only one small piece of chicken cutlet left over in the morning.
Our need to show our love with hand crafted food will continue from afar (my mom and I will be baking banana and pumpkin bread next weekend for an overnight care package shipment) and we’ll relish in the opportunities to fill that extra chair when we can. In the meantime, my slim boy may actually gain weight I hear as a newly appointed freshman. It won’t be for lack of long distance trying on my part.