I remember as if it were yesterday, when I would stop in to see Mom and Dad after work. They would have already eaten a full meal by noon – some bread and cheese, a pasta dish, meat and salad, a glass of wine. Every day. Every day except holidays. On those days, there’d be much more of a feast.
Mom often wished she could just skip a day of cooking; Dad wouldn’t have it any other way. Mom complained that Dad would sit cross-legged and be tapping to the beat of the clock until it struck twelve.
“He doesn’t lift a finger to help with the cooking but he’s the first to sit at the table,” she’d say.
I’d laugh. “That’s not true. Dad peels an apple for dessert and shares it, doesn’t he?”
She’d look at me straight in the eye, give me a surrendering shrug, and turn her back to continue with her kitchen chores.
This went on for many, many years. Without a doubt, nearly every day there would be some leftovers sitting on top of the kitchen stove. Lasagna, ravioli, rigatoni, spaghetti, cutlets, fish, chicken – anything that she had made for lunch. I could be sure that she’d have one or two covered plates set aside for any one of her kids or grandkids who happened to drop by.
“Did you eat? Vieni, mangia. Look at what I made today. Your father ate two plates. Come, sit, eat and then you go home.”
If we didn’t eat it right there and then, she’d send us home with a towel-wrapped kitchen plate filled with food of that day. We couldn’t say no. We’d take it without a fight. I think it made her happy.
“Portala a casa. Take it. You just have to make a salad or something and you don’t have to cook tonight. Here, here’s some fresh bread too.”
Sure enough, she was right. I’d bring the food home and all I had to do was set the table, and voila! “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!”
“Nonna makes the best pasta, Ma.”
Now, as the years have gone by, I realize how all those plates of food saved so much of my time and energy. But it probably zapped my mom’s.
My boys loved their grandmother, of course, but they didn’t like that we lived right next door to her. For obvious reasons. She’d watch over them like an overprotective hawk. She would worry if they came home from school ten minutes late; worry if they were playing with the neighborhood kids; worry if they weren’t dressed appropriately for the weather.
But they loved her food.
She’d make these plain Italian cookies using a coke glass as a cookie cutter. She could lure them in just with the smell of a freshly-baked “coke-glass” cookie. Before you knew it, she’d have them sitting at her kitchen table, pouring them glasses of milk, letting them eat all the coke-glass cookies they wanted, and, at the same time, keeping them out of harm’s way. Sneaky, yes, but it worked.
“Nonna’s cookies are the best, Ma!”
I didn’t realize it then. I took for granted her forceful way of giving me those plates of food. I didn’t understand that it was her way of showing her love. It was her way of giving us something. Her way of just making sure that she was a part of our lives and trying, in her simple way, to make it a little easier for us.
She did this until about a year ago. When she got to about ninety-ish, she kind of quietly stopped cooking. Because she was tired, aching, frail? Because of her fractured hip? Somehow, she decided it was time.
Dad was pretty upset that she had given up. We joked with him, telling him he was only upset because he would no longer be getting her delicious meals. I think he knew, deep inside, she was getting weaker, but he just couldn’t accept it.
She had waited on him since the day they married, and it was “normal” because that’s how their marriage worked. But, heck, she was fifteen when they married. Cooking for over 75 years for the same man, I think she deserved to dig in her heels and say “I’m tired. No more.”
Of course, now that Mom was on a permanent life strike, there were some adjustments to be made. The caregiver who comes daily does the basics around the house. She ensures that they don’t get hurt and helps Mom take a shower. She’s truly a blessing when it comes to their physical well being. But, God help her, she can’t heat up soup without some difficulty. So, imagine going from pretty delicious home-cooked meals to, well, not so delicious…
It was not only destabilizing for Dad but for all of us. It wasn’t at all about not getting that plate of food when we went over. Rather, now, it is what do we cook for them?
One rainy day before going to work, I made chicken soup and carefully wrote down step-by-step instructions on how to heat it up for the caregiver. I silently prayed that she would get it right today.
When I brought it over to them around 8:00 a.m., they were both up, sitting in the living room with RAI TV, the Italian channel, at full blast. They were happy to see me, but I could see it was going to be a long, lonely day ahead for them. I put the soup on the stove and told them to have it for lunch.
They didn’t say thank you but instead said, “E mo, che ti damo a te?” What can we give you now?
“Non voglio niente. Devo andare a scuola.” I don’t want anything. I have to go to school.
“Take something. Check in the fridge.”
“No, really, it’s okay. I have to go. There’s too much traffic on the highway. I can’t be late to teach my class.”
Mom tried to get up from the couch. Her arthritis is crippling her more and more. Oh, Mom, how did you get this way? My heart breaks.
Dad was standing in the hallway and made his way to the kitchen, rummaged in the fridge and brought me a beautiful red McIntosh apple. His favorite.
“Te. Guarda come è bella. Portatilo e mangiatilo a lavoro.” Here. Look how nice it is. Take it to work and eat it.
I gave him a hug as I took the apple from his hand. I teared up. Here was Dad offering me an apple. It reminded me of how Mom used to give me plates of food to take home. It reminded me that I should have been more grateful. It made me realise how the roles have been reversed. Dad’s gesture of giving me a simple apple is just as important as Mom’s home-cooked meals. And I knew that I would continue to bring them food. No questions asked.
Anna Mercuri Maiolo teaches English Literature in college. She is the mother of two sons and a proud grandmother of three. She lives in Montreal with her husband.