So many of my ancient order have passed on, not from the Covid, but from the life. I have received their spirts and by receiving them I am gifted by their hopes, and this now, for too many years. Grief begets mourning and mourning has its watershed, and when a man traverses the crest, he enters into a landscape of joy. It is all so slightly out of view and time must be taken to take the panoramic look, simply to reconnoitre what love has bestowed, so richly, upon his family. Only then will he feel the breezes of legacy and understand the whispers of a practice-wisdom so gently given, that it urges to be heard. Some hear it. Some do not. It is simply a question of what to listen for. There are a thousand reasons not to. Still? The breezes of legacy are eternal and find odd ways to be made manifest. It is a sky-dance called learning.
It came to pass, out of the proverbial blue, that our son, he was sentimental. He heard the wind somehow, not from anything his mother and father said, but because of how his grandparents lived. He announced he wanted to learn how to make the sauce the way Nonna and Nonno made it, with the “big pot” and the burner and the macchina. He was no longer content with the jars his mother and father lovingly sent home with he and his wife. He needed to create the thing, at the source.
My wife, looked at me and sighed with mock-resolve. I heard the same legacy-wind two years ago and, after all; we only had six jars of sauce left in the cantina. “It is a lot of work,” she said which, in the dialect of marital-squabble, translates as: the empty jars are stowed away in the crawlspace; they will need to be boiled clean in the dishwasher; the “big pot” is in the yard barn and there are spider webs in it; it will need to be cleaned; we are out of salt.
Like a fool, I myself, had the doubts. I did not know if the burner connection still had integrity. We needed another tank of propane. Yes, we had over a thousand vin bon pails, but did we have any clean ones? My wife, she rolled her eyes, meaning: my husband, he will not let the thing go. He is a testadura. He wants to make the sauce. I interpreted the eye rolls in the language of her father: You say you know, but you do not know. At that point, I realized I had committed to the thing and had best take the lead on production. Put up or shut up is what we say in the Inglese.
It was late August and Covid 1 offered her small moratorium, before the cold days of the onset of Covid 2. I heard her threat in the wind, too, but it was a different wind, filled with all the usual Blue Demons that populate this earth. To heck with it, I said, sounding all the world like my father-in-law, the Old Contadino. When a young man wants to learn, he is ready to be taught.
I felt an urgency and with that urgency, unsavoury pangs of jealousy. Men and women on the block already began and completed their legacies, with cars along the road, and a thousand relatives assigned tasks. I watched them all move with deliberation, saw how inviting the garages looked, took in the red, gleamy winks of bushels, beheld the steamy billow of boiling water in ripe air, and I was seduced. I took it on faith the burner connection would work, and I filled up the propane tank. Word was sent to our son and our daughter. The date to make the sauce was set. A Saturday, rain or shine, in Covid times. Thou shalt attend was the decree and the children, they were happy. I consulted with a friend whose father is Calabrese. I forgot how many jars a bushel makes. I trusted his opinion. My people, they are Molisani, so I make it the way my mother-in-law makes it with a little Inglese Butterfly Effect thrown into the method.
By the start of September, I continued to see households around me celebrate their legacies. My urgency returned. I began to look at the tomatoes the way my father-in-law does, but I had to rush the method. The farm just off the highway was overgrown with condos. The Sicilian man with land under the power lines, sold off. In the stores, I did not like the boxes. The tomatoes arrived in dribs and drabs and, when they arrived, they were flocked over by serious-looking ancient women who picked at them to make their boxes more convex. It was unbecoming to watch. Perhaps my anger was misplaced by the basil plants that disappeared last week. It was hard to know.
My wife and I, we went to the farm country in the north, to a market garden on the Airport Road. Not that I would know, but the farm was a small quarter of heaven. The tomatoes were in bushels. They were not socially distanced but generously filled. We came out of paradise with four heavy-weights of Roma’s, five pots of basil, too many apples, the mother of zucchini, and a rhubarb pie that reminded me of my father. We were happy. By now the jars were sterilized and all apparatus cleaned. By an act of Providence, the tomato machine worked and the burner did not blow us to Kingdom Come.
There is no sight more beautiful than tomatoes laid out on newspaper over old sheets in the garage. When our son and our daughter-in-law arrived, we stood at the front and looked down upon our yield. I told them what Nonno told me: It is the instruction, not the education. To learn how to make a thing is to do it. Next, I told them what I believe: That all of life is an opera and all of opera is about the life. We beheld the ripe audience before us, orderly, row after row, and spread our arms wide open, as if in song. My son, he noted that not a single tomato in the audience had a cell phone, nor were they social distancing. My daughter countered that they were all wearing masks. My wife, she laughed and rolled her eyes again, and I knew in her dialect, she said – how do you say? – The buffone does not fall far from the tree. I shrugged my shoulders.
Mockery aside, we took nothing for granted, that Covid Saturday. An engineer by Italian nature, my wife, she set up stations and we all took turns in the distance we allowed. I started the burner and together we lifted the pot of water. Our son and our daughter-in-law washed the Roma at the washing station. Our daughter and her beau cut the tomatoes into quarters at the cutting station. I showed them how to remove the cores and cut out what I call the Malvolio and I told them Malvolio lives next door to Pinocchio. We took turns, at intervals, on the machine. We collected the skins for a separate pressing. (We waste nothing, or so, my south-central spirits reminded me.) My wife, she rotated stations and, like women of the ancient order, was everywhere the work was.
Somehow, in the unspoken spell that wives cast upon husbands, she left the impression that I was in charge. Knowing this, I took myself to the filling station and jar upon jar, placed a sprig of basil and a pinch of salt. We wanted our children to experience the thing and be instructed on each micro-step. The jars sat in the boiling water at regular intervals and my son, like his nonno before him, fashioned a Mason jar remover out of a coat hangar. I told him when Nonno did not have a tool he needed, he made one to perform the duty required. My son, he was happy.
There were cars in the driveway and on the road. Dogs barked. Friends stopped by and the neighbours came over to say hello. We sent everyone away with jars that had cooled, under strict oath to return them. (If you bring back the containers, I will give you more, was Nonna’s legacy on it.) At the mid point and at the intuition of my wife, I was put in charge of bringing out the food. Timeless prosciutto and provolone and picante calabrese salami, on chewy pane, with black olives, Asiago cheese, the acqua and red vino from the Abruzzi. My wife, she said the only reason she married me was because I can cook. I tell you it is not true.
Every jar we had was boiled and placed upside down on newspaper to set overnight. It was a good year for tomatoes, but we ran out of jars. We sent our daughter out on a mission to find more and she returned with the last dozen in Covid times.
It was then that we realized how the legacy, whispered so silently, swept along sweet breezes of Providence. A half a pail of sauce remained, along with a full pail of squeezings, meant to be separated from the main batch. Our daughter-in-law, she said she had jars at home. We sealed both pails and shared a Covid kiss, which is nothing but air, really. Together, newly-minted, they departed for home to fill the jars and boil them the next day, on their own, with only the voice of Nonna and Nonno whispering in their spirit.
Our daughter, she left with her beau and I felt like a carabiniere seeing them off. We plied them with sauce for his family, the last of the rhubarb pie and, when she saw the monster zucchini on the counter, asked if I would show her how to make Nonna’s zucchini zuppa with the celery and potato and egg in it.
On the seventh day, my wife and I, we rested. We were happy, although, I confess, I was unbecoming. In the light of the afternoon, as we cleaned the pots and everything else, I listened intensely, longed for a real kiss, smirked at Blue Demons and told Covid to go to hell in a bushel basket. The Old Contadino, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered: “tu sei un uomo ricco.”
Glenn Carley is a regular contributor to Accenti. His latest book is Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera (Guernica 2021).