I don’t remember when I wrote this story, but it’s been at least ten years, I’d say. I sent it to a number of journals, including ethnic and food-related ones, but it was rejected. It’s a story about nostalgia, about slowing down to appreciate the good things in life before they are gone, including the people in our lives. It’s also about an Italian American family and what else? Food.
The Dough Rises
Grandma covered the balls of dough with a tablecloth to let them set.
She washed her doughy, floured hands in warm water. Linda watched her dry them on a red and white-checkered dishtowel.
“It’s all done. OK. I put this here and then I’ll get this.” Grandma talked to herself as she patted the dough and put the towel aside. Nothing new to Linda. Grandma talked to herself all the time. Or objects nearby. Or TV personalities.
The teapot whistled.
“You gotta wait,” she answered it.
She put the doughy bowl and other utensils in the sink. Then she poured herself a cup of tea. “I need something sweet,” she said.
Linda was standing behind her at the stove, waiting for her to move. She wanted to get to the microwave and cook her frozen lasagna for lunch. She brushed behind Grandma, who asked, “Where you wanna go?”
Linda said, “I just need to get to the microwave.”
“Oh,” she said, moving over to let Linda by. “What are you cooking?” she demanded.
“Lasagna,” Linda answered.
“Lasagna in the box. That shit,” Grandma said.
“Well, it’s quick,” Linda said. “Besides, I’m eating light, you know.” Linda lifted the plastic cover off the lasagna and popped it into the microwave.
“Yeah, I know. Everybody’s on a diet. Your mother too.”
“Mm. Last week she was on that soup diet you told her about, wasn’t she?”
Grandma’s eyes widened. She nodded. “Yeah, she didn’t eat anything I cooked.”
“Well, she’s always running in and out of the house with her work and all,” Linda said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Grandma said, waving her hand. “Everybody runs.”
“Is she still on it?”
“The soup diet.”
“No. She said it makes her sick. But I like it. The cabbage and the tomato. I put in a little olive oil. It lasts for days. It’s the best diet.”
“Did you lose weight on it?” Linda asked.
Grandma shrugged and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Hey, not much. I ate the soup and whatever else I wanted.”
Grandma laughed. Linda laughed.
“You’re crazy, Grandma,” Linda said.
“Yeah, crazy. You gonna eat calzones?” she asked.
“Uh, I don’t know. They’re awful fattening. Maybe I’ll have a bite. I gotta pick the kids up, and I was gonna meet Donnie for dinner, but maybe we’ll come over here.” Because her aunt was working late, Linda had to pick her cousins up from school. She had to take Enzo to soccer practice, and Maddy had to go shopping for art supplies for a class project. That would take all afternoon. Then, she was supposed to meet her boyfriend, Donnie, to go out for dinner. They had planned this dinner a week ago, but Linda had been too busy.
“A bite? You better eat one. I spent all day with this here.” She pointed to the dough. “And my leg hurts, too, standing there all day.”
“Yeah, I’ll eat one,” Linda said. She resented the fact that Grandma made this food when she was trying to cut down. It tasted so good though. “Did you take your pill?” she asked.
“The one for your leg.”
Grandma shrugged. “Hey, if I take it, if I don’t take it, what’s the difference? It never helps. I gotta cut the prosciutto, and I wanted you to go to the store for me.”
Linda looked up. She really was too busy to go to the store. “What do you need?”
“I need some reegut,” Grandma said. “Your father didn’t buy enough. I says to him, ‘Bob, this is all you bought?’ He says, ‘How much you need?’ I says, ‘More than this.’ He told me he’d get it later, but then he had to go to work. I says somebody’s gotta go to the store for me. I can’t go. If I could walk, I’d go myself.”
Linda wanted to defend her father—to tell Grandma he wasn’t cheap on purpose. He just never had two pennies to rub together. Momma and Dad have it much harder than Grandma ever did, Linda thought. Supporting the whole family and putting me through school, I think Dad has other worries besides how much ricotta goes into calzones.
Grandma laughed to herself. Linda looked over at her. “What’s so funny?”
Grandma shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Well, I was just thinking about your grandfather.”
“Oh,” Linda said, not sure what to say. Poppy had been dead for a long time and it seemed difficult for Grandma to talk about him.
“Just your grandfather used to make calzones on the weekend for the kids, ya know. We shopped at the outdoor market on Saturday morning. We’d get the meat and the cheese together.”
“I’ll get the cheese,” Linda said, feeling guilty.
The microwave beeped.
“Oh, the thing is done,” Grandma said. “Beep, it says.”
Linda took out the lasagna and put it on the table in its paper container.
“Don’t you put it in a plate?” Grandma asked.
“Nah, it’s quicker to eat it like this,” Linda said.
“Oh, everything’s gotta be quick today. You and your mother. Yous never sit,” she said.
Linda ate her lasagna. She could smell Grandma’s chamomile tea. It nauseated her.
She thought she might say something to Grandma, but she figured she wouldn’t understand. The world was different today. Women had to work. There was no time to cook, especially not the traditional elaborate meals her grandmother made.
When she finished eating her lasagna, Linda rinsed out the container and put it in the recycling bag.
As she left to do her errands, she saw Grandma sitting at the table reading coupons in the newspaper. Her grandmother sat, drinking her chamomile tea, waiting for the dough to rise.
At a quarter to six, Linda shuffled into the house with the kids behind her. She smelled frying oil. It smelled so good that she wondered if she could get calories from absorbing smells.
“I got the reegut,” she said, plopping the container onto the kitchen counter.
She had bought one container.
Grandma said, “Like father, like daughter. Cheap, cheap.”
Maddy said, “I have to do my model.”
Linda surveyed the table. It was covered with the piles of dough.
“Why don’t you use the table in the cellar?” she told her.
Maddy said OK. She squeezed herself out of her pink backpack and ran to the cellar door. “Enzo,” she said, “why don’t you do it with me?”
“What do you have to make, Maddy? I’ve got my own homework to do,” Enzo said, pulling off his backpack and looking for a place to put it. He slid it onto one of the kitchen chairs.
“Why don’t yous both go downstairs and do your homework?” Linda suggested. “It’s quiet down there.”
“But I need help with my model,” Maddy said.
“What do you have to do, again?” Linda asked.
“A cell,” Maddy said. “It’s gotta have the different parts of a cell.”
“Oh, OK. Well, I’ll be down in a little while to help you,” Linda said, taking papers out of her briefcase. She was in the second year of the MBA program and had enough to read herself tonight without having to work on a model with her little cousin.
Sitting down at the table, she picked up the phone and dialed Donnie’s number. “Hey,” she said when he answered. “What are you doing?”
Donnie said, “I just got in.”
“You wanna come over? My grandmother made calzones. She wants you to come.”
“I thought we were going out.”
“Yeah, I know,” Linda whispered into the receiver. “But she made this and now I feel obligated to eat it.”
“All right. I’ll be there in a little while. I miss you.”
Linda smiled and said, “I miss you too.”
Grandma took out the big yellow and green bowl that had been her mother’s. She put the chopped prosciutto, mozzarella and parmesan into it. Opening the ricotta container, she sliced the thin plastic covering with a knife. With a spoon, she scooped it out and put it into the bowl.
Linda watched her mix it with the big wooden spoon. It was six o’clock, and she was hungry. She usually ate earlier.
Enzo came upstairs. His eyes searched the room like he was looking for something.
“What’s a matter, Enzie?” Linda asked.
“Are we gonna eat soon?”
Grandma answered, “Yeah, yeah. Very soon. I’m putting them in now.”
“We’ll eat in a little while. I’ll be down in a minute to help your sister.”
“Is Momma home?” Linda asked.
“Yeah, your mother’s upstairs. She just got in a little while before you did. She said she went to take a shower. How many showers does she take? She gets up in the morning, takes a shower. She comes home at night, takes a shower. Too much showering makes your skin look wrinkled,” Grandma said, filling the dough with the cheesy mixture.
“Well, she works and gets dirty, I guess,” Linda said. Her mother worked at a T-shirt factory long hours. I think she’s entitled to showers, Linda thought. She knew that the blue-collar working class life wasn’t for her. Her mother knew it too. That’s why Linda was working on her MBA. She was the first grandchild to graduate from college. Next, she’d be the first with a master’s degree. Things sure had changed for the women in the family, Linda thought. First her grandmother, the housewife and mother. Then her mother, the breadwinner. Then herself, the professional.
“I wonder where’s your brother,” Grandma said.
“Oh, he’s probably over at Charlie’s,” Linda said.
“Mm. I hope he comes home. I got all this here,” Grandma said, pointing to the calzones.
Linda stood up to bring her briefcase into her bedroom. Grandma took a calzone and placed it into the frying pan. She waited for it to brown.
Donnie arrived at a quarter to seven. Linda was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a calzone. Looking up at him, she pulled the cheese from her mouth. “Hey, sit down,” she said, motioning to him with her hand. “Have a calzone.”
“Yeah, Don, have a calzone. I got so many of them here,” Grandma said.
“Thanks, Grandma. I’ll have one. I love these things. I haven’t had one in so long since my grandmother–” Donnie said, cutting it short after Linda shot him a look. He hadn’t had calzones since his grandmother died. He washed his hands at the sink and dried them on a paper towel. He grabbed a calzone off the platter and put it on his plate.
Donnie had been Linda’s boyfriend since high school. He had wanted to get married but she hadn’t. I need to get my degree first, she had told him. Really, Linda wasn’t sure she wanted to marry him. After going to college, she met men who were more intelligent and sophisticated. They could talk about books and plays as well as sports and cars. But she was comfortable with Donnie. He was familiar to her and she did love him.
“Where’s Tommy?” Donnie asked.
“I don’t know. Probably at Charlie’s,” Linda answered.
“Yeah, well. I gotta tell him I got the Giants tickets. I think we’re going this weekend,” Donnie said.
“What do you mean ‘I think we’re going’? Didn’t you buy the tickets?” Linda asked.
“Yeah. So we’re going,” Donnie said, biting a chunk of calzone. Little crumbs of crust fell from his mouth onto the plate. “Kids downstairs?”
Linda nodded. “Yeah, they’re eating down there. Maddy’s got a project to do, and Enzo’s helping her.”
Donnie nodded. “What she gotta do?”
“A model of a cell,” Linda said. Donnie didn’t answer.
“I gotta fix Tim’s bike tonight,” Donnie said, between mouthfuls. “We should go out tomorrow—go to a movie or something. I hardly see you anymore.”
Linda shook her head. “I can’t. I’ve got so much work to do. I told you I wouldn’t be able to.”
Donnie sighed and nodded.
“It has to be this way for awhile,” Linda said, looking up.
Her mother, Suzie, came into the kitchen, wearing a blue robe. “Ma, what did you make here?”
“I made calzones,” Grandma said.
“For who? For you. For everybody. Who I make them for? Myself?”
“Yeah, but I’m on a diet. I don’t eat this stuff,” Suzie said. She took a calzone and bit into it. “Mmm. This is delicious,” she said with a mouthful. “You made enough for an army. Who were you expecting?”
“You. And the kids,” Grandma said, shrugging.
“Since when do we eat this much?” Suzie asked. Sitting down, she asked, “Donnie, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Restivo. How are you?”
“Eh, I’m here,” Suzie said. “Where’s your brother? At Charlie’s?”
“I guess,” Linda said.
“Don’t that kid ever come home anymore? What does Charlie have over there?” Suzie asked.
“He’s got cable,” Linda answered.
“Oh, cable,” Suzie said, sighing.
“Did you see my husband today?” Suzie asked her mother.
“Yeah, he bought me the reegut, but he didn’t buy enough. I told Linda, ‘Your father’s cheap.’ But he went to work,” Grandma said. She turned around from the stove, rubbing her leg. “I gotta sit. My leg hurts.”
Suzie got up and helped her to the table. “What’s a matter, Ma?”
“I don’t know. My leg. I need my pill,” Grandma said.
“Lin, go get her pills,” Suzie said.
Linda got up and went into Grandma’s bedroom. On the nightstand next to her bed, there were some pill bottles, a sleeping cap, a clock radio, a pair of rosary beads, and a picture of Poppy in his Marine uniform. The pills weren’t up there, so Linda looked on Grandma’s dresser. There were some pill bottles next to her perfume bottles. She found the right pills, took them, but paused to look at an old photo of Grandma and Poppy at a picnic. They were both so young. Poppy had his arm around Grandma’s waist. They were both squinting from the sun. Poppy wore an undershirt, and he had a cigarette in one hand. They were both smiling. Faintly, Linda could see the picnic table in the background. She could make out a bottle of wine. They looked so happy in that picture. A simple picnic, a sunny day, Linda thought.
“Did you find them?” Suzie called.
Linda yelled back, “Yeah.”
After Donnie left to fix his friend’s motorcycle, Linda drove the kids to her aunt’s house.
When she got back, her mother was shutting off the TV in the living room. “I gotta go to bed,” she said. “I gotta get up early tomorrow and sew some shit shirts.” She kissed Linda on the cheek.
“Good night, Momma,” Linda said.
“Good night, honey. You got a lot of stuff to read?” Suzie asked.
“Yeah, more than enough,” Linda said.
“Linnie, you know I’m proud of you,” Suzie said, holding her daughter’s cheeks.
“I know,” Linda said.
Suzie looked at her daughter’s face. “It’s Donnie, isn’t it? You love him? I know you love him.”
Linda smiled and nodded.
“Donnie’s a good kid, but … I loved your father too. But it’s been nothing but a struggle since we’ve been married. You just can’t raise a family like you used to be able to. But you have plenty of time and a good head on your shoulders. Things are gonna be different for you, Lin. Get rid of that Donnie, and you’ll be all right,” Suzie said, her hand resting on Linda’s shoulder. Her mother had never liked the idea of her dating Donnie. She felt he wasn’t on Linda’s “level.” Her mother had said many times, “He’s a nice boy for now.”
When Linda walked in the kitchen, she put the teapot on to boil some water. She needed plenty of coffee if she was going to get all this reading done tonight.
Grandma was washing dishes.
“Grandma, you can leave them. I’ll do it,” she said, even though she didn’t have time to wash dishes.
“No, it’s OK. What have I got to do anyway?” Grandma said.
Linda got down a Statue of Liberty mug. She opened the jar of instant coffee and spooned some into the mug. When the water boiled, she poured some into the mug and went upstairs to read.
An hour later, she came down for a refill. Surprisingly, the lights were out except for the small light above the stove that they used as a nightlight. Linda could see its glow as she walked through the living room. She heard someone shuffling and then heard Grandma speak. Peering her head through the doorway, she saw Grandma sitting at the table, her back to Linda. Usually, Grandma had the TV on and talked back to the late night talk show hosts. But not tonight. Her work was done. She had made the calzones, fed the family, washed the dishes and now had time for a calzone herself. Now she sat eating one alone.
“You always liked them. Remember when we’d make them for the kids? Then we’d take the kids to the park. It was a nice time, Joey. It was a nice time.”
Without refilling her coffee cup, Linda turned and walked back upstairs.