My mother lugs the 18 pound ham to the table, grunting. “I got it,” she says. “You sit, sit back down.”
“Ma, let me help you.”
“No no, I got it.” she heaves closer, “straighten out that mopine, I don’t want to ruin grandma’s good cloth.”
I smooth a dishtowel laid out on the center of the table, on the freshly ironed white damask, so she can park the steaming plate in its place of honor. It is gleaming with glaze, pink, decorated with pineapple slices in neat rows, and cheerful bright red cherries impaled on toothpicks, like bullseyes. “It looks dry,” she declares, her face aglow with sweat, her hair de-poofed by the steam and the arduous task of Christmas dinner.
She takes off the mitts, and sighs. “Let’s eat.”
There is no religion among us, we’ve not gone to church in years, we don’t pray or observe silences, we don’t give thanks or reflect. For a brief moment, during my nephew Eddie’s early adolescence, he attempted to read a Buddhist poem at the start of the holiday meal, after which we all mumbled a confused mumbled “Amen.” This practice did not catch on. Now, at twenty, he knows the family he’s got, he peers through his side swept bangs as we attack the food like a pack of heathen jackals. The potatoes are passed, and slabs of ham, with fancy brown mustard. Hunks of Italian bread, amply buttered, sop up red gravy, because of course there is lasagna, and baked manicotti, and a bowl brimming with meatballs. “Just in case,” Ma says. There are five of us, and enough food for fifteen, at least. She always cooks like it’s the end of the world.
Mid bite, she puts her fork down, “it’s cold in the middle.”
“It’s fine ma,” my sister assures her, but her face says that it is indeed cold in the middle.
“My mother was such a good cook,” Ma says, “I did not inherit one pinkie finger of her talent, frankly I find cooking such a friggin’ chore.”
“Why don’t we go to a restaurant,” I offer, for the tenth year in a row.
“And pay those prices? No thank you.”
“You wouldn’t be paying, you could just sit back and relax.”
“What a spaccone you are with the money, always spending.”
“So what, what’s it for?”
“No restaurant on the holiday,” she says firmly. And it’s settled, again.
“But this ham is terrible.”
“It is kinda salty,” my sister Marie acknowledges.
“I think it’s delicious!” says my brother-in-law Jack, who is always cheery, always with a big smile on his face, which means he’s either extremely serene, or some kind of a psycho; if you lived under the same roof with my sister for any length of time, you would immediately cross “serene” of the list. “But he tries so hard, “my mother always says, whenever we talk about him , which is often. And it’s true, he does try. He is the placid dingy, my sister the constant slapping wave. Today, she’s behaving, but we’re all holding our breath.
“My mother was such a good cook,” my mother repeats, sensing that attention has drifted. “Did I tell you what cousin Rocco said at Angie Talone’s funeral last week?”
“Angie Talone is dead?”
“I certainly hope so, they buried her 4 days ago at St. Anne’s.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“She didn’t tell me either,” Marie sulks.
“Oh you’re both crazy, I texted you about it.”
“You don’t text.”
“Of course I do, what do you think, I send out telegrams, carrier pigeons, smoke signals? What?”
“You never mentioned about Angie.”
“Oh well, she’s dead. She looked beautiful, what a good job they did on her, considering how she looked when she was alive. Never a prize winner in the looks department. There were so many people there, but don’t worry, no one expects you to come to these things. Everyone knows how far away you live. I gave your excuses. You can always send a nice card, that’ll be fine.”
“So what did cousin Rocco say?” says Jack, still smiling, the poor dingy.
“Oh he brought up the old days on Progress Avenue, how he remembered my mother’s baked eggplant and her dandelion wine, twenty years she’s been dead and people still talk about her food. Her meatballs would melt in your mouth. Mine are hockey pucks. They sink in your stomach like rocks.”
“They’re terrific.” Says jack
“Yea” says Eddie, his one comment of the meal.
She waves them both away. Jack’s Norweigan, so what does he know about food, and Eddie was raised on mac and cheese and Nestle’s Strawberry Quick. The cooking gene apparently degrades with each generation from the distaff, my sister’s acquaintance with the kitchen is decidedly limited, even more so than my mom’s., so there you go.
“Anyway, poor Angie.”
“Was she sick a while?”
“She became a total burden.”
“I’m just saying I decided, I will not be a burden to my kids, not like that.”
“Too late.” I say.
She ignores me. “if I get like that I’ll just put my head in the oven, and off I go, you want have to worry.”
“You really should clean it first.”
“Shut up,” she whacks my arm, “and I want to be cremated.”
“That’s convenient, you’ll already be half in the oven anyway.”
“What about The Outfits?” Marie asks. My mother, in preparation for the event when she should be laid out at Romano’s Funeral Home, has had set aside at the back of her closet, on two special padded hangers, ensembles for her viewing: one nice ivory suit to be worn with her good fake pearls, suitable for spring/summer demise; and a nubby tweedy get-up if she should expire during the colder months, both outfits are complete with matching shoes, and handbags.
“What do you need a purse for?” I’ve often asked.
“Bus fare. What do you care? Mind your own business, accessories are very important,” she’ll say, “and don’t make fun, you’ll be glad I’m doing all this planning, when the time comes, and besides if I left it up to you kids, you’d probably put me in god damned culottes.”
For years now, since she turned 70, my mom has been obsessed with her passing, “I’m living on borrowed time, any minute, Death could come knocking on that door.” But death seems to be as a reluctant a visitor as her children, apparently. She is healthy as an ox, and shows no sign of winding down. But now, at least, it would seem the discussion of her going away clothes is settled, again, now that she’s being cremated. Her plans frequently change, shifted by an unseen wind. But we’ll go with this one, for the moment.
“So what are we supposed to do with your ashes?” my sister says.
“We could get a pretty urn,” says Jack, “keep you on the mantle.”
Marie gives him such a look.
“No,” says Ma. “They go next to Gram and Gramp in the family plot, put them in a baggie, what do I care?. This way here I won’t take up so much room in case you decide you want to join us, there’s still spots left.”
“How cozy.” I say.
We clear the dishes and soon the coffee things are on the table. There’s the famous Christmas angel cake, a lopsided, coconut laden confection, a tray of candies, a pound loaf, and still she brings something else to the table.
“What’s that?” my sister groans, “I’m stuffed.”
“I made ricotta pie,” my mom says holding it up, “but don’t eat it, it came out terrible, look at that crust.”
Somewhere after the second cup of coffee, and the last bites of desert, when we are dusting confectioner’s sugar off our sweaters and drowsy from too much, we approach the most dangerous time of the conversation, our inhibitions dulled and the safer topics fairly exhausted.
My sister starts with an opening salvo. “I saw on Facebook you changed your relationship status to ‘It’s complicated’,” she eyes me.
“What’s that mean, complicated?” Ma asks, alert.
My sister shrugs. Now she’s quiet, having done her deed.
“It’s complicated,” I mash cake with my fork, “what’s there to say?”
My mother makes a noise, a throat clearing kind of thing. “Only you kids could make such a simple thing complicated. What’s the difficulty? At your age I had two husbands under my belt.”
She launches into the old story. In the interest of time, I’ll summarize for you:
My mother met my father when she was 19. As she tells it, her boyfriend at the time was the handsome Pio Romano, who drove a two tone Bel Air and whose family owned a funeral parlor, the same funeral parlor that will do the honors when one day my mother sheds this mortal coil. As the story goes, and it goes on for a while, Pio took her to a house party in East Providence, to watch the 1960 election results. Of course they all voted Kennedy.
Here, my mother almost always digresses to the story of when Ma met JFK; a campaign handshake on the steps of the State House and she was smitten for life. “He was tanned and toned, a bronze god.”
Anyway, back to the party and meeting my father. He was playing acoustic guitar and reportedly wearing a bucket on his head. This would be my future sire. During the course of dancing the Stroll, he somehow wooed my mother away from Pio Romano forever. By the time Kennedy was sworn in as the next President of the Free World, my parents were going steady. A year later, they would be married. They would become unmarried some years later, for various reasons, but one can suppose that my father lost a considerable amount of charm, once he took the bucket off his head.
Husband number two, Tony, my mother married, after I had moved away to college. They met at True Value hardware when she was looking for duct tape to fix a leak in the dryer vent hose, and they somehow struck up a flirtation in aisle 7. Theirs seemed to be a quiet, comfortable companionship, as evidenced by them spending hours in each other’s company without ever speaking. Years later Tony died, as quietly as he lived, in front of the TV watching golf, with a gin and tonic in a highball glass, and a half eaten Mrs. Swanson’s dinner on a tray by his chair.
In the years of her divorcee/widowed condition my mother fancies she has blossomed into something of a relationship guru, a Yoda to the lonely hearts, and she is happy to dispense running dating commentary, and advice.
“I could die in peace, knowing you’re finally settled in life!” she’s fond of saying,
“I’m not sure I want to settle,” I say back, just as often. At 50, I think I may just be what they used to call “a confirmed bachelor.”
This does not stop her.
“You know my friend Gloria, from Curves? I told you about her. She’s had both her hips done. She’s doing great. Anyway, she has a son Louis, he’s gay, too. Wouldn’t you like to meet him?”
“All I know about him is that he’s gay and his mom has hardware.”
“Gloria says he’s very handsome.”
“And he’s Italian…”
“Well let’s send out the invitations now for the wedding.”
“Can’t you just meet for a cup of coffee? Who says anything about marriage?”
“Fine. Give him my number.”
“I already did. “
Needless to say, the date will be a disaster. But that’s another story.
The meal finally ended, the dishes washed and dried and put away, Grandma’s table cloth removed, we sit a while in the living room to watch the tree twinkle in the dusky afternoon light.
“Isn’t this nice?” Jack says, smiling.
Eddie is on his phone.
Marie dozes on the couch, her mouth still set in a tight jawed grimace.
Ma looks at me, and says, again : “Just find a decent man and settle down, for Pete’s sake. I’m not get any younger, and neither are you, sonny boy. Find a nice man. Family is important, you’ll see. At the end of the day you’ll want someone in your corner. You’ll understand some day, when I’m gone.”
And now, all these years later, I sit by my own little twinkling Christmas tree, with my own little family, Jake and our two spastic pups. I think about Ma, and hope she’s at peace now that I am at last settled. At the very least, I’m sure she’s pleased knowing she was right, again.
Bio: Norman Belanger
Norman Belanger is a nurse, a writer, and a student working towards a MA in creative writing at SNHU. Norman has short fiction, essays and poetry published in journals such as: Aids&Understanding Magazine, Red Fez, Sibling Rivalry Press, and Silver Birch press.
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