Nothing like a threat to get you motivated. “Complicated things” my Aunt Fanny’s fanny. I got him up the stairs – him wincing with every step – and got him into my room. He was tired but still looked around with more than mild interest.
Puzzled he asked, “This is your room?”
“What? Did you expect rainbows and unicorns with lots of lace? Or maybe you were thinkin’ it would look like you’d gone off to summer camp like the other room.”
He sighed, “Have I done something wrong Joey?”
I brushed a hand across my face, “No … no I … Never mind, I just wanted you to like it. I’m just acting stupid.”
“But I do like it.”
Shaking my head and trying to clear it I told him, “You don’t have to say that. Just tell me what is …”
“Josephine.” Tony didn’t often get that tone with me but when he did it always caught my attention. When he was sure I was really listening he said, “I … like … it. It just … surprised me. It is very … uh … different from the rest of the house … very …”
“Italian,” I finished for him with a slight smile. “I know. You can imagine what Dad thought of it when he got his first look at it. Actually it’s Tuscan. I used krylon to make an old brass headboard and frame Mom picked up at a yard sale to look like an antic bronze one I saw in a magazine. I painted the walls …”
Sounding amazed and looking around he asked, “You painted these? Ragazza …”
I shrugged embarrassed and pleased at the same time. “So maybe … maybe there are some things I can surprise you with after all.”
“These murals are very good, even better than the ones up in the executive wing’s conference room. Those are cartoons compared to these. These … I could believe we are in a villa overlooking the countryside.”
“That’s the effect I was going for,” I said with a smile. “I got so tired of the sterile walls in the dorm but we weren’t allowed to do anything to make it better. It had to be in the exact same shape we got it in and they inspected things constantly and would cite us for violations.” I shrugged again. “Hopefully this will prevent you from feeling all cooped up. And with the window open and breeze coming in …”
“Siete abbastanza una donna.”
It always tickled me when he spoke Italian despite only being able to understand about half of what he said, even when we were arguing. “What did you say?”
“I’ll explain it when …” A cough caught him off guard and he doubled up in a great deal of pain.
“OK, you can stop feedin’ my vanity Tony. You need to rest and all I’m doing is keepin’ you standing around strokin’ my ego.” He was pale and a little shaky so I pulled the comforter back and helped him to lie down, fighting him just a moment for the sheet he’d draped around himself from the other bed. By the time I went down the stairs and brought a fresh pitcher of water back up he was asleep. I left him there and headed downstairs again after making sure the fever hadn’t come back.
I looked at the mess of belongings strewn all over the place and my need for order was so overwhelming that I nearly changed my plans in order to clean and organize to have more than a narrow foot path to walk in. But no, as much as I hated it the mess could wait … the fruit – our future food – could not. One of the first things my mother taught me as a little girl was that feeding the family or taking care of a sick family member took precedent over everything else, including having a sparkling clean house. If a visitor couldn’t understand that then they weren’t really family and could come back another day. It was a lesson I tried to keep in mind but I found for me personally that a messy living space led to a messy mind and with my schedule and workload a messy mind was something I could ill afford. In this instance though taking care of Tony and taking care of the orchard would simply have to win the internal battle.
I spent the rest of the day picking fruit and bringing it back to the house, checking on Tony between each run. I stopped long enough to eat and to take a cup of soup up to him but that was it.
The soft fruit I put into the food dryer or the frig. Because of the brand of dryer quite a bit could fit in it at a time, because Mom brought her duplicate machine from the city I could dry twice as much as I had been before. The downside to that was that I was pulling twice as much power. I had wanted to wash clothes … needed to at least get towels and sheets started … but the fruit came first. I put off the other stuff so that I wouldn’t completely drain the batteries.
The hard fruit like the canning pears and apples I put down in the basement where it was cooler. When I came back to the house with the last two buckets of apples for the day and walked into the kitchen I found Tony – again wearing a sheet like a Toga – sitting at the table with his head down on his arms.
He shivered when I put my hand on his shoulder to see if he was awake. “Are you feeling sick?”
“No.” He hesitated but then admitted, “Hungry.”
I smiled despite my concern. “That’s easy to fix. How about some chicken soup and the last couple of piadina and if you’re still hungry after that, for dessert you can have baked apple.” He’d over done it. I could see it as if the words were written across his face. He had dark circles under his eyes again and his shoulders slumped like he carried the weight of the world on them.
“Don’t go to any trouble Ragazza, maybe just a piece of the piadina.”
Shaking my head and already moving to take care of it I told him, “You need more than that. Besides, what trouble? The soup is some Mom canned and just needs to be heated. The flat bread is left over from breakfast. And the apples have been cooking on the pilot light. Explaining it takes longer than actually getting it put in front of you.” A mumbled “OK” was my only response.
I debated trying to get him to go back to bed with a tray but just let him be. Tony obviously needed to feel in some control of what was going on around him and it would only be counterproductive to try and bend him to my will every time. It would cause a fight and Tony didn’t need that and neither did I.
I sat his meal on the table in front of him and then had to deal with him complaining that I wasn’t eating as I moved around the room cleaning up. “I’ve been munching on fruit off and on all day. About the only thing I want is water to wash all this sticky out of my mouth and throat.”
Then he asked about the orchard and what I had been doing and I could see that as he ate his brain seemed to be back in working order. I told him, “We need to get you to eat better. I can get away with missed meals and just grazing through the day – I’m used to it – but you’re a big guy, you need three squares.”
Being stubborn as only he is he said, “No, not until we get an inventory. We may need to ration things out and I will not eat if you do not.”
“Hah!” I told him. “I am my mother’s daughter. You really think I don’t know that we’re OK for a while? Don’t know how to make do with what is here? You’ll not go hungry while I’m in charge of the meals … not if I want to keep my mother from haunting me with guilt for the next couple of decades.”
Then I had to stop and take a breath. I’d shocked myself. I pushed back from the counter where I had been leaning and rushed out onto the porch; it was like I couldn’t breathe. How could I make fun of something like that so quickly?! What kind of daughter did that make me? And who knows where else my thoughts would have flown if Tony hadn’t come out to find where I’d run to.
There’s no sense in describing what followed. Grief is grief and sometimes you just have to let it wash over you. Tony was the only thing to hold onto in the middle of the storm. He did some grieving of his own. It was enough for me to know he felt some of what I did and I was able to come back to shore from the dark sea. Both of us beyond quiet we walked back inside and I helped him back up to the room and to bed. He wanted me to stay but I needed to work. I think he understood but either way he was simply too exhausted to fight about it.
Despite Tony’s prohibition about planning larger meals I knew they were necessary and I added that task to my highest priority list. Tony’s a big guy but trim; not skinny but definitely slim. It’s no surprise given his build that his metabolism is pretty fast; he needs a decent number of calories just to make it through an ordinary day. I could tell he’d lost weight since the last time we went to the beach but it wasn’t a healthy look for him; he’d lost muscle mass and definition. My metabolism was slower but I wouldn’t last long either, working like I was and only munching on fruit. We needed protein to maintain muscle mass and strength and we needed carbs for energy.
When Dad had his first heart attack my mother changed a lot of the stuff we kept in the house. It felt pretty dramatic at the time but it really wasn’t that bad. We ate healthy before but we also had a lot of unhealthy habits like snacking and drinking too much coffee and cola. Mom stopped letting the junk food in the house and that was enough for a while. When Dad had his second heart attack though Mom kicked things up into another realm of change all together.
It wasn’t enough to not eat unhealthy stuff; no, the actual ingredients she used began to change. And since you can still get fat eating healthy food, portion control became an anchor in her new plan. Another big change was the lack of processed foods in her kitchen. Processed flours and meals were no longer allowed through the door so while pasta was still on the menu it was made with whole grains with Mom making it all herself until she found a brand she liked and everyone in the family would eat. Bread was dealt with in the same way; she still served it, but it was all homemade without preservatives and other unnecessary ingredients. In fact she started grinding her own flour, and not only wheat. Dad wasn’t on a gluten free diet but she used many recipes that were – and their various non-wheat grains – because it helped to control his glucose which was something Dad had began having problems with as well. Technically he wasn’t diabetic but had something called Syndrome X. Mom found cooking like he was diabetic, even though he wasn’t, mean he just felt better and his blood levels were healthier.
One of the biggest changes came after she started fussing at me about what could I possibly be eating in the dorm, that it couldn’t be healthy since I only had a small kitchen to cook in that I shared with three other people, and so on and so forth. I told her at the time one of my roommates was from Costa Rica and most of the time she and I split a pot of rice and beans as our primary meal of the day. It was cheap, easy to fix, stuck with us, and tasted good on top of all of that.
Mom went a little berserk and tried to go off on that but then Dad’s nutritionist told Mom that beans and rice was one of the healthiest meals there were, forming a complete protein, and that the majority of the world survived on an almost exclusive diet of those two ingredients. Of course when the doctor explained it she understood and acted like she hadn’t threatened to send me meals in the mail to, and I quote, “keep her only daughter from winding up sick and in the hospital like her father.” As a matter of fact she kind of co-opted the dishes I’d been eating started using a lot of beans and rice at home much to my father’s pleasure since he remained – regardless of how silly it was – a little prejudice against all of the Italian dishes we had incorporated into our lives after we moved to our slice of Little Italy.
The only fly in Mom’s ointment was that these changes were easy to make in the city where there was a corner market every few blocks, but here at the cabin was another story. Mom got tired of constantly running down to town to shop for fresh ingredients or bringing large amounts of food with her when she and Dad would travel. She also got irritated that the small stores she did have access to within driving distance of the cabin didn’t have the specialty items she could get at home so much more easily; and when they did they were always much more expensive. That’s when Mom got her brilliant idea. Dad loved it because it cut the grocery bill in half and then some. My brothers loved it because there was always something good here to eat; and they could be eating machines. I loved it because it made the men in my life easier to deal with and it made Mom feel good about herself.
I walked down to the basement and only had to use the flashlight to get down the stairs. I’d caught myself flicking the overhead bulbs on and off as often as I would have in the city and realized I was using power unnecessarily. Earlier I opened the shutters on the two basement windows and once down off the stairs I had enough light to see by. I headed for one of the side storage rooms located just off the finished basement area and opened the door to look at the metal trashcans inside.
Each trashcan was lined with this stuff mom had bought online and then filled with packages of different grains and starches, dried fruits and veggies, beans and lentils, dried whole grain pastas and other goodies like that. Above the trashcans a couple of shelves ran around the room and there was olive oil, condiments, jars of preserved lemons and other citrus fruits, and healthy sweeteners like agave, maple, sorghum, and honey. I decided I’d inventory it later but I double checked just to make sure that no mice or bugs had gotten in. Mom had learned the hard way that “plastic bad, metal good.”
I hadn’t gotten into any of those supplies while Lucia and Bennie were around because frankly I was still thinking of it all as belonging to my parents. But after that crying jag I had on the porch I knew I needed to start understanding that Mom and Dad were gone and that the reality was that I had inherited the cabin and needed to make the most of it as they had always intended to do for themselves. This was their legacy and that Tony and I needed to use it the best way possible.
I got back upstairs and saw that the timer had gone off on the dryers and proceeded to empty and then refill the trays in both machines. The dried fruit that came out I put aside to cool before packaging it in jars to sit in the pantry. Walking into the pantry I also tried to take stock without doing an actual inventory. There were a lot of jars on the shelves but there was a lot of empty space as well. I knew there were empty jars out in the barn; some of them had belonged to Gran and to my other grandmother and some had belonged to one of my mother’s sisters that had decided there was no way she would ever do things the “old fashioned way” again. Some were also jars that Mom had picked up over the years at yard sales and through accumulating her own from store sales. Racking my brain for any chink in my plans I mentally reminded myself that Mom started using tattler jar lids when I was a kid so I knew I could reuse the rings and seals.
Returning to the kitchen table I sat down for a minute and pulled out my list. I checked ff several items and felt better. I’d given Tony the impression that everything was under control so that he would relax but now I was absolutely sure I could do this. I had the tools so all I needed to do, at least for a long while, was do the work. Work I could handle, I’d been bringing in a paycheck since I was fourteen, but with the tools my work would actually produce something. And with Tony’s input on the planning I’ll feel even better about everything.