“You would talk to Jesus Christ on the cross,” Mimi Lacarno said to me as we walked away from a beach full of strangers. She hadn’t meant it as praise, but as a gentle accusation. I laughed and wrapped my free arm around her.
“You, on the other hand, wouldn’t say a word to Christ if he strolled across that lake right now and pulled a fish sandwich out of thin air.” I could feel her shrug.
Mimi reserved words, but she expended her share on the day we met and I ventured into conversation with her at the outset of a 20-mile Walk for Hunger. The conversation continued all the way along the Ohio River to Beaver Falls, beneath November skies and snow squalls that conjured a scene out of Dr. Zhivago. By the time we shed our parkas and huddled over hot cocoa, we were smitten.
Her shyness gave way to intrigue which was like throwing matches at my flammable curiosity. Quiet people do that to me. And a walk, or a drive, or a mutual project demands little eye contact, loosening tethers and tongues. I quickly discovered that she was my friend Vinny’s sister and only fourteen years old, disappointing me but allowing to me relax and take her in. Still, I fought the urge to take her by the hand. For more than a year I watched her beauty and sweetness deepen, until I couldn’t resist and we began a relationship I would never completely understand.
The combination of her delicate features, deep mahogany eyes, sleek onyx hair, a satin smile and stubborn reticence drew me into a mystery that her careful lips could not reveal. Confused enough as a teen, I felt disoriented around her, attracted but armless in a way, as if I couldn’t grasp or know her. She spoke little about how she felt but showed absolute loyalty – always ready to see me, to go out or to stay at home with her family. And yet, I couldn’t return that loyalty. I felt too blind, as if I couldn’t see enough. I needed to know girls – as many as possible.
The very idea of calling a girl and asking her to go to a dance, for a walk or a ride, to the zoo or the lake, to a football game or a concert felt like an adventure. After paying for my car insurance, I spent most of my money on dating. I had great pals but seldom wasted a weekend night with them. Without looking for love or even sex, my fascination with girls took over and I happily did anything they wanted to do, or not do.
When I met a girl I liked, I wanted nothing more than to hold her hand – a nervous impulse but a simple one. Hands told me what words could never tell, from the way they matched the rest of her body to the way she cared for them, and how they moved when she talked, how they gripped a cup or a fork or a stack of books. I stole glances at a date’s hands as I drove. Did they carve her words, fly all over, rest easily, or were they clasped between her knees or searching along creases for comfort. It all went back to watching my grandmothers cook and the nuns as they wrote cursive on the blackboard, their hands old and veiny or young and graceful.
Early on, I didn’t date many girls who wanted much beyond kissing, who encouraged more touching. Those were girls who put out – a term I always found funny because, even though I didn’t date girls who put out, their mothers did, in a way.
“Here,” they would say the moment I walked in, “let me put something out.” When I heard that expression, it made me think of one mother who actually did put out in a carnal way for Mimi’s brother, Vinny. I knew the woman (and dated both of her daughters) and she never put out so much as a single potato chip for me, but Vinny had no interest in potato chips, nor the daughters.
Food played a starring role in our lives; all ethnicities had their specialties and everyday meals, and some I could identify the moment I crossed a threshold. Mimi’s mother, for instance, was an insomniac, and she put out day and night, yanking a baked ziti out of the oven at 11:30 p.m. when Mimi and I were trying to sneak in from a date. The Polish Mrs. Lacarno learned to cook Italian for the mister, forming a culinary marriage made in heaven. Sometimes she put out sausage and peppers or stuffed cabbage. She never left the kitchen, canning tomatoes or beans, sweating through August afternoons, or perched on a stool at night, smoking Larks and listening to talk radio, ready with an apple or ricotta pie.
Every Christmas Eve Mrs. Lacarno really put out. She served a feast for at least twenty guests, then mounded the table with fried smelts and baccala, lupini beans, nuts, cheese, nougat candies, kumquats, oranges, cookies, apples, and hemmed it all in with carafes of homemade wine. We sang and ate and flirted, and Mrs. Lacarno blushed with overwhelming joy and pride and exhaustion. When it came time for everyone to leave for midnight Mass, I’m sure she leaned back and lit a post-climactic cigarette.
Throughout high school, my pals and I often piled into one of our father’s cars and visited girls we knew. We showed up without warning, but the moms usually threw their arms around us, regardless of their daughters’ ennui. Three of us might show up, sit around the kitchen table and do our best to entertain the daughter and maybe one of her friends, but we saved our real charm for the moms, especially when we could smell braciole or stuffed artichokes, left over from dinner. All these moms had leftovers. Even if their own families were small, they grew up learning to cook for big families.
My own mother put out. By instinct, Betty pivoted after greeting a guest and flung open the fridge or the oven and soon presented God knows what: pierogies, pork chops, chocolate cake. Dishes clattered as coats were removed, and before a guest could catch his breath, he was handed a fork. The urge to feed sprang from the bottom of her maternal heart.
Then there were fathers who put out. “Try this,” they insisted: salty, spicy, manly dried sausages in which “you won’t find no fat,” or a plateful of sautéed banana peppers they had grown themselves, smoked fish they had caught, venison they had bagged, wrapped in neat white paper, wine made in the basement, an endless parade of delicacies, served with pride.
Intense pride separated the dads from the moms. The men served trophies, masterpieces of fussy gardening or butchering, savory expressions of sweetness and heat and patience. If I asked for more, they loved me. But if I didn’t, they didn’t care. Their craft was for show as much as sharing.
Although the moms were proud, too, the cooking was second nature to them, and they derived most of their satisfaction from the way we dove in, the passion with which we lapped up sauces and picked up every last crumb. Then they insisted on more, sometimes refilling a plate without asking. “But, Mrs. Silverman, I already ate half the brisket!” She had another one in the oven.
The grandmothers were worse. Before I could take Angela Andolini for a Sunday afternoon drive, she stipulated that we stop to see her nonna, always “just for a few minutes.” Greens, collard greens, broccoli rabe, chard, whatever Vic Amoroso had fresh at his market she steeped in broth and salt pork with moony, white beans. The minute I walked in, she put it out. Bowls big enough to feed a St. Bernard. After three helpings, I pleaded with Angela to say goodbye. Then the old woman would frown and shove us both out the door, yelling, “No wonder you’re so skinny!”
My mom pulled the same stunt, never satisfied with my satisfaction. I could eat six or eight meatballs, but then she held the bowl in front of me again, urging me to what? Go for an even dozen? I’d groan and wave her off. She’d shrug and say “you don’t much care for my meatballs, do you?”
I heard a hint of jealousy and suspicion in her voice. She was thinking: what does Dorothy Sacco put in those meatballs he likes so much? But she was a good sport, even after she found out that Mrs. Colorito always, without fail, made me a cake for my birthday because I once told her she made the best cake I had ever tasted. I wasn’t lying. It remains the best. The woman had five kids of her own. But she couldn’t help herself. Standing back, away from the table, her hands folded over the front of her apron, she watched me eat and hoped her daughter was taking note.
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education