Wind scoured the side of the house and skidded across the back yard. It was winter, but we hadn’t had a single snowstorm, and here it was the end of January.
Inside, we were standing at the counter with two cans of fresh tomatoes. A huge yellow onion. Four fresh cloves of garlic.
My friend Jen had come to visit me from Amherst. And now I was going to show her how to make my favorite spaghetti sauce. The recipe calls for capers.
Jen was reading from a heavily-stained three by five card. I was cooking. She would tell me a step, and then our conversation would wander.
“It’s just not me,” she said finally. “I mean, what the heck was I thinking? I’m out there on Route 9 in some guy’s pick up truck and it’s one thirty in the morning? What was I doing?”
I looked up at her. “If I’m not mistaken, I think what you were doing was making out. Or, whatever?” I smiled.
She blushed. “Oh but that’s craaazy,” she said, stretching out the “a” in that way she does. When Jen says crazy like that, blood kind of flushes her face and she laughs and her voice flies up into a bird’s high register. She practically squeaks. It’s one of the things I love most about my friend Jen, the way she says the word crazy.
I shrugged. “It all sounds very nice to me,” I said. “What’s the next step?”
“The next step?” She looked at me blankly, her head still making out in the truck I guess. “Oh, sorry,” she said turning back to the recipe. “OK, so now you dice a large onion and brown it in olive oil.”
“Oh. Well. I know the recipe says a whole onion. But I watched my grandmother make sauce for years, and she never used more than half.”
“Well, OK, that’s fine. You also need two cloves of garlic.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Not two cloves. I use four. Just don’t tell my husband, because he thinks he hates garlic.” I set to work. Jen watched as I peeled the brown skin off the onion. I could feel her eyes on me. I could feel her thinking.
“Hey, I need a big frying pan from that cabinet down there,” I said, pointing with my knife. “Would you mind getting it out, and the cover too?”
Jen crossed the kitchen and retrieved the pan. Handed it to me at the stove.
We were quiet for a moment. “You know what I need,” she said.
She sighed. “I need a recipe for love.”
I looked up. “Oh Jen, that is a very sweet thing to say. And you know I would write you one in a minute, that is, if I had one.” I slid the chopped onion into the frying pan. “How much olive oil do I need?”
Jen read from the card. “It says a third of a cup.”
“Yeah, but I just pour enough to cover the bottom of the frying pan.” I turned the front burner on high.
Jen started laughing. “Claire, why exactly do you have me reading from this recipe card anyway?”
I looked up. “I thought you wanted to learn how to make my secret caper sauce. So you can fix Rick a romantic dinner.”
“I do,” she squealed, “but you aren’t following any of the directions.”
I frowned. “Sure I am. It calls for two cans of tomatoes doesn’t it?”
“No, it calls for one.”
“Oh well I always use two. Can you open them for me?”
She laughed. I handed her the can opener. For the next few minutes, while Jen opened the cans, neither of us said anything.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe you just need to take it a day at a time. I’m a big believer in staying in the moment.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jen said. “Except one moment leads to the next, and then the next, and soon it’s a day and a week and, suddenly before you know it it’s a month later and he’s in your house repairing the doors. He’s gonna totally take over my life.”
She set the lids into the trash. “I just think my life was fine the way it was. I was happy. Yeah, I was alone, but so what? And then, because of that dimwit in my office, I did it. I did that stupid Speed Dating thing. What possessed me? Whatever possessed me to listen to her? You know what’s going to happen. You know how it will all turn out.”
I was stirring the onions. I looked up. “I do?”
“Of course,” she said. “These things,” she had both her hands up in the air, waving them almost the way my grandmother used to. “These things just never work out for me. Think about...” her eyes closed. “Think about…”
“Stop,” I said. “Don’t you dare say his name!”
“GGGGRRRRR.” She growled and grit her teeth. “But you know how it went. I spent seven years with that man, and then at the end I find out that he’s got a five-year old daughter. A baby by another friggin' woman.”
I stopped. Inhaled. Handed her the spoon. “Here, you take over stirring.”
She did. I went to the glass cabinet and reached up to the top shelf and grabbed two wine glasses. I went to the dining room to the wine rack. I took out my favorite bottle of red, a Montepulciano de Abruzzo, made in the region where my grandparents were born, in two tiny villages tucked beneath the snow-covered high peaks known as the Gran Sasso, due west of Rome.
I came back into the kitchen. As I did, Jen had the three by five recipe card back in her hand. “I think we were supposed to chop up some parsley. And we were supposed to put oregano and basil into the oil.”
“Oh you are exactly right,” I said. “But turn off that stove for a moment, will you?”
She looked up at me. “Why?”
“Because we are not ready to make spaghetti sauce.”
I reached into the drawer and pulled out a corkscrew.
She looked at me, confused.
“If you are going to make sauce the right way,” I said, “you gotta be in the right state of mind.” I wiggled the cork out of the bottle. It popped with a very satisfying thwunk. I poured each of us a tumbler of wine.
“Here, sit down and drink this,” I said, handing her a glass.
“Thanks,” she said. We settled on the stools in the kitchen. We sat there without saying a word. I heard what I call “the Sunday afternoon sound,” the football game, droning on and on in the background.
“I don’t have a recipe for love,” I said finally. “But I know how my grandparents made it through. One thing they did, they had wine every day. Not a lot. Just about three or four inches. They were simple people. And they had a kind of faith in things. I think that’s what we don’t have enough of sometimes.”
“Yeah, well faith is fine for some people,” Jen said, “but that’s not me. I’m not the religious type.”
“Neither were they. My mother’s parents were not church goers, well, not so much. But they had faith. Things happened to them. Some very, very sad things. But somehow they never lost hope. My grandmother, Mish, she lost her first baby, Dante, when he was nine months old.”
I sipped calmly from my glass. Jen said nothing.
“What happened was, my great grandmother Clementina had heard about this new vaccine. For diphtheria I think. It was the early 1920s and she was a kind of forward-thinking lady. And also, back in Italy, she herself had lost a baby to pneumonia. So my great grandmother told her daughter, my Grandma Mish, that she better get baby Dante vaccinated right away.”
I inhaled. Shook my head “The vaccine was bad. He died within hours.”
“Oh my God,” Jen said. “That’s so so awful.”
“Yeah, I’ll say. He was this gorgeous blonde baby, a rare and precious thing in Italy, blonde hair. He was a real cherub in the one photo I saw of him.” I turned to face her. “But what’s amazing is, my grandmother got pregnant again almost right away. And you know what she named the new baby boy?”
“Let me guess…”
I nodded. “Yeah. Dante.”
“Somebody else might have avoided that name like it was contagious. But my grandmother, she had a kind of faith in life. She was quiet, but she was strong and stubborn. She believed that one way or another things were going to be better. Or, at least, things were going to be different. She always used to say, in Italian, “in a day, a Pope is made.” Meaning everything can change totally. Overnight.”
“Yeah, I’ll say it can. So what happened with the second baby?”
I drained my glass. “Oh, well. My Uncle Dante lived until he was 89," I said. “He was my mother’s oldest brother. A really great great guy.”
I stood up. “So, Jen, maybe if you can think about letting go of the past. Convince yourself that this relationship isn’t that other one back then. Tell yourself that things do change for the better. ”
“Maybe.” She spoke the word in almost a whisper.
I went back to the stove. Turned the burner back on.
“You really gotta let yourself believe that Jen.” The flame soared up under the frying pan. “Hey, I have an idea.”
“Oh, maybe I should have a baby or something?” She giggled. Jen is turning 50 next week.
“No. I think you should write a story. Did you ever think of writing a story?”
“Claire, I think of writing a story almost every day. I’m a writer, remember?”
“Jen, come on, I mean, did you ever think about writing this story?”
“Yeah, a story about this. A love story.”
“I don’t write love stories, Claire. I leave you to do that.”
“Well then, just write a story about your life right now. Write about this new guy. Write yourself clean of the past.”
“Claire, don’t you remember? I did that. I wrote the novel. I tried to tell it all.”
“Yeah, you did, you did a great job too. I love that novel. I love the way you dealt with…” I cleared my throat. “HIM. But now, now you need to write the next chapter. Write what happens when you meet the new guy. Write about Rick. Make the story go the way you want it to. Make it everything you want it to be. Make the love come true.”
“Oh Claire, you are such a dreamer.”
I shrugged. “I guess I am. But what’s the harm in it? Rather than sit around being scared things won’t work out, just write the story the way you want to see it happen. Make up your own recipe.”
Jen finished her wine. “Right. Like the one you don’t follow to make this sauce.”
I smiled. “I never saw my grandmother ever once use a recipe. And she was the best cook on the planet.”
Jen got off her stool. “Do you want me to chop the parsley or not?”
“Yeah, chop the parsley. It’s in a plastic bag in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.”
I started to stir the onion again. Oil spurted out at my wrist. “Oh and while you’re at it, pull out a carrot.”
“A carrot? What the heck do I need a carrot for?”
I smiled. “Grandma Mish’s secret ingredient. To sweeten the sauce.” I held up the three by five card. “I know, I know. The recipe says, add one teaspoon of sugar. But that’s not what I do. Grandma always said that spaghetti sauce came out sweeter if you dropped in a carrot.”
“That’s craaazy,” Jen said as she handed me the carrot and set to work washing the parsley.
I stood next to her, peeling the carrot. “Yeah, my grandma was kind of crazy.” Suddenly an image of Grandma Mish flooded me. I saw the halo of grey hair, tied in a bun behind her head. I saw her soft bosom, where she always rested big loaves of crusty homebaked bread as she sliced them up for dinner. I saw the huge serrated knife heading straight toward her chest.
The rest of us would cringe, terrified she would lop off her breast. But she was fearless.
I blinked. I don’t know if was the wine at work on me, but standing there, suddenly I could see the flesh of a baby, right in front of me. I could see into a set of watery grey eyes. A newborn was squawling. His head had a fuzzy blonde layer of hair. A thick little clump sprouted up over his brow. His face lay nuzzled there right against my grandmother’s giant bared breast, his pink wet mouth rooting for the sturdy nipple.
I watched her sitting there in the dark, nursing. Rocking through the night.
It was less than a year after she had buried the first baby. The questions pressed beneath my tongue. I felt them thick and heavy, weighing against my heart.
Did she cry when she felt the milk leaking into that new baby’s mouth? Did she hold that tightly swaddled warm bundle of life thinking about the baby that had gone cold?
How did my grandmother manage it? How did she ever manage to move on? And how could she possibly have given the second-born that name? Dante?