TOM (A Mother’s Day Tribute)

My daughter never smiles any more. It’s a shame because she always had such lovely teeth. I blame her lack of humor on that crazy job. Teresa calls it a position and claims she needs to work. “Give up the maid and you can afford to stay home,” I suggest. “She’s not worth whatever you’re paying her.” While my daughter furthers her career—Teresa’s words, not mine—the maid and I spend our days watching TV. “Those women in love with each other are called lisbons,” I explain during Jerry Springer. The maid smiles, but I’m not sure she believes me. Later she fixes lunch. What she calls cooking, I call warming up.

This isn’t the first maid Teresa has employed, but the first since I’ve been here. The last one would let the phone ring five times before she got around to answering it. I know because I was on the other end of the line. At the sound of the beep we’d both hang up. Getting through to Teresa didn’t matter then because I knew eventually we’d connect, even when she was traveling. As for the first maid, I never met her and still don’t know her name. To this day Teresa denies the woman ever existed.

The house belongs to my daughter and she has all the say-so. I keep asking, “How much longer before I go home?” The look on her face says she wants me out as much as I want to leave. I’m only here until my apartment gets new paint and carpeting. Teresa’s idea, not mine. I came to dinner one Sunday, for the chicken and risotto I once taught her to make. After we cleaned up more dishes than she needed to dirty, Teresa refused to take me home. I grabbed my pocketbook and ran outside. Such a scene my daughter caused that rainy day: Teresa prying my fingers from the car door and me screaming for help. Decent neighbors would’ve called the police. Teresa’s did nothing. To pacify her and because we were both rain-soaked, I agreed to a temporary visit.

The next day she followed me into the bathroom, handed me a plastic grocery bag, and said, “Your Depends go in here.” After she left, I shredded the smelly thing into the toilet and flushed. I did it my way until Teresa called in a plumber. Now we do it her way.

The bedroom I’m using until I go home has mahogany furniture just like mine. I sleep at the edge of the double bed and only use one pillow. “You’re welcome to sleep with me,” I tell Teresa after the first week. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.”

“I have my own room down the hall,” she says, almost smiling.

“But that man sleeps there,” I reply, not wanting to believe what my ears just heard.

“Mother!” She gives me that look again. “That man is my husband. You know David.”

Of course I know David. He was such a boy when Teresa married him. Their wedding picture sits on the round table in Teresa’s family room and I have another one at home. The man she’s sleeping with now has gray hair and a mustache, a handyman of sorts who cuts the grass and eats dinner with us because Teresa has a good heart, even though she’s holding me against my will. Tough love she calls it, whatever that means. Anyway, about this man, I call him Tom, not because he goes by Tom but because I like the name and it’s easy to remember. Just saying Tom gets his dander up, which pleases me to no end. For a handyman, he shows no concern for safety, always following me around to plug in what I’ve unplugged. He insists his name is David but I know better. And so should Teresa.

On Saturday evening a younger Tom comes over with some Joan girl I don’t care to know. Don’t ask me why; maybe it’s because we’ve never been properly introduced. Teresa and the handyman she’s sleeping with are dressed to the nines and hiding their usual crankiness. “We’ll be back before midnight,” she tells the younger Tom, which means I’m stuck with him and the girl who’s flashing a fancy ring. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they were married because she sits at one end of the couch and he’s at the other. Instead of my Angela Lansbury reruns, we watch baseball and they help themselves to Teresa’s soda and snacks without asking. No wonder my daughter has to keep working.

I bring up these concerns to Teresa during my sponge bath the next morning. “You know that couple who came over last night? I thought they’d never leave and just for spite they didn’t. At eleven-thirty I finally gave up and went to bed. You might want to check the silverware.” The trace of a smile almost cracks one corner of her mouth. If that’s all it takes to amuse Teresa, maybe this Tom should come over more often.

Other Toms come and go, young bucks who smell of aftershave when they lean over to kiss my cheek or pat my shoulder. Sometimes both, if I let them. They all make a stop at the refrigerator, leaving the door wide open to chill Teresa’s entire kitchen so they can raid her leftovers, behavior I no longer question since such wasteful extravagance seems to comfort my daughter. In fact, she actually encourages it.

“A special day would do wonders for you,” Teresa announces one morning while scrambling my eggs. “Halleluiah!” I all but shout, thinking she means just the two of us. Instead, my daughter hurries off to work and I get Maggie the Maid. Again. Maggie’s not her real name, but that’s what I call her now. The real Maggie’s my sister. We don’t get together any more. Poor Sis, she’s younger but I was always healthier. Anyway, Maggie the Maid and I start out at the beauty parlor. I let the operator wrap me in plastic. I let her fuss over me in silly baby talk. But when she pulls out those pointy scissors, I let out a scream and tear off that silly cape. Maggie rolls her eyes, a sure sign Teresa will hear about the idiotic operator, so as soon as we get outside, I suggest an ice cream stop. My treat. That evening Teresa cuts my hair.

***

The weather’s been dry as a bone but today it’s raining so hard I’m glad to stay inside. Maggie and I eat the lunch she takes credit for preparing: chicken vegetable soup my daughter made from scratch last night. To my surprise Teresa comes home from work in the early afternoon. “We have a doctor’s appointment,” she tells me. She doesn’t say what kind of doctor and I don’t ask what’s wrong with her. Maggie tags along, although we don’t need her since Teresa takes the wheel and I sit up front to help navigate. We drive forever, rain pounding the windshield and Teresa hunched over, her brow so furrowed it adds ten more years she could do without. I leave my daughter alone. She has enough worries, what with her job and now health problems. Maybe she’s going through the change, not that I would ever ask.

By the time we arrive at the doctor’s office, I tell Teresa I’m ready to go home. She sighs and talks the nurse into getting us in right away. We follow her into the examining room and leave Maggie behind to read Soap Opera Digest.

“Why me?” I ask Teresa when we’re alone. “I only came along to keep you company.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she argues. “You’re the one who’s bleeding.”

“Don’t be absurd. I gave that up years ago.”

We go at it, back and forth. Teresa screws up her face, she raises her voice, to me her mother. She refuses to budge from her chair. Testa dura I call her; she knows I mean hard head. Lord knows she’s heard those two words often enough. Neither one of us are on the table when the doctor waltzes in. He’s old enough to be my son, the musician who always made his father and me proud. Teresa too.

“Don’t get so upset,” the doctor tells her. “My grandmother was the same way.”

So get on the table and let’s get this over, I want to tell Teresa, but hold my tongue. She turns her back to me and goes head-to-head with the doctor. He says something about not being able to help if he can’t examine the patient. I smile at him. He winks at me. We both shrug because Teresa won’t give in. Her face is beet red when we leave, a vein in her forehead pounding. She stomps through the rain and Maggie holds an umbrella over my head as we hurry to the car. During our ride home the only sounds come from the steady swish of windshield wipers and Maggie turning pages from the digest she has pilfered. Teresa keeps her teeth clenched and eyes on the road. When she was young, I taught my daughter to hold her tears, a lesson she never forgot and one I now regret. I try to smooth things over with a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know about you, Teresa, but in spite of the poor weather I certainly had a nice afternoon.”

***

Time passes and my daughter doesn’t seem any worse but one day I wake up in the hospital. Teresa’s hovering over me, her sweaty palms warming my cold hands. A snotty female who calls herself a doctor pokes around me and then pulls back the sheet. “Holy bejeebers!” she mutters under her breath, as if she’s never seen a fallen uterus before. Years ago I chose not to have mine tied and have since learned to live with the constant reminder between my legs. More white coats gather to gawk and shout questions as if I’m deaf. When they don’t like my answers, they look to Teresa for better ones. According to Doctor Smarty Pants, something else has fallen out and needs immediate fixing. “Over my dead body,” I tell Teresa in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.

Teresa leaves with the doctors. It occurs to me she might not come back so I get up, yank the needle out of my arm, and ditch the skimpy wrap barely covering my private parts. I take four steps into the hallway and everybody comes running. It’s a hospital, for crying out loud. You’d think these people would be used to blood gushing from a patient’s arm.

Lord, does this humiliation ever end. I’m back in bed, a prisoner under the threat of restrains if I attempt another escape. Teresa won’t leave me alone and now she’s brought in Gina. My daughter, her daughter, and me. For years we made quite a team, shopping for bargains and poking around antiques and eating on the cheap. And then Teresa and Gina got too old for me. They don’t know how to have fun anymore. Instead they have careers. They pull up chairs beside my bed. They talk in low whispers and wait for me to make the wrong move. I introduce them to a new game. We play my way. I keep my hands under the covers, to pick at the tape holding the patch that covers the hole I made in my arm when I yanked out the needle. Every so often they hop up, to lift the sheet and wag their fingers and bawl me out for upsetting them. When we’re not playing the game, we argue and reminisce and talk like carefree schoolgirls at a slumber party. I don’t remember doing this before, not even when Teresa and Gina were at their best.

“What time is it?” Gina asks when daylight breaks.

“Five o’clock,” Teresa says. “What time did you get here yesterday?”

“Three in the afternoon. After fourteen hours Grandma still hasn’t closed her eyes.”

“And neither have you or your mother,” I remind Gina. “Now will you please let me get some sleep.”

After breakfast who should come in but my son the musician. I call him Tom because it’s easy to remember and he doesn’t seem to mind. Teresa and Gina kiss me goodbye and go home. Or maybe to work, they don’t say and I don’t ask. With Tom I play a different game. “Let’s go for a walk,” I say, knowing he’ll get tired of pushing the contraption attached to my good arm, the one without the patch covering the hole. As soon as we get to the lounge, he sits down to read the paper and I mosey on to the nearest elevator where I run into Doctor Smarty Pants. She clucks her tongue, grabs the contraption, and rattles me back to my cell. My red-faced Tom follows in our wake. After a supper of bland applesauce and rubbery Jell-O, Tom leaves when Teresa comes back for the night shift, this time without Gina. We watch Angela solve another murder and then switch off the TV.

“You can sleep with me,” I tell Teresa.

“No, no,” she says, stretching her arms overhead. “The recliner’s fine.”

In the moonlit room we test our wills, each waiting for the other to give in first. As soon as Teresa’s head rolls to the side, I crawl over the bed railing and hit the floor with a thud. My daughter jumps up and the no-nonsense nurse comes running. She gives both of us a nasty bawling out.

***

Although I spend the next few days fighting mad, Teresa eventually wins the surgery battle. My pooper gets pushed back where it belongs, the uterus they leave alone. I won’t share the embarrassing details since I’ve already purged them from my mind. After the longest ten days of my life—Teresa says the same about hers—she brings me home. I’m starting to think of Teresa’s home as mine too, although it will never take the place of my real home, the one I shared with my husband Tom before he died.

Teresa and I sit in the living room that no one ever uses and drink chamomile tea from china cups I gave her years ago. My daughter is quiet again so I get up and check out a photograph hanging on the wall. There’s Teresa, showing off those perfect teeth I never see anymore, and David is beaming. I wonder whatever happened to him. Gina has on that checkered pinafore dress I bought at a sidewalk sale. She’s the only girl, surrounded by four little boys dressed in their Sunday best. I know I loved them but I can’t remember their names. “Tom, Tom, Tom, and Tom,” I say, pointing to each boy.

This time Teresa doesn’t argue, which makes me think I finally got through to her. I turn, hoping for the best and she doesn’t disappoint me. My daughter is smiling through her tears.

###

“Tom” first appeared in the 2006 Fall issue of The MacGuffin

and later in the 2009 February issue of Literary Mama,

which nominated “Tom” for Dzanc Books Best of the Web 2010.

“Tom” can be found in A Collection of Givers and Takers

By Loretta Giacoletto

Posted in Family, Italian American, Lifestyle, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moving On

Twenty years ago Hubby D and I, along with four of our five offspring plus spouses, bought a place at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks. We christened it Casalago, the Italian version of Lake House, a name we had engraved on a rustic wooden sign visible from the road, prompting a few locals to refer to D and me as Mr. and Mrs. Casalago. Our new lakefront property was and still is considered prime real estate. Located in a quiet cove off the main channel, it stretched across105 feet of desirable deep water with plenty of ground on either side so as not to interfere with the neighbors. Nor them with us.

At the time of our purchase, this 4-bedroom, 3-bath house with upper deck and lower patio had been going through some basic updating when the sellers’ divorce interrupted its completion. Offspring #2, who has a background in architecture and construction, quickly came up with a not-so-simple plan to make it more compatible for our five families. “We’ll move the staircase to the other side of the living/dining area and re-arrange the downstairs rooms,” he said, prompting a shake of nine somewhat cautious heads. By the time Phase 1 of the remodel was finished, we had added another downstairs bedroom, a fourth bathroom, a more defined laundry area, and painted every room and every door in the entire house.

Mustn’t forget the dock and swim area, bringing the number of slips from two to three.

Several years later we closed in a rather shabby main entryway, creating instead a comfortable sunroom, complete with a tiled floor and pine walls. Life settled down for a few years until we enclosed the carport leading to the sunroom, making it one large living area—more painting and staining of pine walls and ceiling that, as Offspring #2 had assured us, in a matter of weeks would match the existing pine interior, which it did.

A few more years passed when I casually mentioned something about converting the small porch off of our galley kitchen into a pantry. Or whatever it would take to relieve the clutter on the kitchen counters when more than one family brought in grocery supplies. That mere suggestion resulted in a major add-on. As in a super-sized gourmet kitchen, second master bedroom with ensuite on the main level. Plus the lower level where we added a large bonus room, big enough for five single-over-double bunk beds and a walk-in closet.

Room to sleep twenty-six people. Room to comfortably seat that many people for meals, with an expandable dining table next to a counter area with six barstools and more counter space in the kitchen. Not just room for family but assorted friends on multiple occasions. Yes, the Giacoletto clan was growing by leaps and bounds as were offspring of our offspring that were growing up and moving on.

Moving on. That was the inevitable glitch. Moving on meant the offspring of offspring moving far away from Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area. And not coming home often enough nor long enough to spend sufficient time at Lake of the Ozarks. Time for the five families to move on the majority of owners decided, though not all of us were on board initially.

Nevertheless, we sold Casalago. Our place at the lake is no longer our place but now belongs to another family, one I feel confident will treat it with the same love and respect that our family did.

On the positive side, Offspring #2 and his talented wife had a different take about moving on. They bought their own place at the lake, a few miles from our original place and closer to the Bagnell Damn, its 1931 completion resulting in a reservoir that became Lake of the Ozarks. Though not as many square feet as the five families once shared, Offspring #2s’ new place boasts two decks, an equally generous lakefront with deep water and a wider cove. Also a dock they plan to replace with a larger one to accommodate their new bigger boat. Christening name still to be determined but I know a lot of thought will go into whatever they decide.

How about you? Any moving on stories you’d like to share?

###

Posted in Family, Italian American, Lifestyle, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Family and Friends

It’s always something at our place in Lake of the Ozarks, otherwise known as Casalago. A few weeks ago one of the cables holding our 3-boat dock and swim deck broke away from the seawall. Fortunately, a neighbor called to let us know and we were able to arrange for a temporary fix until it could be properly repaired, which accounted for Hubby D and me making a quick trip from Southern Illinois to Central Missouri to make sure everything was back in order.

We were about a mile from Casalago when I thought about prepping my camera for the possibility of wildlife photos along our final stretch. Thought being the ineffective keyword because what do I see about a quarter mile from our destination but seven deer in assorted sizes. They were standing close together, calmly looking at me while I’m scrambling for the perfect shot, which turned out to involve only two of the deer who patiently waited for me to focus.

Later in the early evening D and I had kicked back in our family room and were talking via cell phone to Offspring #3 and her hub, when what do we behold across the road, not six or seven deer, but now eight of those lovely creatures wandering through the wooded area. Too late and too far away for me to capture that awesome moment since some unknown had already spooked our deer family into hurrying away. Indeed, families do come in assorted sizes and species; how fortunate are those who hang out together—every now and then.

As for our family, we bought this place at Lake of the Ozarks over twenty years ago. We, as is Hubby D and I along with four of our five adult offspring and spouses. Offspring #1 did not participate since he and his family were living in Montana and later, Wyoming. What a nice trade-off—their coming east to Lake of the Ozarks for fishing and boating; the rest of us going west, traveling from their home in Cody, Wyoming through Yellowstone National Park on our way to his wife’s family ranch in Island Park, Idaho for some R&R. Later this spring those Wyoming Giacs, as we refer to them, will be spending a week with us at Casalago, bringing with them the latest addition to the family and start of a new generation—four-month-old JD.

As for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, D and I have made some necessary adjustments to our easy-come-easy-go lifestyle. He no longer strolls through Walmart five days a week. On the other hand, I’m constantly in search of supermarket bargains since we take most of our meals at home instead of eating out. That would be our main meal—midday—what our offspring and theirs refer to as lunch.

On a much more serious downside, like all families ours has experienced the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic this past year, though not heartbreaking like those who lost loved ones. Some of our family have already dealt with the virus; most of us have had or are getting our vaccinations, and as the rest become eligible, I certainly hope they will take advantage of the opportunity that wasn’t available early in the pandemic.

One of my best friends from high school did not survive the virus. Not did a cousin who was my age. Nor did a friend who lost his mother-in-law, after COVID swept through the entire family. Nor the elderly mother of a friend, one who enjoyed life to the fullest. Plus other acquaintances who passed without receiving a traditional send-off of friends and family expressing their sympathy. Rest in peace to all those victims and may their mourners find comfort in recalling happier times. 

###

Posted in Family, Friends, Lifestyle, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Peanut Butter Etcetera Cookies, My Way

A partial repeat of a blog I posted back in December 2014 …

Cookies, anyone? The basic recipe for these peanut butter cookies came from my Aunt D who passed it on to my mother and later to me. Where Aunt D got the recipe, I have no idea; but each year when I start assembling the ingredients I think of Aunt D’s kitchen where something was always cooking on the stove or baking in the oven. And then I think of my mother’s kitchen where anything made from scratch on the stove or in the oven was limited to weekends only since Mother held down a fulltime job outside the home, at a time when very few moms did.

In the interest of full disclosure of my growing-up years, I should add that I stayed as far away from my mother’s kitchen as possible, opting instead for the clean-up detail which she gladly relinquished to me. Little did I know then how marriage and five always-hungry children would drastically change my perspective. That’s life or so it’s called.

Of course, over the years I’ve fiddled with the original peanut butter cookie recipe to where it now feels more like mine, but the basic ingredients remain the same and will produce the kind of cookie that invites you to pop one in your mouth and then another and another.

Peanut Butter Etcetera Cookies

Loretta Giacoletto

This recipe makes about 7 dozen cookies, depending on their size

Prior to baking, pre-heat oven to 325F degrees

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1cup softened butter

½ cup softened peanut butter

(I prefer super crunchy. Or, replace peanut butter with ½ cup butter)

2 large eggs

½ t salt

2 cups flour

1 t baking powder

1 t baking soda

2 cups oatmeal (I prefer old-fashioned rolled oats)

1 cup corn flakes

12 oz bag of butterscotch chips

Or

12 oz bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips

Or

6 oz each, butterscotch chips and semi-sweet chocolate chips

Cream together:

Sugars, butter, peanut butter, and eggs

(I prefer using a heavy-duty stand mixer but a hand-held one would also work.

Or, for those of you with arms of steel, mix by hand with your tool of choice.)

Combine with whisk or sifter:

Salt, flour, baking powder, and baking soda

Add dry ingredients to the creamed ingredients and mix well.

Add oatmeal, combine well.

Add cornflakes, combine well.

Add butterscotch or chocolate chips,

Or divide cookie batter in half and add half bag of each chip to mixture.

Divide mixture into workable sections and

Roll each section into a log (about 1.5” diameter)

Chill logs until firm and easy to cut with a sharp knife

Cut logs ½ inch slices and place on cookie sheets

Bake in pre-heated 325F oven about 12 minutes or

Until the cookies are light brown on the bottom.

Store in cookie tins (add orange slice, apple quarter, or piece of bread to keep fresh)

Or,

Place in plastic freezer bags and store in fridge or freezer.

Enjoy!

So, what about you? Any recipes from long ago you’d like to share?

###

Posted in Baking, Family, Food, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Audition

Night School, Chicago’s most innovative brothel. 1931 at the height of The Great Depression

Up close, he looked younger than from the short distance Paris Mallory had observed him two nights before. She figured Matt Pagano to be around her age but much shrewder. Running a well-established brothel would do that to any man or woman whether young or old. Eyes, an intense shade of green; dark, curly hair reminiscent of a gypsy, hollow cheeks, a mouth thin-lipped and determined. Observations she did not mean to be disparaging but rather intriguing.

During an exchange of the usual pleasantries, Paris noticed their threesome, which included Rance Osgood, had now expanded to a fourth. Standing—more like hunched over—next to Matt Pagano was quite possibly the most peculiar looking man she’d ever encountered. Matt introduced him as Ugo Sapone.

“I do hope we can be friends, Mr. Sapone,” she said, her firm handshake an unspoken apology for the superficial pettiness stirring within her.

“So nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Sapone,” Rance said in his usual open-minded acceptance that encompassed people from all walks of life. “Your reputation precedes you.”

Really, Paris thought. Since when did Rance know anything about Ugo Sapone’s reputation? On the other hand, what did she really know about Rance Osgood, other than his musical talent, his gambling habit, and his propensity for men rather than women.

“Do call me Ugo, both of you.” The man spoke with half-closed lids covering his bulging eyes. He made a simple gesture to the bartender, prompting him to set four goblets in front of where they sat and to fill halfway with red wine. Hardly her first choice, but after one taste, she found herself wanting more. As did Rance. After draining his glass, he didn’t hesitate to accept a quick refill.

“I enjoyed your performance at Mrs. Brewster’s,” Matt said, acknowledging both her and Rance.

“Much appreciated,” Rance said, “which is why we’re here. Any chance of our getting an audition?”

Could life have gotten any sweeter or the reluctant Rance any bolder? Matt Pagano agreed to an immediate audition. As did Ugo Sapone, even though he did nothing more than issue an affirmative with those heavy eyelids. Paris found his overall demeanor as odd as his appearance but in a likeable way.

She wondered if Rance felt the same but didn’t get a chance to exchange observations before settling into their stage routine, him seated at a baby grand similar to Auntie’s, and her leaning against its cabinet, which could’ve used a good polishing. The so-called teachers had moved in closer, occupying cushioned chairs. As had the kitchen help, including one black man Paris recognized as a cook who used to lend an occasional hand during Auntie’s special events. Horatio … Horatio Jefferson … he must’ve found fulltime work at Night School. Good for him, Auntie would be pleased.

“How about those songs from the other night,” Matt said in a raised voice. Having resumed his seat at the bar, he swiveled to face the stage. “I’d like Ugo to hear that particular medley, unless you have something else in mind.”

After Paris and Rance repeated their set from the Brewster soiree, the Night School audience stood and applauded with far more enthusiasm than her auntie’s audience had shown. “One more,” Horatio called out, to which Matt gave his approval with a wave of the hand.

“Are you game?” Rance asked Paris.

“I am if you are.”

It was an opportunity too good to resist, ending the audition with one of their favorites, a song that gave hope to a country deep in the throes of the Great Depression entitled, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The silence following that particular number was deafening. As for Matt Pagano, he remained seated, his face blank as a motion picture screen before the first reel started. As was Ugo Sapone’s, which hadn’t changed from the first note to the last.

“Good lord,” Flora yelled. “What the hell are the two of you thinking? All those words about free this and free that. The moon. The stars. Those damn sunbeams.”

That’s when Matt spoke up, in a voice that didn’t need raising, given the mood of the room. “Just remember where you are. Here at Night School, nothing comes free—well, almost nothing. If the students don’t pay, their teachers don’t get paid.” He stood and gestured broadly with outstretched arms. “And neither does anybody else who depends on Night School for a living. Nor outsiders looking for a chance to make a name for themselves.”

Paris didn’t have to look in a mirror to know her face had gone from pale pink to rosy red. Nor did she need to see the faces of her dumbfounded audience who had shown such enthusiasm for her and Rance’s earlier medley. While gathering up her few belongings, she mumbled an apology to Rance, then raised her voice to say, “Come on, we’d better go. I guess this means we’re not hired.”

“Evidently, you were only half listening,” Matt countered. “I’m willing to hire the two of you, for a period of one month, Tuesday through Saturday, five until midnight with time off between performances. If we see an increase in business, we’ll talk about more hours. If there’s no increase, we’ll part ways, with no hard feelings on either side.”

End of excerpt. Chicago’s Headmaster: A Sequel to Chicago’s Headmistress.

Chicago’s Headmaster is available in digital format and print format at Amazon.com and in digital format at Barnes and Noble and iTunes among others.

Posted in Bargain Kindle Fiction, Books, eBooks, fiction, Italian American, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Get Me Started

Oops too late.

Last Sunday when I went downstairs to get some ravioli from our upright freezer, I discovered the dial was turned to off (must’ve been those damn faeries). Bummer! Everything inside the freezer had defrosted. I’m talking soups, marinara sauces, a dozen uncooked chicken thighs, plus a 14-pound turkey. Worse yet, about 500 handmade-by-me ravioli—seafood, ham and turkey, sausage and chicken, sweet potato, beef and pork, ricotta cheese and spinach.

Once nicely arranged in freezer bags, my carefully constructed agnolotti (Northern Italian for ravioli) were now a gooey mess from which there was no possible chance to salvage. Bye-bye I said as Hubby D deep-sixed them into the garbage can. Only the batch of prune, tart cherries, and walnut ravioli had survived—a specialty of mine for the discriminating palate, one served with a drizzle of pure maple syrup.

The freezer couldn’t have been off for more than a few days when I quickly turned the dial back to on. Yay! It restarted immediately (again, damn those faeries). Further assessment of the defrosted damage resulted in my disposing of a variety of soups and gravies. The marinara sauce I kept, along with a large bag of chopped onions.

Although the chicken and turkey had defrosted, they were still usable. I brined the chicken thighs for several hours before roasting at 400F for about an hour, after which I marinated them in Italian dressing. Meanwhile, I deconstructed the turkey, removing the back, wingtips, and lower portion of leg (meatless portion above the joint). Those I put in a stock pot filled with water, along with the turkey neck, giblets, and veggie scraps from my kitchen freezer. After bringing the mixture to a boil, I turned down the heat and let it slow simmer for hours. The turkey breast, wings, thighs and legs I brined overnight in a bucket of water, to which I added about ½ cup of salt and lemon slices from another freezer. That evening I drained the turkey stock through a colander, refrigerated the liquid and disposed of the mushy solids.

Voila! The next morning my turkey liquid had turned gelatinous, producing a thick, rich stock, which I scooped into quart-size bags and froze. Then I roasted the deconstructed turkey (425F for about 1.5 hours), along with two very large sweet potatoes (for a new batch of ravioli) and served the meat for our midday meal, along with mashed russet potatoes, and a salad. After removing the larger pieces of meat from the bones, I used those meat-clinging bones to start a new stockpot (along with more freezer scrap veggies). Hours later I repeated the separation of mushy solids, again refrigerating the savory liquid to gel overnight.

All this cooking and salvaging got me to thinking about the 12 pounds of onions I bought some weeks ago with plans to make French onion soup—someday when the urge aroIt did that day, not because I had a hankering for this time-consumer, or someone in the family had requested it. But rather, not letting those onions slowly go to waste, in spite of my having refrigerated them—far, far away from the potatoes. Please, no finger-wagging. I know onions and potatoes have no business in the fridge, but some rules were made to be broken. At least that’s how it goes in my house.

So, that afternoon I sat at the table and while watching TV, removed the brown skins from the twelve pounds of onions, after which I placed the skins in a stock pot, cwith water, let it come to a boil, then, turned down to slow simmer for hours, producing a dark brown, onion-flavored liquid after separating from the mushy skins. Meanwhile, I cut all those skinned onions in half (from stem to root), and passed them through the slicer attached to my Cuisinart food processor—producing enough uniform onion half-moons to fill a 13 gallon stainless steel commercial mixing bowl, courtesy of my caterer friend E.

The next morning I sautéed to a light golden brown all those onion strips in butter, using two skillets to speed up the process (which took about an hour to accomplish) alonone and a half pounds of butter, and about ¼ teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper for each new skillet batch.

Time for the serious pot now—a huge, thick-bottom aluminum commercial pot (again from E), which I set on my elongated middle burner. In went the onions and when they started cooking I added some paprika, turkey stock from the day before, and after a while the onion broth, along with about 5 bay leaves. After bringing all this to a boil and adding a cup of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio), I turned down the heat and let it slow simmer for about two hours before declaring it done. Soups on, I could’ve shouted. Except it’s supposed to be better after sitting overnight. After the soup cooled down, I scooped up portions into contains for the next day or so and quart-size plastic bags to freeze for later.

As for the roasted chicken thighs, once again I removed most of the meat from the bone and froze in three plastic bags to use later for risotto, ravioli, or stir-fries. And made stock with the meaty bones and my last bag of scrap veggies from the freezer. Stock turned out perfect!

As for my ever doing this … oh, wait a minute. What about those roasted sweet potatoes I already mashed, with plans on turning into ravioli. Not this day or the next or the one after that. Those sweet potatoes are going into the freezer, that’s what. They’ll just have to wait for another day when … don’t get me started.

###

Posted in Cooking, Family, Food, Italian American, kitchen, Lifestyle, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Italy. A timely repeat of a blog from three years ago …

It’s Me—Giuseppe!

One of my fondest memories of visiting the Piemonte family villages in Northern Italy is the year Uncle J and my brother K went with Hubby D and me. The last time Uncle J had been in that area was as a young boy of eight or so, having traveled there in the 1930s with his immigrant mother and aunt. While his mother and aunt spent many months selling the family homestead and taking care of other legal affairs, Uncle J wandered the Alpine foothills with no thoughts of the school he’d left behind in Illinois or of the school in Colleretto he might’ve attended to broaden his education, an unfortunate judgment error on the part of his mother since Uncle J didn’t finish out third grade before going to Italy and returned too late to begin again in the fall, setting him back two whole school years. It was the 1930s immigrant way.

During our turn of the 21st Century trip Uncle J had several people he wanted to visit—one an elderly aunt now in her nineties who didn’t know he was coming to see her but did remember him as a young boy. D, K, and I sat in the aunt’s dining/living room, and listened to Uncle J and his aunt talk about the passing of this relative and that. When she brought out the customary box of family photographs, we three outsiders excused ourselves and drove twenty minutes to Monte Piano for a return visit with a distant cousin on my maternal side and to show K the eleventh-century house where our grandmother spent her childhood, a safety hazard now and uninhabitable. Cousin P explained how he and his sister often carried large stones up the mountainside each school day, building necessities their father used to stabilize the old structure where they too had lived as children.

On this particular visit the widower P was living next door to the old homestead, inone-room apartment, part of a two-story structure similar to an old-style condominium. As with all Italians who feel a connection, he invited us into his home for a glass of homemade wine. And while we were there I couldn’t help but notice his two posters hanging on the wall—one of Great Britain’s Princess Diana; the other of Marilyn Monroe in her well-publicized calendar pose. Nice. Awkward but nice.

The next day Uncle J wanted to visit a boyhood chum from 70-plus years ago. “Do you think he’ll remember you?” I asked, trying to let him down gently.

“Why wouldn’t he,” Uncle J replied. “I remember him.”

So, the four of us stood outside a two-story building and Uncle J called out his friend’s name, just as he’d done when they were kids. A door on the second level opened. Out came an elderly gent, white-haired and slender. He leaned over the rail and squinted while observing us below. “It’s me—Giuseppe!” Uncle J said, using the Italian version of his name.

His friend smiled broadly and immediately gestured for us to come upstairs. What followed was a round of vino rosa and the promise of endless stories, during which D, K, and I once again excused ourselves, leaving Uncle J to reminisce with his friend while we sought new memories of our own.

D and I often compare notes about our separate childhoods and how we always stood the yard of friends’ houses and called out their names rather than knock on the door or ring the bell. Telephoning in advance—no way, although we all had home phones, in my case an 8-party line after moving out of East St. Louis.

Yes, it was the Age of Spontaneity, one that still existed in Italy a few years ago. But not to the extent it once did. Nothing stays the same forever. We have now entered the Age of Advance Planning, where every encounter begins with an electronic device, usually a text message and agreed upon time to meet.

What about you? How do you connect with friends and family?

###

Photo Credit: Gran Paradiso, Piemonte Region, Italy: L. Giacoletto

 

Posted in Family, Friends, Italian American, Italy, Lifestyle, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lincoln Zoo, Chicago 1931

An afternoon at Lincoln Zoo with two kids he barely knew was not Matt Pagano’s idea of utilizing time to his advantage although he had to admit these kids were kind of cute. Instead of the drab clothes of the orphanage, they were dressed in their Sunday best, clothes he figured must’ve come from Giulietta Bracca. If she’d done the same for all the Guardian Angel kids, he figured Sister Mary Joe would be hitting him up for a beyond-the-customary contribution in the near future.

To add to Matt’s current annoyance, Ugo Sapone had deposited the three of them at the zoo’s entrance and said he’d be back around four o’clock. While they were walking along the pathway, Matt glanced at his wrist watch, probably longer than he should have because the little girl stopped, as did the boy and, of course, Matt.

“Miss Giulietta’s watch has diamonds in it,” the girl said. “She never looked at it when she was with us.”

Oh, yeah, how well he knew that watch, having moved it and its diamond studded case from Giulietta’s best jewelry box to the wall safe. Matt’s watch had been a graduation gift from the parents who raised him, and seldom left his wrist, other than to avoid the possibility of its getting wet. Ugo being Ugo had suggested the purchase a pricier model befitting Matt’s new position but he couldn’t bring himself to shove the economical Elgin in his drawer of forgotten things.

“You’re still looking at the watch,” the girl said.

Blessed Mother, who made this kid his keeper. She’d probably report his dereliction of duty to Mary Joe. “Sorry. It’s just a habit with me.”

“What’s a habit?” the boy asked.

“Something you feel the need to do even when I don’t.”

“You mean like sitting on the toilet when you don’t have to poop?”

The girl reached over and yanked her brother’s hair. “Michael! Sister Barbara said no more poopy talk.”

He lifted his head upward, all the better to view Matt’s face. “Are you going to tell Sister Barbara what I said?”

“Nah, I got better things to do with my time.”

“Better than being with us?” the girl asked.

“Nothing I can think of right now.” He started walking, all the better to keep them occupied. “So, what’s your favorite thing to see at the zoo?”

“Come on. I’ll show you.” She grabbed his hand and began skipping, the boy trotting alongside to keep up.

What she just had to show Matt came as no surprise, their winding up in front of the gorilla Bushman’s cage—the one place he could’ve done without. Not so with the Baggio kids who squealed and giggled as they watched Bushman hurl his shit at the crowd. Another reminder of Gemma Costa and their day with the gorilla’s antics and the unrelated aftermath of death and devastation neither of them could have anticipated. But that was then and he needed to be in the now. “Not too close,” he warned the kids.

“We’ll all be in trouble with Sister Barbara if I bring you home stinking like an outhouse.”

“Outhouse? What’s that?” the boy asked.

The girl shook her head and gave Matt a look straight out of a nun’s handbook.

Message received, he’d have to choose his words more carefully in the future. “Never mind I guess you’ve never been to the country.” Nor out of the orphanage for more than a few hours here and there.

“Our papa lives in the country,” the girl said.
“Does it stink there?”

“Nah, forget what I said about … outhouses.”

No sooner had the words left Matt’s mouth when a glob of shit struck the boy on his bare leg. “Sonofa … blueberry,” the boy said, inspecting the damage. “You gotta a hankie, Mister … mister … I forget. What should we call you?’

“Matt. Matt will do just fine.” Having pulled out two handkerchiefs from his trousers pocket, he gave the crumpled one to the boy. “See what you can do with this.”

Holding the handkerchief between two fingers, he turned to his sister and made a face.

“Mr. Ugo cleans up Bushman’s shit,” she said.

“Not anymore. You two wanted to play dodge the-you-know-what with Bushman so you clean up your own mess.”

“Miss Giulietta wouldn’t like this, not one bit,” the girl said, tears welling in her eyes. “Sister Barbara said she’s never coming back.”

The boy lowered his head and sniffed. “Yeah, she’s with God now.”

“That’s right,” Matt said. “But Miss Giulietta is still watching over you so be nice. Okay?”

Evidently being nice was not in the cards since the girl stomped her foot and crossed her arms. “It’s not fair,” she said, “getting stuck with someone like you.”

“I agree. Looks like we’re stuck with each other—you, me, and … and …”

“His name is Michael. Mine is Mary Ann. Try not to forget next time. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Now give me the damn handkerchief.”

Michael handed it over but the little snot nose just had to add, “Oh-oh. He said a really bad word.”

“Guess that makes us even-steven.” Matt countered while wiping the boy’s leg. Damn. Ugo should’ve given him a heads-up. Or a wet rag. He pulled out his flask, dampened the cloth with some whiskey and finished the cleanup with a gently rub.

“I don’t like Steven,” Mary Ann said. “He pulls my hair when nobody’s looking.”

“Even-steven isn’t real. It’s … it’s … forget about even-steven. As for mean Steven, shall I tell Sister Barbara?”

“She’d say I should pray for him.”

“How ’bout I tell him to knock it off.”

“No, I can take care of myself.”

End of excerpt, Chicago’s Headmaster (a work in progress)

Posted in Books, fiction, Italian American, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pure Gold in the Eye of the Beholder

A good friend and colleague of Offspring #4 stopped by yesterday with a promised gift of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, otherwise known as quarin in the Piemontese dialect of Italian-Americans in our Illinois town and barbison or quarin in Colleretto and the Castelnuovo area of Northern Italy. Could life get any better? These mushrooms had been harvested hours before, on J’s own property, right before snow began to fall, our first of the season and unusually early for Veterans Day in Southern Illinois.

As soon as J left (with two jars of my antipasto), Hubby D started lusting after the mushrooms that J had already cleaned and cut into generous pieces.

“Have we got any bagna càuda?” D asked.

As if there was ever any doubt. D had referred to the traditional garlic/butter/anchovy sauce the Piemontese enjoy as a dipping sauce for veggies, among other uses. In my case, pint-size jars of the homemade concoction stored in the fridge, and used to enhance meat, fish, veggies, gravy, sauce, or on its own with pasta. D dipped to his heart’s content in a small pot of hot bagna, but only made a small dent in J’s mushrooms so I decided to st-r-e-t-ch the rest of those gems to make them last as long as possible. Not wanting to mess with pickling, I instead opted on a simple sauté before freezing in small portions. Here’s my recipe:

Hen-of-the-Woods (Quarin) Mushrooms, My Way

(Works just as well with other mushrooms)

4 ounces unsalted butter

4 ounces extra virgin olive oil

2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces

¼ C chopped onions

¼ C chopped garlic

2 T basil pesto

2 T fresh lemon juice

Salt and optional freshly ground pepper to taste

Over medium stove top heat, melt butter and olive oil in large skillet.

Add mushrooms, in at least two batches to avoid overcrowding.

Allow each pan of mushroom to brown a little without stirring.

Combine all sautéed mushrooms in the skillet and reduce heat.

Add onions and garlic to mushrooms and stir, continuing to cook until soft.

Add pesto and swirl through mixture.

Taste, add salt if needed, hand-ground pepper if desired.

Turn off heat and squeeze fresh lemon juice over mixture.

Done!

Ready to enjoy as an appetizer or an accompaniment to polenta, or other dishes.

Or, place loosely in freezer bags or containers and freeze until ready to use.

(My thanks to Diego Bertot, owner-chef of Ristorante Minichin, Colleretto, Italy, for the correct spelling of quarin. And to his brother Diego Bertot for another name for hen-of-the-words—barbison.)

 

Posted in Cooking, Italian American, kitchen, Lifestyle, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Excerpt from The Headmistress’s Son: A Sequel to Chicago’s Headmistress

Chicago 1931, at the height of The Great Depression …

“Rent’s due,” Pooch said while counting out three singles, his half of the weekly rent that included someone else dealing with their dirty laundry. “What with you and me practically family, if money’s a problem, you can pay me your share later.” He winked before adding, “With interest.”

“Like hell.” Matt Pagano eyed Pooch from where they sat at the battered table in the basement room they occupied. “Just deduct my part from the two-week deposit you still owe me. In case you forgot, it was me and me alone who paid the entire amount out of my pocket.”

Pooch backed off with an exaggerated show of upright palms. “Just yanking your chain. And not to keep harping on job opportunities, but Oscar’s still got room for one more worker. The night shift, in particular, so I can move to strictly days instead of working the second and third shift straight through. Sixteen hours be damned. The pay ain’t worth a hill of beans but one free meal comes with each eight-hour shift. Think meatloaf and taters, ham and beans, corned beef hash.” Pooch lowered his eyelids and smacked his lips. “Don’t get me wrong—Any Time’s food can’t hold a candle to what your ma and mine used to cook, but there’s enough to fill the belly of most hungry men.”

Matt’s belly rumbled in sympathetic response. True hunger he’d never known but he could feel it coming somewhere down the line if his luck didn’t change pretty soon. God knows, since coming to this once proud city, he’d seen hunger on more faces than he could begin to count. Going without an occasional meal was nothing compared to the loss of a roof over an entire family’s head or sleeping in a bug-free bed. Chicago’s homeless were making do under the Michigan Street Bridge, in cardboard shanties near the Loop and Randolph, or in Hooverville’s garbage dump at 31st and Cicero. Not even the corrupt mayor and his corrupt cronies could make the Depression poverty disappear. “How long you been shoveling garbage at Any Time Bar?” he asked Pooch.

“Ten days, give or take.”

“Enough to collect one week’s pay, right?”

“You bet. Plus occasional tips—two bits here, two bits there. It all adds up to me earning every nickel, dime, and quarter that goes in my pocket and then some. Cleaning up blood and vomit, piss and shit, tobacco juice, cigars, cigarettes, and overflowing spittoons ain’t my idea of proper employment. And don’t get me started on the toilets. I swear, women are nastier than men and that’s saying a lot. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. Between Any Time’s around-the-clock booze and betting, the job should last as long as customers keep making asses of themselves.”

“Yeah, let the good times roll,” Matt said with a stretch of arms overhead. “Let me get this straight. You want me to hire on at nights so you can at least see the mess you’d be cleaning during the daytime.”

“Something like that.”

“No thanks. I’ll keep looking.”

“Got any prospects?” Pooch asked.

“Maybe so, maybe not. It’s too soon to tell.”

“In other words, you ain’t got nothing.”

“In other words, until I got something worth talking about, it’s none of your business.”

“Okay, okay, don’t be so touchy,” Pooch said. “I just thought … well, since we’ve been buddies since third grade ….”

“Say no more. If I get a job somewhere better than Any Time, I’ll keep an eye out for you too.”

“Thanks, Matt. I really hate working there. If it wasn’t for you here with me, I’d be on the first train back to Joliet.”

Matt figured as much. “What’s the worst thing about Any Time?”

Pooch heaved a deep sigh before answering. “Not the stinking customers. Not the bartender or the cook. Not even Oscar whose bark is ten times worse than his bite. It’s that damn guy who comes in every other day to collect the take for The Big Fellow.”

“The Big Fellow—not sure I’ve heard of him,” Matt said with a straight face.

“You’d hear nothing but if you worked at Any Time. Or any other bar or restaurant or diner in Chicago. For that matter, any money maker in Chicago—underground or legit. The Big Fellow has his finger in everything. Even in the boonies south of Springfield, wherever there’s money to be made off the sweat and fear of others. I’m talking about the one and only Al Capone.”

Matt lifted his brow in mock surprise. “No kidding. Sure, I’ve heard of Capone but not in terms of The Big Fellow. What about his problems with the Internal Revenue?”

“Ain’t going away, leastways that’s what I hear at Any Time. But it’s still business as usual and when collections come due, Capone sends his bagman, the meanest no-good sonofabitch in all of Chicago.”

“This sonofabitch, he has a name?”

“Sure as hell does. Ever heard of Fingers Bellini?”

Again, Matt replied with the blank expression he picked up from Ugo Sapone. “Only in passing, what about him?”

“Well for starters, the other day he accused Any Time’s bartender of shorting Capone’s take. When Eddie denied doing such an idiotic thing, Bellini punched him in the gut, so hard he crumpled like yesterday’s Tribune. Then Bellini kicked him in the kidneys, again and again until my own started to ache so bad I threw up in the waste basket.”

“Where was Oscar?” Matt asked.

“Hiding out in the john. Didn’t I tell you Oscar’s all talk and no guts? To keep peace, the owner Terry Carmody handed Bellini two sawbucks from his own pocket, whatever it took to get Bellini out the door. As for Eddie, he got carried out that same door on a stretcher. Not sure when he’s coming back, if ever.”

“Maybe you should apply for the bartender job,” Matt said.

“I did, practically got down on my knees. But Terry gave it to this guy Billy, which made perfect sense since Terry was looking for a way out from totally supporting Billy and Billy’s widowed mom, who happens to be Terry’s sister. Family first, I get that. And since you and me are tighter than Siamese twins, I’d vouch for you, Matt. Show you the ropes if you got hired, which, on my say-so, I sure as hell know you would.”

“Like I’d need special training to clean up,” Matt said.

“More like keeping your nose out of certain things that don’t concern you.”

“I’ll think on it.”

End of excerpt.

 

 

 

Posted in eBooks, fiction, Italian American, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment