* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Mamma placed the galoshes and the umbrella on a rubber mat by the door and hung
the dripping poncho on the doorknob.
"Let's just say they look suitable for walking in
manure," I said. "And they are big enough for an elephant."
I laughed at the image of an elephant trudging through cow dung in Mamma's
She glared at me.
"You think it funny, eh? You think I should wear ballet
slippers in rain?"
I wanted to laugh out loud at the mental picture of Mammas' thick, veiny legs
jumping over puddles in dainty satin slippers, but I managed to keep a suitably
Mamma smoothed her hair and readjusted the bun tied at the nape of her neck. She
had worn the same hairstyle ever since I could remember, but now her jet-black
hair had streaks of silver in it.
Mamma brought the Macy's bag into the kitchen, put it on the counter and gently
removed the aluminum foil-covered baking dish from it.
"I made lasagna," she announced.
She picked up the dish and turned toward the oven.
"What, you no preheat?" she asked.
"Oops, sorry, Mamma, I... was rushing around and it
slipped my mind."
"Like is so difficult to remember, eh?" she sniffed.
Mamma turned on the oven, took an apron out of her bag - she always brought her
own, since I didn't own any - and tied it around her ample waist. She was short
and heavyset, with a round face and dark eyes.
I often wondered why the laws of genetics were so unpredictable, for I looked
nothing at all like Mamma. I was 5 foot 7, 130 pounds, and had dark blonde hair.
Photographs of Papa that Mamma had kept in a leather-bound album showed a tall,
lanky, dark-haired man, so there was at least some slight resemblance from that
side of the family.
Mamma slid the baking dish in the oven. I knew better than to suggest nuking the
lasagna in the microwave. To Mamma everything, from cooking to scrubbing
floors, had to be done the old-fashioned, slow, laborious way.
Contrary to Mamma, I avoided all but essential household chores. I wasn't
exactly a slob in the strictest sense of the word, which I imagined meant
breeding rats and roaches in one's kitchen. I occasionally threw a wet rag at a
spider web hanging from the ceiling, or wiped off a thick layer of dust. But I
never consciously engaged in the actual act of cleaning. Those mindless chores
were for Mamma, not for me.
I wanted to distance myself from the drudgery and inanity of Mamma's life. Hers
was filled with boring and meaningless tasks, and I was afraid that if I behaved
like Mamma I would end up just like her: scrubbing the floor on hands and knees,
spending every evening hunched over the stove, peeling, chopping, slicing,
mixing, stirring, weighing, measuring, blanching, oiling, frying, baking,
basting, and stirring.
I actually believed that my aversion to domesticity was a good thing, for it
meant that I was above such menial tasks and could therefore channel my time and
energy into more lofty, intellectual pursuits: reading, for example, or watching
educational programs on PBS. Mamma was interested in neither and she used to
scoff at the pile of New Yorkers stashed under my bed.
"Like this is gonna help you get husband, eh?" she
sniffed. "Better learn how to cook."
Contrary to what Mamma expected, these comments actually made me feel good, for
they meant that I had successfully detached myself from the torturous pattern of
So as an adult I filled my fridge and kitchen cabinets with an array of canned
and frozen foods, and poor Hayley grew up thinking that a can of Chef Boyardee
ravioli constituted a perfectly good alternative to the food pyramid. Mamma used
to look at contents of my cabinets and shake her head in disbelief.
"Macaroni and cheese from box? What the hell is that?
And look at this," she took a jar of tomato sauce from the kitchen shelf and
pointed it at me. "Salsa pomodoro from jar! Like making sauce from real tomatoes
is so hard, eh?"
She used to come over laden with groceries and cook up a week's supply of
lasagna, chicken marsala, or, Hayley's favorite, tiny, hand-molded meatballs
smothered in her homemade tomato sauce. Hayley watched wide-eyed as Mamma stood
sweating over a boiling pot, vigorously stirring its contents.
Once, when Hayley was six or seven, she asked why I couldn't cook like grandma,
whom she called Nonna, or, for that matter, like her friends' mothers. I was
about to plead some lifelong illness, possibly a stove allergy, but I quickly
decided that if I had to lie to my daughter I'd better stay as close to the
truth as possible.
"Well, darling, not all mommies cook," I made this
answer up on the spot and hoped that it would not lead to further questioning.
"Yes, they do," she nodded her head.
"No, they don't. Some mommies cook, yes, but others
don't. It's perfectly normal for mommies not to cook. As long, of course, as
their children don't go hungry. "
Hayley pondered this answer for a moment.
"I am not hungry," she said. "So I guess it's okay."
"So what's new with you?" I asked Mamma as I was
setting the table. She stood at the sink washing lettuce.
"Vincenzo, one of Francesco customers, fell off horse
and broke hip, knee and arm," she breathlessly reported. "He come to store on crutches and I
look at him and tell him, old man like you gallop on horse through Flushing
Meadows Park like bat out of hell? Ché pazzo, eh!"
Mamma blotted the lettuce leaves with a paper towel, put the salad into a bowl
and tossed it vigorously with olive oil and vinegar.
"So anyway, I tell him that and you know what he say to
me? He say, Angelina, you stay out of my business, okay? And I say, eh, stupido,
I still have my two legs and two arms, and you, you stumble into my shop
bandaged like Egyptian mummy."
Mamma put the salad bowl on the table and took the piping hot lasagna dish out
of the oven.
"Eat," she commanded.
I took a bite. The fresh, hot, gooey lasagna melted wonderfully in my mouth.
"This is delicious, Mamma," I said. "I didn't realize
how hungry I was."
Mamma's face flinched and I sensed that she was displeased with me. Goodness,
all I did was compliment her on the lasagna.
"Look at you!" she snorted. "You forty-four-years-old
and you still talk with mouth full, eh?"
"Sorry, Mamma," I said, swallowing.
"You know what happen if you talk with food in your
"I won't be invited to eat with the Queen of England?"
"What kinda stupido comment is that, eh?" Mamma
put down her fork and took a sip of water. "What can happen is that muscles in
throat tighten," she circled her hand around her neck and jerked her head
backwards. "You can't breathe no more and you can die! All because you talk with
your mouth full, eh?"
Oh, Mamma, this is ludicrous, I thought, but I didn't tell her that. Pointing
out fallacies behind Mamma's comments was useless. I had decided long ago that
placating her by agreeing to whatever absurd theory or rumor she happened to
advance at the moment - and she advanced many -- was the only foolproof way of
staving off an argument.
"Yes, Mamma," I sighed. "I'll keep it in mind."
Mamma picked up her fork, which I took to mean that I had been sufficiently
chastised and reprimanded, and that it was now safe for me to resume eating.
"Did I tell you about Silvia?" she asked after what I
thought was an enjoyable moment of silence.
"Silvia, my new neighbor."
"No," I said, and cringed.
She wiped her lips and put down her fork and knife. Her eyes were bright and her
cheeks red, a sure sign that she was about to deliver a choice morsel of gossip.
"She pregnant with triplets."
"Really? That's a handful."
"You know why she pregnant with triplets?"
"Three eggs were fertilized instead of one?"
I knew, of course, given Mamma's long record of warped logic, that she was not
expecting an anatomically correct answer.
"You don't know what you talk about!" she exclaimed,
inching closer to me and lowering her voice as though my kitchen walls had ears.
"Silvia have triplets," she said in a hushed tone,
"because she eat too much cabbage!"
"Really?" I said, trying to keep a straight face. "That
much cabbage, huh?"
"Yes," she nodded. "She eat three cabbage a day. That
much cabbage can give triplets."
"Well, let's hope she knew not to talk with her mouth
full while she was eating all that cabbage. She could have choked before she
even had the triplets," I said, and immediately regretted it. "Sorry, Mamma, but
this story sounds, well, crazy."
"What, you no believe me?" The chummy camaraderie in
Mamma's voice was gone. Her tone was now sharper, with a hint of outrage. "You
think I... lying?"
"No, of course not," I sighed.
Somewhat mollified Mamma got up, retrieved yellow rubber gloves from her bag,
put them on and started gathering plates, forks, and glasses. I knew better than
to suggest putting the whole lot in the dishwasher. Just as she eschewed
microwaves and other labor-saving gadgets, she didn't like, nor had she ever
"So how is your job, eh?" she asked. "Making any money?
She stood hunched over the sink, vigorously scrubbing dishes and cutlery. I took
a towel and started drying.
"Could be better," I sighed. "I placed an ad online
last night for someone to design a website for me. Maybe it'll attract some more
Mamma shook her head.
"I always tell you, teaching French don't bring no
money, eh." She rinsed the last plate, and handed it to me for drying. "Look at
me, I speak Italian. You see me rolling in money?"
"Maybe not. But if you didn't speak Italian you
wouldn't be working at Francesco's. And just think of all the gossip you'd
"You need husband," she sighed. "He deal with your
"Really?" I chuckled. "And how would he do that?"
Mamma took off the rubber gloves and the apron and put them into the Macy's bag.
"I go now," she said, and went to the hallway. She put
on her galoshes and poncho, took the umbrella, picked up the bag, and opened the
I walked with her to the elevator and pushed the button.
"You know that teaching French was not my first
"I don't know what you talking about," she said, her
eyes fixed on the elevator door.
"Peace Corps," I said. "Remember?"
Mamma didn't answer. The doors opened and she stepped inside.
"Bye," she said, not looking at me. The doors closed
and the elevator slid downwards.
I went back inside. I filled an electric kettle with water, switched it on and
leaned against the kitchen counter waiting for it to boil. Is it possible, I
wondered, that Mamma really forgot the Peace Corps incident? I certainly didn't.
I closed my eyes and remembered...