The following is an excerpt from Teeth in a Pickle Jar.  I hope you will enjoy reading it, and that it will whet your appetite for more!

    "Weather awful," Mamma announced as she came in carrying a dripping umbrella in one hand and a Macy's bag in the other. She wore a pair of dark green galoshes that looked at least two sizes too big, and a hooded plastic poncho that reminded me of the yellow slicker I wore in kindergarten.

    "Mamma, where did you get these shoes?" I chuckled.

    "I buy them on sale, seven bucks. This the only pair they have left. What's the matter, you no like them?"

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 galoshes.

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 respectful demeanor.

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 Mamma's life.

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 mouth, eh?"

I smiled.

     "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 who?"

     "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 owned, dishwashers.

     "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 clients."

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 miss!"

     "You need husband," she sighed. "He deal with your fresh mouth!"

     "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 door.

I walked with her to the elevator and pushed the button.

     "You know that teaching French was not my first choice."

     "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...


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Copyright © 2010 H.B. Milligan
Library of Congress
LCCN 2005933297