I can’t remember if I trembled when they asked.
I’m pretty sure I did. The request arrived in an e-mail but would’ve been cooler if it came via telegraph.
Coming to your town for five days –(STOP)-
Can we stay with you –(STOP)-
Or at least share one good Italian meal
I cupped my hand beneath my mouth to catch the excuses as they flowed.
- Wait! Big Girl (our oldest daughter and their missionary nanny for three months) will be back at college by then.
- Tony Bear and I’re playing in a softball tournament that weekend.
- There’s no way we have enough room. Folks will have to sleep on the sofa and the floor.
- The wife-mommy intimidates me. Because she’s a food blogger.
- And what if she’s also a white-gloved dust inspector? The house hasn’t been cleaned, really spiffed up, in so long.
And yet, how could I say no?
Big Girl had lived with them a quarter of a year, in a compact casa in Honduras. They shared their every meal, their children, and their vision with her. I couldn’t say no. But I wanted to, was ashamed I considered it.
I tried to say, “Mi casa es tu casa,” but I couldn’t get my Scandinavian- Celtic-British lips around the words, much less the concept. The only way I can achieve a really good Spanish accent is to mimic the Verizon recording: “Para Espanol, marque el dos.”
Where did they go—my gift of hospitality, my spirit of generosity?
I grew up. Little Me (“Wanna figure out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Lollipop? Here, you go first.”) was cannibalized by Grown-up Me (“Me, my, mine. That’s all I have time for.”).
Honk, honk, honk!
Big Girl clambered down the stairs. “They’re here!”
I heard jubilation in her voice, a song. I hope she sounds like that when she speaks of us, I thought, her real family.
As she sprinted toward the street, I watched from the foyer window.
My eyes bugged as all five of them tumbled out of a dusty old van.
The wife-mommy’s hair was like whipped cream with one drop of yellow food coloring, but her eyes weren’t blue. With hair that Swedish looking, I would’ve thought they’d be glacier, no, fjord, blue.
If I took a glass prep bowl and filled it with good quality Italian olive oil and whisked in vanilla? That would be the color of her eyes. She was tinier than me, with an elegant slice to her deltoids.
Now he, the husband-daddy, was a Mr. America leprechaun.
His dark hair smooshed up into a singular wave. From inside the house I could feel his just-bonked-a-tuning-fork-on-a-brick energy undulate toward me. I possess that vitality too, but somehow while they were here, I felt subdued. Calm, not jangly, hot chocolate instead of espresso.
All three children boasted banana-colored hair and all three blinked blue, surprised eyes.
Baby-boy buried his face in wife-mommy’s neck as the two pre-school -aged girls catapulted into Big Girl’s embrace. “We missed you! Tell us a story!”
Unnoticed, I pressed my nose against the door’s screen, waited to face-plant into the invisible ice-cube structure I was certain would exist between us.
I know, I thought, I’ll fetch my crème brulee torch. But I didn’t need to. When they climbed onto the front porch, I didn’t even get goosebumps.
I wonder if they ever figured it out. The bad thing I did.
In the weeks prior to their arrival, I’d crafted a plan, a schedule, to keep them busy. Away from our place. Because really, what good could come from ten people in a hundred-year-old house for five days?
They would see sights. The West Virginia hills. Over in the next county, with other families, in their homes. Go, go, go. Vroom, vroom, vroom. Then they’d pass out every night by nine, right?
And then came the day they didn’t want to go anywhere. They just wanted to be. Here.
“We like your house best,” they declared.
Beneath my bangs, my eyebrows lifted. “Really?”
“Really,” the wife-mommy said. “It’s like a super cool, artsy bed and breakfast.”
My shoulders descended. The corners of my mouth lifted.
“Nap time,” the husband-daddy proclaimed. With Baby-boy slumped in his arms and a daughter on either side, he headed for the stairs.
And then we were alone, the wife-mommy and me. I checked my watch, tied my shoes. What do we do now, I wondered.
“Wanna cook some stuff?” I said.
She rubbed her hands together and followed me into the kitchen.
Over at the counter, I sliced strawberries into thin, red halos. She reached for the bowl and showered the fruit in balsamic vinegar, sprinkled it with raw sugar. We sampled, and smiled.
She peeled and chopped roasted golden beets. In a pretty pottery bowl, I showered the cubes twice. Once with vinagrette, then again with toasted pecans and feta diced fine.
“Add that to the list,” wife-mommy said, “of recipes you have to send me.”
From the fridge I removed the menu from our Italian Feast Night. “Mark all the things you want recipes for.”
After she circled almost every item, she turned her attention to the shitake mushrooms we bought at the farmers market. She sautéed them in golden green olive oil with heaps of garlic minced by me. She flicked in a speck of Silafunghi, my favorite hot pepper concoction, stirred, and lifted the wooden spoon to her lips.
“Wait!” I blurted as I pressed the spoon back into the pan. “Don’t taste it yet.”
Darting outside to my herb garden, I used my fingernails to nip off the largest sage leaves I could find, then I brushed the soil flecks away.
Back in the kitchen I told her my mother’s food-safety philosophy: You gotta eat a peck of dirt before you die.
At the stove the silvery leaves floated in hot oil until they became diaphanous. With my Grannys’s tongs, I held a leaf up to the light.
“Don’t they look like stained glass? Or an old Coke bottle?”
“Put some mushrooms on your fork, and a shave of Romano, and top it off with a crispy sage leaf. Now taste.”
Her tongue worked. Her eyelids fluttered. She held up both thumbs and I clapped. As she prepped another bite, I whispered so she wouldn’t hear me, turned away, so she couldn’t see my mouth move.
“I wish you lived here,” I said to the wall. “Then we could be friends. We’d eat like this over and over, not just one Sunday afternoon and never again.”
The next day, as their van drove away, Big Girl and I watched and waved from the curb. The morning sun glinted off my daughter’s tear tracks.
I didn’t cry. I was too busy working on my accent, in my head, trying to get it just right in case they circled the block and stopped in front of our house for one more Big Girl hug or kiss.
But they didn’t come back around. If they had, I would’ve sprinted out into the street and pecked on the husband-daddy’s window until he rolled it down.