I miss you, Luce. You always cooked the Christmas goose.
Through the years, whenever we knocked, it was you who’d answer the door. I remember your Robert De Niro eyes. Smiling without smiling, you’d invite us inside. Your new wife would run and hide. You kept any negative comment to yourself with the silent pride of a married bachelor who always gave his best under the circumstances.
Visits began like a Hallmark commercial, everyone happy at the front door, but dysfunctional once inside. Sort of a Paulie Pennino environment.
But that goose. She always looked better than she tasted. Sitting there with her seductive stare. Perfumed, shiny, robust. Perfect curves. A store window display. A plastic model.
It’s the inside that counts. She was dry to the bone. You accepted the fact with a mumbling grace.
Your wife wasn’t there even when she was. But you were. Old faithful.
Honestly, I preferred your meatloaf. It was the Wednesday meal, as I recall. You prepared it for the midweek church service—fellowship, they called it back then. You were standoffish there, with a far corner stare. Bored. Detached. Doing what was expected of you. As regular as a clock. It was your calling (which you pronounced, “cawling”).
But that meatloaf. It was tasteless, Lucian, though it wasn’t the least bit uninteresting due to its size and color: a gray boulder large enough to feed the poor of the city for days. I called it a moon rock. And, like the biblical miracle of the fish and the loaves, there were several baskets and fragments left over. Everyone at the prayer meeting claimed to be satisfied. Truth is that your small congregation of faithful followers would avoid it altogether if there wasn’t enough ketchup for lubricant. You yourself wouldn’t partake of it until the following day—a refrigerated basalt needing lots of salt but partnering perfectly with scrambled eggs before you’d hit the iron weights in your oil-stained garage.
You were gifted with the side of mashed potatoes but managed to ruin them with an unbearable amount of garlic powder, despite frequent discouragements and complaints. I admire that you never backed down and stood for what you believed without apology or compromise. You were stubborn with your seasoning, ready to argue the point.
In the winter months, you wore a dark blue or black beanie to warm your bald head and reminded me of a burglar, looking this way and that, before the deadly lacing of the lumps. Whenever you read your Bible after dinner, you’d appear as innocent as a Jewish rabbi wearing a Yarmulke, the pungent scent of garlic rising like incense from your salt-and-pepper beard.
But those potatoes. Extended family members who were new, polite, experimental, or brave enough would proceed to eat. A single bite and you’d breathe nasty fumes for days. I remember the dachshund licking the leftovers, her tail poker straight with concentration (or taste bud shock) before chasing the potent mixture with a huge bowl of water followed by further lapping from the toilet, flushed or unflushed, didn’t matter. Later, even the breastfed infants would wail through the night at the terrible taste of their mother’s milk (that’s my theory, anyway). E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e reeked of garlic, down to the fat meow cat. The whole scene was funny. No one would ever admit it until now, but we all looked forward to that part of the meal because it was an ice breaker to start things off or to finish whenever there was nothing left to say.
After dinner, you’d always hand me a wad of cash and direct me to the local Dunkin Donuts. It was tradition to send me out into the face-numbing cold. You wanted those pastries served fresh. I’d bring back two dozen or more, half of them with thick holiday icing, and the kids would go crazy. You preferred the plain ones, of course. The adults would sip coffee (which you pronounced “cawl-fee”), and conversation would deteriorate from shallow to awkward to downright mean sometimes. A bloodline mixture of German, Italian, and Irish, all with ongoing issues and loitering around a heavy homemade bench. Alcohol was prohibited. There were only sober fights in your big white house with red shutters and we had nothing upon which to blame our poor behavior or to douse the occasional fire.
Luce, your meals brought everyone together, even if no one could agree on much else. You were kind and generous and delightfully strange, aproned and stationed at your ancient and crooked stove, oven mitts that were cartoon twins made in your likeness, your image. You never did replace that missing back burner but covered the hole with a small white plate. You always wore Penn State. These are only a few random details. You were unique and hard to understand. Your children were difficult and often unfair, but you brought them together for so many years with your food. Quite the accomplishment.
Your Swedish meatballs (“bawls”) were delicious. No leftovers for the dogs (“dawlgs”).
After the garlic babies were tucked into bed, I’d go on what I call a walk of remembrance. No one seemed to notice whenever I slipped out the back door with a thermos of coffee into the bitter South Jersey winter. The invisible man.
But those walks. Doing what writers sometimes do when they’re not writing—reliving things—finding a better way to say what needs to be said, and to preserve what really matters. Memories, like gold refined in the fire, my pen to the paper.
On that frigid walk, my breath formed garlicky puffs of steam that dissipated into the nighttime sky as fast as the years. You’d preach this often from your pulpit: life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
I’m visualizing the Christmas lights on Broad Street—Dollar Store cheap, haphazard, and extra bright that night—the crunch of snow under my feet, the black wind moaning off the choppy Delaware River, the headless Joseph at your neighbor’s manger, the almost empty bar across the street from the almost empty police station. Good old Gibbstown. Practically a ghost town at that hour. Everyone cozy and warm inside, staring at the sports channel or playing cards. Not me.
Loneliness is my drug.
Looking back, I remember feeling a strange mixture of happiness and unease at that final reunion. Maybe it was an innate knowledge of a series of unforeseen events and personal storms that would scatter everyone sitting at your table and even bury some. It’s a good thing that humans are forbidden to see the future because I wouldn’t be able to help myself and go crazy with curiosity and fear. What I know now still folds me over with pain.
I stepped inside the honky tonk across the street not even two hundred feet from your house. I wasn’t looking for companionship. I needed a drink. So, I ordered three shots of Turkey 101 and mixed it with the piping hot coffee in my thermos half full, half empty. I walked the same block three times, sipping my spiked beverage, and smoking cherry blend. Eventually, I stopped in front of your lamplit window and watched everyone, unseen. Family voices were muted behind the glass. Snow was falling again. You were standing in the center of that bright room, smiling through the flakes.
I tamped out my pipe and, for reasons unknown to me then, toasted the snow globe moment with one final swallow.