I can’t remember if I trembled when they asked. I’m pretty sure I did. The question came in an e-mail but would’ve been cooler if it arrived 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 held my hand under my mouth to catch the excuses as they flowed. Mostly buts. But I think Big Girl (their three-month missionary nanny and then some) will be at college by then. But we have a softball tournament that weekend. But we don’t really have enough room; folks will have to sleep on the floor. And the sofa. But I’m intimidated. ‘Cause the wife mommy’s a food blogger. And freaked. What if she’s 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 for three months. In a compact casa in Honduras. They’d shared their every meal, their children, and their vision with her. I couldn’t say no. But I wanted to. Was ashamed that I considered it.
I tried to say, “Mi casa es tu casa,” But I couldn’t get my Irish, German, English, French lips around the words, much less the concept. The only way I can achieve a really good Latin 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 with me? Here, you go first.”) was cannibalized by Grown-up Me (“Me, my, mine. That’s all I have time for. You, your, yours? Stay in your own yard. Don’t come knocking on my door. And certainly not at the one around back. That’s only for a small number of folks. The ones I can count on my fingers. The names at the top of my phone list on the side of our refrigerator.”)
Honk! Honk! Honk!
Big Girl clambered down the stairs. “They’re here.” I heard jubilation in her voice. Does she sound like that when she speaks of us? Her real family?
The wife mommy’s hair was like cotton candy 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 two glass prep bowls and filled them with good quality, Italian olive oil and whisked in vanilla, they’d be the color of her eyes. She was smaller than me, with an elegant slice to her deltoids.
Now he, the husband daddy, was a Mr. America leprechaun. He had fabulous hair and just-bonked-a-tuning-fork-on-a-brick energy. I have that vitality too, but somehow, while they were here, I felt subdued. Calm, not jangly. Hot chocolate instead of espresso.
All three offspring had blue, surprised eyes and banana-colored hair. Baby boy buried his face into wife mommy’s neck. The two girls catapulted into Big Girl’s embrace.
“We missed you! Tell us a story!”
I observed the reunion. Waited to face plant into an invisible ice-cube structure I was sure would lie between us. I know. I’ll get my crème brulee torch. But I didn’t need to. I never even got goosebumps. All that lay between us was a puddle—warm, organic, inviting.
I confess. Weeks ago I had crafted a plan, a schedule, to keep them busy. Out of our house. ‘Cause really, how could ten people in a hundred-year old house for five days be good? Send 'em sightseeing. Somewhere else. Go, go, go. Vroom, vroom, vroom. Then they’ll pass out every night by nine, right? It worked. On them and me.
And then came the day they didn’t want to go anywhere. They just wanted to be. Here. Everyone went upstairs but me and the wife mommy. How do two sleep deprived female foodies spend three hours? Peel, pour, season, sauté, taste, sigh. That’s how.
I sliced strawberries into thin, red halos. Wife mommy showered them in balsamic vinegar. Sprinkled them with raw sugar. We ate. And smiled.
I peeled and chopped roasted, golden beets. Vinaigretted them. Rained down toasted pecans and tiny diced feta.
“Add that to the list,” wife mommy said. “Of recipes you have to send me.”
I handed her the menu from Italian Feast night. “Mark all the things you want recipes for.”
She circled almost every item then turned her attention to the shitake mushrooms from the farmer’s 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 Italian hot pepper concoction. Stirred. Lifted the wooden spoon to her lips.
“Wait!” I said. I pressed the spoon back into the sauté pan. “Don’t taste it yet.” I held up my pointer finger. “I have to do one thing.”
I sprinted outside to my herb garden. Used my fingernails to nip off the largest sage leaves I could find. Brushed the soil flecks away. Thought of my mom’s philosophy—You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.
I came back in. Floated the silvery leaves in hot oil. Flipped them when they became see-through. Used my grandmother’s thongs to hold them up to the light.
“See? Don’t they look like stained glass? Now put some of the mushrooms on your fork. Top them with a sage leaf. Taste it now.”
I held my breath and watched. Her tongue worked. Her lids fluttered. She grinned. I laughed.
As she prepped another bite to eat, I whispered. So she couldn’t hear me. Turned away, so she couldn’t see me. My mouth. She’s hearing impaired, but boy howdy, is she awesome at reading lips. She can talk great too. Just like Marlee Matlin.
“I wish you lived here. Then we could be friends. We could eat like this over and over. Not one Sunday afternoon and never again.”
The next day, Big Girl and I watched and waved as their van drove away. The morning sun glinted off her tear tracks. I didn’t cry. I was working on my accent. In my head. Trying to get it just right. In case they went around the block and stopped in front of our house for one more Big Girl hug or kiss. But they didn’t come back. If they had, I would’ve sprinted down to the street. Pecked on the husband daddy’s window ‘til he rolled it down.
“Just so you know, mi casa es tu casa.”