When my parents would drive up from Brooklyn to visit me at home in Rockland County it was always an event. Their one hour trip would start at 5am because my mother did not want to hit traffic driving up through Manhattan. Because my parents were up there in years, they both needed to have a bathroom available to them at a moments notice, so being stuck in traffic was never an option.
They would hit the Rockland County border by about 5:45am and would make the Pearl River Hilton their first stop. They were only another 5 minutes from my house, but they were being considerate and did not want to roust me out of bed at such an un-godly hour on a Saturday morning, so they thought they would take care of their “needs” and waste a little time at this posh hotel en route. After a while, with all their visits, the desk clerk got to know them well. And I’m sure my mother complained about something during their short stay there.
It was a peaceful summer morning and the cool breeze that came in through my open bedroom window made me sink deeper into my pillow and enjoy hearing the morning birds singing their songs. As I glanced over to the clock on my night table I saw it was 6:45 so I put my head back down on the pillow and anticipated a few hours more of sleep. The sun began to warm a corner of my room and all was well with the world.
And then I heard the sound of plastic bags, and a distant cry of “Sal, don’t forget that bag in the back. Be quiet, it’s early, you’ll wake Peeta”.
I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, hearing the birds chirping in between the car doors slamming and the orders my mother shouted at my father to be quiet. The sound of the rustling plastic bags grew louder and I realized I wasn’t dreaming, my parents had arrived, and the sound of the bags grew even louder as they were carried up my steps and landed at my front door. “Watch that one Sal!, it has glass in it, be carefull, you’ll break it. Try and be quiet!” They might as well have been bulls in a china shop.
Whenever they came up for a visit my father had to attach a roof rack to his car to carry all the essentials they were bringing to me in order for me to stay alive until their next visit. I wasn’t living in the wilds of Alaska mind you, Pearl River is suburban New York! Essentials like bed spreads. My mother had a thing about bed spreads. I never used them. I liked to keep my comforter as my bed cover. But my mother brought a new bed spread with her every time she came over to visit, and would remake my bed with the new bed spread. It would last for only a day. After they left and I went to bed that evening, the bed spread would wind up in a closet down the basement with the 12 other bed spreads she brought up with her. And every time she came to visit and opened up the new bed spread package she would say, “Where is the bed spread I bought you?? You have to have a bed spread on your bed. It looks so nice”.
WHO’ GOING TO SEE IT??!!? I alone sleep in my bed, and I couldn’t care less how it looks. I don’t need a 20 minute ritual of folding up bed spreads and stacking up bed pillows before I turn in for the evening! But I would let her put it on. I grew tired of arguing. And besides, it was never an argument. I would be talking to a brick wall that never heard a word I said.
My parents had their own key to my house. It was a privilege I gave them at a weak moment when I first moved into my house. I heard the keys jingle in the lock and pull out again and jingle again until my father finally pulled out the right key that fit the lock. “Quiet Sal, you’re making too much noise”. The door swung open and banged against the door stop with a loud thud that rattled the pictures over my bed . The sound of the plastic bags and boxes sliding against my hardwood floor grew louder as they entered. “Don’t spill the sauce Sal, be careful , I think I have the artichokes in that bag. That goes in the kitchen. Be quiet or you’ll wake Peeta!”
As I entered the room, still groggy from sleep, my father said “YOU’RE UP? Go back to bed, it’s early”. This coming from a man who would bang a broom stick from the basement under my room to get me out of bed when I lived at home. “Go back to bed”, my mother repeated. We can unload the car”.
Without saying a word I gave each of them a kiss and turned towards the kitchen, finding my way to the coffee pot. “Dad, you want coffee?” I asked. “Yea, if you’re making it”, my father replied. “I just had a cup so don’t make it just for me.” “I’m making it anyway Dad, just want to know if you want a cup”. I never asked my mother if she wanted coffee because she only drank decaf. And I never kept decaf in the house. She would bring up her own mixture of instant Sanka and Postum that she kept stored in a plastic bag with a dozen packets of Sweet’n Low held together by a rubber band, probably taken from the Pearl River Hilton. Whatever she didn’t use she would store in my kitchen cabinet. I had bags filled with Sweet’n Low packets and jars of Sanka and Postum left over from previous trips.
By the time I prepared the coffee and looked back at the kitchen table, the table was gone. It disappeared under the piles of plastic bags and boxes my father and mother unloaded from their car. Bags were all over the floor and my father was still bringing more in.
“Here Sal”, my mother continued, sounding like a long-shore man unloading containers from a tanker ship. “Put this in the refrigerator before it goes bad”. I looked at my mother and in a defeated tone I asked, “Why do you bring all this stuff up with you?” What IS all this stuff?? ” My mother replied, “Just some things you need. I got you a new spaghetti strainer, get rid of that old one it’s no good. I bought these beautiful curtains for your room. They’re perfect for summer. Look at the nice colors. They will really brighten up your room.” Summer curtains? I never knew that curtains were seasonal.
Before the coffee finished brewing I decided to see what was under all those plastic bags. I picked one up and untied the knot at the top of the bag, only to open it and find another plastic bag within it. I untied the second plastic bag and found a third bag, this time with a hand scribbled note in crayon attached with a straight pin identifying the contents of the hidden bag. The note said, “For Peter”.
My mother has a plaque in her honor hanging on the walls of Greenpeace headquarters because she never threw out a plastic bag in her life. She would always just reuse them. “Don’t throw those bags out”, my mother shouted, “I’ll take them home.” It had nothing to do with protecting the environment…are you kidding? My mother was simply frugal.
I looked at the contents of the package I just unwrapped and saw it was a frozen solid beef roast. I looked at the label and it was dated ‘July 09’. Now today was June 16, and I thought for a minute, this roast beef has a long expiration date, until I realized that it was dated ‘July 09’ from last year!!!! “Mom! This roast beef is almost a year old!!” I said. “That’s ok”, she said, ” it’s still good. I had it wrapped good in the freezer”. It wasn’t like it was wrapped properly for long freezer storage, and even if it were, after about six months the quality of the meat is at least compromised. My mother had it wrapped in the fruit and vegetable bags you zip off the rolls at the supermarket. Not the best for freezer wrap. This hunk of beef had more freezer burns on it than a dead seal in the arctic. I didn’t have the heart to throw it out in front of her. I’ll wait till she’s not looking.
By now my father was asleep on the sofa in front of the TV, exhausted from the pre-dawn trip and moving all those bags. As I continued to go through the bags my mother picked up a bottle of bleach she brought with her and headed for the bathroom. She was on a mission to clean my house. You don’t say a word, you just let her do her thing. I only cleaned my bathroom two days ago, but that didn’t matter. She had to clean my bathroom. “Are you sleeping??? Sal, wake up and put those curtains up for your son”, my mother shouted as she ran into the bathroom with a scrub brush and bleach.
I took my cup of coffee, and poured a cup for my father and carried it over to him. He looked like he needed a cup. I grabbed my morning paper and went out to the patio and closed the door behind me as the morning birds continued their song and I took my first quiet sip. I’m sure by now my mother was making my bed and putting her new bedspread on it as my father replaced my “winter” curtains with my new “summer” curtains.
Outside it was a beautiful summer morning, all quiet and tranquil. And just on the other side of that door there was a flurry of activity going on and my entire home was being rearranged, re-decorated and cleaned. It would take me days sometimes to find things after my parents left, that only my mother would know where they were. But I wasn’t thinking of that. No, not right now. The coffee was nice and hot and the breeze on my face felt wonderful. All was well with the world.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
- 1 medium onion, cut into thin strips
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- one 28 ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes
- crushed red pepper to taste
- salt to taste
- 1 pound bucatini pasta
- 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked pasta, add the oil, pancetta, and onion. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until the pancetta and onion are golden, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic the last 5 minutes.
Push the onions and pancetta off to one side and add the can of tomatoes and crushed red pepper. With a potato masher, crush the tomatoes into small chunks. If you don’t have a potato masher just crush tomatoes with your hands into the pan. Stir well. Add salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add a tablespoon of salt. Cook the pasta till it’s al dente.
Save about 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and add to the pan with the sauce. Toss on high heat until the pasta is coated for about a minute. Add some of the pasta water if it’s too dry. Remove from the heat and add the Pecorino Romano cheese and toss some more.
good story, and the pasta looks great too
Each day, I read your blog and end up printing out the recipe! I’m going to buy a ring binder and put them all in one handy book … they’re all so good!
Peter, I remember those times when our house was rearranged. I think Lillian helped to change that. However, the plastic bags never stopped., Especially one bag inside the other. Now it is even more so.
Rich, only you know “you can’t make this stuff up”!
Your right. You can’t make this stuff up. Johnny and I are witnesses to so many of these experiences,that we can assure your followers that you have just begun to scratched the surface. Keep the stories and recipes coming they are a great reminder of our wonderful childhood growing up together.
Peter, I love your stories as much as I love your recipes! Thanks so much for sharing both with us. I can picture the scenes unfolding as I read your wonderful stories. You really should write a book just like your columns, combining delicious family recipes and these terrific stories!
This story in particular had me cracking up. I really could picture the whole scene as I read it. Coming from an Italian American family, I can totally relate, (born in Brooklyn, moved to NJ in elementary school over 30 years ago). Now, you think your mom and her carload of stuff was funny? Well, get this – when my brother moved to the West Coast almost 20 years ago, my mother became a regular customer at UPS. She shipped him huge boxes about once a month with everything from cans of tomatoes and coffee to toothpaste and toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper! My brother always told her you know Ma, we do have grocery stores out here, lol. Yes, but she liked this brand, it was on sale, and she had a coupon. Plus, she liked to keep his home stocked up with everything for him! When my parents actually got on a plane and went to visit him, I think they cleaned out the local grocery store. She left his house with a freezer and frig full of food, fully stocked pantry, and yes, even new curtains, and comforters (unlike your mom, she at least gave in and realized that a single guy preferred a comforter, not a bedspread). Of course, my favorite part of those visits was having my brother call me to complain about my parents taking over his space, and then later in the day, my parents calling me to complain about him! God bless the Italian mothers!