First, there was a smear of light and then the moon burst through the mist, and now, my second night on the outskirts of San Gimignano, listening to Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (The Tolstoy scene) , I am eye to eye with the full moon, flanked by Venus, both of them in the upper right corner of the window. I kept waking up last night to watch the moon’s white light washing the hills and valleys.
I am home again, and have just left home,
and another home before that. I’m restless, driven by the sense that life is short, that there is everything to learn yet, everything to see, and so much to experience. The sad thing is that this restlessness cuts me off from the people who are closest to my soul and heart, and so there are halos of hollowness around the core of my soul and , in my heart, a scooped out feeling, like the center of a cantaloupe when you’ve scraped out the seeds.
In New York, over breakfast is the best time to talk with my mother, after she’s pushed her hearing aid deep into her left ear. Since June, her hearing has gone from bad to worse, so now she can only tell what I’m saying if I put my lips right up against her ear and talk in a normal volume. The tumor that had grown on her right aural nerve twenty-five years ago left her deaf on that ear and gradually, after the surgery which was otherwise successful, the other ear has been fading. She can hear her toy poodle, Pika, barking that high-pitched, ear-splitting little dog bark every time the phone rings or someone’s at the door. But she doesn’t hear me when I come in at night or get up in the morning, and I touch her gently on the shoulder so as not to startle her, and give her a kiss and tell her, in her ear, that I love her.
My mother’s homelessness did not really, deeply, end until my father died. She found the closest thing to a home in NYC, since the 1960s. Cosmopolitan NY, jam-packed with rootless immigrants, a cacophony of languages, smells, skin colors, hair textures, big lips, little lips, round ears, long ears, round bodies, hard bodies, scars from wars, from facelifts; elegant, sloppy, zhlubby, preppy, nerdy, clothes; madmen picking at themselves, old women with brushes tangled into hair: that NYC made my mother welcome, and she opened up her heart to it and loves it to this day. I could never pry my mother from NY.
While my father was alive, she was ill at ease at home, in the apartment she found for us on the Upper West Side, because:he needed quiet. He needed to vent. He needed to worry. He needed tending, feeding, nurturing, proof reading, soothing. He was an active volcano. In a good and a bad sense. He was gregarious outside the home, and pathologically private at home. That meant that guests were not welcome. My sister and I were guests once we left to start our own lives. When we came back for visits, he was jealous of the time my mother spent with us, and we introduced disorder, discord, and a distraction. For all that, he loved us all deeply; he was just too “high-strung” too “fine tuned” for family life. When, at last, he died, peacefully, peace came to my mother too. I suppose that is sad. She had always dreamed of a home life, like the one she remembered from her childhood and adolescence: guests, children, relatives, acquaintances, colleagues, friends, needy strangers. The walls of home were a semipermeable membrane: they kept the growing children in, and brought the world to the dining room table.
One day in June of 1961, on her first visit back to Ljubljana since May 1945 — when she had fled and lost everything (home, friends, family, future, language, culture, books, photographs) — Nina was walking down Poljanska street, in the old neighborhood, feeling, she says, like a ghost: invisible, detached, a specter from another world. A tiny old lady in a black coat that had once fit, a pre-war hat and shoes so worn that they made her legs bowlegged, stopped her timidly. “Forgive me, madam,” she said, using the polite plural. “Can you point me to X street?” Without thinking, my mother said, “I am so sorry, madam, but I am not from these parts.” At that moment, she realized with irreversible finality, that she had lost irrevocably the sense of “home”. She still had her mother then, and sisters and nephews and cousins and old friends, but all those ties put together did not add up to home.
This homelessness is a dilemma to her now, when she thinks about where she wants to be buried. It was not an issue for my father. In the last year of his life, as he slipped farther and farther back into his past, he longed to go home, and we knew that this was not the home on Riverside Drive, but the one far away, in Bela Krajna– in Semič, Črnomelj, Metilka, Novo Mesto.
I now remember his old Teta Anka, ancient aunt to him then, but no older than he was on the threshold of his own death. Her eyes too had also once been green and gradually faded with the decades until they were nearly white, as my father’s were, and as mine will one day be, provided I live long enough.
Teta Anka used to sit at the table in the kitchen and, on warm days, outside under the chestnut tree, at the stone table, breaking pieces of stale bread into a glass of wine and eating them with a spoon. On holidays the family slaughtered a lamb or a suckling pig and roasted it on a spit outside, roasted it until its skin crackled and it took on the smell of cherry wood. There were bowls of žlinkrofi — dumplings with chopped liver — and boiled potatoes with butter and parsley and vlečena potica (for a list of typical foods from Bela Krajna, see: http://www2.arnes.si/~ssnmcrnom5/bela/ngrgur/index.htm) This, in short, was the home to which he longed to return.
When my father’s father died of lung cancer–not surprisingly after a lifetime of smoking Turkish cigarettes on top of being gassed in the trenches of World War I — my mother consoled him by making his favorite childhood foods. These were all very complicated and heavy to digest, but they soothed him in his grief. For two years we age buckwheat groats with cracklings(žganci) and blood sausages with sauerkraut (krvave klobase) and all the dishes listed above.
I wish I had thought of asking him why his father’s death was so devastating. What had those two men left unresolved? What had they not said to each other that last summer together in Trieste, when my grandfather had finally wrestled a visa from the Yugoslav authorities? I remember him as a thin, tall man, bald, with round eyes, and a blue vein that stood out on his left temple. He had freckles, like my Uncle Drago, and he knew everything there was to know about plants. He took my sister and me on long walks and pulled leaves off trees and bushes and showed us the edges — smooth or jagged, serrated or lobular– and pointed out the bark and the shape of the plants. He plucked some leaves off a bush, one day, and rolled them in the palm of his hand until they turned to mush, and then had me run my hand over it. It felt coarse like sandpaper. He called it the “razor shrub” because it was like a beard in need of a razor. He cut willow twigs and bent them and tied them together with grasses to make little huts for us. He liked spending time with us: maybe because we were his only granddaughters;maybe because he knew he was dying, and he had so longed to meet us and get to know us. I was very fond of him.
Among my father’s things, I found a diary my grandfather had kept during WWI, written in a beautiful, neat hand, in ink, without a single crossing out or blot. It’s waiting for me at home.
My mother never really got a chance to express the full range of her culinary prowess until the 1960s. In Italy there wasn’t enough money for more than the basics: jota — the Istrian bean/sauerkraut/sausage/elbow macaroni soup in winter, a meal in itself; prežgana župa –‘burnt’ soup, on empty pantry and wallet days, which involved browning flour in butter, adding cold water, rye seeds, a bay leaf, and salt, then stirring carefully to prevent lumps from forming, and finally, breaking an egg into the hot broth. It was easy on the stomach, and so light you barely knew you’d eaten. There was beef broth on better days, with crepe noodles, or fresh noodles, or rice. Minestra. Goulash, beef or veal. Chicken was a big deal. Fried sardines. Fried potatoes. Radicchio. Sometimes veal cutlets. Sometimes the detestable liver. Lots of polenta. Gnocchi – the best were sweet, stuffed with plums, sugar and cinnamon and drenched in melted butter. These were all staples that my mother’d learned from her mother, typical Adriatic dishes.
In the last decade of her marriage, my mother came across a Slovene cookbook she’d completely forgotten about for decades. It was published after ‘The War” and its recipes are simplicity itself — nothing like the complicated multiple step rocket-science things that bloat cookbooks today. The author assumed a basic repertoire of skills, a lot of common sense, and a background of growing up around cooks. There are menus for each day of the year, from breakfast through dinner, and nothing repeats. Staggering. Impressive. And my mother’s meals are operatic arias, subtle, balanced, harmonious, with lively counterpoint of flavorings and textures. The last years of my father’s life were culinary Nirvana.