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 had 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 cupped my hand under my mouth to catch the excuses as they flowed, mostly buts. But I think Big Girl (our oldest daughter and their missionary nanny for three months) will be at college by then. But we have a softball tournament that weekend. But we don’t have enough room, folks will have to sleep on the sofá and the floor. But I’m intimidated, because the wife mommy is a food blogger. And I’m freaked. 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 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 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. I hope she sounds like that when she speaks of us—her real family.
I peeked out the foyer window as she sprinted toward the street. 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 was 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 offspring had blue, surprised eyes and banana-colored hair. Baby boy buried his face in wife mommy’s neck. The two toddler 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, how could ten people in a hundred-year-old house for five days be good? I arranged sights for them to see. 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 said. My eyebrows lifted beneath my bangs.
“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. He stood—the boy baby slumped in his arms, a toddler girl on either side. They 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 grinned and followed me into the kitchen.
Over at the counter, I sliced strawberries into thin, red halos. Wife mommy reached for the bowl and showered the fruit in balsamic vinegar, sprinkled it with raw sugar. We ate. 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.”
She circled almost every item then turned her attention to the shitake mushrooms from 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 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 darted outside to my herb garden, used my fingernails to nip off the largest sage leaves I could find, brushed the soil flecks away. Grinned as I remembered my mom’s philosophy—You gotta eat a peck of dirt before you die.
Back in the kitchen. I floated the silvery leaves in hot oil, flipped them when they became see-through, used my grandmother’s tongs to hold them up to the light.
“See? Don’t they look like stained glass? Or an old Coke bottle? Here, put some mushrooms on your fork and top them with a crispy sage leaf. Now taste.”
I held my breath and watched. Her tongue worked. Her eyelids fluttered. She held up both thumbs. I laughed.
As she prepped another bite to eat, 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 refrigerator door. “Then we could be friends. We'd eat like this over and over, not just one Sunday afternoon and never again.”
The next day, Big Girl and I waved as their van drove away. 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. If they had, I would’ve sprinted down the steps to the Street, pecked on the husband daddy’s window till he rolled it down.
“Just so you know, mi casa es tu casa.”