Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Noni's Black Apron

I remember her hands, mostly.  Thin, once elegant I'm sure, the knuckles now arthritic.  Her hands were amazingly soft in contrast to the angles and sharpness time had twisted them into.

She wore black, always a dress.  On Sundays she wore a black lace widow's veil.

Her face was pinched and drawn, deep wrinkles on olive skin.  Twinkling, sharp green eyes shone out from her weathered face.

She lived down the hall in a three-family apartment I once rented in Astoria, New York.  Nineteen-hundred-and-eighty-eight.  Her family owned the house, she'd raised a family there, three boys, but, so many years later, she lived alone.  She was well into her eighth decade.

She went to Mass most mornings, seven, noon on Sundays.  Sometimes we'd pass each other on the sidewalk or steps in front of the house, me coming home from an evening's work and night's partying, she off to pray her black and silver rosary that hung around the high collar of her black dress.  She seem to not notice me.

We were unlikely friends.

The house shared a common entry on the side for the two upstairs apartments.  We'd pass each other, I'd try to say hello, but, short of a quiet sort of sighed greeting, she didn't say much when I first moved in.

Honestly, we would never say much, but...

One cool fall day, I came in from running errands and, as I was about to open my door, I noticed hers was open.  The hallway was full of a scent I was unfamiliar with, like licorice sticks but prettier, purfumey.  I couldn't figure it.

I lingered in the hallway.  She saw me standing there and walked a little outside her door.  She shrugged a 'what' look my way.  I smiled and inhaled deeply.

"Ah!  The cookies.  Come, come."

They were little shortbread cookies, flavored with just a hint of anise.  To this day I hate licorice, but those cookies were so perfect.  She invited me into her kitchen and she showed me how she made them.  A pinkie-sized, flat oval, that she gave a little half twist before she put them on the tray.  Brushed with egg whites, they were golden, tender at the ends and crispy at the twist.

I'd visit her kitchen many more times from that afternoon on.  At first it was cookies and treats, but soon she was making lasagna and Alfredo.  I watched as she made noodles and gnocchi.

One day she was cutting some onions and she set the knife down and rubbed those tired hands.  I took up the knife and continued chopping them.  She was delighted when she saw I knew what she was doing.

I was working evenings in those days, long ten, twelve hours shifts, but only four a week.  I was home most afternoons and some nights.  She took to leaving her door open when she was cooking or baking, and sometimes she'd knock me up and ask, no, tell me to come help her.

It's imperative that you understand we had no way of communicating.  Her English was minimal and heavily accented, my Italian was non-existent.  We gestured and smiled and winked.  I remember cutting the roasted red peppers she'd scorched on the gas stove, covered to sweat, then peeled - a process I'd never seen before - too large for her liking.  She pushed me away with her hip and showed me how she wanted them.

She always had a bottle of limoncello and she'd offer me a bit every now and again, in a classic sherry glass.  She asked me to help her one time and the day was hot, I went to get a beer out of my apartment, when she saw it in my hand, she grabbed a little pony glass off her shelf and had me pour her a few ounces.  We'd repeat that little ritual dozens of times.

In the crazy, wild world of New York City, she offered me quiet and stillness.  She worked slow and carefully, so different from the frenetic kitchens I watched in the resturant where I worked. She showed me tradition.  She had me taste sauces and pastas, soups... and beans.  I had no idea about the diversity and difference in beans - giant cannellini, tiny pinto like beans, dried Limas and peas - so much a boy from the Midwest had never seen.  I came to treasure our time together and I hope she did as well.

She sent me once to the Salumeria just down the street - the one I was afraid to go in because the proprietor looked so rough and ill-tempered, the one with sausages and pepperonis hanging in the window - with a note in loopy, shaky Italian.  I opened the door to the dinging bell that markets had in those days to the scowl of the butcher behind the counter.  I timidly handed him the note.  I was suddenly his best friend.  His English was better than Noni's and he filled me in a bit, same sad story, children gone, busy, never visit.  She made food for church, socials, funerals, parties and such.  He seemed sweet on her, I know I was.  From that day on I was a regular in his shop.

I carried home to her a bag of sausages and meat and who knows what.  I watched as she turned it into meatballs, spicy, hot, delicious.  She baked them in the oven, flipping them half way through.  She called the sauce she made for them "arrabbiata" and it made my eyes water and she teased me about it.

That's what brought all this to mind today.  I made meatballs recently. 

When I form the balls I always coat both my palms with olive oil, just as Noni did.  I often remember her when I make Italian food.  I remember standing next to her, watching her form the meatballs, thinking of my Dad's hands forming hamburger patties, of my mother's hands peeling potatoes or carrots, of my sons' hands, stirring sauce, browning meat.

One of the last times I cooked with her, she caught me in the hall and showed me that her hands were stiff and she needed some help chopping some canned whole plum tomatoes, the only kind she used.  I was going out and had on a pair of jeans, cowboy boots and a white dress shirt.  I went into her kitchen and indicated I was afraid I'd get the shirt dirty.  She took of her black apron, trimmed in black lace, and put it over my head.  It hung on me like a cummerbund, I can't imagine how very silly I must of looked.

She offered me a glass of sherry, and kept giggling like a school girl, at me in that black lace apron.  I danced a little cowboy jig for her, I remember, and she laughed until she had to sit down.  I'll never forget how happy she was that evening.  I wish I could have kept that apron.

We were unlikely friends.

When I finally left that apartment and headed back to Ohio, she cried.

So did I.

It's nice to think of old friends.  I'm sure Noni is long gone.  I never knew her last name.  I never thanked her.  But I honor her often, I think of her often.

Oddly, this is not the first time I written about meatballs.  Here is that piece.

I hope you've enjoyed meeting Noni, she lingers long in my memory.

The day I left one of her sons was there, the one who still managed the rentals and sometimes checked in on her.  My then girlfriend, a girl named Howell, was there to see me off.  It was the first time Noni had ever seen her.  She had an animated conversation with her son, lots of hushed voices and furtive glances my way.  Noni gave me one last hug, we both knew it was our last.  She looked at me, tear in eye, a slight smile and said something to her son.

"She wants you to know that all this time she thought you were gay.  She'd have never let you into her home if she'd thought you were straight."

We laughed, and our tears fell again.

See, there's always more.  

Peace, and, I'll see you next time.

1 comment:

  1. I love Noni & I think I love you (don't worry, I'm 83 years old)!!