To my dad, visiting his mother once every 11 months was the ultimate sacrific--one that, quite frankly, he believed should not be his alone to make. It’s as if at the end of Armageddon Bruce Willis turned to his comrades and said, “Well…I guess I’m gonna go out all alone on that meteor with the detonator and save humanity now…I mean, that’s what I have to do, right?…No way around it…apparently…And why wouldn’t I do it? After all, I’m a nice guy, right? Aren’t I nice guy?…You know what would really be nice, though? If my wife would deign to come out with me. Just once. That’s all I’m asking. I mean, if she ever wanted to walk out on her meteor I would go like that. Like that! And I don’t even like her meteor! But that’s the kinda guy I am—nice…Actually, you know who should really be out here with me right now? My son. He should come out on the meteor with his old man. Let’s face it, it’s not just my earth I’m saving! It’s his earth, too!…Hey, do me a favor. Go tell Ces to put on his spacesuit and say goodbye to his loved ones. And tell him to hurry! I don’t have all fucking day…”
And that’s how one fine spring day I found myself taking a day off of work so Dad and I could pick up my Grandma for a nice weekend visit at my parents’ house.
Thirty-six hours later we would all be vomiting or hemorrhaging.
Now truth be told Dad’s reluctance to see his mother wasn’t simply a product of lethargy, petty annoyance or his resolute unwillingness to drive alone, ever. Mostly, Dad didn’t want to go because my grandmother could be, quite honestly, dreadful company. She always greeted him by saying he looked fat and/or homeless. She always bid him farewell by saying he looked miserable and/or fat. And in between she talked almost exclusively about money. How much she had. How much my dad’s sister Janice has. How much my dad doesn’t seem to have. Money, money, money.
Sometimes money came up in the form of career advice, like when Grandma advised my seventysomething father that he chose the wrong career. Sometimes money came up in the form of a fond memory, like when Grandma recalled how she charged my parents less than the going rate for rent when they moved into her basement after they got married. And sometimes it came in the form of watching Grandma--rosary in hand--say a prayer in Italian over each and every one of her 18 savings account books, no doubt as many a pope had done before her.
And when money wasn't the topic, she simply sat across the table and stared at you. In complete silence. For upwards of an hour. With minimal blinking. Until you couldn't take it anymore and like any detainee you finally broke.
“Sooooooooooo… your tomatoes are really coming in nicely, Grandma…Nice tomato weather…Baseball weather, too…Dad used to coach my baseball team, you know…Three years in a row…three years…I wasn’t very good…Right fielder…That’s where you put the not-so-good players because most hitters are right-handed so they…they hit to left field…opposites, you see…Spent most of the time in the field thinking up stories…funny stories…forgot all of them…Listen, why don’t I just sign some sort of affidavit saying I committed whatever crime you'te holding me for and we can just wrap this up, okay?”
But that fine spring day my dad had found a way around the usual “unpleasantries.” Rather than spend the weekend at Grandma’s apartment, where the only chance to avoid talking was leaving in mid-sentence or suicide, Dad would pick up Grandma and speed her back to his house, where he could then hide in the garage, shed or attic until it was time to bring her home. It was foolproof. It would limit almost all opportunities for conversation or contact. It didn’t factor in the possibility that my Grandma would want to stop for food or a restroom at any point during the three-hour trip.
And so our trek back to my parent’s house began on a less than auspicious note with lunch at a New Jersey Turnpike diner, during which Dad confided in me that he only had his Sunoco card and thus was unable to pay for lunch (and tolls) and Grandma stole all the toilet paper from both the women’s and men’s bathrooms before eventually walking off with the waitress’s tip.
For the remainder of the trip Grandma sat in the back seat, where she could watch over her luggage. Luggage that consisted of two huge suitcases, unusual in that she was only visiting for the weekend and that neither suitcase appeared to weigh more than a few pounds, causing me to fear that Grandma had fully embraced dementia and packed nothing but negligees. At the beginning of the drive she tried to engage in conversation, which proved remarkably painful, though not due to subject matter or socail awkwardness. Simply put, by this time my grandmother had experienced a significant hearing loss, depriving her of any personal volume control and giving her every sentence the inflection and insistence of an air horn, no matter what the intention.
“IT’S TOO COLD! CLOSE THE WINDOWS!” she quietly muttered at one point.
“IT’S STILL COLD! SHUT OFF THE VENT!” she later whispered.
“WHY’S IT SO STUFFY?!?” she noted under her breath.
The result was not unlike having Mussolini issue edicts two inches behind your right ear. But no matter what Grandma said Dad just stared at the road with a grim expression on his face and a white-knuckled grip on the wheel, uttering not a word. I pretended the ensuing ringing in my ear was a phone call from an old friend or a job offer from The Simpsons. And Grandma simply screamed in her softest voice possible for us to turn on, and then off, the AC.
Soon it grew quiet. Very quiet. Very, very quiet…
“Soooo…your cucumbers are really coming in nicely, Grandma.”
After about an hour on the road--during which the only dialogue was my dad screaming at every driver who had their window closed--Grandma piped up once more.
“I’VE DECIDED TOMORROW NIGHT I’M MAKING ONE OF MY FAMOUS DINNERS—EITHER PASTA WITH HOT SAUSAGE OR STUFFED ARTICHOKES! YOUR CHOICE!”
My dad smiled for the first time the entire trip.
“Ooo! Stuffed artichokes, Ma! I love your stuffed artichokes! Make those!”
This, however, presented a small problem.
“Uh, Dad…I’m allergic to artichokes.”
“But you gotta try these, Ces! They’re incredible!”
“I can’t eat artichokes, Dad. I’m allergic to them.”
“But you’ve never had anything like these before!”
“Actually I have, Dad. The last time Grandma made them. That’s how I know I’m allergic to artichokes. My throat swelled shut.”
“I think I would have remembered that.”
“I think you would have, too.”
“Just trust me, Ces, you’ve never tasted anything like them in your life! They’re…how can I put it…exquisite!”
“So even though I’m allergic to artichokes that’s what you want Grandma to make for dinner?”
“It’ll be fuckin’ exquisite, Ces! Trust me!”
“Fine…I’ll just cook something else for myself.”
“Now why would you wanna insult your grandma like that?”
The Marciulianos are a small family, not just in stature--where almost everybody save my brother Marcello and myself clock in around five foot four--but also in number. Whereas those blessed with numerous relatives can discount five, ten, perhaps 20 family members and still find people they can talk to or at least tolerate on Thanksgiving, Marciulianos must look to the same, finite group for their needs. And what we Marciulianos need more than anything else is for someone to help us deal with our colossal, crippling insecurities by simply telling us we’re great.
My mom, Isilda, has always wanted to call her memoir/cookbook All I Wanted Was a Little Applause. My dad, Frank, has repeatedly asked me to pen his life’s story (Let’s Be Frank) so that with his newfound fame he could go on the talk-show circuit and become world-famous for his impressions of various ethnic groups. And all I’ve ever wanted was for someone to tell me at every single step of the way that my every decision was fine and all would turn out just right. In short, we all wanted the same thing--to be recognized and reassured, repeatedly. Such were our demands and Grandma refused to meet them at all.
“YOU USED TO BE A BETTER COOK, ISILDA!”
“STOP YAMMERING, FRANKIE! MY EARS HURT!”
“I KNOW I GAVE YOUR COUSIN ANDREA TWICE AS MUCH MONEY FOR HER BIRTHDAY PRESENT, CES! BUT SHE’S STUDYING TO BE A DOCTOR SO I KNOW SHE’LL BE ABLE TO PAY ME BACK!”
Of course, had we taken but a moment from cupping our ears and leaning in to hear the next word of adulation, we would have noticed that Grandma was seeking the exact same support.
During lunch on the New Jersey Turnpike she turned to me and said without humor or provocation, “DO YOU EVER TELL YOUR FRIENDS WHAT A BEAUTIFUL AND INTELLIGENT GRANDMA YOU HAVE, CES?!” Throughout the entire car ride she repeatedly asked if we were looking forward to her “FAMOUS DINNER!” And when we pulled into my parents’ driveway she said, “I BET EVERYONE CAN’T WAIT TO SEE GRANDMA!”
Little did she know that both my mom and dad had already planned their escapes.
Mom, who had awaited Grandma’s visit with the eagerness one usually reserves for a bowel obstruction, had no intention of looking after our guest, instead opting to spend the rest of the weekend running “errands.” Such is apparently what happens when you live with your mother-in-law for the first seven years of your marriage. Such is apparently what happens when your mother-in-law almost blows up the boiler in your house and then tells hers son, “Maybe Isilda drinks and forgot she did it.” Such is apparently what happens when in a moment of complete frustration with your mother-in-law you turn to your husband only to hear him say, “I don’t know what you and Ma have to do with me.”
Small wonder then that over the years my mom had gone from calling Grandma “Mom” to calling her “Mary” to calling her “The reason you’re father is that way.” And small wonder that there was no big greeting, no big hug, awaiting Grandma when she entered the house. Just curt conversation and large periods of silence. Silence so deafening that this time it was my grandmother who cracked and felt the need to fill both the air and large communication gap with sound.
“THAT’S A VERY NICE ESPRESSO MACHINE, ISILDA!”
“Thank you, Mary.”
“YOU KNOW, IN ITALY WHEN SOMEONE COMPLIMENTS SOMETHING OF YOURS IT’S CUSTOMARY TO GIVE THE PERSON THAT THING!”
“We’re not in Italy, Mary.”
“THOSE ARE VERY NICE CRYSTAL WINEGLASSES, ISILDA!”
And so after many a frustrating attempt at sweet-talking my mom out of her kitchen supplies or family heirlooms, Grandma wound up just stealing bolts of fabric from Mom’s sewing room and storing them in her now clearly perfect-sized and very roomy luggage.
My dad also had no intention of spending the weekend with his mother. Instead, he also was going to run “errands.” Alone. This was like hearing that not only is Bigfoot real, but you would be wise to let him do your taxes. My dad has almost never driven alone. In fact, several years ago when my mom had the flu my dad stood out in the driveway, keys in hand, staring at my bedroom window for over half-an-hour in the hopes I’d eventually feel guilty and go with him to the supermarket to get food for dinner. Unfortunately, it was dark out and I never noticed him. Then it started to rain. That night we ordered pizza.
So as far as what my dad meant by “errands” I had absolutely no idea, given that he had never gone shopping by himself a day in his life. I half-expected him to return two days later with a new hammer, pair of tube socks, a nine-volt battery and twelve feet of button candy strips, simply adding, “Things happened.”
Thus in the end no one had any intention of keeping company with the woman they had invited for a weekend visit…until they all realized that by doing such they were leaving an old woman with two empty suitcases and no locks on the cabinets completely unattended.
And that’s how one fine spring Saturday I found myself “babysitting” my Grandma while my mom went for a six-hour walk on the beach and my dad, for all I know, went from garage sale to garage sale looking for something to eat.
The sun rose that Saturday only to find that Mom had gotten up a hell of a lot quicker. Knowing that today was “Artichoke Day--and not wanting her mother-in-law to have unlimited and unmonitored access to the kitche--Mom made sure to lay out every possible ingredient and utensil Grandma could possibly need to make her meal. Then she bolted.
Dad, experiencing a moment of “Italian guilt” over leaving his mother, sat with her at the kitchen table until I got up and made them both breakfast. Soon after that he was gone, off to spend the next several hours no doubt driving around and around on the Jericho Turnpike saying to himself “I know there’s an Entenmann’s pastry outlet around here somewhere.”
That left Grandma and myself. Although Dad wanted me to spend my every waking minute with Grandma--and Mom wanted me to spend my every waking minute shadowing Grandma--the woman looked perfectly capable of handling herself as she quickly went to work making the stuffed artichokes at 10 in the morning.
“You got everything you need, Grandma?”
“YOU’RE GRANDMA’S A GREAT COOK, RIGHT, CES?!” she replied, wielding a very large kitchen knife with wild abandon.
Feeling confident that she was more than capable of handling herself, I went to the opposite end of the house to get ready for the day, such as it was. Grandma happily and hurriedly chopping in the kitchen. I happily showering and shaving in the bathroom. With my folks gone it was actually serene in the house for the first time in hours. If only every one of my visits to my parents’ house were this peaceful. Yes, all was indeed well.
For ten whole minutes.
Now at 4’10” and 90 pounds my grandmother was the smallest of the rather wee-sized Marciulianos. That being the case, she made absolutely no noise when she walked, allowing her to suddenly appear by your side as if by magic. You could be minding your own business, completely in your own world, only to turn around and suddenly be stomach-to-eye with an old, Italian woman, complementing your most cherished possession and waiting for you to hand it over. It could be unsettling at best. And so it was that before I knew it Grandma was standing mere inches behind me just as I was over the bathroom sink, shaving the hair between my upper lip and my…
Then there was silence. My razor flew out of my hand and broke without sound against the bathroom mirror. Every item in the bathroom shook violently, as if primed to explode. I stared at my reflection in the mirror with wide, unfocused eyes.
And then I saw it--a long, shock-white line going through my right nostril and running up the side of my nose until about a half-inch under my eye. At first I couldn't quite grasp what I was seeing. “Hmm, A white line,” I thought. “What do you know? I wonder where that came from.” I just stood there and stared in complete puzzlement as the line got brighter and brighter and brighter and brighter.
And then the blood poured.
And then my knees buckled.
And then I bit my lip and screamed so loud you could hear it through my eyeballs.
Before I knew it I dropped to the floor, smashing my chin against the sink counter on the quick descent down. I immediately curled up into a tight ball of pain, pressing my palms against my face with all my might as blood streamed from out between my fingers. I tasted it in my mouth. I felt it pour down my neck. I sensed a pool of blood forming on the bathroom floor. And I realized that I had been yelling the word “FUCK!!!” over and over again in front my grandmother, who at that moment was hovering right over me.
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?!”
Not wanting to panic my grandmother, I looked up at her with wet eyes, cheeks covered in blood, and said with as much sincerity and composure as I could muster, “I’M FINE!!!”
She looked down at me—writhing on the floor, smeared in blood—and in a calm, comforting tone said, “YOUR MOTHER FORGOT TO PUT OUT THE OREGANO!”
Then she turned around and left.
A few seconds later I heard her again down the hall.
That’s when I realized my grandmother was waiting for me to help her find the oregano.
So after a few seconds I slowly got up, looked at myself in the mirror and almost passed out. Blood streeamed from the length of my nose down the right side of my face and under my T-shirt. I kept thinking that if I don’t stop applying pressure the nose would just blow off like an uncapped fire hydrant.
I quickly washed what blood I could off my face, quietly screaming the entire time, and grabbed a nearby blue hand towel to stanch the bleeding. By the time I reached my Grandma in the kitchen I appeared to be holding a moist, purple blob against my face.
“YOUR MOTHER ONCE SAID SHE KEPT THE OREGANO IN THE BASEMENT!”
The top portion of my white T-shirt was now a dull pink and the hand towel had absorbed all it could. I tossed the towel into the kitchen sink, washed my face again and applied several sheets of paper towel both against my nose and around the collar of my shirt. Then I went downstairs. About five minutes later I came up covered in what appeared to be pink streamers.
“There’s no oregano downstairs, Grandma.”
“OH, I KNOW! I ALREADY WENT DOWN TO LOOK!”
“Then…then why did you say the oregano might be downstairs?”
“I DIDN’T SAY THAT! YOUR MOTHER DID!”
“I’m not feeling too well, Grandma.”
“I THINK THERE MIGHT BE SOME OREGANO OUTSIDE!”
“OUTSIDE! IN YOUR MOTHER’S GARDEN!”
“I’m not feeling too well, Grandma.”
“THEN I’LL GO LOOK!”
Grandma left through the kitchen door and onto the back deck, where apparently my mom kept several planters of various spices. I went back to the sink and tried to claw off the soiled paper towels, but at this point they were glued to my skin in large patches. I tried to take off my T-shirt but the feeling of 100% cotton rubbing up against the side of my nose was like that of a cheese grater dipped in vinegar.
By now blood was everywhere. It was smeared all over my head, neck and torso. It was in the kitchen sink. It was on the kitchen counter. And it was in a trail that went from the master bathroom on the opposite side of the house to the kitchen, through the main hallway, down the stairs to the basement and back up to the kitchen once more. Had Billy from “Family Circus” murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, this might very well have been his dotted path.
After a few minutes my grandmother came back with a fistful of clippings, which she proceeded to dice. Then she turned to look at me with perhaps the warmest expression I had ever seen crease her face.
I stood there in silence. Blood poured from the side of my swollen nose, down my torso and pooled on top of my belt. Large, dark-red strips of paper hung from my face, neck and shoulders. It was as if a mummy had just come back to life only to be repeatedly shot.
Grandma studied me for a moment--she took it all in--and then said in her sweetest voice possible, “DON’T WORRY!”
“DON’T WORRY!” She said. “THESE ARE GOING TO BE THE BEST STUFFED ARTICHOKES EVER!”
And with that she went back to work.
The bleeding came to a halt by dinnertime. The cut, although painful and reluctant to close, proved to be mostly superficial and left no permanent scar. That did little to soothe my dad as he stared at the large bandage on the side of my nose that made me look like Jake Gittes in Chinatown.
“You got blood on the basement steps, Ces? But they're carpeted!”
The family gathered around the table for the big stuffed-artichoke dinner. Unable to eat it I had prepared my own pasta dish, an action that my dad said was tantamount to smacking my grandmother across the face. Everybody else busily tucked into the “famous” meal but while the pre-buzz had been deafening the result was getting a far more muted response. It wasn’t just that no one appeared to be enjoying their artichokes. They actually seemed to be struggling with them.
My mom, who I’m sure wanted nothing more than for Grandma to fail at preparing one of her signature dishes, seemed literally sick with smug satisfaction. By midway in the meal she appeared wan and was drinking a glass of water for every two, small bites.
Mom wasn’t the only one whose pallor had turned ashen. My dad was clearly having great difficulty eating his favorite dish. But because he had specifically asked for it--and because his mother had prepared it--he tried to plow through dinner with as much gusto as humanly possible.
“This is very good, Ma,” he complimented through a tightly clenched smile.
“DON’T TALK WITH YOUR MOUTH FULL!” she demurely responded.
Eventually my mom, who by this point had given up even the pretense of eating the artichokes, leaned over to me and asked, “Ces, what did your grandmother use for ingredients?”
“I guess the stuff you put out for her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah…Oh, except for the oregano. That she got herself.”
“’Oregano’? Her recipe didn’t call for any oregano.”
Mom looked down at her quarter-eaten artichoke.
“Wait, I hid all the other spices from your grandmother. How did she find the oregano?
“She didn’t. She just clipped some fresh oregano from outside.”
“Outside? We don’t have any oregano outside.”
“Yeah you do. In the planters on the back desk.”
I pointed through the kitchen window at the small grouping of spice planters on the far end of the deck. My mother’s eyes grew very wide.
“Oh shit,” she muttered. And then she went to throw up.
Turns out Mom was right. She didn’t have oregano growing in her planters on the back deck. She had weeds. Weeds that just the previous day she had just heavily doused with Ortho spray.
Within a few minutes everyone had excused themselves from the table and taken up residency in one of the home’s three bathrooms for the remainder of the evening.
And that’s how one fine spring evening I found myself sitting alone at my parents’ kitchen table, listening to my family repeatedly vomit as I quietly ate my pasta and wondered if I sneezed would I need to go to the emergency room.