After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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After I’d given birth to my daughter, the midwives asked my wife and me what we wanted to do with the placenta. We couldn’t afford to have it made into pills or artwork, but the placenta felt too sacred to throw in the trash, so we took it home and put it in the freezer. Almost three years later, when we moved from California to Colorado, we packed the placenta in a red-and-white minicooler. Since it was mid-December, we figured it would survive the drive. Each night we covered it in fresh ice from the motel.
On the third morning of our journey, I realized we had left the placenta in the fridge of our motel room. The chances that the motel staff would ship it to us seemed slim, but I decided to call anyway. Luckily the motel connected me to a local UPS office that provided a service for forgotten items. The woman at UPS took my address and phone number and asked what the contents of the package were.
“I know this is going to sound weird,” I said, “but it’s actually a placenta.” I explained that my wife and I had been saving it since the day our daughter was born, and now we were moving to our own home, where we hoped to bury it somewhere meaningful.
I waited for her to explain why human body parts couldn’t be sent in the mail.
“I understand,” the woman replied. She told me she was Navajo, and women in her tribe buried their placentas in the mountains. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I will send it to you.”
The carefully packaged placenta arrived at our new house a few days after we did. With our four-year-old daughter, we buried it in our yard under a Japanese American plum, the trees that were in bloom when I was going into labor. We thanked the placenta for the nourishment it had provided to our beautiful baby girl before we placed it in the earth.
I have always adored my father. Growing up, I delighted in the special jokes we shared. I helped him wash his car on Sundays and longed for his presence when he worked late or spent silent evenings behind his newspaper.
He became distant during my adolescence, and he and my mother divorced in my teens. When he came out a few years later, the rest of the family shunned him, but he and I grew closer. He brought me into his colorful new world of friends and lovers, and through the years we hosted holiday meals and parties together, continued to share jokes, and talked about our relationships. As an adult, I learned that my dad and I had the same tendencies toward depression, loneliness, and drinking. He was often the one I called when I was heartbroken or suicidal.
When I got into graduate school, he helped me move from Portland, Oregon, to Santa Barbara, California, and stayed until my new apartment was set up. After that, he usually called on Sundays. The first Sunday of spring break, I got a call from his number, but it wasn’t my dad. It was my sister telling me he had died early that morning from a massive heart attack.
I flew to Portland and went straight to his house, where his partner was waiting for me. He insisted I needed to eat and gave me a container of leftover stew my dad had made the night before. I hesitated, not wanting to eat the last food my father had ever cooked, until he said, “See? Your dad is still taking care of you.” Tears poured down my face, and with each bite I felt my dad’s love.
Santa Barbara, California
Our kitten, Midnight, can’t get enough. Over and over she climbs up our bodies to our throats and starts sucking like a vampire. It doesn’t matter where we are — sleeping in bed, sitting at the dinner table, working at the computer. She uses her razor-sharp claws to scale our clothes and then suckles in a frenzy, purring like a motorboat, paws kneading our necks. Twenty minutes and several hickeys later, she will fall asleep with suction still intact.
I can’t remember the last time I was asked for — and was able to provide — such uncomplicated attachment. She is a rescue kitty, most likely abandoned, and I have been in need of a soft, furry creature to mother. We feed each other.
In the mid-1970s I dropped out of college to work full-time for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union. An idealistic young person, I had no qualms about leaving my cushy student life for five dollars a week plus “room and board.” My parents, however, were silent as they dropped me off at the “room,” a derelict house in the roughest part of Denver, Colorado, two blocks from the biggest drug-dealing neighborhood between California and Chicago.
The “board” wasn’t much better. The house had a small budget for meals, and we struggled to provide enough food for the staff of eight hardworking young people. We could afford only one chicken for dinner, which we divided into eight pieces — but, of course, there’s a big difference between a breast and a wing. To keep it fair, we’d pass the pan of chicken around the table over our heads so that no one could see which piece he or she was grabbing. Other nights we used plastic tubes of ground mystery meat and filler to make meatballs for spaghetti.
Many supporters contributed food. I’ll always remember our friend Jim, a white-haired Communist and prolific gardener, who came to the house one day with a giant zucchini over his shoulder like a boa constrictor. We ate that zucchini sautéed, boiled, fried, and baked in bread. Getting tired of zucchini was no excuse to stop eating it, because other contributions could be even more challenging: cases of expired Quaker granola; neon red and green candied cherries.
In the midst of this I decided to become a vegetarian. At first it was easy. I cooked big pots of pinto beans on the hot plate in my room. But when some of us were sent to work on an election campaign in Delano, California, we were housed in the union’s retirement village for elderly Filipino workers. Each day the cook served a Filipino stew of greens and meat with white rice. All I could eat was the rice, which left me so unsatisfied that I would buy a Hershey bar for dessert. A month later I was moved to another town, where someone came into the field office with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After weeks of rice and chocolate, that was all it took for me to return to my carnivorous ways.
Later I went to Oxnard, California, during intense union contract negotiations. The United Auto Workers had sent two veteran negotiators from Detroit to help us. One of them, Bob Lopez, a Cuban American with a calm, fatherly presence, saw how tired my coworker and I were, and he took us out in the evenings to chat over pie and coffee, something we couldn’t have afforded ourselves. Bob reminded us that, while we worked for the cause, we also had to look out for our own well-being and enjoy life. Those evenings of pie and coffee were at least as important to me as his help with the negotiations. I remain grateful for them forty-five years later.
When I was a kid, sneaking food was my specialty. My mother was the food police. She had been bullied as a child because of her weight. Now a slim adult, she was obsessed with making sure her eldest daughter (me) was thin and beautiful. She’d often tell me, “If you could lose just five pounds, you could go to Hollywood.”
My three siblings, all trim, were allowed to eat what they wanted, but my mother always had me on a diet. The house was full of foods I wasn’t allowed to have: boxes of cereal, Hydrox cookies, chocolate and vanilla ice cream, red and orange popsicles. My grandmother made Jewish cookies called kichels. Those were hard to steal because we usually had only four or five in the house, and my mother counted. If she found out that I’d stolen food, there would be punishment.
My mother used to leave candy on the TV for our babysitter, Beatrice. One night, while Beatrice was in the bathroom, I grabbed a Milky Way and began stuffing it into my mouth. When Beatrice returned, I quickly hid the uneaten end of the candy bar beneath me, and it left a stain on our white couch.
When my mother came home, she demanded to know if I’d eaten the Milky Way. I denied it, but she wasn’t going to sleep without a full confession. She screamed at me and hit me. Finally, at midnight, I admitted I’d eaten the candy, and she washed my mouth out with soap for lying.
Now I feel sad for the little girl who cut the bottoms off whole cakes to disguise that she had eaten some and who stole dimes from her mom’s purse to buy bubble gum that she hid in the sand at a nearby park.
Just the other day I saw my eight-year-old grandson sneak an extra piece of cake at a party. I looked at him and smiled, and then I took a piece, too. We happily ate our cake together, a little boy and his granny.
After my wife told me she wanted a divorce, I didn’t sleep or eat for three days. I eventually started sleeping again, but eating remained a problem. I was never hungry and barely tasted what little food I forced down. I lost twenty-five pounds in two months. My wife had told me that I was too fat, and when she saw how skinny I’d become, she said, “You’re welcome.”
In my mother’s family, food was a language of love. She and my aunts and grandmother were all good cooks, and meals were times to visit and tell stories and laugh. My mother had four sons, and we all learned to cook. As adults, my brothers mostly made “manly” meals on a grill, but I stuck with my mother’s recipes: beef stew, pork chops and mashed potatoes, chicken potpies. I did most of the cooking in my marriage. I guess I was trying to speak my mother’s language, but my wife didn’t seem to understand it.
The summer after our divorce, I went to Spain for work. The building where I lived had a tiny elevator with mirrors on three walls. One morning I stepped in and was shocked by what I saw: my face was drawn, my cheeks were hollow, and there were circles under my eyes. That afternoon I went to the restaurant next door and ate a proper meal.
When I got home in the fall, I got out all my old cookbooks and recipes. I thought cooking was one way I could take care of myself while I waited to feel better. I started baking bread and made good soup for the first time. During Christmas break I made cookies and pies and brought them to dinner parties. Then I began to host dinner parties. I organized potlucks and went to restaurants. Sometimes I cooked a full meal just for myself and ate it watching a movie.
It’s been four years since the divorce, and I’m chubby again. People often tell me I look happy. I am.
The fridge in my efficiency apartment made a sound like far-off gunfire all night long, but it worked fine. I never asked much of it, just to keep some beer and milk cold. At twenty-five I ate cereal and eggs every day, and I proudly defined myself as a woman who didn’t cook.
My friend Sara began to cook for me about a year after we met. What a gift to be fed actual food that someone had prepared. I loved sampling whatever exotic recipe she’d seen that week on the Food Network. Sara would serve me ceremoniously at her dining-room table. Me! Eating from grown-up plates and matching silverware! She hosted guests at her apartment without shame or apology.
Sara was a renter, just like me, but she lived where she lived. I was fascinated and confounded by this. What had compelled her to buy cookware, a sofa that didn’t come from the secondhand store, and an area rug, just for that apartment? She had not one bed, but two. She’d hung art on the walls. She had multiple shampoos and body washes in the shower; Q-tips in a little plastic container in the bathroom; mascara you had to buy at a department store. I had beer in my fridge and a mattress on the floor — a borrowed mattress.
How I loved being around Sara, with her feminine cardigans, her dresses cinched around her midriff, her soft shoulders and jawline, her pearls and delicate gold earrings. And how hopelessly inadequate she made me feel.
I left hungry, despite being fed.
The last time I saw my father was when I took him out for Sunday brunch and he got snockered. It was just the two of us, which was a rare and precious thing. My oldest brother, William, was Dad’s primary caretaker and was almost always around when I visited.
Because William didn’t drive, my father, a career diplomat who had lived around the world, was often stuck in a ninth-floor apartment for days or weeks at a time. He told me he felt trapped in a “golden cage.” That Sunday he was clearly happy to be out and about. We didn’t even bring his wheelchair, just his cane.
After we were seated in the restaurant, our waitress asked what we’d like to drink. I ordered coffee, and my father ordered a martini. I was surprised but thought, What the hell. He’s almost ninety-three. He can do whatever he wants.
Evening cocktails with my mother had been a ritual of his. Indeed, cocktails seemed to have been a key part of diplomatic gatherings over the decades, and I knew my father missed them terribly. William did not allow our father any alcohol. “Dr. Bolton said not to drink, Father,” he’d admonish sternly if my dad asked for a glass of wine while watching the evening news. I don’t believe the doctor would have begrudged Dad the occasional drink, but William tends to take things quite literally.
Dad sipped his martini with satisfaction and began talking with the family at the table next to ours, admiring the young girl’s “nifty earrings” and the boy’s hearty appetite. I looked at him through their eyes and saw a skinny old man with wispy hair and a missing tooth. (“Why get it replaced?” he’d say. “I’m going to die soon anyway.”) But they responded to his words with shy smiles. Peculiar as he looked, there was something engaging about him.
When our waitress came around again, Dad ordered another martini. I knew that martinis probably didn’t mix well with his medications, but ever since my mother, the love of his life for more than sixty years, had died two years earlier, he’d had no appetite for life — especially not a life where the only person he saw most days was my brother. As reliable as William was in bathing my father, washing his sheets, and mixing his pills into his applesauce every morning, he didn’t provide emotional comfort or social connection.
So I said nothing about the second martini. I got some more coffee, and we sat there, sipping our drinks and enjoying the sweet taste of rebellion.
I have no regrets about our disobedience, even though I was unable to lift my father out of his chair at the end of the meal. He’d become dead weight. A woman at a nearby table noticed me struggling, and together we lifted up the chair with my father in it and carried it outside to the car like a throne.
When I got back to the apartment, it took William and me several tries to get Dad out of the passenger seat and into his wheelchair.
“Why’s he so limp?” William asked.
Compelled to tell at least a partial truth, I said, “He had a Bloody Mary at brunch. I guess that did it.”
I helped Dad into bed for his nap. He smiled and squeezed my hand before drifting off.
He died two and a half weeks later.
Whidbey Island, Washington
After graduating in 2009 with no job prospects, I decided to go on my first solo cycling tour, from my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, to the Colorado Plateau. As a landscape photographer, I couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular route to explore. Each night I would pitch a tent and make a meal over the camp stove, tracing the day’s journey on my tattered map and wondering what I would see on the next leg.
After a long day’s ride along California’s north coast, I stopped at a grocery store to get some provisions. When I was a student, I’d developed the habit of asking at the deli counter if they had any food they were throwing out. At this store I saw an employee taking nearly expired bacon off the shelves and asked if he wouldn’t mind giving me a pack or two. He replied that he couldn’t be seen doing that in the store, but he would leave some outside for me. After I finished my shopping, I went outside to find that he’d left a garbage bag full of bacon on my bike trailer — thirty-seven pounds of it. I had no means of refrigeration and only a small frying pan, so I hurried to find a campsite by the marshes below town and start cooking.
Dusk was settling in by the time the delicious smell of sizzling bacon began to fill the air. As I looked up from my stove, I was startled to notice several hungry onlookers had emerged from the darkness. I didn’t realize I’d set up camp amid a small community of homeless people. What great fortune to be joined by so many who could share my absurd bounty! After we exchanged cautious introductions, I started passing the plate around. Word spread that a “bacon boy” had landed in their midst.
We stayed up for hours, gorging ourselves and sharing life stories. Among the campers were veterans and vagabonds and folks who’d been dealt a terrible hand. Some were scarred beyond my naive understanding, and others were full of fire and vitality. It was my first honest exchange with people far less fortunate than I was. I often wonder where they might be today.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
My father would come home from work having eaten nothing all day and then, like clockwork, burst into a rage and scream at us kids. I tried hard to behave, believing it to be my fault, but I always seemed to do something wrong.
When I was thirty, my girlfriend noticed that I often got angry before dinner. She suspected I had low blood sugar, and though I denied it at first, it made a lot of sense: irritability is the first sign of hypoglycemia.
When my son was in elementary school, he would sometimes throw a temper tantrum while waiting for dinner. I learned to keep him (and myself) fed, but sometimes his blood sugar fell too low, and he would start yelling at me and then run to his room. When I offered him food, he would scream, “I’m not hungry!” I learned to stick my arm around his bedroom door to hold out potato chips, which he would grab like a feral animal. When I finally got him to the dinner table, he’d wear a pinched, hateful glare, but two minutes after he started eating, a beatific smile would spread over his face: my wonderful son had come back.
This phenomenon, once poorly understood, has become so mainstream that a slang word has been invented for it: hangry.
I could sense that something was not quite right with my daughter. She had started her sophomore year at boarding school strong, confident, and independent but was soon reaching out to me far more than normal. I would hop in the car to visit her, then drive home still not sure what was wrong.
In October she started to eat “clean” and go to the gym. At first her focus on nutrition seemed healthy. By Thanksgiving she had dropped quite a bit of weight and was getting lots of compliments from her classmates. She stepped up her workouts and stopped eating at the cafeteria, preferring to cook her own food in the basement kitchen of the dorm. I was uneasy about these changes, but she seemed OK, and her grades were great.
Just before Christmas she began to complain that she was cold all the time and had stomach pains and blinding headaches. It should have been obvious what was happening, but I had no experience with eating disorders. She saw specialists for her symptoms, but none of them offered an explanation. She came home for the holidays wrapped in layers of sweaters and sweatpants, looking exhausted and pale. I chalked it up to stress from exams. Instead of pancakes and bacon, she made herself a “healthy” smoothie for breakfast.
When we went to the beach at New Year’s and I saw her in a bathing suit for the first time in six months, I became afraid: her ribs protruded, and her legs were stick thin. Her father and I forced her onto the scale at the resort’s infirmary. She weighed a hundred pounds. I made more appointments with doctors when we got back, fearing cancer or worse. She seemed to be wasting away.
It was not until February, when she and I were at dinner alone, that my daughter told me the truth: “Mom, I think I am sick. I need help.” She cried as she described how she had been restricting food for months. She had thought she was in control, but now she saw that the anorexia had been in control of her. I was afraid, but relieved to know the truth at last. I felt like we could solve this problem together.
Treatment was not easy, and she deeply resented my part in it. As an outpatient at the eating-disorder center, she had to see a therapist, a nutritionist, and a physician — and I had to feed her six times a day until she had restored her weight. She fought every morsel that I struggled to get into her. She was convinced that I was the enemy, trying to make her fat.
Today my daughter is well, although she still has trouble feeding herself when she is under a lot of stress, and the threat of relapse is real. But we came out the other side of this traumatic experience together.
One Thursday night, not long after I’d landed in Portland, Oregon, with no friends, no job, and a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, I walked into a pizzeria I’d seen advertised on a bus bench.
The place was a dump. Its carpeted floor was splattered with sauce. The tables had that cloudy look that told you they’d been wiped with a dirty rag. The lighting was bad, the music was worse, and the oven looked like a giant microwave.
It kind of felt like Alexander’s, the pizzeria in my tiny Midwestern hometown. I’d gone there whenever I could: after T-ball, with teenage girlfriends. I hadn’t yet found an Alexander’s in Portland. All I’d found were hip places full of even hipper people who liked bands I’d never heard of and preached the gospel of wood-fired pizza. It didn’t help that my girlfriend was from Portland. Whenever I thought I’d found somewhere that could be our place — or, at least, mine — she’d say she’d been there years ago with some musician or writer or other version of the adult I was convinced I’d never become.
I knew, though, that she’d never been here. No one cool had. This was a place for dorks who liked pizza that was just this side of casserole.
I didn’t yet know that this pizzeria would become my church. I’d read entire books here, celebrate birthdays here, and bring future girlfriends here. At the moment, all I knew was that I was hungry. So I ordered a slice with Canadian bacon and pineapple and slid into a window booth. And as I looked out at a city that never looked back at me, I didn’t wonder what my girlfriend was up to, or with whom. For once, she didn’t know where I was. For once, I did.
© Beth Rooney
In my Italian American family, meals were served hot and eaten at a table with a tablecloth. We were served two vegetables with every supper, and pizza was considered food for lazy people. Those early lessons in how to eat stayed with me as much as my love of eggplant or limonata.
When I married, my husband, raised on frozen peas cooked to mush and Arnold’s white bread, became a convert to my mother’s peppers cooked in olive oil and pork-chop sandwiches. Then we had children, two girls, and I confronted the challenge of cooking Italian without a supporting cast of nonnas, nonnos, and zias. My daughters grew sick of hearing me say, “No chips for snack.”
But the food that provoked the most tears, arguments, and truces was that quintessential American processed product, Lunchables: an oh-so-convenient yellow box of pretend food my children loved. A friend must have introduced them to it. Determined to set a limit, I found a way to associate Lunchables with special occasions only: every summer, before our vacation in Maine, I took the girls to Star Market and let them select Lunchables for the car ride. “Choose wisely,” I warned. “If your sister won’t trade with you, you are stuck with your choice.” Once, when only one nacho Lunchable was left on the shelf, my younger daughter had a tantrum so wrenching that we left our cart in the aisle and drove home.
I thought the girls’ zeal for the salty, fatty little cartons would diminish as they got older, but they simply graduated from the mini boxes to the full-size ones. I combed stores for healthier alternatives and found a prepackaged lunch at Whole Foods, featuring organic cold cuts, whole-wheat cracker squares, a dye-free juice pouch, and a packet of yogurt-covered raisins. I bought two and presented them to my children, who were appalled by the deceit — nutritious food masquerading as Lunchables.
By the time my daughters were eleven and thirteen, their excitement had waned. They consumed their Lunchables on the drive to Maine merely out of nostalgia. Watching them in the rearview mirror, I wanted to gloat in triumph.
This year my girls are seventeen and nineteen. The older has taken over a lot of the cooking at home, turning out masterful fish and chicken dishes. The night before we left for Maine this summer, I thought about mentioning Lunchables as a joke, then opened the refrigerator and saw neatly stacked containers of brown rice and chicken, cut-up fruit, wrapped cold pizza, and bottles of Gatorade and canned Starbucks.
In the car the next day, no square yellow boxes appeared in my rearview mirror. I almost missed them.
The urologist encouraged me to look at the ultrasound screen, where an ugly tumor seemed to undulate like seaweed in my bladder. I looked away quickly. How had this happened? I didn’t smoke, didn’t huff glue, didn’t work in a factory with solvents. I was a teacher, for Pete’s sake.
But I had grown up in the South, where mayonnaise was its own food group. For a year, the only meat I would eat was Vienna sausages. I scarfed down Pop-Tarts and Frosted Flakes for breakfast and hot dogs and potato chips at cookouts. When our town’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened, I stood in line for an hour with my dad.
So I changed my diet. I went to the two natural-food stores in town and faced aisles of bewildering products like chia seeds, bulgur, Romanesco broccoli, and dried lentils. I discovered that rice also comes in brown. Coconut oil replaced my vegetable oil, and tea with antioxidants and stevia became my drink of choice. I even bought natural toothpaste and shampoo, and I tried not to flinch when the cashier gave me the total for my purchases.
Little did I know how grateful I would be to have spent all that money. I’ve had four follow-up bladder ultrasounds, and each all-clear has been a victory for healthy eating. Bring on the turmeric!
I grew up in a family without much money. Our financial situation showed more in how we ate than in anything else, though my parents worked hard to make us treats on special occasions. We had Sunday-night pizza that my parents made from a Chef Boyardee box of dough, sauce, and cheese, adding pepperoni and some extra mozzarella. Every year for the Super Bowl, we had chili with cheese (well, American cheese product) and saltines. At Christmas my father made eggs, bacon, and biscuits and gravy.
My favorite meal, though — the one I asked for on a regular basis and the first meal I tried to make by myself — was pork ’n’ beans, macaroni and cheese, white bread and butter, and Treet. For those who don’t know, Treet is like Spam, but ten cents cheaper. The pork ’n’ beans were store brand, and the macaroni and cheese came from a box (though we added some American cheese to make it better).
As a kid I understood that we couldn’t always have what I wanted, but I didn’t know we were poor. A few years ago my mother told me a story about grocery shopping with me when I was quite young: I asked, “Can we afford bananas this week?”
I now have a comfortable middle-class career. My parents also became more financially secure. Almost every time I went to their house as an adult, there were bananas in the kitchen. They ate them whenever they wanted, and now I can, too.
When I was six years old, my mother died suddenly. Daddy withdrew to grieve. My older brother became sullen and angry. My baby sister was sent to live with an aunt ninety miles away. I felt sick all the time. I learned later that untended grief can make a child throw up and have headaches or worse.
About six months after Mama’s death, we went to visit my grandma on the farm. She had chickens in the yard, and the woodstove always smelled like bacon. One night before bedtime Grandma sat in her rocker and opened her arms to me. I climbed into her broad lap, and she rocked and held me. I must have been starved for affection, something to feed the broken places inside me. That night was the first time I felt like I had a soft place to land. And it was the first time I cried after Mama died.
In my work as an educator, I teach students how to grow, harvest, and cook their own food from the school garden. I also eat lunch with them once a week in the cafeteria. Though I am supposed to model healthy eating choices, there is not much to choose from. Recently lunch was rehydrated mashed potatoes that tasted like cardboard and popcorn chicken that was somehow both dry and undercooked. I often have to pick brown pieces of lettuce out of the salad bar.
I leave lunch feeling empty, even when my belly is full. This is not food that nourishes. It does not feed the brain or the body.
Eating these cafeteria meals once a week for a year has taught me a lot. The more time I spend working in the public-school system, the less I feel like it is a healthy environment. What we ask of children is almost inhumane: to sit, be quiet, absorb information, ask permission to get water or go to the restroom — all without proper nutrition. They are allotted just twenty minutes for lunch, which includes time spent standing in line, leaving barely enough time to scarf down their unappetizing food. I live on an organic farm and recognize that I have access to better food than many other people, but to see what’s being served in the schools shocks me. In a relatively affluent and progressive town, surrounded by a thriving agricultural community, I expect better.
People say kids are picky eaters, but I know this isn’t true. In my class they eat toasted pumpkin seeds, acorn muffins, wild-plant pesto, and fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables. When I brought in kale salad, they were coming back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. They are hungry for real food.
My father was a machinist for the Singer Sewing Company. He faithfully read the New York Daily News every night, because it was the paper of the working class. In his spare time he maintained our house, keeping it in perfect order. But every Saturday he allowed himself one luxury: a chocolate cake delivered right to our door by Holtermann’s Bakery.
A messenger wearing a crisp white shirt brought this treasure to the aluminum box beside our front steps where the milkman left our milk. My sister and I would watch from the front window for the delivery, then bring the cake into the house, gingerly open the box, and ooh and aah at its beauty. It was always an eight-inch, triple-layer yellow cake with chocolate-buttercream icing and a bright-red cherry on top. We fought over the cherry each week until my mother started keeping track of who had eaten it the Saturday before. Any hard feelings went away when the cake was finally served, because we were too busy devouring it.
Our father had eight brothers and sisters. When he was nine, he was already working, selling newspapers at the Staten Island Ferry and giving what he earned to his parents, Italian immigrants who’d come to this country in the early 1900s. When he was fourteen, my father got a job at Mike’s Deli, and he would bring home scraps for his hungry younger siblings. Most days he and his family ate stale bread and coffee for both breakfast and lunch. Cake would have been an extravagance.
Once he started ordering that chocolate cake every week from Holtermann’s, Dad made sure his parents enjoyed it with us.
We always ate the cake as soon as it was delivered — it didn’t matter if it arrived right before lunch or dinner. We gathered at the kitchen table, and my father sat at the head and watched his family crowd around that cake, talking, laughing, happy.
Ann Marie Antenucci
Staten Island, New York