When you’re here you’re family

The week after Dad died we went to The Olive Garden with caring cousins who tried mightily to soothe our grief with their company and manicotti.

Chain Italian food is blasphemy in the town where my parents raised me. Tomato sauce was called gravy, and Mrs. Rizzo made meatballs that melted upon touching your tongue, bigger than a man’s fist.

Our waiter recognized Mom from all the times she brought Dad there for dinner, her last attempts at date night with her husband. I imagine her guiding his choices, choosing for him when his consciousness grew hazier, wispier, dreamier. The waiter came to know them by sight, by name and would help Dad get seated and put his walker to the side while they dined. He held sympathy in his smile; compassion in endless salad and bread sticks.

Where I grew up, Italian bread came from the local bakery. I remember holding my Dad’s hand as we stopped in for bread and Sunday pastries. I was so little I could still press my face against the cases to stare longingly at the opulently decorated cakes and pies. I would get a smiley-faced sugar cookie in my own waxy bag and eat it at the kitchen table with Dad as he read the paper, drank coffee and ate pastry.

The waiter asked Mom, “How’s John?” We all waited for her to say it.

“He passed away last week.”

The waiter half-opened his mouth, flushed and quickly paled, said quietly, “I’m so sorry.” He quickly retreated to tend to other diners.

I thought of him for days afterward. Wondered if he dropped a dish in the kitchen or spilled a glass of wine on purpose, because he was shaken. Because he had known Dad, though not long, but intimately in the way that only someone who brings you sustenance over a period of time can.

It would be like this for a while after he died. The moment of having to say he was gone out loud, still an open wound, still not believing the words as they left my lips.