Spring 2008

 

NONFICTION

 

The Last Frozen Dinner

 

by Delia De Santis

 

 

Marco wakes up and sits on the edge of the bed, smiling. His expression is very much like that of a young man perched on a high wall, swinging his legs back and forth, knowing the world is soon going to start blossoming in front of him. The truth is, however, that Marco is fifty-six years old and the smile genetic. His mother used to say it was in their background... funloving Scottish Catholics, who had immigrated to Italy during the Reformation, and happy-go-lucky Italians from deep in the Alps.

 

Just as well he’s blessed with a good disposition. One of his ancestors, aspiring to become fully assimilated into the Italian culture, had one day foolishly changed his name from MacDonald to Maccadonaldi, a family name Marco had no choice inheriting.

 

Strangely, the name had given him no trouble whatsoever while growing up in Italy, but in Canada it’s another story. Marco tends to gravitate toward Italian Canadian women, and they all think the name is weird. As soon as he mentions it, they look at him funny and proceed to ask, “Maccadonaldi? Are you sure?” as if one could easily make a mistake about his own last name.

 

He has even come to blame the failure of his relationships – or, to be more exact, the lack of them – on his surname. Well, maybe not totally; he knows better than that. But that’s what he used to always tell his mother, knowing perhaps there might even be a grain of truth in it.

 

The woman had never let a day go by without reminding him it was not a good idea for him to remain a bachelor the rest of his life. Especially when he didn’t even have a niece or nephew around to take care of burying him when the time came.

 

“But what can I do?” he commiserated with her jokingly, one day. It was last year, just before she went on her trip to Italy. “I can’t help it if I can’t find a wife. Besides, you know how it is... as soon as they hear the word Maccadonaldi, they start laughing. Then, caput, everything is over.”

 

“Well!” she exclaims, tiny body standing erect. “Learn to do like I do. When people make fun of me for something, I laugh along with them. It always works!”

 

“Ma, porco cane!” he swears in the good-natured manner he has been doing for years. “That’s what I do, too. But then they figure that’s all I am good for... you know... good for a laugh.”

 

Suddenly, she stops wiping the stove and turns to look at him. “Figlio... I always wanted to ask you this... Is everything all right? Is everything the way it should be?”

 

Frowning, he puts his newspaper down, folds it without looking at it.

 

“What do you mean by that?”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

“No, I don’t. What are you talking about?”

 

“Non comprendi?” she finally asks, her small, dark eyes squinting. “I mean are you okay... are you normal? I know you were born with all the parts a man should have – when you were a baby there was nothing wrong with your testicole... and nothing wrong with the other thing either...”

 

Exasperated, Marco shakes his head and runs his hands through his hair. Should he kill her? She sure deserves it. But what is the use. The woman has never been shy and reserved, and with the years she’ll only keep getting worse. He might as well get used to it. Anyway, soon she’ll be gone for a month, and that will give him a break from having to listen to her... and her impudent talk.

 

At the same time, he knows he shouldn’t complain. Who else takes care of him the way his mother does? Full of arthritis, the woman has managed to prepare him fifty frozen dinners from scratch: thirty for the month she’ll be away... and the other twenty to do him for a while, in case the plane carrying her goes down...

 

- - -

 

 

The airport is four hundred miles away, but he doesn’t mind driving her there – he would never think of letting his mother take the airbus. She knows they have to leave by one o’clock, but still insists on cooking a meal before going.

 

“I will not eat in a restaurant,” she tells him, as she scurries around the kitchen, a large apron tied firmly around her waist. “I like to know the hands that have prepared my food.”

 

For the flight, she is taking her own sandwiches and fruits.

 

“Have it your way, but no need to make a feast, for God’s sake. We haven’t got that much time. Planes don’t wait!”

 

Marco goes out to the garage to get the car ready: adds oil and washer fluid, cleans the windshield, and wipes the passenger side so his mother won’t get her good clothes soiled.

 

When he goes back inside, he tags her suitcase and locks it. Then he looks in her travel bag, to see if she has all her medications. Although she never complains, the woman has a dozen ailments.

 

“Make sure you carry your purse to the front of you all the time, when you’re over there. Italy is full of robbers!”

 

Marco worries about her travelling alone. She’s such a little woman, they could push her over like a feather.

 

“Oh, stop worrying,” she tells him. “I have gone back to Italy seven times, and nothing has ever happened to me. Worry about yourself.”

 

“And what do I have to worry about,” he laughs.

 

“A lot of things,” she sighs. “For one, you can’t even turn the oven on.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll manage. Besides, there’s a whole troop of Italian widows on this street I can call on for help.”

 

“Oh yes,” she says, glad to be reminded. “That’s just what I was going to tell you. If you need anything while I am gone, the widow Angelucci is the one to call. She’s the most sensible of them all... goes out only when she has to... Not like the rest of them, playing bingo all day long!”

 

“I think I’d be out of luck there, Mamma,” he says earnestly. “That woman won’t even turn and look at me

when I happen to go by. She talks to me only when you’re around – out of respect for you, I suppose.”

 

“Oh yes, that’s right,” she nods with pity. “I forgot about that... how you used to argue with her husband all the time. Here, take your plate to the table... That’s too bad, isn’t it – about the widow Angelucci, I mean? Especially since she’s just the right age for you – turned fifty the other day. And her children all grown up and nicely settled... Really, Marco, I don’t know why you always manage to antagonize the best women around.”

 

“Beats me,” he says, just to keep the conversation going. There will be enough time to catch up on silence while she’s gone.

 

She ponders for a moment. “Well, you know what you could do? You could do what they used to do in some parts of Italy.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Go out with a sack... stick it over a woman’s head, and –”

 

“Eh, that’s a possibility,” he cuts in quickly, sprinkling cheese on his rigatoni. “But then I would have to go and buy another house. I couldn’t bring a woman I just kidnapped to live with her mother-in-law, could I? Abduction is bad enough. Who needs a mother-in-law thrown in, too?”

 

Sometimes his mother does get under his skin, driving him to sarcastic replies that are not even relevant. Childish defence, really. But they have never apologized to one another for anything, and somehow they always manage to work their way back to friendliness. They’re too fond ofeach other for anything else. Besides, they just don’t know how to hold grudges.

 

“So, that’s it. I am old and I am in the way,” she says.

 

“But... as I told you the other day... the planes... there’s one falling every day.”

 

“Yes,” he laughs, trying to make amends with his usual scathing humour. “But the plane you’ll be on is going to make it all the way to Milano, even if the motors burn out... Mamma, believe me, you’ll live to be a hundred, just so you can drive your only son crazy.”

 

“No,” she says, suddenly wiping tears from her eyes. “No. Non ritorno. I will not come back.”

 

“Ah. Stop that.”

 

He hates it when she starts moping. Thank God it doesn’t happen very often. “No, non ritorno,” she says again, strangely adamant.

 

Slowly, she begins to clear the table.

 

- - - 

 

That was the last meal they had together. It wasn’t the plane, but a heart attack.

 

It cost Marco a fortune to have his mother buried in Italy. He wanted to bring her body back to Canada, but his aunt talked him out of it. “What’s the point?” she told him over the phone. “Most of her loved ones are buried over here. Besides, this is her native soil – her own country.” 

 

It made a lot of sense, and he didn’t bother arguing. Taking a quick flight, he went over to do what needed to be done.

 

Marco gave his mother a proper funeral, bought her a fine marble headstone. He even ordered a perpetual lamp to be installed on her resting-place – a light to shine on her name forever.

 

Anna Maccadonaldi, nee McAuley.

 

- - - 

 

He and his mother had always been good to each other, and Marco has no regrets. But sometimes he can’t help wondering about the timing of her death. He feels almost certain that she willed herself to die in Italy, knowing it would be the only sure way she would end up being buried beside her husband, Marco’s father, who had died many years ago. She had never spoken to him about her last wishes, but Marco knew his mother well: when she wanted something bad enough, she always found a way to get it!

 

But damn, he did miss the old woman.

 

Sometimes, at supper, Marco catches himself lifting his head to talk to her across the table, and she’s not there. Then he goes and puts music on, sings along with Pavarotti and Bocelli. When the song Pagliaccio comes on, he turns the stereo off, afraid of the tears that might pop into his eyes.

 

He fights sadness like hell: it’s something that has been bred in him.

 

His mother’s frozen dinners are all gone, except one: the last one. He just couldn’t bring himself to eat it. It has now been in the freezer for six months and it’s probably no good anymore. He knows he has to throw it out, but he doesn’t have the heart to do it.

 

His own cooking has no resemblance to the delicious meals his mother used to make. He just has no patience with pots and pans. He has made pasta with tomato sauce that smelled of burnt so bad that even a dog would have turned his nose from it.

 

“La vita è proprio una fregatura,” he sighs. “Life is truly a rip-off.”

 

Suddenly, Marco rubs his face and gets off the edge of the bed. How long has he been sitting there, remembering? Too long. He picks up his jeans from the floor and puts them on. Slowly, he walks to the window.

 

The blinds are closed and he lifts a couple of slats to peek outside. The snowstorm the weatherman has been predicting for two days has finally arrived. Marco, who works in construction, is glad he hasn’t been asked to do overtime this weekend. For two days, if he wants to, he can stay in the house nice and warm.

 

Across the street, the widow Angelucci is busy shovelling snow in her driveway. She has boots up to her knees, and a wool hat that comes down to her nose... men’s rubber gloves on her hands. Thin as a rake, but God can she shovel!

 

He wonders what she eats for supper... or lunch for that matter. Does she eat at all?

 

Marco goes back to his bed and searches for his shirt. Where the hell did he put it last night? Finally finds it on his bed, tangled up with his blankets. He has to learn to be more organized – neatness is not one of his virtues... and one of these days he should clean the house, too. It’s starting to look like a dump!

 

But he has never used a vacuum cleaner in his life, never washed a floor. Where would he begin? He would

rather dig a ditch any day!

 

The widow Angelucci must do a lot of cleaning. One day last week, he found himself behind her at the checkout counter of the local grocery store and, for a moment, he couldn’t help looking at her hands.

 

They were so red... raw, almost ready to bleed.

 

Still, he might have liked to touch those hands, rough as they were...

 

“Ah, forget it” he tells himself, as he puts his slippers on. “What you need, Marco Maccadonaldi, is a nice cup of espresso with grappa... Anyway, she’s too skinny. What’s there to grab with a woman like that?”

 

But when he’s at the bottom of the stairs, suddenly, an impulse overtakes him, and instead of heading for the kitchen, Marco goes straight to the back door. Quickly, he slips his parka on, searches for warm gloves...

 

Shovel over his shoulder, he crosses the road.

 

“Buongiorno, Signora Angelucci,” he greets cheerfully, as he reaches her sidewalk. “Looks like winter is finally here.” And he digs in with his shovel on the other side of her driveway, where the wind has made a tall drift.

 

The woman pushes roughly at her hat, to find her eyes. “What are you doing?” she demands. “Go and shovel your own driveway. My Giovanni would have never wanted you to set foot on our property.”

 

He’s just about to answer and say, “Your Giovanni was nothing but a troublemaker... always arguing with everyone. If it wasn’t the fence, it was a cat or a dog... or some other damn thing touching his balls the wrong way,” but luckily, caution put a quick bite on Marco’s tongue before the stream of words had a chance to come out.

 

“Oh, I know. I know,” he finally manages to say in a soothing tone. “You have every right to feel the way you do. But, you see, Signora, I never meant to interfere. It was the neighbours... they were the ones who came to me for help... They thought, since I was Italian too, I would be a good mediator over their arguments with your husband.”

 

“You Italian?” she snorts. “That’s a good one!”

 

“What do you mean by that?

 

“Don’t you think I know? You’re scozzese.”

 

“Oh. So now I am not even Italian anymore,” he laughs.

 

“What kind of talk is that? You were friends with my mother... you don’t think she was Italian? Didn’t she speak and cook Italian? Didn’t she do everything Italian? If you ask me, there was no woman around more Italian than my mother ”

 

“Well, I didn’t ask you.”

 

“Okay, let’s talk about my father, then. That man never knew any other country but Italy. In fact, neither did his father and his grandfather – and even his great grandfather, for that matter.”

 

“What about the blood…?”

 

“The blood? Well... the blood... Sure, there’s some Scottish blood in my background, but only God knows how many generations ago. Anyway, what difference does it make?”

 

“Well... Giovanni told me once that if you ever got married, you’d wear a skirt for the wedding.” 

 

“You mean a kilt?”

 

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

 

“What are you trying to say?”

 

“A skirt is a skirt.”

 

Yes. And screw you, too, femmina, he thinks.

 

But he can’t let her get away with a comment like that; some things are just not in his nature.

 

“Look, Signora Angelucci,” he starts out all sweet and mellow. “I’ve had women pick on my last name... but

never have I come across one who made fun of me about kilts. And you’re not even that good looking!”

 

He can’t see her face; it’s hidden between hat and scarf... but there is no pause in her movement, no pause at all. She’s one sure woman!

 

Heads bent, they both keep the snow flying.

 

He finishes with the left side of the driveway and goes to help her on the right, starting at the opposite end. And then, there they are, face to face, breathing cold smoke toward each other...

 

Finally, she speaks.

 

“I made ciambelle last night,” she says, loosening her scarf, peeling off her hat. “The kind your mother used to make...”

 

Ah, now we’re talking, he thinks.

 

“Sweet bagels are good only when they’re fresh... ”

 

“Yes, I remember...”

 

Up close, Lucia Angelucci is a pretty woman. Her brown eyes are soft, warm... her smile youthful.

 

He looks at her for a minute... she looks back at him and laughs.

 

A big grin cracking open the frozen skin of his cheeks, Marco sets his shovel against the corner of her house and follows her inside.

 

 

Delia De Santis is the author of Fast Forward and Other Stories (Longbridge Books 2008). She lives in Bright's Grove, Ontario.

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