Forget Me Not
by Carmen Ruggero
part 1 of 2
Immortality. God has promised us eternal life. Of course, some take it too literally, forgetting He also said: In Heaven. But that’s what Uncle Petro wanted. He said that to me the summer I spent a few days at their house. One morning, Petro, Nina and I were in their kitchen having breakfast — all squashed together.
It was a very small kitchen, with only enough room for the stove, a big sink, and the little table pushed against the wall because it wouldn’t fit otherwise. The icebox was on the patio just outside the door. Sunlight bounced off its wooden surface and into the kitchen, and as tree branches moved with the breeze, little sun droplets skipped from here to there over the blue and white tile floor. They were hypnotizing to watch, and a good excuse for fiddling with my oatmeal, instead of eating it.
Uncle Petro knew I didn’t like oatmeal. So did Nina, but she thought it was good for me. Petro watched me drawing circles on the oatmeal with my spoon. He winked at me, then quietly left the table. He returned with a piece of toasted bread and orange marmalade for me, taking the oatmeal for himself. Auntie had her back to us, but I know she saw it. She was born with an eye in the back of her head.
“I always know what’s going on,” she said to me one day, narrowing her eyes to make the point.
“You see, even when I sleep, the eye behind my head stays open.”
That was very scary. And I know she noticed the oatmeal switch because she never fixed it for me again.
Petro sat at end of the table and a little sideways, resting his shoulder on the wall. His salt and pepper hair, thinning on top, was standing on end that morning as if he had slept on it wrong. He called it mattress hair. His small frame looked even smaller when he slouched.
“I want to live forever,” he said, a big smile stretched his moon face to a shine. He brought the coffee cup to his mouth, hid a smirk behind it, and sort of peeked at me over the rim.
A disbelieving grin formed slowly beneath my milk and marmalade moustache. “How?” I asked.
“Magic, I can do magic,” he said, slurping his coffee.
Auntie Nina was washing dishes and still with her back to us, she shook her head from side to side. I knew she heard it, although she said nothing.
How could he live forever and ever, I wondered. I was only six at the time, and even then, I knew it would take a lot more than magic. Forever meant at least one hundred and fifty years. By then, most of us normal people would have been dead, and who would take care of him?
“Death means finito, finished, all gone.” Auntie Nina, his older sister, finally turned around. She splashed dishwater all over the place and the way she twisted her apron around her fingers, made it clear she was upset. She told him straight out: “Don’t you talk nonsense to the girl, Petro.”
Petro looked at her; his eyes traveled back in my direction, then lowered his gaze. He wasn’t smiling any more.
Nina was the nicest relative I recall. Despite a rough exterior like a ripe melon, she was gentle and sweet inside. I never knew her real name. We called her Nina. She and Uncle Petro were Grandpa’s sister and brother. I still remember her in that little kitchen of hers, holding the edge of her apron with both hands, twirling it around her fingers as she spoke, and tilting her head slightly to one side.
She wore her dark hair pulled tightly away from her face and tied into a granny knot on the back of her head. Her eyes were the color of midnight, and they sparkled when she smiled. The rest of her was round and plump. She had small teeth with little spaces in between. I remember thinking they looked so silly because her mouth was so big.
My family and I visited her house as often as we could. It was a long train ride from home, and then followed by a bumpy bus ride that took forever, or so it seemed to me. After leaving the bus, we walked many blocks logging around a change of clothes for all of us kids, in addition to whatever food offering Mom would bring. She knew Nina always cooked for an army, but Mom wouldn’t be caught dead coming to visit empty-handed.
“And don’t you start asking for food when we get there,” she’d said, “I don’t want Nina to think we came in starved to death.”
I’d look at her out of the corner of my eye. We had left our home early in the morning and by the time we got there it was almost noon. Breakfast was long gone, and yes, I was starving to death. But I knew I wouldn’t have to ask; Nina always offered.
Nina’s was a happy old house in an even older Buenos Aires neighborhood. It was built on a corner lot and surrounded by a six-foot brick wall covered by honeysuckle. The structure itself followed an L-shape and all the rooms faced the red and white tile patio where a jacaranda tree grew right in the middle in a square patch of dirt edged by red brick wedges. The jacaranda’s roots had grown beyond proportion, and had started to crack the tiles. For as long as I can remember, I heard Auntie Nina say: “We’ve got to kill that tree; it’ll take over the house one of these days.”
Then she’d lean back on her wicker rocker, as if the thought alone could fix the problem. But it never did. That jacaranda was there for years, and every year they lost another tile. In the summertime, when it was in bloom, I used to like sweeping the little purple petals that fell on the ground and pretend I was Cinderella. Mom wished I could pretend at home as well, but sweeping at Auntie Nina’s was special; at home, it was work.
I used to like it there in the early morning — skipping around that patio still nursing my toasted bread. It was easy to know who was awake, as one by one the louver double doors would start to open into the patio. Soon someone would step out: “Buon giorno, bambina. Up already eh?”
“Just playing,” I’d say.
Auntie Nina’s was the place to go on New Year’s Eve. The whole lot of us would show up. My family, uncles and aunts and their kids, Grandma, Grandpa, oh... about one hundred of us, I’d say. And she would cook up a storm. The whole place was redolent of wine, pasta and roasted lamb. I remember us kids running all over that patio, playing hide and seek, or jumping rope while the cooking smells made our stomachs growl. But no amount of begging trips to the kitchen ever got us a taste.
So we’d lower our heads and go back to play, and on the way out of the kitchen, somebody’s mamma, didn’t necessarily have to be our own, would say, “Now don’t you scuff those white shoes!” It was just something to say — an obligatory maternal interjection, because it sure didn’t make any difference.
Auntie Nina, along with as many women as could possibly fit inside that tiny kitchen, would busy themselves preparing for the New Year’s feast. They were all cramped in there so tightly, the kitchen looked like the old subway train after working hours.
One of them, usually Cousin Emilia, would take charge of the salad, a couple of them would fix the hors-d’oeuvres, which was nothing but a fancy name for little bites of things, some of which I couldn’t pronounce and most I hated to eat, except for the black olives — I ate those by the pound.
And there was a special etiquette for eating hors-d’oeuvres: Adults picked them up with toothpicks; making sure their pinky was pointed upward, as if they were holding a wine glass. And children got their hands slapped when they were caught using their fingers.
Auntie Nina always cooked the main course, and for the New Year, it was linguini with clam sauce. Some of my older cousins fixed dessert, and the rest of them just stood around and gossiped about the men while holding on to kitchen towels pretending to be of help and fanning the heat off their red, sweaty faces.
The men sat around the patio under the purple jacaranda smoking their pipes and cigarettes, and savoring a little pre-dinner vermouth. I didn’t know much about vermouth back then, except women couldn’t drink it while standing up. Uncle Marco, Nina’s husband, said it was because if they started out sitting down, no one would notice when they fell.
And I really can’t say what the men talked about, although they probably gossiped about the women. But I noticed something interesting, though I never dared to mention: When women gossiped, they looked silly, but men made it sound important. And every time a kid approached, one of them would say something ceremoniously stupid like: “Go wash your hands,” when it wasn’t near suppertime.
When we were called to the table, no matter who did the calling, we paid the adults due creed. And we had better bolt because they wouldn’t call twice.
The dining room was the first room into the L-shaped house, and right across from the kitchen. In those days, kitchens were commonly built separate from the house. It was fun when it rained, as one of us would have to wait by the dinning room door — umbrella in hand, waiting to rescue Auntie Nina when she came out of the kitchen carrying a steaming tray of food.
Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero