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The Italian Kitchen has long been a cozy family restaurant both from the perspective of my relatives, who meet there once monthly, and the Greek family that runs the establishment. It is the kind of place where the food warms you from the inside out and what the pasta, sandwiches, pizza, salads, and desserts (leave room for dessert!) cannot quite displace from a rough day, the good company will finish off the task with admirable aplomb. These four walls know exactly what they are about.

As I said, this is a family affair. Which means I am not eating alone tonight but rather crammed perfectly in the middle of the nine people taking up one half of a long booth. The other half occupy eight of the ten chairs on the opposite side of our five pushed-together tables. It may be a customary setup but jostling for the best seats keeps us from ending up in the same exact spots too often. Regardless of whether someone lands the sociable middle or an end seat with extra space, no one is ever surprised by someone else’s elbow, or wayward wanting fingers, ending up in their dish. It is a night for sharing after all, whether that be some harmless fries or a political opinion steeped in conspiracy that leads to siblings not speaking until Thanksgiving.

We know how these things go and we all have our few usual’s. Tonight, I pick the fish sandwich without even considering my other favorite. I have not eaten manicotti since February.

Lisa, to my right, says the manicotti sounds lovely. It is very nice of her to think that way. I could tell her that it was more than lovely, but she would miss the context and my mother is already a little distressed, turning a cool glass of diet Coke around and around between her palms. It is a near even match for whether she or the glass is sweating more. The origins of the glass itself are a mystery since our drink orders have not even been taken yet. So I keep the ruminating to myself, even as I can feel the aunts and uncles around me thinking on the same topic even louder than I am. Collectively, we quaver with it.

My grandmother’s name is not Tammy, or any variation thereof. She is not Tam or Tamara. But at twenty-seven years old I refer to my grandmother as Tammy because when nearing age two I was slow to talk even though I had been early to conquer the feat of walking. Forming my mouth around a “Gr” sound was quite beyond me at the time. Still, the world was there and waiting to be expressed so Grammy became Tammy.

Having Tammy around for my young life was like having a third, very glittery parent. She would dress up to work in her garden, to feed the birds, or just to take a dirt-prone kid with hands full of rocks and sticks on a walk down the beach. This meant I would need to find space in my hands to hold all the most interesting shells too. Simply put, Tammy, at age eighty-five, was as much of a knockout as she had been at twenty-five.

Her knack for appearance might seem surprising to those who know her farming and textile mill background. How could someone so glamorous also be such a grounded hard worker? Beauty was always something inside and out for her. A calling she cultivated in the world around her. So that was why Tammy dressed nice and did her hair and gardened and taught a young kid who learned how to walk too early that running into the road was not the way of things. Beauty of the soul and physically.

Tammy is the one who was first to always order manicotti, splitting it with my grandfather. She is also the one who showed me that unknown name on the menu was quite good.

Grandpa received a similar re-christening by my younger self but with one extra step for added flair. He is a man who always appreciated the look of things, particularly when he could claim to have something others did not. Status, if you will. And a glittery wife who he loved in all the ways he was capable. These were things for him to be proud of.

I, of course, when nearing age two was bolstered by my success with Tammy and thus ready to tackle the next big thing. Replacing the “Gr” in the word “grandpa” with a “T,” now that is easy. I had already found that little trick! But consider the rest of the word. That fiddly “d” in the middle is really just there for show when the word is written out. Much better to say “Gran-pa” when speaking. And so, Grandpa became Tampa.

Tonight, Tampa is in the midst of perusing the wine list though I am not sure if he ever actually considers getting anything but a zinfandel. Usually with an extra glass under the pretense of sharing. That is how this always worked. Tammy taking care of food, Tampa with the drinks. Tammy checking in on everyone and pulling out her phone to call whoever might have considered forgetting family night. Tampa preempting the family dance over the eventual bill but forgetting the tip.

He makes his proposal of zinfandel as though this is a surprising and delightful new thought that has just come to him. The question, which is not really a question, is posed across the table at Lisa rather than to anyone occupying the seat directly adjacent to him.

The idea is splendid! As Lisa pronounces it. With the drinks sorted, the waitress coming and going, there will be plenty of time to consider the main course before the waitress returns.

Since I already know my order, my menu not even opened, it is a good time to engage in the idle chatter of a large group that (mostly) knows all there is about each other. This is cause for reminiscing. Going back to the origins of the name “Tampa,” there was a particular unknowing stroke of genius here. Tampa, the city, is exactly where Tampa, the grandfather, would take Tammy when they tired of the cold and turned to full-time sun seekers.

Indeed Tammy always liked the sun, but she loved her family more. Plane tickets would always find their way into envelopes with our addresses around the holidays. We would make good use of the three spare bedrooms and two large couches despite Tampa’s frequent questioning of why two people needed a house that big. But we brought with us ingredients for a week’s worth of meals and ready hands to make it happen. Some of us would take to helping with the gardens, cleaning around the house, and of course decorating exactly as Tammy directed, depending on the holiday.

But now we are in mid-summer, the time of year when Tammy and Tampa usually made the journey in reverse. I have not seen Tampa since the days that followed me hopping on a last-minute plane in the middle of a February workday. I have never seen Lisa before at all.

My grandfather proposes the manicotti to Lisa. She notes that the ravioli also looks good but agrees easily. She is personable and talkative but I will never give her a nickname and my mother will not have long phone conversations with her about gardening or anything else. Between my aunts and uncles there is a bit of clear but kind distance. The type of repertoire one shares with a stranger. A little stilted because of the hole Lisa fills for Tampa but no one else. Though that is not her, or anyone else’s, fault.

The waitress brings two full trays of drinks and then does not even take out her pad to keep track of our orders. She has the skill indicative of a food service industry professional and the quick wit to match. Down one side and partway up the next, the orders flow in an easy synchronization. The waitress reaches Lisa and she defers to my grandfather.

He says, “We’ll share a manicotti.”

Without missing a beat, the waitress flicks through her vast knowledge of the menu and notices a gap. “My apologies,” she says. “We actually just updated our menu but one of the old ones must have gotten mixed in. Here, I’ll take that.” She picks up the old menu and keeps it separate from the rest of the stack she has been collecting. “All the recent supply chain issues have meant we can no longer serve manicotti. But I would be happy to offer you some alternatives.”

Tampa does not even have to think about it. “Better be the ravioli,” he replies.

The waitress finishes taking the rest of the orders before heading back to the kitchen, menus in her arms. Our family’s general volume of chatter returns to take over our side of the restaurant. It continues through the food’s eventual arrival, even as we multitask consumption and conversation. Nearby I can hear Lisa’s repeated compliments that the ravioli is very good and see my mother’s abrupt excusal of herself to the restroom.

I like ravioli just fine. Ravioli is friendly and warm, and I want people to be happy when they have ravioli.

It is just that ravioli is not manicotti. My kind of missing is a more slow-simmering and lasting ache than something that can be replaced. I carry this, thinking both fondly and sadly with every spark of remembrance. A combination that seems at odds but I find so often paired. I am grateful, for having had what I now miss.

This is something that comes back in fits and starts but never really goes away. I finish my sandwich and I think about her, I let Lisa walk past and I think about her, and at the end of the night when I sneak a cash tip onto the table I think about her. A week, a year, a decade from now and I expect more of the same.

Thank you, Tammy.

September 04, 2022 21:48

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1 comment

Kate Winchester
17:54 Sep 15, 2022

This was so heartfelt! I loved it. You elicit all the feels. Well-done!


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