For centuries, the venerable Cobblestone streets had seen hordes of invaders, gatherings of soldiers, and raucous celebrations of victory. And in their peaceful present times, they heard the throes and misery of death songs, the winks and squeals of living, and the pangs and joys of childbirth. The crowded passageways touched the tender skin of infant feet, the hastening feet of children, and the callused feet of the aged.
On each day of their calendar, it was found that pleasantries among the peasants gradually became less mannerly. Chaos did not prevail in the marketplace among the peddlers, or the buyers, or the laborers, but a certain tension developed. And after three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, an unease permeated the abode of His Honor, the Mayor of Cobblestone, Framber Valdez. His desire was for the people. He wished prosperity for their labor, for their families, for their goodwill among their fellow Man. Thus over the decades, for the final day of the year, he had issued an edict: the Day of Solicitude. While the Sun continued to rise and the sea continued to roil, it was commanded for the streets of Cobblestone: nothing was to be heard, nothing was to be felt, and nothing was to be seen. While His Honor had not specifically detailed the Day of Solicitude to the town folks, one cobblestone family knew in their bones that this was a day to pull the curtains, cuddle the baby, and gather the children for a story.
Unlike most town folks who dreaded this annual occurrence, who refused to think of it during the year, who rejected its possibilities, Nola Alessandro prepared for this day. At the warmth of the fire with his children around him and the wife behind him in the kitchen, he began his story, a story to reside in the memories of his offspring. He pulled his leather pouch from the nearby chest, tugged on the strings to open, and watched his children prepare to gasp.
“There once was an old lady, an old lady who spent her days in the kitchen mixing, milling, and merging: mushrooms, zucchini, garlic, squash, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and leeks.”
“Tut, tut, old,” the wife spat.
She did not dread the Day of Solicitude outside her door. She did not leave the house anyway except to work her garden in the back, and there were no cobblestones there. According to her daily routine, she had baked the bread at daybreak, kneaded the coarsely milled flour, created the strength of the dough. Its aroma surrounded the children and Alessandro as he spoke. And at that moment, he withdrew a small crust of bread from the pouch. Behind them at the stove, grassy green olive oil from the early harvest sat waiting to be poured into black pans.
“For every meal, the old lady presented humble fare for the family, three little boys, and two little girls, as they sat around the plank table.” Alessandro held the crust of bread. “And each meal, she tore the focaccia, the tearing bread, into bits and carefully gave a piece to each child.” He tore the yeasty, warm bread and placed a small piece in each child’s hands as they raised them in unison.
“Tsk, tsk,” the wife grumbled.
“Now, the dish could not consist only of raw vegetables. Yes, each vegetable had its own singular taste and scent. Each tasted truly of itself, but for the old lady’s concoction, more than vegetables was required.” He hesitated, glanced to the wife, and corrected himself. “Perhaps my reporting ‘more than vegetables was required’ is in error, but for the potion to satisfy more than taste and nourishment, other ingredients were required.”
“Coo, coo,” the wife fussed the vegetables into half-moon slices.
“Fennel, my children, and basil which the old lady had roasted over the fire to release their hidden complexities.” He withdrew each herb from the pouch, tore each into pieces, and placed them on the bread in each child’s hands.
“Uhhhmmm,” the children inhaled.
“The old lady splashed olive oil in the pans, stirred each separately, and at the proper time, she placed them together in the deepest pot with the fennel and basil. The sizzle of the olive oil and the plop of each vegetable falling into the pot spread across the room. That manner - the growing of the vegetables, the harvesting of them, the precise slicing of them, and the frying of them - was her labor of love.”
“Cluck, cluck,” the wife nodded.
The children continued to sit with their hands in the air while Alessandro shook the pouch most violently. He opened the bulging pouch wider and wider, reached inside, and carefully revealed a small bowl for each child, a steaming bowl of ratatouille. He continued lifting from the pouch a small spoon for each child, a spoon fitted precisely to the bowl with each child’s name engraved in the handle. The children gasped, dropped the bread in their bowls, and gazed at their papa, the magician of their lives.
“Now children,” he stood up deliberately and guided the children to the plank table. The children followed him as they gingerly balanced their bowls. They placed the bowls on the table and sat along the bench seats. The wife placed the pot of stew on the table, sat down, and slid the pot to Alessandro. He lifted the dripping ladle and filled the children’s bowls to the brim.
“We shall eat our meal today in the harmony of the world as we do every day. You will remember this day, not as a Day of Solicitude as the cobblestones will, but as a Day of Resolve. While beyond our door, the cobblestones may be distressed, this day will pass for them. But for us, we learn that these days of harmony will never pass from our hearts.”
The little family joined hands, bowed their heads as they always did, and Alessandro thanked God for the wife, their children, and their food. The children thanked God for their magic papa, for it was He who had made him, especially for them.