Our wedding was a joyous occasion. Relatives made the trip from Italy. Everyone ate too much soup and Mike showed up, which says a lot about the two men I care for.
We say their names together so often, you might think they were joined at the hip. Mike-and-Jerry. Rarely is there cause to refer to one individually. How are Mike and Jerry? Mike and Jerry are gonna need more soup. Truth is, the men have always been opposites who managed to be roommates for nearly 60 years.
Mike was unhappy about our post-wedding plans. After Adele agreed to marry me, we asked Mike for his blessing. She interpreted his Italian response for me.
"He says it's great," she beamed. "He welcomes you to our family. He looks forward to having grandchildren."
The color left her face and she spoke back to Mike, rather than to me. Soon they were yelling. I couldn't understand any of it. I insisted she tell me what was wrong.
"He says there's plenty of room."
Plenty of room? For what?
She yelled back at him one more time before he waved his hands and ended the conversation.
I had no intention of moving into the cramped little house at 704 Elm Place. Adele's mother was sick and we knew we would be needed. But live there? Basta, indeed! Adele lived there, but we planned to get an apartment nearby.
Mike assumed that it was his prerogative to demand the services of his daughter as long as he needed her. He said horrible things. He promised to boycott the wedding, and nearly kept the promise. My brother- in-law intervened, citing the arrival of relatives from Italy who had come all this way. It wouldn't do to have them at the wedding and not Mike. What would they think? We didn't really know what Mike was going to do until we walked into the church and saw him.
He rarely spoke to Adele after the wedding, even as she tended to Yolanda, until we had our first child three years later. He couldn't resist the charm of our baby, Rose, and from that day forward he acted as if nothing had ever happened between him and his daughter.
My mother, bless her, advised us before the wedding to "keep the door open" regarding Mike, don't say or do anything to make things worse. I'm still waiting for my mother to be wrong about something.
Jerry was wonderful. He brought us to the restaurant where the reception was to be held. They had to rent tureens and bowls because Jerry refused to have soup served in cups. God knows how many steaks and chicken breasts went half-eaten because of the volume of soup on every table. Tortellini soup is a staple of Northern Italian cuisine. A tortellini is a small square of hand-rolled pasta, filled with a blend of cheese and spinach, then folded and pinched just so. It is gently ladled into boiling chicken broth for mere minutes before being served. In bowls, not cups. The source of the soup was subject of vigorous conversation between Jerry and the banquet manager. It had to be homemade.
It was expensive, but Jerry, the bachelor patriarch of my wife's family, had no qualms about the price. He and Mike paid for everything. I thought it a perverse display of pride that Mike was willing to pay for a wedding he planned to boycott. We were grateful, nonetheless.
Jerry came to America before World War Two. He was drafted quickly enough, and served in the Army Air Corps. Mike remained in Italy, and served in Mussolini's infantry. He was taken prisoner by Allied troops in North Africa. He later told his children he thanked God for this fact every day for the rest of his life. Most of his comrades starved to death or were killed.
Jerry never saw combat, and when the war was over, he set about bringing his family over to America. The first was his sister, Yolanda. She was never happy here, which puzzled Jerry. She kept returning to Italy for visits. After one of these trips, she returned with a husband, Mike. Jerry never married, thus my wife grew up with two father figures.
Jerry was always easy to like. He delighted kids and adults with silly Christmas presents. The mounted bass, singing, "Take Me to the River." Dancing Elvis Lamps. The Clapper. Fart cushions. He was kind, generous and liked to laugh.
Mike made headway with Adele over the years, but not with me. His contempt was clear. He has never addressed me by my name. Instead, I am "L'Australian." My ancestry is Irish, not Australian. He rarely spoke to me, though his English was sufficient for small talk and greetings, at least. He always spoke in Italian to Adele, who would translate several minutes of grumbling as, "Mike says 'hello.'"
If we are lucky, and have mothers who are never wrong about things of import, the passing years provide us with perspective. I have spent much of my married life tolerating Mike, and being tolerated in return. Five or six years ago, when my mother died, I took stock of this. I had assumed Mike was unenlightened as to the modern American view of women and their rightful independence.
It has since occurred to me that he may not have wanted Adele for himself, but for his wife, Yolanda. She had been very sick for very long and would pass within two years of our wedding. The man who asked for Mike's daughter's hand during this painful part of his life, it occurs to me, was usually drunk. Mike may have considered his offer a favor, rather than a command.
If we are very lucky, and have mothers who are rarely wrong, and we gain some perspective over the years, we may get opportunities to mitigate the damage we caused while dazzled by our own special selves.
My fat fingers will never do justice to a tortellini. But I have learned to make chicken noodle soup. The stock is made by boiling a chicken for hours with fresh, whole vegetables. It must be cooled so that the chicken fat coagulates at the top of the pot, and can be removed. Everything is then strained, leaving a clear, sumptuous broth. More fresh vegetables are added, sliced carrots, some peas. Add to this some of the chicken meat and not too many noodles. It's a brothy dish, not a goulash. It is served hot. It is served on time. And it is served in bowls.