Some things really do last forever
August 08, 2007
It's the summer of 1942. And it's a hot one.
Air conditioning won't even be remotely accessible to 'regular folks' for another decade or more.
There's a family living in a lower flat on Kendall in Dearborn. The upper part—where I would one day live—is rented out to another family. That's why Carlo Minolli bought the house. The renter pays the mortgage.
It's a neat brick home on a well cared for street. The neighbors are a mix of Polish and Italian—hardworking families who take care of their things.
Carlo works construction. His own business. Though he's not much taller than five-eight, he's known to carry two fifty pound bags of cement, one under each arm, like so many feathers. One day, he'll build a garage behind the house—a solid cement block structure that would eventually house my tricycle and my big sister's Huffy two-wheeler. Later still those really neat metal pedal cars—snazzy ones—my cousin Robert's and ours.
Carlo's wife, Caterina, takes care of Frank, her movie star handsome 16-year-old son and his younger sister, Teresa—a precocious, raven-haired child who is made to toe the line like all good little Italian girls.
Caterina makes pasta. Often. Maybe every day. She mounds silky white flour on the prized porcelain-topped table Carlo bought for her in 1935. It's a modern one—one side pulls out and hinges up to make enough seating for six—eight if you squeeze.
She makes a well in the flour mountain and cracks in half a dozen eggs and some salt that she measures first in her palm. Working quickly she blends the eggs out and out until the wall of flour that contains them exists no more and there's a ball of soft but firm dough. It's all in the touch—not too sticky, not too hard. She doesn't even have to think about it she's done it so many times.
Caterina flattens the dough ball with her palms and then rolls it out paper thin with a rolling pin, turning the round of dough so it's even. It is physical work. Once it's thin enough she carefully folds the dough, takes a sharp knife and with her knuckles as a guide expertly slices long strips. Fettuccini.
The kitchen is small—the size of a walk-in closet in today's world—and in the stiffling summer heat what with kneading dough and heating huge pots of water and 'sugo,' the air becomes stifling. Carlo knows this. So he brings her a present. It's a fan. Not just any old fan, an oscillating one with stainless steel blades on a base that's solid metal. I wonder if he would have bought ten of them if he knew he had just eight more summers to enjoy it. It's small enough for Caterina's kitchen table top. It's quiet, but it moves the air like a stiff summer breeze. My Nonni is very pleased...
...It's 2007. Late summer. And it's hot. Air conditioning is widely available, but not even remotely accessible to a 'regular folk' like me.
I'm standing in front of Caterina's porcelain-topped table. The surface on one side is worn thin—it's the same side she stood before and rolled pasta almost every day.
I'm not making pasta, though I could. Just like she did—mound of flour, eggs and all—except I have a 'pasta machine' to roll and cut it with. A stainless steel hand crank job that clamps onto the table edge and makes the job a lot easier. I won't say faster, though, because my dad tells me Nonni could cut perfect pasta at the speed of light.
My kitchen isn't so small. In fact, it's the biggest room in my '50s ranch. It's my favorite place. My haven, my altar, my canvas.
I'm putting together a grilled salad and some snacks to enjoy with a friend. It's not as sweltering as it is outdoors cause I closed everything up in the morning. Started the ceiling fans and cranked on the plastic window fan that I use on the floor. There's no point in letting the hot air in, I just circulate what's already there.
While it's cooler than the outside temperature, it's still pretty darn hot and I need a little boost. I reach up to the high shelf in my living room and put my hand around the fan Carlo bought for Caterina. It's heavy and I realize it'll knock me in the head if I try to tip it down. I pull up a chair, grab the fan, take it over to the table and plug it in. I haven't used it in a couple of years so it takes me a minute to remember how to turn it on and off and set it to oscillate. Once I figure it out, I rotate the switch. The fan springs to life, the breeze starts to blow across the table just like it did 65 years ago. I say 'thank you Nonno. I love you Nonni,' and remember that some things last forever.
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