by Gloria DiFulvio
I’ve been down New York 88 hundreds of times over the years. The highway signs, “Cobleskill” “Davenport” “Worcester,” remind me of old acquaintances I would surely miss if gone. There is no other reason for me to be on this road except that it connects my childhood past to my present. My head tilts against the window; I gaze at the scenery whirling by at 65 miles per hour.
“Who’s here?” My wife asks as we drive toward my family’s home. It’s a question she asks whenever I look lost.
The landscape looks different from this seat. The leaves on the trees are no longer recognizable. Rather they blur together highlighting shades of green and gray. My eyes catch an occasional barn tattered and sagging or a cow grazing in the wide-open fields. After a few moments the background blurs so much that it becomes a palette of colors allowing imagination to peek through.
“Who’s here?” She asks again when I don’t respond right away. I think she worries that I may drift so far away I won’t find my way back.
It happens often these days, my mind wanders further than usual and gets lost in a memory, a worry, an old story. Often it is triggered by a familiar smell, sound, or color.
Though I am still over 100 miles from home, the swirls of greens, reds, and browns outside the car window have taken me to my mother’s kitchen. The light tans of the hay fields turn into the kitchen cabinets; my mother at the stove. When she immigrated here from Italy some 50 years ago she brought the smells of garlic and oil and simmering pasta sauce with her. Most of her day was spent with her feet firmly planted in front of that stove. In my youth I knew I could find her here feeding the family from sunrise to sunset. Friday afternoon, I’d come home from school to the smell of homemade pizza in the oven and the sound of bubbling oil on the stove, waiting for fresh dough to be shaped and placed in it for her famous “pizza fritte.” The smells emanating from the kitchen blanketed the family in love from the old country.
My memory moves from those lost days to the reality of what I will find when we pull into the driveway in an hour. I know, like the many visits over the past 10 years, I won’t find those smells. While my mother will be home, she will be seated at the kitchen counter a half-drunk cup of once warm coffee sitting in front of her. The TV will be on, the sound of the spinning wheel from the Price is Right set as our background music. I see her waiting for her friends to visit, not remembering that most have passed away. I prepare myself for her questions, “When do you go home?” she’ll ask even before she says hello. “Did you eat?” will come next before I’ve been able to take off my jacket. She will ask each of these questions again at least eight more times before I leave for the evening. I will answer the same way each time though I know it won’t matter.
I find myself thinking about her once revolving door of guests coming into our home at all hours of the day and night. Now, the door remains locked. The once loud dining room, filled with children and grandchildren, now quiet.
I wonder exactly when I first started to lose my mother.
I wonder how to hang on to the parts of her that remain.
I can lose my way in wonder and am grateful for my wife’s voice which anchors me to now. She reaches for my hand. I find my way back, feel the vibrations of the road beneath my feet, turn to her and smile.