June 9, 2010
So, the words are on the paper. Lots of words.
There, amid all The Stuff, I search for the sentence where I can stop time, focus the lens, find the details to deliver the emotion. In her article, Understanding Personal Essays: Short and Sweet on www.writersontherise.wordpress.com , Abigail Green says short essays only have room for the “meat”. Whittle, whittle, whittle. Prune ruthlessly, advises William Zinsser – revise, tighten and revise some more. When we wrote our first query letters during the memoir classes with teacher/editor Lary Bloom (www.larybloom.net ), we sat around the table and had to pitch our piece in one sentence. He asked the Big Question – What is it about? In Chapter 3 of Realia, Marion reminds us to ask ourselves that same question (and no, Chapter 3 is not about sex or Roger). She says that something as small as a blog post or personal essay can be pitched in one word. Remember the small moment? Here’s mine. What is it about? You tell me.
Grandma spreads the whitest of linen over the tables on the sun porch and smoothes the nests of wrinkles until they lay flat. She sets the rolling pin, flour canister and jelly jar within reach. Then she dons her apron and worries the wispy gray strands on the nape of her neck into the black hairnet.
“Guardi,” she says .
Grandma makes a “well” of flour in the center of a large wooden board and, in the middle, cracks the eggs. She beats the eggs ever so gently, blending the inside wall of flour as she goes. Soon the dough is ready, the creamy ricotta is drained. The scent of freshly chopped mint and grated nutmeg hangs in the air. Grandma moves in and out of the kitchen, gathering a few utensils, a fork for crimping and a bowl of water. It is ravioli day.
I watch as Grandma smoothes the dough into a circle, comic blue veins dancing across her hands. With pronounced thrusts of the rolling pin, she creates an unplowed field, a large thin rectangle of dough ready to receive the ricotta mixture. Her deft movements leave rows of milky mounds which she skillfully covers with a fold of the dough. With brisk moves of the knife, she cuts the mounds apart. As she works, she hums and Caruso croons, the faint echo of his wedding canzone coming from the Victrola. Then it is my turn. My job is to seal and crimp. Grandma watches as I invert the jelly jar over each mound and twist it a few half turns. Then I press the tines of the fork in the edges all the way around until the ravioli is made fast. We work together like that for hours, sealed in quiet. Washed in velvet light, the porch cools as the late day sun rests its face on the window sill. The afternoon’s work lay around us, each ravioli the size of a mouse’s ear.
I loved being on the sun porch with Grandma. I worked at her elbow, I pressed against her side, I leaned into her thigh. The shape of her lay like a promise between us. I don’t recall if we talked much during those long afternoons. All I remember is that she hugged me tight and called me “Bella”.
originally published in Christian Science Monitor and Weston Magazine