It was the worst day. Freezing cold and dark. All I could think was that we had to get to Connecticut, to Rob’s dad, John, and that once we got there, I would make a quiche.
Rob’s mom, Theresa, made lots of things; platters of red peppers with fresh mozzarella and slivers of garlic, a rich, gooey and dense baked ziti, pork loin glazed in The Ginger Guys Teriyaki Sauce and baked in the oven, and the world’s best meatballs. She kept giant cans of San Marzano tomatoes and jugs of olive oil in her pantry. There was never sauce from a jar or cheese from a shaker. She loved to eat guacamole, which she pronounced phonetically, gwa-ka-mole, rhymes with wack-a-mole. And we couldn’t go to visit her without a car laden with bread and prosciutto and Parmesan cheese from DiPalo’s. “They don’t make good bread up here,” she would sniff.
There was also never quiche. I don’t know why I needed to make a quiche.
It took Theresa a while to warm up to me. She was funny like that. Also, she was the mother of three handsome sons, all of who (ok, two of who, because Rob was a weirdo) had paraded a good number of ladies, some lovely, some not so much, in and out of her house. So what was the point in getting attached to this one? Besides, Rob was the apple of her eye, her knight in shining armor, the one that ran out to the car to unpack the groceries the moment he heard her pull up to the house.
But I liked her right away. She was a broad from Brooklyn and proud of it. She loved her family and gossip and good bread and Ireland, (where her mother was born and some of her favorite family still lived) and looking good. She loved to laugh and to be made to laugh, even if it was a begrudgingly chuckle from taunting Rob. “Oh Robit…” she’d sigh. She was a bit of an alarmist, very superstitious, believing in ghosts and visits from the dead, and often an accidentally hilarious storyteller. Her curiosity was unending: what cream did I use on my face? What did I eat for breakfast? Where did I get my jeans? Did I like being Jewish? What were my parents like? What was my sister like? Where did I get my cat? She loved to talk. And what’s not to like about that?
The girl had been taken from Brooklyn, and she wouldn’t ever let you forget it. “And the waiter said, ‘Hey, are you from Brooklyn?’” she’d tell us laughing, “and I said, ‘yeah!’” (Pronounced ‘yeee-ah’) This happened everywhere, from Southbury to San Francisco. It made her beam with pride.
The night she decided I was ok, we were at Il Bagatto, the late great Italian place on 2nd street in the East Village. It was a warm summer evening, Rob just in for a few days, and we were talking about flying. It turned out she had a fear too. I told her all the research I did to get over mine, so I could comfortable going out to LA to see her son. There was no way I was going to let my terror get in the way of our relationship. So I studied up on lift and turbulence and the way the air hits the wings. Her eyes opened wide, and I could see her taking mental notes. “The plane really wants to stay up,” I told her. “It doooeess?” She was fascinated. “Huh! I never knew!” She hung on my every word. Now, I love my mom, but there’s never been a single thing I’ve ever been able to tell her. It was nice! And Theresa, when she warmed up, gave off so much warmth, you could bask in it.
Not long after, Rob decided to move back to NYC from LA. This raised my bar further in Theresa’s estimation, because her beloved-but-infuriating middle son was heading home. Even though she’d been dragged to the suburbs, at least he was in driving distance, and the Carlsons never minded a car ride. In contrast to my parents, who would do anything to stay close to home, John and Theresa had no qualms about jaunting to Brooklyn from Connecticut on a Saturday afternoon, so Theresa could pick up some sausages from Landi’s, the pork store on Avenue N, and get an eyebrow wax, while John sat in the car, filling out the racing forms and smoking. Next, they’d hit OTB, and maybe drop by Rob’s brother John’s place, or ours. If we had a dinner plan with them, they’d definitely arrive an hour early, and instead of coming up, sit in the car.
But I wasn’t the only reason Rob came back. Theresa had breast cancer. She had had it for a while, and it had gone into remission, mostly. She still got injected with radiation here and there, but when we first met you probably would never have guessed. She looked amazing. She did yoga and went to the gym and generally looked like she was in her 40’s when she was really in her late 60’s. Her dark, short hair curled over her huge smoky eyes, and you could imagine her dancing at the disco and breaking a hundred hearts.
Forgive me a small digression here, while I struggle to put something difficult into words. One of my favorite books is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s about the Tudors told from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, and one the biggest things I’ve taken away from that book is how history, large and small, happens slowly, gradually, by turns. Henry didn’t suddenly wake up one day and decide to behead Anne or divorce Catherine, though that is how the almost physical compressing of time makes it feel to us these hundreds of years later. The most momentous things are the result of individual minutes and seconds. So it was with Theresa. Ever so gradually at first, and then rolling and rolling and rolling down the hill, the cancer came back.
Initially, she just got a little slower and a little weaker. There were spots, but they were under control. She had been here before, and we all took it in stride. There seemed to be things that could be done. Sometimes she would get worse for a bit, and then bounce back. She still made meatballs and pork. She still did yoga and went to the gym. She still asked a thousand questions. When Rob and I got engaged, in 2007, she was only a little diminished, but still well enough to do a drop by to see the ring with John one Sunday evening. She was tired, but not too tired to turn her gimlet eye on me while Rob and John went to go get the car.
“I can’t exercise. It’s driving me nuts. I gotta get back to the gym.” She told me. “What exercise are you doing?”
“I’ve been running, and jumping rope.” I replied.
“Jumping rope?” She asked alarmed. “You better be careful!”
“Really? I heard it’s really good for your heart…Why?” I asked, concerned.
“But… but… what is it… I heard it can hurt something… your kidneys, no… your colon… no…” She searched her brain for the correct malady. “Wait! I remember! Your vaginar could fall out!”
She crossed her arms in a way that would brook no protest. “I know someone it happened to.”
Rob buzzed at just that moment, and it was time to go downstairs. After we’d seen them drive off, I immediately informed Rob of what his mother had told me. I’m not sure how long we laughed. It was a long time though. Finally, Rob called her in the car.
“Hi Robit,” Theresa said.
“Mom, Michelle’s in the hospital…” he told her.
“Why! What happened?” She asked, alarmed.
“Her vagina fell out.”
“Oh Robit… It does happen.” She sighed, while we giggled in the background.
By the next spring, after a deceptively calm winter, she was hospitalized for congestive heart failure, which actually sounds much worse than it is, though it ain’t fun. We rushed to go and see her, and I worried that I had been extremely stupid and selfish in planning a destination wedding that fall. But there she was, bloated with fluid, furious about it, and also laughing and happy to see us. We gossiped about the nurses and her other sons and their girlfriends, and we had fun. I brought her pasta. Rob was optimistic. There seemed to be no reason not to be. Unfortunately, though bitter experience, I knew better, and I’d like to take a moment to remember Adrienne Yankwitt, who was like an aunt to my sister and me, and who was Theresa’s rival for hilariousness and gossip. And whom we also lost.
Yet, like she always had, Theresa bounced back again. She wasn’t 100%. Not even close, but her black hair grew back beautifully silver. At Easter, I did the cooking and that was fine. In the summer, we went to Lord & Taylor to get her a dress for the wedding, and had so much fun trying on a thousand dresses.
In the fall she was back on chemo. She was well enough to ask for Mexican food for her birthday, and even better, to make it our wedding in Bermuda and to enjoy herself immensely, thank god (well actually, thanks to her doctor, who purposely scheduled her next round of chemo for after the wedding, so Theresa would be well enough to go.) But it was a great tragedy to her that she had to wear a wig. I thought she looked great, but she didn’t and she hated it, and so I hated it for her too. Rob really hated it, and I think it’s still very hard for him to look at pictures of her from that otherwise joyous day.
I don’t think you need to guess what happened over the next year. She would have hated for you to know the details. Instead, let’s remember her as she was when I first met her, and how she still essentially was until the end, which was beautiful, sparkling, funny, and laughing. For her birthday that September of 2009, we brought up pounds and pounds and pounds of food from DiPalo’s, and even though she wasn’t eating very much by then, she ate that day, and we all laughed. Prosciutto and mozzarella and all her favorites, and her beloved sister came with sausage from Landi’s and these amazing homemade tomato tarts, and all her boys where there with their ladies and her granddaughters and even her niece and nephew. A feast surrounded by family, which is how she always wanted things to be. There was a Carvel cake I snuck out to get with the nieces and Rob, and we had it made out to someone like “Carol”, which made her laugh.
So yeah, a quiche. How weird it seems now. And how cold and empty and quiet it was in that house in Connecticut that she’d always hated. I think I needed to make it to feel like I was doing something, making something, adding something. It was freezing and dark in there, and I needed to warm it up, to replace Theresa’s lost warmth. It came out ok, I think. I remember that it seemed to take forever to bake, but that when it was done, it was creamy and rich and not too eggy. John, Rob, John, Carrie and I sat around and quietly ate. What was there to say? Who was going to say it? The talk was gone.
If Theresa was there, it would have been another story.
“Wait? I’m dead?” She’d ask. “Why?”
I would gently explain, and she would purse her lips, displeased.
“I don’t want to be dead.” She’d say. And then, after a moment, she’d laugh: “A quiche? Why a quiche?”
“I know! I should have made meatballs.” I would tell her.
“There was a place in Brooklyn, where you could get the best meat… Landi’s…” she’d start to tell me. “And the bread…”
Here Rob would interject with a joke.
“Robit!” She would say.
And that it was so.
Meatballs by Michelle in Honor of Theresa Carlson
1 lb beef
1 lb pork
1 bunch parsley
1/3 cup breadcrumbs (I use Progresso plain or Italian)
1 large can of crushed San Marzano tomatos
2 cloves garlic
1) Preheat the oven to 400F
2) Chop the onion and the parsley very finely, or run through a food processor.
3) Put the breadcrumbs in a bowl, and soak with milk, until they are wet but not too runny. They should be thick but not liquid.
4) In a big bowl, put the meat, season with salt and pepper, add the chopped onions, parsley, and the breadcrumbs. Crack an egg into the bowl.
5) Now, I like to put a little olive oil on my hands for the next part, to keep the meat moist.
6) With your hands mush everything together until it’s all pretty well mixed but not perfect. Don’t overmix or the meat will dry out.
7) Form the meat mixture into balls about the size of a golfball, and put in rows in an olive oil greased baking dish. (you may have enough for two batches, depending on the size of your pan.)
8) Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the meatballs are golden.
9) While they bake, sliver the garlic as narrowly as you can
10) In a large saucepan, heat some olive oil on medium heat.
11) When the oil shimmers, add the garlic, and a cook a moment or two until it’s golden at the edges. Go on and give it a stir too if you like.
12) Turn the heat down, add the tomatoes, and generously salt and pepper.
13) Turn the heat back up, and wait for the tomatoes to bubble, then turn back down. Don’t reduce too much.
14) When the meatballs are golden, add them to the tomato sauce, and cook about ten minutes (or if you turn the heat really low, and add another can of tomatos, ten hours…no not really, but they will keep in the sauce for as long as you need, just making it taste better and better. The great thing about homey cooking like this is that you don’t really need to worry about it.)
15) Some people add other meat to the sauce too which is fine. Or you can the make the meatballs with other meats: veal, turkey, sausage sweet or spicy. Its up to you. Theresa wouldn’t have minded. And this is my recipe. I never got hers.
Editors Note: These days I use Rao’s, because I’m lazy.