A Tavola—a Triptych of Flash -- Solitude, Secrets, and Surprise

Joan Leotta


When you grow up in a house where meals are a series of daily celebrations, coming to the table, kitchen or dining room, means many things—it’s where life happens.


Solitude—present day

Our kitchen’s oak table is where my day begins. I love my time alone in the hour before dawn, communing with God, my cup of coffee and whatever simple edible is that day’s item in rotation—toast dripping with honey, cereal to give my day some crunch, or English muffins redolent with the aroma of spread peanut butter. Today, in my reverie, I took a minute to focus on the mixed flower bouquet in front of me, upright, lovely, in our white milk glass vase. Oh yes, I put them there last night, but only that morning did I realize how they represent both fragility and strength. The fragile roses and daisies will soon fade, petals droop and drop.

But the baby’s breath will dry in place, retain color and shape for days and days. I will place them in a small glass, dry. Even when, weeks from now, these tiny begin to crumble, they will still be strong enough to look good--right up to the end. I hope I age with the same resilience.


Secrets—Childhood

My grandmother’s great mahogany table in the dining room, covered with a patterned cloth from Italy, seated twelve to sixteen every Sunday. After the plates and food were cleared, though the aroma of Sunday sauce still lingered, my Grandmother often sat down after replacing the Sunday cloth with the decorative lace that revealed the beauty of her table’s polished surface. She was there alone until my mother, her eldest joined her. My aunts and uncles were outside on the porch. My cousins dispersed to watch Ed Sullivan or chase fireflies in the yard. When I saw my mother sit down next to Grandma, her back to me, I knew she and Grandma would soon talk about things they shared with no one else. Secrets I felt that as the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter,  should also know. So,  I stood by the side of the living room doorway where they could not see me until Grandma turned her head to the window, a window with closed venetian blinds. My mother had her back to me. Taking advantage of that instant, I darted across the hall and slipped under the table. Slowly I crawled forward under the table until I was close enough to hear their whispers but not be noticed by their feet. I heard Grandma say, “She didn’t want you to know. But I don’t think I can handle being the only one who knows he is back.. what if he…”

Grandma began to cry. My mother usually loud, spoke tenderly, quietly to her mother. “Don’t worry Mommy, you needed to tell someone. You can’t bear this alone with her. The three of us together—that’s real strength. I will tell her I know and that after the three of us confront him, he will not do anything to jeopardize her marriage to Bill next week. Remember that old saying, you taught it to us…” I heard grandma say, “A bond of three no one can break.”

I mouthed silently, a bond of four. Even though I didn’t understand what was wrong, my loyalty was with family. I never told them that I knew about the secret. 

The following week my Aunt married her sweetheart, Bill, without drama. Whatever my mother did, worked. No one interfered. And I, I felt safe. A secret shared with those we love best is the best protection. (Years later I learned the substance of the secret--that my aunt had been married before to an abusive man and then divorced. What I heard was likely a threat he’d made to appear at her second wedding.)


Surprise—Just weeks ago

It was late afternoon. I was setting out the after-school snacks for my children at our oak kitchen table when I got the call. I thought it would be my mother. I smiled as I picked up the phone. Mom had visited earlier in the month. We’d laughed and talked at this very same table. Mom had left behind a few items when she flew home and called daily to remind me to mail them her. I still hadn’t done it. 

However, it wasn’t Mom on the phone. It was Mom’s friend, Yolanda. ”Listen, I hope you don’t think I’m being pushy, but I thought you should know. She scraped two other cars in the parking lot yesterday when she went out. She calls her bank every morning to find out what day it is before she leaves the house and yesterday she asked me to show her which were the tens and which were the ones in her wallet.”

I mumbled my thanks and sat down. My children were going to be home soon, but the rhythm of a normal day was shattered by that call. My role in life had taken a surprise turn. I mulled over my mother’s visit. Yes, she had repeated herself more often than usual. Yes, she did seem to not recognize places we had been before. Now I had  confirmation of what I had suspected but dismissed. She was suffering from dementia, and it would soon debilitate her beyond the ability to live alone. Sitting at our kitchen table, I realized I was no longer just my mother’s daughter, and mother to my children. In the space of one small phone call, I had to assume the role of mother to my mother.
***


Bio: Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. She performs tales of food, family, strong women. Internationally published, she’s a 2021 and  2022 Pushcart nominee, Best of the Net 2022 nominee, and  2022 runner-up in Robert Frost Competition. Her essays, poems, and fiction appear in Ekphrastic Review, Verse Visual, Verse Virtual, anti-heroin chic, Gargoyle, Active Muse, Silver Birch, The Wild, Ovunquesiamo, MacQueen’s Quinterly and others. Her chapbooks are Languid Lusciousness with Lemon and  Feathers on Stone.

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