My father walked through the door shaking the snow from his hat. I took his coat still glistening with fresh white flakes and hung it on a hook by the door. I brought him a pair of slippers and then led him to a chair by the fire. I pulled up a chair for myself and placed a silver ice bucket with a bottle of Franciacorta in it on the floor between us. I took two long flutes from a shelf near my chair and my father popped the cork on the bottle. He filled our glasses with bubbles. “Salute,” he said.
“What do you think of the wine?” I asked him. It was something new for me and I wanted to share it with him. I was anxious that he like it.
He took another sip and then another. “E` buonissimo,” he answered after a while, and he settled comfortably back in the chair, resting the glass on its wooden arm.
He’s been speaking more Italian lately. It’s just a few words here and there. But I’ve also noticed that his speech is sometimes inflected with a slight rolling of the Rs. He seems at ease in it and the language suits him.
And good for him. A man of his age learning a new language. Bravo! He’s past 90 after all, I thought, and yet he looks younger every time I see him. In fact, his hair seemed blond, as blond as in his youth, and his face seemed far less lined than the last time I saw him. Now, when would that have been, I thought to myself, and then I remembered that I have never really seen him. At least not that I could remember.
He passed me a plate of olives and a bowl of salted pistachio nuts.
Since I came to live in Rome, I have dreamt of him here and there. I love those dreams. They’re wonderful dreams when he just shows up and I take him around and show him the sights. He lived his whole life in Canada, mostly in Toronto and so I love showing him around the city where I now live. In one dream I took him to meet Bruno at the market in Piazza San Cosimato where I buy my vegetables and they talked about the best way to cook chicory. (Boiled in salted water and then sautÃ©ed in a pan of warm olive oil with a clove of garlic and dried chilies, though my father felt that Bruno’s insistence on boiling the chicory for 5 minutes was excessive. “It should be soft but not mushy,” he said in that dream. “But not tough,” warned Bruno. They agreed on that – not tough.)
There was another dream where I bumped into him at the Sardinian restaurant in Trastevere. He was eating giant ravioli made with basil and sardo cheese and with just a little tomato sauce. He invited me to sit with him and to try it. I told him that Nicolas, my son, loves that ravioli. And that Danny, my brother, loved this place when he visited. He nodded. “Certo,” he said.
But I can’t be dreaming this time, I thought, because I knew he was coming. I had been cooking all day, and I could smell the pork roasting in the oven.
It was a cold night and there was a draft in the house. I pulled a table up to the fireplace and set places for two. I lit candles and laid out our family silver. My father looked over the knives and told me the story of how he took this silver from another man’s house as unauthorized payment for carpentry work. “I finished the job and he said he wasn’t going to pay me. Like heck you’re not,” he said. He laughed and laughed. I began to suspect that something was amiss. That “heck” sounded like my mother and not my father. I’m sure my father would at least have said “hell” if not something stronger. But then he smiled and opened a bottle of wine and decanted it.
I knew it wasn’t wise, but I refilled my glass with the Franciacorta and went to the kitchen to baste the roast. I wanted to stay busy so he wouldn’t know that I was suspicious. If he thought I doubted his existence he might leave, and I had worked so hard to make a nice dinner for the two of us. “Don’t let him leave,” I whispered to the roast in the oven.
When the roast was cooked and resting, we sat down and started dinner off with bowls of farro, an ancient Roman grain, made like a risotto with vegetables and pancetta and served with parmesan cheese. It’s a variation of a dish that I tasted in Tuscany during my first winter in Italy. But I have experimented with it, thought about it, and changed it so much since then that I don’t really remember the original dish. My father liked these nutty, chewy grains. Then we had the roast with a few potatoes crusted in rosemary, and broccoletti done as my father likes it: soft but not mushy and never tough.
He likes to take a portion of the greens and the meat on his fork at the same time, I noticed with pleasure, just as I do it.
“You don’t know what it’s been like to grow up without you – without a father around,” I said to him. “I’ve had to invent you from the memories of others.”
He shrugged and continued to eat. “But here I am, all the same,” he said. “Here I am.”
And then I noticed something about the fireplace, something I hadn’t seen before. I noticed that the brick was painted grey and there was a black soot mark above the mantle. “Look at this,” I said, pointing at it. “This is exactly like the fireplace we had in that house in Keswick.” He looked up from his plate and he agreed with me. “That’s the house where I was born. Do you remember?” I asked him.
“Of course I do,” he answered, but I wasn’t sure if it was the fireplace or my birth that he remembered. “And where I died soon afterward,” he said.
I realized now that we both knew. There was no use in pretending. “Would you like dessert, before you leave? I made mom’s lemon sauce cake.” Once when I begged my mother to make this cake she told me that it had also been my father’s favorite. He loved the sweet mixed with the tart. “When I eat this cake and I taste what you tasted, it’s as close as I come to remembering you,” I told him.
This made him smile. “I’ll have a little, before I go.” I spooned it still warm from the pan into our bowls. The warm lemon sauce and the sweet cake is the flavor of my childhood. I wondered what it reminded him of? But I thought better of asking. I gave him an extra big scoop since he had to go out into the cold again and perhaps the warm feeling of it would comfort him on his way.
He declined an espresso after dinner. He said no to the grappa, too.
“Time’s up,” he said. I must have looked hurt or sad because he patted my face and told me not to worry. He would be back. Especially if I promised to cook. “Let’s do this again next time. It’s better than eating out.”
I opened the door and felt a cold blast of air. The snow was piling up. I put his hat on his head and wrapped his scarf around his neck.
“We’re in Rome,” I said. “It doesn’t snow in Rome, you know.”
We kissed each other, once on each cheek. A hint of lemon clung to the stubble on his face. And he was gone.