Upon entering Fornarelli’s Ristorante, we were told that we were going to come in as guests and leave as family.
Though we were excited at the prospect of meeting a group of people we’d never met before, the restaurant had tablecloths and chairs, which made Anya a little nervous.
“I don’t even like going to restaurants,” she admitted to Adrian. “I would always rather eat at home or in the dining hall.”
After sitting and talking about our interests for a while, we discovered that there was warm bread in the bucket on our table. We were surprised, having assumed it was an empty bucket with a napkin in it.
When the waiter tried to take away our drink menu, we said we wanted to keep it to read the descriptions, although we did not order any drinks. “Like when you buy a porn magazine to read the articles,” Adrian explained. One of the drinks was called “Extortion Money” and featured ginger beer, and we vowed to return and try it.
After we had already ordered, owner John Fornarelli graciously offered us some complimentary octopus with lemon and olive oil, which also made Anya nervous. Adrian fell in love with the dish; the octopus was perfectly chewy and contained subtle tart undertones that managed to pop without being too overwhelming.
Next, we were offered another dish: a second pre-appetizer appetizer. It was called panzerotti. We had absolutely no idea what it was going to be, and when the slab of fried dough arrived we felt a dawning, familiar sense of doom.
“It’s like when you go to your Russian relative’s house, and you think the food on the table is all there is,” Anya said. “And then you realize there’s this whole other table of food secretly waiting for you. And you know that you will never leave and that you will have to eat all of it because it’s awesome.”
The panzerotti was indeed awesome. It was like an airy calzone, filled with tomato sauce, mozzarella and capers. We could not imagine having it at home, where we are only served borscht and rice, respectively. We were also feeling alarmingly full, and the main appetizer had not yet arrived.
When we received the antipasto plate we had ordered, we were impressed with how well curated the different flavors were. A thinly cut, smoky prosciutto paired wonderfully with the three different types of cheese and the spicy, house-made, marinated peppers.
The sort of nostalgia that only came with Frank Sinatra and hearty food led us to believe that Fornarelli’s had succeeded in their promise to make us feel like family. It felt like every element of each dish came from a larger family-size dish, and they just happened to have been plopped down on our plates. It was something we’d never experienced at a nice restaurant.
Still, having ordered a filet mignon and a piece of salmon with risotto, we worried that these were not the most Italian dishes — and, while great, they were not as great as the food we had not ordered. But Adrian maintained we had done the right thing, and began to mansplain:
“A menu has to be like a basketball team. The bench has to have depth as well.”
We ordered dessert, and decided that the tiramisu, made by Fornarelli’s wife, was the best we had ever eaten. The cannoli, which was tarter than most, appealed to us as well.
Anya asked Adrian if he would take a date to Fornarelli’s. He replied wistfully, “Yeah I would. But I think it’s where I’d want to go with my husband, and we’d become regulars and friends with the owners and they would watch my kids grow up.”
When we finished our meal, Rob, our waiter, congratulated us and we felt like we had earned it. And we had: We were Italian now. Christmas carols played as we walked out.
“Bad Jews” is a full-blooded modern comedy. Long Wharf Theatre’s new production of the 2012 play by Joshua Harmon runs through March 22 and turns a sharp script into a comic tour de force.
For 80 uninterrupted minutes, “Bad Jews” gives the domestic melodrama a humane and uproariously funny update: Four characters sprawl, walk, lounge and lunge across three futons in a studio apartment. The simple set plays host to an intra-family showdown over prized heirlooms and religious identity.
The show’s outrageous turmoil is absent from the opening sequence, which introduces Jonah (Max Michael Miller) and Daphna (Keilly McQuail). They’re Jews, we learn. They’re cousins. They’re college students. They’re in his apartment in Manhattan. They’ve just come back from their grandfather Poppy’s funeral. For this stretch, “Bad Jews” is basically a one-woman show, as Jonah, catatonic, plays video games and says nothing, throwing into relief his cousin, a Vassar student who regales him with her newfound Jewish fanaticism. Daphna plans to become a rabbi, find a vegan mentor, make aliyah to Israel, join the army, marry her Israeli boyfriend, and on, and on, and on.
The force of McQuail’s performance easily sustains the play: She’s an archetypal Jewish-American princess, at once vain, overbearing and sympathetic. She kvells, she kvetches, she pontificates, all with exaggerated Orthodox-Jewish enunciation. Her long, icy glares at Jonah elicit peals of laughter from the audience. She extracts humor from throwaway lines like, “I’m not even saying, I’m just saying!”
Daphna’s presence is a dramatic conflict in itself, capable of keeping the play’s gears in motion, but the impending arrival of Jonah’s brother Liam promises to raise the stakes. Daphna is furious at Liam (Michael Steinmetz) for skipping Poppy’s funeral to go skiing in Aspen with his girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar).
Also, she wants Poppy’s gold necklace, inscribed with the Hebrew word for “life,” which he carried through the Holocaust. As it happens, Liam intends to propose to Melody with the same necklace.
Murmurs passed through the audience as Liam and his blonde, blue-eyed girlfriend entered. A strong-willed and hardheaded Daphna finds her match in Liam, and from the moment he walks in, the two bicker. She harangues him for missing the funeral; he sneers at her religiosity; she mocks his doctorate in “contemporary Japanese youth culture” and his pert, goyish girlfriend. The stage is set for an epic showdown.
When the men leave for some fraternal bonding, Daphna doesn’t disguise her skepticism of Melody, whom she proceeds to interrogate. The result is an incredible comic bit that touches on Melody’s calf tattoo of a treble clef and moves on to her cultural heritage. Daphna asks what the derivation of the name Melody is, to which Melody replies, “Caucasian.” Prodded about where “her people” are from, Melody offers “Delaware,” setting Daphna on a tirade that ends with: “I’m asking, where did your family come from before they came to Delaware to perpetrate genocide?” It’s a warm first impression for the future in-laws.
(Full disclosure: My dad is Jewish and my mom, originally Episcopalian, is from Delaware. The older woman sitting next to me had recently lost her father, known as Poppy, who had willed his gold “Chai” necklace to a grandchild. We agreed that between us, we could have written the play.)
When the brothers return, Daphna and Liam’s antagonism explodes into a full-fledged screaming match, and the play becomes a glorified exchange of insults. Liam’s five-minute-long verbal takedown of Daphna met with the audience’s sustained applause. When Daphna has her turn to retort, she accuses him of being a self-hating Jew who preys on bimbos.
The male characters’ apathetic, teenage-y mode of social interaction rings true but doesn’t make for gripping theater. The women are more dynamic and fortunately get the lion’s share of stage time.
Everything builds toward the most dysfunctional marriage proposal imaginable, but the play’s underlying tensions over the family’s property and heritage find no real resolution.
Liam and Daphna both command sympathy: Shouldn’t he be free to marry the girl he loves? Isn’t she right to value her culture and religion? Their depth, the cousins’ grief and the recurring mentions of Poppy’s Holocaust experience lend the play moments of seriousness and elevate it above farce.
Does “Bad Jews” trade in stereotypes? Not more than any raucous comedy might. Besides, the characters feel substantial and unpredictable, even when they’re telling jokes and espousing big ideas. (Apparently you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate “Bad Jews” — out of hundreds of audience members, I was the only one to laugh when Daphna sassily enunciated the Hebrew word for “sorry.”) Daphna and Liam may be bad Jews, but they’re also young people doing their best to grapple with the questions of growing up.
Fiery, fierce and full of passion, Danai Gurira’s “Familiar,” which runs through Feb. 21 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, opens on an unassuming scene: the well-furnished living room of an exquisite house in suburban Minneapolis. As the lights in the theater dim and Marvelous Chinyaramwira (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) begin to go about their daily routines, everything seems ordinary and “American.” And as could happen in any American household, Marvelous prepares lasagna while Donald checks the evening news on TV, at times sipping from a glass of whiskey.
Yet I couldn’t help but wondering if there was something out of place in the scene, something strange happening in the familiar surroundings. Perhaps it was the bright yellow Robert Mugabe portrait that Donald tried to hang on the wall without Marvelous noticing, his furtive actions often soliciting laughter from the audience; perhaps it was the thick Zimbabwean accent that still lingered in their dialogue. Whatever it was, this bubble of suburban American life hinted at a place beyond the confines of the living room walls, the voices of characters suggesting the tones and sounds of a distant land. And beneath the serene surface, unseen forces stir within this immigrant family. Pandemonium begins to build with the arrival of Nyasha (Shyko Amos) after a recent trip to Zimbabwe. A singer-songwriter and feng shui artist trying to make a living in New York City, free-spirited Nyasha assumes the role of the rebellious child in front of her demanding mother Marvelous, the bright hues of Nyasha’s Zimbabwean dress standing in stark contrast to Marvelous’s more somber and subdued wardrobe. Nyasha tries to advocate for a return to Zimbabwean culture and tradition, but her Americanized family gives her no time to speak, preferring a football game to Nyasha’s travel tales. Ostensibly, everyone is caught up in the frenzied planning for the wedding of Nyasha’s older sister Tendiyaki (Cherise Boothe) and “little white boy” Chris (Ross Marquand). Secretly, though, every character is struggling with his or her own worries and fears.
Tackling many profound themes including cultural assimilation, the struggles of the immigrant family and even a little bit of Zimbabwean politics, “Familiar” is an ambitious play. Of particular interest to me was the clash of cultures embodied by Marvelous, Auntie Maggie (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Auntie Annie (Kimberly Scott DRA ’87), three sisters with distinct personalities.
Marvelous is a typically “successful” immigrant, a biochemistry professor with a degree from MIT, brilliant and daunting as her name suggests. She is the no-nonsense authority figure of the family, towering over Baba Chinyaramwira (Shona for “father”) and commanding the thoughts and actions of those around her. Playing Marvelous, Ekulona truly propelled an impassioned performance, highlighting both the intensity and pride of the conflicted character.
Maggie, on the other hand, is the “lesser” version of Marvelous. She too pursued her education in America, but realizing that academia was not for her, she went on to a job in direct sales. Nonetheless, Maggie follows Marvelous’s footsteps in relinquishing her ties with Zimbabwe in favor of the American way of life. On the far end of the spectrum is Auntie Annie, who still lives in Zimbabwe and enjoys bucket baths. She joins the family for the sole purpose of performing the roora ceremony, a traditional Zimbabwean wedding ritual concerning the bride’s dowry. Annie hopes to exploit the ceremony to extract money from Chris, who, being white, appears rich and privileged from her provincial perspective.
Together, all three women are Tendiyaki’s mothers, not only by Zimbabwean custom but also because, in a twist towards the play’s end, Tendi’s real mother is revealed to be a fourth sister who died years ago during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. Tendi is officially taken in by Marvelous, who leaves Zimbabwe with Tendi in tow, determined to raise her to be a strong woman. Though Marvelous’s high expectations of her children make her easy to portray as the villain, her firm stance and stern words are only a cover for the love she harbors for her family. Despite her best efforts, she never completely assimilates into American society, so she vows to help her children succeed, a commitment not unfamiliar to those who also grew up in immigrant families.
Tendi is a testament to this commitment. Beautiful and powerful, she stands tall in her high heels and commands the spotlight just like Marvelous. “Anyway, anyway, anyway,” they both like to say in the same petulant and sassy way, and both seem to have earned their right to authority. The breadwinner of her future household and a top-notch lawyer with a world of potential, Tendi is the gem of the Chinyaramwira family. Marvelous is certainly proud of her daughter, approving Tendi’s choice of an educated Caucasian husband as perhaps the next step towards fully integrating the Chinyaramwiras into the American Dream.
But family is not all about dreams and achievements, aspirations and desires. There is a deeper bond that overcomes the differences between family members, a kinship in blood, culture and spirit. Nyasha, Tendi’s “c’est-la-vie” counterpart, conveys this realization through a lovely song on the mbira, the national instrument of Zimbabwe. The light notes of the mbira left me a little breathless, as did the sound of her voice. “Familiar,” the song is called; familiar, a word with “family” as the root.
As I watched the play, a quote from James Gelvin, a history professor at UCLA, kept popping into my mind. “Cultures are not billiard balls that bounce off each other when they come into contact,” he writes. “Throughout history, cultures have borrowed from and influenced each other.” “Familiar” brings this quote to life in the form of a family that is truly one of a kind.
Crisp and resplendent among the stars, she bathes me in pure white, nurturing light, a light that lingers in the empty spaces, filling them, making me whole. Even with a double window pane and 238,900 miles between us, the moon shines a light on my life, listening to my secrets, providing me with wisdom, protecting me from the monster beyond the locked door of my room — a monster that inhabits my brother’s psyche.
Even before I learned the monster’s true identity — the OCD, ADHD, dyslexia and anxiety — I knew its secrets. I remember the first time I understood the severity of my situation: I was nine years old. I sat at the dinner table with my family and our half-eaten plates of pasta when the monster emerged with demands and accusations. It yelled at my parents for the horrible dinner they had prepared. It said that they were purposefully trying to starve it. Finally, it threatened its revenge.
My mother gave me a quick glance, my cue to retreat to the safety of my room. My brother was unable to express his rage in words, and his fists began to fly, writing anger into the air. He hit the table and stomped on the floor. The house shook.
I watched from the hall as he threw his plate to the ground — my parents narrowly escaped his fists and herded him away from the table. He continued to scream, loud enough for neighbors to hear; he bruised his hands and knees, slamming them on the floor; he hit my parents’ heads, arms and torsos. This small child, no more than three feet tall, possessed with rage: a fiery, blinding sun. In a stumbling dance, my parents pinned him to the ground, holding him down as he fought to breathe in anger once again. Looking at each other, they prayed silently that the monster would remain immobile while I escaped to my window and the moon beyond.
I concluded that my situation was atypical: none of my friends discussed their home life and so I assumed they didn’t share my troubles. In middle school I began to compensate for this difference by attempting to be perfect. At school, I got good grades, participated in field hockey, and helped run a student organization. At home, I completed my chores without complaint and behaved like a model child. I closed myself off, rarely sharing any information about myself or my family, only speaking about school or the latest trend. At night, I confided in the moon, releasing my sorrow to the sky.
But a few months ago, I realized that I was no longer confiding in the moon. My brother sat at his computer in the family room, clicking his mouse as he moved himself around a virtual Minecraft world and told me about what he was doing. In that moment, I saw how far I had come from my nine-year-old self. Instead of hiding in my room, face glued to the window, I am out in the open. Instead of cowering in the face of screams and fists, I stand my ground.
In the nine years since my brother’s tantrum, I have shed my meek, withdrawn self to reveal my independent, outgoing self. The years of compensating, although painful, have resulted in academic ability, social capability and emotional maturity. I have come to see that my brother, tied down by disorders and medications, doesn’t have the same freedom. Every day, I am so grateful I don’t share his struggles and every day, I am so grateful for my health. I have become the nurturing one, the wise one. I have become my brother’s moon.
My grandmother used to knit me sweaters before every winter. In a photo from my early elementary school years, I wore a handsome cardigan she had knit me out of white yarn speckled with red, magenta and green. That was the only time I wore one of her sweaters for Picture Day. Since then, I have become enamored with Gap, Abercrombie, Banana Republic, Polo and others — brands that have been worn by peers whom I looked up to over the years.
When I reached adolescence, my grandmother stopped making me sweaters; before the start of my junior year of high school, she left to go back to China. By the time of her departure, I had bored of her predictable Chinese cooking and started to cook for myself using recipes from the Food Network. In the months before she left, she would ask me, “How do you feel about me leaving?” I would reply that if she felt like leaving, she should leave. I knew it wasn’t the response she wanted.
When I was in elementary school, I often came home to my grandmother’s fried noodles, drenched in black vinegar and soy sauce, ready at the kitchen table. I would wolf them down without stopping to ask her how her day was. The efforts my grandmother made to provide for me were great. For a time, she even tried to learn English. She attempted to practice her vocabulary with me, but I was embarrassed by her disjointed speech and quickly found an excuse to get away. When she decided to return to China, I think it was because she knew that my brothers and I were maturing and pushing her out of our lives: There was no longer a place for her in America.
Last Thursday morning, I placed a long-distance call to Shenyang, my grandmother’s home. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve. My grandmother picked up. “Hello?” she asked cheerfully. “Who is it?”
“It’s Eddy,” I said.
“Oh, Eddy!” I could see her smiling at the other end, her eyes curved in happiness.
She told me that everyone was at her place: my aunts, my two cousins and my grandfather. They were watching the annual Chinese New Year celebration on TV and making dumplings at the same time. They would eat at midnight.
“You’re missing out!” she said. My insides tightened as I imagined my relatives gathered in her home: my grandmother scooping pork-and-cabbage filling into the dumpling shells and pinching them shut, my aunts carrying the finished ones into the kitchen to steam, my grandfather and cousins chewing sunflower seeds in front of the TV.
She asked about my back, which had pained me in the past, and told me to be mindful when I exercised. Once, in America, she had hurt her back by moving too quickly and was bedridden for a month. She asked if I remembered. I said I did.
Since last November, I have been calling my grandmother once a month. When she talks, I remember her hands, coarse from daily dish-washing, massaging my back to ease me into sleep. I remember her trying to execute the Food Network recipes and asking me questions about them so she could be a better grandmother for her three American grandsons.
I know I took for granted the moments when I should have appreciated her the most: when she would quietly place a plate of fruit in front of me while I was studying, slip hand-knit socks on my feet during the winter and be there every day after school. But she has never faulted me for all the time lost; her voice inflects with excitement each month.
So I call her just to check in, ask her about her hurting knee and the garden she’s tending in the backyard. She tells me life is good, but the air in Shenyang is not as fresh as it is in Rochester, N.Y. She asks when I’m coming to visit. I reply that hopefully I’ll be able to come this summer, but I know it’s not so easy for us to see each other anymore.
This Chinese New Year, I really wanted to be with my grandmother. I wanted to hug her, to sit next to her as she watched the New Year special on TV. I longed to dip her handmade pork-and-cabbage dumplings into black vinegar and soy sauce.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” As an adolescent, I recited this incantation on multiple occasions: When my brother dropped his ice cream cone, when my peer failed a test, when my third grade teacher tripped and fell on the ice and, of course, when my best friend suffered through her first heartbreak. My father always used to get angry with me for apologizing for problems that just weren’t my fault. But how else are you supposed to respond to something so out of your control and still convey a sense of sympathy?
After Wednesday night’s performance of “The Consultant,” a new play written by Heidi Schreck, at the Long Wharf Theater, I rethought the motivation behind my countless “I’m sorry”s. Deep underneath every fallen ice cream cone or crestfallen friend, I have felt a small piece of blame. Put more eloquently a by the young consultant, Amelia (Clare Barron), “We are all responsible in some way for everyone else’s suffering.”
And there is certainly enough suffering to go around in The Consultant. Taking place after the 2008 financial crisis, the show focuses on workers in a troubled pharmaceutical company. Their job security is always uncertain, but they also have to struggle with the all-too-normal issues of romance, ambition, altruism and family. Enter Amelia, a quirky grad student from NYU who wants to help immigrants learn English and change the world along the way — despite her immense student loans. By mistake, she is hired by the company to teach Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), a designer at the firm, better presentation skills and not to improve his English. And so, through a series of comedic coincidences, Amelia ends up trying to save Jun Suk’s job. Meanwhile, receptionist Tania (Cassie Beck) and ostentatious businessman Mark (Darren Goldstein) become caught in a romantic entanglement.
Not everyone was along for the ride. As I left the theatre, I heard one audience member say “there was something strange about the tone of the play. It was somehow artificial between the characters.” This idea struck me. She was absolutely right. From its opening flood of stage lights to its final spoken words, all of “The Consultant” implied that nothing on the stage was real or permanent. The entire set shouted “plastic,” and you could see the material everywhere, from fake glass windows to an imitation IKEA desk. The entire company, it seemed, could pick up one day and leave. The characters verged on stereotypes: the naïve, eager graduate who wants to change the world, the quickly aging receptionist who got stuck in a sub-par job, the childish, masculine businessman who sometimes objectifies women and the overworked divorcee who can’t find happiness. They revolve around each other without forming any real relationships. Together they suffer, together they laugh, and together they try to create a makeshift family, but only because the economy has stuck them together.
This artifice leaves the audience stunned, and yet, this artifice is also what makes the production theatrical gold. We have all found ourselves in relationships that rely solely on the fact that we and someone else inhabit the same environment. Work relationships, study groups, book clubs -— no one is immune, old or young. We’re all afraid of getting too close, and because of that we keep our distance. The characters in “The Consultant” may seem stereotypical, but that’s only because they play into assigned roles. In these sorts of relationships, after all, simple personas are all we have. Only when they are alone do we understand the play’s characters as more than they appear.
“The Consultant” also understands how these ordinary interactions can build into beautiful, dysfunctional, tragic families. Throughout the play, characters take on childlike or parental roles in relation to everyone else. Tania cleans up after Jun Suk after too much revelry, though she reminds him “I’m not your mother.” The office workers learn to rely on each other even while resisting true affection.
But the family is always under threat. The big, bad Boss Harold (never seen by the audience) looms over the office, firing victims one by one. The threat of his presence puts the office on edge. Whenever a phone rings (and this happens often), the characters’ emotions are pushed even further. This constant ringing and buzzing provides comedy, but it also reminds us how fragile these relationships are. At the end of the show, we are left questioning: Can work relationships survive without the office? How can you say sorry to someone classified as the work friend? You make this dysfunctional family, and wait anxiously to see how much weight it can hold. Maybe you have to justify your actions with an “I’m sorry” and take responsibility. Maybe you have to accept that some relationships are meant to simply end.
A few Fridays ago, crowded in a dusty and dimly lit Silliman common room, I celebrated Thanksgiving. I sat with fifteen friends, surrounded by cheap electric candles and stale gingerbread crumbs. In the spirit of the season, we had prepared a roast – not of some hapless bird, but of each other. The rules: none. The limits: infinite. To the tune of Miley’s melodic mumblings, we took a wrecking ball to social normalcy for some ninety minutes.
It soon became a wrestling match of the wits – one snappy one-liner following another. We thanked each other for the little things: for the resident athlete’s three blaring alarms, set to 6:00 each morning; for the midnight theft of chocolate-covered almonds; for the stream of show-tunes sung at full volume (oh, you do a capella? We had no idea.). In short, for the little absurdities only your closest friends endure.
“Hey, Hayley, your chiropractor called – yeah, he just wanted to say you don’t actually have a spine,” my friend crooned as she recalled my, ahem, reflective (indecisive?) nature. The room burst into laughter, fingers snapping with approval. It was funny, and it was true. But this collective wit served as only a light veil for criticism, a term often reserved for harsh professors and bitter peers. If Yale is a community of scholars, why indulge in bad Regina George impressions?
A roast is an exercise in forced social transparency – it’s an aggressive loudness, not in sound but in thought. It is a communication of the inner narrative, unmuted and uncut for the rest of the world.
A week earlier, I had sat on a bench outside JE and called my mom for the first time. We had relied until then on monosyllabic texts and kitschy cat photos to verify the other’s existence. She had called me, once, when I was in class, to confirm that I wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving. I texted back “yes.” When she answered my call, after the first ring, I heard squeals of delight and a voice several octaves higher than its usual timbre.
“Oh, sweetie, I’ve just…I’ve been so worried – you know, I didn’t want to bother you. I know you have so much going on,” she said.
Ten minutes after exhausting the howareyourclasses and howareyourfriends and howistheweather, my mom stops to blow her nose. In the silence, I am left to imagine the scene: the tissue falling to the ground, settling atop a mountain of other tissues. I see my mom, pressing her flip-phone to her right ear, leaning against her bedpost with her head hung and a ziplock bag of Twizzlers in hand. Feet crossed, without a bra. I smell the aged cat piss that hangs in the air around her. I hear my grandfather’s cane glide across the wooden floor downstairs as he refuses to close the bathroom door, even when he shits.
I hear and see and smell all of these things, and so does she. But, before either of us can verbalize them, we drown the other in small talk’s cacophony. I listen desperately as she described her new diet for Quentin, our cat. (Only one low-sodium meal a day, and no more “human food” at dinner. Results forthcoming.)
I wait for my mom to ask why I called. She doesn’t. I pause before hanging up, and mumble the question I’ve had for thirty minutes.
“It’s dad’s birthday today, yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. Another pause.
“How old would he have been?” I ask.
“…fifty-seven,” she says.
Over the summer, I had read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 while perched on my childhood bed. I remember Bolaño writing about semblance — this idea that we are left only with a funhouse likeness of reality, a distorted after-image and nothing more.
This idea terrifies me. I want reality in all its ugliness. I want my friend to call me spineless, because I am (sometimes). I want my mom to talk about more than our cat. I want to know how old my dad would have been, if he had made it past my fifth birthday.
So I propose a toast to the roast. To ugly truths draped in humor and to relationships bound by honesty. Giving thanks has never been so satisfying.
Shape matters. After the winter holidays I often find myself gnawing the heads off reindeer sugar cookies long fallen out of Santa’s employ, while unformed shortbreads of equal staleness are left to a dignified death in the dumpster. It could be that though I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, I’ve a mutinous appetite in need of redress, but there’s a more universal explanation for my discriminatory chow-down. Children, forget what your mothers told you: It’s the outside that counts.
At Orangeside Luncheonette on Temple, that’s a belief both upheld and embraced. Its specialty, encased in glass that reflects the fluorescently colored walls, is square donuts: their four baked sides, intersecting at four baked right angles, form the most convincing evidence yet that the circle may indeed be squared. If you have come to break your fast from a night of exhaustive sleep, consider taking a moment in your diner booth to ponder their novelty.
But then be hungry, take a bite; let things fall apart and the gapped center cease to hold. The Boston Cream fools with its quotidian chocolate frosting, but conceals within a tunnel of crème that snakes around all four angles. The crème itself is surprisingly light, hardly landing on the tongue before its artificial flavor takes off.
The Snickers special, crosshatched with a caramel and chocolate drizzle and sprinkled with peanuts, was one-note, though its namesake is a piquant triad. Butter crunch, sided with sharp, crispy slabs, was cloyingly sweet and uncomplicated, lacking the anticipated fattiness of flavor.
For all donuts sampled, the cake texture was uniformly gluey and thick like an overstuffed pillow. If a pastry is to be heavy, let it be complex enough to justify further investigation by bite. The ones on our plates ceased to surprise after our first tastes.
If it is still curves you crave, Orangeside offers a selection of pancakes. The blueberry satisfies with fat fruit that gave the cake a starchy sweetness. Both blueberry and chocolate chip were well endowed with their respective mix-in, with a morsel in nearly every piece.
The pancakes, like the donuts, are substantial: three to a plate, each the diameter of an outstretched hand. But, like the donuts, they are too bland for their abundance and colored not bear-fur brown but a light, blasé gold, though objections to color are purely a matter of personal preference. All pancakes were accompanied by a bowl of packaged butter and “maple syrup,” actually a foodservice concoction called “Breakfast Syrup,” both of which were disappointing and artificial accompanists to a meal not prepared to perform alone.
Omelets are available as well, though we did not try them. Service was attentive and timely, although we visited shortly after the early-morning opening and avoided the lunch scramble. And prices are reasonable — pancakes here will cost less than whatever you are currently paying for breakfast. Our five-item bill totaled only $18.15 and paid for far more food than we were able to finish.
It is a diner, with sizable portions emblematic of American excess, even if the space is wanting in neon signs and checkerboard floors. The left wall is painted a bright leaf green, the right Tropicana orange, and the result is a crash of kitsch. A sparkly sign by our booth read “FAMILY,” while the sound-track replied with a blaring of “We are Family.” There is a strong sense of displaced cheeriness inside Orangeside that, despite its efforts, most resembles an industrial cafeteria.
A curly-haired companion of mine noted perceptively that the restaurant, in both arrangement and smell, recalled a hockey rink. My own memories of rink-side birthday party feasts, serving doughy pizza appreciable only by an indiscriminating child, sprung immediately to mind.
In appearance Orangeside does not aspire to be a fine-dining diner, or a college student standard. You will sit, eat and leave. If there is sentimentality to be found in your meal, it will come not from the décor but the two people who have, without complaint, agreed to meet you at 7:15 that morning so that you do not have to dine solo. You get along, and you will talk for quite a while as you eat. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the portions are so large, even if they do lack even a hint of culinary intrigue. At the very least they will last you until your conversations wend to an end and class begins. Like all of us, new friendships need some form of nourishment.
Ever since I stepped through the door, a heavy suitcase in each hand, I’ve had the feeling that this house is no longer my home. Sitting on the rug, I look around my room, taking in the pale lavender walls, the tall bookshelf crammed tight with novels, the bed with its handmade quilt. It is only just evening, and yet the house is already beginning to quiet down, preparing for night. I can hear a rhythmic swish-clank coming from the kitchen, as my mother dries dishes and puts them away, the soft hiss of my brother’s shower upstairs, and my father’s intermittent throat-clearing and chair-scraping as he works late in his basement office.
Everything about this environment is so familiar, so normal — it is what I had experienced nearly every night for the first 18 years of my life. I can recreate every detail perfectly from memory, and indeed I had done so many times over the past six months, as I struggled with homesickness during my first year of college. I had never been away from home for such a long time before, and so as a break approached, I could hardly wait to return to the place that I knew so well. The little Tudor house at 5936 N. Berkeley Blvd., Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. Home. Home was safe, comforting, familiar. Even if I wasn’t sure if I belonged at college, I knew I would always belong at home.
But now I am home. And I don’t feel like I belong. Somehow, it is no longer mine. Something has changed. My room itself is no different — all of my possessions are exactly as I had left them, though perhaps a bit dustier — but something has changed.
I cannot stop the phrase from repeating in my mind. This is no longer my home.
* * *
As the days pass, the feeling becomes even more pronounced. I cannot adapt to the peaceful rhythm that had for so long been my daily routine. In the afternoons, I wander aimlessly through the house, picking up books and putting them down, unable to settle. I am now surprised to find my family in bed by 10 o’clock, while I am wide-awake for hours more, sitting alone in the darkness and silence. We are not even in the same time zone.
Somehow, I don’t fit here anymore. Something about college, about living away for the first time in my life, has changed me. This is no longer my home. But then where do I belong? Where is my home now?
The ache at the pit of my stomach grows, spreading through my body, clogging my throat. I spend the days on the couch, huddled in a blanket, overwhelmed by a feeling that I cannot entirely comprehend.
My mother sits down next to me. I can see the concern in her eyes. She doesn’t say anything about how I’ve been acting, doesn’t try to make me explain the feelings that even I don’t understand.
“Let’s bake some scones.”
* * *
One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is the aroma of freshly baked scones. Whenever it was a special day — a holiday, a birthday, the first day of school — I could always count on waking up to find a plate of scones cooling on the kitchen counter. At Christmastime, Mom would make batches upon batches to give to our friends and neighbors; we would go through flour by the pound. My younger brother always joked that she should start a bakery: “Fallone’s Scones.” The baking process had entranced me when I was young, and as soon as I was able to hold a spoon I began to help, learning the old family recipes from my mother, just as my grandmother had taught her.
Yet that was a part of my other life, my childhood, when this house was still my home. I hesitate. Things are different now. I am not the same girl that had rejoiced in the act of carefully measuring cups of flour years ago.
Still, something compels me to stand and follow my mother to the kitchen. We work in silence, measuring out the ingredients. First, three cups of flour. I scoop it into the cup, brushing off the excess with the flat edge of a knife. Then the egg — two strong taps, followed by a satisfying crack. I coax out the yolk, throw away the shells, wash the slimy residue from my hands. My body moves almost of its own accord, easily falling back into the familiar rhythm. One-half cup of sugar, five teaspoons of baking powder, a bit of salt. I notice that our family recipe book is still sitting on the shelf, untouched. There is no reason for us to consult it. We know the steps by heart; they have not changed.
* * *
Later, we open the oven and carefully bring out the tray. We move the still-hot scones one by one in a basket to cool, admiring their perfect triangular shape. I smile as the kitchen is filled with a warm yeasty aroma. “I have always loved making scones with you,” I say, breaking our silence.
“I know,” my mother replies gently. “And you still can. I’ll always be here; we can make them every time you come back to this home.”
Come back to this home. The phrasing seems awkward.
My mother continues, “And then, someday many years from now, you’ll be baking them with your daughter, in your own home.”
In your own home.
And then I understand. “Home” is not singular, monolithic, unchanging. It is plural. There can be many homes, many places to belong. The addition of a new one does not detract from those in the past. It is so very simple, and yet overwhelming, a shift in perspective almost visceral in its impact. Suddenly I feel older, as if I have gained years’ worth of maturity in one small moment. It is a good feeling.
I stand in my home — my first home, that is, the first of many to come — feeling the warmth of the scones in my hands.
When Mother got a divorce, Pops got out the shotgun and set it at the front door. Just in case, he told neighbors. So he’d be ready. It’s difficult for me to imagine it: a 20-gauge shotgun and box of shells at the door beside the umbrella stand Nanny bought not long after they bought their house. The umbrellas were question marks, wondering when rainy days would arrive. The gun was an exclamation.
Mother has told me several times that her father was more severe back then than he is now. It was the ’70s. His temper was like the limbs on the dead pecan tree in the backyard: There was a danger of him snapping when storms rolled in. It’s a loose comparison. But it makes it easier to understand the way these limbs and Pops’ temper shared a potential to cause damage. Wiley Lewallen stands 5 feet 6 inches tall. His nose descends neatly from his forehead to a rounded point, giving him a slightly Irish look, and his deep, worn skin is just a few shades lighter than his Cherokee ancestors. He’s never looked threatening, but he’s always believed in protecting his own. The gun by the front door wasn’t symbolic. It was loaded, and Pops fully intended to pull the trigger on Sam Gaddy, the ex-husband, if the need arose. In my experience, the South is a place where people believe the gun is a central fixture in the household, as important and ordinary as the sugar dish or the cream pitcher for coffee in the mornings.
My grandparents lived in a shotgun house at the corner of Forest Avenue and Simpson Road in Union City, Ga., with Pops’ gun cabinet stationed right at the middle, in the trigger position. The dark shingle siding covering most of the outside even bore some resemblance to the deep wood color of a gun. It was a small house, and the trigger was still a part of the large front room. Pops wanted it to be central. Guns were heirlooms. They symbolized what was given to him and what he fully intended on bequeathing to my brother and to me when the time came.
The shotgun house was a part of a slightly larger complex, which included a small windmill, children’s play set, three-car garage and a workshop in the back of the property, where Pops worked on various side projects. There was enough space on the property to store a small army. Pops even had the guns to outfit it to send troops out and police the neighborhood. But he was never interested in policing the neighborhood. His small precinct extended only from his own complex to the house next door, where Mother lived alone with my brother, Judd, after Sam moved out. When Pops got the gun out of the cabinet and set it at the front door, it wasn’t an act of violence. It was a response. The way a middle-aged man of his upbringing reacts to these sorts of situations. It was his answer to the sleepless nights Mother passed alone in the house with a 13-year-old boy sleeping soundly in the basement — the only way he knew how to cope with the absence of a man in her house.
* * *
After the Newtown massacre and the surge of anti-gun lobbying it spawned, the small town of Kennesaw, Ga., received some unwelcome attention. With a population of about 30,000 people, Kennesaw seems like any other small, suburban town in America: It’s located about 30 miles from a major city and is populated mostly by a string of subdivisions and strip-centers. There is a Main Street running through its center, whose key features include the town library, a chiropractor, the First Baptist Church and a small gift shop named the Painted Butterfly, specializing in moon faces and angels. The town’s main attraction, sometimes called the “Smithsonian in your Neighborhood,” is the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. But Kennesaw isn’t known for any of its small-town attractions, for its moon faces or local Smithsonian. What makes Kennesaw unique is that, unlike other small, suburban towns, it requires its residents to own a gun.
In 1982, after the town of Milton Grove, Ill., became the first town in America to ban the sale and possession of firearms, Kennesaw, Ga., became the only town in America to require it. City ordinance 34-21 states that all “heads of households residing in the city limits” must “maintain a firearm, together with ammunition,” so that they might always “protect the safety, security, and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.” And even though there is no definitive proof that gun ownership has kept Kennesaw safer, just two years after the city passed the ordinance, the number of home burglaries decreased by over 80 percent, and in the 30 years since, there has been a 50 percent reduction in crime rate. In 2007, “Family Circle” magazine named Kennesaw one of the ten best towns in the nation for families.
On the one-week anniversary of the Newtown massacre, the city of Kennesaw ordered its churches to toll their bells 26 times to honor the 26 tragically killed on Dec. 14, 2012. But as the bells tolled, as one small town mourned the losses of another small town, Kennesaw and its residents did not begin making plans to revise their gun law. The city police lieutenant has said, “There’s sort of a Wild West image of us. It’s just not true.” To them, gun ownership is so woven into the fabric of their daily culture that changing their gun policy means changing the way they think about themselves as free Americans. But, of course, they’re not really free. They don’t have the right to bear arms; they have the obligation. As so many Americans push for a country free from guns, the town of Kennesaw refuses to listen.
* * *
From information I’ve gleaned from old photographs and family stories, Mother’s ex-husband, Sam, had looks and manners that best resembled the characteristics of a helium balloon: He was red and light-headed, volatile when set on fire and often floated away, for days at a time. He married Mother when she was 19 and just out of high school. She knew no other love. But even then, Pops thought he was shady. That’s a word he’d use: shady. And he’d elongate the “a” sound in a slow drawl so it would last for about five or six syllables, as if the length of the word were somehow related to its truth. By drawing it out, Pops was making damn sure everyone understood how serious he was.
There’s a lot of family lore surrounding Mother’s divorce from Sam Gaddy. Some of it suggests that Pops’ precautions weren’t without cause. In one story, a good friend called Mother and told her she should fear for her life. It seems ridiculous, but I didn’t know Sam. Since I first heard the story, I often try to imagine such a conversation.
The friend calls in the middle of the night because there is no other time to make such a phone call. Mother picks up, half asleep.
Joan? The friend whispers over the phone line.
Yes? She says back, uncertainly, because of the whispering.
Joan, do you know what you’re doing?
What do you mean what am I doing?
He’s going to put a price on your head. If you divorce him. The friend raises his voice, but only slightly.
I’m telling you, if you divorce him. He’s going to put a price on you. Don’t you understand what that means?
Mother hangs up before anyone can say more. Maybe she thanks this friend months later after the divorce is settled, and she’s still alive. And no longer too frightened to confront what might have been real danger.
When I imagine this conversation, I often think Pops was right for getting out the shotgun and setting it by the door. Other times, I wonder if it would’ve done any good. If there had been a problem, Pops would’ve grabbed the gun and ran all the way across his own yard, through the small patch of woods that divided the houses. It would’ve taken about a minute and 45 seconds. In that time someone could have entered Mother’s house and shot her three times in the head before Pops had time to get out the door. So if the gun at the door had no practical use, then why did he move it there? He comes from the same culture as the people of Kennesaw. For them and him, it is the mere existence of the gun in the household that makes it safer. It is a line of defense which, for them, makes the need for defense itself less likely.
My grandparents sold their house about 10 years ago. The gun cabinet went with the house, but Pops insisted that my brother, Judd, inherit the collection itself. Judd had just graduated from college and lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. So, the eight shotguns that once belonged to Pops moved to the attic at my parents’ house, until Judd finally moved to a place where he could store them all. The attic where we kept the guns was through a door at the back of my bedroom closet. Sometimes, I went in there and saw them in a long line on the floor, covered with grey bath towels. I could’ve learned to shoot one. My father would’ve been only too happy to teach me. But I wasn’t interested. And I never learned. Judd is now married and has three children. When I was home for Christmas break, Pops told me Judd is giving the guns back. His wife doesn’t want them in the house. Like me, my three young nephews are part of a generation growing up without the gun cabinet at the trigger position. It’s no longer an obligation.
When Mother got a divorce, Pops got out the shotgun. It wasn’t a symbolic gesture. By moving it across the room, from the cabinet to the door, he was acting out a ritual. Setting it at the door. So everyone would know what kind of man he was. And what kind of father he was to Mother. So Sam Gaddy would know if he came around, he might leave with two bullet holes in his chest and a lot of blood spilled across the kitchen floor. This is a violent image. Pops isn’t a violent man. Maybe he’s wrong to put the gun at the door, but maybe he knows no other way.
In 6445 Greene St., Apt. B202 — the 1,699-square-foot Philadelphia apartment that has housed my family for 25-and-a-half years — my mother slept in what she called a medieval bedchamber. Actually, it was a mattress tucked into a wooden loft in the east corner of the family room, across from a Himalayan-size range of clean but unfolded laundry and a five-shelf bookcase overflowing with (among other things) Polly Pocket houses, Bionic Hulk action figures and plastic parking garages. The bedchamber was perpendicular to the trapeze. If you extended your legs while swinging from the trapeze, you could touch a black-framed poster titled “Rainbow Shabbat” with your toes.
The family room/bedchamber is separated from the rest of the house by sturdy pine doors, which we opened at approximately 7 a.m. every school morning, and also in the middle of the night whenever one of us got a headache or had a nightmare or heard a mouse.
My mother lived in my siblings’ and my wreckage with what I can only describe as an unaffected joy. She wanted lots of kids. When she was little, she imagined marrying an airline pilot, whom she hoped would enable her to have children and then travel the world and leave her alone. When no airline pilot emerged, she decided to be a single mother. My older two siblings and I have donor dads, and my two younger siblings are adopted from Guatemala.
My mom always had a knack for deploying words. On Saturday nights when we complained about eating leftovers, she told us we were participating in “Saturday supper.” When we thought we had bedbugs and threw out all the mattresses and the couch in our apartment, she slept on the rug in our front hall, calling it “extremely cozy.” And when we asked her if she wanted her own room, she said she couldn’t imagine leaving her medieval bedchamber.
II. The Living Room, Or, Benevolent Dictatorship
Our living room served as our dining room, our guest room, and my mom’s rabbinical office. We often had young couples sitting on the couch between dinner and bedtime, preparing to get married.
“How did you know that you wanted to spend your life together?” my mother would ask, as I traipsed barefoot behind her chair, carrying a bag of Barbies or a stack of “Baby-Sitters Club” books to the room I shared with my sister.
Most importantly, the living room housed our own family meetings. Family meetings were formal affairs with a rotating facilitator and a written-up agenda. Like Supreme Court justices, we deliberated a wide range of topics and paid careful attention to all points of view. How would we share the one computer we had? What chores would we do for the year? Who got to hang his or her backpack on the first hook in the front hall?
Though my siblings and I were fierce participants in the democratic process, I realize now that my mother was exceptionally conscious of what was to be collectively decided and what was to be unilaterally decreed. She determined who slept in what bedroom and what we ate for dinner each night. She encouraged us to turn our attention instead to the family’s interpersonal dynamics, on which we could have an empowering impact.
I remember writing brilliant documents with my siblings that propelled our family life forward, but once I was in high school, I realized that family meeting discussions might not have been as sophisticated as I thought. When I was 15, my younger brother Joey put “Pillows” on the agenda. He told us that every morning when he woke up, his pillows were on the ground. He was sure that our youngest sister Mozi had moved them there. I suggested that perhaps they had fallen off the bed due to gravity. Mozi argued fervently that it was the guinea pig’s fault.
III. The Bedrooms, Or, Shaking Things Up
Though we never moved out of B202, we constantly moved around within it. From ages 1 to 5, I shared the “blue rug room” with my older sister and brother; after that, I lived in the “big room” with my older brother. When I was 9, I moved into B202’s third bedroom with my younger sister.
I was, at times, desperate for my own room. My younger sister painted part of our mirror with red nail polish and breathed too loudly at night. When I had my history final, I made an elaborate concept map out of index cards and she accidentally kicked it, scattering the main ideas across the floor. Sometimes I just wanted to be able to shut my own door.
When I prepared to leave for college, I packed up everything I wanted to keep and arranged it in my closet. My older siblings have closets full of belongings too. On the peeling blue bookshelf behind hangers of dresses, I put my yearbooks, posters of ballet dancers, the instructions for my laptop and an “Obama 2008” sign.
Three years after I went to college, my mother invited me to a “Room of One’s Own” party in our apartment. She had installed a huge, wall-sized map of the world on one side of the master bedroom, and facing it, her own bed, not tucked away but at the center of the room, with two layers of silky white comforters and pillows in lavender flannel cases. The windows were open, and the sunlight arced through new white linen curtains. After 18 years of sleeping in the medieval bedchamber, my mother was going to sleep like an actual queen.
At college I have my own room, where no one snores and where I can shut the door whenever I want. But this winter break, my siblings and I were back in B202. We brought cousins and boyfriends and godsiblings, and we faced a common question from our childhood: How would we all fit?
We decided to have a “quake,” a word we adopted from my sister’s fiancé, which means everyone sleeps together in one room, on the floor. We gathered our sleeping bags and extra pillows, and we set up next to the medieval bedchamber in the family room. (We moved the laundry heap onto the dryer.) Head to head on the floor, 12 of us slid under our covers. My older brother wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to go to sleep. My cousin was unhappy because she had gotten up to go to the bathroom and her spot was taken. My sister wanted to sing us a lullaby. In the morning, we were totally exhausted, and delighted, and surprised. We had all managed to fit.