Her name was Marie; a name I never called her. To do so did not seem right. I did not dare, even as an adult, call my own parents by their first names – that was disrespectful, so I shied from calling her by her first name for the same reason. Although born in New York, she carried herself with the dignity, standing, strength, and charm of a true Southern lady. Her gift was charm, but she could also put you in your place with a look that said simply, enough is enough. Her life was her family, and the job she did as a mother and wife will echo in the ballads of heaven for all eternity. To be a part of this great lady’s life was my blessing.
We met over a bowl of tapioca pudding. Her daughter, my future wife, invited me to supper to meet the family – mom, dad, brother, and four sisters, two of them twins. That was the first time I tasted lasagna, ground beef cooked between layers of cheeses and pasta sprinkled with Italian seasonings and spices. It was close, but I may have been hooked on her lasagna before I was hooked on her daughter. Dessert was next, confirming I had found heaven on earth. I grew up in a home where dessert was a rarity served in plastic bowls, so when an elegant long stemmed glass bowl of white pudding was set in front of me, I seriously thought I had won the lottery – a beautiful girl at my side, a smiling delightful family, an unforgettable meal, and dessert served in a glass bowl on a slender pedestal, what more could anyone ask.
The flurry of activity to clear the table for dessert was an event unto itself. My anticipation grew; a dish that commanded such attention had to be beyond mouthwatering. The table clear, a collective silent reverence spread through the room. A pudding was placed in front of each person, and all eyes turned to me. As the honored guest, I was expected to take the first bite. If you have never tasted tapioca pudding, all I can say is – Don’t! The first taste of the sweet concoction brought me back to reality, and my dislike for the stuff must have shown on my face. “What’s wrong,” one of the twins said, “you don’t like my mother’s cooking?” I don’t know how I did it, but I gulped down every drop of that awful stuff, and even managed to smile politely and turn down seconds.
Afterwards, each time I dined with the family, the meal concluded with a bowl of tapioca pudding. I began to believe it a ploy to run me off, but after being introduced to lasagna, hotdogs and beans (my favorite), stuffed artichoke, and Boston cream pie, I wasn’t going anywhere. I am sure she probably thought her daughter could do better than the risible stray she brought home, but I believe, like her daughter, she also had a soft spot for strays. Over the years, she never treated me with anything but kindness or . . . maybe, it was pity, but either way, I am forever grateful she made room for me in her family.
This week, she went home to begin preparing for the next time we all gather around her table. Until then, she will dine with angels and teach them to make lasagna and hot dogs and beans. She will tell stories of 70 years of marriage, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. In our time, one by one, she will greet each of us with the smile that welcomed all, even the strays, into her home, and with a pinch of mischief in her eyes, she will once again place a long stemmed glass bowl of tapioca pudding in front of me. I will eat it, and I will ask for seconds.
In loving memory of Mrs. Marie Laakso
Jack Linton August 11, 2016