A Stack of Photographs

by Ron Russo

I recently found a photograph, tucked inside an envelope within the large photo album that contains old family pictures. It wasn’t a photo I remembered, and it took me a while to figure the setting. My mother and her four sisters are seated in beach chairs, each of their husbands standing behind. And comfortably ensconced on Aunt Catherine’s lap is a red-headed, beaming four-year-old. That four- year-old is me.

After a moment’s thought, I realize that the picture’s setting is Bethpage State Park. Once or twice a year, the family would gather and go on a day-long picnic. Since neither my parents, nor any of my aunts and uncles, owned a house with a backyard, we always held our picnics at Bethpage.

What a thrill these gatherings provided! All the cars would rendezvous in front of someone’s home, then they’d follow each other to the picnic grounds. We’d meet at seven in the morning, usually on a Sunday. Each car was exploding with people and goods. To an outsider, it must have looked as if we were going on vacation. Food for three, yes three meals; folding chairs, blankets, portable radios, barbecue grills, charcoal, plates and cups, utensils, changes of clothing, The night before one of these events my mother would be lining up goods to bring, checking items against her list. “It looks like we’re going on a goddam safari,” she’d inevitably say. “It’d be easier to move.”

Once we got started, the four or five cars would compete to get to the toll booths on the Southern State Parkway first and pay the toll for all the cars following. Once in a while there’d be a slip-up and some stranger’s car would break into our line-up and get a freebie on the toll.

Picking the spot to settle in was worthy of a project for the United Nations. Too open, too shady, too sunny, too many tables nearby, too far from the restrooms, too close to the restrooms. When a decision was finally made, the cars would start to unload.

First item of business: get a fire going. That was my father’s specialty. Next, fill a huge pot with water to brew coffee. Oh, the smell of that coffee as it started to perc, wafting through the outdoors. Meanwhile my dad and one or two uncles would start heating a few griddles, which ultimately would fry the bacon. Then the eggs were cooked, sunny-side-up. Italian bread would get sliced and quick-toasted on the griddle, giving it a hint of bacon taste.

After breakfast, someone would take me and my cousins to the playground. We’d scurry around like wild creatures, competing for the swings, slides, monkey bars. It usually took a major effort to get us back to the picnic tables.

But back we’d go, as preparations for the mid-day meal were beginning. The women would start setting the table, and the men would start drinking beer. Each household would have brought a pot of spaghetti sauce – – specifically, the same tomato sauce with meatballs and sausage that we’d be eating if we were at home. Huge pots of water were put up to boil the pasta as the sauces heated. Bottles of red wine emerged as everyone sat for a midday meal.

Afterwards it was rest time – – and why not? Both the men and the women would have been working hard for the last five hours. And would have downed a fair bit of beer and wine. Aunts and uncles would sprawl across blankets or on beach chairs and try to catch a nap. But there wasn’t much quiet. Someone always had a story to tell or a child to keep tabs on.

Around four-thirty, we’d finally turn into an American family. Hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken would appear once the fires were again stoked on the grills. And potato salad. And cole slaw. And sliced tomatoes. Everyone would groan, “Who wants hamburgers after all we’ve had to eat already. Next year we’re going to simplify this.” But eat we did, and heartily. Someone would invoke an old Italian saying, “L’appetito viene mangiando” which is to say “Appetite comes with eating.”

As the sun would start to set, we’d begin packing up. This was the saddest time; I wanted these picnics to go on forever. One year – – perhaps the year in which the photo was taken – – I begged to drive home with my Aunt Catherine and Uncle John. They were my favorites. Often, at the end of a visit, either or both of them would catch me alone and slip me a ten-dollar bill. “Don’t tell your mother,” they’d say. I got my wish after Aunt Catherine yelled at my mother that it was fine for me to ride with her. About halfway home, I got carsick and vomited into my aunt’s lap. My mother wanted to kill me when we got home and she saw the mess I’d made, but Aunt Catherine shushed her, said it was worth it to have me in the car, and that was that.

Each following year, until I was in my late teens, we’d have the annual picnic. Thank goodness, I never vomited on anyone again. And though it was still suggested, the meals never got “simplified.” Appetite always came with eating.

Ron Russo has been motivated to write by participating in a number of writing study groups given at the LP². My thanks to coordinators and fellow writers.

Uncle Matt

by Ron Russo

I can still hear his voice, calling from the bottom of the stairs that led to our apartment. “Hey stupid. Make the coffee.”

“Are you here again? Get the hell out, I’m busy” my mother would reply to her younger brother, as she was smilingly putting up water to boil.

Saturday mornings, near noon, would often begin this way. Uncle Matt would come to visit, take a seat in the kitchen, and wait for my mother to pour the first of many, many cups of coffee. “Get the bottle out, too.”

“You old drunk, wait till I tell your wife you’re boozing so early in the day,” she’d say as she placed a bottle of Seagrams 7 and a shot glass in front of him. He’d nurse a sip of the coffee, then one of the booze, and settle in for a visit. When I was in college, I’d most likely still be sleeping. That was no obstacle to Uncle Matt. He’d walk into my bedroom without knocking, give me a shake and say, “Get up, Ronood, come have a drink with me. Best way to start the day.”

“Matt, for Christ’s sake, don’t turn my son into a bum like you,” my mother would say as he was pouring me a shot.

“Shut up, Ida, he’s a man now.” Then the talk would commence, starting with family catch-up. There were nine children in my mother’s family, so there was plenty of ground to cover. When that was finished, other stories would begin. “I saw Frankie Skimp last week, Ida. He was asking for you.”

“You and your thug friends,” she’d respond. “Frankie Skimp, Johnny Lay, Mikey Dee – – nice guys but all shady. None of them ever did a lick of legit work their whole lives.”

“Well, I did a little business with Mikey the other day.”

“What business? If you ever went on a job with one of those guys you’d crap your pants. And if you lived to tell about it, Josie would kill you.”

“Pay attention, Ronnie,” he’d say if it seemed my attention was wandering. With a finger crooked in my direction, Uncle Matt would deliver one of his famous lines: “I’m gonna ask questions when I’m finished, and you won’t know the answers if you’re not listening.”

Around one-thirty, my father would show up, laden with cold cuts, bread and various salads. Quickly my mother would set the table and soon we’d be feasting on prosciutto sandwiches on crusty Italian bread, with fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and pickled eggplant on the side. Once in a while, the visit would last till four or five o’clock, at which point my father would say, “Stay for dinner. Call Josie and tell her to come over and we’ll pass the night.” Often she’d agree, and she and my cousin Joanne would show up around six. By then neither Uncle Matt nor my father was feeling any pain. Dinner would be pulled together as my uncle continued to spin yarns, some true and some rather questionable.

“So they gave us an intelligence test at work last week,” he’d share. He was an operations manager at the Kimball corporation, and he’d made his way up with only an eighth-grade education. “The test put me in the top ten per cent.”

“Why don’t you go throw the bull elsewhere?” my mother would respond.

“No, really – – besides, what would a dummy like you know about intelligence?” he’d taunt her. “ I scored 180 out of 200 points. Remember that, Ronnie,” he’d say with a quick glance, finger pointing at me. Often the evening would progress with us watching a movie, if something good was on. But sometimes Uncle Matt would say, “Charlie, get the ukelele. Let’s show these cayoodle kids what real music was like.” “Cayoodle’ was one of many words he’d invented, generally translating to ‘not-so-bright.’ A medley of songs would ensue, always including “That Old Gang of Mine” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” “Sing with us” he’d say to me and Joanne. “You should know the words by now. You better – – it’s gonna be on the test.”

Even on his deathbed Uncle Matt maintained his pose as entertainer and raconteur. On my last visit to the hospital, he had a new roommate – – a very old man who moaned loudly and incessantly. When I greeted my uncle, he beckoned me closer. “Ronnie, go to the nurses’ station.”

“Sure, but why?

“Tell them not to order lunch for this guy tomorrow.”

“Okay, but why?”

“Because I’m gonna strangle him later.”

Ron Russo has been motivated to write by participating in a number of writing study groups given at the LP².  My thanks to coordinators and fellow writers.

The Stranger

by Ron Russo

Mimi and I were having dinner at a restaurant called Luigino’s. The place came highly recommended by a number of friends. Twice before we’d made a date to eat here, and twice we had to cancel our plans. We were two years out of college and going out to a nice dinner was still a treat.

The waiter took our drink order – Scotch and water for each – and we scanned the menu. I looked up to see a man, laden with shopping bags, being ushered to a table. We made quick eye contact, then I turned my attention back to the menu. Mimi asked what I was going to order, and I suggested that we split an antipasto then each order a main course. My choice was veal scallopini; for Mimi, the grilled veal chop.

The man who’d just entered the restaurant was fussing with his shopping bags, trying to get them in place; they kept falling off the chair. The noise attracted me and once more I looked in his direction. We made eye contact once again and he nodded at me. I nodded back. “Who are you nodding to?” Mimi asked.

“Just some guy who looks like he bought out an entire store. He must have money; the shopping bags are from Alley’s.” Alley’s was an expensive clothing store in Bensonhurst which catered to – – how shall I say this – – a clientele that favored shiny suits in flashy colors. Brooks Brothers it was not.

“Well don’t stare at him,” Mimi said.

We ordered our dinner and a bottle of wine. I couldn’t help sneaking an occasional peek at this bundle-of-energy man. He was in constant motion, fussing the shopping bags, fixing his tie, checking his cuff links, moving his chair farther in or farther out. On one of my peeks we made contact yet again, and he nodded and said “hello.” I returned his greeting then turned my attention back to Mimi. “I knew you’d say hello to this guy. You always attract the crazies.”

The stranger stared at the platter of antipasto as it passed him, on its way to our table: a bounty of cheeses, cured meats and stuffed mushrooms. As I put a forkful into my mouth I once again noticed the man staring. This time he said, “Excuse me, can I axe you a question?” Mimi sighed quietly. “Sure,” I replied.

“Have you kids been here before?”

“No, first time.”

“Cauz if you wuz here before you woulda ordered the clams casino.  They’re the best.”

“Next time I will, thank you” I said. Mimi and I continued to eat and chat.  A few minutes later the waiter was heading to our table with a large platter.  He was bringing the main course before we’ had even finished with the appetizer. “Poor service”, I thought; but it turned out to be a dozen clams casino. 

“Compliments of the gentleman at that table,” the waiter said, pointing.

I raised my glass in a salute and said “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. I hope you and your pretty friend like clams.” This, of course, got Mimi’s attention. She turned, raised her glass and thanked him also. “Salud,” he said.

“That was nice of him,” Mimi said. “I wonder why he’s eating alone?”

The clams casino were indeed delicious, and unusual in that they had slivers of prosciutto mixed into the breading. “Should we send over a drink, Mimi?”

“No, that’ll encourage him even more.”

We turned our attention to the main courses that were arriving and got lost in conversation. As we were finishing our meals, I sneaked another glance at the stranger. His table was filled with plates, which seemed largely untouched. He said, “Look at all this leftover food. It’s a sin. That’s why I hate to eat alone. It’s better when you share a meal.”

I couldn’t help myself.  “Would you like to join us?” I asked.

“I don’t wanna break in on your date,” he said.

 “No, really, it’s not a date, we’re friends. Join us.”

He summoned the waiter who pulled a table up to ours and started transferring the many dishes. “What’s your name? I’m Frankie Gagliardi,” the stranger said and I introduced myself and Mimi. Frankie was probably in his early fifties, thinning hair slicked back, well-fitted shiny suit. “Ya know, the name I go by is Frankie ol’ Pal. That’s because they say I’m everybody’s pal. Too friendly.”

Frankie ol’ Pal? Sounded like a gang nickname. But he was right about being friendly. For the next two hours he talked about himself, politics, family, food – but he also asked about us. By this point he’d ordered, and we’d finished, another bottle of wine. When we told him we lived in Bensonhurst, he was surprised. “Youz ain’t Italian, are you?”

 “Sure are. Mimi was born in Sicily, even.” Now he took Mimi’s hand and kissed it. “I swear, I thought you kids were real Americans, you know how they say, WASPs. I bet you went to college you’re smart, and speak so good. Let’s have a toast. You ever have Grand Marnier?” he asked, pronouncing it “Grand Man-yay”. We hadn’t. Once again the waiter was summoned and Frankie said, “Bring these kids some Grand Man-yay.  Bring the bottle.”

We drank a few rounds then suddenly Frankie looked at his watch and said “I gotta go, I still got some business tonight. My work never ends. But listen:  every Fourth of July I throw a block party on President Street. We have fireworks better than Macy’s. You kids come this year, promise?” Then he put his hand in his pocket, withdrew a business card and handed it to me. “If you ever need work, I could always use a smart young guy like you. I won’t forget.” In a flash, he and his shopping bags were out the door.

Mimi was quite drunk, and I was feeling no pain either. We called for the check and the waiter said, “Already taken care of.” We were delighted, though not surprised.

Next day Mimi was so hungover she took a sick day. I felt fairly wretched myself but made it through the workday. That night I called Mimi.  “Quite an evening we had. I think I got recruited for the Mafia. And I think it’s a better deal than working for the phone company. I’m gonna call him”, I said, only half-joking.

“Don’t be an idiot, Ronnie, you don’t fool around with stuff like this.” Of course, she was right.

Twenty odd years later, one June, I was in downtown Brooklyn and found myself walking along President Street. I saw a group of teenagers hanging out and I asked, “Do they still have the Fourth of July block party?  With fireworks?” They nodded yes. “And does Frankie Gagliardi still live here?” Now they stared at me with interest.

“You mean Frankie ol’ Pal? No, he died a few years ago. Who wants to know?”

“Just an old friend,” I replied, and began walking to the subway, thinking ….

Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.

Rice Balls

by Ron Russo

It’s New Year’s Eve, early in the morning, and my father is already up, showered and dressed. He’s surveying the kitchen like a general, getting supplies out of the refrigerator and pantry, neatly arranging them. Today is one of many in which my father excels in the kitchen. But perhaps today is the greatest of them all. Today Charlie Russo is making rice balls.

Rice balls are known as “arancini” to Italians, meaning “little oranges.”  That’s how they’re shaped, and thus they were named. People in Dad’s neighborhood eagerly await this day, for tonight there’ll be a party at one of their homes and my father will attend, bearing a huge tray of these scrumptious treats.

My mother awakens soon, grabs a cup of coffee and does her own surveying. “Try not to use every god-damned pot and pan,” she warns. My father takes no heed; he hears this every year, nods his head, then moves forward using every pot and pan imaginable.

Making rice balls is an all-day process. “It takes as much work to make ten as it does to make sixty,” Dad’s often said. Sixty is the approximate goal every year. He starts by boiling the rice – three pounds of it – then draining it, slightly-undercooked. Quickly he adds a huge amount of butter and a very generous mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese. He mixes it all vigorously then starts preparing the filling, which is a simple ragu – – a meaty sauce which contains onion, garlic, ground beef and a hint of tomato sauce that is simmered till it’s thick and fragrant. While the ragu is cooking, dad occasionally stirs the rice so that it doesn’t stick. When it’s lukewarm, he adds about a dozen egg yolks. Once the ragu is ready, he pulls out the ice-cream scoop, digs it into the rice, and makes a half-ball. With a small teaspoon he forms a well in the center and fills it with ragu. Then, with his hands he molds a top half, and the first rice ball is ready for frying. This is done in olive oil. First it’s rolled into the saved egg whites, then breaded; finally getting lowered into the sizzling oil and fried till the coating is crisp.  One down, fifty-nine more to fry.

When in my forties I decided to make a batch of rice balls. I enjoyed cooking, and figured I’d invite some friends over to eat them. I tried to get the recipe from my father but it was painful for him to try and note measurements. “Use only imported Parmigiano,” he warned, but when I asked “How much?” I got “You know. Taste along the way, stop when it tastes right.” I used instinct and would have done fine if I’d remembered the eggs. Without them, the rice balls fell apart when I tried to fry them. So I got a tasty mountain of savory fried rice. It wasn’t bad, but still . . . . 

A few years later my father died, and about a month after his funeral I got an irrepressible yen for Dad’s rice balls. It was Christmas season, just the right time of year. I had finally wangled a recipe, with measurements, from Dad after my first failure. I was ready to go.

I set up the necessary pots, pans and bowls. I made sure that I had the eggs separated and ready; I’d lined up the ingredients for the ragu; I took the imported Parmigiano out of the fridge. I was going the full route: three pounds of rice to make approximately sixty arancini.

I worked very slowly and deliberately; I had no other plans for that day.  Shaping the balls was trickier than I’d figured, and I created a few unidentifiable geometric shapes before I got the hang of it. Needless to say my father was on my mind as I was working. I’m neither religious nor superstitious, but I found myself talking to him, in my head. “Let me get this right, Dad. Let these rice balls taste like yours.”

That night I had my brother to dinner. He was never a chatty sort, nor ebullient with praise, but he took his first bite of my rice ball and his eyes popped. “God, Ron. These taste just like Dad’s!” He couldn’t have said anything better. This coming New Year’s Eve I plan on making rice balls once again. In this time of social distancing, I don’t know with whom I’ll share them. But even if I just eat a few, and freeze the rest, it will be worth the effort. Because to hear my father’s voice once again, as I undoubtedly shall, will make it all worthwhile.


Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.

Brief Encounter

by Ron Russo


In 1978 my friend Annie and I planned our first trip together.  There was no question where we’d go—San Francisco.  I don’t remember what caused Annie’s fascination with the city by the bay but mine was based largely on sex.  I’d come out less than a year before, and San Francisco was the capital of “gay” at the time.

We went on June 2. I’d moved into a new apartment the day before and left behind the pandemonium of unpacked boxes and unplaced furniture.  Plenty of time to get things in order afterward.  All I could think of was heading to Castro Street and seeing all those mustachioed, muscled men I’d stared at in magazines.  Maybe even nab one for myself.

We arrived on a Friday and idly roamed the Union Square neighborhood where we were staying.   At breakfast on Saturday we planned our day.  The waitress heard us discussing how cold it was and asked, “First time here, kids?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“Everyone who comes for the first time is surprised at how cold it gets.”

“Well, we figured we were coming to California in June, and it would be much hotter than in New York,” Annie said.

“Hon, you see that Macy’s the other side of Union Square?” the waitress asked.  “Go on over when you finish eating and buy sweatshirts.  San Francisco is always chilly, especially in the morning and after sunset.  God, if I made a commission on every sweatshirt I sold for Macy’s I could retire a rich woman,” she laughed.

The waitress got a generous tip, and we did exactly as she advised.  Warmer, laughing at our naiveté we walked the city, marveling at everything.  Over an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista we discussed what we’d do that evening.

“Let’s go to the Dignity meeting,” I suggested.  “I’d like to get an idea of what it’s like over here.”  Dignity was a gay Catholic group I’d joined in New York the year before.  A friend, originally from California, told me about the San Francisco branch and gave me their number.

“Okay,” said Annie.  “If the map is right it’s near the Mexican restaurant Noreen told me about.  We can go there for dinner afterwards.”

I called to verify the time and location of the meeting and we arrived a bit late.  There was a talk going on, so we slipped in quietly and found seats.  The speaker was a man who appeared to be in his forties.  He had strong presence, a terrific sense of humor, and a way of engaging the audience that kept everyone rapt.  He was also good-looking, just my type: dark hair, rugged facial features and a body that looked buff even under his button-down shirt and jeans.  Normally I hated listening to speakers and couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes.  But this guy mesmerized me for nearly an hour, speaking of gay lib and the need to come out.  As he was wrapping up his talk he said, “As many of you know, I’m originally from New York,” and at this both Annie and I clapped.  He noticed us and continued, “San Francisco is my home now and this is where we’re going to make it happen.”

There was great applause as his talk ended.  We were all invited into the adjoining room for a social with wine and snacks.

“That guy was terrific,” Annie said.  “Handsome, too.”

“Yeah, for an older guy he’s pretty hot,” I said.  I was twenty-seven at the time.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around to see the speaker smiling broadly.

“Fellow New Yorkers?” he asked, addressing both of us.

“Yes. Brooklynites.”

“Aah.  Long Island here.  Been in San Francisco a couple of years now, though.  You live here, or visiting?”

“On vacation, second day here,” Annie answered.

“Well then you need to see the town and there’s lots to see.  Been to the bars yet?” he asked me.

“Not yet.  I’ll be going tomorrow night though.  Any recommendations?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I recommend that you meet me at the Twin Peaks around ten tonight.  I’ll show you around.”

“Well, I don’t know what we’re doing after dinner.  Where is this place?”

“Boy, you are green,” he chuckled.  “Probably the most famous bar in San Francisco.  On Castro, right off Market.  What’s your name?  I’m Harvey Milk,” he said, extending a hand.

“I’m Ronnie Russo, and this is my friend Annie.”  Annie threw me a sly glance as she shook Harvey’s hand and said, “I’m going to use the ladies room.  Be back in a few minutes.”

“So, Ronnie, what brings you to a Dignity meeting?  How come you’re not roaming Castro Street?  All the boys will be after you.”  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I look back on pictures and realize I was good looking, with big brown eyes and a slim toned body.  Harvey’s eyes remained focused on mine and his grin was suggestive.

“Well, as I said, I’m planning to go out tomorrow night.  I don’t want to leave my friend alone too much.”

“She’ll do fine, she’s a fox.  Send her to Perry’s on Union Street.  In fact, tell her to go to any place on Union, that’s where all the straights cruise.  It’s Saturday night, you’ve got to see Castro.”

“Believe me, I’m dying to get there.  But Annie and I agreed that Sunday would be our split up night.”

“Stay together on Sunday, split up tonight.  I can show you around like no one else can.  I live on Castro too,” said this man with the unflinching stare of his seductive eyes.

“Talk to her and work it out.  I’ll be waiting for you.  Twin Peaks at ten. Got it?”

“Got it.  Hope to see you later but if not, nice meeting you.”

“Same here,” Harvey said.  Leaning forward, he gave me a quick peck on the lips while his hand found my butt and gave it a firm squeeze.  “You won’t be sorry,” he said, then turned and walked away.  In an instant he was surrounded by a group of people.

Annie returned a moment later. She’d been watching from afar.  “My, you work fast,” she said.

I work fast?  I’d say he was the fast worker, missy.”

“So, you going to meet him then?” she asked..  I could sense Annie was looking forward to our night on the town.

“Nah.  We said we’d have dinner and hang out together.  It’s our only Saturday night here.  We’ll find a place to go dancing.  Tomorrow I’ll hit the bars, and I bet I’ll find him then.”

We spent the evening as planned.  But the next night, at precisely ten o’clock, I was sitting alone on a bar stool at Twin Peaks. No Harvey. I was well into my second beer when I felt a tap on the shoulder.  My heart raced.  I turned to see not Harvey but a sandy haired, blue eyed guy replete with mustache and muscular chest.  “I’m John Hirsch,” he said.  And with that simple introduction, the rest of the evening and most of the following day were spoken for. Two more times that week I roamed the bars, two more times I sat hopefully in the Twin Peaks.  But Harvey Milk was never was there.

When I returned to New York I started hearing more about him, how he was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., an outspoken advocate for gay rights, a confidant of the mayor of San Francisco, and an all-around guy.  I increasingly regretted not having connected with him.  I was dreaming of moving to San Francisco as most first-time visitors do, and he somehow entered the fantasy as the built-in lover who’d be waiting to take me in.  I couldn’t shake his image in the media or in my imagination.

When I heard of his assassination that November I felt more than sad. I felt a disproportionate sense of loss—for gays, for America, for myself.  Whenever I think of Harvey Milk I still feel it.  Would we have had a sexual liaison?  I’m rather certain.  Would anything more have come of it?  Something tells me yes.  Of course this is the stuff that dreams are made of and the whole meeting was, in a certain way, a fantasy. I learned something from our very brief encounter—to be more proactive in seizing a propitious moment. I’ve tried to do so ever since.


Ron Russo has been writing fiction and memoir for twenty five years. Of late, he has been particularly inspired by the wonderful writing workshops given at the IRP.




Harvest Home

by Ron Russo


I met my partner Richard on Fire Island more than thirteen years ago. I feel blessed not only to have met such a wonderful person but to have done so at the ripe age of fifty one.

Yet as my mother would say if someone spoke too glowingly of good fortune,  “Be careful.  God gives with one hand and takes away with the other.”  And so some wonderful force of fate handed Richard to me, but he didn’t come alone – – he had a country house.

I do not like the country. I am scared there. It’s too quiet. There aren’t gourmet food markets. People dress poorly. Animals show up occasionally. Still, Richard was so terrific that a few months into our relationship I began to accompany him regularly to his place in the Finger Lakes. A five hour drive, and for what?  To end up in the country.

I made my way slowly. One of the first projects I took on was planting tomatoes and basil in the spring. The deer promptly ate my first crop down to the roots. For the first and only time in my life I wanted to own a gun.

I replanted a modest amount, fenced it in this time, and my garden took hold. That September we harvested the plants and I made pesto and tomato puree, both of  which we froze for use in the winter. Four or five containers, manageable.

Two years later Richard decided to sell the house. He wanted a place closer to the city, one that would be more easily accessible for his eighty-something father, who was now driving nine hours from Massachusetts each time he visited.

Ultimately Richard purchased a house only four hours away and less than five from Massachusetts. Many hours of travel were saved, but the house was at the dead-end of an isolated road.  It made the Finger Lakes place seem like Park Avenue. For the first time I felt a strain in our relationship. I wouldn’t have minded as much if the house were luxurious and had a pool. Instead it was a dump that needed every square inch renovated, with a murky pond and a dry stream thrown in.

Richard’s an architect and I knew that he’d eventually redo the place and make it wonderful.The problem was I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see that happen. But I set my mind to adapting and adapt I did, through a five year construction project.

We had lots more land in the new place, so I planted a larger garden. Tomatoes were abundant that year, and they ripened by the end of September before the first frost.  I spent a day skinning, chopping, and freezing them and felt very satisfied with the results.  We loved it when I’d make a simple marinara sauce, sometime in deep February, that was redolent of summer.

Unfortunately over-ambition kicked in. I suggested we plant more tomatoes the next summer. We did, but this time they didn’t all ripen at once. In the fourth week of September we needed to harvest everything that was left; surely there’d be a frost before we returned from vacation in three weeks. Complete pandemonium. We arrived back in the city looking like migrant farm workers with shopping bags full of basil and tomatoes in every shade of green, orange and red.

All this six days before a long trip to Italy. What to do?  If I were on my own, I’d have thrown away everything that wasn’t ripe and dealt with all that was. But “waste” and “throw away” are words that do not exist in the lexicon of my New England-bred partner.  “You would really throw away those good tomatoes! After all the work we put in growing them!” I must confess that all the work was done by Richard. I’d merely planted the little demons, then he’d taken over the watering, fertilizing, and weeding. But after all, I cooked them.

These tomatoes did not arrive by themselves. They had a following of flies that took over my apartment. I’d swat and kill two in the kitchen, then find four more in the bedroom. It was never-ending.Richard said the flies didn’t come with the tomatoes.  “So, where did they come from, then?  I haven’t opened a window in over a year.”

“You’re just being negative.”

I decided that the greenest tomatoes would never ripen before we left for vacation.  At six-thirty on Tuesday morning when normal retirees are still in REM sleep, I was lighting the oven to roast those hard little beauties. This would take at least five hours, so I went to the gym. When I came home I met my neighbor in the hallway. “Are you cooking?” she asked with a tone that would have been more consistent if she’d asked “Did you just kill somebody?”

“Not really, just heating up something,” I said embarrassed, racing into my apartment.

We had grown two varieties of tomato:  Romas (plum), which were moist and sweet, and San Marzanos, meaty and densely flavored. Each required a different treatment. The next day some of the plum tomatoes had ripened. They were to be roasted.  Again, at six-thirty I was filling my oven with trays of sliced, salted, olive-oil tossed tomatoes. The following day provided more of a challenge. A good number of the San Marzanos were ready; they just needed boiling, skinning, pureeing, then freezing. I worked on them for two hours, with flies buzzing around my head the whole time.

Richard came home that night and inspected what was left.  “There are still a few tomatoes ready for pureeing, a few for oven-roasting too. I’ll separate them.”

“One damn minute,” I said. “This joke has gotten old.  I still haven’t bought anew valise for the trip, I need to do laundry, and you’re talking about a couple more days work?  I don’t think so.”

“Okay.  You can throw them out, then.  Such a shame, after all that work , , , “

“Boy, the nuns really taught you guilt, didn’t they?”

“It’s just that we’re so close.”

I knew I’d lose this argument before it started, because in reality I, too, abhor waste.   “I’ll figure something,” I said, swatting and missing yet another fly.

I got myself to TJ Maxx early the next morning and bought a valise. When I got it home,I realized it was two inches smaller than Richard’s, my role-model for this purchase. I hurled myself into panic mode until Richard made me fill the new valise with the clothing I’d be packing, and I understood that I’d be able to fit everything I needed.  Back to tomatoes.

It was now two days before vacation and I was almost done. Next day I’d process whatever was left. We’d have delicious pasta sauces for many meals that winter.

The basil was easy, in comparison. You pull the plants up by the roots, pluck and wash the leave and puree them with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pignoli nuts.  There’s no waiting for ripening-all ready at once. In ice trays I made twenty cubes of pesto, ready to use, and froze them in a plastic bag. I felt all set to open a restaurant when I got home from vacation.

On the day before departure I finally bought the extra socks and underwear I needed for my trip. I also got a new power adaptor so that I could charge the many devices I now travelled with. And I had only one more batch of tomatoes to deal with.

I hoped the flies would be gone by the time I got home.


I have been writing fiction and memoir for twenty five years. Of late, I have been particularly inspired by the wonderful writing workshops given at the IRP.