Leda and the Mind

Leda welcomed us from her porch. Her smile embraced us. She was short but her body was strong, a sure grip on the earth.
“Buongiorno,” I said. “Piacere.” (Hello. It’s a pleasure.)
“Lei parla Italiano?” (Do you speak Italian?) Her bright eyes brightened.
“Un po.” (a little)
She saw our dog. “The dog can’t come in the house. I’m allergic.”
“Sì, Sì, Signora. We’ll leave her in the backyard.”
Michael, her son, accompanied us down the drive to the back of the house. Miss Mia loves a new yard especially one with a substantial patch of grass.
Inside the house we set to the day’s work. We were making passata. Three large boxes of red ripe Roma tomatoes had to be processed in to a rich sauce which forms a basis of a lot of Italian cooking. I’d never done it before, warned it was hard labour. But I’d tasted the fruits of this labour.
We started by cutting the tomatoes in to quarters, squeezing them slightly and placing them in a large cooking pot.
“It’s slow at first,” Michael said. “But once we get the production line going, the pace picks up.”
Leda busied herself, coming into the kitchen to observe us and then disappearing in to the recesses of the house. The phone rang a couple of times and I could hear her speaking in Italian. It was nice to hear the language again. I get so little opportunity to speak it beyond a few words at the local shops.
Michael looked at me. “The neighbours are phoning. They’re worried because two men and a dog came to the house. They want to make sure Leda is fine.”
I smiled. We’d set off the local mafia.
By now we had the first pot of quartered tomatoes on the stove. Leda came and looked. She went out onto the back porch to look at that preparation of the production line and came back in. Miss Mia followed her around.
“But the dog can’t come in. I’m allergic.”
Leda is eighty one. Old people often repeat themselves. Miss Mia looked in at us through the screen door.
While all this was happening, we were still quartering and squeezing into pots.
Once the first pot had cooked so some of the water had been removed and the flesh had started to fall apart, we placed the tomatoes in a strainer to remove a little more of the water. Then we took this to the back porch.
Here, there was a device, clamped to the bench. The tomato pulp was placed in the top and the handle rotated to separate the seeds and skin from the flesh and juice which emerged in a blood-bath of colours into a tray at the side.
Leda came outside. She’d changed her clothes and was ready to work, ladling the fresh passata into the bottles.
“The dog is beautiful,” she said. “But she can’t come inside. I’m allergic.”
Inside, we continued the endless chopping, transferring them to the stove and keeping an eye on the ones that were cooking. I swear someone was coming in behind our backs and refilling the boxes with more tomatoes. They seemed endless.
Michael came to take the radio outside. Leda wanted to listen. People were phoning in and requesting old Italian songs.
This process went on. And on. And on. The rate limiting step was the slow cook of the tomatoes. Two and a half hours later, we’d cut them all and they stood in pots waiting to go on the stove. So I went outside to help with the machine that separated the pulp from the sauce.
Leda sung along to the songs on the radio, every word. We chatted in Italian.
“What are the songs about?” I said.
“They are all songs from after the war. That’s why I remember them. All songs of love.”
“When did you leave Italy?”
“I don’t remember. These are all songs from after the war. That’s why I remember them.”
We worked on. Miss Mia by this stage was exhausted. She’d found a tennis ball in the garden and had worn herself out.
“It belongs to the children at the back,” Leda said. “They will come and yell, ‘Signora, Signora, give us our ball’”
By now Michael was loading the first of the sealed bottles into a large boiler where they’d remain in boiling water for an hour.
“The dog can’t go inside. I’m allergic.”
Indeed, Leda has Alzheimer’s. As the work day wore on and the last of the tomatoes were passed (passata) through the machine and Leda ladled it into the bottles, her memory deteriorated even more, the cycle of retention reduced to only a few seconds. She would ask me who owned the dog, should she feed her, state and restate she was allergic and the next-door children would call for their ball. At first I thought it was my bad Italian comprehension and that each time she was adding a new piece of information to the statement that I was missing, but she wasn’t. And yet she sang every word in her firm contralto of the love songs she knew as a girl in Sicily, after the war, when she was in her teens.
And she would switch to English and back to Italian. All those damn Italian verb endings that had split my brain in two, worse than a 1000 times tables, she had in her dexterous mind.
“Should I feed the cat? Oh… It’s a dog. Not a cat. It can’t come inside. I’m allergic. Do you have a small bottle for this last bit?”
Despite the fact we’d produced fifty bottles, Leda wouldn’t waste a drop. That post war frugality. Miss Mia had kept a close watch on the whole thing.
After lunch when the last of the bottles emerged from the boiler, we packed some into a box to take home. We loaded them into the car along with Miss Mia and walked back to the front porch to say farewell to Leda.
Last night I put some extra-virgin olive oil, some fresh garlic and a chilli in a pan and fizzed them for a moment. I then added the passata and a mound of fresh basil from the garden. I reduced it slightly, added salt and pepper, and then mixed it with pasta al dente and topped it with a mound of freshly grated pecorino Romano.
Bliss. Sweet and piquant.
The passata, stored in the cellar, should last us a year.

5 comments

  1. lovely story about a productive afternoon
    I can almost taste the tomato sauce, it brought back memories of my friend Lynnette’s grandmother – Nonni (spelling?) who made fresh pasta in her kitchen and taught my Mom how to make “gravy”

  2. Lovely aesthetics in your story – very funny too. Mia looks exhausted by the end of it and understandably a little indignant! The description of your cooking process and addition of the mound of basil sounds delicious. This is the kind of rich experience that makes the slow movement resonate with truthfulness…

  3. NOTHING beats the taste of homemade tomato sauce! By the way, I’m allegic to the dog! Really, I am. I get shots every week!
    (Smiling!!!)
    LOVE the look of the blog!
    I’m allergic!
    Love ya!
    Laurie

  4. I got thrown off topic because I’m allergic to the dog, darn! I meant to mention the bottles the sauce was put in is very different than the Mason jars here in the states! They look like beer bottles! It’s something how different countries do things so differently! Neat!
    I’m allergic to a LOT of things! Dogs, cats, tree pollen in the spring, ragweed through the summer, oh, and dust mites! Isn’t everyone allergic to dust mites!!! LOL!!! That IS why we dust, after all!
    Honestly, my dog is part Chow/Black Lab/Austalian Cattle Dog – which is part DINGO!!! SO cool, huh! Her face looks like the Black Lab, though. SO beautiful! Her tail curves up and sways back and forth. The hair is 14″ long! It sways back and forth! I can’t burn candles like I used to now! I’m serious! I miss my candles! I had to buy HUGE hurricane lamps to put the candles in to burn! That way she doesn’t catch on fire with that LONG haired tail! Allergy shots are going VERY well!!! I’m VERY interested in seeing how well I do this Spring!
    Well, it’s LATE! For me! Almost 11:00pm. I’m tired! Did a LOT today! Finished up a good book and now on to the next!
    First a shower and then bed! Ah, bed! Early tonight! Earlier than most nights for MONTHS!
    Thanks for sharing the nice story of your beautiful day with us!
    Love ya!
    Laurie

  5. I’m allergic to dogs and cats. I’m not allergic to homemade tomato sauce, Italian songs, or Alzheimers. I want to hug Miss Leda. Such a wonderful tribute to a woman who survived so much and longs for home.

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