The Problem of The Soup
When my friend Cristina asked me to spend a few days with her father, Antonio, the request came at the perfect moment. I was already thinking of extending my time in Italy and now I had a good reason to stay.
Antonio, at 97, has in the past greeted me with a deadpan wink as if we share a private history. Communication has been hard because he speaks not one word of English and to make matters worse, his dentures travel around his mouth when he speaks. His family claim that they also have trouble understanding him so it’s not entirely my lack of linguistic skill that makes conversation difficult.
Cristina doesn’t tell Antonio she’s leaving until she runs a bath for him on the morning of her departure. He voices his displeasure but within a few minutes, Cristina is gone and he’s supposedly in the tub. But Antonio is peering through the sheer window curtains. He is fully clothed and I’m sure his bathwater has grown cold. He has urine spots on the front of his trousers. Have I made a mistake in agreeing to take care of him?
I get up early every morning to prepare Antonio’s breakfast: coffee, bread and butter, stewed fruit and twelve drops of Xanax in a glass of water. I make sure he drinks all the water.
Then Antonio goes outside and cuts things. He has always loved working the land, but now he often prunes the newly planted trees which cause distress in his family of farmers. I’ve been warned that he needs supervision when armed with a pruning sheer. This time of year, he attacks the rose bushes. They do need pruning, so I relax. When Pluto, the dog, cries out, I remove the thorns stuck in his fur.
I prepare a big pot of soup for our first lunch. It is not a successful culinary experience. I need to serve soft or pureed food to Antonio. The vegetable soup is bland and everything on his plate is white; frittata with leeks and onions and steamed cauliflower. Antonio rolls his eyes at me as I serve him his lunch. He asks the question which will become his refrain, “When is Cristina coming home?” Pluto and the three cats are always ravenous so they reduce the leftovers but there is still a pot of soup that I can’t possibly store in the tiny fridge.
For dinner, I make chicken with too much Vin Santo, so the dish is overly sweet. I further puree the soup to give it a new life. Antonio moves the food around on his plate and asks for more bread. After dinner, I add the leftover chicken and the rest of the cauliflower the soup.
I begin to obsess about what to do with this unrefrigerated soup that keeps growing in volume. I’m in Tuscany where everything is recycled. Garbage is monitored, and I don’t have the key to open the bins. A possible solution comes to me: I can bury The Soup! But what if someone sees me? I realize that I need to think a little bit more.
The evenings are long. TV serves as a babysitter, even during meals. It’s much like when I parked my young son in front of Sesame Street; I felt a bit guilty, but it allowed me some worry-free downtime.
Even with the TV on, Antonio likes to talk. On my past visits, simply chiming in occasionally with a “Si” was enough. But not anymore. He asks me the same questions repeatedly, like many elderly people. (When is Cristina coming home? What time is dinner? What time are you going to bed?) I can understand some of his questions, despite his rolling dentures. But Antonio cannot make sense of my replies. My Italian accent is undecipherable to his ears. He shouts at me in words I don’t understand, yet his unhappiness is clear.
Antonio mocks me for always replying with “Si! Si! Si!”, obviously inappropriately. His face is red, and his voice is loud. I lose my temper and resort to English.
“I’m doing the best I can! Serving your meals. Keeping you company. Take some responsibility! I know you are almost 98. But really! I’m trying to help. An occasional thank you would be nice. But all you do is roll your eyes!”
After my outburst, I feel worse. Tearful. We are fighting about something I don’t fully understand. And I feel guilty for yelling at an old man. At least it was in a language he doesn’t understand. Or perhaps that makes it worse.
Tonight, we are invited to eat dinner at the house of Stefano, Antonio’s son. We are both looking forward to having other people around and getting a break from each other. I suppose Antonio is anticipating some good food as well.
Stefano arrives, full of apologies. His wife is sick; dinner is cancelled.
Stefano brings an offering of cinghale ragu (wild boar sauce) and cavolo nero (black cabbage/kale) and hurries home
As I’m making our dinner, Antonio fills a pot of water for the pasta, instead of sitting in judgement at the head of the table. He spreads the cloth, sets the plates and the silverware. We eat in silence. Later I tell Antonio I’m going to my room to read. He may have found the leftover Vin Santo because later he comes into my room to say a jolly goodnight and a few other things I don’t understand.
The next evening at dusk I feel brave enough to deal with The Soup. I’m motivated to destroy the evidence before Anselmo, Antonio’s caregiver arrives tomorrow. I use a sieve to filter out the solid bits while I force the liquid slowly down the drain. I take some of the remains to the hen house and put the rest on a tin tray that I leave in the field behind the house. The cinghales will eat anything and they graze at night. It’s one of the reasons the garbage bins are locked. Soup problem is now solved. I only hope that no animals are sickened by my food. When Anselmo arrives in the morning, I crawl back into bed to watch a movie after I reassure myself that the soup residue is indeed gone.
Antonio is one of the last lucky ones. Cristina will continue to care for him until his ending. I officially become a senior citizen in January and the transition scares me. I need to think about how and where I plan to age. How can I be part of a social community and remain the master of my own care?
If I don’t become the architect of my future, I will be in a government-run nursing home twitching my nose at the sharp smell of urine in the corridors that can’t be disguised by floral air fresheners. I’ll be there, parked in the hallway, waiting for my next meal, bath, medicine or something far worse.