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, usually greets me with a deadpan wink as if we share a private history. Communication is 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 make 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 leaves and he’s supposedly in the tub. After I come back from seeing Cristina off, I notice Antonio 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. I wonder if I have 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 outside 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 the 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.
I manage to make one dish that pleases Antonio. It’s a cake named Schiacciata Alla Fiorentina to which I add Mela Cotogna (quince). Antonio dips the cake in his morning coffee. I will make it again with apples and cinnamon.
The evenings are long. TV serves as a babysitter, even during meals. It’s much like parking a toddler in front of Sesame Street; you feel a bit guilty resorting to it, but it allows you some worry-free downtime. There are many scantily clad young women and silly men cavorting across the screen. Antonio watches the equivalent of the American show, Dr Oz. People are exhibiting their scars and talking about their botched cosmetic surgeries. Italian TV is as bad as its reputation.
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. He shouts at me in words I don’t understand, yet his unhappiness is clear.
The next day 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 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 looking forward to 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, I notice Antonio is acting out of character. He fills a pot of water for the pasta, instead of sitting in judgement at the table. He spreads the tablecloth, sets the table. 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.
Cristina will return this evening and despite Antonio’s burning desire, I do not know the exact time.
Staying with Antonio gave me the gift of being able to walk in Cristina’s shoes and to experience an important part of her life. I officially become a senior citizen in January and the transition scares me. I am even more aware that my generation must re-think how and where we plan to age. There’s got to be a way to be part of a social community where we can be masters of our own care.
Antonio is one of the last lucky ones. Cristina will continue to care for him but there may be no one able and willing to care for her when the time comes. Being actively in charge of our last years remains my generations biggest challenge, as well as our final contribution. If we fail and have money, we will be sitting in our Barcaloungers arguing over the remote control in assisted living facilities, filling the pockets of big corporations. But if we fail and are poor, we will be in government-run nursing homes, living our last years twitching our noses at the sharp smell of urine in the halls, unsuccessfully disguised by floral air fresheners, while waiting for our next meal, bath, medicine, or worse.