You Can Lean A Lot Over a Spaghetti Dinner


Me: Is everyone finished with their soup?

Hank: I am! I am so excited for the masa (pasta). Did you make the sauce?

Me: Claro (of course).

Pai: (spoon feeding Molly the last of her soup) Your mama’s pasta sauce is the best.

Hank: So are her meatballs.

Me: No, meatballs tonight, I’m afraid. I love that we are cutting down on meat-eating in this house. Saving both money and…

Hank: The planet.

Me: True story.

Hank: Didn’t you eat a lot of masa (pasta) when you were a vegetarian.

Me: Soooooo much pasta, but I was lazy and used canned sauce.

Hank: That is lazy.

Me: When I first moved to Portugal I remember going to the grocery with my dictionary and after searching ever single isle working up the courage to ask where they sold the pasta sauce and, no joke, the woman at the grocery took me to the produce section handed me tomato, onion and garlic and explained rather slowly and with exaggerated gestures that I was to take these vegetables, added salt, olive oil, cook and then blend and I would have sauce.

Hank: Right.

Pai: But that wasn’t what she asked for. (dishing out Molly’s dinner)

Molly: MASSINHA!!! (cute pasta)

Me: I didn’t want a cooking class I wanted my life to be convenient like in America where I just open a jar and BAM dinner.

Pai: Ten years ago you could barely find a frozen pizza let alone jarred sauces and pre-cooked factory foods in Portugal.

Hank: Things are changing, but not at my school. The cozinheiras (cooks) at my new school make the best food. It is all fresh and so good.

Me: One of the main reasons we decided to raise you here. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to my first fancy restaurant spaghetti dinner?

Hank: Um… (taking the opportunity slurp pasta into his mouth)

Pai: This story is a classic.

Me: When we still lived in Illinois my grandmother called and informed my mother that she wanted to treat us all to DeRienzo’s for a spaghetti dinner on our upcoming Ohio visit. Now, you have to remember my Grandma Hof was super fancy. She was the town’s music teacher and the presbyterian choir director so she was fancy annnnnnnd she had a reputation for being fancy, so we wild children simply could not go to DeRienzo’s and slurp our spaghetti, not in public, no way so my mom had to give us spaghetti twirling lessons.

Hank: Oh yah! You had to learn to spin the spaghetti on a spoon.

Me: We did and we all worked very hard because my mom promised us that we could have meatballs which were as big as a softball…

Hank: What is a softball?

Me: (eyes wide in shock)

Pai: Your son is European.

Me: (deep sigh) A softball is like a baseball…

Hank: (still no clue)

Me: Only bigger (gesturing the size so he finally understands the reference).

Hank: Those were some big meatballs.

Me: You only ordered a few for the table and everyone shared and the bread was fresh and pillowy and my grandmother charmed the waitress into giving her a to-go cup full of their poppy seed salad dressing and we kids twirled our spaghetti on our spoons and tried our best to be as fancy as my Gram.

Hank: Can we go there?

Me: Absolutely, next time we’re in America and if you can twirl your spaghetti I will buy you a Shirley Temple from the bar.

Hank: What is a Shirley Temple?

Pai: It’s a mock-tail.

Hank: Ohhhh.

Me: My parents would never let me order a Shirley Temple, but when I used to go to the Golf Club with my friend, Quinn, for dinner her parents would order us both a Shirley Temple from the bar and it was just the greatest.

Pai: Seriously, at a golf club?

Me: Yup, at the Salem Country Club. You had to be a member.

Pai: Like in the movies?

Me: Exactly like in the movies.

Pai: Now, I am excited.

Me: DeRienzo’s had a separate bar from the dinning room and a backlight, clam shell, mid-century modern, Botticelli Birth of goddamn Venus phone booth annnnnnnd wooooood paneling.

Pai: Classy.

Hank: I don’t know what that is, but let’s get on a plane right now!

Me: I will invite Quinn and all your Ohio family, but you’re gonna have to learn how to twirl your spaghetti on your spoon. We Hofmeisters have a reputation to uphold.

Pai: You realize, Hank, that Italians don’t swirl their pasta on spoons before they eat it.

Hank: Then why…

Pai: The only place I ever saw people twirling their pasta on spoons was in Germany and you are ¼ German.

Hank: WHAT? (hand to his chest shocked) I’m German.

Pai: ¼ German, 1/4 British Isles and 1/2 Portuguese.

Me: My parent’s family lineages come from German and the countries that make up the UK and probably Ireland, but I’m not sure and they all settled in the Midwest as immigrants to America, so we are culturally American, but genetically European.

Hank: Riiiiiight, because you aren’t Native American. They’re the only American Americans because they are the people of the first nation.

Pai: Exactly.

Hank: So mom, you ate pasta like Germans in an Italian restaurant in America?

Me: And well, if we’re being culturally specific, DeRienzo’s serves an Americanized version of Italian food; meatballs are strictly an Italian-American thing.

Hank: (mind blown) What?!

Pai: I also never saw a meatball in Italy.

Hank: I don’t know what to do with my life now!

Me: (riots of laughter)

Pai: You’ll get over it.

Molly: (slathered in tomato sauce, oblivious, slurping up pasta strand by strand)


A Thunderous Thursday

conversations with hank

Molly showing me her “tomatoes”


Hank: Oh mama! Those roses are beautiful!

Me: Oh, but Hank, smell them!

Hank: (drinking in their sweetness) Wow. Now they are even more beautiful!

Me: I adore my dumpster roses. Your papa came home from the Horta Pedagógica (community gardens) one night with a bunch of sticks wrapped in newspaper and said our neighbor stopped him and told him she had far too many roses and if he was interested she had thrown away a garden full and all he had to do was push those sticks into some soil and by the following year he’d have roses.

Hank: But you didn’t believe him. I remember.

Me: I had never grown roses before. I didn’t imagine it could be easy.

Hank: And so papa put the sticks in the ground.

Me: And I learned that even roses from the dumpster can bloom. I am sad I had to go and pick these but there is rain coming and these blooms would get spoiled.

Molly: (toddling into the kitchen) Quero (I want to) see.

Hank: (taking the largest rose to her to smell)

Molly: (breathing it in) Yummy. Mama, quero cerejas (I want cherries), pleeeeeeease.

Me: (plopping the roses into a vase) Sure. There is no better breakfast than a cherry breakfast. (lifting her up on the counter to sit next to a gigantic bowl of cherries that was full the night before)

Molly: Me do it.

Me: You have to be careful. Cherries have a stone inside. Don’t eat the stone. (vigilant)

Molly: Ta bem (okay). Look, look mama! (holding up a cherry) A tomato. (giggling and wiggling at her obvious joke) Yummmmmmy tomato!

Me: (tossing my head way back and praising her with a chuckle) A tomato, you are so funny.

Molly: (nodding, pleased as punch) I funny. (biting the cherry in half and handing it to me to take out the stone while selecting another one) Looook mama! Ah, ah, uh, uh strawbury! (tossing her head back, mimicking me, laughing)

Me: A strawberry? HA! (bending at the waist, rolling with laughter) Oh, that is funny. You’re so funny, MaGoo.

Molly: (nodding, beaming) I funny.

(roll of thunder)

Molly: What’s that? What’s that, mama?

Me: What do you think that is?

Molly: Ah, ah, ah, uh, ummmmmmm…. A dragon!

Hank: Guimarães is full of sleeping dragons, Amália.

Molly: (her finger to her lips) Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh, dragon sleeping.

(another roll of thunder)

Molly: Ah, ah, uh, umm… Dragon hungry! Mama, Dragon hungry. (nodding, serious)

Me: That was the dragon’s empty belly rumbling?

Molly: SIM (Yes)! Dragon? Dra-gon!? Queres Cerejas (Want some cherries)?

Hank: Amália, dragons eat really specific foods. Are cherries on the list, mama? Remember the list of dragon foods?

Me: I know that list by heart! I have been feeding dragons since I was your age and I am a rather old woman.

Hank: (nodding then abruptly stops nodding when he realizes his nodding is saying he agrees I am old) You’re not old. You’re mama aged.

Me: (giggling) What day is it?

Hank: Um…

Me: (pre-coffee haze) Is it Thursday?

Hank: Yes, yesterday was (my) chemo day* so it was Wednesday.

Me: And there is thunder?

Molly: Dragons!

Me: Then the fates have aligned! Dragons only eat cherries in the spring on thunderous Thursdays.

Hank: (gasp) We need to tell Alice. She has a cherry tree!

Me: Don’t fret. They harvested their cherries yesterday. All the best farmers know about the dangers of a thunderous Thursday.

Hank: (smiling because he is on the cusp between still believing in magic and wanting to be the maker of magic) Amália?

Molly: (having forgotten all about us, cherry stained fingers and stuffed cheeks)

Hank: Dragons are our friends. They will come here, eat these cherries and grant you wishes and bring you luck.

Molly: No mano (brother)! NO! My cerejas (cherries)!

Me: Oh MaGoo. We have cherries to spare and I promise if today the dragons come and eat all of your cherries I will buy you more.

Hank: It is important you share!

Molly: Dragons! Ah, Ah, ah… No cherries. Tomatoes! Holding up a cherry. Tomato no cherries.

Hank: (whispering to me) Will that work?

Me: (whispering back) You can’t blame a girl for trying!

*I take a low dose oral chemotherapy for my Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ankylosing Spondylitis every Wednesday.  Hank is a worrier and every Wednesday evening has an alarm on his and my phone to remind us that I need to take my medicine.  Wednesdays have been dubbed chemo day.



What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

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Hank: (deep discontented sigh)

Me: (having just been hosted for a coffee by our neighborhood friendly auto-parts store owner) Two cakes in one day! Lord, you’re a loved and lucky boy! Sr. Pereira is so kind.

Hank: He is and I like him, but… (sigh)

Me: But what?

Hank: Why are adults always asking me what I want to be when I grow up?  Or that when they were my age they were done with school and working? It’s like every time I want to yell, “I’m a kid! I don’t know what I want to do for a job! And I know… I know you were working when you were my age. I know already!”

Me: Wow. Okay. These are two separate and very important things, so lets break it down so that you can be more empathetic when someone tells you their story of leaving school after 4th grade.

Hank: That is how it was back then.

Me: For some.

Hank: What?

Me: Era uma vez (once upon a time) before the revolution (April 25, 1974) your education ended at the end of 4th grade unless your family could afford to educate you further. Think about that. It didn’t matter if you were smart, it didn’t matter if you loved learning with your whole heart, if you were poor you went to work and if you were wealthy you continued on. Can you imagine leaving school in a month and never going back?

Hank: (pause) No.

Me: Your Avó Dalia (grandmother) was devastated to leave school. Your Avô Alfredo (grandfather) went to apprentice to be a carpenter and Dalia worked in the fields, helped take care of your tias and tios (aunts and uncles), then she went and worked in factories. After the revolution one of the important policies that everyone fought for was education for all. The key word in that sentence is fought. It was so important to the people of Portugal to end the stunting of education that they fought for all children to be able to stay in school, for you to be able to stay in school! That is why neighbors, family, strangers when they hear how old you are they tell you the story of how they had to leave school, because they are so proud and grateful that you don’t have to. You are truly privileged, Hank.

Hank: If the revolution didn’t happen that means my papa would also have finished school when he was nine years old, too?

Me: Yes. Our family is a proud, funny, loud, charming, working class, amazing group of loving people, but your papa would have never become a doctor (Phd) without the revolution or the money to keep him in school.

Hank: And papa would have never gone to study in America and you would never have met and I wouldn’t have you and papa as my parents and Molly as my sister.

Me: (nodding) When someone confesses that they left school at your age your answer should never be (annoyed), “I know, I know, jeesh.” You should listen to what they’re saying with an open heart and say, “I am so lucky. I love school.”

Hank: I never thought of it that way.

Me: Another reason you are privileged. You never had to. And now on to the second part of your query: Yes, for the rest of your life from this day forward someone will ask about your future plans: job, wife or no wife, kids or no kids, house, car, the whole enchilada.

Hank: What’s an enchilada?

Me: (shaking my head) You’re so European. An enchilada… never mind it means everything. (starting over) Hence forth for the rest of your life until you’ve become stable and established people will pepper you with question as to your intentions.

Hank: Why? That is so frustrating.  I don’t know!  How am I supposed to know?

Me: Some people do.  My childhood friend Lisa wanted to become a chemical engineer when she was your age and guess what?

Hank: What.

Me: She is a chemical engineer.

Hank: How did she know that way back then?

Me: She just did. Now, I have a bit of a trick that worked well for me when I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life so the next time someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up you can say, “I don’t know what I want to do yet but I plan on being very happy.”

Hank: That’s good. I like that. That is what I will say.

Me: It works well and changes the subject away from the epic life quandary and on to the satisfying notion to live a happy, lovely life.

Hank: That’s perfect because I don’t know about the future. I might have a job that pays my bills and then my happiness comes from my life and my friends and my family.

Me: Truth! That’s what I did until I moved to Portugal.  I had a string of jobs that paid the bills and then focused on my passions after work. A smart, thoughtful answer will get you far. You don’t have to let other people pressure you. Never take other people personally! You do you and grow and learn and your future will unfold as it should. I can’t imagine what your future will look like. The world is changing so fast, far too fast for you at nine or I at 37 to be able to answer the question of what you will be when you grow up, but you will work hard to be happy.  That we know for certain.

Hank: People ask you what I want to be?

Me: All the flippin’ time! It’s madness. It’s far too rushed.

Hank: Wow.

Me: But it was the same when I was young, but unlike you I always had an answer until I was about 19 and then I had no clue. When I was your age I wanted to be a flower arranger.

Hank: What’s that?

Me: The person who makes bouquets at the flower shop.

Hank: Oh, so you wanted to own a flower shop?

Me: No, I just wanted to be the arranger. Then I wanted to be a writer.

Hank: You are a writer.

Me: But then I forgot I wanted to be a writer when I fell behind in school and started struggling with reading and writing. I thought writers must be smart and I knew I was stupid

Hank: You’re not stupid.

Me: Well, I know that now, but I was convinced then that I was stupid because I didn’t know I was dyslexic SO because I could barely read or write I decided I would be an actress.

Hank: You did?

Me: Oh yes. This was my longest phase. I never got one lead roll and was a constant chorus girl but I was determined and auditioned for everything. Then I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist.

Hank: A what?

Me: A doctor who studies people and cultures. It was the only “real job” I could find that felt utterly romantic and adventurous.  I wanted to travel the world and immerse myself in cultures and then observe how those cultures grew and thrived, but all the while I was making art and taking art classes and throwing pottery and was always in the art building and covered in mud or in museums sitting quietly in front of art to sooth my weary soul.

Hank: But you’re not an anthropologist.

Me: No, I dropped out of school.  I couldn’t keep up with the reading and the work.  I didn’t want to get a Phd and my grades were average at best and school was expensive and so I got a job and just worked but I spent my vacations making fruit trays and doing kitchen prep in the kitchens of these fancy craft schools in North Carolina and Tennessee so that I could take more pottery classes and learn from working potters. I worked all year to be an artist for a few weeks and then I got a second job managing a ceramics and photography studio. I taught classes and I met your papa and I realized that I was an artist, there was no helping it, so I went back to school and then I got pregnant and then I moved to Europe and then I learned Portuguese and I remembered I had always wanted to be a writer so I started doing that and then I had your sister and then I got sick, but I kept writing, and now I am making working with clay again and teaching workshops and my RA/AS is more manageable and through it all I have always, always, always promised myself I would be happy. And I have been. I am happy every single day and I am loved and I consider that to be the success of my life.

Hank: Wow.  You have done so much.

Me: Life is not a strait line, Hank. It is a winding road.  It is an adventure.

Hank: I don’t know what I want to do yet, but I have decided to be very happy.

Me: No one ever called you dumb.

Hank: Not one day.