Friday, May 16, 2008

First in the Casserole Line

“I probably shouldn’t say this…. and I swear I don’t mean it sexually, but I just want to take your husband home.”

The winsome brunette graced me with a pert smile as she sashayed toward the front door. She’d just left the Parent Support Group, a womb of conversation and guidance that my husband moderates at Eagle Hill School. I nodded indulgently and shot her a bright grin of my own, thinking, "another babe in the casserole line."

My mother introduced the casserole line concept. At age seventy-five, she has a preponderance of widows among her friends. “I’ve counted! There are ninety-eight. It’s so difficult to plan a dinner party with a nice balance of men and women.”

Given these odds, if a wife passes away, the widower can barely draw breath before a line forms at his door. “Of course most of our male friends don’t cook,” explains Mom, “so the women drop by saying, ‘I brought you a casserole.’” With this thinly veiled courtesy, they stake their claim.

While I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, Dave and I have joked about the casserole line since we started dating at Trinity College in the seventies. My husband’s queue of admirers is long because the man is a saint.

The benefits of marriage to a man this good are many. He’s an excellent chef and does most of the cooking. He shares in housework and parenting, and knew more about babies and diapers than I did when our son, Tucker, was born twenty-seven years ago. When we’re apart, no matter which one of us is traveling, I find, in my luggage or under my pillow, a poem, of the “roses are red” variety, wrapped around a piece of chocolate for every night of separation.

The man is good. You can see why the casserole line is so long.

Oh, he has his flaws, although some would dismiss them as trivial. Every night when he comes home from Eagle Hill, he leaves a trail of his wallet, keys, glasses, and files strewn across the kitchen counter like animal spoor. We’ve discussed this, many times, but I’ve lost that small battle. And I’ve learned not to worry about the top of his bureau either. He’ll clean it when the teetering piles cascade to the floor. Scattered belongings and messy surfaces are traits as distinctively-Dave as his black hair and mustache.

Punctuality is another arena where we’ve come to blows. Well, maybe not blows, but we’ve had words about it, harsh words. More times than I’d like, I’ve waited fuming in the car as he fiddles about searching for his wallet, keys or glasses. You can bet that a snide, ”Did you check the kitchen counter?” has peppered a few exchanges. On my own, I am never late for appointments. With Dave at my side, it’s part of life.

Who cares about such things; they are, one might say, endearing flaws. And I recognize that. So clearly. As mid-life has wrenched away delusions of security, I am more grateful than ever for Dave’s support and solidity. But it’s hard to be cheated of righteous anger, to feel, whenever a skirmish arises, that I am picky and childish.

When I explode with shrewish shrieking after biting my tongue to the point of dismemberment in frustration at his procrastination or clutter, he’ll say, “You’re right. I’m a terrible person.” And so, I am dis-armed, because he is, in all ways that matter, so good.

I met him through his older brother, Steve, when I was a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford.

I graduated in June, 1971, third in my class and head of the cheerleading squad, from Miss Porter’s School, Jackie Kennedy’s alma mater. I was a preppy, although I’d never heard the label until my college roommate asked if there were any books in the library about “your kind of people.”

“My kind of people?”

“Yes! Preppies!” she said. “I want to write a research paper about you!”

Hmm. I couldn’t help but wonder what the public school equivalent was termed, but it was evident that being a preppy was not particularly desirable. I changed gears, as much as I was able, and embraced the trappings of being a hippie, while avoiding the risky experimentation. I wore my brown hair long and straight like every other girl my age, and turned in my letter-sweater and pom-poms for embroidered peasant blouses and patched bell-bottom jeans. I studied, played guitar, dabbled in papier-mache, and focused primarily on hoping people liked me.
I’d been raised on the mantra, “What will people think?” and spent considerable time agonizing over just that. Orchestrating my life around my perception of what peers, parents and teachers might think was tricky enough, but, having attended girls’ schools from kindergarten on, when it came to boys, I was hopeless. What do you say to them? God only knew what they might be thinking. College life – with boys in class, at every meal, even at the adjoining sink in the bathroom, for heaven’s sake - was new territory.

I met Dave’s brother on a snow-covered slope above the soccer field on a wintry evening in January. A group of us had borrowed trays from the dining hall to serve as sleds, and Steve and his friends were among the sledders. From that chilly night on, to my lasting wonderment, Steve adopted me as the sister he’d never had.

In those days, Steve’s upper lip was masked by a mustache, and the red bandana tied about his head gave him the look of a pirate. A cute, fun pirate. Unlike me, a preppy disguised in bell-bottoms and tie-dye, Steve and his friends were legitimate hippies, plus, they were seniors, and they were cool.

I was so not cool. When Steve asked me, one spring afternoon, if I’d like to go with him to watch his little brother play baseball, I agreed with as much nonchalance as my inner puppy-dog would allow. Subduing the urge to wag my tail and prance was not easy.

We walked across Trinity’s tree-shaded quad to reach the baseball field at the far side of campus. Dave was warming up, feet planted wide, swinging a bat. With his long black hair, tan skin and full mouth, he would have looked at home on a pinto, galloping the plains with his fellow braves.

After the game, Steve introduced us, then we drove Dave back to his dorm. It was an uneventful first meeting and if heavenly cymbals were clashing, I didn’t hear them. I was dating someone else and Dave had a crush on my roommate.

It was 1972, a wrenching time for the country. People our age were dying in Viet Nam. Draft numbers were posted in Mather Hall and students dressed in Grim Reaper attire flanked ROTC recruiters when they visited campus. The seniors, Steve’s class, organized outdoor parties and concerts; they projected movies on sheets draped from Northam Towers, a prominent dorm on the Quad. Their creative spirit helped balance the anguish and fear of the war, and when they graduated, the school’s walkways and common rooms seemed empty and cold.

Dave and I naturally came together; we both missed Steve.

Before long, Dave told me he liked me. Whoa. This guy was different. What a change from the guessing games that had been part of the deal with other boys.

My friends cautioned, “Don’t blow it; the man’s a saint.” It’s a refrain I’ve come to know well.

Our friends saw Dave as a thoughtful and insightful confidante, although as a teenager, he had no idea that listening would play a key role in his life. If anything, to this day he complains about the brotherly image he projected at Trinity. If ever a co-ed drank too much at a fraternity party, she could count on Dave to see her safely to bed.

“And then what happened?” I now ask teasingly.

“I tucked her in and went back to my dorm.”

Even knowing the truth of the stories and the character of the man, I poke a bit further, just to get a rise. “Oh, come on. You can tell me…”

“Humph,” he scowls. “You know it’s true. All those missed opportunities!”

After we married in 1975, we moved to Greenwich to help open another branch of Eagle Hill. Dave earned his masters degree and became the school psychologist. With his intuitive ability to work with kids and an unflagging willingness to be available for others, he was beloved and respected. He knew what he wanted to do with his life; he was doing it and doing it well. I was a little flicker beside his flame; Eagle Hill-Greenwich was his place.

When we moved to Easton in 1990, I transferred to Eagle Hill-Southport while Dave retained his position at the school in Greenwich. For the first time since college, I had an identity of my own; I was not just Dave’s wife. I settled into multiple roles as a wife, mother, teacher, and activist and joined the town’s conservation commission. I had found my place.

Dave continues to draw accolades. I swear, even my parents would take his side if we split. Friends, family, school parents, and acquaintances tell me, “Your husband’s a saint.” They are kind enough not to say, “Don’t blow it.”

I pass along the latest raves, “Ruth Ann says you’re a hunk. Libby says you’re hot. Carey thinks you’re cool, and wants to be first in the casserole line. My sister, Rita, claims that’s her spot. She wants to keep you in the family.”

Dave rolls his eyes, refusing to believe the compliments.

He maintains that people carry with them the self-image of their adolescence. As a teenager, he was a school baseball star with an acne-ravaged face. “People told me I should wash more, as if I didn’t scrub my skin raw every day.” He believed he was ugly, and wife- and mirror-evidence to the contrary, it seems that adolescent boy is still hanging about.

He was intrigued when I described an encounter with another Eagle Hill mom, a handsome blond, by the punch bowl at the Greenwich spring benefit. Upon discovering my identity, her demeanor changed from casually polite to sultry interest. “You’re Dave Sylvestro’s wife?” With bedroom eyes and a gutteral purr, she said, “You are one lucky woman. He is quite a man.”

She did not say, “Don’t blow it.” I believe she hoped I might.

Dave chuckled with pleasure at this saucy tale, while I looked at him with new eyes. “All right, Honey! She’ll be joining the casserole line!”

The line has more significance as recent years have been liberal with reminders of our mortality. Steve, now fifty-six, has prostate cancer. Dave’s father has been immobilized by a stroke. After a visit to the nursing home, I mention a likely casserole-bearer and Dave growls, “Don’t you dare leave me.”

But of course one of us will go first. Dave says there was never any danger of my blowing it and insists that if he’s left alone, he’ll have no interest in women bearing casseroles. Instead, he says he’ll enter a monastery to copy Bibles.

That is unlikely.

He’s far too ADD to sit that long, and he is none too fond of organized religion.

“Well, I like the robes, “ he retorts when I dispute his plans.

But I know the casserole line is forming in theory. Carey, my college roommate, is planning a nice mushroom ragu over polenta, while Rita favors shrimp gumbo.

I wonder which dish Dave will choose?


Anonymous said...

Hmm....sounds like Dave might be thinking more seriously about that monastery gig - after all, he is an ordained minister now.
Sadly, I don't cook.

Anonymous said...

So Lea - what do you think the "Botox Babe" is planning to cook for the casserole line??!! heehee :) Cathleen