Saturday Jan 20 2018
Another View: Dinner with RenatoBy: Trisha Caspers / Guest Columnist
Renato and his friends opened the door, and standing across the crowded, smoky pub was the most beautiful woman Renato had ever seen. He told his friends he had to meet her.
“You’re crazy,” they said. “Look at you. You’re a mess. You’re too skinny, your clothes are ragged, and your pockets are empty.”
It was true.
World War II had ended, but as a prisoner of war Renato was forced to find his own way back to his hometown in Italy from what was once Yugoslavia. At the end of the journey he arrived starving and without two lira to rub together.
He was undeterred, he told me more than 50 years later. We sat together at a dining room table as his wife Catalda — the beautiful woman he’d seen at the bar that night — dished up small bowls of pasta as the first course of our meal.
Renato is on my mind this week after reading Isabel Vincent’s delicious and poignant book, “Dinner with Edward,” a true story of Vincent’s friendship with a widower in his 90s who served up old-fashioned wisdom along with gourmet meals. Edward is there as Vincent’s marriage unravels and as she ducks the daily dodge balls thrown at her as a reporter for the “New York Post.”
When we met in a poetry class in Berkeley, I was in my late 20s, and Renato was in his 80s. He invited me to lunch to discuss our writing, and our friendship continued for years, always with plenty of food and wine at a dining room table overlooking Lake Merritt in Oakland.
He was my friend through divorce — “That man is a fool,” he’d say in his thick Italian accent — single parenthood, graduate school, a new job as a newspaper reporter, a new marriage, and a new baby. I met his daughters and granddaughter. I met his granddog, a schnauzer who was smuggled past the doorman in a carrying case and always sat at the dining table, a napkin spread before him so he could rest his chin there.
I grieved with Renato when Catalda passed away and cheered for him when his novel “I Due Villagi” was published in Italy.
With his wife gone, Renato insisted on continuing to supin the traditional Italian style, or in courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, formaggi e frutta, dolce. He learned to cook for himself. Between tennis matches and his daily three-mile loop around the lake, Renato sought out fresh ingredients at specialty shops. He told me where to buy the best cheese and wine; he introduced me to prosciutto, mascarpone and panettone, in their separate courses, of course.
I gobbled every scrumptious bite.
“You are welcome to dinner any time,” he always said. “Just call one hour ahead . . . and check the obituaries before you come to make sure I’m alive.”
Sometimes poetry leads to heavy conversations — the meaning of life, for example, the nature of love, the inevitability of death.
Late one evening, bellies filled, plates gathered, we spoke about death. I consoled myself, I told Renato, with the idea that when it’s my time I will have lived a full life; I will have done everything I imagined in my youth, and I will be ready to go.
“No,” Renato said flatly, shaking his head. “You will not feel that way.”
He did not feel that way, I’m sure, even years later. Five days before he passed away, he emailed me a fresh poem and asked for my critique.
I hadn’t written him back. I thought I had more time.
I always think I have more time. The lesson never seems to stick. I guess that’s the downfall of optimism; I refuse to believe I’m kissing a friend’s cheek for the last goodbye.
But here’s the other thing about optimism: I don’t know where or how or when, but I’m sure that one day Renato and I will sit down with a glass of wine in the afternoon sunlight, read each other’s poems and tear them apart. Maybe we’ll even discuss “Dinner with Edward.”
“That ending, though,” I’ll say.
“What other ending could there be?” he’ll ask.
Tricia Caspers is an award-winning writer, writing instructor, librarian, and maker space coach. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.