Former L.A. Law actors Michael Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, are enjoying the early years of retirement in their beautiful three hundred-fifty-year-old stone farmhouse in the central Italian province of Umbria. But when Jill’s elderly mother is suddenly widowed, the couple must leave the respite of the Italian countryside and travel westward to console Lora and help her plan her future.
Thus begins Family Meals, a beautifully told memoir that explores the meaning of family and examines the sacrifices we make for those we love. After Lora begins a rapid decline into dementia, and Jill decides to move her from California to New York City, the Tuckers initially attempt to place Lora in a senior residence. But when an apartment becomes vacant right across the hall from them, they grab it for Lora. Soon, Michael and Jill’s children, much to their parents’ happiness, decide not only to relocate to Manhattan but also move in together. Their family, which had been a loose network of individual strands, geographically scattered, has become, remarkably, a unit—and through life has upended their plans, Michael and Jill find themselves living a different, but truly rewarding, dream.
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I'VE BEEN ACCUSED, BY PRIGS AND CALVINISTS — and the occasional internist — of having too much fun in my life. Or, rather, of putting too much value on having fun, as if the pursuit of pleasure isn't a proper enterprise for a grown person. I'm not here to debate the issue; you can live how you like. But I'll stand by my program of enjoying a good meal whenever I can, sipping the appropriate spirited beverages and indulging in almost anything else that brings the blood to the surface and a gleam to the eye. I couldn't do otherwise; it's my nature. My first spoken word was "menu."
This has often been a prickly point between my wife, Jill, and myself. Not that she doesn't like pleasure — she has a healthy aptitude for it, actually. But she doesn't want to appear as if she does. She wants to publicly blame all her pleasure on me — as if it's something she has to endure as a condition of marriage. And that's fine; I can take the hit.
This all came up on a plane trip we were taking from New York, where we now live, to Santa Barbara to visit Jill's mom, Lora. Jill had been taking a lot of these trips recently because Lora and her second husband, Ralph, were getting on in years. Lora was eighty-seven and Ralph had just achieved ninety-one. The problem was that every time Jill came home after one of these jaunts, she was stressed and depleted and it took me days just to scrape her off the floor. Her mother always managed to put her into this state. And apparently it's been this way since she was a child.
So we decided it would be best if I accompanied her from now on. I would act as the cruise director, sex slave, maître d', whatever. I would support Jill so that she could support them. That was our deal.
"You'll see," I told her on the plane, "we're going to have fun this time."
"Just be nice to me," she said. "That'll help a lot."
"Nice to you?"
"Sometimes you get mad at me when I'm around my mother."
"Oh, well ..." There was some truth in this. She drove me crazy when she was around her mother.
"I don't care," she said. "Just be nice."
Her mom had recently fallen for no apparent reason and Ralph had not been able to pick her up. He had to call 911. This was a problem because they were trying to stay under the radar as far as their health issues were concerned. They thought if the front office found out that they needed assistance, they'd be thrown out of assisted care. I don't know; it's generational, I suppose. I don't think I'll mind getting assistance when I get old. Even now wouldn't be bad.
"We're all headed for suffering and death, baby," I said consolingly. "But that doesn't mean we can't have some laughs along the way. How about we take them out for a great steak tonight?"
"They're both on walkers."
I shrugged. Piece of cake.
Some fifteen years before, we had moved them to Santa Barbara from Madison, Wisconsin, because the cold winters were hard on Lora's arthritis. We were living in Los Angeles at the time and we all agreed that Santa Barbara would be a beautiful place for them to live out their days. And it would be close to us, as well. But not too close, if you know what I mean.
They eventually settled into a lovely retirement community with a beautiful view of the mountains and populated by a large number of retired college professors. This couldn't have been better for Ralph and Lora, who put great stock in intellectual pursuits — Lora, for example, was always sending me books by Noam Chomsky. Their group of friends in Madison had primarily been professors at the University of Wisconsin, so they felt they had found the right crowd.
But then, a couple of years ago, around the time Jill and I moved back to New York, they started to show their age. Ralph had his third heart attack and also suffered from severe, chronic back pain, which could be relieved only by an operation that the doctors refused to give him because of his age. Lora was physically strong, but she was showing a little slippage in the cognizance department. This problem wasn't helped by the fact that she had been seriously hard of hearing since she was in her thirties. She'd been faking conversations for years. A lot of the reason she talked so much was that she couldn't hear anybody else anyway.
In the past four months, Jill had been to Santa Barbara to move them twice: first from their two-bedroom apartment to a smaller one, for financial reasons; and then from independent living to assisted care. The names say it all. Both Ralph and Lora had resisted the move to the assisted-care building, which they dreaded like the Roach Motel: the people check in, but they don't check out. Jill cajoled them into the move by having each one blame it on the other's disabilities. They had gotten to the point where they took great pleasure in each other's failings. Lora virtually beamed when she had to lift things for Ralph, and he delighted in pointing out what she had just forgotten. I really hope we don't get that way. Getting old and sick is hard enough without having to score on each other all the time.
"So, where are you about Italy?" I asked after a long pause. Jill was looking out the window at the Rocky Mountains passing by below us, thinking about her mother, no doubt. Italy was the question of the moment, although neither of us had spoken it aloud. We have a house there that we had bought five years before — a beautiful 350-year-old stone farmhouse amid olive groves in the middle of Umbria; our dream house, our paradise on earth, our new chapter, our life — and now we had a flight booked that would take us there the following week.
"We'll see what the story is when we get to Santa Barbara. But I think maybe we should stick around. Ralph could literally go any day now. He wants to be done with the pain."
"It's a little weird to just sit around and wait for him to die. Like vultures. I think we should go about our lives and then when something happens, we'll respond."
Jill nodded, which meant she heard me but didn't put much stock in what I said. Sometimes she just likes to hear the voice without the content.
We had been putting off going to Italy for over nine months now, which had not been the idea at all. Our original plan was to live there half the year and eventually more. But things kept getting in the way — and not just the trips to see Lora and Ralph. Moving back to New York after almost twenty years in California meant we had to jump-start our theater careers again. All the connections we had from our earlier years in the business were either retired or expired, and the new directors, producers, and casting people had all been too young to stay up and watch L.A. Law. We got a lot of blank stares. "Tell us about yourself," they would say. Oy.
We were also busy putting the finishing touches on a documentary film that we'd been working on for almost seven years. It's about an artist friend of ours who just turned ninety years old. He lives on the top of a mountain in Big Sur and he's a big inspiration to us — and to anyone else who meets him. We wanted to get him down on film while he was still around and doing his work. The film kept morphing and redefining itself, and by the end it was probably the most creative thing either of us had ever been involved with.
Also, I'd just finished doing a play off Broadway, which kept us from going to Italy all through the spring. It was fun, though — dusting off the old acting chops. I played the dad.
So we promised ourselves we would spend the summer — three whole months — in Italy. We'd go in late June and stay through the end of September so that we could catch the grape harvest. Summer is a splendid time to be in Umbria. It's when everybody's orto is filled with tomatoes heavy on the vine, basil, arugula, eggplant, and zucchini; it's when everybody's cooking outside — sausages or ribs grilled over a wood fire, washed down with wine we can buy in bulk from a vineyard we know in Montefalco. We bring our jugs and fill them up with a pistola — like a gas pump — for two euros a liter.
Summer's when every little village has a sagra, which is a festival and feast that a town puts on to raise money for the local comune; it always features whatever food the village is best known for, cooked and served by the villagers and their kids. There's the famous onion sagra in Canarra, the sausage and celery sagra in Trevi, the wild asparagus sagra in Eggi — you get the picture.
Summer's also when the big festivals happen. There's the famous Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds, which is mostly classical music and dance; and there's Umbria Jazz in Perugia, which is fast becoming one of Europe's great jazz festivals. Our son Max, who's a drummer, has threatened to come over and visit us this summer so that he can catch Umbria Jazz.
Summer's also when the full cast of characters take the stage. Our wonderful crowd of expats and Italians — some of whom have kids in school or, God forbid, regular jobs, so they can't get away during the year — are all there in the summer and ready for fun. There's this rolling party in our corner of Umbria that opens in early June and plays right through the summer. Sometimes it's a big group gathered around plates of ravioli at the Palazzaccio, our favorite trattoria — actually more like a roadhouse — down on the Via Flaminia. Or it'll be the whole gang over at our place for pizza, baked at 800 degrees Fahrenheit in our wood- burning oven that dates back to the early 1600s; or it could be just Jill and me and another couple at a bar on the piazza in Trevi, talking the night away, spilling secrets like cheap wine. But the party, in whatever size, shape, or configuration, bubbles along like a good, rich soup all summer, and if you're of a mind, all you have to do is slide back the lid and fill your bowl.
Or we could hang around Santa Barbara and wait for Ralph to die.
We know a couple who decided to table their retirement plans until her mother died. The mother was eighty-seven, with inoperable cancer. Twelve years later, when the mother finally kicked off, our friends were too old for anything more strenuous than oatmeal. The idea of this put me into a cold sweat.
And the truth is that Jill would love to go to Italy. She needs it more than I do. She wants it more than I do. Italy is her solace, her refilling station. She's a nature girl, and she's surrounded by it there. She takes walks up the hill to Silvignano, the tiny borgo that sits farther up on the mountain above us. Or she'll hike to the top of Poreta — another climb that takes her to a fourteenth-century castle that overlooks the whole Spoleto valley. She loves her breakfasts under the pergola — fresh fruit with yogurt, toast with chestnut honey; maybe I'll make her an omelet from the eggs that Vittoria, our housekeeper and neighbor, brings to us still warm from the hens. Italy is also where Jill takes the time to do her art. Sometimes she'll sit in the shade with her watercolors and paint for hours.
She wants to go to Italy. She's longing for it. But there's no way in the world she can say it. Not while she's writhing in the choke hold of mother- guilt. So she depends on me to twist her arm, because I'm a well-known hedonist who cares about nothing but pleasure. That's our game. She says no; I cajole her into doing it, seemingly against her will; and then we both have a great time. It sounds like a lot of trouble to go through but it's been working for us for years.CHAPTER 2
WE LANDED AT BURBANK AROUND NOON and by the time we got our bags, rented a car, and drove the hour and a half to Santa Barbara, we had blessedly missed lunch at the retirement community. One of my goals for this trip was to avoid eating in the dining room there, although I knew it would be difficult. The arc of my life could be defined by my sidestepping institutional food at any cost, in whatever situation. My military career, for example — or rather the shirking of my military career in the late 1960s — was not about any conscientious or political objection, but more about the fact that I didn't want to eat the food.
We drove straight to Lora and Ralph's apartment and spent the afternoon with them. They were happy to see us, but subdued. They had both been in the hospital in the last few months, and it had sobered them. They seemed smaller to me. They weren't much up for steak that night, so we helped them get some dinner brought to their apartment and sat with them while they picked at it. Then we tucked them in and went off to meet our friends David Rintels and Vicki Riskin, old pals from our days in Los Angeles. They have a beautiful house in Montecito and graciously offered us a place to stay whenever we made these trips. They also provided a sympathetic ear for us — especially for Jill as she tried to put her emotions in some kind of order.
The next morning we hit the ground running. We folded up the walkers, stashed them in the trunk of our car, and set off on a string of errands with Lora and Ralph. And I must say they had quite a bit of energy for a couple of geezers. We went to the pharmacy, the cleaners, and the health food store, and then back to the pharmacy again for everything we forgot. Lora had an appointment with her doctor, which had been scheduled expressly so that Jill could attend and also gave the two of them a chance to have some time alone together. Meanwhile, Ralph and I could do some male bonding, which meant that the moment we were alone he started complaining about Lora.
"You two don't see it. You're not here. But her mind is going. Jill doesn't want to see it."
I tried to cajole him a little bit, reminding him of how many times he repeated the story of his World War II exploits, how often we had charged up Mount Belvedere with him. I urged him to be a little more generous with Lora, to help her rather than criticize. But he just grumbled that we didn't understand, that we didn't want to understand.
"Ask Frankie and Tap! They see it."
Frankie and Tap were good friends of theirs who lived down the hall, whom we had gotten to know pretty well over the years.
"And she can't hear a damn thing. That goddamn hearing aid doesn't work. It never worked. We paid thousands for that goddamn thing and all it does is squeal. You can hear the damn thing squealing in the dining room. Everybody's looking around trying to figure out where that damn noise is coming from."
"We're taking her to the hearing aid place on Wednesday and we're going to get that all taken care of," I told him. But this was bullshit because we had been to this place before and there's never anything wrong with the hearing aid. It's a pilot error situation, I'm afraid.
Ralph was in bad shape. His back pain was terrible and he couldn't do anything about it. Well, in some ways he wouldn't do anything — he was refusing any kind of medication for pain because he was worried about the side effects. I tried to point out, as diplomatically as I could, that he might not live long enough for the side effects to be an issue, that his problem was right now and the pills would help. But Ralph was the type who believes that pain makes you a better person. Before he retired he was the head of the parole board in Wisconsin. Not a lot of forgiveness there — especially for himself. If I were in his situation, I'd be pounding down those pain pills like Cracker Jacks. Why would anyone want to be in pain? I once had a colonoscopy and the anesthesiologist said to me, "Mr. Tucker, I understand you don't want to feel any pain." I said, "No, you've got it all wrong; I want to feel pleasure." Her eyes lit up and she concocted a cocktail drip for me that was a masterpiece. I remember it as one of the better days I had all year.
So, to say that Ralph and I were from different planets is an understatement. If I had come up before him at the parole board, he would have sent me back to the slammer in a second. Death row. What I am by nature offended him. And vice versa, frankly. But with all that, we actually got along okay; just being male put me on the right side of things, according to his way of thinking — no matter what my other failings were.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Family Meals"
Copyright © 2009 Michael Tucker.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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